One Who Walked Alone – Robert E. Howard: The Final Years by Novalyne Price Ellis

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My very first impression of this book wasn’t too favorable: Novalyne Price starts off in a school-girlishly gushy manner (for example, she uses way more exclamation marks – seriously, and not humorously – than I can stomach without sarcastic remarks and irritated eye-rolls – “I met Bob Howard today! I’m so excited! Bob Howard is a real writer, and I met him, today!”), which made me wonder whether this was going to be 300 pages of fan-girling (which would have surprised me, knowing the friend who gifted me the book), but then the actual book started, Price cut down a bit on her exclamation mark usage, and even though I could never come to fully appreciate her style, the content more than made up for any possible stylistic deficiency or incompatibility, and soon I started to find this book thoroughly enjoyable, exhilarating, admirable, delightfully unruly and also heart-breaking.

And as I came to realize that there’s no way for me to write a coherent review, I decided to write one based on my random thoughts and feelings, separated by headings.

The blurb

I’d recommend skipping the sensationalist, trashy blurb altogether, because based on that, you might just think that this is a – well, a sensationalist and trashy memoir/biography, when in fact it’s anything but.

What is this made of?

The book mostly consists of the text of Price’s journals and diaries, from that roughly two-year period when she knew and dated Howard. I don’t know how heavily Price edited or revised her text, and how much she deleted from it when – more than 40 years later – she took her journals and turned them into this book, but in any case, the book still retains a lot of journal-like characteristics, which in itself is neither good nor bad. Price’s book is as intimate and vivid as any journal that is faithfully maintained by its author, but it’s also full of tiresome repetitions, flights of fancy and a certain monomania – it’s full of details which are probably very interesting for the author of the journal, but perhaps not so interesting for anyone else.

The “story”

In 1934, Novalyne Price gets a job as a teacher in Cross Plains, a small Texas town, where she soon manages to pick up Robert Howard. Price and Howard already knew each other briefly from earlier, and I’m not even sure what I mean here by “picking up”, because even though they go on to spend a lot of time together in the next several months, and even though Price sometimes thinks about Howard as a possible romantic interest, they just remains friends throughout their relationship – friends who spend their time driving up and down through the Texas countryside, reading books together, discussing writing, literature and the downfall of civilization, and also arguing a lot.

And even though in the beginning I briefly thought that perhaps Price is just a fan-girl, hanging on the words of Howard-the-Barbarian with fascination, I soon realized that she’s in fact a smart, determined, hard-willed, ambitious and self-confident young woman with a quirky sense of humor, who doesn’t give a damn about many of her environment’s conventions and expectations, while at the same time she’s an often clumsy, irritating, not-very-imaginative country girl who sometimes displays a frightful lack of empathy. In short – I realized that Novalyne Prize is a real human, a person with random moods, with good and bad moments and traits, with prejudices, biases, deeply held beliefs, with a lot of enthusiasm and lust for life, with all kinds of joys and sorrows. And though it’s possible to dislike her as a person, the real-ness of her own personal reality is indisputable.

What’s this about?

Theoretically, it’s about the last two years of Robert E. Howard, as witnessed by a close friend, but in reality, it’s much more about the friend herself. Yes, Novalyne Price wasn’t afraid to look closer and go closer to Howard, whom almost the whole town considered a lunatic, so it’s probable that she really got to know Howard better than anyone else. Still – Price’s main concern and interest was always her own life: she soon gave up the idea of getting into a closer, romantic relationship with Howard, she dated other men, too (and some of her journal entries concerning one of her regular dates, Truett, who was also Howard’s friend, really bring to mind the world of teenage-girl diaries), and she often got fully engrossed in her job and ignored everything else – therefore I sometimes felt that, after all, she probably didn’t see/understand Howard as well as she claims.

And about what else?

