Just Kids & M Train

 

IMG_3060by Patti Smith

“Much has been said about Robert, and more will be added. He will be condemned and adored. His excesses damned or romanticized. In the end, truth will be found in his work, the corporeal body of the artist. It will not fall away.”

Just Kids

I read “Just Kids” while on holiday in New York City recently.

The book was a promise to her sometime lover Robert Mapplethorpe, with whom Smith had an intense relationship as a young girl, which continued in a different form as he became aware of and confident in his homosexuality.

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Above: Robert Mapplethorpe

Both Smith and Mapplethorpe came to New York in 1967 as teenagers where they met and became part of the avant garde in that city. They both came from Roman Catholic families, the beliefs of which they would both renounce, and yet incorporate into their work. They were both incurable romantics, and as time went on and their career paths and life choices became clear and separate, they still remained great friends. Smith became famous for her blending of rock music and poetry, while Mapplethorpe became a photographer, at times controversial for his graphic homosexual images. He was part of the generation greatly affected by AIDS and died of the disease in 1989. Smith fell in love with a Detroit musician, married him and had children, but never abandoned her belief in Mapplethorpe’s genius. I enjoyed reading about a world that is both fascinating and foreign, with various cameo appearances by people like the playwright, Sam Shepard and other people in the punk rock and art scenes.

The book really  is an elegy to youth, young love and New York the city, and its bohemian elements and quirky elements in the 1960’s and 70’s.

4 🌟

M Train

This second book, only written by Smith two years ago is about the other end of the spectrum; it’s about old age, the need to keep creating to keep death at bay, and about loss of a life partner.

The book takes the reader on an odyssey, as Smith travels to different parts of the world, yet always comes back to the same Greenwich Village cafe. In some ways the book is about nothing, something Smith acknowledges:

“It’s not easy to write about nothing. That’s what a cowpoke was saying as I entered the frame of a dream.  ____ But we keep going, he continued, fostering all kinds of crazy hopes. To redeem the lost, some sliver of personal revelation. It’s an addiction, like playing the slots, or a game of golf.”

Much of it however is an ode to the irreparable loss of her husband, musician Fred Sonic Smith, who died only in his forties from heart failure. His image and memories of him crop up constantly in whatever Smith is writing about. Parts of this book are very sad, but ultimately art and its making is her saviour and what enables her to keep going.

She writes of crying during a plane trip:

“I watched the movie Master and Commander. Captain Jack Aubrey reminded me so much of Fred that I watched it twice. Midflight I began to weep. Just come back. I will stop traveling; I will wash your clothes. Mercifully, I fell asleep, and when I woke snow was falling over Tokyo.”

Smith travels to many unusual places, and in all of them she writes of cafes visited, in Mexico, Berlin and Japan, as well as graves she visits of writers that have been an influence on her. Her travels seem to be treks or pilgrimages to express gratitude to such creatives that have influenced her -Plath, Genet, Kahlo.

With certain passages Smith hits the nail on the head with her writing, in others she goes off on esoteric tangents. But at her best, her writing is very powerful and poignant.

” We want things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. Pease stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow.”

After her husband’s death, she writes of “performing small tasks with the mute concentration of one imprisoned in ice.”

Later she writes of what she believes in:

” I believe in movement. I believe in that lighthearted balloon, the world. But what else do I believe in? Sometimes everything. Sometimes nothing. It fluctuates like light flitting over a pond. I believe in life, which one day each of us shall lose. When we are young we think we won’t, that we are different. When I was child, I thought I would never grow up, that I would will it so. And then I realised, quite recently that I had crossed some line. How did we get so damn old? I say to my joints, my iron coloured hair.”

I enjoyed this book, but it’s probably not for everyone, as it’s slow paced and often sad.

3 🌟

 

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Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters

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by Laura Thompson

This family couldn’t be made up. No one would believe it. The family line went all the way back to the Norman Conquest of England, and every member had a diamond hard unshakeable confidence that whatever they decided to do was not only appropriate but did not need to be explained or excused to anyone.

