” 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.


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.


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: Best of the 2010s

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:


December 10: Freebie

It’s a little late, but it’s still Tuesday!

I’ve been seeing a lot of “best of the decade” lists lately, so I figured that this week I’d share my top books of the last ten years.

91dwjhs08ml._ac_uy218_ml3_Room by Emma Donoghue (2010) I think that the first thing that really struck me about this book was the perspective: five year old Jack, a boy who has never left the small room where he and his mother are held captive, makes a unique voice. He doesn’t know anything different so he doesn’t fully understand how messed up his reality is. His mother keeps it that way for his own protection: why tell him about a world he may never see? But when he and his mother escape, his perspective changes. Donoghue’s mastery of Jack’s voice comes across as we begin to understand how Jack’s minuscule reality and limited experience has shaped the way he thinks, and how that grows as Jack’s world expands.

818ezr7u2al._ac_uy218_ml3_The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern(2011) I was actually torn between this book and Morgensern’s 2019 offering The Starless Sea, which I read recently and loved. However I went with this book because I think that it’s more accessible to casual readers than The Starless Sea, which is more dense. I also think that the vivid, descriptive, magical setting of The Night Circus lays a groundwork which The Starless Sea builds upon.  It’s a setting that dominates the plot and characterization.


51avlw-rakl-_ac_us218_Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie (2013) In some ways it feels like this book, about being an African immigrant in America was written 100 years ago. It feels like racial tensions in America in the past decade have erupted in a way that make the Obama era seem like a distant dream. But that’s how it feels to me, as a while, native born citizen. In other words, I’m in a very privileged position in my country in many ways, and therefore I don’t experience it in the same way that someone who has a different position experiences it.  I think that this book made me aware of some of the ways that make privilege impacts my perception of events that might answer the “how did we get here?” question.

81v5wp2zeql._ac_uy218_All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014) This novel set during WWII features two endearing protagonists; a blind French girl who must flee Nazi occupied Paris and a German boy who uses his skills building and fixing radios to help the Nazis find the Resistance. Even though these characters are from different countries and on different sides of the war, their stories are intrinsically interwoven.  When their paths cross it feels almost inevitable.


51vp6vchi4l-_ac_us218_A Little Life by Hanya Yanaghiara (2015)- This is a story of friendship over many years and the families that we create. It’s also a story of trauma and whether recovery is possible. When we meet Jude, he his is a young college grad with several close friends, a good job, and a traumatic past. As we come to know him and his friends, we see him grow into a successful attorney who maintains his friendships and develops new relationships. But he’s still haunted by his past. His struggle to overcome it, and doubts about whether that’s possible, are the bulk of this novel. It’s a struggle that isn’t always pretty. At time’s its downright brutal, but the struggle is still beautiful. The novel itself is long and at times difficult but I think one of the reasons it appeals to me is that it recalls a 19th century Bildungsroman.

81vn8opa4zl._ac_uy218_M Train by Patti Smith (2015)- I’ve seen Smith’s other memoir, Just Kids, on many similar lists. But I actually prefer this one. It’s less linear and more internal. We spend time not just in Smith’s life, but also in her dreams.Just Kids is a memoir of Smith’s youth in the 60’s and 70’s. M Train is a memoir of her life over the past decade or so. While Just Kids gives background that’s important to understanding the woman in M Train, I feel that this is the more mature work.


81tljs7lr7l._ac_uy218_ml3_Circe by Madeline Miller (2018)- I was actually torn between this and Miller’s other book Song of Achilles for this list, because they’re both beautiful works. But I went with this one because it feels somehow larger. Not larger as a physical book (they’re about the same size) but as a story and as a depiction of Miller’s world. But I highly recommend both books.



81xr45udqkl._ac_uy218_ml3_Educated by Tara Westover (2018)- Tara Westover was the daughter of mentally ill survivalists who was homeschooled (a process which ended once she learned to read and write) and later pushed herself to get into Brigham Young University, Harvard, and Cambridge. But her educational success doesn’t give her what she needs to understand her upbringing. Even after she earns her PHD, her understanding of her abusive childhood depended on learning to trust herself and her memory. I appreciated the fact that this book complicated the notion of “hard work = success”. Westover depicts success, and education, as a process rather than a fait accompli.

513xypka1bl-_ac_us218_Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield (2018) I was really excited to read this because I loved Setterfield’s previous novel The Thirteenth Tale. This was one of the rare highly anticipated novels that lives up to expectations. I think one of the reasons that it works for me is that it doesn’t try to give easy answers. It opens with a mystery and offers several possible conclusions but doesn’t tie itself down to any of them.