Tag Archive: Review 7

“Are They Artists?” “No, They’re Just Kids”

Today’s Review is Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which won the National Book Award for Non-fiction this last year.

Smith, as some of you might know, was a pioneering feminist rock star from the 1970s, who became known for her tremendous lyrics and idiosyncratic delivery. When I heard that she had won the National Book Award I sort of paused– how often do Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Famers win major literature awards? But I was also intrigued, so I picked up the book.

And boy am I glad I did. Just Kids is an extraordinary work of art.

Smith is, along with being a rock star,  a published poet. Her penchant for poetry shows through in the book, as it is, in some way, an extended love poem to her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. This is, however, an unorthodox love story, as Mapplethorpe turns out to be gay and Smith later marries a famous guitar player Fred “Sonic” Smith and bears him children– but is suffices to say that Mapplethorpe is the one who in the end, was her soul mate, and helped her find her way as an artist.

Just Kids chronicles Smith’s move to New York to find herself as an artist, and how after weeks of sleeping in Central Park, homeless and jobless, she runs into a young man named Robert, and how he in essence rescues her and her dream, and takes her home one night–something that culminates into a lifetime of love and friendship. “Wordlessly we absorbed the thoughts of one another and just as dawn broke fell asleep in each other’s arms. When we awoke he greeted me with his crooked smile and I knew he was my knight.”

The New York that Smith describes is as big a character in Smith’s memoir as Patti and Robert. It is a dirty, dangerous, living city, filled with late sixties and early seventies characters, ideas, and energy. Smith recounts how as a shy unknown, Jimi Hendrix stops to speak with her on his way into his new studio, how she sings to Janis Joplin one day to cheer the melancholy rock star up, how the beat poet Allan Ginsberg buys her a meal, because she was hungry and could not afford one herself.  Other artists help her in whatever way they can, herself a struggling artist, always searching for her true Art.

The love that she describes for Mapplethorpe, also a struggling artist, is searing. Despite the fact that eventually their intimate relationship ends because of his interest in men, she still loves him and holds fast to him, and he to her. Their love is what allowed them to grow into themselves as artists– they supported each other wholly– financially and emotionally, even when they were in relationships with other people. They were each other’s North Star so to speak. Because during this time period they were not Patti Smith “Rock star” and Robert Mapplethorpe “Photographer provocateur,” they were simply “Just Kids” trying to find their way.

The book revolves around Smith’s and Mapplethorpe’s love, but it also has some other interesting facets to it. First of all, I did not know that it took Smith as long as it did to carve out her identity as a musician. For years she dabbled in other forms of art before she discovered her inner rock-star so to speak. Same with Mapplethorpe, who tried multiple mediums before settling on photography. Would they have gotten there without each other? I doubt it, because it was their relationship that eventually molded their art.

Another surprising theme in the book is prayer. Smith is not religious in a classical sense per say, but you do get the sense that she is close to God in some way. She constantly  recounts her prayers, her sense of God.  This relationship began when she was a little girl, as she recounts “Not contented with my child’s prayer, I soon petitioned my mother to let me make my own…. Thus freed, I would lie in my bed by the coal stove vigorously mouthing long letters to God. I was not much of a sleeper and I must have vexed him with my endless vows, visions and schemes. But as time passed I came to experience a different kind of prayer, a silent one, requiring more listening than speaking.”

At the end of the book Smith describes Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS in the late 1980s. I knew that this part of the story was coming, but she write of it in such  heart-rending poetry that it is devastating. Smith’s grief carries the reader along with the  hope and her love for her friend, and the end of the book is soul-wrenching. Its been a long time since I cried reading a book but Smith’s prose caught me off guard and left me sobbing in my bed until the conclusion of her work.

Smith’s work is an extraordinary gift of love to the spirit of Mapplethorpe and to that great city, New York. The prose is so beautiful that you read it slowly, lingering over each turn of the phrase. Finally, she grabs hold of your heart and makes you want to search for that true love, to search for your Art, and to Live. This is an incredible book, the National Book Award was richly deserved. Do yourself a favor and go buy this book and savor it.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Late Medieval Whodunnit

Okay, I’m finally veering a bit from the existentialist/curmudgeon tone I set in my first several posts (for the time being).  With the new semester starting, and things thus a little more hectic, I decided to go for something short and sweet.  On my mother’s recommendation, I picked up a mystery novel by Margaret Frazer.

The Servant’s Tale, the second in Frazer’s Sister Frevisse Medieval Mystery series, tells a story of intrigue in the most unlikely of places: a rural Benedictine nunnery (St. Frideswide) in fifteenth century England.  The story centers on Meg, a poor commoner working as a scullery maid at the monastery in order to try to scrape up enough money to make her younger son Hewe a priest.  Early in the novel a traveling band of players arrives at St. Frideswide, bringing along Meg’s husband Barnaby, who had been terribly injured in a wagon accident.  Though at first he seems to be on the mend, Barnaby dies mysteriously in the night.  The nuns assume the death came about naturally as a result of an unseen wound, but it leaves poor Meg devastated.  Unfortunately for Meg, her husband’s death is just the first of a series of deaths, culminating in a surprising ending.

Sr. Frevisse stands in a long line of religious sleuths that includes G. K. Chesterton’s Fr. Brown and Ralph McInerny’s Fr. Dowling.  What makes The Servant’s Tale (and, I assume, the rest of the books in the series) distinctive is Frazer’s descriptions of late medieval society.  Everyday, ordinary things that we in twenty-first century America take for granted – a warm place to sleep at night, the availability of various kinds of food, ease of travel – are shown to be rare commodities in medieval England.  To take but one example, before his death Barnaby gives his wife a special treat he had earned and brought back for her: an orange.  At first, Meg is unsure of what it is, and she shrieks in terror as Dame Frevisse attempts to show her how to take the skin off, thinking the nun will ruin it.  Frazer later describes the delight and wonderment of Meg and her son Hewe when they finally open the orange and partake of it at home, commenting on how different an orange is on the inside than an apple.  To us, this is common sense, but Frazer reminds us that it was not always so, and in this way reminds us of the wonder of ordinary things.

Frazer also has clearly done her homework and captures the feel of monastic life beautifully (or at least it’s the way I suspect monastic life to be).  The nuns are not all saints – they each have their foibles, pet peeves, and animosities.  Nevertheless, they regularly come together for prayer, invited with the standard Latin greetings, and they humbly obey the will of the prioress, Domina Edith.

One other aspect of the book that I enjoyed was its pace.  It is not until nearly halfway through the book that the first recognizable murder takes place.  Even then, the murders unfold slowly, and Frazer throws in just enough credible suspects and motives to keep the reader uncertain.  At the same time, as with any good mystery novel, once the crime is solved, all of the clues are seen to have been there all along.

There are some elements of the book that I cannot comment on for fear of giving away the ending, but the thing that struck me the most was Frazer’s portrayal of the medieval mind and of medieval society.  The people of the fifteenth century had very different priorities than we do, and yet in other ways were not that different from us.  This reminder, combined with the challenge of solving the mystery, makes The Servant’s Tale an engaging and worthwhile read.

Seven down, (at least) forty-five to go.