Thursday, January 27, 2011

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Just Kids
by Patti Smith

We were walking toward the fountain, the epicenter of activity, when an older couple stopped and openly observed us. Robert enjoyed being noticed, and he affectionately squeezed my hand.

“Oh, take their picture,” said the woman to her bemused husband, “I think they’re artists.”

“Oh, go on,” he shrugged. “They’re just kids.”

What does it mean to have a muse? To be one? As if by divine intervention, artists Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe found each other in New York City, and their relationship produced decades of work. Smith chronicles their journey with grace and wisdom in one of the most affecting memoirs I’ve ever read, Just Kids.

Those less acquainted with Patti Smith might know her only for her music, but even as a girl growing up in Chicago and later, southern New Jersey. She would draw and write poetry, enamored by the words of Robert Louis Stevenson and the art of Diego Rivera. Knowing that she had something to offer the world, she moved to New York in 1967, aged 20.

My small suitcase, yellow-and-red plaid, held some drawing pencils, a notebook, Illuminations, a few pieces of clothing, and pictures of my siblings. I was superstitious. Today was a Monday; I was born on a Monday. It was a good day to arrive in New York City. No one expected me. Everything awaited me.

I don’t want to summarize the whole setup to Robert and Patti meeting, as it involves a certain sort of magic that should be read on its own. Of course, they do eventually meet and almost immediately begin living together and working side by side. Whereas Patti at first created in a quiet and thoughtful way, Robert remained explosive and provocative. He painted and formed collages using images from men’s magazines, made jewelry and wore his clothes as conversation pieces. They encouraged each other and vowed never to separate. As is the case with many young, poor artists, sometimes they would forgo food in order to buy supplies. Patti took to recovering valuable books from bargain bins and sold them for a profit. Eventually, she took a job at Scribner Publishing to help pay the bills.

After a brief time in Brooklyn, they moved into the Chelsea Hotel, using artwork as collateral with the owner until she could get an advance at her job for rent money. Though a room at the hotel was expensive compared to other places, the varied important creative residents of course more than made up for any financial hardship. One of the more interesting things about Just Kids is the sheer number of notable people that Patti and Robert encountered on their journey. Jimi Hendrix, Edie Sedgwick, Diane Arbus, various beat writers — Patti even wrote a song for Janis Joplin. One encounter in the Chelsea lobby that made me laugh though was this:

I stood there holding a stuffed black crow I had bought for next to nothing from the Museum of the American Indian. I think they wanted to get rid of it. I had decided to name it Raymond, after Raymond Roussel, who wrote Locus Solus. I was think what a magical portal this lobby was when the heavy glass door opened as if swept by wind and a familiar figure in a black and scarlet cape entered. It was Salvador Dalí. He looked around the lobby nervously, and then, seeing my crow, smiled. He placed his elegant, bony hand atop my head and said: “You are like a crow, a gothic crow.”

“Well,” I said to Raymond, “just another day at the Chelsea.”

If the late sixties and seventies are not considered this country’s modern renaissance, then I don’t know what other time period could possibly qualify. One cannot accuse her of name-dropping knowing the cultural context in which she and Robert lived. Andy Warhol and John Lennon still lived. Punk and poetry collided. Though they were not easy times, New York City produced some of the best work during those decades, work we still revere today. Through extensive journaling, Patti Smith has been able to recreate the moods, the clothes and the overall environment in such an immersing way. It’s fascinating to read.

Despite all that was going on in the city at that time, it would be foolish to accuse both Patti and Robert of just riding the times, thus giving their work attention. The two worked in the truest sense of the word, evolving and improving alongside each other, even as their romantic relationship dwindled into something more platonic. For years, partially due to his Catholic upbringing, Robert Mapplethorpe struggled with his sexuality. Patti writes with great sensitivity and honesty on the subject, and though one feels her sense of mourning, it’s also clear that she knows their bond will still remain.

I realized that he had tried to renounce his nature, to deny his desires, to make things right for us. For my part, I wondered if I should have been able to dispel these drives. He had been too shy and respectful and afraid to speak of these things, but there was no doubting he still loved me, and I him.

Just Kids is a love story — a love story between people, a love story about art — and a story of sacrifice for what one believes is their destiny. Patti Smith has talked about the pleasure she had writing this book, and how even though she thought she would only write the one, she feels as though she may have another one in her. I hope she does.


Full disclosure: I checked out this book from my local library. Imagine that, I’m not reviewing another book where I have to disclose the publisher who sent it to me. However you obtain your books, be sure to also support your libraries. They are a treasure indeed.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Report by Jessica Francis Kane

The Report
by Jessica Francis Kane

“It’s my practice to always hope people aren’t as bad as the worst thing they do.”

