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Little Failure

Cover of Little Failure

Little Failure

A Memoir

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

  • NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FINALIST
    NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY MICHIKO KAKUTANI, THE NEW YORK TIMES
  • NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST NONFICTION BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY TIME

    NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY MORE THAN 45 PUBLICATIONS, INCLUDING
    The New York Times Book Review
  • The Washington Post
  • NPR
  • The New Yorker
  • San Francisco Chronicle • The Economist
  • The Atlantic
  • Newsday • Salon • St. Louis Post-Dispatch
  • The Guardian
  • Esquire (UK)
  • GQ (UK)

    Little Failure is the all too true story of an immigrant family betting its future on America, as told by a lifelong misfit who finally finds a place for himself in the world through books and words. In 1979, a little boy dragging a ginormous fur hat and an overcoat made from the skin of some Soviet woodland creature steps off the plane at New York's JFK International Airport and into his new American life. His troubles are just beginning. For the former Igor Shteyngart, coming to the United States from the Soviet Union is like stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in a pool of Technicolor. Careening between his Soviet home life and his American aspirations, he finds himself living in two contradictory worlds, wishing for a real home in one. He becomes so strange to his parents that his mother stops bickering with his father long enough to coin the phrase failurchka—"little failure"—which she applies to her once-promising son. With affection. Mostly. From the terrors of Hebrew School to a crash course in first love to a return visit to the homeland that is no longer home, Gary Shteyngart has crafted a ruthlessly brave and funny memoir of searching for every kind of love—family, romantic, and of the self.

    BONUS: This edition includes a reading group guide.
    Praise for Little Failure

    "Hilarious and moving . . . The army of readers who love Gary Shteyngart is about to get bigger."The New York Times Book Review

    "A memoir for the ages . . . brilliant and unflinching."—Mary Karr

    "Dazzling . . . a rich, nuanced memoir . . . It's an immigrant story, a coming-of-age story, a becoming-a-writer story, and a becoming-a-mensch story, and in all these ways it is, unambivalently, a success."—Meg Wolitzer, NPR

    "Literary gold . . . [a] bruisingly funny memoir."Vogue

    "A giant success."—Entertainment Weekly

    "[Little Failure] finds the delicate balance between sidesplitting and heartbreaking."—O: The Oprah Magazine

    "Should become a classic of the immigrant narrative genre."—The Miami Herald

    "As vivid, original and funny as any that contemporary U.S. literature has to offer."—Los Angeles Times

    "The very best memoirs perfectly toe the line between heartbreak and humor, and Shteyngart does just that."—Esquire

    "Touching, insightful . . . [Shteyngart] nimbly achieves the noble Nabokovian goal of letting sentiment in without ever becoming sentimental."—The Washington Post

    "[Shteyngart is] a successor to no less than Saul Bellow and Philip Roth."—The Christian Science Monitor

  • NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

  • NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FINALIST
    NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY MICHIKO KAKUTANI, THE NEW YORK TIMES
  • NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST NONFICTION BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY TIME

    NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY MORE THAN 45 PUBLICATIONS, INCLUDING
    The New York Times Book Review
  • The Washington Post
  • NPR
  • The New Yorker
  • San Francisco Chronicle • The Economist
  • The Atlantic
  • Newsday • Salon • St. Louis Post-Dispatch
  • The Guardian
  • Esquire (UK)
  • GQ (UK)

    Little Failure is the all too true story of an immigrant family betting its future on America, as told by a lifelong misfit who finally finds a place for himself in the world through books and words. In 1979, a little boy dragging a ginormous fur hat and an overcoat made from the skin of some Soviet woodland creature steps off the plane at New York's JFK International Airport and into his new American life. His troubles are just beginning. For the former Igor Shteyngart, coming to the United States from the Soviet Union is like stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in a pool of Technicolor. Careening between his Soviet home life and his American aspirations, he finds himself living in two contradictory worlds, wishing for a real home in one. He becomes so strange to his parents that his mother stops bickering with his father long enough to coin the phrase failurchka—"little failure"—which she applies to her once-promising son. With affection. Mostly. From the terrors of Hebrew School to a crash course in first love to a return visit to the homeland that is no longer home, Gary Shteyngart has crafted a ruthlessly brave and funny memoir of searching for every kind of love—family, romantic, and of the self.

