Reviewed by: gary Sorkin, Pacific Book Review
How to Paint Chickens or The Way My Life Was and How it is Now, the main title of Vladimir A. Shvartsman’s book, is not a course in modern art – he literally painted chickens during his youth for identification purposes. Growing up in rural Russia, dirt poor and learning the ins-and-outs of responsibility, he would put a chicken “to sleep” by tucking its head under its wing, and swinging it back and forth like a pendulum. After a few swings the creature would be still, in a form of a trance. The chicken would be asleep for a varying amount of time, until suddenly awakening and if the paint was not yet dry, the whaling bird flapping its feathers would be flinging droplets of paint aimlessly around the room.
So began the short stories, dialogues, excerpts from letters and recollections of the author, in a rather “literal mosaic” or “an abstract” of his life. Juxtaposing much of his childhood in Russia to his current life here in the USA brings to light many aspects of our cultural differences. For example, interestingly he is a devout Republican. Knowing first hand that governmental hand-outs taken from the rich and given to poor people, call it socialism or communism, does not better society and simply doesn’t work. He sees our society changing towards the path destined with problems the Soviet Union already went through, and he hopes America stays on its course of allowing for wealth to grow; thus affording people the capability to hire others. “Without the rich who would hire the poor?” stated Vladimir A. Shvartsman.
A Russian-Jew, born in a place not known to many Americans, immigrating later in his life to the USA, Vladimir Shvartsman has assimilated very well into American society and culture. From growing up “ruble-less” to becoming modestly successful, his life has gone boldly into the 21st Century; complete nowadays with the marvels of the Internet, and having many bizarre experiences of cyber-dating. How different a life from what he knew as a child!
Hustled by women, plagued by authoritative police, insulted by wives of friends, his trials and tribulations are all recorded in this collection of first-person narratives. Allowing for a forgiving read of having a few minor editing and spelling errors which are understandable, because Russian is his native language, this book can be picked up and started without losing the continuity of its message. It is a compilation of many short stories; “History of my life, according to Vladimir A. Shvartsman.”
I have seen a genre of books written by people turning the corner into old age, wanting desperately to preserve their “meaning” or “contribution” to society, for those they love and love them, as well as for the public at large to understand and enjoy such observations viewed by a perceptive mind. Peppered with spicy language at times, also laced with original artwork (albeit in black & white), the book is an autobiographical triumph in putting memoires down into a printed form, which can survive a person’s existence on earth.
A bit narcissistic by nature because it is written with the author always taking the moral high-ground, this book does however captivate the reader’s interest with its inherent humor and tendency for highlighting the absurdities that occur in our world. Reading How to Paint Chickens is like inviting Vladimir A. Shvartsman into your home and spending hours enjoying his experiences – an event and a place he is always welcome.