Reviewing the Review: January 30 2010

This isn’t widely remembered today, but for about fifteen years Patti Smith was nearly as reclusive as J. D. Salinger. First she helped invent punk rock and released four superb albums in the 1970s, then she disappeared to marry fellow musician Fred “Sonic” Smith and live quietly as a mother and wife on the shores of Lake St. Clair in Michigan. She magically reappeared and resumed her transformative performance art in the mid-90s after her husband’s sudden death, and now can be spotted happily walking around the vicinity of McDougal Street and Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, as natural as if she’d never left.

All of which is to say that there are many reasons why it would have been hard to believe several years ago that a memoir by Patti Smith would ever appear on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. One reason is that it’s still hard to believe that Patti would ever write a memoir; another is is that, until fairly recently, the New York Times Book Review was rather too stodgy to have put her on the cover if she had. And when did the NYTBR stop being so stodgy? I’ve met editor Sam Tanenhaus, who has built his career upon “stodgy”. This cannot have been his idea, so one of his deputies must get the credit.

Patti’s memoir is called Just Kids and it’s about her early years in the Warholesque New York City/St. Marks Place scene with her BFF Robert Mapplethorpe. Of course I’ll read the book, and I don’t really need to consult Tom Carson’s mostly positive review to know there’s a 99% chance I’ll love it. Maybe someday she’ll write about her 15 year seclusion and her return to live performance as well.

Candy Slice naturally eclipses the rest of this weekend’s publication on first glance, though there’s much else good here. Young novelist Wells Tower appraises his elder T. Coraghessan Boyle’s Wild Child: Stories and delivers a carefully reasoned verdict: Boyle pulls off the title story (about the Wild Boy of Aveyron) but is elsewhere too haphazard, too careless with his ambitious plots. I’m impressed by Tower’s analysis, though it’s strange that he spends a full page describing Boyle’s handling of the Wild Boy of Aveyron story without mentioning that Francois Truffaut made a great movie about the same subject, also titled Wild Child in English. Was Boyle’s story inspired by Truffaut’s film? Does Tower even know that this film exists? I’m sure I’m not the only reader stopped short by this question.

Liesl Schillinger frames Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God attractively, and I’m glad to learn that this book is a novel. I had seen its title but understood it literally; I’m glad it’s a fictional treatment, because I already sat through Philosophy 101. Kaiama L. Glover introduces us to the main topics covered in Chinua Achebe’s essay collection The Education of a British-Protected Child, and Amy Bloom steps us through some familiar but still important questions about the nature and sustainability of happiness in an endpaper that sweeps through a few recent books promising to help us attain it.

I’m sure a memoir by Patti Smith will bring more happiness than any self-help book, and on the Patti account I have only one slight complaint: several mentions in this Book Review might lead a Patti neophyte to think that her fame is based on her 1978 hit single “Because the Night”. That song was a chart success, but I have one word to say to anybody who wants to know what the fuss was really about. Horses.

6 Responses

  1. Don’t you mean, ‘the fuss was
    Don’t you mean, ‘the fuss was about really about HORSE?’ (heroin?)

  2. “Horses,” of course
    But I

    “Horses,” of course

    But I wish I still had the autographed chapbook of poems I got one day in the Gotham Book Mart. That’s when I first discovered her.

  3. Dan, I don’t think I’ve ever
    Dan, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that Patti used heroin … doesn’t sound like her style to me.

  4. I wouldn’t call Tower’s
    I wouldn’t call Tower’s analysis of Boyle’s latest collection “well reasoned.” The novella, yes; but not the other stories. I’ve actually read the collection and Tower’s assessment of “Question 62” as “daytime TV drama” misses the point that the dialogue is written in a deliberately monotonous way, to demonstrate the clinical discussion that even an extraordinary political measure can generate during the canvassing process. Deliberately weary, in other words. Like much of politics. (But I will agree with him on “Thirteen Hundred Rats,” which is a tad contrived.) Tower doesn’t convey the sheer pleasure that Boyle is having with his short stories, shared by the reader — presumably because the NYTBR editors are terrified of conveying that even “literary” authors don’t necessarily have to be read like prescriptive castor oil.

  5. Thanks for feedback, Ed — I
    Thanks for feedback, Ed — I know you respect Boyle’s work a lot. In this case, I actually read one of the short stories in this book, the one about the petsitter and the dog who gets cloned, because it was chosen for a Best American Short Stories volume. In this case my experience was exactly what Wells Tower described — I was intrigued by the setup, then disappointed when the story went nowhere. That’s why I agreed with Tower’s mixed feelings in this case.

  6. Levi, I think that a memoir
    Levi, I think that a memoir of Patti’s time with the legendary Fred Smith of the MC5 would be awesome. I read somewhere that when Smith died, Patti was struggling financially, and had to work hard to re-kindle her career. I plan to follow her Rimbaud pilgramage one day…..

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