Beware the Soviet Corpses!

A sardonic Russian, and other summer book highlights

An elderly Muscovite—who had no doubt spent his life building communism—approached me last summerin the bowels of an Ikea store on the outskirts of the Russian capital.  

"I'm walking in circles," he said. "Tell me—how can I get out?" His plea for escape from Moscow's mecca of cheap foreign merchandise is a shocking reversal of the madcap frenzy over imported goods that sparked up inthe late Soviet era. Vladimir Sorokin's 1985 novel, The Queueto be published here in August by NYRB (224 pp., $14.95)—recalls that now-vanished time in its opening phrase: "Comrade, who's last in the queue?"

The 52-year-old Sorokin is a member of the first generation of post-Soviet writers, a group that also includes Victor Pelevin, a satirist with a futuristic bent, and Tatyana Tolstaya, champion of the misfit protagonist. The Queue—translated by Sally Laird—captures the Soviet psyche in the peculiar historical moment just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. With only a rudimentary plot and no clear protagonist, the experimental book is composed entirely of snippets of conversation about money, sex, the Beatles, soccer, the sweltering Moscow summer—anything one was likely to overhear in the swarms on glitzy Tverskaya Street or the commercial district of Novy Arbat. This polyphony of voices becomes the story's hero, or perhaps its anti-hero.

From samizdat to NYRB: The Queue's Vladimir Sorokin
Eberhard Schorr
From samizdat to NYRB: The Queue's Vladimir Sorokin

Moscow is now flush with cash, imported goods, and sushi restaurants, but Sorokin insists that his 23-year-old novel isn't obsolete. He told the Voice—with his trademark sardonic flourish—that a Soviet mentality persists in Russia, despite the promise of the early '90s. "Ideological clichés are again re-emerging like corpses," he says byphone from Moscow. "A corpse sinks, and then it comes back."  

The Queue was originally published by samizdat before being smuggled to Paris, where it first reached Western audiences. Ice, his most recent book to appear in the U.S., is a grim pseudo-thriller about a violent cult. The novel made the Voice's Best Books of 2007 list, but was criticized by sources as varied as The New York Times Book Review and Putin's political party, Unity, a faction of which charged him with obscenity and distribution of of pornography. Sorokin admits that the latter alarmed him, adding: "For now, a writer in Russia may write what he wants. I always emphasize the 'for now.' "  

"Russians read a lot," he says. "They are disappointed by the propaganda they see on TV. Whenever there is political winter, people become more interested in literature. As a writer, I'm happy. As a citizen, I'm not."

Atmospheric Disturbances  

By Rivka Galchen  

The blind spot in our perceptions is filled by our desires and dread, says 51-year-old psychiatrist Dr. Leo Liebenstein, who's convinced that his wife Rema has been replaced by an imposter. In her debut novel, Galchen—a graduate of Mount Sinai Medical School and the Columbia MFA program—weaves together philosophical, literary, and scientific arguments to probe the nature of human consciousness. Best of all, she does it with a sense of humor.
FSG, 256 pp., $23 (June)

Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth

By David Browne

In a doting introduction to his subject, biographer David Browne—a music critic for Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times—says he's never felt less hip than he did when he first met the members of Sonic Youth 15 years ago. The band's ability to avoid the usual music-industry clichés of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll is what Brown claims inspired him to write this book.
Da Capo, 416 pp., $25 (June)

Say You're One of Them  

By Uwem Akpan

African writer and Jesuit priest Uwem Akpan depicts the plight of African children with the kind of restraint only possible when an author fully inhabits his characters—he manages to be empathetic without being condescending. This collection of short stories moves about the war-ravaged, impoverished parts of the continent, following the lives of street kids, siblings sold into slavery, and a family living through the Rwandan genocide.
Little Brown, 384 pp., $23.99 (June)

When You Are Engulfed in Flames

By David Sedaris

For over a decade, humorist David Sedaris has been sharing the quirks of his own biography, helpfully demonstrating that one life can provide more than a lifetime of fodder. In his new book, Sedaris conjures up the same cocktail of jokes with a twist of tragedy. In one particularly poignant essay, he describes his father's violent anger as he and his sisters laugh at their flatulent Greek grandmother: "Strange that being walloped with a heavy spoon made everything seem funnier."
Little Brown, 366 pp.,$25.99 (June)

Coming of Age at the End of History

By Camille de Toledo   

Thirty-two-year-old French author Camille de Toledo envisions himself as a "runaway" from capitalism. His book is a manifesto on his generation's state of rebellion, a generation he defines as those "whose outlook formed between the poles of two strangely symmetrical dates": 11/9 (the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989) and 9/11.
Soft Skull, 176 pp., $14.95 (June)

The Condition  

By Jennifer Haigh   

It's hard to find a corner of New England that isn't haunted by literary specters both dead (Hawthorne, Thoreau, Dickinson) and just hanging on (Updike). A relative newcomer to this league of regional writers, Jennifer Haigh—winner of a PEN/Hemingway award—has written a novel as steeped in Massachusetts lore as her characters are stuck in the Cape's springtime mud.
Harper Collins, 384 pp., $25.95 (July)

Savage Barbecue: Race, Culture, and the Invention of America's First Food

By Andrew Warnes

Barbecue isn't just an innocent summer treat, argues literature and cultural scholar Andrew Warnes. He delves into the history of BBQ to show how European racism, the fear of cannibalism, and other gastronomical taboos have shaped Western ambivalence toward what he calls the "most American food."
University of Georgia Press, 208 pp., $19.95 (August)

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