Where lies the line between blame and consequence? Between truth and peace? Jessica Francis Kane’s The Report dives into these questions of magnitude, and despite having no easy answers, the result is quite satisfying.

Centered around Bethnal Green, London, the story concerns one of the greatest civilian tragedies during World War II. One March evening in 1943, 173 people died from asphyxiation in an underground air raid shelter. With no bombs having fallen that night, it becomes magistrate Laurence Dunne’s job to investigate why such a terrible incident occurred. Dunne and his subsequent report existed, and Kane creates remarkable, authentic-feeling characters around the event.

Through the eyes of eight-year-old Tilly Barber and her mother Ada, we see some of what happened in the tube station stairwell. A woman falls, the crowd congests, pressure builds, and Tilly loses her four-year-old sister, Emma.

But something was happening: people were falling onto the last step above the landing, and she felt Emma’s small hand slip. Ada heard her cry, “Mama!” — then she was gone. The stairwell seemed to swallow her; the weight of the falling crowd sucked her in. “My daughter’s in there!” Ada screamed, and she clawed at the people in her way.

While certainly sad and inspiring me to hug my kids extra, Kane does not deliberately manipulate the tear ducts — and I say this as someone who cannot handle books dealing in the mistreatment of children. The writing, as Dunne attempts to do with his report, honors the facts and feelings as the characters know them, but it does not overdramatize. The tragedy and the altered way of life during the war is drama enough. Though the United States, with the assistance of other nations, is currently engaged in war, we do not know the same level of sacrifice our grandparents did. It was, of course, not so long ago that millions were murdered for their differences, and homes blacked out their windows to avoid becoming bomb targets. Kane captures the hope and hopelessness of those times, as well as the annoyance and exhaustion. Mothers distract themselves from worry by sewing, and everyone spends more time down the pub. Even weather reports are banned so as not to give useful information to the enemy, and everyone operates under the anxiety of not knowing what will happen next.

One would not think that the process of a government report would make for riveting reading, and yet here, it is. Dunne’s neutral inquiry allows the interviewees’ views to take precedence. People who have survived a disaster do not always make for reliable witnesses, but their reactions do reveal the content of their character. Suppressed fears and prejudices become more obvious, and the tipping point between outrage and numbness becomes pronounced. There are people who want to place blame and punish their pain away, while others would simply like to forget. Dunne’s report, he discovers, cannot be unsympathetic, but it also cannot cause more unrest. The entire book wrestles with internal crises of this nature.

Being an American and not really being much of a war history buff, I had not heard of the Bethnal Green tragedy before picking up The Report. I’m sure in certain circles, it is a case of “how can you not know?” but I think people often forget the damage England sustained over the course of World War II. For them, the war was not across the ocean. Though I don’t know from personal experience what this experience would have been like, Kane does a great job of immersing one in the smaller details of wartime sacrifice, without making it seem like a dry history lesson. It is a successful book on many levels, and certainly worth a look.


Full disclosure: Graywolf Press sent me this book. I thank them for including me on their list of book blogger contacts, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Linkadoo (Housekeeping) (Where To Find Me)

I've been doing a lot of various website tinkering as of late -- something I don't particularly enjoy doing until I remember that this is a hell of a lot easier compared to the days of Angelfire. That said, I have some links to shamelessly promote to you all:

Habein Studio: The Mothership. The Fathership. The Tyson-and-Sara-Extravaganza-Ship.

Habein Studio is the main site featuring Tyson Habein's photography. If you are in the market for a fine art, editorial or commercial shooter, he's your man. He also does weddings and portraits, should that be your need.

Habein Studio is also the banner under which Electric City Creative and Nouveau Nostalgia reside. When we have a studio/gallery space, Habein Studio will also be its name.

Nouveau Nostalgia is our fun, new endeavor -- a micro-micro-press. It's double the micro because we are tiny so far. We produce one of a kind books for creative types made out of repurposed materials appropriate to the subject matter. Our first publication is a photography book by Tyson himself -- Flawed Machine, printed in an edition of 20. See the site for ordering information.

I also poked at Tyson's blog specifically, which is also accessible through the main site.

And if you need reminding, Electric City Creative is the magazine I (Sara Habein) edit and publish online on a quarterly basis. It covers creative culture in the Great Falls, MT area, though I would love to be able to feature things going on farther away than Helena. In order to do that, I need a staff besides myself and the mister. If you are a writer or photographer interested in a gig for free ad space, let me know. Print editions of the magazine are available through MagCloud.

In other news, I also do a bit of food writing over on Godtopus Eats. Godtopus Eats is an offshoot from Pajiba that covers tasty things people are cooking at home. It's not a fancypants food site, but it certainly has some tasty ideas.

And one more reminder: Cannonball Read III reviews from various readers are rounded up here.