    BONUS: This edition includes a reading group guide.
    Praise for Little Failure

    "Hilarious and moving . . . The army of readers who love Gary Shteyngart is about to get bigger."The New York Times Book Review

    "A memoir for the ages . . . brilliant and unflinching."—Mary Karr

    "Dazzling . . . a rich, nuanced memoir . . . It's an immigrant story, a coming-of-age story, a becoming-a-writer story, and a becoming-a-mensch story, and in all these ways it is, unambivalently, a success."—Meg Wolitzer, NPR

    "Literary gold . . . [a] bruisingly funny memoir."Vogue

    "A giant success."—Entertainment Weekly

    "[Little Failure] finds the delicate balance between sidesplitting and heartbreaking."—O: The Oprah Magazine

    "Should become a classic of the immigrant narrative genre."—The Miami Herald

    "As vivid, original and funny as any that contemporary U.S. literature has to offer."—Los Angeles Times

    "The very best memoirs perfectly toe the line between heartbreak and humor, and Shteyngart does just that."—Esquire

    "Touching, insightful . . . [Shteyngart] nimbly achieves the noble Nabokovian goal of letting sentiment in without ever becoming sentimental."—The Washington Post

    "[Shteyngart is] a successor to no less than Saul Bellow and Philip Roth."—The Christian Science Monitor

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    Awards-
    Excerpts-
    • Chapter One

      The Church and the Helicopter

      A year after graduating college, I worked downtown in the immense shadows of the World Trade Center, and as part of my freewheeling, four-hour daily lunch break I would eat and drink my way past these two giants, up Broadway, down Fulton Street, and over to the Strand Book Annex. In 1996, people still read books and the city could support an extra branch of the legendary Strand in the Financial District, which is to say that stockbrokers, secretaries, government functionaries--everybody back then was expected to have some kind of inner life.

      In the previous year I had tried being a paralegal for a civil rights law firm, but that did not work out well. The paralegaling involved a lot of detail, way more detail than a nervous young man with a ponytail, a small substance-abuse problem, and a hemp pin on his cardboard tie could handle. This was as close as I would ever come to fulfilling my parents' dreams of my becoming a lawyer. Like most Soviet Jews, like most immigrants from Communist nations, my parents were deeply conservative, and they never thought much of the four years I had spent at my liberal alma mater, Oberlin College, studying Marxist politics and book-writing. On his first visit to Oberlin my father stood on a giant vagina painted in the middle of the quad by the campus lesbian, gay, and bisexual organization, oblivious to the rising tide of hissing and camp around him, as he enumerated to me the differences between laser-jet and ink-jet printers, specifically the price points of the cartridges. If I'm not mistaken, he thought he was standing on a peach.

      I graduated summa cum laude and this improved my profile with Mama and Papa, but when I spoke to them it was understood that I was still a disappointment. Because I was often sick and runny nosed as a child (and as an adult) my father called me Soplyak, or Snotty. My mother was developing an interesting fusion of English and Russian and, all by herself, had worked out the term Failurchka, or Little Failure. That term made it from her lips into the overblown manuscript of a novel I was typing up in my spare time, one whose opening chapter was about to be rejected by the important writing program at the University of Iowa, letting me know that my parents weren't the only ones to think that I was nothing.

      Realizing that I was never going to amount to much, my mother, working her connections as only a Soviet Jewish mama can, got me a job as a "staff writer" at an immigrant resettlement agency downtown, which involved maybe thirty minutes of work per year, mostly proofing brochures teaching newly arrived Russians the wonders of deodorant, the dangers of AIDS, and the subtle satisfaction of not getting totally drunk at some American party.

      In the meantime, the Russian members of our office team and I got totally drunk at some American party. Eventually we were all laid off, but before that happened I wrote and rewrote great chunks of my first novel and learned the Irish pleasures of matching gin martinis with steamed corned beef and slaw at the neighborhood dive, the name of which is, if I recall correctly, the Blarney Stone. I'd lie there on top of my office desk at 2:00 p.m., letting out proud Hibernian cabbage farts, my mind dazed with high romantic feeling. The mailbox of my parents' sturdy colonial in Little Neck, Queens, continued to bulge with the remnants of their American dream for me, the pretty brochures from graduate school dropping in quality from Harvard Law School to Fordham Law School to the John F. Kennedy School of Government (sort of like law school, but not really) to the Cornell Department of City and Regional Planning, and finally to...

