Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


The Last Chicken in America by Ellen Litman








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Ellen Litman calls her debut book, The Last Chicken in America, a novel in stories. Whatever you call it, it’s an entertaining book about the lives of Russian immigrants living in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. It’s also about the loves, losses, struggles and stresses of people anywhere from a promising author with rich talent. Here’s an excerpt, pp. 37-9:


He never planned to go America. It all happened suddenly, quickly, without his involvement. Phone calls, paperwork. He blamed it on sickness, too much sickness. First, Sara, two years ago, a silent ischemia aggravated by pneumonia, a week at the hospital, and she was gone. He'd seen her that morning; she'd been cheerful, busy, weaving a goldfish from old IV tubes; she sent him home and he promised to come back around suppertime, and in the afternoon he got the hospital call. Then, a month later, Liberman's brother-in-law had a stroke. Then Liberman himself, a heart attack. Then apathy. He didn't even know when it started, swept over him, opaque like a fog. That was when Dinka and Arkasha began their campaign to get him out of the country.

Dinka picked him up at the airport in Pittsburgh. In the five years since he'd seen her, she'd grown imperial, stout. Her dress, black with flowers, pulled tight against her belly and her butt. She brought him lilies. Her husband, Slavik, wispy, bespectacled, rapidly blinking, shook Liberman's hand. Pavlik was there, too—eight years old, soft and doughy. "Come give your grandpa a hug," said Dinka. He did. He said, "Hello, Dedushka ... Grandpa." The stress was on the wrong syllable, and it hurt Liberman to know that the boy spoke Russian with an accent.

He spent the first week at Dinka's house in the suburbs, sleeping the living room downstairs, on the red velvety couch. His first morning there, a Sunday, he woke to the shuffling noises of Pavlik sneaking into the kitchen. A sigh, a knock, a clink. Pavlik said, "Ouch, ouch." Then he was creeping back, his plate piled with waf­fles. Liberman watched him, feigning sleep. Pavlik looked so serious, so deliciously clumsy, a sweet roll of a child. Liberman couldn't help but give a wink. Pavlik was startled. For a moment, he stared at his grandfather, and then he squeezed his eyes shut and fled upstairs.

Was Liberman scary or just unfamiliar? He meant to ask Dinka. It didn't used to be like this, not back in Leningrad when Pavlik was three and he read him Telephone by Kornei Chukovsky:

And then crocodile!

In tears he dialed:

Do send us galoshes.

For me and my wife and Totosha.

Such sweet and joyful nonsense.

The following week, he moved into a furnished apartment on Beacon Street in Squirrel Hill. Other people's furniture made Liberman nervous. He dusted the surfaces of the cupboard and the nightstand. During meals, he sat sideways, trying to occupy only the tiniest corner of the dinner table. His third day there, he unpacked his things. The walls of the apartment were cream-colored and bare, and he decided what the hell, he'd decorate. He fixed two pictures of matching sailboats over the dinner table. Above his bed, he put a broken barometer, its needle now always stuck on storm. The centerpiece was a framed picture of Sara. In it, she was a young woman with a recklessly drawn mouth and eyes so bewil­dered it seemed she was asking what both of them were doing in this strange apartment.

Dinka didn't approve of his work. "You're such a punishment, Papa. Look what you've done, you've spoiled all the walls." She came to see him every day at four o'clock. Dinka was practical, so practical it scared him sometimes, her thinking blunt, unsentimen­tal. He studied the side of her face, her close-cropped hair, her crude and aggressive makeup. There was no airiness in her, no light. She looked nothing like Sara.

On the fourth day, there was a knock on his door. He thought it might be his landlord, coming to see the spoiled walls, but when he opened the door he saw Mira.

"You?" he said. "What are you doing here?"

The last time he'd seen her was at the airport in Pittsburgh. He hadn't thought of her since, but here she was, in slippers and a housecoat, as if she lived in an apartment next door.

She did live in the building. "Didn't you know?" she said. "Here. I brought you a housewarming gift." She gave him a packet of cookies and a small crystal vase in a box.

He looked at the box. "Where did you get it?"

"Where do you think? I stole it?" said Mira. "I brought it with me." "You brought it? From Leningrad? You brought a vase? We had a luggage limit, two bags, one carry-on."

"You had your limit and I had my limit. What's the matter? What did you bring?"

He wasn't sure anymore. Books? Pictures? Clothes? He remem­bered some things he'd been told not to bring—Sara's silver pin (too old, he wouldn't get it past customs), or the handcrafted replica of the cruiser Aurora, his retirement gift, thirty-three inches from bow to stern, complete with eight lifeboats.

"How did you know I lived here?" he said.

I know things," said Mira. cc I saw your daughter coming in. I saw your name on a mailbox downstairs."


Litman has the ability to get to the emotional core of her characters, and to connect them to the lives of readers. If you’re looking to read the work of a talented new writer, consider reading The Last Chicken in America.


Steve Hopkins, June 20, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the July 2008 issue of Executive Times


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