Just Kids

I feel like Just Kids – a sort of memoir of Patti Smith and a sort of biography of Robert Mapplethorpe – is the prototypical late-1960s, early 1970s artist life in New York City. They have a precarious relationship to getting enough to eat or keeping a roof over their heads, but the art is the focus. When Patti Smith first went to NYC, she very clearly was homeless for awhile, though that phrase is never actually used. And there is much talk about food and hunger.

But mostly, the book is about art. About her helping Robert figure out that he was a photographer, first and foremost. About him helping her with her poetry. (She still writes in poetry on her Instagram account, it’s lovely.) About their struggle to create art and to live on the money they made from their art. In short, to be artists.

And you can see its reflection throughout pop culture, too, the idea that Greenwich Village and Chelsea are places for artists, even though they’re full of wealthy people who have second homes in the suburbs now. But back in the 1960s and early 1970s, they were neighborhoods where artists could afford to live very cheaply and near other artists too.

There is also a thread that follows Robert Mapplethorpe as he discovered that he was gay and how he eventually accepted it – it’s odd for me, now, living in the San Francisco Bay Area to remember how taboo being queer was for so long. And about the eventual photographs that got so much attention from the Republican Party – he was trying to shock and he did.

It ends, after jumping forward several years to cover Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS in 1989. Another thing it’s hard to remember – and for me to get my teenager to understand – is how pervasive AIDS was and its effect on not only artists, but the US as a whole. (Not everyone survived Reagan.)

I found Just Kids to be inspirational. It’s about Smith finding her voice and forming a band who will be ok with her being the front person. It’s about how fucking around for awhile in your 20s will lead to you figuring out who you are and what you want to do. And as someone who is about to re-figure out what to do with her life, reading about other people doing the same makes me feel less alone.

Jack

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels are a damn delight to read. They’re quiet and smart and thoughtful about people and relationships and how to be good to one another and faith. I’m less interested in faith than in anything else in that list, but she makes faith about how to be good to other people, and I’m very interested in that.

If you’ve read the prior novels (and I wish I’d re-read them before starting this one), you know that Jack is the screw-up who tests everyone’s ability to be good to each other. He’s the son of a priest who’s an atheist and a troublemaker. Before leaving town, he gets a girl pregnant. Yes, he runs off on her, and she eventually leaves their small Iowa town for Chicago. In Jack, this is all history, and he’s had a stint in jail to boot.

Now, he is in St Louis and aware that he is a malevolent force in the world. All he wants is to be harmless; it’s the goal he’s working towards. Alas, he has the unfortunate luck to fall in love with a Black woman, Della, and this is the 1950s. This is the opposite of harmless, and he knows it. So does she. They try to stay apart and sometimes it works better than others. But they are in love, and it’s a mature, understanding sort, these are not crazy kids making bad life choices.

Robinson has enormous sympathy for Jack and Della, and her kindness and love show in every word in Jack. I was eagerly awaiting this book, and it did not disappoint.

Beowulf

I’m struggling with what the write about Beowulf, as I usually do with anything that’s considered a classic. Like, it’s been around for a million and a half years! There are people who study it for a living! I’ve never even read another translation of it, let alone know very much about it.

So here’s what I can tell you about my reaction to it and why this version of Beowulf instead of a different one. In no particular order:

  • The long introduction by the translator, Maria Dahvana Headly, was super helpful to me as a total newbie. She’s coming to Beowulf as a feminist, and Beowulf is very definitely an epic poem about what it means to be a good man. She talks at length about Grendel and Grendel’s mother, and possible not-toxic-masculine interpretations of those characters. But also, just in a grounding of the poem and what it was about? I really appreciated it.
  • And I appreciated the lens of healthy masculinity that the translator brought to it. It’s very much in the same vein as Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, using words that are more modern and attempt to convey relationships and status in a more modern way.
  • Speaking of Grendel and his mother… they’re in it a lot less than I thought. I came to the epic assuming that it was one hero’s journey type of a story, like The Odyssey. But it’s really three smaller adventures tied into one big story. Grendel is the villain of the first one, his mother is the antagonist in the second, and there’s a dragon hoarding gold in the third.
    • Apropos of the dragon in the poem, here’s a bit of history. The Romans left Britain in roughly 410, and there’s very little to no written history of what happened in Britain from that point until the Venerable Bede writes in the 700s. But people keep finding stashes of Roman Gold hidden away on the island, dating from those uncharted years. The latest hoard was found in 2012. So, hidden stashes of gold weren’t uncommon on the island, though dragons are unlikely to have been involved.
  • I do love that the poem starts out “Bro!” Like the person telling it is your drunk brother.

