RSS Feed

M Train by Patti Smith: Review

M Train by Patti Smith: Review

Patti Smith is more than the goddess of punk, more than the genius behind Horses. She’s a vessel for a kind of haunted haunting consciousness, ruled by an inner spirit I cannot hope to understand beyond a few simple impressions. Her second memoir, M Train, is a product of that haunted consciousness, and as such it’s difficult to fully grasp. I found I had to let go and enter into the atmosphere she creates, to just go along for the ride.

She’s certainly a strange person. I cannot claim to relate to her obsessions and behaviors….but though the details of these are woven through M Train, the overall feeling is, primarily, of loss, and that is something most of us, especially of a certain age, can identify with. Anyone who has lost a loved one will feel the tremendous force of Smith’s aching, enduring love for her husband Fred, which she lives with on a daily, maybe even hourly, basis. And there are less significant, but still deeply felt losses: her favorite coffee shop closes; Rockaway Beach all but disappears in the wake of Hurricane Sandy mere days after she buys a bungalow there; her longing for her children as they were when they were small. This last is something few people seem to write or talk about: I miss my babies as well as my grandbabies; the adults they have become just aren’t the same people I knew back in the day, and they never will be again.

02BOOK-master180-v4Smith spends a lot of time and consciousness honoring her dead—not just Fred, her brother Todd, and her old friend Robert Mapplethorpe, but also the writers who have inspired her: Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Sylvia Plath. She travels halfway across the world on pilgrimages to their graves, leaving appropriate offerings and taking away Polaroid snapshots.

Her purchase of the Rockaway bungalow moved me deeply. My happiest childhood memories—ecstatic, really—are of summers spent with relatives in Rockaway: the boardwalk, the rides, the beach, the ocean. Rows and rows of sweet little bungalows, the women playing Mah Jong, the men poker; no traffic, room to play and breathe and wander, where I spent summers from age four to fourteen. Knowing the way Patti Smith cherishes inanimate objects as much as she does people, I feel a glow of reassurance from  knowing she’s the proprietor of one of those beloved old bungalows.

Ultimately, Patti Smith continues to fascinate and inspire me.

Rockaway

Rockaway in the 1950’s

Portrait of a Lady

Posted on

Unknown

Every once in awhile a book turns out to be not just a good read, but an immersive life experience. I cherish, for instance, the memory of staying up all night in a snowstorm with Wuthering Heights, and one Christmas Eve with Great Expectations. Now I add to the list Portrait of a Lady, with whom I’ve just spent an entire weekend.

(That “whom” is intentional.)

Last year I heard Wendy Lesser, editor of the Threepenny Review and author of Why I Read, speak in Berkeley; she noted that she has a long involved relationship with Henry James, as meaningful and real as any she shares with living people. It was Lesser who made me finally crack one of his formidable tomes—only to discover it wasn’t formidable, but all-consuming, and surprisingly relevant to my own life and times.

This is not a book review per se; after two decades I’ve given up reviewing in order to return to enjoying books the way I did before I had to worry what I’d write about them. But Portrait grabbed me by the throat, left me so filled with feelings and impressions, they’re spilling out and over the morning after.

The Lady in question, Isabel Archer, an American woman on the verge of adult life, visits her aunt, uncle and cousin in England. She is clever, curious, pretty and charming, as well as eager for life experience. Her uncle pushes her along by conveniently dying and leaving her half his fortune, at the urging of his own son. Isabel turns down two marriage proposals, wanting to remain free to explore the world. Within a few years she falls in love   and marries Gilbert Osmond, only to find herself captured and caged by a scoundrel of the highest order.

That’s pretty much the plot—but it’s the literary style and brilliant psychological insights that make Portrait a masterpiece. Though written circa 1880, the description of Isabel Archer’s cage, i.e., her marriage, isn’t far from my own experience of that institution. And while Isabel has the financial means to free herself, at that time in history women didn’t just up and leave their husbands because they were unhappy—not even for mental cruelty.

On Goodreads, where readers can pose questions about books, someone asked how Isabel could possibly be as clever as she is thought by everyone who knows her, when she turned down two perfect gentlemen and married a psychopath. Hah! It happens every day. Isabel is clever, but not, as we say now, street-smart. She is also, despite her seeming originality, a woman of her time, conditioned  by the society around her. She recognizes, long after the fact, that she’d kept much of her personality hidden from Osmond during their courtship, and that once he discovered she had her own ideas and opinions, which frequently clash with his cynical and superficial beliefs, he comes to despise her—and treats her accordingly. In addition, there are secrets and horrifying deeds in his past that only come to light towards the novel’s end.

SPOILER ALERT:

The end of Portrait is a major bummer. Defying Osmond, Isabel leaves him and their house in Rome to visit her dying cousin in England; her husband tells her not to go, threatening  repercussions. Isabel goes, not sure if she will return. But she does, at which point James ends his story, leaving us to wonder at the outcome. Will Osmond kill her? Up the ante on  mental cruelty? Or simply leave her­? I hope he did. But I so resent Henry James for leaving me, and Isabel Archer, in the lurch.

Some interesting articles on Portrait:

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/09/03/out-of-the-frame

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/sep/07/portrait-novel-henry-james-gorra-review

 

Icicles

Posted on
Icicles

images

 

Icicles

The tickle of icicles
dripping down my neck
between parka hood and hair
comes back sixty years later
in a place with no icicles
dripping or otherwise.

In this land of relentless
sunshine and drought
trickling icicles bespeak
exile, loneliness,
a thirst that is never
slaked.

Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest is nothing if not aptly titled: after reading nearly 100 pages it seems to me to be one huge joke.

I’d been wanting and meaning to read IJ for years, and the more I heard about the book and its author, the more I wanted to read it—but a thousand-something pages? I still haven’t finished War and Peace! Finally, after seeing The End of the Tour, I began.

