” Yet still I keep thinking that something wonderful is about to happen. Maybe tomorrow” A Patti Smith Reader

71fsooy68nl._ac_ul320_I first “met” Patti Smith in her memoir M Train. I forget what drew me to the book initially, since I wasn’t a fan of Smith’s music particularly, but it appealed to me. In it, Smith travels from Mexico to Iceland to her New York City home. She meditates on the writers craft and the process of artistic creation. She visits the graves of Genet, Plath, Rimbaud, and Mishima. She remembers her late husband, Fred, and when her children were young. Past and present weave together a bit in Smith’s kaleidoscopic vision. We’re left with an appreciation for her loves, which range from coffee, to detective TV series, to the bungalow she acquires in Far Rockaway, just prior to Hurricane Sandy (which hit the Rockaways hard). It’s a quiet feeling book, illustrated with Smith’s Polaroid photography. I didn’t know much about Smith before reading it. I was vaguely aware that she was a musician but I’d never sought out her work, but I loved the book and I wanted to read more.

41fcz0g6yal._ac_ul320_I next read her National Book Award winning first memoir, Just Kids. This book documents her close relationship with photographer Robert Maplethorpe. It follows their youth at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City in the late 60’s and 70’s and how they wound up at the center of New York’s art and music scene. It was more linear than M Train, and  I didn’t love it. I think one problem for me was  the  fact that it was more focused on Smith’s youth. I first encountered a middle aged Patti Smith in M Train, so I felt like this was going backwards in a way. I appreciated some of the wisdom that she’d acquired over the years, and I didn’t have the sense of it in this book. Which makes sense, and is appropriate for what the book is. But it wasn’t what appealed to me.

91lfspbeeel._ac_ul320_So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up her latest book, Year of the Monkey. Set in 2016, this memoir skirts the boundary between dream and reality. It opens following a series of New Year’s concerts that Smith gave at the San Francisco’s Fillmore. She begins what amounts to a year of solitary wandering, first heading down the coast of Santa Cruz and then to the Arizona desert, her New York City home and a Kentucky farm.  In that sense it’s more of an “American” odyssey, while M Train was perhaps more global. Her companions are some imaginary(?) friends and beloved books. The year is a difficult one for Smith, who loses a dear friend, and sees another through a terminal illness. For many Americans, the election of 2016 was devastating, and for Smith it was no different. It brings forward all of her feelings of loss, grief and despair. What she’s left with, when it’s all over, is the strength that got her through a lifetime (2016 was the year Smith turned 70) and her hope for a better future.

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Polaroid photo by Patti Smith, from the exhibition “Land 250” at Fondation Cartier pour lart contemporain, Paris, March 28 June 22, 2008 © Patti Smith © Fondation Cartier pour lart contemporain

In terms of the spectrum of my opinion on Smith’s work, I didn’t love this as much as M Train, but I liked it a lot more than Just Kids. In some ways it’s her wisest book yet, but also her least linear. It wanders back and forth between dream, reality, and imagination. It’s not a book that I’d recommend to readers who want a clear focus, but for me, that murkiness seems to be where Smith shines. It also resonated for me on a personal level. 2016 was an incredibly difficult, painful year for me. So I can relate to Smith’s feelings of loss and pain. I too felt like that year was a perverse cosmic joke that never landed.

But I’m writing this now. 2020 has been another difficult year. I’m not sure what to do with the sense of cautious, world weary optimism with which Smith ends the book. I want to believe in a better future. But right now I feel as if we’re in the middle of another cruel practical joke that someone is playing on global level. It makes me wonder if, in another few years, we’ll get another Patti Smith memoir about this year.

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Installation view of some Polaroid photos by Patti Smith, from the exhibition “Land 250” at Fondation Cartier pour lart contemporain, Paris, March 28 June 22, 2008 © Patti Smith © Fondation Cartier pour lart contemporain

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Didn’t Like But Am Glad I Read

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

May 15: Books I Disliked/Hated but Am Really Glad I Read (maybe just for bragging rights)

51j4urrkj3l-_ac_us218_1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy– I read this my freshman year of college. I wanted to like it, but after 1000 pages of characters and battles that I didn’t care about, I couldn’t. I just felt no emotional investment in anything that happened in it.  I’m glad I read it though, even if only to say that I did!

 

 

51juyqutpyl-_ac_us218_2. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy– I read this book several years after reading War and Peace, and I didn’t like it much better. I did have some interest in the Anna/Vronsky story as well as the Kitty/Levin story, but reading a few hundred pages about Russian agriculture was enough to kill that interest. One of my professors in college said that “Tolstoy was a great writer who needed a great  editor.” Perhaps I’d enjoy him more as a writer if he’d had one.

