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Posts tagged ‘new memoir’

Just Kids, by Patti Smith

88738769.JPGPoet and singer/songwriter Patti Smith won the National Book Award for nonfiction with this memoir of her life with artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Seen through the filter of a few decades, and the loss of Mapplethorpe to AIDS in 1989, it’s an almost unbelievable story of two artists in their early twenties finding their way in New York City in the late 60s. They met by chance, and formed a bond that would take them from penniless obscurity to recognition as artists, on their own terms. Along the way, they lived in the infamous Chelsea Hotel, and had contact with virtually every counterculture artistic figure of the era.

Smith and Mapplethorpe, in their early years, lived their own version of La Boheme, with him as the more delicate of the two. There was a thread of romantic love that ran through their relationship till the end, even though, for much of their life together, he was in the process of discovering his attraction to men. As I read the book, I was conscious that Smith had had a few decades to gain perspective and make peace with what must have been a very difficult transition for both of them. Their deep friendship and support for each other’s artistic endeavors survived beyond the challenges of their lives, and even beyond Mapplethorpe’s early death.

This is a fascinating read for anyone with an interest in either Smith or Mapplethorpe as an artist, 60s counterculture in general, or New York as a breeding ground for fame and art.

Here’s a 5-minute YouTube video that includes Smith performing and interviews with both Smith and Mapplethorpe.

Another Virus, Another Three Books

Nothing like a debilitating head cold to send you diving into some fiction. Luckily I had lots around the house when the latest snot tsunami hit.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

40767382.JPGThis one had been languishing on my bookshelf at home, being edged out by books with due dates on them. It tells the story of Eilis, a young woman who immigrates from Ireland to the US in the 1950s. Just as she’s establishing herself there, she is called home for family reasons. I’ll confess that Eilis was such a leaf in the wind that sometimes I wanted to give her a good shake. She ends up having to choose between two very different lives, and to my great relief,colm-t-ib-n-006.jpg she finally did choose. Seeing her tottering back and forth indecisively kept me turning pages, but also irritated me. I suppose a good Irish Catholic girl in the 50s could have been that passive, but it made the last parts of the book a tough go for me.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

48551682.JPGThis has been on my “want to read” list for months, and I was glad to be able to read it almost in one sitting (or in my ailing case, one lying). It jumps around between various time periods and characters, and I can see how a reader might lose the thread if he or she were reading it a bit at a time. The main characters are a record executive (and former punk rocker) and his kleptomaniac assistant. We meet them in the present, but also go back to their youth, and even briefly into the future to meet their children. Along the way, other characters appear (and in some cases reappear), and weave in and out of the main story. As it turns out, Egan first wrote much of the book as separate stories. She goes intojennifer-egan.jpg detail in a series of podcasts on this page at Amazon.

Some customer reviewers criticized the characters as unlikable and the narrative as gimmicky, but I didn’t agree (with the possible exception of one of the final chapters, which is in faux PowerPoint). I found the book affecting, sometimes very funny, and creatively and uniquely structured.

Half a Life by Darin Strauss

young-strauss.jpgThis memoir, barely 200 pages long, centers around an early, life-altering event in novelist Strauss’s life. While a newly-licensed driver in high school, he struck and killed a girl on a bicycle. She was a classmate and acquaintance, but not a close friend (unlike Laura Bush’s similar tragedy, detailed here).
Strauss is unrelentingly hard on himself, questioning every facet of his behavior after the accident. He alternately accusesstrauss-present.png himself of over-dramatizing, of avoiding the issue. He vividly describes his emotional life and how it was complicated by this accident for years afterwards. Every time he started dating someone, the questions began. Do I tell her? When do I tell her, and how? How will she react? For a book that’s almost wholly about the life inside his head, once the facts of the original accident are told, it’s completely compelling. I’ll be watching for Strauss’s next novel. Here’s an joint Newsweek interview with Bill Clegg (literary agent and author of an addiction memoir) on the complications of writing about your own life.

author photos, from top:

Murdo Macleod
Pieter M. Van Hatttem/Vistalux
courtesy Darin Strauss
Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

Eat, Pray, Love

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is still on my “to read” list, though I’ve read and enjoyed her fiction (Stern Men, from 2001). I’d better get to it soon — the movie, starring Julia Roberts, is coming out in August. Here’s the trailer:

Michael Chabon: Manhood for Amateurs

39206346.JPGThis is Michael Chabon’s first book of nonfiction. In subjects ranging from his bond with his brother to his search for a “murse” (male purse) to why he loves Jose Canseco, Chabon gives us a detailed glimpse into his sometimes-deep, sometimes-shallow, but always engaging mind. I have absolutely no interest in any aspect of baseball, but I found myself skimming the Canseco essay anyway, a victim of what I’ve come to think of as New Yorker Syndrome: the writing is so good that I find myself reading it regardless of the subject matter.

