January 19, 2014

Memoir shows how author’s brilliant voice was formed

“Little Failure: A Memoir” by Gary Shteyngart (Random House, 368 pages, $27)

“Little Failure: A Memoir” by Gary Shteyngart (Random House, 368 pages, $27)

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.

That writer is Gary Shteyngart, who wrote three excellent novels propelled by his ecstatic voice. In his fourth book, the memoir “Little Failure,” we learn how that voice was born.

Before he was “Gary,” Shteyngart was a boy named “Igor” born in a city and a country – Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and the Soviet Union – also fated to lose their names. The “evil empire” (as Ronald Reagan called it) was on its last legs, but the young writer-to-be could not know this. Igor dreamed communist dreams in which he slew fascist monsters. Real-life fun consisted of hide-and-seek with his father under the statue of Lenin near his home.

Instead of becoming a cosmonaut, however, or doing battle with the enemies of socialism, Igor left the USSR with his parents at age 7, then resettled in the U.S. and became Gary. Here, he battled Hebrew-school bullies in Queens, N.Y., and overcame the debilitating effects of a late circumcision (ouch!) to become a novelist.

“Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air” by Richard Holmes (Pantheon, 416 pages, $35)

Richard Holmes doesn’t pretend that his newest book is a “conventional history of ballooning.”

And in many ways, “Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air” is a literary imitation of a balloon’s flight. Holmes sometimes lingers to delve deeply into a tale of daring or tragedy. Sometimes capricious winds seem to hurtle him past characters and events that deserve much more attention.

But “Falling Upwards” is still a delight to read. Holmes’ passion for balloons is evident. Much of what he writes about will be new to most readers.

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