Dec 28, 2011

Jack's Picks for January

 Below are Jack's proposed selections for January, with reviews courtesy of Amazon.
The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano (288 pp):
" exquisite rendering of what one might call feels at the subatomic level." -The New York Time
A prime number is a lonely thing. It can only be divided by itself or by one, and it never truly fits with another. Alice and Mattia are both "primes"-misfits haunted by early tragedies. When the two meet as teenagers, they recognize in each other a kindred, damaged spirit. Years later, a chance encounter reunites them and forces a lifetime of concealed emotion to the surface. But can two prime numbers ever find a way to be together? A brilliantly conceived and elegantly written debut novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a stunning meditation on loneliness, love, and what it means to be human.

Little Bee by Chris Cleave (271 pp):
The publishers of Chris Cleave's new novel "don't want to spoil" the story by revealing too much about it, and there's good reason not to tell too much about the plot's pivot point. All you should know going in to Little Bee is that what happens on the beach is brutal, and that it braids the fates of a 16-year-old Nigerian orphan (who calls herself Little Bee) and a well-off British couple--journalists trying to repair their strained marriage with a free holiday--who should have stayed behind their resort's walls. The tide of that event carries Little Bee back to their world, which she claims she couldn't explain to the girls from her village because they'd have no context for its abundance and calm. But she shows us the infinite rifts in a globalized world, where any distance can be crossed in a day--with the right papers--and "no one likes each other, but everyone likes U2." Where you have to give up the safety you'd assumed as your birthright if you decide to save the girl gazing at you through razor wire, left to the wolves of a failing state.

A Sport and A Pastime by James Salter (200 pp):
"As nearly perfect as any American fiction I know," is how Reynolds Price (The New York Times) described this classic that has been a favorite of readers, both here and in Europe, for almost forty years. Set in provincial France in the 1960s, it is the intensely carnal story--part shocking reality, part feverish dream --of a love affair between a footloose Yale dropout and a young French girl. There is the seen and the unseen--and pages that burn with a rare intensity.

Dec 23, 2011

Just Men and Dogs at George's

Our dinner on Dec. 13 presented our host with a thematic challenge:  how to evoke the art scene of Patti Smith's 1970's New York without ignoring Mapplethorpe's enormous presence in her memoir.  With a little help from Armando, George succeeded quite nicely.  He presented us with a Coney Island menu (chili dogs and homemade Moon Pies) and a background soundtrack that was vintage Patti Smith.

As we reached for second helpings of Moon Pie, Armando set up an impromptu studio in the living room.  Backed by hot lights and a Hasselblad with a Polaroid back, Armando shot instant B&W head-and-shoulders portraits of all of us.  The more adventurous (or exhibitionist, in the case of Stan and John) pulled off their shirts.  The results: amusing, artistic, but hardly Mapplethorpe.  For that, Armando will need more capable subjects.  (Garth, where are you?)

The Book
Patti Smith's highly-acclaimed memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and her own coming of age as an artist in New York City in the 1960's and 70's was an unusual choice for us.  Written by a woman and mostly about a woman, it very nearly violated our cardinal rule (its focus on Mapplethorpe saved it from disqualification).  And while she won the National Book Award for Just Kids in 2010, Patti Smith was known to us as a rocker, not a writer.

Perhaps with these reservations in mind, I came to this book with a bias that I couldn't shake.  My distaste only grew as I recoiled from Smith's incessant name-dropping, her simplistic writing style (like Paul, I hated its staccato rhythm), and her tedious invocations of Rimbaud and Baudelaire as inspirations for her own nascent artistic sensibility.  So imagine my surprise when I showed up at George's and learned that everyone else found plenty to like in Just Kids.  

George and Dean were enthralled by the 1970's New York art scene described by Smith.  For his part, Doug felt that her name-dropping was simply part of the bohemian currency of the era.  Like Dan and Stan, he was drawn to her memoir partly out of a fondness for her music as a teenager in the 1970's--a style of music he contrasts with the "vapid, corporatized" rock music of today. 

Even those of us less attuned to her music found something to like in Smith's narrative.  Terry was impressed by her and Mapplethorpe's single-minded devotion to their work, Armando admired her strength and resilience as an artist (and was reminded of working in a music store and constantly re-stocking her debut album, Horses), and Paul (who joined us from Kansas City!) found the modest lives of 1970's rock stars, sans entourages, appealing.  For John and Larry, the strength of the book was its devotion to Smith's and Mapplethorpe's relationship as young artists.

For her story (but not for her writing), we awarded Patti Smith a 6.1, which puts her only a little below average in our ratings.  While I'm tempted to accuse others of praising Smith's memoir out of nostalgia or sympathy, my own rating (a 1) was a little unfair.  To make up, here is a stock photo of Smith:
Patti Smith, then

Next Up
We leave for our ski sojourn in the Sierras in January and return to a new selection of titles in February.   Until then, good reading!  [Ed. Note:  With no snow in the mountains, we've reversed course:  Jack has kindly agreed to host in January and we'll see if February delivers enough snow to make a weekend out of it.]