Wednesday, December 3, 2008

REVIEW: The Last Chicken in America, by Ellen Litman

The Last Chicken in America, by Ellen Litman. Published 2008 by W.W. Norton. Literary Fiction. Short Stories.

The Last Chicken in America, which author Ellen Litman bills as "a novel in stories," is a lovely collection of interrelated tales focusing on the Russian-Jewish immigrants in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Her characters are teenagers, young and old men and women from different walks of life, recent arrivals to the United States, American and Russian, Jewish and not; together they people a dense, close-knit and slightly claustrophobic community. Some want to leave and some want to stay, but they all work to survive and find love and meaning under challenging circumstances.

The stories follow a whole cast of characters but several center around one young woman, Masha, a teenager applying for college, working a series of unsatisfying jobs and yearning for something better. I could almost feel her trying to push her way through the world, looking for someone to understand her suffocation and her need for freedom. Her parents, whose problems are addressed later, in their own story, want to keep her close; a wealthy woman for whom she works wants to make Masha her kind of Jew without bothering to understand Masha for herself, and her teacher, a non-Jewish Russian, can't deal with who she is either. Masha's stories form the heart of the book; they bring to the surface rifts in understanding and missed connections, but ultimately her story is optimistic and hopeful.

Other characters, like Natasha, who tries content herself with what she finds easily attainable, like an uncomfortable (but readily proffered) friendship with a coworker, or an unsatisfying but available boyfriend, or Tanya, who lives vicariously through her boyfriend's glamorous friends, speak to the theme of alienation and discomfort and bring a range of emotions to life. The characters appear and reappear in each others' stories, so the star of one, like Vika in "When the Neighbors Love You," might show up as a background character in others. When Vika reappears in the last story, her appearance has the feel of a throwaway line until you remember how economically that throwaway line works to resolve her story and her fate. Major themes include immigration, adjustment to a new world with new rules, post-Soviet life outside the Soviet Union, and the harmonies and dissonances of everyday life.

With a good number of stories and a variety of characters, Litman has created a vivid little world inside her slim volume of stories. I loved her fluid prose and her gently literary style. She describes the Squirrel Hill neighborhood so vividly I felt like I was walking down its crowded sidewalks with her characters, past its shops and restaurants. I could see them right down to their clothes and hairstyles, to their cigarettes and lipstick. It was a world I could engage in right away, even if I put the book down for a few days here and there; it was a pleasure to savor these lovely stories. I hope that she has a novel in the works but it doesn't matter- I think I would read anything she writes, I enjoyed this book so much. I'd recommend it to readers interested in sensitive, character-driven short prose, to readers who like solid writing on Jewish and Russian topics, and really to anyone. The Last Chicken could be read as a companion piece to Sana Krasikov's fine debut One More Year, another volume of short stories about Soviet immigrants, which came out earlier this year as well, but it stands beautifully on its own. It's a wonderful little book.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review - even the title sounds wonderful.

Kathleen said...

Sounds interesting and would work for the Jewish Literature Challenge.

LorMil said...

What a fantastic review! The book sounds wonderful.


Shana said...

I've been waiting for this review, Marie! I'm definitely adding this one to my wish list now.


Anna said...

I've seen a lot of "novels in stories" around these days. I've read a few myself and enjoyed them. This one sounds great. I love stories with immigrant themes. Great review!

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