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.

Book Review: ADÈLE, a visceral book about sex addiction undermined by unlikable protagonist

Slimani, Leila - Adele CoverAdèle
Leila Slimani

A sex addict always hoping but never able to fill the void inside her, Adèle jeopardizes her marriage with Richard, her job, her finances, and her relationship with her son for quick and often debasing rendezvous with strangers. Adèle is also vain, judgemental, manipulative, dramatic, and often cruel.

Although the description intimates the book might have elements of a psychological thriller, in truth, the slim volume is a psychological study of a woman who cannot step back from the edge of self-destruction. Because Adèle was so unlikable, it undercut the impact of her addiction which was difficult to parse from her personality. Her ambivalent feelings toward motherhood were also interesting, but those, too, became overshadowed by her unlikeability. When she puts herself in danger and when she engages in riskier behavior, perhaps hoping to get found out, it is difficult to empathize with her.

When a character is so flawed, it seems readers always want to know why. In Adèle’s case, Slimani seems to blame a combination of her mother’s flippant cruelty as a child combined with an encounter with The Unbearable Lightness of Being at an impressionable age, but these factors to me don’t seem to justify the extremes of her behavior. While I am satisfied that at times, some behavior is inexplicable, I am less content that Slimani finds these two factors sufficient justification in the context of the book’s logic for Adèle’s behavior.

Towards the end of the book, the novel introduces Richard’s perspective demonstrating his culpability in their unhealthy dance of mutual dependence. It was a strange and to me jarring shift, and the book ended on an ambiguous and unsatisfying note.

Adèle confronts an addiction not often discussed and illuminates the perilous spiral in which addicts circle. Adèle’s experiences are vivid and visceral. Unfortunately, as a character, Adèle doesn’t spark much sympathy.

Thank you to NetGalley and Crown Publishing for providing an advanced reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

BOOK REVIEW: The Perfect Liar, a psychological thriller with problematic protagonists

Green, Thomas Christopher - The Perfect LiarThe Perfect Liar
by Thomas Christopher Greene

Both Susannah and Max, the dual narrators of The Perfect Liar, overcame challenging childhoods. Susannah began having panic attacks in college then became sexually involved with her therapist. Max, who never knew his father, spent his impoverished childhood with a neglectful mother only to join a group of “crusty punks” and spend three years homeless migrating with the seasons. But they’ve put these struggles long behind them. Their fulfilling and intimate marriage only blossoms as Max achieves professional success as an artist and secures a prestigious appointment at a university in Burlington, Vermont.

However, when Susannah finds a note on their front door saying I KNOW WHO YOU ARE, the illusions she and Max have so carefully constructed crack under the weight of secrets and lies. After one of Max’s colleagues dies in a tragic fall when they were out trail running together, attention on their family only increases, and the ominous notes continue to arrive.

The Perfect Liar is an easy-to-read, fast-paced thriller with some surprising turns. It also plays with the idea that personalities and life stories are creations as much as a painting on a canvas. But there were aspects of the novel that diminished my enjoyment. In the first half of the book, characters unnecessarily insulted or mis-characterized the mentally ill, bald people, and vegans.

Throughout the book, certain details rang false. After a successful Ted talk, Max received a number of “luxurious” job offers from universities across the country. Usually, the academic job market is much more competitive than represented here, and I’ve never heard of high paying positions in an art department for a visiting professor. In the hospital, a nurse wrote on a clipboard, but it’s rare to find a medical facility that doesn’t have electronic records. And a description of search dogs made me think the author isn’t aware of how disciplined and well-trained these working dogs are.

I also had issues with the writing style. The transitions between changing character views were non-existent, though I hope this is an artifact of the reading copy I read and in the finished version, there will be spaces or a bullet/ornament on the page. Often, the author used “I am,” “I will,” and so on when contractions would have provided a more natural rhythm. At times, too, the prose exhibited a lack of polish.

The absolute worst part of the The Perfect Liar, though, was Susannah. She is a female character only a man could write, with a focus on her appearance and cooking skills. For her sex only seems to be about manipulating men or giving men a necessary release rather than any personal pleasure. When the family moved to Vermont, she became a stay-at-home housewife completely abandoning her career. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that decision, but it’s a difficult decision to make. Susannah demonstrates none of the conflict I would expect in a woman in her position. And this doesn’t even touch upon her seduction of her therapist. Max himself is a sexist prick, but somehow in a book like this, I’m not surprised.

Finally, while the notes were an interesting plot device and provided a sense of mystery, it is unclear what the sender ever hoped to gain from such a passive act.

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: LOVE LIKE HATE, Vietnam through black humor

dinh, linh - love like hate (1).jpgLove Like Hate
Linh Dinh

During the Vietnam War, Kim Lan and ARVN officer Hoang Long married. While his deployments–and his mistress–took him away from Saigon most of the year, Kim Lan ran her cafe and cared for her son, Cun. After South Vietnam fell to the communists, life dramatically changed for them both. The beginning and end of the novel, set in the recent past and focusing on Kim Lan and her desire to find a Viet Kieu (overseas, hopefully from America, Vietnamese) husband for her daughter, Hoa, bookend the story of Hoang Long and Kim Lan’s past.

Quang Trung explained to Hoa that he called his band Love Like Hate because that was how he felt about Vietnam. “I love Vietnam so much I hate her. How can I not hate her when I love her so much? I am like a son who froths at the mouth because he has to watch his mother sell her pussy. She’s sold her pussy to the Chinese, French, Russians and Americans, and now she’s selling it to the Taiwanese. She’d sell her pussy to anyone because she feels inferior to everyone. She’s thrilled to be humiliated because someone is paying attention to her. And when she’s too old to sell her own pussy, she sells her daughter’s pussy. That’s Mother Vietnam for you!”

Parts of Love Like Hate were amazing. Linh Dinh describes civilian life during and after the war in what seems like an authentic manner, and he depicts life in a reeducation camp, shrines, and the landscape in vivid detail, all with a black humor.

As a whole, though, I wasn’t wild about the novel. It takes a sardonic tone, absolving no character or group of people. Most of the urban Vietnamese are presented as self-interested and greedy, the peasants superstitious and naive, the Americans as bumbling fools (which I can understand given our activities in the country), the French as condescending, the communists as hypocritical, capitalism promotes vapidity, and so on. The most benign characters might be seen as laissez-faire; the worst, selfish and cruel.

Neither Kim Lan nor Hoang Long had positive parental relationships. In each case, their mothers died young, their fathers were absent, and they were raised by stepmothers. Kim Lan seems to perpetuate the cruelty she learned while Hoang mirrors the distance of his father. Kim Lan’s children, Cun, her son, and Hoa, her daughter, respond differently to her controlling nature.

Linh Dinh’s critique’s are biting, and in many cases, ring true, but he doesn’t leave anything to fill the space he’s destroyed. As a result, the novel feels to me like its message is attenuated, leaving the reader with a sense of emptiness.