If you've read Gary Shteyngart's novels, you may already have him pegged: the Russian-Jewish immigrant. The hilarious, self-deprecating, gadget-obsessed Manhattanite who holds his liquor well, his ladies not so much. His three previous bestsellers, The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Absurdistan, and Super Sad True Love Story, all channel elements of their author's bio, so perhaps Little Failure,his new memoir out on January 7, is where he's been headed all along.
Shteyngart's parents emigrated to New York when he was seven, one of the early shipments of "grain Jews" allowed to leave Soviet Russia during the Carter era in exchange for wheat from the Americans. He grew up in Little Neck, Queens, a wimpy misfit his dad called Soplyak ("Snotty") and the Hebrew school bullies dubbed "red gerbil."
It was a familiar immigrant-kid existence, with his parents pushing one version of the American Dream (good grades! lawyer!) while young Gary stumbled through his own (passable grades, writer). After graduating from Oberlin College, he joined the Hunter College MFA program under the tutelage of author Chang-rae Lee, who practically flung Shteyngart's first manuscript at a Penguin Putnam publicist. In Little Failure, Shteyngart recalls in his signature Chekhov-meets-Borat style how he wrote his way through a sickly Soviet childhood, middle-school bullying, and his own insecurities to become a success—if never quite successful enough for his parents.
Mother Jones: So why a memoir?
Gary Shteyngart: I've been using this material as the sauce for my pasta, so to speak, and I decided to give away the recipe.
MJ: Right. Your novels draw a good deal from your own experiences. So how was it different writing about your life overtly?
GS: In literary fiction, "going memoir" is considered a little bit of a cop out. But it's a little tougher for somebody who relies on outlandish scenarios, like me. You can't run away and hide behind humor. My technique has been you put out the difficult stuff and you come right back with a comic rejoinder. You punch with the left and the right, and the right is humor and the left is truth. But here you are relying on the truth: If something isn't funny then you have to stick with that.
MJ: Does releasing a memoir bring you more trepidation than releasing a novel?
GS: Well, yes. I imagine some people won't be happy with the way they're portrayed. You have to deal with that.
MJ: You depict your parents pretty intimately—the threat of divorce, your dad hitting you. How do you feel about them reading the book?
GS: The major test for me is how honest have I been? With my parents, I wanted to focus on all of it: the wonderful stuff, the humor, their value on education, the fact that they kept up Russian with me—which was instrumental in my ability to write books like Absurdistan that rely on my ability to go back to Russia and interact with people. And I also wanted to focus on how they became the people that they are—how much of this is a response to growing up under Stalin, as both of them did, and having so many of their relatives killed in the war or sent to the labor camps.
MJ: I love the scene in the rotating Marriott restaurant where your parents chide you that you're not good enough because [New Yorker editor-in-chief] David Remnick beat you by eight spots on some list of New York's top writers.
"How do you fail these parents? I was really not a good student, and I felt that shame every day."
GS: Nothing's ever good enough! Not just for them, but for many immigrants. Some of my best friends are Korean or Indian immigrants and it really is the same kind of situation: "You're the third best doctor in the New York Metropolitan area? Why aren't you the best?" They'll remember the names of the two doctors that beat you and they'll carry that around forever. It's a fascinating condition, because it means one can't even remotely conceive of happiness. How do you fail these parents? I was really not a good student, and I felt that shame every day. That's one of the reasons I started smoking pot and drinking daily.
MJ: But would you credit some of your success to your parents' admonitions?
GS: Yeah, I think I would. First of all, they provided me with the material for all these books by not Americanizing all that much. And the artistry—or what I hope is artistry—is a response to the traumas of childhood. If those traumas could've been avoided, perhaps I wouldn't have been a writer. If my mother hadn't tried to sell me chicken Kiev cutlets for $1.40 after I graduated from college, maybe I would've been the lawyer she wanted me to be.
