Christmas was good to me in terms of books. I got Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids about her long connection with Robert Mapplethorpe from Ben and a signed copy of Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck as a gift from my lovely student Genevieve along with a pile of other books that may soon be chronicled here.
Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck
He won the Newbery for A Year Down Yonder, and I am particularly partial to A Long Way from Chicago, so it's nice to see him follow up with more young adult historical fiction. This one begins with a wild Indiana tornado in a small town that disturbs a graveyard, uprooting, among others, the recently deceased librarian. Peewee sees the wreckage, and then gets back to doing what she does best, which is helping her brother fix cars at their little garage. When an Indianapolis paper slams their rural borough for closing the library when the librarian died, the town elders open up a search out of pure consternation. When four young women in the library training course of Butler University express interest in sharing the position, the whole town takes notice, and Peewee's older brother Jake takes notice of one young lady in particular, not least of all because her father is a car manufacturer. Peck has written another humorously understated tale of gentle life in a midwestern town of the past. The plucky Peewee saves the day at the big auto race, making this a satisfying short read.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
She's best known for her album Horses (which I have yet to hear), but Smith also lived an eventful life as the partner and later close friend of Robert Mapplethorpe in a late 60s/early 70s New York brimming with artistic life. Smith started out as a poet, and the care she takes in crafting the words describing her romantic and then platonic relationship with Robert makes this an incredibly satisfying book to read slowly. Part of the joy of this book is the diligence and honesty with which Smith recounts her journey in accepting Mapplethorpe's sexual orientation and then sexual explorations. They lived for a long time on a rarely described border between partnership and individuality, loving each other and promising to be together while allowing both and each of them to explore relationships with various lovers. At Smith says at one point, their children were their artistic projects together, and they thrived in various studio spaces and at the Chelsea Hotel as Mapplethorpe developed installations, collages, and finally photography that began to document the unabashed and yet hidden world of sex in New York City at this time. Smith, in the meantime, was developing a performance poetry that slowly became rock and roll, and she became a rare woman who used her appearance to further define her art rather than allowing her appearance to define her. It is fascinating to watch her intuitive glimmers of understanding as this path emerges for her. Even after Robert has cemented ties with his lover and patron Sam, when Patti leaves the city to marry, Robert's question is "what about us?" They created a kind of siblinghood out of their once sexual love. Smith richly describes her disappointment when Robert's path diverges from her own, but also exhibits a world of nuanced acceptance for the person Robert needed to become to follow his own sexual and artistic paths, which were sometimes one and the same.
There are too many quotes from this book to pick just a few. It already won the National Book Award, and it's by far the best memoir I've read in several years. Though the later chapters drag slightly with era-related names, Smith almost always manages to give a sense of the poetry of the interactions she had with this dazzling array of personas. It's an immensely satisfying read that affirms the wide expanses of life that committed love between friends who respect each other deeply can encompass.
This book got me thinking about long-term connections, both conventional and unconventional. I did a little research and here's a quick list of other memoirs about relationships that caught my eye as fodder for future reading:
Two Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage by Madeline L'engle
The Commitment by Dan Savage
In the Garden of Our Dreams: Memoirs of a Marriage by Shirlee Taylor Haizlip
The Gastronomy of Marriage: A Memoir of Food and Love by Michelle Maisto