JUST KIDS by Patti Smith

Well folks, I am finally back from a long December hiatus. Working retail during the holidays is no joke! I’m sorry I didn’t have as much time to devote to this blog. Hopefully I will be back on track as my schedule settles back down. Thank you for your patience and understanding.

One of the reasons why I love the holiday season so much is that it gives me a chance to reflect on the people in my life that are important to me. In that spirit, it seems fitting to have read Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids. “Memoir” is the best name for this book, but it also acts as tribute and elegy to Smith’s lifelong friend, artist Robert Mapplethorpe. As someone who hopes to make a professional creative career, I also felt like I was reading a bit of a guidebook, though that doesn’t seem to be its intention. Rather, it seems that Smith cannot adequately write about her life with Robert without writing about her life as an artist, poet, and musician; the two are inseparably linked. In this way, the book feels as intimate as it does grand, demonstrating the effect that one friendship can have on a life and, in turn, on a culture. It’s a beautiful, moving, and important book.

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Smith’s prose is, of course, beautiful, and it’s also so smart. She is able to write about abstract concepts, philosophy, and spirituality in a way that feels accessible and grounded, but not too easy. This is the sort of book that feels as though it’s being told to you by the writer; it feels like an intimate look into her memories and thoughts, as though you are in conversation. I particularly admired the presence of religion, and even God, woven throughout this book. Both concepts are difficult to tackle, but Smith’s approach feels so genuine. They are a part of the book in a direct and organic way, as they seem to be a part of her work and life. (Because of this theme, I also learned that Smith is, like me, a Joan of Arc fan. As if I didn’t think she was cool enough.)

Of course, it was also wonderful to witness the world that Smith inhabited. An almost overwhelming number of rock stars, artists, and poets make appearances in this book. While these relationships help to show the climate that fostered Smith, her relationship to Robert never gets lost. Through it all, it remains clear that this relationship was essential to Smith’s growth as an artist and a person, making this book a touching tribute to Robert as well as a meditation on the value of deep friendships.

One thing I will say about this book is that it took me a while to read. It is not a “page-turner” as classically understood, and I think that’s because it’s, well, a life. It doesn’t feel right to rush through it. This is a book about ordinary beauty, the everyday pieces of our lives that, ultimately, are what define our lives. There is not a rush to a grand epiphany in this story, but rather a slow, compassionate building of a life in tandem with someone else. It made me want to take the book more slowly, and it was well worth the time.

AFFINITY by Sarah Waters

Halloween may be over, but the cold weather still inspires plenty of clich├ęs about cozy-ing up and reading a spooky story. One of our most beloved Christmas stories (Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”) is a ghost story, after all. Plus, I was a little late on finishing up my Halloween reading. So, justifications duly stammered, let’s talk about Affinity by Sarah Waters.

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Sarah Waters is an author I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. Her reputation as someone who takes tried-and-true Victorian settings and themes and centers them around same-sex female relationships was immediately appealing. She is probably most famous for Tipping the Velvet, a historical novel set in a Victorian circus. I can see how that phrase sounds delicious, but I’ll admit, the circus motif has never really done much for me. A creepy story about a spiritualist, set in a creepy prison, sounded more in my wheelhouse.

This story is told from the perspective of Margaret Prior, set up as the pages of her own diary. After her father’s death, her mental health took a steep and frightening dip, and as part of her recovery, she wants to focus her attention elsewhere. She decides to become a visitor for the women’s prison Millbank, where it will be her duty to talk with the inmates housed there, coaxing them into rehabilitation. She becomes interested in the prisoner Selina Dawes, a medium who seems to be capable of strange things. The reader also gets fleeting glimpses into Selina’s old journal entries, all from before the incident that sent her to Millbank. Margaret becomes determined to learn more about Selina, and as she does, she finds her interest turning into attraction. Selina becomes interested in Margaret as well, and seems to know her deepest, most intimate secrets, making Margaret wonder if the spirits Selina claims to commune with could be real.

The characters in this story were the most compelling aspect. Margaret is a wonderful narrator, and her relationship to her brother’s wife (her own ex-lover) is heartbreaking. I try not to get too attached to characters in fiction (very few stories are written about a good day), but I couldn’t help but root for Margaret throughout. This factor made the ending of the story a bit sour for me. I won’t spoil it here, but I really wanted more for this character. At the same time, as a reader, I experienced the epiphanies and heartbreak right in step with her, making it a well-crafted ending. In my selfish heart, though, I wanted the dull, uninteresting, happy ending, just this once.

The setting of this book is also engaging. I love reading about historical periods that I haven’t learned much about, and other than the Civil War, I have to admit that the 1800s is a bit of a hazy, swirling mass to me (it seemed that all my history classes either didn’t quite make it past the Revolutionary War or started with the Great Depression). I enjoyed this setting, particularly the focus on spiritualism. It was really interesting reading this book after having read Mary Roach’s Spook and learning about the tricks of the trade. This book handles this subject well, as skeptics and believers alike can be carried through the plot; the text leaves the more supernatural elements a little up to interpretation, which adds to the overall mystery.

All in all, this was an enjoyable novel, one that felt classic and contemporary at the same time. I have a feeling that it won’t end up being my favorite Sarah Waters novel, but it did leave me wanting to read more of her oeuvre to find out.