Between the Lines Book Club: Little Failure and the History of Jewish Emigration From Russia

between the lines book club logoLittle Failure is a tragicomic memoir about Gary Shteyngart’s childhood.  He grew up in Leningrad and moves, with his Jewish parents, to America in 1979.

In the early 1970’s, the U.S.S.R. was firmly entrenched in a Cold War with the U.S.A., and leaving the U.S.S.R. was very difficult.  In 1974, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment stated that only nations that allowed their citizens to emigrate would be awarded “most favored nation” status.  Initially, the U.S.R.R became even more restrictive in terms of immigration, in protest to the pressure from the United States.  Following the Six Day War, the Soviet Union began granting more visas to Jews who want dot immigrate to Israel.  The peak years of immigration during this period were 1969-1973.  While many Jews went directly to Israel, others, known as “drop-outs”, would get as far as a transit center in Europe and then apply for US refugee visas.  In the 1980’s, Mikhail Gorbachev allowed unlimited Jewish emigration for the first time.

Today, it’s difficult to count the number of Russian Jewish immigrants in the US, because not everyone agrees on who should be counted.  According to an article on, by Paul Berger, there are anywhere from roughly 750,000 Russian-speaking Jews in the US to 500,000.  Experts estimate that 6% to 12% of Jewish people in America come from the former U.S.S.R.  Berger quotes Sam Kliger as saying, “By any account, the number of Russian-speaking Jews in the United States now probably exceeds those of Russia and Ukraine combined.  New York today is populated by more Russian Jews than any other place in the world.”


Gary Shetyngart’s father’s family, 1940s, Ukraine


Between the Lines Book Club: What to Read if you Liked Little Failure

between the lines book club logoThis month we are reading Little Failure, by Gary Shteyngart, as our Between the Lines Book Club Pick.  This book club meets right here every Friday.  If you are in the Sacramento, CA area, you can also join us in person at 10:30AM on the fourth Saturday of every month at Arden Dimick Library.

Little Failure is a memoir by Gary Shteyngart about his difficult relationship with his parents.  Memoirs have been around for a long time.  One of the first was Julius Caesar’s Commentary on the Gallic War, written in 58-49BC.

While Julius Caesar focused on political world events, popular recent memoirs have focused on the family.  If you like Little Failure, you might like these books, which describe awful childhoods with humor and a great tenacity:

Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt

McCourt describes growing up in Ireland.  It opens with the immortal lines:

“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”


Running With Scissors, by August Burroughs

Burroughs writes about his life with his mother and his mother’s psychiatrist in 1970’s Massachusetts.  While he describes horrific scenes and events, he does so with humor and a determination to survive.


Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel

In this graphic novel memoir, Bechdel describes her youth in rural Pennsylvania.  Her novel focuses on her relationship with her father and their mutual struggles with sexuality (he was a closeted gay man; she is a lesbian).  The sequel, Are You My Mother?  is about Bechdel’s relationship with her mom.


For something completely different, try:

Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six Word Memoirs by Writer’s Famous and Obscure, ed. by Rachel Fershleiser

Can you tell your life story in six words?  This started as an online project and became a series of wonderful, funny, moving, silly books.  Examples, “Followed rules, not dreams.  Never again”, “I grew and grew and grew”, and, from Stephen Colbert, “Well, I thought it was funny.”


Between the Lines Book Club: About Gary Shteyngart

between the lines book club logo

This month in Between the Lines Book Club we are reading Little Failure, a memoir by Gary Shteyngart.  You can participate in the comments here or join us in person on January 24, at Arden Dimick Library in Sacramento, CA, at 10:30AM.

Gary was born in the former U.S.S.R. in Leningrad, in 1972.  His family was Jewish, and they emigrated to the US in 1979.

Shteyngart has released several fiction books to awards and critical acclaim.  All share a sense of sadness and humor, as well as delight in the ridiculous extremes of Russia and America.  His first book, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, is about young Russian ex-patriates in Manhattan and Prague. Absurdistan tells of a 325 pound man named Mischa, who becomes embroiled in a civil war even though all he wants is to return to the Bronx.  Super Sad True Love Story is a science fiction dystopian tale of the son of a Russian immigrant who falls in love with a young Korean-American.  All of Shteyngart’s novels have autobiographical elements.

Shteyngart is married to Esther Wong, and they have one son.  Of Little Failure, in a fascinating essay for Huffington Post, Shteyngart said,

It is no coincidence that I began Little Failure just as my wife and I first considered having a child. That sweet American boy — we named him Johnny to be sure — was born just before my book’s publication. In writing it, I wanted to remember the best of my parents, but also remind myself that my past did not have to be my son’s. Still, the truth is, my parents made me who I am. By the time I was 9, my father had already taught me the meaning of satire. And the Amy Chua–approved work ethic I inherited from my mother kept me typing away on my first novel (That would be The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, a blisteringly funny send-up of immigrant life in America, published in 2002.) even through the pot haze of college, when I could have been spending my time enjoying the rather frightening coed showers.

Gary Shteyngart

You can find out more about Gary, and see his Little Failure baby book, at

Between the Lines Book Club is Back with: Little Failure

between the lines book club logoAfter a break for the month of December, Between the Lines Book Club is back!  This book club meets right here every Friday.  If you are in the Sacramento, CA area, you can also join us in person at 10:30AM on the fourth Saturday of every month at Arden Dimick Library.  This month we are reading Little Failure, by Gary Shteyngart.  This memoir is tragic and funny, often simultaneously.  Shteynhgart writes of his parents with anger, sadness, and compassion.  Here’s the publisher’s blurb from Random House:

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.

I’ll write more about this book next week, but here’s an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air program to tide you over.  Enjoy!

cover of Little Failure