A beautiful, complex portrait of an immigrant community that, through its heart, virtuosity, humor, and unrelenting precision of vision, ends up being about America itselfabout the complicated blessings that freedom, and the possibility of affluence, bring.
Ellen Litman's stories reminds us that the human soul is, in its essence, an immigrant: eager, rootless, searching tenderly for home. The depth of her insight, and the incandescence of her prose, is startling.
Ellen Litman's intelligence is fresh, tender and wonderfully alive.
When a good novel fails to find an audience, it's the fault of bad marketing, unappealing cover art or a public too dim to appreciate literary fiction. But if short stories don't sell, publishers blame the form. The resulting skittishness may account for the rise of the "novel in stories," a hybridized creature typically denoted, as in the case of Ellen Litman's Last Chicken in America, by an italicized subtitle. The worst of these books are chilly and labyrinthine. You follow dour characters down corridors of plot, theme or emotion that threaten to lead to some destination, but never actually do. Litman's elegantly constructed web of stories about Russian-Jewish immigrants living in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh is the converse of such aimless solemnity. It's warm, true and original, and packed with incisive, subtle one-liners.
The New York Times
Russian immigrants settle in Pittsburgh and attempt to assimilate in this linked set from Litman, who emigrated from Moscow in 1992. Masha, a lonely dreamer, is a vulnerable teen desperate to distinguish herself from the other Russians in town. As she struggles to help her obstinate parents settle down, she finds comfort in Alick, a friendly exchange student from Moscow who gives Masha her first lesson in love. Subsequent stories introduce a plethora of characters: Tanya, a repressed housewife, longs to escape her loveless marriage, while single mother Natasha has a set of friends who insist on setting her up, and widower Kamyshinskiy attempts to start over. Throughout, Litman deploys a style that's a perfect mix of sophistication and bewilderment, as her often highly educated characters cope with various forms of underemployment, with American buoyancy and with their own sometimes suffocating subculture. While Masha is a focal point, each of the stories has its own arc, and the community never comes into focus as a whole. The result is less like a novel than a coherent set of mostly first-person character studies by a very promising writer. (Sept.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Presented as 12 connected short stories, this debut novel offers a beautifully written, highly amusing, and sometimes sobering look at contemporary Russian Jewish immigration to America. Throughout, the trials of assimilation prove baffling to young and old alike-not what they expected to find in the golden land of opportunity. In the title story, Masha, a recent high school graduate living in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood (the locale of all the stories) needs to help her parents figure out the mysteries of the supermarket, English classes, getting jobs, and so on. The relief money that these immigrants receive from Jewish organizations gets them started, but because of religious assimilation in Russia, they are unfamiliar with synagogue services or the structure of the Jewish community. In other stories, Masha searches for love while battling depression and unemployment, though she does socializes more in the story "Russian Club." Elsewhere, two immature dancers crash at a young couple's apartment in "Dancers," thinking that being Russian is the sole requirement for such hospitality, and in "What Do You Dream of, Cruiser Aurora?" two seniors navigate the social system with some success. Litman, a Russian immigrant herself, skillfully shows the clash of cultures and the learning process of assimilating into America. Highly recommended.