four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
33-Mar-Apr-2008
By: 
Ellen Litman
user_rating: 
0

A Novel in Stories

A-The Last Chicken in AmericaSet amid the brick houses, delicatessens, and kosher butcher shops of Pittsburgh’s largely Jewish Squirrel Hill neighborhood, these dozen interconnected stories reveal the awe, curiosity, confusion, frustration, and disappointment experienced by Russian-Jewish immigrants struggling to adapt to a new culture while coming to terms with the lives they’ve left behind. In alternating stories, Masha endures the ordinary trials of adolescence—school cliques, first love, driving lessons—while shouldering the additional burden of accompanying her parents everywhere to translate and decipher American culture. "They were trying," notes Masha hopefully. "Maybe not everything was a mistake. Maybe we had learned something, and next time we’d do a little better, if only we gave it a chance."
Norton. 224 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 0393065111

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s easy to see why [Litman] won the Rona Jaffe Award for these terrific stories. She has a clear eye, an ease with English, and a tolerant and hopeful view." Martha White

Hartford Courant 4 of 5 Stars
"Through the voices of disaffected teens, disillusioned moms and ailing oldsters, Litman conveys a community in flux, always with dry wit and an empathetic heart. Not as over-the-top as fellow Russian-immigrant writer Gary Shteyngart, nor as dark as David Bezmozgis nor as surreal as Anya Ulinich, Litman writes with admirable control sharpened by sardonic humor." Carole Goldberg

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s Masha’s ‘delirious noble dream’ of finding her way in her new world that gives the book its structure. … The small community of Squirrel Hill comes alive through its immigrants, and eventually it is a place that Masha’s heart fully inhabits." Carolyn Kellogg

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s warm, true and original, and packed with incisive, subtle one-liners. … Despite the overall strength of The Last Chicken in America, a few of the later pieces—especially one about Masha’s mother’s depression—lack both the immersive quality of a traditional novel and the precision and control of earlier segments." Maud Newton

Critical Summary

Having emigrated from Moscow as a teenager in 1992, Ellen Litman has lived the life she so vividly describes in her debut, and she adroitly depicts the stress, underemployment, isolation, and sense of loss commonly suffered by new immigrants. Though English is her second language, Litman’s writing style is graceful and clever. She paints a colorful portrait of a vibrant community, and Masha makes a charming, observant narrator whose subtle appreciation of the ironies of the American Dream provides a cohesive filament throughout the book. A few of the stories read "less like fiction than like notes for a longer work" (New York Times Book Review), but critics unanimously praised this collection of fresh and engaging stories from a promising new writer.

Supplemental Reading

Growing Up Ethnic in America Contemporary Fiction About Learning to Be American | Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan, ed. (1999): Gathering the shorter works of such diverse authors as E. L. Doctorow, Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Sherman Alexie, and Sandra Cisneros, this comprehensive anthology explores the many ways that immigrants wrestle with American culture.