The six sisters and one brother were born into upper class, country house privilege and were prominent as “bright young things” in the high society of 1930s London. Then each sister took a very different path, some of them a very dangerous path.

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Above – left to right: Unity, Tom (their brother), Deborah, Diana, Jessica, Nancy, Pamela

In summary:

Nancy –  became a famous novelist, was a friend of Evelyn Waugh, and spent many years in France after World War 2, following a divorce.

Diana – the most beautiful of the sisters, and adored by many men, married the heir to the Guinness fortune and had a life of immense wealth in Belgravia. She gave all that away as well as  her social standing to have an affair with Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Fascist Party. Later she married him. A Hitler sympathiser, she visited him and other Nazi officials in Germany many times in the 1930s.  Both she and Mosley were interned during the war and were social pariahs after it.

Pamela – probably the most ‘normal’ and also detached of the sisters, she became a solid country woman who bred poultry.

Unity – what a strange girl! She was part of Mosley’s Fascist party, and became totally obsessed by fascism and Hitler himself, basically stalking him until he took notice of her. He liked her and indulged her. It’s hard to understand what her thinking was, it’s tempting to think she was mad as nothing else seems to explain some of her behaviour. When war broke out, she was still in Germany and so upset by the thought of war that she attempted suicide by shooting herself in the head. She survived, Hitler actually allowing her safe passage to neutral Switzerland. She made it back to England, but was never the same again, her health severely affected by a bullet in the brain that could not be removed.

Jessica – married a Communist, and became a fervent one herself, and went to live in America where she became a well regarded journalist and writer. She totally distanced herself from everything her family was and wrote a controversial memoir about them.

Deborah – the youngest, and apparently the most well adjusted, married and became well known as the Duchess of Devonshire for her efforts to save the ancestral home of her husband by opening it to visitors.

This was a very well written and researched book, which was gripping and engaging due to the incredible variety of the sisters’ lives and allegiances. As characters however, they were not likeable all, their arrogance was breathtaking, specially Diana, who insisted on praising Hitler even after the war. A comment she made in response to a critic perhaps sums up the whole family, “Shame is a bourgeois notion”.

A fascinating insight into another world and into a supremely dysfunctional family, not that they would have seen themselves that way.  4 ⭐️

 

 

 

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

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By Susan Cain

“Our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race. And the single most important aspect of personality – ‘the north and south of temperament’,  as one scientist puts it -is where we fall on the introvert/extrovert spectrum.”

This is the book that started a Quiet Revolution. And it was a revolution that needed to happen.

Susan Cain is a passionate and persuasive writer, and her case for the power of introverts is skilfully made with many real life stories. Without introverts we wouldn’t have the Apple computer, Van Gogh’s sunflowers or the theory of relativity.

As an introvert myself, with an introvert daughter, I found this book to be informative and empowering. Extroverts take up an inordinate amount of speaking space in employment, schools and in social life. Introverts have as much to offer, but being quieter it is not always noticed, or they themselves do not promote it.

Introverts often think deeply, but have trouble putting their thoughts into words fluidly and confidently. So inevitably, extroverts are more likely by their confidence to get more attention. This is specially troubling in schools. Cain presents research showing that for many teachers the “ideal student” is an extrovert. This is extraordinary when you think of classic introverts like Einstein, Steve Jobs and George Orwell who ironically enough did not do well at school.

There are many chapters on this and other research that has been done on introversion, and on the excessive rise of the extrovert ideal in modern society.

This book is a must read for introverts and extroverts alike. 5 ⭐️

If interested in this topic, I highly recommend the website: quietrev.com founded by Cain to address issues that prevent introverts from achieving their best both in work and in life. As Cain so poignantly puts it:

“If I had one wish, it would be to reverse the stigma against introversion for children so that the next generation doesn’t grow up with the secret self-loathing that plagues so many introverted grown-ups today. “

If you have read this book, I would love to read your thoughts on it.