Just Kids

JUst kids imgI’ve been an admirer of Patti Smith for a number of years now. I’m a bit young to have been a fan of hers when she first broke onto the music scene in the mid-1970s. I became aware of her much later when I picked up a sale copy of her debut album Horses. I was also aware of Robert Mapplethorpe, the late artist-photographer who was her lover and then close friend when they were both very young. Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989 and it must have been in the 1990s that I saw an exhibition of his work in London (I had an interest in photography at the time). Later on again I learned about the connection between the two and how Patti had been, if you like, Mapplethorpe’s ‘muse’ when he was first discovering his art.

I’d known about this book for a while, having heard Patti Smith talking about it in a radio interview, but I picked this up, ironically, in New York, when I was there on holiday last summer, from the famous Strand Bookstore. I’d hoped to read it whilst there (and perhaps visit some of the places she mentions in the book) but that didn’t happen. I decided to read it as part of my 2017 reading challenge; March’s challenge is to read something from my ‘to read’ pile, which, as I have written here recently, is substantial! And it has been a real pleasure to read.

The book is an account of her and Mapplethorpe’s early artistic development. They found each other by accident in New York City in the late 1960s when they had both arrived there in search of a more meaningful life. Their early life together was marked by poverty and the struggle to be recognised. In many ways their life was pretty ordinary, were it not for all the incredible people they meet and hang out with – Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, William Burroughs – and if you are familiar with New York City, particularly the lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village areas, you will enjoy the mentions of different places, particularly the infamous Chelsea Hotel where many a star has risen and fallen.

But the book is so much more than that; it is an account of how artists find their voice and their medium, but it is also a love story. Patti writes tenderly and affectionately of her love for Mapplethorpe and the profound mutual respect that lay at the heart of their relationship. You don’t need to be admirers of them to appreciate this. It is also an account of how love changes; Mapplethorpe loved Patti deeply but he eventually came out as homosexual. He had been brought up a Roman Catholic and this was a long and difficult process for him. Patti later married a musician Fred Smith, and they lived a happy humdrum family life together in Michigan with their children until he died at the age of 45 in 1994. To that extent the book is also about what happens when love moves on, and how former lovers can evolve their relationship and grow as a result.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, particularly the escape into bohemian New York in the 1970s. Some books you read of this nature can make you feel your own life is rather dull and insignificant, but at the centre of this book is not glamour and sensationalism, but the day to day human love that we all need and hopefully most of us experience at some point in our lives. To that extent it is a story we could all identify with.

A little non-fiction for a change?

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Literary non-fiction is a genre that most of us rarely, if ever, dip into. There are thousands of non-fiction titles published every year in the UK and the bookshops are full of them, but look at the top-selling list in any given week and you will see that most of the top ten are cookbooks and autobiographies. 2017-02-01-11-42-32I’m not knocking either of these genres, I’m simply saying that literary non-fiction is a very tough genre to sell in. I read recently that the average non-fiction title in the US sells 250 copies a year (one for roughly every million people), or 2,000 copies over its lifetime. It makes you wonder why on earth you would write one! Many seem to be written by academics, journalists or people who have already established themselves in a chosen field and know they are writing for a particular niche. One striking thing about the genre, though, is that authors have a real passion for the topic, and the authenticity of the work is palpable.

 

The Baillie Gifford Prize (formerly the Samuel Johnson Prize) is one of the top prizes in the world for non-fiction. I decided to make space in my reading life for more non-fiction this year and selected two from the 2016 shortlist: Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson and East West Street by Philippe Sands, who was the winner of the prestigious prize (review to follow soon).

The issue of race, it seems to me, has always been, and continues to be, a profoundly difficult one for the United States, which I find peculiar given the country’s origins and the fact that it is overwhelmingly a nation of immigrants. Last year’s Man Booker Prize winner, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, was a partly satirical fictional exploration of the issue, envisioning a community where segregation is reintroduced. I reviewed the book on this blog last year (read here) and described it as a complicated book, more extended essay than novel. Negroland is equally complex (as befits the topic perhaps) but is from a largely autobiographical perspective. The author gives an account of growing up in Chicago and then her early adulthood at university and beyond.

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Jefferson was born in 1947 and grew up at a time when segregation was still in place in parts of the United States. In the states where segregation had been abolished, discrimination still existed at every turn. Jefferson had the good fortune to be the daughter of educated parents who were relatively wealthy and enjoyed a reasonable social status; her father was a doctor and her mother a refined ‘society’ wife (insofar as black women could be ‘in’ society). Her parents strived to ensure their two daughters felt they could achieve just as much as any of their white peers and that if they worked hard they were just as entitled to the rewards of that success. They sent them to private schools and taught them about social protocols and manners, to make sure they could fit in.