About so much more. The book contains the whole life of a small Texas town in the 1930s, and it’s is alive and vibrant with the whole era, environment and background – it’s just there, without any long descriptions, which is amazing; it’s also full of discussions about writing, literature and literary aspirations (and I’ll probably never again look down upon pulp writers paid by the word count, and definitely not on Howard); and (whenever Novalyne Price manages to put her ego aside) it’s also full of beautiful and sensitive descriptions about the things you cannot change, about all that’s fucking tragic in life, about the sense of living at the wrong time in the wrong place.

All in all, it’s a fascinating and nerve-racking book. (If Novalyne Price’s style didn’t get so much on my nerves as it did, it would be simply fascinating.)

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Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

girlinterruptedI liked this book with my mind because it’s written well and vividly, but it didn’t touch my feelings. All right: perhaps it touched them, but not too deeply. I think the reason for this is that I found Girl, Interrupted too fast and episodic (or I found myself too fast in my relation to this book, which is the same).

This is how fast it is: Susanna Kaysen is, at the age of 18, sent to a psychiatric hospital/crazy house/loony bin (choose one), where she then spends about a year and a half, makes friends with some of the other patients, experiences both life and death, sees both unexpected beauty and unexpected tragedies, until finally someone somewhere decides that this was enough, Kaysen is now ready to go back to the world. So be it, then.

Of course – I understand Kaysen’s main problems and doubts, I see the absurdity of life, and I can’t help but contemplate the arbitrary nature of the boundaries between sanity and insanity, especially when I read the description of borderline personality disorder (the illness Kaysen was diagnosed with, whose symptoms and description she copied her from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), and I come to the conclusion that I might have BPD, too, only no one noticed it yet.

(I sometimes read the diagnostic criteria of mental disorders, and depending on my mood, I can easily diagnose myself as either suffering from either borderline, bipolar, or major depressive disorder, or something else entirely. And I’m not doubting the reality or the existence of mental disorders – I just want to say what Kaysen herself seems to express: that such diagnoses can be highly arbitrary, and also that a lot of things described in the DSM as symptoms of a disorder seem to me to be completely normal modes of human behavior and reactions to life [but of course it’s possible that I’m really not sane].)

End of parentheses.

So yes – I understand what Kaysen says, it’s only – again! as so often – that I don’t feel that anything’s at stake here. I miss the personal connection with Kaysen, and I don’t feel how and why Kaysen’s mind is in such a disordered shape.

Kaysen also mentioned her, so a comparison with Sylvia Plath was inevitable to me. Plath also used to be a patient in the ward where Kaysen was hospitalized, so now I recalled Plath’s The Bell Jar. And even years after my last re-reading, I could clearly recollect the deeply personal, burning, suffocating atmosphere of that novel, I could relive the feelings of how the protagonist just wanted to crouch in a quiet corner, I could remember the desperate urgency of her question: “how would a sane person behave now?” Compared to all this, I couldn’t feel much while reading Girl, Interrupted. Teenage angst, asshole boyfriends, general misery, and 50 aspirins down the throat? Yes, I believe it. But I don’t feel it.

I read and read, and tried to understand, and I felt like I should have been able to empathize better, but in the end, I really didn’t know just what the hell’s wrong with Susanna Kaysen.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

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I bought this book quite randomly, except, not really – I liked the title, the topic, and the fact that it’s set in New York, which is my favorite mythical city – and it turned out to be a good book. The Lonely City contains a bit of everything: there are autobiographical ruminations about loneliness, there’s a bit of art history, politics, psychology, a bit about the history of New York and so on.

The book grew out of Olivia Laing’s experiences when, in her mid-thirties, she moved to New York to be together with a man, except it turned out that the man didn’t want to be with her after all, which left Laing all alone – alone in more than one sense: in a strange city (and New York at that, the most archetypal alienated and alienating city), with the pain of a fresh breakup, without close friends.

What do you do in a situation like this? You drag yourself out to the street when you really must, but then you run back home as fast as you can, and then spend most of your time lying around in your bed, watching videos on YouTube, and searching online for the illusion of human warmth, without accepting the dangers inherent in real human contact.

