Friday, April 15, 2011

Two Good Memoirs

Today I changed the subtitle under the bureau's name to reflect what has turned out to be the actual subject matter of this blog. When I started posting in May 2008, I guessed at what subjects I might want to write about, wrote them down and almost never looked at them again. Glancing at the subtitle today I realized that the most neglected subject was books. I had exactly one post, a short farewell to Oakley Hall written in the first month of this bureau's existence. So I eliminated books and several other subjects from the subtitle and then, in the spirit of perversity, wrote this post about books. Here are a couple of good ones.

"Just Kids" by Patti Smith

Patti Smith is a poet of the old school. Although she's thoroughly contemporary, here's nothing Post-Modern about her, nothing in quotes. She doesn't seem to have filters against love or grief and yet she's tough and fierce (Rimbaud is her hero). This all comes through in "Just Kids", a memoir of her love affair and friendship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.  The book starts and ends with Mapplethorpe's death and in between is a portrait of the artists as young people in New York in the 70s (a decade that's starting to look better and better in the rear-view mirror). It's beautifully written and I found it a great pleasure to read. In some places she may reference a few too many names but they hung out with some really interesting people. The book is also a clear eyed but loving meditation on family. I highly recommend it.

"I Was Looking for a Street" by Charles Willeford

Charles Willeford is also a writer of an old school, but of a very different one from Patti Smith. Willeford's writing style is the literary equivalent of the dead pan. His books are full of dark humor but he never winks to let you in on the joke. He was in the U.S. military for twenty years and was a decorated tank commander during the Battle of the Bulge. He only got beyond cult status as a writer with the publication of "Miami Blues", a "detective novel", a few years before his death at 68.

"I Was Looking..." is the memoir of his childhood and early adolescence. He was raised by his grandmother after the early death of his parents. At the age of 13, in 1932, he left home so that he wouldn't be a financial burden on her. The majority of the book describes the year he spent as a bum, riding the rails in the South West states. This is the real Americana. It's a wonderful evocation of the Great Depression at a time when a system of social welfare was only starting to be constructed. You could get very close to starving to death, or freezing to death or you could get your clothes stolen while dead drunk at a Mexican brothel and have to sneak across the border naked. This book is also highly recommended.

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