For the two Jefferson girls, equality existed only at a superficial level, and it is clear that Margo grew up confused and ultimately troubled by the contradiction between the opportunities to which she was told she was entitled and her lived experience. She also explores the contradiction between the treatment and opportunities afforded to certain persons of colour (wealthier, educated types like her parents) and the majority, poorer (blacker?) people who remained at the bottom of the social heap and bore the contempt and the prejudice not only from whites but also, to some degree, higher class persons of colour. Thus, Margo found herself in the place she calls ‘Negroland’, not fully part of either the White or the Black community.

The author interweaves her autobiographical story with an exploration of parts of Black history and her own family history. The result is both a work of scholarship but also a highly personal account of life as a young black girl and woman coming of age in 1960s north-east America.

I enjoyed the book, particularly the personal story, though I found some of the historical material, particularly at the beginning, quite heavy-going. We read it in my book club and others enjoyed it less, wanting more of a narrative and less of the stream-of-consciousness. It’s definitely worth a look, particularly if you are interested in the topic or, like me, bemused by what is going on in the US on the race issue at this time.

If you have read Negroland: A Memoir I’d love to hear your views? Do you read much in the way of non-fiction?

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A brilliant but complex novel – an essay passing as fiction?

It’s a week since Paul Beatty’s The Sellout was announced as the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, and, finally, I have finished it. There at least two other books on the shortlist that I have enjoyed more (I reviewed them here recently, Hot Milk  and Eileen), but by golly this is an extraordinarily clever book! I’m not even sure I’m clever enough to review it! The blurb doesn’t really tell you what it’s about and the arty commentators I heard talking about it on the news when it won the prize, didn’t really say what it was about either (I’ll bet most of them had not even read it!) And I’m not surprised, because it is a really difficult book to describe. But, for what it’s worth, here goes…

the-sellout-imgThis is a novel about race in modern America where the white population seems to feel it has solved the problem of racism. Firstly, it abolished slavery and then set in place several pieces of legislation to reinforce racial equality. Unfortunately, this has not addressed a fundamental problem of disparity of outcomes between whites and blacks (or people of colour more widely), in academic achievement, income, social status, crime, you name it, the statistics paint a troublesome picture. The thesis of the novel is that, whilst white America is slightly uncomfortable with the facts as they stand, they can point to a number of black high achievers (not least the first African-American President) as evidence that they have done all they could. The under-achievement of the rest can be put down to, for example, their own fecklessness or problems of character.

The novel is set in Dickens, California, a predominantly black suburb of Los Angeles that is undesignated as a city and, literally, disappears from maps. Our central character, the eponymous Sellout, but otherwise nameless, known to us only as ‘Me’, seeks to restore its place through some unconventional methods, whilst also seeking to address problems associated with racial inequality. He decides to reintroduce segregation. He also takes a ‘slave’, Hominy an elderly bit-part actor who made a very small name as a black ragamuffin in minor films, made in an era when the black and white minstrels were quaint and funny. ‘Me’ takes his authority to do this from the fact that his father, an intellectual and social scientist, was a local hero of sorts. Known as the ‘nigger-whisperer’ he had a reputation for being able to calm down violent or suicidal black people, using his own brand of counselling and persuasion. He also set up the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, which met in the local Dum Dum Donut’s store to engage in great philosophical debates. We learn a great deal about Me’s bizarre upbringing; he had no mother and his father used some unusual techniques, including violence and intimidation, to instil in his son his own theories about the ‘black condition’.

The novel starts with a prologue, where ‘Me’ is being tried in the Supreme Court for slavery. The rest of the novel tells us how a black man could possibly get to this point. The novel has been described as a ‘satire’ (although I’ve heard that the author does not like it described thus) and as darkly comic. Certainly, there are parts which are very funny, in a bleak sort of way, such as the circumstances surrounding the father’s death. I can see it is also satirical in the tradition of Jonathan Swift and Gulliver’s Travels, it is both poking fun at and calling out the self-interested and those who perpetuate injustice. It is a really tough book to pin down, but there is a moment towards the end where ‘Me’ is describing what he calls “Unmitigated Blackness” as “essays passing for fiction”. For me, that’s exactly what the book is, and it’s the author having the last laugh.

It’s hard to say I enjoyed this book; I admired it, most certainly. It’s brilliantly written and if you just love seeing how artists can put words together in unique and beautiful ways it is a treasure trove; I spotted a 218-word sentence which was absolutely breathtaking. It has quick wit, brilliantly acute observations of the absurdities of life, and is rich in irony (not normally seen as an American trait). For me, though, it was slightly too much essay and not quite enough story (fiction). Besides the satirical politics of the novel, which are, it has to be said, profound and thought-provoking, there is the story of a nameless black man in a modern-day, still racist world, in the shadow of a domineering father trying to work out his place in the world. This did not come through as much as I would have liked, until the end.

It’s a great read, but a complicated one. You need to be up for the challenge.