This past spring, strangely similar pieces of mail started arriving at the offices of city attorneys in 28 Maryland communities. The tersely worded letters, many dated March 26, warned each town that some of its firearms laws were illegal and needed to be repealed immediately. Takoma Park's letter claimed that ordinances against carrying unlocked guns and possessing or selling guns in public places "grossly" exceeded state law and should be taken off the books, "out of respect for the rule of law." All of the letters warned that failure to comply would put the towns "at risk for a lawsuit."
"Once in a blue moon we get these kinds of letters from activist organizations," says Ryan Spiegel, vice president of the Montgomery County chapter of the Maryland Municipal League and a member of the Gaithersburg city council. What felt different this time, he says, was the coordination—and the timing: Just a month earlier, the Maryland Senate had passed some of the country's toughest gun control measures in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
The letters came from the Second Amendment Foundation, a prominent pro-gun legal-defense organization, as part of a quiet but mounting campaign to strike down local gun laws across the country. So far, SAF has sent out about 425 letters to cities, towns, and counties in Maryland, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington and has announced plans to target hundreds more local laws.
Though they may be obscure and not always enforced, local gun laws have become low-hanging fruit for anti-gun-control activists since Sandy Hook. The strategy rests on the legal concept of "preemption," which restricts local lawmakers' authority to regulate firearms beyond what's in state law. For more than 30 years, the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups have successfully lobbied for preemption laws nationwide: In 1979, 7 states had them, but today, 45 do. Some states, such as Alabama, Idaho, and Maine, make exceptions for local restrictions on when and where people can shoot; some, like California, let localities control where and how guns are sold. All of them, however, set some limits to municipalities' ability to regulate guns, and that's where the Second Amendment Foundation comes in.
A new investigation by the Center for Public Integrity reveals troubling conflicts of interest in state supreme courts nationwide. CPI combed through the financial disclosure forms of state supreme court justices in all 50 states and reviewed the states' disclosure laws for judges. Their findings on both fronts are discouraging.
CPI discovered several instances of justices writing opinions that favored companies they had financial ties to. An Arkansas justice ruled in favor of a company that had been paying his wife a salary of as much as $12,499 for two years. A high court judge in California ruled in favor of Wells Fargo despite owning up to $1 million of the bank's stock—even as a colleague who owned less stock recused himself. Other justices accepted perks from lawyers —from country club memberships to a $50,000 Italian vacation.
Uncovering such information is exceedingly difficult because most states' disclosure laws for judges are pretty weak. While federal judges are required to recuse themselves from cases if they or a family member own even a single share of stock in a company involved, state laws are murky and inconsistent. CPI devised a system for grading the state standards for preventing these kinds of conflicts of interest: 43 got a D or lower.
Check out some of CPI's finds below: Some recent examples of state supreme court justices weighing in on cases involving companies in which they or their spouses owned stock, and a list of the freebies thrown at top judges.
Justice Jacquelyn Stuart, Alabama
Owned stock in: Regions Financial Corp. Amount not disclosed.
Case: A securities-fraud lawsuit brought by a group of shareholders against the company.
Justice Courtney Goodson, Arkansas: In 2011, she accepted a $12,000 Caribbean cruise from attorney W.H. Taylor. In 2012, she accepted a $50,000 Italian vacation from Taylor.
Justice Robert Thomas, Illinois: For the last three years, he reported honorary memberships to two country clubs. He has received "Notre Dame tix" from his friend and personal attorney.
Justices Robert Rucker, Brent Dickson, Steven Davis, Mark Massa, Indiana: In 2012, all four got free tickets to the Indy 500 from the Indiana Motor Speedway.
Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, Louisiana: In 2012, she accepted a $9,466 junket to France from the Louisiana Association of Defense Counsel (LADC) to attend their annual legal education courses.
Justice Greg Guidry, Louisiana: Guidry also took a trip to France sponsored by the LADC. In 2011, the group flew him to Buenos Aires for its annual meeting.
