Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Little Failure: A Memoir

Posted by nliakos on November 4, 2014

by Gary Shteyngart (Random House 2014)

After reading a review of this book in The Washington Post, I added it to my To Read list even though I had never heard of Gary Shteyngart nor read anything he had written. But I am fascinated by stories of immigration and cross-cultural adaptation, so it seemed like a good choice. In this case, my own family is similar to Shteyngart’s in that they were Jews who emigrated from the Russian Empire, although at a very different time (in the case of my year-old maternal grandmother, almost 100 years before the Shteyngarts arrived here in the late seventies).

I hope that my grandmother did not grow up in a family as dysfunctional as that described by Shteyngart. His “mismatched” parents fought throughout his childhood, and both of them seemed to delight in ridiculing their sickly, nerdy son (hence the moniker “Little Failure”, coined by his mother–it’s hard to believe a mother could say something so damaging to her child, but those of us who came of age in sixties America are aware of the terrible effect of negative words on a child’s self-esteem (especially from a parent!); obviously no such lessons were impressed on Russian Jewish parents of the seventies. And to judge from Shteyngart’s literary success, I would have to say it seems to have done no lasting damage, although in another sense the book chronicles the damage that was done by not only verbal but also physical and emotional abuse suffered at the hands of his parents–to say nothing of the bullying and teasing he suffered in the various schools he attended.

Even though the facts are sobering, they are described in a witty, ironic way (yet another non-native English writer with an astonishing command of the English language). As a former Russian major (who has now forgotten pretty much everything I ever learned), I enjoyed the transliterated (and translated) bits of Russian dialog sprinkled throughout the text. Perhaps someone else might have found it superfluous.

I enjoyed immigrant chronicles, a story that has been repeated millions of times during the history of the United States. I truly believe that America would not be such a great country without its immigrants, who arrive with their dreams of a better life and their willingness to do whatever it takes to assimilate enough to make the dreams come true–at least partly. In these days of unaccompanied minors pouring across our southern border, it is worthwhile reading the immigrant story from the point of view of a seven-year-old.

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