Just Kids by Patti Smith

Just Kids

In 1967 Patti Smith left her childhood home in South Jersey and, with very little money, moved to New York City to make it as an artist. On one of her first days there she met Robert Mapplethorpe who would become her friend, lover and artistic booster. In Just Kids the legendary musician recounts the evolution of her relationship with Mapplethorpe, the excitement of living in NYC during this world-changing era and her development as a poet and leader of a rock band.

I started Just Kids three times before I finally finished it. I loved, absolutely loved, the beginning of the book when Smith writes about her childhood and teen years and her decision to try her luck in New York. It’s beautifully nostalgic and lyrical – quite poetic. Toward the middle of the book I kept getting stuck. There is something about the book that made me sad and I couldn’t put my finger on it until I finally finished it. It’s all about death. So many deaths happen to artists that Smith loves and identified with – Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison. And then, of course, the tragedy of the entire story is the death of Mapplethorpe in 1989. By this point their relationship was not very solid and they had drifted away from each other, however the connection they had formed as young artists could never be broken.

Smith’s writing is wonderful and thoughtful, documenting her artistic inspirations and yearning for expression with gentleness for herself and for the broken people around her. I closed the book with a sense of sadness yet peace and an appreciation for the life-saving and refining effect art and creation can have on a determined person.

Smith won the 2010 National Book Award for this memoir and it is well-deserved.


What I Read In March

little purple flowers

March was a hugely productive reading month for me. I finished nine books (one of them an audiobook) and mostly enjoyed the things I read, though there really wasn’t that ‘killer’ book that knocked my reading socks off. A bunch of decent reads is much better than a run of stinkers, though, so I’m not complaining. Here is a quick roundup of my reading life in March:

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue is her first novel since the highly popular Room. In 1876 San Francisco we follow a French prostitute, her dandified boyfriend and the woman who comes between them. This historical mystery features great female characters and a richly drawn setting.

The Receptionist by Janet Groth. You can read more about my thoughts here.

The Shelf by Phyllis Rose. This nonfiction title is an account of Rose’s year of reading almost exclusively from one shelf in her local library and is a perfect book for readers of all stripes. Her humor, curiosity and thoughtfulness make her a lovely and feisty companion through the books of Gaston Leroux, Rhoda Lerman and John Lescroart, among others.

Landline by Rainbow Rowell is another funny romance from this author filled with pop culture references that I adore. This is an adult title about a failing marriage and what happens when an old telephone gives the wife, Georgie, access to her husband of the past. Intelligent chick-lit at its best.

The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia LaingI started out really loving this book about five writers and how drinking affected their lives and work. I was fascinated by the story of Tennessee Williams, who I didn’t know anything about before reading this, and how addiction both focused and destroyed him. The ending was a bit of a letdown as the author speedily related the stories of John Berryman and Raymond Carver. I would have liked to learn more about them and less about Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub. This book is a gem of a family tale. The Post family (dad, mom, brother and sister) rent a house in Mallorca for two weeks with a couple who are good friends of the mom and the brother’s girlfriend. Being cooped up in close quarters forces conflicts to be resolved, choices to be made and truths revealed. All of this takes place in a beautiful setting by the beach with Spanish food and culture surrounding them. Her writing reminds me a little of Cathleen Schine.

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset MaughamA silly wife in 1920’s Hong Kong cheats on her stoic husband so he forces her to accompany him to a cholera ridden area in China. I thought every single character was incredibly frustrating and they all made me want to throttle them, but I did love the portrayal of Kitty’s growth and maturing as she overcomes her many challenges.

After I’m Gone by Laura LippmanI listened to this over the month in my car and it was quite good. When a small-time but good-hearted criminal intentionally disappears to avoid prison time, his wife, three daughters and mistress all pay a price. When a cold case detective starts dredging up the past we learn just how high that price was. This has truly believable characters and a surprising twist that made me gasp out loud. I loved the narrator, Linda Emond, and want to listen to more books she’s worked on.