I can’t tell you if this translation is better than others or deep meanings about Beowulf. But I enjoyed it.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

All Addie LaRue wants is to see the world. But she was born in a small town in 17th century France, where her only option is to become a housewife and have children and never leave the town she grew up in. So she makes a deal with… not quite the devil, but definitely a spirit of the night – she gets to live forever, doesn’t have to get married, but the catch is that no one remembers her. There are logistics to work out – how do you rent a room if the person you’re renting the room from forgets you the minute you leave their sight? But once she gets those under control, she has an amazing time exploring the wider world and learning and experiencing everything possible.

Fast-forward to 2014 in New York City, where Addie is at a bookstore, and someone remembers her.

I have been excited about this book for what feels like years – from the time VE Schwab announced she was working on it on her social media, to being envious of all the people who got advanced reader copies, to finally preordering it, and then actually holding it in my hands and getting to read it. And handing it over to my teenager the minute I was done with it so she could read it too.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue wasn’t perfect – I’m not convinced that one of the more important characters was developed enough, Henry’s (the person who remembers her) relationship with his family felt very one-note. But the characterization of Addie as being a person who lets most creature comforts go, as long as she has art to consume – that hit home. And the reveal of the framing of the book at the end? Masterfully done.

Look, I loved The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, and I think you might too.

The Library Book

Let me tell you that so many people I know loved The Library Book by Susan Orlean. It’s probably because I work in a library and know so many librarians. I enjoyed learning about the history of the Los Angeles Public Library, I enjoyed reading about the fire that happened at the main branch in 1986 (the same day as Chernobyl, so while it should have made the evening news, it didn’t), and Orlean tells her intertwining stories well.

If you are a book person, read The Library Book.

The City We Became

There are not enough words for me to talk about how much I loved The City We Became. I initially read it in March 2020, when NYC was in the middle of covid lockdown and the book still made me so fall in love with the city that I wanted to move there, like, as soon as possible. (Why am I not writing this until October? Well, let’s just say that pandemic productivity is bullshit and there are days that getting anything done has been incredibly difficult.)

In the book, cities are actual entities that get born into the universe when they reach a certain size and vitality. But the universe has forces who don’t necessarily like it when this happens – it’s a very Lovecraftian premise. New York City is in the process of being born, and its avatar (the young homeless artist who is the personification of the city) has gone missing after the battle of its birth. So each borough of the city gets its own avatar, its own person. Manhattan is a young brown man of indeterminate origin who has just moved to the city, the Bronx is an older Lenape woman, Queens is a young Indian mathematician, Brooklyn is a former Black rapper who is now on city council, and Staten Island is a young White woman who is terrified to leave the island. They all have to find each other, and then the main avatar in order to defeat the manifestation of the universe who would like to see the city snuffed out. It’s a basic quest story with twists and turns and I loved it.

It’s the first of a trilogy (warning: she’s still writing the next two books), but it’s based on a short story in How Long Till Black Future Month? So if you’re looking to see whether or not you’ll like the book, you could do worse than to track down the story and read that first.

Anyway. The City We Became is a damn delight and if you’re looking for a reason to fall in love with New York City you could do worse than reading this book.

Attached

I did not know a thing about attachment theory before I read Attached. So, what is it? Attachment theory describes how you bond with other people. Are you confident in that bond? Are you confident in general in your bonds with other people? If so, congratulations! You’re securely attached. If you’re not confident in those bonds, that can manifest in two different behavior types: avoidant (you push people away) and anxious (you try to hold people too close).

Attached was useful in that it helped me realize some of my relationship patterns; it was unhelpful in that this book focuses on romantic relationships only. There are so many types of relationships out there: family, friends, workplace, acquaintances, just to name a few. And I was actually more curious about those. There wasn’t even a cursory chapter in the book about any relationship types other than romantic relationships.

So, while it was helpful in teaching me about the theory, I was actually looking for something else practically. I would recommend Attached if you’re looking for a romantic partner and want to understand maybe one reason your relationships haven’t worked in the past. But if you’re looking to understand other relationship types? This isn’t your book.

Debussy: A Painter in Sound

Debussy: A Painter in Sound took me months to read. Far longer than it should have, really. Why? As a high-school trombonist, I’ve played loads of loud, boomy orchestral pieces (think Beethoven, Stravinsky, Mussorgsky) and softer, more delicate, lower-pitched pieces, mostly originally meant for cello (like Bach’s Cello Sonatas). Debussy is most emphatically not that kind of music.

He, like all musicians of his day (late 1800s – v early 1900s), was creating in reaction to 2 main things: Wagner – a bombastic style to be avoided – and Impressionism – a lightness to be embraced. His works are shorter, some only a few bars long, and are largely for instruments like flutes, violins, and pianos. Ergo, the first stumbling block for me was my unfamiliarity with his music.