Laing does exactly this, but fortunately her brain is still working, so in her case binge-watching videos, wasting time online, and thinking about her poisonous and stinking loneliness leads somewhere: to this book. Laing, just for something to do, starts to research loneliness, looks into the psychology of loneliness, and examines how this is a state/feeling that’s universal and yet weirdly impossible to share with others. Then she moves on to the loneliness of cities, then to artists who lived and worked in big and lonely cities and who were also themselves lonely and/or whose main artistic theme was loneliness.

The book is structured in the way that at the beginning of each chapter, Laing talks a bit about the stages of her own loneliness, and then she jumps into the life and art of one of her heroes (David Wojnarovicz, Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, Henry Darger), constructs the biographies of their loneliness, and analyzes their work from the perspective of how they expressed or diminished the eternal loneliness of the given artist.

And then there are her digressions, of course. She talks about the AIDS epidemic and how inhumanly society treated those diagnosed with the illness when it first appeared; about sexual and other kinds of transgressions, about enlarging and changing the self; about abnormality and the inability to fit in; about the old and wild and dangerous New York, a city that despite its dangers still provided more opportunity for human contact than contemporary New York; about everything becoming uniform; about online relationships and the disappearance of privacy in this here age.

Even though she doesn’t get too deep into any of these topics (there are way too many topics here for that) and even though I didn’t have any major epiphanies while reading her thoughts about loneliness (maybe, just maybe, I have some experiences of my own with it, just like – probably – most everyone), Laing still inspired me and she made me want to read a whole lot of other books. For example, out of the four artists whose names I so casually dropped two paragraphs back, I only knew Andy Warhol’s name so far, but even knowing his name and some of his work, I had no idea about his loneliness, and as for the other three artists (and lots of others mentioned here), I’ve never heard about them before – and it was great to hear about them because their work seems very exciting, and anyway, everyone’s more interesting and more complex if you look closer. (For example, Valerie Solanas did other things in her life, too, didn’t just shoot Andy Warhol.)

And the gentle ambiguity and irony surrounding the „art of loneliness” in the title is beautiful. Being lonely is not an art – but creating art out of loneliness is an art, and that art might help others feels a little bit less lonely.

I must add, though, that Laing’s style irritates me from time to time: it’s a bit too didactic, a bit too gushingly nostalgic (I bet it was awesome when in the 1970s Times Square was the center of porn and prostitution, and I bet it was just great when during this same era everyone could go and pick up someone for some casual intimacy among the ruins of one of New York’s old ports, so at least the lonely and the dispossessed could find some human interaction, and so on – but I feel it’s a bit of a stretch to treat this era as a wonderful golden age), and a bit too pessimistic (or perhaps I’m the one who’s too optimistic – anyway, I don’t think everything’s becoming uniform, and I do think that in many places it’s easier today to be an outsider, a non-model citizen, or a person with „non-traditional” sexual preferences than it used to be in that supposedly golden age of the 70s that Laing describes with such tearful nostalgia).

And even though her biographies about others are very human, emotional, and often truly touching, the way she talks about her own experience of loneliness just isn’t that interesting. Seriously, who hasn’t yet had the experience of moving to another city because of a love interest that didn’t work out well? True, I haven’t, still, I know the feeling, and Laing’s loneliness in the face of this event (as much as she can or wants to express it) is not a bit more interesting or a bit more unique than the loneliness I also knew at some points of my life.

Misbehaving by Richard H. Thaler

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I’ve never thought I’d once read a book about economics that I’d have to violently pry from my own hands at 1:00 a.m to force myself to go to sleep, after promising myself three times that I’d definitely sleep after just one more chapter, and failing to keep this promise three times.

