I woke up in a strange place

By Marc Heiden, since 1997.
See also: a novel about a monkey.

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October 31, 2001

Reading this month:

Powers: Who Killed Retro Girl?
Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Avon Oeming

My friend came over and looked at my bookshelves; upon seeing that I'd never read this, he pissed all over my graphic novels and beat the crap out me when I asked him to stop. I don't know why I have such mean friends. This is a good book that fills the void left by Kurt Busiek's Astro City rather nicely, with art that falls between Bruce Timm's Batman and a manga flavor.

William Shakespeare

Obviously, Shakespeare is a friend of mine. I am a fan of his much-maligned later plays; even at the very end of his career, he never stopped pushing himself to try new things. Cymbeline's plot may have more ins and outs than anything he ever wrote. It's sort of a history play, about a king of ancient Britain who defied the Romans, but it also works as a fantasy, like The Tempest, and there are a couple of lines when the inevitably parted lovers are united that are jaw-droppingly beautiful. The god Jupiter makes a surprise appearance, unannounced in the cast list, and Doctor Cornelius will make you stand up and cheer when he slyly double-crosses the double-crosser. Scholars place it either before or after The Winter's Tale, but it reminds me more of a dry run for the magical aura that was perfectly realized in The Tempest than The Winter's Tale, which I'd place alongside Pericles in terms of raw, unpolished emotional impact (showing the author's advanced age and undeniable soul). Though Cymbeline is static at times on the page, it's easy to imagine it rocking the house in performance. Anyhow, the guy can fucking write, so get off his back.

Irvine Welsh

Ah. The man's back on top form. He's one of my favorite writers, so I lack even more perspective than usual, but I liked this one a lot. His last book, Filth, was a virtuoso performance, almost physically affecting in its brutality, but also something I'd never read again; only the last third of Ecstasy rated great. You can tell from the start of this one, though, that Welsh is back in the zone. Being one of his books, the title serves as assurance that the bonds of friendship will be revealed to be as strong as glue and glue itself will probably be sniffed. Nice. The characters are fully inhabited, and his narrative voice remains committed to them and the strong choices he makes; stories criss-cross over decades, and the principals of Trainspotting even make brief and welcome reappearances. The ultimate impact doesn't rate with the aforementioned, but there's still something genuine about it that's all its own.

Buppies, B-Boys, Baps & Bohos: Notes on Post-Soul Black Culture
Nelson George

A laser-smart series of essays tracing black culture, both on the art itself and its interplay with mainstream America, originally written for The Village Voice and a few other NYC outlets. Some are about pop culture subjects that are now dated beyond irrelevance, but most are well-written enough to be interesting as historical objects if nothing else. There also a few exceptional ones drawn directly from the author's life. The vast majority of the essays are from 1992 or earlier, though, with a handful of new ones (which also happen to be the best in the book) to mark the revised 2001 edition.

Motherless Brooklyn
Jonathan Lethem

For a time, while working as a museum security guard, what I read was determined primarily by the size of the book. If it fit into the blazer's inside pocket and could therefore be smuggled into the gallery during my shift, it received consideration. One day during winter break, I worked a nine hour shift all by myself in basement, in the pre-Colombian and Egyptian galleries. Being a museum in a college town while the students were away, I think there were literally no visitors for the entire day, so I wound up reading an entire book from start to finish: Jonathan Lethem's As She Climbed Across The Table, a wacky yet tender story of love among grad student physicists. My last decent relationship was with a biochemist grad student who had dumped me a couple weeks prior, so I kept nodding my head as I read and saying, yep, it's like that, science girls are crazy. I hadn't heard anything about the book before reading it, but it fit in the coat, so I bought it and wound up liking it a lot, the randomness of the discovery casting a glow around the entire thing.

Now Lethem is part of the McSweeney's posse, and he has this book out. The main character has Tourette's syndrome, and it is creating a problem for me in that I have only known one guy with Tourette's, a sensitive feminist metalhead, and he is a spectacularly poor match with the character that I think I am supposed to be envisioning, yet as my primary reference point for Tourette's, he's all I've got. I've found that if I make an active effort to visualize a guy in a fedora, I can think of the character as him instead of the metalhead, but then the character has to be wearing a fedora at all times.

