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Funniest Sad Love Story Ever

Gary Shteyngart at Book Revue

This week I needed a good laugh and luckily Huntington’s Book Revue hosted Gary Shteyngart for a reading and book signing of his latest novel Super Sad True Love Story (SSTLS).  Shteyngart was born in Leningrad in 1972 and immigrated to America in 1979 bringing with him fond memories of his early days as a writer.  His grandmother fed him little pieces of cheese as payment for each completed page of books he would create beginning at just 4 years old.  Not one to be able to resist cheese he published his first novel when he was in college. It was an intimate portrayal of a Russian-American family and Shteyngart was a worried about how his parents and friends would take it. After all, he was one of the first of his generation to take this on with his book, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.  It was a little bumpy but overall the book was critically acclaimed and the cheese eater went on to write Absurdistan, which was voted as one of the top 10 books of 2006 by the New York Times. Shteyngart’s books are cleverly comical thanks to his phenomenal use of language and his acute perception and portrayal of people’s idiosyncrasies. Shteyngart also teaches at Columbia where I am betting that he is the professor du jour. He is highly entertaining and comes across as is a mixture of Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld. His reading was spot-on and he had the audience continually laughing.

The Q&A session with the audience was fantastic.

What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of writing a book?
Having a plot. I can write forever and I have so many ideas but actually creating something out of it is tough.  I also need to live someplace that I enjoy, for example I wrote most of this last book in Italy.  I also wrote some in Berlin but most of that was so depressing I had to throw it out.  I can’t write in New York City (where he lives) because it destroys the process, it is too distracting.

Shteyngart keeps them laughing

How much of your characters are based on real people?
The political conversations in the book (between the son Lenny and his parents) are a lot more intense then what I hear from my parents and my parents were lucky with employment when they came over.  My father was an engineer in Russia and he immediately got a job at Brookhaven Labs.  My mother was a pianist and when she came here she did very well as a financial consultant. The Russian immigrants in the book are not so lucky.  The father is a trained engineer but he must take a job as a janitor and that accounts for a lot of anger.

What is your favorite time in history?

Hmm, that’s a tough one, there’s been a lot of bad humanity.  The favorite time in MY life was when we moved to America. Then I went to Hebrew school and I didn’t do so well . I would hide in the bathroom with a few friends and eat salami and the headmaster would burst in and scream at us that we were the reason for nazi Germany.  I thought wow, all because of us twelve year old boys.  It was also the early 1980’s and Russia wasn’t looked on too fondly here so I had to pretend that I was from Germany. Can you imagine having to  pretend I was German in Hebrew school?

Your story appears to be a commentary on the written word and how people communiate.
Yes, I think it’s sad what happens, the degradation of our language.  I have some serious acronyms in the book like TIATOV, which sounds like a Great Russian word but really means, “think I am about to openly vomit”(he does this with the expression and intonation of a college /high school student).  I admit that it’s ripping off Orwell’s 1984 double speak and putting it into Jewish shtick.

In SSTLS books are not really used anymore and seem odd. How do you feel about the Kindle and IPods?
I have no problems with them, but I love books, they’re little bit sacred to me. Some entertaining art forms on TV that I enjoy are Madmen, the Sopranos and The Wire.  Madmen is an amazing recitation of time and place.These directors and producers owe a bit of debt to novelists.  These shows deliver a need for narrative in a visual way, HBO, and AMC they are like grinding up a steak and sipping it through straw, it’s not as delicious, but in the end you have a steak in your belly.

Your dialogue is great, have you ever considered playwriting?
Adapting to film would be interesting. Hollywood is interested in this latest book because it has a beautiful woman in it. My last one had a 350 lb man with a bad circumcision and they had no interest.

How does Lenny (in the SSTLS) feel about his parents?
Parents always make you feel small and naïve again.  Lenny begins embarrassed because the great love of his life comes from wealth and his family is poor and terrible crazy things go on but he goes from embarrassed to pity and love and trying to help them.  This book is about the complexities of the relationship between parents and children.  Lenny ends up changing his mind about everything he believed in.

Shteyngart left everyone with a smile on his or her face and words of wisdom for the aspiring writer:
“Read everything that you write out loud.  If it sounds pretentious then it probably is.  By reading out-loud you’ll know when you’ve got it right.”

The SSTLS trailer is just as amusing as his session at Book Revue (BTW, he lost his Russian accent by the time he was 14).

All of Shteyngart’s books including signed copies of Super Sad True Love Story can be purchased locally at Book Revue, 313 New York Avenue in Huntington, NY 11743

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