Litman, Ellen

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Litman, Ellen

PERSONAL:

Grew up in Russia; immigrated with family to the United States, 1992. Education: University of Pittsburgh, B.A., 1995; Syracuse University, M.F.A., 2004.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Somerville, MA. Office—Department of English, 215 Glenbrook Rd., Unit 4025, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT 06269-4025. Agent—David McCormick, McCormick & Williams, 37 W. 20th St., New York, NY 10011. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

Writer and educator. Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY, graduate instructor, 2001-04; Union Institute & University, Vermont College, Montpellier; University of Wisconsin, Madison, James C. McCreight fellow in fiction, 2004-05; Babson College, Babson Park, MA, lecturer in rhetoric, 2005-06; Grub Street, Inc., Boston, MA, 2005-07; University of Connecticut, Storrs, assistant professor and associate director of creative writing. Previously worked as a software developer in Boston and in Baltimore, MD.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Atlantic Monthly 2003 Fiction Contest, first prize; Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, 2006; scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, Middlebury, VT.

WRITINGS:

The Last Chicken in America: A Novel in Stories, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2007.

Contributor to anthologies, including Best New American Voices 2007. Contributor of stories to periodicals, including Ontario Review, Triquarterly, and Ploughshares.

SIDELIGHTS:

Ellen Litman is a former computer programmer turned fiction writer. In her first book, The Last Chicken in America: A Novel in Stories, the author tells the story of Russian-Jewish immigrants trying to assimilate in a new world. Through a series of short tales, Litman tells the story of Masha, who is just out of high school when her family moves to Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh. Other characters in the stories include Masha's parents and other immigrants.

"I did live in Squirrel Hill, for 3 years," the author told Daniel Goldin in an interview on the Web site The Inside Flap. "My family came to Pittsburgh from Moscow, in 1992, and my parents still live there. So, much of the book did come from my experiences of the early years there. I was 19 at the time we immigrated, a bit older than Masha, the main character in the book. But like her, I studied computers at the University of Pittsburgh."

Several other reviewers also noted the autobiographical nature of the book. "Masha, the main character of several of the stories, is a teenager just starting college who has to contend with the isolation and the difficulties of immigrating," wrote Arsen Kashkashian on the Kash's Book Corner Web site. "She is just a couple of years younger than Litman and it's tempting to read her experience as a reflection of Litman's own." Irina Reyn wrote in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "While Litman points out the foibles of recent immigrants, her treatment of characters is affectionate and clear-eyed." She added: "While this exchange speaks volumes about the complexity of Litman's undertaking—she is careful to bring her former world to life in a knowing but empathetic way."

The various stories reveal, in a lighthearted and humorous way, the struggles of Russian immigrants in a new community who seek to find their own place in a radically different society. From seniors alienated from their children to families trying to stay together in tough economic conditions, the author intertwines her stories to produce a hybrid novel. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Maud Newton noted that more and more short-story collections are being published as overlapping tales that can be viewed as a novel. Newton wrote: "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 first of the twelve linked stories focuses on Masha and her parents, who are both enamored of and overwhelmed by the American grocery store with all its products and packaging. At the store with her mother, Masha meets a young Russian immigrant who has embraced the American way of life. Masha develops a crush on the boy but suspects the he may have a girlfriend. In another tale, "The Trajectory of Frying Pans," one coworker falls for another who may be trapped in a green-card marriage so one spouse can remain in the country. Donna Seaman wrote in Booklist that the "smart stories take measure of the confounding divides between cultures and generations, men and women."

"About Kamyshinskiy" tells the story of a man trying to get over the death of his wife while living under the scrutiny of his daughters and neighbors. Another tale, "What Do You Dream of, Curiser Aurora?," features Liberman, an elderly emigrant to Pittsburgh who moves in with his daughter's family. The story follows Liberman as he deals with his loneliness and tries to fit in. "I was thinking of my grandfather," Litman said of the story to Arsen Kashkashian on the Kash's Book Corner interview. "He came to the U.S. with us, so his situation was different. But I was imagining someone with his kind of spirit." The author noted in the interview that, while many immigrants succeed in making the transition, others "break down," adding: "My grandfather passed away last year. He'd never found that new life for himself." In the last story, "Home," two Russian immigrants are getting married and dance together in celebration of the future.

The Last Chicken in America received many strong reviews. Molly Abramowitz wrote in the Library Journal that the author "offers a beautifully written, highly amusing, and sometimes sobering look at contemporary Russian Jewish immigration." A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that Litman "deploys a style that's a perfect mix of sophistication and bewilderment."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, September 1, 2007, Donna Seaman, review of The Last Chicken in America: A Novel in Stories, p. 54.

Books, November 24, 2007, Carole Goldberg, "Community in Flux: An Empathetic Debut Novel about Immigrants Struggling to Get Settled in America," review of The Last Chicken in America, p. 8.

Library Journal, August 1, 2007, Molly Abramowitz, review of The Last Chicken in America, p. 70.

New York Review of Books, December 20, 2007, Elaine Blair, "From the Other Shore," review of The Last Chicken in America, p. 80.

New York Times Book Review, October 21, 2007, Maud Newton, "Mysteries of Pittsburgh," review of The Last Chicken in America.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 11, 2007, Irina Reyn, review of The Last Chicken in America.

Publishers Weekly, September 25, 2006, "Jaffe Winners," p. 4; July 9, 2007, review of The Last Chicken in America, p. 29.

ONLINE

Ellen Litman Home Page,http://www.ellenlitman.com (April 25, 2008).

Inside Flap,http://insideflap.blogspot.com/ (November 4, 2007), Daniel Goldin, "Daniel Goldin Asks Ellen Litman to Explain, Explain."

Kash's Book Corner,http://kashsbookcorner.blogspot.com/ (November 15, 2007), Arsen Kashkashian, review of "The Last Chicken in America," and interview with author.

University of Connecticut, Storrs, English Department Web site,http://english.uconn.edu/ (April 25, 2008), faculty profile.