Sentences — March 9, 2009, 3:26 pm

Odd Bits of Wire That Came to Hand

homemadebook

One of the more charming books I’ve come across recently is pictured at left. I suppose Home-Made (Fuel Publishing) would qualify as a coffee-table book (if your coffee-table is about eight inches square). Assembled by contemporary Russian artist Vladimir Arkhipov, the book is a devotional text in honor of the human need to invent–in this case to invent things that already exist. Thrift is the motivator behind such redundancy: if you can’t afford a new television antenna, why not make one out of forks?

Home-Made is a distillation of over a thousand such objects that Arkhipov has collected over the years into what he calls “The People’s Museum of Home-Made Objects,” some two hundred peculiar pieces of human industry. “In 1994,” Arkhipov writes, “I saw, at an acquaintance’s dacha, an unusual hook on which clothes were hanging. It was made from an old toothbrush, without bristles, and had been obviously bent over a fire. There was something strange in that moment of recognition. I immediately saw the light, as it were, and recalled similar things that I knew, belonging to my relatives, friends, acquaintances.”

Each of the objects in the book is named (“BOOT HANGER”), then followed by the name of the inventor (“VASILII BOBROV”), then by the inventor’s first-person narration of the invention (“It’s just an absolutely primitive boot hanger… I just bent mine out of odd bits of wire that came to hand”), and finally, of course, a photo of the object (this one looks like a pair of enormous spectacles mated with a question-mark). The book is crammed with hockey sticks, aerials, toy locomotives, back massagers, and stories. Whimsical without trying to be and inspiring in its way, Home-Made makes you wonder not so much why you’d buy anything as why you wouldn’t first try to make it out of a plastic jug, a bicycle wheel, a peach pit, a tennis ball cut in half, and an old abacus. And while some of the devices seem a bit dodgy (there’s a sort of razor in there I’d run from) the stories of their inventors are solidly involving.

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Many comedians consider stand-up the purest form of comedy; Doug Stanhope considers it the freest. “Once you do stand-up, it spoils you for everything else,” he says. “You’re the director, performer, and producer.” Unlike most of his peers, however, Stanhope has designed his career around exploring that freedom, which means choosing a life on the road. Perhaps this is why, although he is extremely ambitious, prolific, and one of the best stand-ups performing, so many Americans haven’t heard of him. Many comedians approach the road as a means to an end: a way to develop their skills, start booking bigger venues, and, if they’re lucky, get themselves airlifted to Hollywood. But life isn’t happening on a sit-com set or a sketch show — at least not the life that has interested Stanhope. He isn’t waiting to be invited to the party; indeed, he’s been hosting his own party for years.

Because of the present comedy boom, civilians are starting to hear about Doug Stanhope from other comedians like Ricky Gervais, Sarah Silverman, and Louis CK. But Stanhope has been building a devoted fan base for the past two decades, largely by word of mouth. On tour, he prefers the unencumbered arrival and the quick exit: cheap motels where you can pull the van up to the door of the room and park. He’s especially pleased if there’s an on-site bar, which increases the odds of hearing a good story from the sort of person who tends to drink away the afternoon in the depressed cities where he performs. Stanhope’s America isn’t the one still yammering on about its potential or struggling with losing hope. For the most part, hope is gone. On Word of Mouth, his 2002 album, he says, “America may be the best country, but that’s like being the prettiest Denny’s waitress. Just because you’re the best doesn’t make you good.”

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