Sometimes the right book comes along at just the right time. Last week, after a couple personal setbacks that caused more disappointment than they really warranted, I was in search of perspective. I found it in a double cheeseburger and Gary Shteyngart's hilarious and poignant memoir. My research has shown the combination of a good book and a cholesterol bump to be nearly 100% effective at reversing bad moods.
Shteyngart was born Igor, not Gary, in the former Soviet Union. He recounts his childhood love affair with a Lenin statue, his father's alternating affection and derision, his grandmother's tendency to stuff him with American junk food, and his own journey to become a published writer and functioning adult. We sit alongside him in Hebrew school in Queens, flinching as the other students mock his accent and foreign habits. We follow him to Stuyvesant High School, where he suddenly has to work to succeed, and then on to Oberlin College, where he is almost immediately abandoned by the girl he followed there. We listen in on his conversation with author Chang-Rae Lee, which leads to graduate school admission and a book deal for his first novel.
There's no doubt Shteyngart is a gifted humorist (just take a look at the photos and captions accompanying each chapter break), but he elevates the memoir beyond cheap laughs. He treats the darker parts of his life gently and honestly and entirely without self-pity. Shteyngart's parents are the main supporting cast here, and he portrays them as the complex, shaded people that they likely are. His father clearly loves him, but is also hypercritical and competitive. Even after Gary is a published author, a critical and commercial success, his parents quote him bad reviews over the phone. In one central anecdote, when Gary is a broke college student, his mother sells him chicken cutlets at $1.40 apiece.
And here's the part that lifted me up out of my funk: Shteyngart was, for some unfathomable reason, rejected by the Iowa Writer's Workshop. The guy who wasn't good enough for their prestigious MFA program has won awards for every single novel he's published. Eat that, Iowa.
It is so easy to find excuses for inaction. Everything has been done before, probably by someone better. Sometimes I think I can save face by staying quiet, by not giving anyone anything to criticize. But creativity requires creation, a product that people can actually see. Perhaps my time would be better spent...but I can never finish that sentence. Are there other noble pursuits out there, more profitable or productive endeavors? Of course—for other people. But for me, nothing is more purposeful than reading great books. It's all I want to do. It makes sense to me. And if I can twist your arm and convince you to read one here and there too, well, all the better.
Gary Shteyngart has known self-doubt and the fear of not measuring up, but he's managed to turn that into a funny, moving memoir and professional success. If you need inspiration or encouragement, I recommend this book and a cheeseburger—the combo meal of champions.
“Better to have taken some risks and lost
than to have done nothing and succeeded at it.” Erwin Lutzer