Sunday, July 28, 2019

Just Kids by Patti Smith

I may have mentioned that French music of the turn of the last century is one of my all time favorite eras to listen to.  Here is Debussy's 12 Etudes, performed by Cecile Ousset.

You may have noticed the abundance of birds in the background of the above photo.  I went to Hobby Lobby and got a little crazy.  Everything was 50 to 75% off and all the birds were irresistible.  I also bought some art supplies.  I've decided to acquire another creative outlet, but I'll talk more about that later.

Just KidsJust Kids by Patti Smith
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I can't say I find Patti Smith attractive or her music interesting, but for some reason I find her as a person intriguing, in the same way I find the Sex Pistols intriguing. And for the same reason I've been reading about music of the seventies that I was not aware of (they only played the BeeGees and Donna Summer on the radio where I lived in Florida). I wanted to know more about this strange woman and her contribution to Punk Rock and music in general.

We learn of Patti's brave and adventurous move to New York City as a young woman. She goes hungry, sleeps on park benches and steals, until she meets Robert Mapplethorpe, a young man in the same situation. They move in together, become lovers and fellow survivors. They work and live off mostly Patti's earnings at a book shop. Robert seems to have trouble keeping a steady job and the only thing he seems to be good at and enjoys is prostituting his body.

Patti states this as a fact devoid of emotion or even a sense that it's wrong. Neither does she seem bothered by the fact that she contracts gonorrhea from Mapplethorpe.

In fact a conventional sense of right and wrong seems to be lacking in the whole book. One of the most disturbing events is when she describes Mapplethorpe stealing a William Blake out of store and then feeling remorseful, tears it up into tiny pieces and flushes it down the toilet. I am still in disbelief. Surely this wasn't an authentic Blake? How could anyone destroy irreplaceable art like that?

There are gaps as well. Smith and Mapplethorpe are starving artists barely scraping by in Brooklyn, then they're living in the Chelsea Hotel rubbing shoulders with Janis Joplin, Allen Ginsburg, and members of the Andy Warhol Factory clan. How did that happen?

Smith and Mapplethorpe continue to live together encouraging each other's art, eventually getting other lovers. Mapplethorpe gets a rich sugar daddy that launches his career and Smith lives with a married man, Sam Sheppard, knowing that it won't last, but seems to accept its short life span as inevitable.

This really confounds me. Is Smith really OK with the transience of her relationships with no conscience that she became a man's mistress and no doubt the heartbreak of his wife? Are those the standards she set for herself? Does her vision take her no higher?

Then another gap. Patti is on her way to stardom, but she fails to provide us with the intermediary steps. Also the fact that she did finally marry and have children and stayed married till her husband's death parted them.

Also, don't expect this book to inform you of her music or artistic work. It's the story she promised Robert she would tell after he died.

Patti talks about rebellion and her own rebellious spirit. When she was a child she asked her mother why she couldn't just kick in the shop windows they were passing. Her mother gave some mumbling, "you just can't" sort of answer.

I would like to answer that question now. You do have the freedom to kick in those shop windows. But you do not have the freedom to escape the consequences of that freedom. You're free to kick in shop windows and the shop owner is free to come out and pull you up by your thick, scraggly hair, swing your skinny little body around and let you fly off into the street.

Rebellion is not freedom and it's not creative. It's reactionary. You have to wait for someone else to create before you can knock it down. Rebellion is one of the most unimaginative states to live in.

Patti had the freedom to sleep with Mapplethorpe, but did she have the freedom to keep her heart soft and pliable? Or did it turn into Teflon? Or, like Janis Joplin sang, every lover takes a little piece of your heart and after a while, there's no heart left.

Mapplethorpe got what he wanted. His rich lover made him famous, and admittedly, the quality of his photographs deserve it. But neither of them had the freedom to live very long. They both died of AIDS. I wonder who gave it to whom?

This book got me thinking about a lot of things.

I don't think Bohemianism is all it is cracked up to be.

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Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson

I love twentieth century music and I hope you all will enjoy listening to Carl Nielsen's Wind Quintet Op. 43 performed by the Galliard Ensemble.

The Lost WeekendThe Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book was quite the eye opener. I have never suffered from alcohol or drug addictions nor have I lived with anyone suffering from this sickness. Sickness it certainly is. How someone arrives at this state, I don't know. I'm sure there are a lot of different causes, both environmental and genetic, but based on this semi-autobiographical account by Charles Jackson, I think that one's mental faculties become seriously impaired.

