REVIEW | Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart


image via Strand

image via Strand

title:  Little Failure: A Memoir [support an independent bookseller and buy at Strand]
by: Gary Shteyngart
genre: memoir
pages: 349
published: 2014
source: I received an advanced reader’s copy via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review

“There is a photograph of me at one year and ten months taken at a photo studio.  Wearing a pair of children’s jogging pants with their outline of a cartoon bunny on one of the front pockets, I hold a phone in my hand (the photo studio is proud to exhibit this advanced Soviet technology), and I am getting ready to bawl. The look on my face is that of a mother in 1943 who just received a fateful telegram from the front.  I am scared of the photo studio. I am scared of the telephone. Scared of anything outside our apartment. Scared of the people in their big fur hats. Scared of the snow.  Scared of the cold.  Scared of the heat. Scared of the ceiling fan at which I would point one tragic finger and start weeping. Scared of any height higher than my sickbed. Scared of Uncle Electric Current. ‘Why was I so scared of everything?’ I ask my mother nearly forty years later.

‘Because you were born a Jewish person,’ she says.” (pages 24-25)

I have yet to read a book that has generated so much attention from strangers on the subway.

Little Failure has been my commuting companion for the past couple weeks, and SO MANY people have stopped me to ask about the book.  Probably because I was clearly, audibly enjoying it.  Seriously.  Laughing out loud.  I almost wish I was handselling copies…

Shteyngart is anything but a failure.  I’ve long been a fan of his writing and often found myself wondering how much of his own experience moving from Russia to Queens at a young age found its way into his work.  Short answer: a lot.   Longer answer:  read the memoir.  Well, read any of his novels first, then read the memoir.  I’d start with The Russian Debutante’s Handbook…but that’s just me.

One of the things I admire about Shteyngart’s work: he is a master of strong, consistent narrative voice.  Even when reading his fiction, I got the sense that there was a lot of him in the piece.  It lends a sense of authenticity to his work, even when his characters are involved in bizarre situations. And when retelling the story of his early childhood in Russia, his journey to America via Vienna, his epic experiences at the Solomon Schecter School of Queens, his time at Oberlin, his early years in New York and his periodic travels back to Russia, Shteyngart approaches each era with honesty and humor.  He is equal parts self-deprecating and self-reflective…but where the use of humor can feel like a deflective technique, Shteyngart wields his wit to build a sense of intimacy with the reader.  Despite having spent the better part of his life feeling like an outsider, he has a gift for allowing the reader to feel like his confidant.

Rubric rating:  8.5  This memoir has solidified Gary Shteyngart’s place among my short list of favorite contemporary writers.  He is absurdly talented.

Other books by Gary Shteyngart:


1. The Russia Debutante’s Handbook

2. Absurdistan

3. Super Sad True Love Story

2014 goals:

  • Read 75 books (5/75)
  • Read titles from 6 continents ( 2/6 continents read:  Europe, North America)
  • Read titles from 20 countries ( 3/20 countries read:  Italy (Sardinia), America, England)
  • Read 10 authors that I’ve never read before (4/10)  Grazia Deledda, Siri Hustvedt, Colum McCann, Caroline Blackwood

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