The tone of the essays in this book varies wildly: in some he goes deep into the details of a passion of his — say, Legos — but in michael-chabon-1008-lg.jpgothers, he’s dealing in emotional bonds and the connection he feels with his parents, now that he has children of his own. The essays on his wife, writer Ayelet Waldman, are particularly touching. Here’s a sample:

Not very long afterward, in an ongoing act of surrender to the world beyond my window, with no possibility of knowing what joy or disaster might result, I married her. And since that afternoon in Berkeley, California, standing along the deepest seam of the Hayward Fault — no, since our first date — this woman has dragged nudged, coaxed, led, stirred, embroiled, mocked, seduced, finagled, or carried me into every last instance of delight or sorrow, every debacle, every success, every brilliant call, and every terrible mistake, that I have known or made. I’m grateful for that, because if it were not for her, I would never go anywhere, never see anything, never meet anyone. It’s too much bother. It’s dangerous, hard work, or expensive. I lost my ticket. I kind of have a headache. They don’t speak English there, it’s too far away, they’re closed for the day, they’re full, they said we can’t, it’s too much bother with children along.

She will have none of that. She is quick, mercurial, intemperate. She has a big mouth, a rash heart, a generous nature (always a liability, in my view), and if my way is always to opt out, to sit in the window seat with a book in my lap, pressing my face against the pane, then her great weakness, indistinguishable from her great strength, is a fatal, manic aptitude for saying yes. She gets herself, and us, and me, into trouble: into noble causes and silly disputes, into pregnancies and terminations, into journeys and strange hotel beds and awkward situations, into putting my money where my mouth is and my name on fund-raising pitch letters for the things that I believe in but otherwise, I don’t know, haven’t gotten around to yet. She is the curse and the wolfman charm in my blood, calling me to shed my flannel shirt and my pressed pants with their sensible belt and lope on all fours into the forest.

author photo: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Me Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood

34395646.JPGIt didn’t make the shortlist, but Me Cheeta made quite a stir when it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction earlier this year. Speculation swirled about the book’s ghostwriter (Will Self? Martin Amis?), but it turned out to be James Lever, who had never had a novel published before.

Ben Hoyle, writing for the Times Online, says “According to Ion Trewin, the literary director of the prize, the judges loved it so much that they took time out of their nomination meeting to read favourite lines to each other.” I found myself doing the same thing; there are passages that are scathingly hilarious, especially when you picture them coming out of the rubbery lips of a heavy-drinking, chain-smoking, knuckle-walking chimp. Lever has created a complex voice for Cheeta: at once sardonic, world-weary, and falsely modest as only a Hollywood star can be. He loves his co-star, Johnny Weissmuller, and ruefully describes Johnny’s matrimonial misadventures with the indulgent voice of a wiser big brother. His long-simmering feud with Maureen O’Sullivan and the jealous disdain he feels for Johnny’s other female co-stars make for some of the funniest lines. Here, he describes an arrangement where MGM loans Johnny out at $5000 a week to Billy Rose of the Aquacade:

So twice a day, seven days a week, four hundred miles away, amid forty-foot fountains and cascading “aqua-curtains,” he and seventy-two Aquabelles, the fifty-strong Fred Waring Glee Club Chorus, various Olympians, comedy divers, English Channel-swimmers, breath-holders and that inexcusable slanderess and ingrate Esther Williams, the “Million-dollar Mermaid” (or the “Two-bit Dugong,” as I know her) all dedicated themselves to the praise of water…

But he doesn’t limit his disdain to females. Here Cheeta cuts loose on men, after describing a prank where (using hidden dwarfs operating the gas and brake pedals) Weissmuller and David Niven pretend to be driven around by Cheeta in Marlene Dietrich’s boat-like car, just to impress some girls from Hollywood High:

In fact, unless I specifically inform you otherwise, every single action performed by an adult human male in this memoir can be thought of as an attempt to attract the attention of some sexually receptive females. “Impressing the ladies is an arduous task,” as the narrator’s always saying on Animal Planet, with that little chuckle I’ve come to dread when sex turns up. “Perhaps no creature has a more elaborate courtship display than the bower bird.” No creature? That’s a joke, right? You can’t think of one? Clue: as part of its elaborate courtship displays this species has invented telephones, moving pictures, cars, music, money, organized warfare, tiger-skin rugs, alcohol, mood lighting, speedboats, mink coats, cities and poetry. So, please, no sniggering at the bower birds’ attempts to get laid.

