(Random House, $33)
Russia’s greatest export has been its literature, because the humor in it has a skittish undertone, as though the threat of death is somehow looming over the joke. Unfortunately, after Chekhov died, there was a dry spell — for about a century. Isaac Babel, Maxim Gorky, and Mikhail Bulgakov were three of the very few writers to produce great, amusing works under Soviet rule.
Now that the Iron Curtain has been replaced with something more like dirty gray curtains, we have a new generation of Russian writers stepping forth from the rubble, among them Gary Shteyngart. His first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, won a bunch of awards and caused critics to run around in the streets waving the book, screaming, and pulling out their hair, because finally there was a displaced-immigrant story that wasn’t a triumph of the human spirit. It was just, for the most part, a comedy.
Now with Absurdistan, Shteyngart tells the story of Misha Vainberg, an obese Russian immigrant who has lived in America for years but is sent back to Russia because of an INS problem. Misha is a rapper and rich and almost entirely Americanized. Stuck back in Russia, Misha just wants to get out. So he goes to Absurdistan, the self-proclaimed “Norway of the Caspian.” Misha arrives and finds himself in the midst of a civil war between its two indistinguishable nationalities, the Sevos and the Svanïs. Of course, Absurdistan is said to be oil-rich, and so its vast and stretching orange landscape — somehow both Afghan and Martian — is sprouting oil derricks all over the place, while the cities themselves are a slop bucket of globalization.
The specific presence is American. One of Misha’s associates explains: “The Americans have really been helping us out. Xerox machines, free use of the fax lines after nine p.m., discounted Hellmann’s mayonnaise from the commissary, five thousand free copies of An American Life by Ronald Reagan. We know what democracy looks like. We’ve read about it. We’ve been to Century 21.” Misha Vainberg is a twenty-first-century immigrant, no longer oppressed by tyranny itself but rather the tyranny of dissatisfaction. He’s like a nihilist Yakov Smirnoff, sans the blank audience stares. But it’s Shteyngart’s sense of the absurd that fuels this oily novel, because, as Yakov might say, in Absurdistan, fuel burns you. — J.D. Reid
British music critic Barney Hoskyns, who previously chronicled the Los Angeles rock zeitgeist in his survey Waiting for the Sun, crafts this vibrant history of the early ’70s SoCal scene and the rise of the canyon cowboys and self-confessional singer-songwriters who came to dominate the music of the me-decade. As Hoskyns observes, it was an era populated by an unusual mix of characters: from the earnest Jackson Browne to the brilliant but bed-hopping Joni Mitchell, the mercurial Neil Young to the innocent Linda Ronstadt, and the wickedly ambitious duo of Don Henley and Glenn Frey. Graduating from hoot nights and folk-rock to private Learjets and sold-out stadium shows in just a few short years, they prospered by selling an illusory dream of California as a sun-kissed paradise, even though practically none of the key players was a native of the state. Setting the music and the musicians aside, the story here is really about a dramatic shift within the entertainment industry itself. It’s a tale dominated by a new kind of management and executive figures like David Geffen, Elliot Roberts, and Irving Azoff, the first generation of record men to merge an artist-friendly hippie demeanor with a ruthless business sense. Hoskyns provides both a broad overview and plenty of finely etched detail, showing how this small, incestuous community of individuals ultimately came to dominate American music. He charts their path to multiplatinum success and their later descent into madness and death, a farrago fueled by a combination of drugs and rampant egos. Despite the author’s best efforts to make a case for the artistic merits of the era, at book’s end you’re left with a feeling that the lasting legacy of this peaceful easy period isn’t in the music at all but rather in the bank accounts of those who prospered. Still, it makes for a juicy and engrossing read. — Bob Bozorgmehr
Married in 1978 just after college graduation, David Owen and his wife, Ann Hodgman, moved into a New York City apartment. They knew nothing about remodeling. Eventually, as babies arrived, remodeling and expanding became necessary. Owen found watching the carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and other craftsmen fascinating. He learned how to design projects, then use tools to carry them out through a combination of reading, question-asking, osmosis, and hands-on experimentation. A talented journalist, Owen wrote about his experiences for the New Yorker and then in his own books.
Sheetrock & Shellac: A Thinking Person’s Guide to the Art and Science of Home Improvement By David Owen
(Simon & Schuster, $25)
His latest, Sheetrock & Shellac, is constructed around the family’s renovation of an old house in rural Connecticut, plus the building of a getaway second home, often referred to as “the cabin” — about 10 minutes away by car. The practical tips are numerous; it’s like reading a manual with a literary bent. The philosophy is food for thought, as when Owen writes, “Home improvement is an ongoing collaboration between a dwelling and its residents. Changing our apartment changed Ann and me, too, because remodeling works in two directions — as we shaped our living space, our living space shaped our lives … Remodeling and construction are human processes as well as structural ones, and they leave all the parties altered, just as marriages and lawsuits do. Ann and I set out to turn our apartment into the kind of place that we thought we wanted to live in, and we ended up meeting it halfway, by becoming the kind of people who, it turned out, would live in a place like ours.”
Never has a how-to home-improvement manual contained so much deep thinking. Or, phrased another way, never has a philosophical tract about the relationship between human and house contained so much how-to home-improvement advice. — Steve Weinberg