Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Just Kids

            Today I finished Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids* and then casually started tearing up in Chiptole. I’m watering my insufficiently cheesed burrito bowl and wistfully staring at the cover; it had ended so touchingly and I was sad to see it go. I’m just glad I wasn’t in public during the Breaking Bad finale. That show is the goddamn GOAT.

            Anyway, although the book is technically a memoir, it mostly chronicles her relationship with the most integral man in her life: Robert Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe was an artist known for his controversial sexual photographs and homoerotic depictions until he passed away from AIDS in 1989. Patti Smith is a singer-songwriter who pioneered the fusion of poetry and rock n roll music.  Prior to their fame, they were two young lovers and friends struggling to define their artisanal voice within New York City.

            What I love about this memoir is that you don’t have to be immersed within the artistic realm to appreciate it. Patti and Robert’s friendship was so genuine and empathetic that I wanted to keep reading about their adventures. I find it so beautiful that that kind of intimacy existed between them; it gives me hope that despite all the darkness in the world, there are human connections so intense that they sustain you. Mutual affection and respect guided them—each one was the other’s muse, providing inspiration, encouragement, and eventually propelling their respective projects into public recognition. Smith described her counterpart as “a lover and a friend to create with, side by side. To be loyal, yet be free” (Smith, 81).

            Their relationship was simple and pure: they lived together, worked together, lay together…and then sometimes openly had sex with other people. To be honest, the (few) polygamous people I know exhibit a holier than thou attitude and thereby tote their polygamy about obnoxiously. They act like society’s monogamous tendencies are inferior, limited, and wrong. In my opinion, I think it’s a personal choice based on psychological inclinations. What works for some doesn’t necessarily work for others. Patti Smith intrigued me because she embodied a seemingly elevated form of sexuality. She was pretty monogamous herself, but she was very tolerant and understanding of Robert’s need to explore his repressed homosexuality. At one point when he was hustling for money, I had a moment of feminist outrage where I wished Patti would speak up for herself more and express her valid concerns with his physically dangerous behavior. Then I realized that the truth of the matter is that she didn’t feel affronted. She espoused a less rigid understanding of the world and she was unwaveringly confident in what she meant to Robert. And if that’s enough for her, then more power to her.

            She assumed the same nonjudgmental *you do you and I’ll do me* attitude when it came to drugs. As she and Robert moved from place to place in search of an affordable creative foothold, she was surrounded by substances. Artistry infused her entire being; it ran through her veins and she did not want something like heroin to take its place. While many of her friends turned to drugs for artistic insights, she refused to partake and thus surprised the world she was enveloped in. Yet, she was unperturbed by her companions’ narcotic-addled lifestyles. For instance, the first time Robert met her family, he took LSD right before to stay his nerves (Smith, 52). Sober Smith was largely open-minded with regards to other people’s choices, lending her an angelic quality.  She was “in full possession of [herself]”; she knew what she wanted and whom she cared for and everything else was peripheral. I’m not a huge fan of her music, but I respect her as an individual because she was so passionate about Robert and her work. Together, they viewed the world entirely through artistic glasses—through the lens of limitless potential creation. A trip to the coffee shop wasn’t merely a trek to caffeine; it was an exploration in resplendent outfits.

            Books such as this are refreshing to the reader because they capture the joy of what it means to be human: to love another and love what you collectively create. Her story speaks to your mind and your soul because she is an adept writer as well as a beautiful storyteller. Reading Just Kids made me feel light and untethered. Her words were like balloons daintily guided by static electricity because her existence was that of a woman floating towards creative energy. Science!

            The only thing that irked me—mostly from a jealous perspective—is that the life she illustrated (a life as an artist alongside Mapplethorpe in the 60’s and 70’s) is much less attainable now. When they had no money, they traded their portfolios for room and board at the historic Chelsea hotel, a hub for renaissance. The idea of celebrity was more fluid; famous artists were accessible and you could walk amongst them, be their friends, and thereby garner inspiration. She sat at the same tables as Andy Warhol, Allen Ginseberg, William Burroughs, etc. Nowadays, I can’t just waltz into a bar and plop myself next to Tarantino. Furthermore—and I’m not saying this undermines her talent—but she did have tremendous amounts of support financially from the men in her life. I can imagine that we’d all be a little more brilliant if someone paid our rent and we didn’t have to worry about meals or student loans. Nevertheless, I’m just bitching on the side because I want the freedom to be fabulous. I also want a friend named Tinkerbell, like she had.

            Overall, Smith effectively memorialized the man that was her rock and her salvation. It’s not a complex read—just a moving one—and if you want to feel the vibrancy of their relationship, I recommend it. I promise I’m not the only one that can vouch for her poignancy. The memoir won the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction and became a New York Times bestseller. If that doesn’t convince you, Johnny Depp attested, “Patti Smith has graced us with a poetic masterpiece, a rare and privileged invitation to unlatch a treasure chest never before breached” (Smith, back cover). I give it 4 out of 5 camel humps and I hope that I stumble across you readers weeping in chain restaurants once you are done with it.