What’s more, I’ve never thought I’d ever willingly read about economics. I used to have this weird prejudice against economics and economists that economists are probably like one of my high school classmates who was preparing for a career in this field and who once borrowed a 500-page volume of poetry from the library (perhaps in an attempt to attain a rounded education) and read through it from beginning to end while I watched in horror. Anyway, based on this I thought that economics must be an awfully regular and cold and logical field of study, and those always make me want to break down and cry.

In hindsight, I think this classmate of mine must have been an Econ – a homo economicus, who – based on this book’s definition – is a human who behaves rationally in all circumstances, makes all the right choices based on knowledge and facts, knows what’s advantageous for him, and doesn’t suffer from issues with self-control and will-power, so he can always act according to what’s in his best interest. According to Thaler, though, Econs – even though for a long time they served as models for all kinds of theories in economics – don’t really exist. Instead of Econs, the world is mostly filled with Humans, who tend to make irrational decisions based on impulses; who prefer to eat one Oreo cookie now instead of eating three 15 minutes later; who sometimes go all the way across town to get something for a couple of dollars less while in other situations cheerfully ignore those same couple of dollars; who know in the depth of their hearts that they should finally start saving money for retirement but still tend to postpone dealing with this question because setting up a retirement fund or taking out a pension insurance is complicated and involves filling out various forms.

And what a relief to read about Humans, not Econs.

Because don’t get me wrong: Thaler doesn’t say that it’s the Humans’ fault that they don’t behave as if they were Econs. He says it’s economics to blame when it bases its theories and models on the impossibly predictable behavior of beings who don’t even exist. And Thaler spent his life trying to change this false belief economics had about Humans.

Richard Thaler is one of the founding fathers of behavioral economics. Right from the beginning of his career, he liked to misbehave a lot, he had a penchant for studying all kinds of anomalies (phenomena where Humans didn’t behave in the way they were supposed to behave based on the tenets of economics based on Econs), and he liked to team up with psychologists and social scientists during his work (which, again, didn’t endear him to the supposedly precise and data-driven bunch of economists).

The book is partly a professional autobiography, and partly the story of the birth and development of the field of behavioral economics – and it’s certainly an exciting story. There’s a whole lot of entertaining debates and fights here between professors of different elite universities, and it’s exhilarating to watch all these duels between old-school economists who hang on for dear life to the old economical models while the misbehaving economists of Thaler’s kind go on to demonstrate that the old models don’t work.

And then there’s a lot of down-to-earth and entertainingly presented examples of everyday economics: why we feel regret if we have a ticket to a concert but decide to stay at home on the big night because of a snowstorm; why we feel it’s grossly unfair if the hardware store sells snow shovels at twice their regular price on the day after the big snowstorm; why we tend to choose a small reward we can be sure about instead of taking risks but why we tend to take bigger risks in a losing situation; and how cleverly we convince ourselves that if we buy a bottle of expensive wine now, which we want to drink ten years later, then this is not really an expense but an investment, and ten years from now we can drink a bottle of special wine for free. (Of course, none of these forms of behavior conform to the way an Econ would behave.)

So all in all, this is a very educational and interesting book, and it’s very humanistic in its approach. And Thaler is a funny, ironic and self-ironic natural-born storyteller, someone who – believe me – can even talk about pension insurance in a way that you want to read one more chapter about it. And then one more. And then you feel like you want to take out an insurance policy first thing next morning.

Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit

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It’s usually difficult to mention this important fact casually in the post about whatever book I’m writing about, so probably I haven’t mentioned it too often on this blog yet that I love to walk. I don’t mean ambling, strolling, or hiking. I mean walking. Walking to reach a destination, or walking just for the sake of walking. Mostly in cities, but anywhere else for that matter.

I don’t have a car (nor do I have a driving license), I don’t have a public transport pass, and I don’t have a bike. I go wherever I can on foot, and when I can’t go somewhere on foot, I take the public transport, preferring the slower and more earth-bound options because I like to be in close contact with the ground I tread, and I like to go as slow as possible because the journey is usually more interesting than the arrival.