In the first three chapters I found gems of wisdom buried in acres of verbiage, and was in serious need of guidance; I went to the Internet and found dozens, if not hundreds, of sites dedicated to IJ. I read a few reviews and reader discussions, scanned the Wiki site, and returned to reading. But now, fresh from laudatory reviews by people whose opinions I respect, and gushing declarations by fans and readers, my gut reaction was: You’ve got to be kidding! I mean, huge chunks of IJ are absolutely unreadable. The boredom, the repetition, the footnotes, many of them wholly unnecessary: was DFW putting us on?

Wallace committed suicide in 2008, 12 years after the fame and glory that followed IJ. I don’t know enough about the guy to speculate, but it’s safe to say there was some sort of mad genius going on in there. IJ is indeed a work of mad genius—so much so that I’m somewhat scared to admit my lack of enchantment. David Eggers, who wrote a somewhat negative and astute review of IJ when it came out, has hidden or somehow banished his review from the public; many years after IJ‘s outsized fame he wrote a foreword to the book that was purely positive, expressing the opinion that not a single sentence of IJ is imperfect, not a word out of place. Duck and cover, Eggers!

Thus, to ward off my fear of fans and laudatory literary luminaries who will surely attack my intelligence, or lack of same: for the record, my favorite author is Doris Lessing—no literary slouch—and I’ve slogged through, even delighted in, the works of Henry James, Thomas Mann, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Edith Wharton, to name just a few who can be rough going.

Is Infinite Jest a work of infinite jest? Is it The Emperor’s New Clothes? No: the shame is, this probably could have been a  much more accessible, readable, and therefore better novel. In the final analysis, Infinite Jest is a powerful testament to the utter absence of bold, intelligent editing in the publishing world today.

The Hair on the Hill

I wrote this piece for the East Bay Express back in 1995. Though it might be a bit dated in some ways, I think it’s still relevant when thinking of Hillary Clinton past and present, now that she’s running for Prez herself.

link.hillary.clintonLike many women, the real reason I voted for Bill Clinton was Hillary. Unlike most women who did so, however, I did not vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton because she would present to the world an image of a smart, independent American woman; nor did I vote for her because of the feminist influence she’d wield in the White House. I shamelessly confess that the reason I voted for Hillary Rodham Clinton was her hair.

That’s right–that bad hair of hers, trailing haphazardly behind a simple black headband, was a source of comfort and validation to me. Hillary’s uneven strands were refreshingly honest after Nancy Reagan’s inanimate bubble. Oh, sure, we had Barbara Bush’s silver wind-tossed curls for a few years, but let’s face it, I couldn’t relate. As a fortysomething woman, I could better identify with Hillary’s badly colored barely styled mop. I imagined that, like me, Hillary had probably spent years searching in vain for a flattering hairstyle, and had finally abandoned the effort: she’d stopped trying to force her hair (and by extension herself?) into shapes that hair was never meant to assume.

I too had finally relinquished the dream of ever having a real “do.” The last in a long line of coveted hairstyles had been Candace Bergen’s: my elusive goal in mid-life was to look, hair-wise, like Murphy Brown. When I presented this proposal to my hairdresser, who has endured more abuse from me than anyone in this lifetime should have to put up with from anyone, she pointed out that Bergen is continuously shadowed on the set by someone wielding a comb and a can of hairspray.

As a more feasible plan, she suggested a bob. In utter despair and frustration I agreed to let her cut it: for the first time in over a decade I would take the plunge, or rather the reverse, and let my hair end well above the shoulder line. After the deed was done and I looked in the mirror, I let out a blood-curdling shriek that put my completely demoralized hairdresser out of commission for a week.

With a few snips of her deadly shears I’d gained 20 pounds. My chin hung lower, my neck bulged eerily, my eyes had narrowed. Though everyone in my life insisted that I looked “sophisticated,” for the next six months I was inconsolable.

My tresses grew back to their normal state of unmanageability right around the time of the ’92 campaign. My spirits soared when I got a load of Hillary in her black headband: her mess gave me permission to keep mine. Most significantly, she seemed nonchalant about unsophisticated hair. It didn’t prevent her from wearing tailored suits or even drawing attention to the situation by donning a chapeau. Liberated at last, I stopped getting trims. I threw out all my ponytail holders and those plastic combs that I’d never really learned how to use. I bought a plain black headband and let it flow.hillaryclinton

And then my role model betrayed me by getting cut and poufed. My life has not been the same.

It’s easy to guess how this disaster came about: some suave political handler told Hillary that growing up meant shaping it up. He (I’m sure it was a he) probably told her that in these times of fervid debate around health care, the nation’s First Lady ought to have healthy looking hair. But whose standards determine health when it comes to hair? After all, she had to have used a ton of hairspray–decidedly unhealthy– to maintain that bulbous sculpture she sported the night of the big health care speech.

Since then, Hillary’s hair has undergone dozens of permutations. Some of them are really just a variety of the headband bit; others more complex. I concede that she frequently appears more “with it,” now: she looks a lot less like an insouciant hippie undisturbed by extramarital affairs, and more like a public policy maker. But with no more bad hair days, Hill just isn’t someone I could comfortably sit down with to commiserate, not only about our hair, but also about our men, our kids, our jobs. Whereas before she looked like someone I’d go to for advice, now she looks like someone I’d have to pay for it.

So I’m not sure how I’ll vote in ’96. After all, a lot can happen to a woman’s hair during a Presidential campaign. She could decide to get a perm, another solution I periodically consider. She might even let it grow out.

Or she might win my vote by including treatment for the hair impaired if national health reform ever becomes a reality.

Hillary Present

Hillary Present

Moi, Present

Moi, Present