Smith || Mapplethorpe

*Smith, Patti. Just Kids. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010. Print. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Catcher in the Rye

            Ask a group of reasonably well-read adults what their favorite book is, and you’ll likely hear a lot of The Catcher in the Rye*. I originally read this infamous novel three years ago and emerged disappointed. It receives so much hype that I expected some staggeringly brilliant work that would forever change my life. Instead, I started appreciating Holden Caulfield cultural references, but not much more. Now that I’m revisiting the book, I feel quite differently about it all. Let me clarify my newfound interest in Caulfield terms; here’s a run-down of my re-read in Salinger-speak:

            The book is very entertaining, if you want to know the truth. It’s simple; it reads just like a conversation. No kidding. Caulfield sort of tells you about a couple of days in his life. It’s accessible enough to finish in one sitting, I just wasn’t in the mood at the time. I started it on the train one morning when I was feeling really lousy. I had just come back from D.C. Very big deal. Instead of swallowing it whole, I read a few pages and then started to chew the fat with a girl next to me who said her name was Jenna. I felt a little sorry for her because she had these big bug eyes that kept distracting me when she would speak. Anybody would have a tough time listening to old Jenna because of her goddamn big bug eyes. I started thinking about how many important things she’s probably said in her life that nobody ever heard because they couldn’t fully pay attention. It made me depressed as hell, if you really want to know. Then, she began telling me about a movie she had seen earlier that day. She kept saying how marvelous the movie had been. I don’t know why she had to ruin a perfectly good conversation with something as phony as that. I mean for Chrissake, can you imagine your whole day revolving around a goddamn marvelous movie you saw that afternoon? It probably had an actor with a great big smile who probably goes home and beats his kids when he’s done filming. I couldn’t shoot the bull with her anymore after that. I got out at the very next stop even though it wasn’t where I’d planned. I just had to get out of there, I was depressed as hell all of a sudden. I thought to cheer myself up I might give my niece a buzz. Whenever I ask about her day at school, she sort of gives me this smirk like she thought I’d never ask, and then she tells me all about everything that happened, in great detail. It kills me.
            There ya have it. Back to Lyndsay-speak. I totally get why readers find Holden Caulfield unbearably annoying—I thought the same thing my first go-around. The second time though, I ran with it. I embraced the angst. And once you get past how he’s saying it (if that even annoys you in the first place), you can really resonate with what he’s saying. I can identify with Caulfield’s exasperation. Sure, he extrapolates negativity and takes his complaints as far as they can possibly go, but the book is so beautifully human. Sometimes he feels things and he’s not sure why. Sometimes he hates something with a passion but also backs up his hatred with meticulously formed reasons. Caulfield is an incredibly perceptive teen who picks up on people’s peeve-inducing habits and notices an alarming trend in society as a result: Everything is going to shit!

            The novel centers on Caulfield's identity crisis. There’s something childlike in his disdain of virtually everything and everyone in his life. He reacts to his surroundings as though nothing could placate him and oftentimes he exhibits hypocrisy, as when he calls out phonies but brags that he’s a terrific liar. On the other hand, there’s also something mature in his assessments. His keen awareness of people’s true motives and his careful articulation of what bothers him reveal a layer of wisdom that sets him apart from the ordinary troubled teen. He’s stuck in the in-between of life phases and he hasn’t mastered how to cope. Just because he’s confused doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy. After all, he wants to be the catcher in the rye, standing firm in the rye field and catching kids if they start to fall off of the cliff, presumably into the perils of adulthood (Salinger, 173). *Still waiting to be caught, Holden*

            Unfortunately, the novel is associated with several well-known shootings. Most notably, John Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman, possessed a copy of the book at the time of his arrest with the inscription "To Holden Caulfield, From Holden Caulfield, This is my statement”. Obviously, I do not think that my interpretation of the book is the only plausible one. Still, in my opinion, the novel ends on a rather positive note, all things considered.  For the very first time, Holden claims that he “felt so damn happy” (Salinger, 213). Shortly thereafter, he says that even though he has badmouthed pretty much everyone he knows, he still misses them (Salinger, 214). There’s room for hope here, and in spite of all the pessimism, Holden presses on. I think it misses the mark to conclude that the book is merely a recipe for violence that equips angry men and women with justification for murder.

            Which brings me to my next point. Banning books. Sigh *rolls eyes*. Even in the 21st century, Salinger’s work receives an onslaught of censorship challenges. I will never understand an argument that fights against education and exposure in favor of policing so-called morality. Call me a bleeding-heart liberal, but I think that interaction with beliefs that are not your own serves to effectively refine and enhance those beliefs. Let’s take advantage of the fact that we live in America, and relish in our ability to have these discussions out in the open. Certainly, The Catcher in the Rye might make you uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad and it definitely doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it. In fact, that’s even more of a reason to indulge—you can discover why it makes you uncomfortable and then learn something about yourself! The horror!

            I digress. Anyway, I chose to review this novel in honor of Banned Books week, a knowledge-friendly time of year that celebrates the freedom to read from September 27th-Oct 3rd. I’m a born-again Salinger-appreciator and I encourage you to either crack this open for the first time or revisit his work and give it a second chance. Overall, I give The Catcher in the Rye 5 out of 5 goddamn camel humps. Read it and weep about the world (but then also consider that maybe it’s tolerable).

*Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1951. Print.