Nowadays I’m preparing mentally for a long walk, and while I was reading up on my intended trip, I came across this book. I wanted it immediately.

And I wasn’t disappointed – this book is just like a walk.

A walk taken by someone else, therefore not precisely as enjoyable as my own walks.

Solnit’s walking style, rhythm and speed don’t always match mine; she doesn’t always stop for a break at the places I would stop at, sometimes she wanders around for hours at places I wouldn’t even stop to look at, and sometimes she rushes by things I find enormously exciting. Despite all this, it’s mostly very interesting. Solnit’s thoughts about the beauties of walking are similar to mine, and she writes about her passion for walking in a way that I immediately start to plan my next all-day walk.

For instance, she says that walking, the speed of 3 miles per hour is somehow perfectly matches the speed of the mind, which is the reason why you can do a lot of wonderful free association, thinking, and remembering during a walk.

Another attribute of walking she finds attractive, which I find very attractive, too, is the slowness of it, and the fact that walking is one of the best and most accepted ways of doing nothing while still doing something. Sure, walking is slow. But one of the reasons I walk everywhere is that my daily walking time is often the only part of my day when I’m free to do seemingly nothing, when I’m not required to be efficient or seem efficient – and this is great because nothing could be farther from my mind than a desire to be efficient 24 hours a day.

Of course, everyone walks all the time. Everyone used to walk throughout history. And even though the book deals with Solnit’s own walks and her corresponding theories about walking, too, it’s still mostly a book about the interesting bits of the history and development of walking. It’s not a definitive history of walking (writing such a thing would probably be impossible), it’s one history of walking – and it’s a strange topic: what kind of history could such an everyday activity have?

Turns out walking does have a history, and not only that – it also has a lot of cultural, political and social aspects, and the answer to the question of who, when, why, where and how much could walk isn’t that everyone everywhere could walk just as much as their legs desired.

Solnit touches upon a whole array of topics and fields of sciences – there’s literary history here, together with anthropology, cultural history, feminism, philosophy, climbing, landscape architecture, art history, city planning, urbanization and suburbanization, and countless others.

She really goes in so many directions that I have to contend myself with mentioning only a few interesting bits.

For example, Solnit talks about the connections among the rise of automobile traveling, suburbanization, the decline of walking, and alienation. It’s not only that everything is far away in an American suburb so you can’t possibly get anywhere on foot – the reason you can’t go anywhere on suburbia is that there are no destinations there and that everyone goes by car anyway, so walking is suspicious. And another reason is the lack of sidewalks – and by the way, the lack of sidewalks or any kind of walkable spaces for that matter is terrifying for me, and I’m glad that in Europe it’s still possible to walk at most places. Of course, the lack of walkable spaces also entails that the street as a space for public discourse ceases to exist, and everyone just moves from one private space to another in the privacy of their car, while the street becomes ever more dangerous and scary.

Another exciting topic Solnit deals with is the male and female presence on the street – it’s a fascinating topic of gender studies – why the street is more dangerous and more forbidden for a female than for a male, and this is one of the topics I would have liked to read much more about.

And then Solnit also talks about walkable and unwalkable cities; about metaphors and similes connected to walking; about Elizabeth Bennet’s scandalous two-mile walk across the muddy fields which resulted in getting her gown dirty; about revolutions, festivals and peace marches, all of which involve people getting out there on the streets, walking there alone or together with others, creating traffic obstacles or just having fun; about walking clubs and walking movements; about the cult of nature; about the accidental beauties of walking and the unexpected meetings it can lead to; about walking-as-art; about the (literary) figure of the flâneur; and about a million other things.

This book is like what happens when you set out in the morning and you know that you will spend the whole day walking, you will cover several miles, you will see and think many things, and though not everything will be fascinating or even interesting, a lot of things will be like that. And this is another great aspect of long walks – if the walk is really long, than you can easily spend 3 miles thinking about finally reaching a spot where you can pee – because there’s time enough for this, for something completely mundane to fill your mind for miles. Because there will be all the other miles for all the other kinds of thoughts.