Debussy is less a biography of the man and more a history of his music. Walsh talks about his rejection of the Conservatory and its standardized notions of what a musician should do, the spareness and lightness of his music, and how it evolves over time. He talks about the spareness of the sound, the arpeggios, the scales, and while I understood the words, I couldn’t hear the music.

Thank god for YouTube, where I could learn about things like octatonic scales, and Spotify, for its numerous recordings of Debussy’s music. Without them, I would have understood so much less. I listen to Debussy regularly now. His music is light and delicate and I’m not sure I would have ever taken the time to listen closely before.

I want, at some point, to learn to play some of his pieces on the piano (and take the years of piano lessons that would render that possible), to listen intensively to all of his music, to go to concerts when we can do that again, and to re-read Debussy with a much more knowledgeable ear and eye.

That’s all you can ask of a book sometimes: to make you want to go down the path it has laid out before you. this one does its job.

Rebecca

A book I would like to rename “Becky with the Good Hair.”

Rebecca is a quasi-classic. I read it for book club and several of the other members had read it when they were in school. I had not. Because I knew it was suspenseful, I went ahead and read the wikipedia plot summary ahead of time. I am a person who doesn’t mind spoilers or knowing how things turn out, obviously. (Yes, I sometimes flip ahead to read the last few pages of a book too.) It helps me concentrate on things other than the plot, like the crafting of the story and the characters and the mood.

Rebecca, the book, made me SO ANGRY. First, it’s three separate types of book: the romance at the top, the psychological thriller in the middle, and then a more straightforward mystery at the end. PICK ONE. Second, the unnamed narrator is very ill-treated by ever single other character in the book – I mean, the author doesn’t even give her a name, which is to illustrate how mousy she is, but then why does anyone take any interest in her at all? But it totally undermines the romance at the beginning when her husband, Maxim, seems to love her, knows she’s out of her depth coming to Manderley, and then gives her absolutely no support? And because Daphne Du Maurier wants to drive home what a mousey non-entity she is, the narrator never takes the initiative on anything, preferring to let the staff do what they want or doing things the way Rebecca, Maxim’s dead first wife, did them. By the end of the book, I just didn’t care.

But we had interesting discussions at book club, talking about whenever Maxim really loves her, how the house represents Rebecca and her influence over the story, and how effectively creepy Mrs Danvers is despite not actually being in the book that much. So while I didn’t like Rebecca, I do appreciate the discussion it spawned and I’m glad I read it in a way that I got to talk about it with other smart people afterwards.

Carrie by Stephen King

Look, 2020 is a shitshow. This is not a revelation to anyone. The year started with Australia on fire and the US being belligerent towards Iran, and then the pandemic hit, squeezing into all of the cracks of US society, making all of our issues worse (or maybe just exposing them to everyone).

This leads me to: 2020 is one long spooky season. All the time. We are living through a slow motion, low grade horror movie. So a few weeks ago, I decided it was the perfect time to read some Stephen King.

Carrie was his first published novel, released in April 1974 (another disaster of a year, including the ongoing Oil Shock, Watergate, and Nixon’s resignation – at least Nixon had the grace to resign). If you know nothing else about Carrie, you know the scene of the emotional climax of the book: Carrie, on stage, having been crowned prom queen as joke, just so she could have pig’s blood dumped all over her; she is about to kill everyone in the room via her powers of telekinesis.

The full story is rather slim. The premise is that Carrie’s mother is a particularly over-the-top evangelical Christian, and even though telekinesis runs in her family, that Carrie should be ashamed both of her femininity and her powers. Carrie has been shunned by everyone in town because of her family and she has no self-confidence because of her upbringing.

When she is 17, she gets her period for the first time as she is showering and changing after PE and she has no idea what’s going on. She gets made fun of by every single other girl in the locker room; the teacher punishes them all. Afterwards, one girl feels guilty and persuades her boyfriend to take Carrie to senior prom as a way to make up for it. Another girl is angry about the punishment (and that her father is unable to get her out of it), and convinces her boyfriend to get some fresh pig’s blood and rig it up to fall on Carrie just as she is being crowned prom queen for laughs.

After she is humiliated again, she snaps. She uses her powers of telekinesis to kill everyone at prom, and then she walks through town, ending as much of it as she can.

The nihilism, the idea that the bad will win against the good no matter what, the constant bullying that Carrie has faced throughout her life; it’s all breathtaking. Truly, in this book, everything is terrible, the bad always wins, and all you can try to do is survive.

If there is a better metaphor for 2020 so far, I can’t think of it.