Picture Perfect by Shanna Hogan. A true crime novel about Jodi Arias that broke me out of a reading slump.

Now on to April – I can’t wait to see what I end up reading this month.

The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker by Janet Groth


The Receptionist is a book that I’ve wanted to read since it was released a few years ago. Anything set in Manhattan in the sixties always appeals to me and to have it set in the literary world is especially enticing. I was gathering books for a Mad Men display at work and this title kept popping up on various book lists online – instead of putting it on the display I decided to read it last weekend.

Unfortunately, it was somewhat of a disappointment, I think because of my expectations. It isn’t so much a chronicle of the author’s 21 years working at The New Yorker as an exploration of one young woman’s midcentury identity crisis, which, though interesting, isn’t quite what I thought the book was going to be about.

Janet Groth was raised in the Midwest with an alcoholic father and an aloof and beautiful mother. As soon as she finished college in Minnesota in 1957 she hightailed it to New York and, through a connection with E.B. White, secured a position as receptionist on the 18th floor of The New Yorker. There she stayed for the next two decades, assisting the magazine’s staff writers and becoming a part of their lives by babysitting and housesitting for them and socializing with them after work.

The book is not laid out chronologically, instead it contains a series of chapters that move back and forth between detailing the author’s personal struggles and romantic entanglements to profiles of people she met at the magazine. The chapters that focus on her own story slowly overtake the book. I do like reading coming-of-age tales, but as the book progressed I missed the chapters that featured the magazine or people she met through it, such as her chapter on Muriel Spark (which is wonderful and worth reading the book for).

Overall, this is a fast read that has very descriptive writing, with some lovely chapters on the writers and editors of The New Yorker. However, it also has too many angsty chapters that were not quite unique enough to capture my interest.

Christmas Reading/ White Christmas: The Story of an American Song by Jody Rosen

white christmas

Every year I try to read something new that is related to Christmas, about Christmas or set during Christmas. This year, I wasn’t tempted by any of the Christmas fiction available at my library so I did a quick search in the catalog for nonfiction Christmas-y books and this title jumped out at me. I am an ardent lover of holiday music and have always admired Bing Crosby’s version of White Christmas so I knew this book would be perfect for me.

White Christmas was written by Irving Berlin, already a majorly successful composer, and used in the film Holiday Inn which was released in 1942. Around September of that year the song became a best-selling record and was played frequently on the radio. Berlin tried to have the song’s popularity stifled because he wanted to save it for December, but he needn’t have worried; the song stayed on the charts throughout that year and into the next. With its haunting melody and nostalgic lyrics, White Christmas was adopted by American soldiers as a symbol of home and better times and continued to top the charts throughout the war. In fact, the master recording had been pressed so many times that it wore out and Bing Crosby had to re-record the song in 1947 (this second version is the one we hear now). It is currently the best-selling single of all time.

In this microhistory, Rosen examines not only the history of White Christmas, its structure and recording, but the entire history of pop music from the twenties through the sixties. There are chapters on Tin Pan Alley, Irving Berlin’s rise to fame from a poor upbringing in Siberia, Bing Crosby’s preeminence, how music changed so dramatically in the fifties with the rise of rock and roll and how this demolished the traditional songwriting and sheet music business (and forced Irving Berlin to retire). He also discusses how most of our standard songs (including Christmas music) was written by Jewish composers who so perfectly captured the hopes and dreams of all everyday Americans.

I got more than I bargained for with White Christmas and am thoroughly delighted. I enjoyed reading about the golden age of songwriting and about Berlin – a perfectionist, a somewhat cranky, patriotic humanitarian who lived to the age of 101. When I hear White Christmas now I will think of all I learned while reading this book and of how truly remarkable it is that this song has persisted in being so influential 71 years after its first release.

This is a wonderful Christmas read – one I highly recommend. Are you reading anything Christmas related?