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

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There’s this wonderful section in José Saramago’s All the Names (translated by me from the Hungarian, so it probably doesn’t have too much in common with the official English translation):

„The decision popped out of Senhor José’s mind two days later. We generally don’t say that a decision pops out of our mind, people guard their personality carefully no matter how plain it is, and their human poise, no matter how insignificant it is, so they’d rather tell us that they thought things over before taking the final step, considered the benefits and the drawbacks, pondered the chances and choices, and after intense mental work they finally decided. We must say, things never work this way.”

Blink illustrates in 300 (breathtakingly interesting and un-putdownable) pages the point Saramago makes in a single paragraph. Which just underlines the fact that (good) fiction understands the essence of things and the working of humans just as well as (popular) psychology, and it doesn’t even have to provide lengthy explanations. Anyway, like I say, Gladwell’s explanations and stories are fascinating so I don’t mind the length at all.

Blink is about how decisions pop out of us – about how in the blink of an eye, armed with only the most minimal information, without carefully considering the pros and cons we suddenly make a decision or evaluate a situation. Whether, for example, we find someone likeable of disagreeable; whether a work of art is genuine or fake; whether the person coming in our direction on the dark street is potentially dangerous or harmless; whether someone’s lying or not; whether a musician plays well or not; and so on.

According to Gladwell, our instant decisions and evaluations of situations are often more precise than the decisions we make after scrupulously investigating every facet of the matter. The reason for this is that our brain, without us being consciously aware of it, continuously senses and interprets millions of morsels of information, and is able to come up with a decision or answer in a matter of seconds. In other words, this is the famous gut feeling, which in fact doesn’t have a lot to do with feelings. These premonitions and unconscious decisions are also based on real information, already existing knowledge, details and patters observed unconsciously – and not on some whim or fancy.

Gut feelings are thus very useful, and according to Gladwell, it’s worth placing greater trust in them. Which is, of course, difficult. Partly because our premonitions and instant recognitions are inexplicable, and as we are humans, we like to explain everything away because it makes us feel safer. Therefore, we tend to trust those things more for which we can line up lots of supporting facts and hard data – things we can put into words, but turns out we sometimes do more harm than good with this attitude.

A good example for this is the phenomenon of “verbal overshadowing” mentioned in the book. This is the case when our attempt to verbalize something harms our ability to recognize it. Face recognition is an example of instant recognition: we don’t ponder consciously what makes someone’s face recognizable but when we see a familiar face, we recognize it immediately. According to certain studies, though, if, for example, we try to describe in words the face of a criminal whose crime we witnessed, this makes it less likely that we’ll recognize the face in a police line-up.

This is one difficulty. And then there’s the other one, namely, that our ability to make instant decisions is far from being infallible. Our instant decisions are strongly influenced by prejudices, by what we want to see into a situation, by extreme stress, or by the situations in which we have to make quick decisions too quickly. Even making instant decisions takes some time, and without sufficient time we will simply decide imprudently.

The good news is, though, that the ability to make instant decisions is by no means some kind of magical ability only possessed by a select few. It’s something almost everyone’s brain is capable of, something we automatically use every single day, and something that can grow strong on its own in our areas of expertise.

The first chapter of the book is about this exactly. The chapter deals with an antique sculpture in miraculously good condition that’s offered for sale to a museum by an antiques dealer. The museum carries out all the usual checks and examinations before committing to the purchase, and they decide that the sculpture is genuine. A little later, however, a couple of real experts take a look at the sculpture and they immediately, without any kind of examinations, see that it’s a fake. They can’t say why they think it’s a fake – all they have is a vague, instinctive reaction which comes down to the general feeling that something’s not okay. As it turns out later, the sculpture was really not okay.

