Posts Tagged ‘book review’

Patti Smith, Just Kids, and I Ride the Bus

January 26, 2011

Last Saturday, I had one of those jittery, jumping, monkey-mind mornings—the kind that sometimes happen when the machine is on and the shiny buttons beckon. Click on tweets, click on Facebook, click on tweets, click on Facebook, click on email, click on news, click on email, back to news—and even though I felt myself sinking in the slough of despond, I just kept clicking away.

Granted, the despond was partly due to Powell’s City of Books in Portland, who’d rejected my offer to do a reading there.  I wasn’t famous enough, they wouldn’t sell enough copies of my book to make it worth their while.  But all that clicking also meant ignoring what feeds me: Art.  Creativity.  Writing.  Engagement with the world of weather and people and city streets.  So I wrenched myself away from the desk, stuffed Patti Smith’s Just Kids in my bag and bolted.

Virginia Woolf once left her house for a winter walk across London on the pretext of needing a pencil.  Even before I shut my front door behind me, I remembered her errand, which I often repeat.  I, too, need a pencil. Scotch tape. Tea bags. Paper. A new pair of shoes. But mostly what I need is the world and the chance, from inside the bubble of urban anonymity, to listen, watch, observe.  I need to rub up against stories and think quiet thoughts. To let ideas rise up while my body moves through three-dimensional scenes—the kind you don’t need special glasses to see.

Patti Smith once left her parents’ house in New Jersey with a stolen copy of Rimbaud in her bag, and headed for New York. Knowing she needed to be there, she lived on the streets, slept in Central Park, went hungry, and then one day by accident, ran into another kid her age whose name was Robert Mapplethorpe. And the two of them—just kids—with no way of seeing who they would both become, devoted themselves to the only things that mattered: one another, and art. (more…)

Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries: a Review

September 17, 2010

In the first pages of The Adderall Diaries, Stephen Elliott lays out the realities of his “lonely, pointless existence,” both past and present.   He is a former heroin addict now hooked on Adderall; the son of a cruelly abusive father who in rages would “grasp for whatever meant the most to you and destroy you,” and who now posts negative reviews on Amazon of Elliott’s books ; motherless at thirteen then a runaway and ward of the state, subject to the usual cruelties of group homes and psych wards; doomed to “fragmented, thin” relationships with women; self-destructive, suicidal and addicted to violent sex.

Any one of these would fuel an entire woe-is-me memoir.   But this is not that kind of book; there’s nothing sensational here.  First, because the narrator seems to lack self-pity.   Instead, the story comes to us in the flat, affectless tones of the depressed (which I found both relieving and unsettling).  More importantly, though, this memoir is not really about Stephen Elliott’s pain, it’s about writing.

Two years into a writer’s block when the book’s events begin, Elliott faces the annihilation of the one positive identity he’s forged for himself: a writer.   Deep in the maze of Adderall and depression, he grasps at the thread of a story—an acquaintance confesses to “eight, maybe nine, murders”—and begins to find his way out.  This confession doesn’t ultimately give Elliott the “true crime” story he hopes it will—it turns out to be false—but it leads him to another, real  crime and its subsequent legal trial.

Like the confession of Sean Sturgeon, the trial of Hans Reiser, who is accused of murdering his wife, gives Elliott not only material, but purpose.  And like any fine writer, Elliott has the resources to ponder from the writer’s remove what these events mean to him and why.   The result is a multi-layered memoir about following both threads, real and made-up, and coming to realize that their attraction for him lies in their echoes of his own family relationships and sado-masochistic desires.

Elliott resists the typical memoir story arc: from trial to triumph over adversity.  For him, “to follow an interest out of the darkness is a trick, a small Band-Aid for a larger problem,” and his rescue by writing is partial and will not last.  Still, it’s awfully fine writing.  The sections devoted to his life and pursuit of the story are sometimes non-linear, almost musical in the interplay of the book’s several leit-motifs.  And the sections of trial reportage show off Elliott’s gift for tight plotting and suspense, insightfulness into motive (his own and others), and attention to telling detail.

Even so, writing will not ultimately save him, and the larger question, “How do we remind ourselves to start again?” seems without answer.  There is no shiny bow of epiphany when The Adderall Diaries ends, but a series of thoughtful understandings and an ongoing search.

Xavier de Maistre Takes Us on a Journey Around His Room; or A Broken Hand in Oakland Meets 18th-Century France

September 6, 2010

Normally this time of year, I’d bring you the harvest report from around the block and beyond.  I’d be checking in on the chickens, asking after the sweet corn crop that filled up a neighbor’s front yard, admiring some sugar pie pumpkins and finding out if anyone ate nearly as many romano beans as we did at my house this summer.  Man, those beans were good.

But alas.  While my neighbors gather in their late summer tomatoes, and the cabbages get serious about fall, I’m plopped on the sofa with my right foot on the coffee table and my left hand in a cast.   OMG, you might say!  What manner of drama have we here?

Thanks for asking.  It’s been a Wile E. Coyote kind of summer, so laugh if you like.  I do.  In June, I tripped over the cord to my laptop, flew into a wall, and broke my nose.  In July, I hiked a few too many miles in the Sierras and acquired a stress fracture in my foot.  Ten days ago, I took a little spill on my bike (which I could still ride with my tender foot) and broke my fall with my hand.

So you might say I’ve had some weeks of unplanned  relaxation.  Which puts me in mind of Xavier de Maistre, who also spent time under house arrest.   (more…)