Also, I am participating in Wilkie in Winter, hosted by The Estella Society. I’ll start reading The Frozen Deep tomorrow for the readalong.

Have a great weekend!

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

mr. whicher

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher was the second book my recently formed book club discussed. I thought it would inspire a great discussion on the history of detectives and police work, the psychology of murder and a fascinating peek into the world of a Victorian family and the Victorian press.

In June 1860 a small boy named Savile Kent is murdered in his home, Road Hill House, and found dumped in a privy. There is practically no physical evidence, not much cooperation from the boy’s household (composed of his parents, four older step-siblings, a young sister and several servants), and not much experience among the local police on how to investigate such a crime. Several weeks after the body is found Inspector Jonathan Whicher from Scotland Yard arrives to apply his considerable expertise to solving the murder. He quickly pins down a suspect while the newspapers criticize and ridicule his decisions and deductions. In addition, the case had become an obsession to the entire country (I was reminded of the Casey Anthony case recently here in America) with people from all walks of life, including Mr. Charles Dickens himself, contributing their two cents about who committed the murder and how it could really be solved.

Inspector Whicher

Inspector Whicher was inspiration for the early detective novels of Wilkie Collins, especially The Moonstone, Dickens’ Bleak House and Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. The book club discussion didn’t touch much on this aspect of the novel, but several book clubbers did mention a desire to read Collins after reading this.

So, what did the book club think? I believe the majority of us very much enjoyed the book, though it was slow going in parts. There were a few members who didn’t manage to finish the book because it was so dense and detail laden. I had trouble about half-way through when the press accounts became overwhelming and repetitive – it felt like Summerscale was trying to pad out the years after the murder when not much was happening in the case. The end of the book was, however, riveting with its account of what happened to the major figures in the case long after the investigation was over.

The next book up for discussion in May is Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.

If you’d like to win copies of Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym and This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart enter here.

Mini Thoughts on Major Books


The following two books have already received lots of attention, publicity and accolades (or criticism) so I am just going to give my very brief thoughts on each title.

lifeafterlifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson – Ursula Todd is born in the harsh winter of 1910 and thereafter experiences re-birth and a circular life cycle throughout her existence. The plot of this novel bends back on itself several times over as Ursula dies again and again and is taken back to the snowy day of her birth. Each time she begins her life again a different circumstance, decision, or the actions of someone in her life cause a unique outcome and, sometimes, the outcome can save the world from war. She doesn’t remember her past lives, but does have a small glimmer and inkling of things that have happened in the past and is able to make decisions that change her path based on that knowledge. The writing in Life After Life is quite beautiful, the kind of writing that gets to your heart and  makes you think and ponder the purpose of life and the nature of human behavior. I really loved the setting and the time period (England and the early twentieth century) and was mesmerized by the scenes set during the London bombings during World War II. I worried about how Atkinson would finish the novel, but the ending is perfect and complete.

leaninLean In by Sheryl Sandberg – Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, urges women in her bestselling book to lean in to their careers and banish internal barriers to leadership and success. She uses lots of academic research to back up her argument that women tend not to promote their own interests at work and gives some great advice for learning how to stand out in your profession and achieve the highest positions in industry and politics. She is speaking to a very limited audience here – women who have the education and opportunity to become industry leaders, who can afford quality childcare and have supportive husbands – but I still found value in her message. I may not agree with her views on gender roles and the importance of mothers in the day-to-day nurturing of children, but I do agree that the more female leaders and role models we have the better off we will be.

If anyone is switching over to Librarything from Goodreads, friend me! My username is anbolyn.

