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.


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.

Book-length poetry

In Paris with You was a unique book for me, despite its somewhat formulaic romance plot (which isn’t a bad thing!). Why?

  • It’s translated from the original French, which means that the takes on the characters are different than you might get in a book originally in English. Specifically, Eugene is allowed to be slightly depressed, and that’s totally normal.
  • The hero is named Eugene.
  • It’s a book-length poem. I read poetry infrequently enough that the language that the authors uses is different enough, more emotional and less action-oriented, that it was refreshing.
  • It’s got a lovely happy-for-now ending that leaves open a proper happy ending.

In Paris with You was a great Sunday afternoon read. Would recommend.

A building with a long history

The Colosseum

What’s it about?
The Colosseum is an entire book about the building in Rome. The book covers the building from before it was built – back when the land was a pond in Nero’s palace – through the gladiatorial games of the Ancient Roman empire to its repurposing in the middle ages for various purposes and finally to the tourist attraction we have today.

Why should you read it?
The Colosseum has had a remarkably long life that covers a wide swath of history. It is fascinating, to me anyway, to read about the repurposing of private land (Nero’s palace) into public land (the Colosseum was open to everyone) as a political tactic, even in ancient times.

The success of the film Gladiator shows that we are still fascinated by them – Hopkins and Beard go over the lives of actual gladiators, discussing how often they fought, how likely were they to live, how they fit into the economy as a whole. It should be noted that there is no record of Christians being put to death in the Colosseum – those were stories put about after the end of the gladiatorial games.

Into the middle ages, we see that it was treated a bit like a quarry. Many stones were removed to build other, more immediately necessary buildings. It was also used as a place of business by various people. In the 1800s Lord Byron wrote verses about it and archaeologists began to study it. It’s apparently interesting to botanists as well; there are unique plants that grow in the Colosseum. Who knew?

Overall, if you’re planning a visit to Rome and want to see the Colosseum, I’d recommend reading this.