Just Kids

Last month at the Library our staff book discussion category was Biography, Autobiography or Memoir.  I was the discussion leader and I selected the 2010 Nonfiction National Book Award winner, Just Kids by Patti Smith. 

This book is really about serendipity but also about manufactured fame.  It is about love and devotion balanced against self-promotion and selfishness.  It is about how two virtually homeless kids in Brooklyn have a chance meeting long before they become the iconic cultural references we mean when we say Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. 

At issue today in all memoir is the reliability of the narrator and our discussion group had no issues with the believability of this narrative.  Patti Smith places her early life on full display and shares with us the conflicts of growing up in an environment where her chosen partner is desperate to be famous.  At times almost a reluctant traveler in Mapplethorpe’s wake, readers are left to feel that Smith lacked a feminist perspective that left her subservient to his wishes.  Despite that, there is something almost wondrous about Smith’s devotion to a man who would constantly challenge her physically and mentally. 

It all makes great reading.  There are the names of now famous people who, not unlike the author and her companion, were far from being famous mixed with names like Dylan, Warhol and Hendrix that are streaking though American culture at this time.  There is the party scene, the drug use and the sex that seemed to be so wonderful while the reader knows the clock is ticking on major issues such as AIDS.  And, ultimately, there is the reconciliation of survival with the painful memories of losing a love. 

I never can say whether a work is worthy of the honor it receives knowing that so many other works were eligible in this category.  Debate that if you want but in the meantime, read this captivating photograph of life in New York City during this cultural revolution.

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About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

1 Comment on "Just Kids"

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  1. This was my favorite book of last year, and one of my favorite books of all time on any subject.

    I was astonished at the power and control of her language. She opened her heart and mind with clarity and honor, but there was much left unsaid.
    s
    I did not read her actions as subservience nor as a lack of feminism. They were very young. It was a time when that wave of feminism was just being born. I was interested to see how you read it so differently from my own reading.

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