Just Kids by Patti Smith

Philadelphia is just a quick blitz up I-95 from Wilmington if the traffic’s not too bad, and if you drive down North Philly’s Newell Street you can probably still see the old GI housing project where punk poetess Patti Smith spent a few of her formative years, before relocating across the river to New Jersey.

It was in Philly, she said, that she learned how to dance and where she  first saw “it” girl, Edie Sedgewick, at a Warhol Retrospective in the mid 1960s.  By the end of the decade, though, she shed her small town roots and hit the Big Apple, drinking in all that magical city had to offer and aligning herself with the creme of the counter culture.  It was there that she became.

Rail thin, hauntingly beautiful and extraordinarily talented, Smith is best known to us through her poetry, her music and her art.  Captured on film, spread across countless magazine pages and pinned to the walls of galleries, her legacy is already cemented in contemporary culture where she has become an icon for our time.

With all that at our fingertips, there has been precious little prose to grab on to, just a bit here and there over the years.  This has now changed with the long anticipated release of Just Kids, Smith’s memoir of her remarkable and enduring relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

Her first book length prose offering, Just Kids is the story of two pretty young things crisscrossing their way through New York City during the late Sixties and Seventies.  From Coney Island to the busted down theaters on Forty-Second Street; from the dirty glitter of Max’s Kansas City to Warhol’s own Factory the city is open to us through Smith’s eyes. Residing at the legendary Chelsea Hotel, Smith and Mapplethorpe fully immersed themselves in a larger than life world filled with high profile celebs, well known artists and the up and comers who were still very much on the fringe…of art, politics, music and sexuality.

Smith’s prose is striking, acerbic and thought provoking. How could it be anything else?  This book, a history and eulogy and an offering is as lyrical as anything she has ever done. It’s a broad stroke that captures the very essence of what New York was during this illustrious heyday, but more importantly, Just Kids is an honest and intimate portrait of a man who would very quickly become one of America’s eminent photographers, told from a perspective that only memoir can offer.

The only downside, if there can even be one, is that the book is a little lean on photographs.  Although there are a healthy handful scattered throughout the text, it’s not nearly enough to satisfy the craving.  That one small pick aside, it’s a beautiful book sure to become an indispensable reference for Smith and Mapplethorpe fans alike.

On the cover of Smith’s groundbreaking album Horses, photographed by Mapplethorpe in 1975, the singer’s eyes pierce her compatriot’s lens and you can almost hear the lyrics to the album’s closing “Elegie.”  “There must be something I can dream tonight/The air is filled with the moves of you.”  She might have written those words for Jimi Hendrix but they are just as appropriate here. (AH January 2010)


The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman

Now exhibiting her collected work at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art, artist  and author Maira Kalman’s art is a  welcome beacon for the modern thinker. Her ability to draw one in with words and images that are rich, vibrantly alive and sublimely simple is breathtaking; unerringly demonstrated throughout The Principles of Uncertainty, a bound collection of her 2007 New York Times Op-Extra column.

Riffling the pages of this book becomes the act of taking a trip into Kalman’s own psyche and, by extension, our own.  Each chapter is instinctually evocative, words leap out as we wonder “What is death?,” “Why are we here,?” and “Who are we, really?” right alongside her.  This is art at its best; open, honest and laid bare without censure.  It’s profound, heartbreaking and hilarious in turns; often all three in the very same moment.

Across pages filled with vivid color, and words that spider around images of teacups and hats, jars of air and Abraham Lincoln and even English ingenue Vita Sackville-West, the hodgepodge of ideas threads together in the end.  The chapters move as a brain does, jumping from point to point, connecting disparate ideas in a way that becomes linear.

The Principles of Uncertainty, then, is a travelogue for the existentialist, a memoir of breathtaking beauty, a chapbook where every word and picture delves deep into Kalman’s own inner world. It’s a world we lucky she’s willing to share. ( AH January 2010)


Below Blue London by Chrissie Bentley

Philadelphia author Chrissie Bentley has been described as one of America’s foremost erotic writers and a visit to her website will show you why.  But she also has a sound historical knowledge, and a firm grip on the supernatural, and it is these talents that raise Below Blue London so high.

Set in London’s docklands area over the course of 400 years, Bentley traces the story of a single plot of land as successive builders and developers transform it from a boggy wasteland in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, through the private home of a wealthy professor, a rough dockside bar, a run-down curiosity shop, a sad and sordid slum, a bored housewife’s makeshift bordello, a bombsite and, today, a luxury apartment building.  And it is in the present day that the story begins, as two room mates discover they are sharing their home with a most peculiar presence – the spirit of raw sexuality.

At first, the story traces their efforts to discover more about their home; before looping back to explore the home itself, a dazzling parade of past residences and visitors, among whom author Charles Dickens is only the best-known.  His involvement with the specters that haunt the site is simultaneously uproarious and arousing, and will almost certainly leave the reader reaching for some of Dickens’ own ghost stories.  The subject matter may be very dissimilar, but not so the spell that the story weaves.

Characters are painted in vivid slashes of color and life, and fresh surprises unfold with as much explosive drama as the wartime bombs that shatter the house … and, indeed, the entire neighborhood… in 1940.  And every one of them leaves its mark on the landscape, every one adds a whole new layer to the mystery.

Below Blue London is a ferociously erotic book, pulling no punches in either language or descriptions.  But look beyond, or around, those attractions, and this is a story that will live long in your imagination. (AH January 2010)

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