Hidden in the knuckle-walking and excrement-throwing, though, is a message on the troubled relationship between apes and humans, and between humans and animals in general. Throughout the book, Cheeta refers to an organization called “No Reel Apes,” which does really exist. Read what Jane Goodall has to say about it here.

As it turned out, the 76-year-old chimp living in retirement who was thought to be Cheeta turned out to be a fraud: he was born after the Weissmuller films were made. So the whole premise that caused a publisher to suggest that Lever write this book was a false one. I’m glad the error wasn’t discovered before he finished this hilarious and yet strangely moving book.

I’m Down: a Memoir

39027249.JPGI got sucked in by the cover and the concept on this one. Plus, it seemed like a perfect counterpart to Sag Harbor, which featured a black teenager who lived in a mostly white world during the school year. From the jacket flap:

Mishna Wolff grew up in a poor black neighborhood with her single father, a white man who truly believed he was black. “He strutted around with a short perm, a Cosby-esque sweater, gold chins, and a Kangol — telling jokes like Redd Foxx and giving advice like Jesse Jackson. You couldn’t tell my father he was white. Believe me, I tried,” writes Wolff. And so from early childhood on, her father began his crusade to make his white daughter down.

The book has plenty of the fish-out-of-water humor that the cover promises — watch an Amazon video of Wolff reading from a chapter called “I’m in a Cappin’ Mood” here. (Wolff’s bio on Barnes & Noble’s website describes her as a comedian, and this video is no dry author reading. It’s more like a standup routine).

mishna_wolff.jpg But the book also delivers on a deeper level. Although we never learn how Mishna’s dad got the way he is, we experience her own discomfort vividly. Mishna eventually gets to attend a rich white school, where she feels every bit as out of sync as she does trying to be “down” with the black kids. She wants to study violin, but only by telling her father all the tenor saxes were taken is she allowed to do so. He pressures her to participate in sports, and she eventually does well at basketball and swimming, but it’s almost over his objections that she accomplishes anything academically. It’s only by moving in with her mother (who previously only had her on weekends) that she’s given the space and support to get anywhere with her classes. Her dad ignores her pleas to be left alone to do her homework. The phone call Mishna makes to tell her dad she won’t be coming back is heartbreaking, and is one call we feel her mother should make for her. There’s really a sense that he has run roughshod over the whole family, that the only way out from under his will, even for Mishna’s mom, is to leave. And if that’s difficult and sad for a teenager to accomplish, it’s tragic for her father to live with, even if he earned it.

author photo: Don Sercer

Just out of the Box

Hard to keep up with the new stuff coming in lately. Here’s a sampling:

27678235.JPG gershow190.jpg“Going missing was the only interesting thing my brother had ever done.” Smart and nerdy, 16-year-old Lydia Pasternak is overshadowed by her popular jock brother even before her brother disappears and her family threatens to disintegrate. Described as gripping and funny, The Local News explores the complicated relationship between a sister and brother, as well as the nightmare of high school as a misfit.

34364394.JPGpearl190.jpgStarting with a search for his final manuscript in the days following his sudden death, The Last Dickens turns into a murder mystery when the clerk sent to collect the manuscript turns up dead.

35787726.JPG kaku190.jpgA British author and former columnist, Heller is mainly mainly known in the States for writing the Man Booker Prize winner Notes on a Scandal, which became the acclaimed film starring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench. The Believers is told from multiple viewpoints within a family; all of the characters experience some sort of crisis of faith. The Barnes & Noble review says Heller “explores big ideas with a light touch, delivering a tragic, comic family story as unsparing as it is filled with compassion.”

25427735.JPG78956_jones_sadie.gifSet in 1950s England, this first novel centers on a teenaged boy who was, at age 10, the only witness to his mother’s death. This trauma starts his slide downhill, which includes a stretch in prison, and the novel follows his struggle to fit back into society. The Outcast was shortlisted for last year’s Orange Prize, and is a nominee for this year’s LA Times Book Prize.

33092114.JPGcraig-mullaney-190.jpgThe Unforgiving Minute is a memoir by West Point grad, Rhodes scholar, and Army Ranger Craig Mullaney, who served in Afghanistan. Currently he teaches history to future Navy and Marine officers at the Naval Academy. Janet Maslin of the New York Times calls it a “…brisk, candid memoir…the inner journey of a man who is at first eager to learn as much as he can from service and scholarship. Later on he learns from his mistakes.” Click here to watch Jon Stewart interview him on the Daily Show.

author photos, from top:
George Filgate
Sigrid Estrada
Patricia Wall/The New York Times
Charles Hopkinson
Gay Reboli