 

4113v6q36il-_ac_us218_3. Twilight by Stephanie Meyer– The first time I read this I enjoyed it somewhat. Then I started to think about some of the troubling aspects of the central relationship. Then I read the sequels and things headed downhill at an increasing speed… But I’m glad I read it because it’s spawned so many imitations and prompted some interesting conversations.

 

519tffz6szl-_ac_us218_4. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke– I actually didn’t “dislike” this book. I love the idea of writing a novel as an academic study of magic. I liked a lot of the humor in this and thought it was very clever. The problem is that I wasn’t able to invest anywhere emotionally. I didn’t particularly care about either character. That made the undeniably clever writing fall flat. I’m glad I read it for the elements that I did like, but I wish I’d enjoyed it more.

 

41ntp6atgkl-_ac_us218_5. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson– This is a book that I really wanted to like. I thought I would like it prior to reading it. Actually, I did enjoy the first 1/3. But then it started getting very repetitive. Every time I felt like we were making some progress, we’d be sent back to the beginning again. Yes, I understand that was the premise. But for me, it worked better as a premise than in practice. I’m still glad I read it because it’s allowed me to participate in some really interesting discussions, with people who did like it as well as people who didn’t.

51-obg7xgml-_ac_us218_6. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand– I actually don’t remember too much about the actual plot, but philosophically it didn’t appeal to me at all. It could have been subtitled “why it’s really a good thing to be selfish.” Here’s the thing; I don’t believe that it is good. I know a lot of people find the book inspiring and think that it encourages them to take personal responsibility to lift themselves up by the bootstraps, and all that. But in order to do that, you need boots, to begin with. I’m glad I read it because it shows another point of view and a way of perceiving the world that’s different from my own. But I didn’t enjoy it or agree with it.

51gkxhz8wgl-_ac_us218_7. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff… and It’s All Small Stuff by Richard Carlson– Here’s the thing. It’s not all small stuff. Some stuff is big and important. Stressing about it won’t necessarily help anything, but sometimes it’s a part of being involved in the world around you. As you may be able to tell, I have a tendency to stress. A lot. Which is why I read this book.  I don’t want to say it wasn’t worthwhile because it did put some things in perspective, I did notice a few things that weren’t worth the time and attention I was giving them and it helped me notice some bad habits that make my life a bit harder. But, for me, stress is a byproduct of caring. I don’t want to stop caring about the important things.

51pgysvdoel-_ac_us218_8. Blood Meridian: or The Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy– I read this in a college class called “Innovative Contemporary Fiction.” It stood out as the only book in the class that I really disliked. Maybe part of my distaste for it stems from the fact that I’m not a fan of the western genre in general. McCarthy is an undeniably talented writer, but the book featured a lot of repetitive violence that is essentially pointless. We don’t care about the people on whom the violence is inflicted, nor is there any emotional connection to those inflicting it, so essentially it’s rendered meaningless. I appreciated the accomplishment of McCarthy’s prose, and for that reason, I’m glad I read it in an academic setting because we were able to really delve into that. But it’s not a book I liked.

41fcz0g6yal-_ac_us218_9. Just Kids by Patti Smith– I first discovered Patti Smith as a writer rather than a musician, which I think is how many readers know her initially. I read her book M Train, which I felt was beautiful, sad, and triumphant, in a quiet, thoughtful way. I was really eager to read her National Book Award-winning bestseller, Just Kids.  Maybe the hype made it too hard for the book to live up to it. Maybe, because I read M Train, a memoir of Smith’s middle-aged years onward, going back to her youth in this book felt regressive. I don’t know. I did like parts of it, such as the depiction of the downtown NYC art scene in the late 1960’s, but on the whole, it didn’t resonate with me. I’m glad that I did read it because it allowed me to put the Smith depicted in M Train in a more complete context, but I wouldn’t call it a “must read.”

41ttg75bcil-_ac_us160_10. The Bhagavad Gita– The Bhagavad Gita is a 700 verse scripture that is part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata. It consists of a dialogue between the Prince Arjuna and his guide Lord Krishna. It’s influenced thinkers ranging from Gandhi to Thoreau, to Emerson, Jung, and Oppenheimer. I read it as part of my Freshman Seminar in college. I didn’t enjoy reading it. I found it rather repetitive and cumbersome. But so many of my classes in college focused on literature from the Western canon. It was nice to have a class that had a more broad lens.