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The Russian Debutante's Handbook
By Gary Shteyngart '95
Riverhead Books, 2002
Reviewed by Dan Chaon

BE WARNED: The Russian Debutante's Handbook is a difficult book to read in public, since it may cause you to laugh out loud so frequently that others may think you are insane. It is, in fact, one of the funniest first novels to come along in some time, a wry but rowdy satire of the contemporary immigrant experience--a somewhat sprawling picaresque of assimilation and naturalization, which along the way skewers a variety of plump targets: the rigors of growing up in a high-achieving Jewish family; the quirks of New Yorkers, wealthy and poor; the weirdness of the United States; and the chaos of post-communist Eastern Europe. There are Russian mobsters, and gullibly smug postmodern American expatriates, and the music of ABBA, and (ahem) a bucolic midwestern liberal arts college. There is a nice Ohio girl named Morgan, and an overweight S&M sex worker named Challah, and a statue of Stalin's foot.

At the center of this broad canvas is Vladimir Girshkin--"enduring victim of every practical joke the late 20th century had to offer"--the 25-year-old slacker son of émigrés who came to the U.S. as part of a Carter administration-era exchange of American grain for Russian Jews, and whom his mother now affectionally calls "Little Failure." He is an amazing creation. In Vladimir, Shteyngart has imagined a truly complex and memorable character, a sad sack who is in equal parts heartfelt and amoral, selfish and sweet, sharp-witted and naive. One of the great pleasures of the novel is spending time with crafty but hapless Vladimir as he makes his way from Gorky-esque clerk at the Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society, to common flunky for a Russian mobster named the Groundhog, to suitor for the hand of the nice midwestern girl. Even in the midst of broadly caricatured figures, Vladimir remains wonderfully grounded and believable, as does Shteyngart's portrayal of late 20th-century Russian Jewish immigrant life.

The other star of the novel is Shteyngart's rich, odd, piquant prose. This is a really wonderfully written book, and you may be tempted to recite passages to people nearby. Here is an acquaintance of Vladimir's: "...from this stick-like figure there billowed a head as tumescent as poori bread--a Rudolphine red nose, bulbous chin, cheeks so slack the skin above was creased from their weight." Here is Vladimir's mother, visiting kindergarten, leaning over Vladimir's nap-mat to ask, "Has anyone assaulted you yet?"

Shteyngart's novel takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride through the absurdities of the contemporary New World Order, but the novel is more than just a parody. There are also the constants of family and romantic love, the struggle to settle into an uncertain future, the sympathetic exploration of self-doubt, which brings a lingering melancholy to the sometimes slapstick proceedings. I laughed my way through this book, but in the end I was impressed by the seriousness of feeling that it evoked.

Dan Chaon is an award-winning author and assistant professor of creative writing at Oberlin.

Coaching with Spirit: Allowing Success to Emerge
By Teri-E Belf '67
Pfeiffer/Wiley Publishers, 2002

Belf, named one of the 10 most influential coaches by readers of Professional Coach magazine, suggests methods for integrating spirituality into management and coaching practices to increase awareness, self-discovery, and personal responsibility. The book offers exercises, points for reflection, assessments, and techniques for involving spiritual thinking in professional interactions with clients.

A Most Ingenious Paradox: The Art of Gilbert and Sullivan
By Gayden Wren '83
Oxford University Press, 2001

More than a century after their last collaboration, Gilbert and Sullivan remain a vital part of theatrical life. This book, with roots in a Gilbert and Sullivan course taught at Oberlin by Wren in 1982-83, explores the popularity of the duo's 14 operas and their influence on musical theater today. Wren, a playwright, was a co-founder of the Oberlin College Gilbert & Sullivan Players.

Brutal Music
By James Lindsay '82
Southern Methodist University Press, 2002

Set in suburban New York, Lindsay's novel is the intriguing story of one teenager's murder and another's failed suicide attempt. Using a double narrative in alternating chapters, he takes readers through these troubling events, exploring the themes of violence, love, guilt, and blame from all angles. As the two narratives merge, a father and son face shocking insights into themselves and each other, as they evaluate their personal responsibility for what has happened.


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