Book Review: JUST KIDS, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe’s long friendship

smith, patti - just kids (2)Just Kids
Patti Smith

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe met in late 1960s New York City in their early twenties. What began as a love affair turned into a lifelong friendship, and, when dying of AIDS, Mapplethorpe asked Smith to document their time together.

At times, it seems amazing they survived. They had so little money for food and rent, only their wiles kept them afloat. When someone was murdered outside Mapplethorpe’s apartment, they moved to the Chelsea Hotel, famous as an artist enclaved, and their they met a number of influential and supportive associates. At the time, they were both visual artists, but Smith was moving more towards poetry and music while Mapplethorpe was turning to photography, male bodies, and S&M at the same time joining the social milieu of sponsor and lover Sam Wagstaff.

Though they grew apart and hadn’t talked for some time, when Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS, their friendship resumed, and Smith commuted with her husband and children between Detroit and New York City to spend time with him and offer care.

I’ve watched a few documentaries about Mapplethorpe, and though they mentioned Patti Smith, they didn’t deeply delve into her presence in his life. Just Kids explains their complicated relationship and how it survived after they were no longer lovers. It offers fascinating details about Mapplethorpe’s motivations and processes as well as the day-to-day life they shared.

Personally, I didn’t like Smith’s writing style which seemed affected to me, as though she tries too hard to be a poet, an identity she always clinged to. Smith reports that Mapplethorpe and others praised her artwork, but the reproductions included in the book didn’t impress me. Of course, her wild success in music speaks for itself.

I also thought the book was very choppy, moving between sections with no transitions. (Perhaps the print version had some sort of typographical indication of a change of subject matter.)

Fans of Patti Smith and/or Robert Mapplethorpe will want to read this book. I think for me, the main problem is that I am more interested in Mapplethorpe than Smith, and of course, this being a book by Smith, her story is front and center.

Book Review: WE NEED NEW NAMES, growing up in the space between Zimbabwe and America

bulawayo, noviolet - we need new names (1) (1)We Need New Names
NoViolet Bulawayo

In We Need New Names, Darling grows up in Zimbabwe among a pack of children in the specter of poverty and violence. School has been canceled because the teachers have all gone to neighboring countries where the pay is higher. Many adults, including Darling’s father, who had been in South Africa for years without contacting his family, contracted AIDS (“The Sickness”). Others, like Darling’s mother, have to travel long distances for work or to sell their goods. The children steal guavas from Budapest–the wealthy neighborhood–to assuage their hunger and act out games like find bin Laden. One of their crew, an eleven-year-old-girl, is pregnant as the result of incest.

The first half of the novel, set in Zimbabwe, is amazing, as it describes very adult problems through a child’s eyes. When an angry group of men evict a white couple from their house and the children observe from a hiding place in a guava tree, once the men take the couple away, the children quickly forget the violence to take glee in jumping on the bed in the destroyed home and eating the food left in the kitchen. A visit from an NGO to distribute packages–including toy guns to children–is especially poignant.

For me, though, I thought the book lost focus when Darling moved to the United States with her Aunt Fostalina. Darling recounts the painful position of not-belonging and of being unable to return to visit Zimbabwe because of money and her visa status. To fit in, she emulated her peers, going so far as to adopt an American accent, but she was never accepted fully by them. At the same time, she was estranged from her family and friends in Zimbabwe who either didn’t understand her life in America or who felt she abandoned the country. As a result, she lost a vital connection with herself. I empathize with these themes, but feel they were presented more skillfully in Behold the Dreamers and Amerikanah. I also did not care at all for how the book ended.

I do though think We Need New Names is valuable to read for the rich content of the first half and the insight it provides into growing up in Zimbabwe.