    About the Author-
    • Gary Shteyngart was born in Leningrad in 1972 and came to the United States seven years later. He is the author of the novels Super Sad True Love Story, which won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize and was selected as one of the best books of the year by more than forty news journals and magazines around the world; Absurdistan, which was chosen as one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review and Time magazine; and The Russian Debutante's Handbook, winner of the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, Travel + Leisure, The New York Times Magazine, and many other publications and has been translated into twenty-six languages. Shteyngart lives in New York City.

    Reviews-
    • Publisher's Weekly

      Starred review from October 28, 2013
      One afternoon in 1996, a book titled St. Petersburg: Architecture of the Tsars becomes Shteyngart's madeleine, carrying him back in time and memory to his childhood in St. Petersburg and launching him on a career of writing about the past in his novels (Absurdistan). In his typical laugh-aloud approach, the acclaimed novelist carries us with him on his journey, from his birth in Leningrad and his decision to become a writer at age five to his immigration to America and his family's settling in New York City in 1979. Adolescent misadventure, his days at Oberlin College, his psychoanalysis, and his struggles after college to wend his way through the workaday world toward becoming a writer round out the trip. Shteyngart spends much of his pre-adolescence glued to the television set, watching shows like Gilligan's Island, which causes him to ask himself questions about American culture: "Is it really possible that a country as powerful as the United States would not be able to locate two of its best citizens lost at sea, to wit the millionaire and his wife?" Shteyngart's self-deprecating humor contains the sharp-edged twist of the knife of melancholy in this take of a young man "desperately trying to have a history, a past."

    • The New York Times Book Review "Hilarious and moving . . . The army of readers who love Gary Shteyngart is about to get bigger."
    • Mary Karr "A memoir for the ages . . . brilliant and unflinching."
    • Meg Wolitzer, NPR "Dazzling . . . a rich, nuanced memoir . . . It's an immigrant story, a coming-of-age story, a becoming-a-writer story, and a becoming-a-mensch story, and in all these ways it is, unambivalently, a success."
    • Vogue "Literary gold . . . [a] bruisingly funny memoir."
    • Entertainment Weekly "Funny, unflinching, and, title notwithstanding, a giant success . . . The innate humor of Shteyngart's storytelling is dotted with touching sadness, all of it amounting to an engrossing look at his distinct, multilayered Gary-ness."
    • O: The Oprah Magazine "[Little Failure] finds the delicate balance between sidesplitting and heartbreaking."
    • Los Angeles Times "An ecstatic depiction of survival, guilt and perseverance . . . Russia gave birth to that master of English-language prose named Vladimir Nabokov. Half a century later, another writer who grew up with Cyrillic characters is gleefully writing American English as vivid, original and funny as any that contemporary U.S. literature has to offer."
    • Esquire "The very best memoirs perfectly toe the line between heartbreak and humor, and Shteyngart does just that."
    • The Washington Post "Touching, insightful . . . [Shteyngart] nimbly achieves the noble Nabokovian goal of letting sentiment in without ever becoming sentimental."
    • The Christian Science Monitor "[Shteyngart is] a successor to no less than Saul Bellow and Philip Roth."
    • USA Today "Moving . . . and laugh-out-loud funny."
    • W Magazine "Might just be the funniest, most unflinching memoir ever about coming to America."
    • People "Hilarious . . . an affectionate take on growing up in gray Leningrad and Technicolor Queens."
    • The Economist "[Little Failure] feels essential, as the document of a way of life that's less and less accessible in our parenting-manual era. Shteyngart was the child of Russian immigrants whose overzealous attention shaped him, for better and worse. Little Failure helps us understand Shteyngart better, but you don't need to have read any of his novels to appreciate his frankness and insight."--Time "A deeply moving love letter to Mr. Shteyngart's life and everything in it: America, Russia, literature, women and his parents."
    • The Guardian (UK) "Little Failure is terrific--the author's funniest, saddest and most honest work to date. [It's] a powerful and often moving portrait of a troubled man's creative origins, comparable in intent (and sometimes in quality) to some of the genre's high-water marks, and owing particular debts to W. G. Sebald, Thomas Bernhard and, most significantly, Vladimir Nabokov, whose name Shteyngart often invokes."
    • Michiko Kakutani, The New Y "[A] keenly observed tale of exile, coming-of-age and family love: It's raw, comic and deeply affecting, a testament to Mr. Shteyngart's abilities to write with both self-mocking humor and introspective wisdom, sharp-edged sarcasm and aching--and yes, Chekhovian--tenderness."
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