Saturday, April 3, 2010

Sunday Salon--Book Group Reading

The Sunday Salon.com

At our last meeting, my book group discussed Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids. I was planning to write a review, but after my group's discussion of the book, I must admit my thoughts grew muddled. I really enjoyed the book for several reasons. I liked Smith's voice, and I liked the way she was able to tell the story of her youth without judging herself in hindsight. I also liked the window she made for me into the New York art scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Smith lived at the Chelsea Hotel and frequented Max's Kansas City, and she got to know William Burroughs, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Allen Ginsberg, among others. It was a colorful time, to say the least, and I enjoyed the anecdotes about the city and the scene at this time.

But I also came away with more questions than answers after reading this. It's clear that there was much that Smith didn't want to say. The book is a labor of love, a eulogy and love letter to her lover and best friend, Robert Mapplethorpe. At the beginning of the story, Smith is a naive girl who comes to the city to live a life about art. Some of my book group found her naivete surprising, if not suspect, but maybe it was this naivete, mixed with a certain kind of fearlessness, that allowed Smith to become an artist after all. Mapplethorpe seemed even more devoted than Smith to the idea of art for art's sake, and Smith makes it clear that they both truly believed in each other as artists, even when neither was entirely sure what direction their art might take. Again, Smith chronicles their development as artists, and people, without judging with the benefit of hindsight, and she has a lyrical, impressionistic storytelling style, so there isn't a lot of self-reflection here.

Maybe because as a society we are used to post-Freudian, post-Oprah gut-spilling self-reflection to the point of narcissism, this book seems unusual to me. It feels like, perhaps because she is being respectful of her dead friend's secrets, Smith doesn't tell the whole story about Mapplethorpe and her relationship with him. She does, however, treat him and her younger self with an admirable empathy. I go back and forth, both wanting to know more about how Smith felt (for example, upon learning her lover and trusted friend was homosexual, and having their relationship necessarily change because of it), and recognizing that maybe there are no words for much of what was going on, and because it was a different time (and only nascently feminist) place, and because Smith and Mapplethorpe were making up their own rules as they went along.

Smith has an appealing sense of humor and self-deprecation. One of the best anecdotes in the book is about how Allen Ginsberg once hit on Smith, thinking she was a particularly good-looking boy. I would recommend the book for anyone interested in the New York art scene of the late 60s and early 70s--plus the photos alone are worth the price of the book. My book group discussion about the book was pretty wide-ranging--we touched on misogyny in the art world, feminism, the spectrum of sexuality, poetry and rock and roll, the allure of Paris, obsessiveness about Baudelaire--so even though there was disagreement about the book, it sparked some interesting talk.

We agreed to read a novel next time, and we picked Chang-rae Lee's new book, The Surrendered. One of my good friends really loved Lee's A Gesture Life, so I got hold of a copy of that, too, and I hope to read both before our next meeting.

Lee is one of those novelists that has popped up out of nowhere for me. I'd love to hear what you all think of Lee, if you've read him...

9 comments:

Bybee said...

I read Native Speaker -- the parts in which the main character talks about his Korean heritage, background culture are brilliant and the details about his job are just so-so. A mixed bag...but I'm eager to read The Surrendered.

Gentle Reader said...

Bybee--I've started The Surrendered, and so far the details about the Korean War are horrific, but the story is definitely pulling me in...

bermudaonion said...

Hmm, the book sounds interesting, but I think I'd want all the juicy details. I understand her wanting to respect someone else, but why write a book if you're not going to tell the whole story?

Eva said...

I can't wait to see your thoughts on The Surrendered! It's on my TBR list, and I'm wondering if I should bump it up to the TBR 2010 list.

Dorothy W. said...

That sounds like a fascinating book and discussion! I've listened to and read a couple Lee novels, and I've enjoyed them. I wouldn't say they are great, great books, but they are solid novels with interesting ideas.

Gentle Reader said...

Bermudaonion--that's exactly what my book group wanted to know, and what made it sort of a strange read--lots of atmosphere, not enough details!

Eva--So far, The Surrendered is a page-turner. But so, so sad!

Dorothy--It was a really interesting discussion this time. And re: The Surrendered, I'm enjoying Lee's style, and really wondering where the plot of the novel is going to go!

Kathleen said...

It's hard for me to not want all the great gossip and lurid details when I read a book like this. But if I approach the book knowing that she handles certain areas with kid gloves I think I would still be able to enjoy it.

litlove said...

There seems to be a trend at the moment for unreflexive memoirs, a series of this happened and then this happened, full of gaps that are left unexplained. I'm not too sure about it myself. In fiction it can work because the author can ensure that all those pieces come together coherently. But with real life you end up with the half-story that was all you ever had anyway! So you've got to be a wonderful writer to pull it off. Still, this sounds like it was set in a very interesting period, and I'm glad you got a good discussion out of it! (never even heard of Lee, so will look forward to your review in due course).

Booksnyc said...

I heard Patti Smith interviewed on NYT book review podcast and was impressed with the story she had to tell - she seemed very introspective and not just recounting a series of facts. Disappointing, however, that she was guarded in what she shared.

I have read Native Speaker and A Gesture Life by Lee and really liked both - they both have themes if immigrant life/first generation which I like. I am interested in what you think of The Surrendered