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Memoirs and music

It’s hard to start reading Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids without dwelling on her status as punk rock godmother, poet, legend. But it is really satisfying to see her talk about her humble beginning matter-of-factly, without glorification. She is just like us, but with the passion to keep making art no matter the circumstances.

This book is about passion. Partly about Smith’s desire to be a poet, partly a love letter to Robert Mapplethorpe, a beaded necklace-maker turned sculptor turned photographer. They found each other in New York in the 60s, and drove each other to create and create and create. That each understood the other’s artistic temperament is the glue behind their relationship.

The book dwells mainly on the years before Smith and Mapplethorpe “made it,” when they were living at the Chelsea Hotel, five dollars meant wealth and the social and art world revolved around Andy Warhol and his Factory. At times the story is terrifying – Mapplethorpe’s drug trips, living on barely any food but endless cups of coffee, sleeping in a room with no heat and no plumbing. But it’s hard not to admire Smith’s acceptance of these awful conditions, because she is so sure that one day things would change. Her work, her art, would change her circumstances. Eventually it did, but the turning point is glossed over. One day, Smith is working at a bookstore, the next, she is releasing her first album. More detail about that progression would be interesting and deeply satisfying. But Smith treats the acceleration of her career as routine, focusing instead on Mapplethorpe (and occasionally Janis Joplin, Lou Reed and Edie Sedgewick).

Above all, the focus is on art for art’s sake, on writing and drawing and just creating. Smith’s first book of poetry earns more words than her first recording session. Mapplethorpe’s life, and death, has more text than Smith’s marriage to Fred Smith. The book is powerful and moving, and I both couldn’t put it down and forced myself to put it down because I didn’t want it to end. Hopefully Smith comes out with another book about her journey in the music industry. Highly recommended.

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Reading list

Though A Garden of Earthly Delights by Joyce Carol Oates is not a new book (it was first published in 1966), it is new to me. I was a little late jumping on the Oates bandwagon, but I’m glad I did.

A Garden of Earthly Delights, the first book of Oates’ Wonderland Quartet, tells the story of Clara Walpole, the daughter of migrant farmworkers. She is blonde and beautiful, and uses her looks and tenacity to escape her parents’ life and make one of her own. Clara values what she considers her independent spirit, but is almost completely defined by the men in her life.┬áThe book is divided into three parts, “Carleton” (her father), “Lowry” (a lover) and “Swan” (her son). These subtitles suggest that Clara is a secondary character, though the story revolves around her. She would not be able to leave her family in Florida, move to New York or achieve any sort of financial security without male help. Continue reading

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Reading List

As I am sure I have stated far too many times, perhaps akin to being hit repeatedly over the head with a frying pan, I love to read. Absolutely love it. I think some people wouldn’t recognize me without my head buried in a book. I was an English major – explanation enough.

Repetition aside, I thought I’d start a regular feature where I discuss books that I have recently read, fondly remember from grade school or have read so many times they are not so much books but piles of paper held together by a few determined strands of cardboard binding.

First up: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. Continue reading

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