Is that it? I think that's it. It better be it. For now.

Until I finish reading another book...

Friday, January 7, 2011

Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto by Maile Chapman

Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto
by Maile Chapman

How could I resist a title like Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto? I’m a sucker for a good, long title, and with a cover blurb comparing the Maile Chapman to Patricia Highsmith, I knew I had to read it. Trouble is, I over-hyped myself based on the title alone. Perhaps having already been desensitized to Highsmith-esque macabre, the book felt understated by comparison. But though the degree of my appreciation may have faltered, I did enjoy immersing myself in the unfamiliar environment.

Set in Finland during the 1920s, the story follows American nurse Sunny Taylor as she cares for patients on the upper floor of a convalescent home. The home sits in a remote part of the forest, with more serious patients occupying the lower floors. The “up-patients” she cares for, however, are women of means, and women prone to drama and loneliness. The have created their own community, away from the rest of the world, where their every need is met on a routine schedule. They have decided that they’d rather spend life locked away with one another than to deal with the bleakness of the world, and in the process, lose grip on the veracity of their ailments.

“The timber wives are always up-patients. They really don’t need much care.”

That would be fine, she thought. That would be quite tolerable, because even though in her mind’s ear Sunny heard the spoiled advance voices of the timber wives making their frivilous, unnecessary requests — bring me applesauce, rub my feet, where’s my hairbrush, now hold the mirror steady while I fix myself — she knew there would never be a repeat of the crushing responsibilities she’d faced in her off hours during the last several years, at home, with her mother.

Placid and professional, Sunny oversees the addition of a new woman to the home, Julia Dey, an ex-ballroom dancer with a grab-bag of conditions. She’s in chronic pain, and therefore chronically cranky, and it is from there that the subdued atmosphere of the home begins shifting. There is also the arrival of Dr. Peter Weber, who wonders why it is that the women are allowed to occupy valuable bed space. The women are resistant to change, and as the season shifts into the darkness of winter, they have trouble remaining content.

Suvanto is not a fast-paced place, nor is the Finnish forest. Entertainment revolves around walks outside, records, and homemade games, and everything, including the nurse’s intercom system, is done in hushed tones. Sometimes, it was all a bit too quiet and slow for me. I kept waiting for the ominous feelings implied by the jacket copy to fully materialize, but seen primarily through the eyes of Sunny, Suvanto is stuck in the muted fog of depression. For that’s what these women are — some degree of depressed.

But she’d wanted this — wasn’t this what she wanted? Not to be relied upon too acutely? It is uncomfortable to see that this is no better, that, in some ways, this is worse than the way she lived before. Here, without anything truly at risk, she feels like she’s merely pretending, in everything. The work is nearly meaningless, and life is nothing but a search for meaning, yes? Isn’t that right? And if these little purple carbon marks signify nothing more than many, many hours spent indulging the self-absorption of the up-patients, then doesn’t that mean that for as long as she remains here, completing such tasks, she is wasting her energy? Wasting her life?

Still, this is not some standard “Person Dissatisfied with Job” book, nor is it a historical exercise. Chapman creates a singular universe that, apart from modern medical advancements and some mention of the world outside, feels separate from any specific time period. The chill of winter is palpable, and so is the increasing exhaustion. All these women have trouble sleeping and have trouble feeling capable in some aspect of their lives. The women who have become longtime residents have given in to whatever has made them weak and have willfully pushed themselves into true convalescence. When one knows the signs of depression, and the erratic effect it can have on a person’s brain, the book’s underlying themes become that much more apparent. Though these characters are mainly women, this isn’t a story about Women, in the grand sense of things. To say that only women would be prone to self-perpetuating mental and physical decline would be awfully reductive and would ignore any man with depression. Indeed, when one takes a closer look at Dr. Weber, the signs are there too:

This is why, this year, she now recognizes the signs of insomnia in Dr. Peter. She sees the effects of weeks without good sleep slowly building. His face looks as if he’s wiped it on one of the deep blue tissue papers folded between the nurses aprons to keep them sharply white, and the thin skin around his eyes has begun to darken like the shadow of his beard. She recognizes it too in his written orders, increasingly vague, and in his handwriting, which has become, at times, almost unreadable.

“Dr. Peter?” she asks, wanting to venture a suggestion or two, from experience.

But when he looks up, preoccupied, impersonal, waiting, irritated, she says nothing to him. Feels nothing for him.

Yes, some of the insomnia — especially in the newcomers — can be attributed to the shortened daylight hours during wintertime at that latitude, but Chapman’s use of present tense in this novel says a lot. The people are stuck in the thick of what ails them, some unwilling to progress, and the ones that desire change have a hard time seeing the way out.