Mini Thoughts on Recent Reads #2


faultThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green – I listened to this blockbuster teen novel on audio and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It is read by Kate Rudd, who does an excellent job of rendering the voice of Hazel, the main character, who is 16  and has had terminal cancer for several years. When she meets Gus, a fellow teen who also has cancer, they quickly form a strong bond and go on a life-affirming trip that changes both their lives. This book has funny, wry, smart teens and a love story that will slowly wrench your heart out. I think it is a truly irresistible read for teen girls, but boys might enjoy the humor.


howtobeHow to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran – Caitlin Moran is one of my new heroines. She strongly argues the case for feminism while hysterically telling her life story and recounting many of her own experiences as an opinionated woman. Unlike many feminist tomes I’ve read, How to Be a Woman is warm, funny, positive and full of fun. I would even say Moran’s writing is gleeful, though she is addressing serious issues. I really enjoyed this book and am currently reading her collection of articles, Moranthology. Caitlin Moran is someone I think I would enjoy spending time with, though I will never understand her thing for Lady Gaga.


belljarThe Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath – Does anyone else share my obsession with Sylvia Plath? Like many teen girls, I became fascinated with her while I was in high school. Reading about her inner struggle between wanting to be a great artist and wanting to conform to the 1950’s expectations for women struck a chord with me and is a conflict I still see in evidence today. The Bell Jar describes this conflict through the story of Esther Greenwood, a college junior who has a breakdown during her summer holidays and ends up in a mental institution where electric shock treatments are administered to her. The world-weary tone and dark humor can’t hide Esther’s hope for meaning and the desire to define success in her own way. The Bell Jar is strongly based on Plath’s own experiences after her first suicide attempt in the summer of 1953. There has been a resurgence of interest in the novel and in Plath’s life because on February 11 it will be 50 years since she died. The Bell Jar is a wonderful novel, strong evidence of Plath’s talent and gift for prose – maybe not as strong as her poetry, yet so good it makes me sad we never had more from her.

After a really stressful week at work, I am savoring my three day weekend. I plan on lots of reading, cleaning, snuggling with cats and a visit to a bookstore or two. What do you have planned for the weekend?


Manhattan, When I Was Young by Mary Cantwell

Mary Cantwell’s Manhattan, When I Was Young is her memoir of the early years of her marriage and career in the 50’s and 60’s. I’m really fond of this particular time period and have read quite a few novels this year set during the 50’s (most of them Pym’s and Stewart’s) so was drawn to this account of a young woman’s mid-century love affair with Manhattan.

Mary is from a small, coastal town in Rhode Island and has always dreamed of making a life in the city. After she graduates from college she moves to Manhattan and lands a job at Mademoiselle magazine. Very shortly thereafter she marries her husband, B., and transitions from single career girl to wife and, eventually, mother. But her life is not at all like those of the television housewives so popular at the time. She and B. live in Greenwich Village and mingle with artists and intellectuals. Mary continues to work, even admittedly neglecting her children in order to give more time to her career and her social life.

“Maybe if it had not been so easy to walk out the door, I might have stayed at home. But if I had, I would have been unhappy, and not simply because a college education was going down a drain. To live in New York, to be part of New York, I had to work.”

The death of Mary’s father when she was in college dramatically affects her life, especially her marriage. A melancholy tone pervades this book because Mary is never satisfied, frequently depressed and can’t really connect with her husband. I had the sense that, though she lives in a majestic city, meets amazing people and has a lovely family, she is sleep walking through life. There is a murky quality to her writing that gives the impression that she is an unsettled person and almost revels in her instability. The conflict between wanting to please her husband and wanting to live life in her own thoughtful way causes her great turmoil and she clings to the memory of her father to give her some sense of security.

I finished this book just before starting The Tortoise and the Hare and, though very dissimilar in many ways, they share the theme of the search for identity. As in The Tortoise and the Hare, the end of Manhattan, When I Was Young arrives with the knowledge that the search will continue.

After working in fashion, Mary Cantwell sat on the editorial board of The New York Times for sixteen years. She wrote columns for the paper and continued writing about her love for New York. In the 90’s she published a trilogy of memoirs, of which Manhattan, When I Was Young is the second. I would like to read the other two, American Girl and Speaking with Strangers, to see the full range of her observant life. She died in 2000 and New York lost one of its most ardent admirers.

