For some reason, despite not particularly liking The Russian Debutante's Handbook or being able to get into Absurdistan, I'd decided that I liked Gary...moreFor some reason, despite not particularly liking The Russian Debutante's Handbook or being able to get into Absurdistan, I'd decided that I liked Gary Shteyngart. I think because he's also a graduate of Hunter College's Creative Writing program...I felt some weird kinship.
So I was beyond excited when I heard he wrote a memoir, and that a big focus of it was on St. Petersburg, his upbringing there and subsequent immigration to Queens. For the most part, it didn't disappoint. I laughed out loud so often, but at times his anecdotes are overwhelmingly emotional too - reading the sections taking place in his grade school unearthed difficult memories. His loneliness, insecurity and unsureness are pretty universally relatable, there's a personal aspect to it all that goes beyond another person's memoir. The positive side is that he examines events with a sense of humor, as well as poignancy, and fits all those happenings together into the person and artist that he became.
My favorite part of his storytelling is how he was able to describe his child immigrant's perception of Americana. Like his mentions of the Emergency Broadcasting System, American junk food, and Harriet Tubman rescuing slaves from a terrible place called Maryland. Finally, it all wins him over, as he seems to eventually feel himself more American than Russian. I loved his descriptive scenes of Soviet St. Petersburg, his wry take on his beginnings there is worth the entire book: the same mix of silliness yet seriousness - look what was happening here, and how we coped.
My complaint, and this might sound weird for a memoir, is that there's a portion around the time of his college years through early adulthood that's way too self-obsessed. He writes like he knows he's a self-absorbed jerk, but the humor and clarity of passed time with which he examines his childhood is missing. It improves before the end and in fact ends beautifully, as he gains new insights and realizations into his parents, portrayed as fairly negative yet loved characters, while on a trip together back in St. Petersburg.
I hope this won't be his only story about himself.(less)
Although this book is wonderfully researched on an extremely personal level, it is far too bleak to be enjoyable. Obviously there were and continue to...moreAlthough this book is wonderfully researched on an extremely personal level, it is far too bleak to be enjoyable. Obviously there were and continue to be major problems in Russia, culturally, politically and economically. That doesn't mean that those should be the primary focus. There are instances in the book where he does provide glimpses into more positive elements in juxtaposition to the bad ones, but they were too few and far between (and I'm not talking about the section detailing the war in Chechnya which did not have a bright side to consider.) But it almost seemed mocking whenever he told an anecdote about someone from a small town who said that they enjoyed their way of life. Like these were presented in a "Can you believe this?" kind of way alongside the evidence as to why this was completely ridiculous. But a lot of it was extremely meaningful, I just wish there had been a little less of a focus on the bleakness. I love St. Petersburg and the section relating to it was so depressing, being almost entirely about the HIV epidemic and the murder of a prominent liberal politician. Both of these are extremely important and the information about them was eye opening and appreciated, but there was nothing positive to counter it. As in everything, balance is essential and this book weighs a little too heavily on one side.(less)
The Illustrious Dead is well written and completely absorbing, but somewhere along the line I missed the thesis of typhus being responsible for all of...moreThe Illustrious Dead is well written and completely absorbing, but somewhere along the line I missed the thesis of typhus being responsible for all of the devastation that was wrought. The author even says at one point that Napoleon seemed bored and tired during his Russian campaign, so I sort of had difficulty buying his later assertion that typhus changed the course of world history forever, Russian Revolution wouldn't have happened in the same way, France would still be in charge, etc etc. This is actually a better account of Napoleon's Russian ambitions in general, with a little typhus thrown in. The historical background of the disease and epilogue about how it was studied and used later were interesting, but it seemed strange to play it up as the book's main premise without getting into more detail, aside from disease symptoms and glimpses into army hospitals. Otherwise it's a really interesting read, it just might be a little disappointing depending on how strongly you were in it for the typhus.(less)
This book is hilarious and lively and quirky. It's not a deep analysis of immigration and cultural relations in postwar Germany with respect to the fo...moreThis book is hilarious and lively and quirky. It's not a deep analysis of immigration and cultural relations in postwar Germany with respect to the former USSR, it's just a bunch of lighthearted stories and observations from the various paths taken by the author. It would take concentrated effort not to enjoy it.(less)
It's written in a really interesting, whimsical style - an unusual and welcome difference from other history type books. The author digs through a ton...moreIt's written in a really interesting, whimsical style - an unusual and welcome difference from other history type books. The author digs through a ton of old diaries and letters and words scratched on windows and fragments of poems and uses it all to create amazing pictures of the family, their close friends and advisors, their captors and murderers, and the Russia of the time. The entire book is very compelling, and somehow has the effect of seeming both completely comprehensive and making you want to read everything else on the subject.(less)
I ended up so disappointed with this book. The beginning was so excellent, just reading his well-written introduction to Siberia was so exciting and I...moreI ended up so disappointed with this book. The beginning was so excellent, just reading his well-written introduction to Siberia was so exciting and I couldn't wait to get through the book. I wasn't expecting anything wild or adventurous, I get it that he is a journalist and was sort of just exploring and seeing what he could see. But I came away from it with a better impression of how difficult and disappointing certain aspects of his travels were, as opposed to anything more informative or journalistic. More often than not his tone seemed whiny. At times he seemed downright ungrateful and rude toward his various hosts and people who helped significantly during his trips. He talked so much about things breaking down, not working, etc, and I understand that these things happen when traveling, but it was almost as if the rest of the experience was lost in light of emphasis on these occurrences. I know it's possible to still tell good stories while leaving out tedious details about minutia that aren't even interesting anecdotally. He definitely has the ability to do this, and demonstrates it multiple times, and is especially brilliant when he weaves in fascinating historical details as well. But I wish he would have left out the complaining. Maybe for others it made the account seem honest and realistic, but it increasingly made him unlikable for me.(less)
It's completely amazing. Even if you're not specifically interested in this history, there's no way you can't love this book. The anecdotes will blow...moreIt's completely amazing. Even if you're not specifically interested in this history, there's no way you can't love this book. The anecdotes will blow your mind. Understanding contemporary Russia is contingent on knowing this history, since Peter turned Russia from an ass backwards wild mess into a civilized world power. Truly amazing, considering what he had to work with. The book really gives you a great concept of his personality (totally crazy, manic, genius) in the greater context of war and expansionism and social politics of the time. The only sections that I felt dragged a bit were those laboriously detailing the Russian war machinations mainly against Sweden. I tried reading them through but ended up skipping; I just found the parts more heavily relating to Peter himself much more interesting. But overall, it's fantastic.(less)