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LITTLE FAILURE: A memoir ~Gary Shteyngart

“We’re in America, and, frankly, life is just not that hard. She needs to make it harder. For her. For me.  Because we never really left Russia.”


Truthfully, LITTLE FAILURE is not a book I would have chosen to read, because the writing is very macho, manly, driving in its style, the kind that often makes me wish I was not compelled to finish what I start. There is an air of entitlement and self-centeredness which just makes me want to close the cover and move on.   Then I must think about this, this is a memoir of an experience I know very well, the major steps and transitions are all the same ones which I needed to take and which still make my siblings and me feel “less than worthy.”   There is a reason I need to read this book, and just set aside the style and bravado as defense mechanisms – look for the Borscht and the truth.

Gary Shteyngart is an immigrant to the USA under President Reagan’s Russian Jew Policy.  He arrived at the age of 7 with his parents and one grandmother and step grandpa.  The Jewish community in New York assisted them in their transition and they lived in a tiny one bedroom apartment, found furniture left on the sidewalk, received food and clothing donations and IGOR now Gary  was given a scholarship to a Hebrew School, where he learned English and how to defend himself with humor.  He was never truly accepted by the other children, except for one boy with Liberal parents and then finally another boy who lived across the street from his Grandmother’s later acquired apartment.

Shteyngart is an only child and for his first 7 years he suffers with asthma and anxiety attacks.  His primary treatment is being “cupped” and his parents holding his mouth open with a spoon all night long. (The first European doctor Gary experienced gave him medicine, an inhaler, which allowed him to breath and lessened his symptoms.)  His parents fought all the time and talked about divorce.  His mother was a piano teacher in Russia and his father a mechanical engineer.   Gary was so proud of the Lenin Statue in Moscow Square and wearing his Red Scarf as a true patriot of Russia.  His maternal grandmother assisted him in writing his first story.  His father worried about him getting enough math education and he played with his young son; hitting him regularly and calling him “Snotty” for a nick name.  His mother called him “Little Failure”.  His mother stood in line for hours and hours to get her son food – particularly ham.

Children of immigrants are often the translators of the new culture and language for their parents.  The author wonders what wealthy children do in their free time if they are not worried about finances 24/7. Education is another area where children who have arrived in the USA must excel and move ahead, they must shine in math and science because that is a universal language and a place with guaranteed work and future; these are subject areas where American children are not pushed to excel, rather these are left to the realms of the gifted students who like the subject matter.

I truly could relate to the immigrant experience.  I was born in the USA to Canadian parents. Educational excellence was expected and would give us acceptance.  Money was always on their minds and installed into their children’s minds as a worry and a sign of success.  Go out to dinner, a waste of money!  We purchased our own clothing and our own college educations.

There is a loss of identity when one is taught that another country is superior. The propaganda and constant rhetoric is important work to demythologize as one grows and discovers their true identity and begins to accept the autonomous self.  Shteyngart must stop hiding in his Vodka and Weed before he can find himself and acceptance – it is a fascinating life story and opportunity to learn about one’s own defense mechanisms which blocks the opening of the door to an authentic life; the stages of integration demonstrated.

tlc logo I was sent a PDF proof copy of this book by TLC Online Book Tours and Random House Publishers. There were several typos in my copy which were very funny and added lightness to some of the details of the painful parts of life. I had no problem identifying with the struggles, which were clearly spelled out along with the steps which the author needed to take as an immigrant.  I believe many people will enjoy this read – LITTLE FAILURE

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Other books by this author: Super Sad True Love Story, Absurdistan, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook

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6 Responses to “LITTLE FAILURE: A memoir ~Gary Shteyngart”

  1. Talon Says:

    I like reading books that make me a little uncomfortable. I think we fall into reading patterns. My Mom was an immigrant. And, though my father was born in Canada, he was from Newfoundland which, when he left there, was not a part of Canada…so this intrigues me, Patricia. As always, a thought-provoking and thoughtful.
    Talon recently posted..Unchanged…UnchangingMy Profile

    Patricia Reply:

    Kim,
    I learned a great deal about myself and the stages immigrant children and adults go through. As the child born in the USA, parents and siblings Canadian and even though language was not a problem, I was certainly not accepted and my parents form of parenting was not acceptable to my few friends. Though as teachers my parents were in demand by parents – my mum could have taught 1st grade until she died, she was so skilled.
    Good to learn new things and I agree, changing patterns in reading is good mind exercise
    Patricia recently posted..LITTLE FAILURE: A memoir ~Gary ShteyngartMy Profile

  2. Laurie Buchanan Says:

    Patricia – like both you and Talon, it’s good to step out of our comfort zone. Thank you for shaking things up a bit!

    Patricia Reply:

    Laurie,
    A good shake out of patterned thinking and opened the door to recognize a pattern of behavior/stages in immigrant children
    Patricia recently posted..LITTLE FAILURE: A memoir ~Gary ShteyngartMy Profile

  3. Sara Says:

    “There is a reason I need to read this book, and just set aside the style and bravado as defense mechanisms – look for the Borscht and the truth.” You got me these words:~)

    Memoirs are not a favorite of mine, but I thought you did a very good job of presenting a fair review of this one. In addition, you also explored your own reactions to it. I thought the quote at the opening very telling.

    My husband’s parents were Jewish and some of the things you’ve mentioned, he’s talked about in his life. It isn’t easy on the child trying to assimilate into a new country, when the parents are still living their lives in the old one. You captured this dilemma well in your write-up.

    Once again, Patricia…what I love about your reviews is you are always fair to the authors and their books. Rather than just say I didn’t like it, you look at the reasons you might be uncomfortable with the book and its theme. To me, that’s exactly what a good reviewer should do:~)

    Patricia Reply:

    Sara,
    I actually liked this book and it kind of grew on me. I also learned more about how important it is to some immigrants to be thought of as American; or as more American as someone else.

    What do we learn about our identity in the early years, and what does our culture instill in us. The author was so filled with propaganda from both major countries in his life, that he could not find his self.

    Author caught his sarcastic humored self very well and then demonstrated very clearly how he let go of his defense mechanisms to become a more authentic person of 2 cultures.

    Thank you once again for your kind words. I try to keep in mind that the books I am reading are a persons creative “baby” they are fairly sensitive about what others see and report
    Patricia recently posted..THE ACCIDENT: An International Spy Story, A Novel ~Chris PavoneMy Profile