Justice Ron Parraguirre, Nevada: Last year, he received a $250 gift from a registered lobbyist for Barrick Gold. Less than two months later, the Nevada Supreme Court decided to hear a case regarding one of the company's mines. (It's still pending.)
AT 24, PIPER KERMAN boarded a flight to Belgium wearing slacks and a nice jacket, carrying a suitcase full of cartel cash to be delivered to a West African kingpin by her heroin-dealing girlfriend. Kerman didn't run with that crowd for long, but her crimes caught up with her; she ultimately pleaded guilty to a felony money-laundering charge.
"If I had not been able to afford really good private lawyers, I would probably have served a lot more time."
Her 13-month stint in federal prison became the basis for her 2010 bestseller, Orange Is the New Black, which was adapted into an acclaimed Netflix series by Weeds creator Jenji Kohan. The show—whose second season is in the works—follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as the Whole Foods-shopping Smith College alum bumbles her way through life on the inside. Orange has been hailed for its realism and its diverse and well-developed cast of female characters, but the show also has caught flak for its reliance on a privileged white protagonist. At the height of the hoopla, I caught up with Kerman, now 44, to talk about sadistic guards, crocheted phalluses, and her top three prison reforms.
Mother Jones: At what point did you decide to write about all of this?
Piper Kerman: The woman I shared a cube with for many months turned to me one day and said, "You go home and write a book about this, bunkie." I was not necessarily planning on writing a book, but when I came home, almost every single person I knew wanted to hear about my experience. I had a sense that it would interest people who would not otherwise pick up a book about prison. I wasn't writing for the choir.
Update 10/04/13 3:00 p.m PDT: Herman Wallace died in his sleep Thursday, October 3, 2013, due to complications from liver cancer. He had been out of prison for nearly three days.
Update: Herman Wallace was freed on Tuesday evening. His legal team issued a statement saying the "four decades which Mr. Wallace spent in solitary confinement conditions will be the subject of litigation which will continue even after Mr. Wallace passes away. It is Mr. Wallace’s hope that this litigation will help ensure that others, including his lifelong friend and fellow 'Angola 3' member, Albert Woodfox, do not continue to suffer such cruel and unusual confinement even after Mr. Wallace is gone."
Earlier today, the chief judge of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana overturned the murder conviction of the dying prisoner Herman Wallace, ordering that the state "immediately release Mr. Wallace from custody." But the state is appealing the decision. Wallace is one of two members of the so-called Angola 3 who, along with Albert Woodfox, has been held in solitary confinement for more than 41 years. This summer, Wallace was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. He was taken off chemotherapy in September, and currently resides in a prison medical facility. The state's reluctance to set free an aging and gravely ill prisoner highlights some of the issues covered by James Ridgeway in his award-winning story "The Other Death Sentence," an article that chronicles the graying of America's prison population, and the associated costs, both moral and financial.
Convicted of armed robbery, the men were sent to Angola in 1971. Wallace and Woodfox were Black Panthers, and they began organizing to improve conditions at the prison, which did not win them points with the prison administration. In 1972 they were prosecuted and convicted for the murder of a prison guard named Brent Miller. They have been fighting the conviction ever since, pointing out (PDF) that one of the eyewitnesses was legally blind and the other was a known prison snitch who was rewarded for his testimony.
After the murder, the two—along with a third inmate named Robert King—were put in solitary, where they have remained ever since. (King was released in 2001, after 29 years in solitary, when his conviction in a separate prison murder was overturned.) Several years ago, Wallace and Woodfox were transferred to separate prisons, but they are still held in solitary.
The Times Picayune reports that Baton Rouge District Attorney's office is now in the process of filing an appeal with the Fifth Circuit Court, and will also be asking for a stay of Herman's release. Maria Hinds, a personal advocate who's been closely involved in Wallace's case since 2008, says that for now, the warden at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Facility, where Wallace is being held, has refused to release him, and that Wallace's lawyers have filed a motion for contempt of court against the warden for violating a court order.