Have you read Mary Cantwell? Have you read any remarkable memoirs this year?

There’s still time to enter the giveaway for A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. Click HERE to enter. The giveaway ends on Thursday, November 29 at midnight, Arizona time. I’ll announce the winner on Friday. Good luck!

Mini Book Thoughts

Since I can’t seem to gather enough thoughts together these days to write about books in any lengthy fashion, I am going to give you three brief thoughts on books I’ve finished lately:


A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark -Set in 1950’s Kensington, this darkly humorous novel is told in the first person by Mrs. Hawkins, an overweight widow who works in publishing. Mrs. Hawkins is a dependable and sensible woman, seen as a mother figure to many though she is really quite young. She realizes that this is tied to her matronly appearance and when she starts losing weight those who depended on her before no longer trust her opinion and chaos ensues. I didn’t think about the connection between her slenderness and the way others view and react to her as I was reading the novel, but now I think this may be one of the main themes. Anyway, I really enjoy Spark’s writing and I love her whimsically sardonic humor.

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe – This memoir is the beautiful story of Schwalbe’s relationship with his dying mother, Mary Anne, and how books draw them together during her final months on earth. Mary Anne is a remarkable and wise woman who lives with dignity. She imparts some wonderful life lessons to her son as they discuss the books they’re reading and Will is able to learn more about his mother’s life through her beliefs and opinions of the books they share. I think this book strikes a perfect tone – never crossing over into saccharine – and is a wonderful tribute to Mary Anne and her life filled with service. To read more about this really special book visit Lisa or Karen.

The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin (no photo) – This first time novel is a treat. In beautiful, unadorned prose Coplin tells the story of William Talmage, a lonely orchardist, whose life is upended by the arrival of two hungry teen girls in his remote valley in Washington State. The  novel examines the need for connection and how that desire can lead to unlikely bonds. The setting, late nineteenth century Western USA, enhances the sense of isolation the characters endure and makes their longing for relationships even more poignant. Coplin’s writing is lovely and it will be interesting to see where it takes her next.


Happy November! I have a feeling this is going to be a great month.


Heaven is Here by Stephanie Nielson

Heaven is Here is not the type of book I usually read. I rarely read memoirs, especially ones that chronicle triumph over hardship. However, I’ve been following Stephanie Nielson’s story ever since she and her husband Christian were horribly burned in an airplane crash in August of 2008. At the time they were living in Mesa, Arizona and the crash happened in St. Johns, Arizona so there was lots of media coverage of the accident in my area . I’ve been reading Stephanie’s blog recently to get updates on how she and her husband are doing and how their family is growing and healing. So, of course, I had to read the book to hear Stephanie’s account of this incredibly challenging time in her life.

Before the accident the Nielson’s were a happy and dynamic family with 4 little children. Stephanie chronicled their adventures on her popular blog and was much admired for being devoted to her life as a wife and mother. During the crash Stephanie was burned over 80% of her body, including her face, and was in a medically induced coma for three months afterwards. She nearly died several times and suffered agonizing pain through her recovery. But by far the hardest challenge for her to endure was the alteration in her appearance due to the burns on her face. It was 5 months before she had the courage to look at herself in the mirror and two of her children were so confused by the change in her looks that they would not approach her. Completely heartbreaking.

Though faced with much adversity, Stephanie, with the help of friends, family and incredible doctors, has regained her health and is now living the life of her dreams. She even just had a new baby in April, little Charlotte, who is adorable! I was very inspired by reading her story, but Heaven is Here may not be for everyone. Stephanie is strongly religious and credits her Mormon faith, which she refers to often, with helping her to face her trials so if you are squeamish about these things I would not recommend this book to you.

Another inspirational memoir I really like is A Pearl in the Storm by Tori Murden McClure. What are your favorite inspirational memoirs?