It’s a well-written book, a well-told book, but also a particular sort of book. With much of the action taken off-stage, it’s certainly unlike any book I’ve read in quite awhile. Is the Highsmith comparison apt? Perhaps. There is no outrage or revulsion when it comes to blood or moral questions, though Chapman is nowhere near as sinister. For a lot of readers, that’s a good thing — and presumably Chapman herself does not have the misanthropic worldview that Highsmith did — but like I said, I might be desensitized at this point. Once you’ve read about a chimp gleefully murdering its home-robbing owner, or a man killing a random passerby to ease the pain of having a mentally challenged son — Well, middle-aged ladies discussing their bowel movements and the threat of cracking ice doesn’t seem so unsettling. Still, I would welcome reading Maile Chapman’s other work. Though Suvanto is a different book, it does not make a big show out of being different. It is what it is, and that, I really respect.


Full disclosure: Graywolf Press sent me this book. I thank them for including me on their list of book blogger contacts, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Cannonball Read III is upon us!

Cannonball Read (The Original), started as a challenge between two Pajibans who were in a race to see who could read 100 books first. Within one year, Brian Prisco, fueled by fist-shaking, and Amanda "AlabamaPink" Amos, fueled by endless doctor waits as a cancer patient, would attempt this feat. She died before the end of the challenge, but Pajiba continues to honor her through Cannonball.

Cannonball II had modified, though still slightly insane parameters. Cannonballers were to read 52 books that were at least 150 pages and to write at least three paragraphs' worth of a review. That's one book a week. 13 people completed the challenge, and three (including myself) received honorable mentions for very nearly making the cut. Pajiba donated $500 to AlabamaPink's son's college fund on behalf of the winners.

In fact, just to be a pain in the ass and in the spirit of Ms. Pink, I'm hereby announcing that for Cannonball Read III (which started January 1st), I'm doing a BAKER'S CANNONBALL. That's right -- 53 books. You watch. I wrote 12,000 words in one day to complete NaNo this year, man. Victory shall be mine.

This year, participants can do a Full Cannonball (52 books), Half (26) or even just 1 book and review per month -- the idea is to get people reading and to honor AlabamaPink. There are over 100 people signed up this year, so we'll see how everyone does. I even badgered my husband and friends Faythe and Alyson into participating with Half Cannonballs. They aren't quite as insane as I am, though Tyson has decided that instead of typical reviews, he'll do photo essay reviews. What can I say, the Mad Ones find each other and fall madly in love...

That said, Cannonball Read III has its own blog now, though reviews will also occasionally go up on Pajiba itself. Participants who elected to contribute to the group blog will post reviews or links to their reviews. You can also follow #CBR3 on Twitter.

Happy Reading.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Book List 2010

Book I Read, 2010:


Mermaids on the Golf Course by Patricia Highsmith
How to Become a Famous Writer Before You're Dead by Ariel Gore (re-read)
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (P)


Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
You Don't Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem


Everything Will Be All Right by Tessa Hadley ** (P)
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem * (P)
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Names My Sisters Call Me by Megan Crane
Breaking Up is Hard to Do by Niki Burnham, Terri Clark, Ellen Hopkins, Lynda Sandoval
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman


War Dances by Sherman Alexie * (P)
American on Purpose by Craig Ferguson * (P)
A Common Pornography by Kevin Sampsell * (P)
That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo
The Truth Lenders by Thuy-Dzuong Nguyen *


The Practical Writer edited by Therese Eiben and Mary Gannon
This Won't Take But A Minute, Honey by Steve Almond * (R)


The Master Bedroom by Tessa Hadley
Rock n Roll Will Save Your Life by Steve Almond


The Zero by Jess Walter * (R)
Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain
Lawnboy by Paul Lisicky (P)
The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliot (P)


Readings by Sven Birkerts (R)
One Day by David Nicholls **
Here Comes Your Man by Derek Gentry
The Suburban Swindle by Jackie Corley


World Takes by Timmy Waldron
Midnight Picnic by Nick Antosca * (R)
Everything is Going to Be Great by Rachel Shukert *
Why We Need Love edited by Simon Van Booy *
Why We Fight edited by Simon Van Booy


Why Our Decisions Don't Matter by Simon Van Booy
Two Cents Plain: My Brooklyn Boyhood by Martin Lemelman *
Numb by Sean Ferrell
Happy Baby by Stephen Elliott
The Financial Lives of Poets by Jess Walter **
Look! Look! Feathers by Mike Young (review will also appear Feb. 2011 on Gently Read Literature)
The World Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos From Bookworms Worldwide edited by Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor


Self Portraits: Fictions by Frederic Tuten


The Atheist's Guide to Christmas edited by Robin Harvie and Stephanie Meyers
Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann **

* Very good
** Read this immediately
P Published on Pajiba
R Mentioned/Published on The Rumpus