This is not magic, though. It’s more like that anecdote I’ve read once somewhere, where someone asked a painter or an art historian how he knows whether a painting is good. He said: That’s easy. First you look at one million paintings, and then you’ll know.

I’ve long been fascinated by this anecdote, and Gladwell says it actually works this way. It really only takes this much for people who know their craft, people with a lot of experience, because their brain already contains all their previous knowledge and information necessary for making instant judgments. (And of course not even these people are infallible.)

I could go on and recount more stories from this book – Gladwell is an excellent, exhilarating story-teller. The review quoted on the front page, which says that Blink is great material for cocktail party conversations, is certainly true. I don’t really attend cocktail parties, but this book is also awesome for pub conversations. It’s entertaining-popular psychology at its best.

Cityboy by Geraint Anderson

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Geraint Anderson worked in London’s financial district, the City for several years, and when he had had enough of that, he first wrote a series of anonymous articles for a magazine and then wrote this book to air the dirty laundry of the City.

This doesn’t sound half bad, however, Geraint Anderson isn’t exactly a master of truth-exposing, eye-opening writing, and he isn’t a present-day Dostoyevsky, either, someone capable of accessing all the hidden corners of the human heart and revealing just what kind of moral-killing and soul-crushing practices go on in the world. Anderson is a rather neutral, nothing-special writer – his writing lacks life and sparkle, he’s extremely repetitive, and his humor is forced and bland most of the time.

The subtitle – Beer and Loathing in the Square Mile – refers to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and indeed, Cityboy’s main character (Anderson himself) does drugs almost as enthusiastically and is paranoid almost to the same extent as Raoul Duke (or Hunter S. Thompson), but the similarities end here because – as opposed to Thompson – Anderson doesn’t possess a remarkable sense of humor or a truly feverish and insane imagination, moreover, he’s not as talented a writer as to be able to give sufficient shape to the creations of his ordinary imagination or his paranoid visions.

So as regards the debauchery, drug-doing, orgies and general assholery of the protagonist’s life as Cityboy – this story-line is painfully dull. Anderson, for example, relates how absolutely awful and embarrassing it was when he – totally shitfaced and wasted – ran into his future boss who was accompanying his daughter to the Glastonbury Festival, and yes: I can imagine that meeting your boss when you’re shitfaced can be quite awful and embarrassing, but it’s sure as hell that Anderson isn’t able to make me feel how and why this was awful for him. That’s it for the hard-partying stock-broker story-line then.

The other main story-line is the truth-exposing and soul-searching one. It’s about the dark deeds of banks, stock exchanges, and all kinds of other institutions in the money business; and about how the once normal people who work in this business all become amoral, inhuman, extremely competitive zombies, working 70 hours a week, equally obsessed with making and wasting money. Oh well – yes, I believe it can be like this, this life, but it’s nothing I didn’t already know, and more importantly: the way Anderson narrates this, it doesn’t make me experience neither the 70-hour workweeks, nor anything else.

Anderson, by the way, quit the money business a while ago, and in the afterword he says that, after all, it’s not money that matters, but love, family and friends. Yeah, sure. And this isn’t a sarcastic “yeah, sure”. This isn’t a sign of my agreement, either. This is a sign of my complete lack of interest.

Anyway, Anderson is not without brains, and he possesses a minimal amount of self-irony, too. And the things he says about the workings of the banking world are most probably true, and those things could normally throw me straight into a fit of rage and despair. However, this book doesn’t induce rage or despair in me, and I cannot work myself up into a fit because Anderson – regardless of his topic – can’t kindle any sort of emotion in me, save indifference. But at least I learned that when a boring writer talks about exciting or unsettling topics, the result is still boring.

Just Kids by Patti Smith

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Just Kids is about the friendship/relationship of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe; and about the way the two of them became artists; and about how it felt being a young artist in New York at the end of the 1960s and in the 1970s.

