I woke up in a strange place

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

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March 19, 2002

I hit my head on the bottom corner of my kitchen cabinet on Thursday. It hurt. There was a fairly large gash above my eyebrow, so I put a bandage over it. I was still wearing the bandage when I went to work the next day. I resolved to have a different explanation for every single person who asked about it, and I was pretty excited about the challenge. But no one asked.

There is a RabbiTech fundraising event tonight and I am afraid that I will have to work there. The rabbi and I are the only people in this office who do not work on fundraising. He gives the fundraising people ideas from time to time, and I write those ideas out for him, but for the most part, he has his own agenda, and I follow along. Since I sit among the fundraising people, though, I seem to be classified - when it's convenient - as one of them, and there was a mass email a couple weeks ago saying that all of the fundraising people have to work the event. So, I don't know. We'll see what happens. I will get nasty if I have to go. The event is a stand-up comedy show ($100 seats) by Martin Short. I don't much like Martin Short. He is Robin Williams minus "Dead Poets Society", "The Fisher King", "Good Will Hunting", the legendary early coke-fueled stand-up and improv with Jonathan Winters; when you take that away, all that's left is crafted and crusty "impressions", spitting and spluttering as a punchline and gay hairdressers. All technique, no heart. Probably a nice guy who has no idea he's inconveniencing me. I am capable of getting nasty.

After work today, I was planning to buy a big tree thing for my cats to climb on. Although they never seem to mind, I've always felt bad that they can't go outside, so I thought they might like a big thing to climb. Seems reasonable. I'd like a big thing to climb. I already know there's nothing on the ceiling, though.

I keep forgetting to update my reading list. It's been several weeks now. I will try to catch up now.

What A Carve Up!
Jonathan Coe

Ah! A great book. Thom Yorke referenced it in an interview during the OK Computer era, and it had been floating somewhere in the middle of my list ever since. The reference is slightly misleading, though. It doesn't read like the sort of book that the "character" of OK Computer would have written. The similarity is in what they both react against, the pigs, the sense of outrage that reaches a point where it can't be articulated and then spirals off into something compelling and strange (Radiohead) or hilarious (Coe). (And, with equal power, sad.) The book is about a fantastically evil family, brilliant creations all, and the downtrodden author who pursues them. It's one of those quintessentially British novels where people do horrible things to each other and the reader is trusted to understand that even though what has just happened is very funny, it is also horrible, and you should take appropriate measures with both reactions, which won't interfere with each other. (Americans don't seem to get that level of trust very often from their art.) Gobs of self-assured talent are evident and the story is endlessly inventive. Highly recommended.

Russell Banks

Terrifically long (750+ pgs) book "by" Owen Brown, son of John Brown, rabid abolitionist who led a bloody armed insurrection against slavery before the Civil War. This is one of those books that was more interesting when I wasn't reading it. The relationships - of Owen to his father, and to some of the figures surrounding his father - had all of the complexity and chaotic architecture of ones you'd recognize from real life, but I didn't have any immediate reaction to them until later, when I thought about what I'd read earlier that day or week - which isn't a bad thing, of course, but makes a massive book like this tough going. Most interesting to me (and expertly handled here) were all of the differences in abolitionist theology in pre-Civil War America and the practical, how-to details on showing up somewhere and setting up a home and livelihood. The exciting bits - the insurrection - don't arrive until 600 pages in, and many details that would have been interesting are left out for commitment to the character's limited perspective. I think, for my purposes, I would have been better off with a straight history (rather than historical fiction like this).

Antony and Cleopatra
William Shakespeare

Shakespeare dashes off another brilliant one. I have a degree in literature, which means that I've read a fuck-ton of Shakespeare in academic settings, and he still manages to surprise me. Antony and Cleopatra, two of the greatest lovers of all time, right? So, the easy move is to show them in love, at the height of their passion, etc, and you can show off how well you write romantic poetry. Shakespeare, though, introduces them when they're just past ecstasy, and they're starting to realize that they are bound to each other, and they're clawing and clinging at the same time. The academic interest is in the question of Antony's responsibility to take up his position in Rome or linger with Cleopatra, but the real interest, for me, is the morning after for the two lovers, and as the Antony contends with the younger Octavian, the feeling of age dawning, of trying to get it back. So, another great one for the Big Dog.

The Human Stain
Philip Roth

I have avoided mentioning Philip Roth and Woody Allen around the rabbi because I don't want to hear him do a routine on the whole New York Jewish Intellectuals Who Don't Practice The Religion scene. I'd give the rabbi enough credit to possibly like some Woody Allen films, although it's also quite possible that he doesn't. Either way, avoidance seems the best tactic. This is a good book. Like his previous book, I Married A Communist, this one is fueled by a profound outrage that is very mature yet no less electricifying. That one was about how politics need to leave art the fuck alone because there's so much more to art than politics, and this one is about how academic theorists need to leave humans the fuck alone because there's so much more to humans than academic labels. The phrase he uses is "the ecstasy of sanctimony", and I think anyone who's ever been victim of it will recognize it right away, so you can gauge your interest based on that.

City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America
Donald Miller

Pretty damn good history of Chicago from the first arrival of Europeans in the region to the end of the World's Fair in 1893, taking the city from nothing to insane mudhole to its peak. The author puts a great deal of effort into his descriptions - the surreally disgusting slums, the ludicrous difficulty of making the land in Chicago practical for building and living - and the effort fits together quite nicely with his style of constructing history through well-chosen anecdotes about the common people involved. (Or, proletarian in a useful way. There's a tendency in some populist histories to reject the Great Man Theory of history, wherein history is understood as being moved exclusively by the actions of a few famous people, so thoroughly that it becomes willfully blind to the inescapably major impact of said few famous people.) The focus of the book is on the nuts and bolts of the simple fact of how Chicago was built at each stage of its development, and he gets that across very well. He also does a pretty good job of identifying the major figures (businessmen like George Pullman, architects like Louis Sullivan) and giving them full portraits without stopping the narrative momentum cold. There are a handful of slow patches, but that's to be expected in a history this size, and they're not many. Highly recommended if you're interested in the topic. The only weakness would be the uninspired selection of photographs.

Something Like an Autobiography
Akira Kurosawa

Wonderful! I like Akira Kurosawa's films quite a bit, but this book is worth reading even if you've never seen one. Unlike the standard artist autobiography, Kurosawa ends right before the point in his life where he becomes famous worldwide for Rashomon. Instead, the book is divided between two lovingly and brilliantly re-created halves: his childhood growing up in Meiji Japan, as the country made the transition (in a very short amount of time) from the feudal samurai era to the modern one, and then the story of the fledgling Japanese film industry, trying to stay afloat and find purpose, identity, etc. There are several incredibly funny bits, and even some eyes-water-over poignant ones, all written without apparent ego or calculation. He had an incredible memory for details and brief anecdotes that give a sense of the entire situation. Highly recommended.

Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto

Having written one of my theses in this field - deconstructionist film criticism - I feel qualified to say that it is not necessarily bad to state that the intention of your book is "to problematize dominant interpretive frameworks", as long as the phrase "for me to poop on" follows in quick succession. Sadly, no one told Yoshimoto. His joyless book is now being pooped on.

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.