Anyway, I like Lethem's writing, and this book. It's not of the towering monumental brilliance variety, but it reminds me of something that the nicest guy you know might have written and poured his heart into, with deserved props awarded for inventiveness and character (more than, say, story).

Me Talk Pretty One Day
David Sedaris

I like to keep track of the books that I see being read on the train, and this one has definitely been a favorite over the last couple months, rating behind only the perennial Ayn Rand / Harry Potter / "Poisonwood Bible" crowd. It's been on my list of books to read for a while. My friend James speaks only in David Sedaris quotes and Eminem lyrics, so I felt like I'd read it already. (There is absolutely nothing true in that last sentence, but I enjoyed typing it.) I was afraid that the glut of glowing reviews from everyoneeverywhere was going to turn me off to it, but any apprehension I had was completely disarmed once I started reading. It's a collection of essays about the author's life, with the first half forming an autobiography of sorts (though the stories were originally written for different publications) and the second half describing the author's current life as an expatriate in France. Breezy, quite funny, a total pleasure to read. I liked it a lot. It has a lot of badly translated language material, which always cracks me up. I rarely make a noise while laughing unless I tell myself to, but I made noise without thinking while laughing at many bits of this book, for whatever that's worth.

Hieronymous Bosch
Walter S. Gibson

Kind of a sucky book on the fantastic Mr Bosch. Most of the reproductions are in black and white and either cropped or miniscule (or both), so it's basically worthless from a visual standpoint. The central argument in Bosch scholarship is over the source for the artist's imagery, which can draw the phrase "whoa, that's fucked up" from the lips of the most stoic and sober of men. Some treat Bosch as a surrealist 400 years ahead of his time; others attempt to link the images to corners of obscure Christian cults from the Middle Ages, always a good time; and others, like Gibson, play it straight and try to get what they need from the mainstream Church and artistic contemporaries. This author rejects Freudian analysis of Bosch with the hilariously flawed reasoning that since Freud's theory of the unconscious hadn't yet been articulated, it cannot be applied to people of the era. (Because humanity didn't have an unconscious until Freud decided they did?) I don't rate the unconscious as a primary source either, but when you've got a piece of flawed reasoning like that in the first few pages, the rest of the essay is probably a lost cause. (Stodgy academics get nervous about having to diversify and demand that the subject conform to their area of expertise.) I'm still waiting for one of these so-called experts to explain the shrouded tiny duck-bill nosed demon monk who pops up in Bosch's larger works, anyway. Scariest damn thing I've ever seen on a canvas.

Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast
Patrick McGilligan

A giant book about the director of Metropolis and M, among many others; his first American film, Fury, is also a favorite of mine, and you can't beat that Dr. Mabuse, the original sinister web guy. The central thesis of this book is that Lang was bat-shit crazy. This is one of those books (like Donald Spoto's book on Hitchcock, The Dark Side of Genius) that makes such a strong case for its subject's lunacy that you're left wondering how the guy ever got a film made in the first place without getting thrown off a building. Ah! But such good films. This is a brick-sized book with mountains of research, probably the best single book if you're interested in the director but overload for a casual reader. The story of Lang's deadly game of cat and mouse with Goebbels and subsequent flight from Nazi Germany does make for some brilliant drama, even if the author suspects it was mostly invented. I'd like to write a Shadow of the Vampire type film based on it. Oh! And Fritz Lang had a wooden monkey named Peter that he kept with him for the last fifty years of his life, from Vienna to Berlin to Paris to Hollywood, and he liked to talk to the monkey and give the monkey a book to read whenever he was reading something. I knew there was some subtle emotional connection that I was making to his films. That explains it!

I woke up in a strange place is the work of Marc Heiden, born in 1978, author of two books (Chicago, Hiroshima) and some plays, and an occasional photographer.

Often discussed:

Antarctica, Beelzetron, Books, Chicago, College, Communism, Food, Internet, Japan, Manute Bol, Monkeys and Apes, North Korea, Oregon Trail, Outer Space, Panda Porn, Politics, RabbiTech, Shakespeare, Sports, Texas.


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Written by Marc Heiden, 1997-2011.