The Lost Weekend is about one man's nightmarish life. His entire reason to live is to get that next drink. Don Birnam is a writer, we are not informed as to how successful he is. Not very, the reader gathers since he lives with his brother and has no money. What little money he is able to beg, borrow and steal is quickly liquidated, pun intended.

The story takes place in 1936 on the East Side of Manhatten. Don Birnam is sitting in a chair in his brother's apartment. His brother is about to go away for the weekend and he pleads with his brother to come with him. They argue back and forth, but Don is adamant that he is not leaving his chair. His brother finally gives up and leaves.

Thus begins a drinking binge that starts on Friday and doesn't end until the following Tuesday, when his brother returns.

We live inside Don's mind. We know his every thought. We see him lie at the bar, so people will buy him drinks, he lies to the woman at the laundromat who doesn't want to give him money because she knows what he'll do with it, but it's just a loan you see...yeah take it and go away...

We listen to his thoughts as he becomes inebriated and delusional. It's so painful to watch. He takes a taxi to an upscale bar where he drinks himself into believing that he can steal the purse from the woman next to him and get away with it, because he has super powers. He's smarter than everyone else in the whole world. Then the humiliating exposure as the woman and her boyfriend demand the purse back and the bouncer throws him out.

But where can he get the next drink? Where's his money? He has it, then he doesn't have it. Here it is in his coat pocket. Now it's not there. What happened to it? He doesn't know what's going on.

He decides he must sell his typewriter. He carries it blocks and blocks to a pawn shop, but the shop is closed. Why is it closed? He has to carry his typewriter back. It's miserably heavy.

What day is it? Is it still Friday? No it's Saturday.

Then he's in the hospital. How did he end up there? That's right, he fell down the stairs as he was returning to the apartment.

The doctor and nurse treat him and the other patients, it's a ward for drug addicts and alcoholics, like specimens. His head is badly fractured and they want him to stay until he is properly treated, but he refuses. They give him a pain killer which is great! Where can he get more of this stuff? He wheedles the nurse but the nurse won't budge.

He leaves and somehow makes it back home. The phone rings incessantly, probably his brother checking on him, but he won't answer. He doesn't want to speak to anyone or see anyone.

He finds he has to see someone because the woman who has been trying to contact him all weekend finally shows up at his apartment. The janitor has let her in.

She takes him to her house and tries to get him to shower and rest. The next morning when she goes to work, he rifles through her stuff to see if she has any liquor. He finally leaves with her fur coat and goes to hock it.

He was somebody once. Sometimes his thoughts drift to his past. He went to university, taught in university, but somehow he ended up homeless, jobless and obsessing over how to connive another drink.

Charles Jackson wrote this story in 1946. He had a rich source of material to draw on, his own life. He fought his demons for years, but finally, in 1967, in his room in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, he died of alcohol and drug poisoning.

This is a horrible, excruciating and beautifully written book and I highly recommend it.

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This postcard came from China.  I always like to tell my Chinese postcard pals that my son is living there and learning their language.  Derek tells me he is now dreaming in Chinese.

Here is the front so you can see the interesting stamps.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

One of my favorite composers to play.  Here is Robert Schumann's rarely played Gesänge der Frühe, Op.133 performed by the exquisite Mitsuko Uchida.

The Westing GameThe Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I read this on the recommendation of someone whose opinion I respect, although I understand that we have different tastes in literature. I like character and plot driven stories, he's more into world building and provocative concepts.

OK, I'm talking about my husband, but that is beside the point. This book was on his shelf and it looked intriguing so I gave it a shot. There were elements I liked and elements I did not like.

Of course to be fair, it was written for a younger audience, won the Newberry in fact, but I have to chalk up her target audience as another criticism. The plot and cast of characters were quite complicated and I know I would have lost interest in the book at that age. In fact, if I wasn't able to speed read, I would not have gotten through it at my present age.

Plot premise:

Sixteen people have been carefully selected to live in Sunset Towers. It turns out that they are all potential heirs to Sam Westing, a business tycoon who disappeared years ago, but lives on an estate near the Towers. Shortly into the story, Sam is found dead in his house. But he seems to know he would die, furthermore he has left instructions for his heirs to follow in order for them to acquire their share of his fortune.

The kicker: Westing claims he was murdered. By one of them! The first person to discover the culprit will win one hundred million dollars. The heirs are paired up and each pair given a set of clues. Each list of clues are incomplete so they need to find out the other pairs' lists to solve the murder mystery.