Let’s start with the question of how someone becomes an artist. I know very little about this process (though I have some hunches), but the way Patti Smith describes her first relevant memories already makes it clear that she had the desire to create something from very early on in her life. Her first memory is this: she describes how once as a very little girl she was walking with her mother and suddenly saw a swan. She had never seen a swan before but she immediately got excited, and her mother – sensing the little girl’s wonder and excitement – told her: this is a swan. But Patti felt this word is not good enough, not precise enough, and she felt a great desire to say something about the swan, to find the best way to express what she sees and what she feels about it.

It took several years for her to find her very own ways of expression, yet it feels to me that  from her earliest years she carried the possibility in herself to become an artist. But becoming an artist wasn’t fast and painless, and she herself often doubted whether she possessed the necessary talent and persistence.

Patti Smith arrived in New York in 1967, without a dollar to her name, with only the conviction that she didn’t want to be a factory worker at home. For a while she lived on the streets, then she found a job, and soon after she met Robert Mapplethorpe. The two of them immediately formed a life-long friendship and moved in together right away. Mapplethorpe was still invisible at that time, but as opposed to Smith, he never had the slightest doubt about the quality of his work, and he was tremendously self-confident. Smith and Mapplethorpe then went on to create art together, they continuously supported and inspired each other, and slowly they found their place in the art world of New York, and finally found success, too.

However, Just Kids is not your classic American success story following on the theme of poor-but-talented country kids working hard and thus becoming successful. This is too personal, intimate, and honest a book for that, and by the way – Patti Smith never underestimates the role of luck and coincidences in achieving success. By luck and coincidence I don’t mean that you have to be at the right place at the right time, you have to build networks, or anything like that – I mean simply how life-changing it can be for someone to receive the words, the inspiration, the support, the belief she desperately needs in a tough moment – in a moment of indecision, in a moment when she doesn’t know whether her work matters at all, in a moment of crisis.

Another reason why this is not a typical success story is that Smith for a long time couldn’t even figure out what would constitute success for her, and where her true calling lies. It also took some time for Robert Mapplethorpe to start to concentrate on photography, but for Patti Smith the road to becoming a musician was even longer and more tangled. Following the milestones of this road is a greatly interesting read – I read with fascination how she figured out the things she could and wanted to do, and the things she couldn’t or didn’t want to do.

For instance, she had a couple of roles in different plays, and finally drew the conclusion from her forays into acting that she liked being onstage, but she didn’t like being someone else onstage – she didn’t like separating her real and artistic personality, so she promptly decided that the next time she’d only stand on a stage if she could be herself there.

Besides the difficulties of becoming an artist – and perhaps I should have started with this – the other main theme of this book is the relationship between Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Just Kids is a memorial to their two-decade friendship, and it was written in the first place because before his death, Mapplethorpe made Smith promise that one day she’d write their story. And the way Smith wrote their story is deeply touching and beautiful. The whole book is very delicate, but the sections dealing with Smith’s relationship with Mapplethorpe are especially pure, sublime, and gentle. I won’t even go into more details about this – my words for this could never be as good as the words of Patti Smith.

And there’s still more to this book. Patti Smith didn’t only concentrate on her art and on Robert Mapplethorpe during the 60s and 70s: even though she was quite awkward in bigger groups of people, she still managed to learn about all the iconic places (such as the Chelsea Hotel, which was home to many artists, or Max’s bar, which was where Andy Warhol and his group used to hang out) and get to know lots of iconic figures (Allen Ginsberg, Jim Carroll, Gregory Corso, Sam Shepard, William S. Burroughs, and so on) of the New York art scene. Her recollections about these artists, and in general her stories about life in New York in those decades are sometimes funny, sometimes deeply sad – but they are always vivid and riveting. So it’s clear from reading Just Kids that being a young artist just then, just there must truly have been a unique experience.

Patti Smith writes wonderfully – about everything; she’s emotional, sober and transcendent at once. And Just Kids is a beautiful book, completely devoid of any sentimentality – it’s a delight to read.