Sunday, December 26, 2010

Bibliobits: In Which I Read Patti Smith & Continue to Read Dorothy Sayers

Weekend Reading:  Patti Smith's memoir and Dorothy Sayers's Murder Must Advertise.

Patti Smith.  For Christmas my husband gave me Patti Smith's Just Kids, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2010. I was surprised to find this in my stocking, because, though I respect Smith, I am a very casual fan of rock music.  Did this mean I was unqualified to read it?   I rather thought it did.  But I am very much admiring it.  
Smith's vibrant memoir is more than a personal story.  It also chronicles in a general way the generosity, free philosophy, and artistic experiments of hipsters of the alternative culture of the '60s and early '70s.  This is not my generation, but I had mentors of this generation.  Some of my older friends introduced me to Greek poetry, tried to persuade me to read William Burroughs, and wrote poetry themselves.  We were obviously more word-oriented than music-oriented, but we listened to music, too. It was a time when I really thought people of different classes regarded each other as equals.  
Smith concentrates on her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe in the late '60s and early '70s.   She met him serendipitously when she first moved to New York and was crashing at friends' houses, sleeping in the park, and looking for work. The two fell for each other--there's a sort of sweetness and naivete about their young love --and spent evenings drawing, listening to music, and making collages.  She loved to read--he didn't read.  But they pursued their art together and she supported him by working at bookstores because he was so unfit to hold a full-time job.  
Eventually Robert becomes very depressed and remote; Patti leaves him for a while.  He moves to San Francisco  and has affairs with men, then returns to New York and has a boyfriend.  But he and Patti get back together because of their intense understanding of each other.  Patti supplements her income by buying and selling rare books she picks up cheaply.  

I feel akin to her because of her love of books.  Early in the memoir, she sketches her childhood and adolescence in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Jersey. Patti describes her love of reading and her childhood attempt to absorb what her mother, a waitress, loved in books by hiding a copy of Book of Martyrs under her pillow.
"I was completely smitten by the book.  I longed to read them all, and the things of read of produced new yearnings.  Perhaps I might go off to Africa and offer my services to Albert Schweitzer or, decked in my coonskin cap and powder horn, I might defend people like Davy Crockett."
Below is a fascinating video of a conversation at PEN between Patti Smith and my favorite writer, Jonathan Lethem.

Dorothy Sayers.  I finished Dorothy Sayers's Murder Must Advertise, and though it's not quite as good as The Nine Tailors, it is immensely readable and fun:  again, I'm wondering why I don't read more mysteries.  Her witty detective, Peter Wimsey, goes undercover as an advertising copywriter after a murder at the agency.  Blackmail and drugs wait in the wings, and Wimsey writes some humorous ads as he covertly investigates.  It turns out Wimsey is an athlete as well as a brilliant detective.  He's polite, manipulative, and rather cold at times.  Somehow I didn't notice these latter two qualities in the other book.  I intend to read more of these this winter, so I'll have a chance to see how his personality changes from book to book.

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