What I liked:

It was an intriguing mystery. I wanted to know what was going to happen and that kept me going to the end. And I will say without divulging anything that I found the ending satisfactory. It ended the way I like stories to end, with a resolution, like the "Amen" chord at the end of a hymn.

I also liked that, although the characters started out immensely unlikeable and cardboard thin, they actually started showing other dimensions as the story progressed and as I said, I do like where they all ended up.

OK, criticisms:

I felt the characters were a bit stereotyped and a few of them not very believable. In fact, I wish she had less characters and concentrated more on developing them. Some of them had real potential to be very interesting, but they stop short.

Some of the characters were not very believable. The girl nicknamed Turtle is so immature, she runs around kicking everyone in the shins, that for a good third of the book I thought she was around eight years old. It turns out she's thirteen. Sorry, this book was written in 1978. I was thirteen in 1978. I had hit hormonal adolescence big time. Boys were not yucky they were fascinating and while I had my hopeless crushes, I did not express it by kicking the objects of my desire in the shin.

Also, it was very hard to keep track of who everyone was and what the clues led up to. I found myself backtracking and re-reading pages frequently.

All in all, not a bad read, just not a very good one.

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Sunday, July 7, 2019

Barcelona by Robert Hughes

I have become addicted to a show on Youtube and I cannot stop binge watching it.  It's called "What's My Line?"  John Charles Daly hosts it and there is a panel of  regular celebrities who were quite famous at the time.

What do I like?  How courteous and civil and blessedly free from any kind of political rant the show was.  Their dress and demeanor were classy and, while the mystery guest was normally someone famous,  the other guests were ordinary people with interesting occupations.  Some of them were quite impressive.  There was a quaint elderly lady who looked just like granny from Bugs Bunny who was a tiger trainer.  Another was a woman who was a foreign correspondent, something new at the time.  

They also had one of the Buckingham Palace guards and the inventor of the hula hoop. There was a Navy man who tested parachutes (by jumping out of planes in them!) and an Army man who was a deep sea diver to recover derelict ships.

My favorites were when the mystery guest was Salvador Dali and another time Frank Lloyd Wright.

As for the panel's personal lives?  I looked them all up.  They stayed married to the same person until death parted them.

Sigh...those were happier some respects.  At least in the media. 

And for your listening pleasure:  Arthur Rubenstein playing Chopin.

Guell Park
In 2013 I visited Barcelona and left there an adoring admirer of Gaudi, the eccentric architect.  His work mesmerizes me.

Photos from my visit in 2013.

BarcelonaBarcelona by Robert Hughes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I was reading other interviews on Amazon and it seems the major complaint was that the book should have been more concise and covered less information about the history of Catalonia. One person was irate that there was no mention of the soccer team.

As for me, I did not think it was too long, I liked the extensive trek through history starting with the earliest records, the different kingdoms, rise and fall of kings, queens, aristocracy and such.

By reading Hughes fluid writing, one discovers how the Catalunyans (ibed) or Catalonians view themselves, their fierce pride in their heritage and their language, different from Spanish.

Hughes covers many bases, except, I guess, soccer. We learn of the city's politics, art, language, literature, poetry, and architecture. My hero, Gaudi is honored with the last two chapters, although other architects are also included.

I had seen the Sagrada Familia in art books and it looked like a mud castle someone made on the beach. And then I visited the city and saw it in person. All I can say is that I was mesmerized. There was something spiritually uplifting just by looking at it. For those who don't know (and shame on you if you don't) the Sagrada Familia is Gaudi's masterpiece: a church, it is called a cathedral, although technically it is not a Cathedral because no Bishop presides there, and is still to be finished. The only thing marring this wonder structure are the cranes.

Hughes scoffs at the later architects who have tried to finish Gaudi's work, but I like it, even if there is a noticeable delineation between Gaudi's work and his successors'. There is so much detail and meaningful symbolism.

Hughes scoffs at a lot of things. While I enjoyed the information he provided and felt I learned a lot about Barcelona which increased my appreciation of it, I did not like Hughes' overall tone. He sounded just a little too superior. Turning a clever phrase trumped objective observation.

But, aside from that, readers interested in this remarkable city would do well to read this book.

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For posts on my photo trip through Barcelona you can click on the links below:

Final destination:  Barcelona

Barcelona:  Second Day

Barcelona:  Third Day