“Your Move, Chief,” Or Why I Love Memoir

My Goodreads data reveals a curious pattern. Over the last three years, more than half of the books I have read have been memoirs. That percentage keeps growing. In 2020 alone, 13 of 17 have been memoirs.

It’s not just me, either. Memoirs have proliferated throughout my lifetime. Readers keep reading them, and more and more writers (and celebrities) are writing them. Most of my recent favorites came from the national bestseller list. These include Educated by Tara Westover, Maid by Stephanie Land, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb, and Untamed by Glennon Doyle.

But why am I reading so many more memoirs than anything else? More than novels, short stories, poetry, or impersonal nonfiction? Am I just extremely nosy?

When I tried to answer these questions for myself last week (yet again fixated on Mary Karr and Glennon Doyle), the first thing that came to mind was the pond scene from Good Will Hunting.

Sean (Robin Williams) has been trying to provide court-ordered therapy to Will Hunting (Matt Damon). In their first meeting, in which Sean attempts to get to know Will, Will deflects and evades every one of Sean’s questions. It ends when Will goes on the offensive and speculates (noticing a painting on the wall of a lone man navigating a fishing boat on a stormy sea) that Sean must have “married the wrong woman.” Switching tactics for their second meeting, Sean takes Will to a park and delivers the following dressing-down:

You got a thing for swans? Is this like a fetish? Something we need to devote some time to? – Will

The gist of the monologue is: Okay sure, Will, you’re extremely smart, good at retaining information, and making connections. But that, my friend, does not a man make.

Sean says:

I can’t learn anything from you I can’t read in some fuckin’ book. Unless you wanna talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. I’m in. 

That’s it, I think. That’s why the memoir genre resonates with me, and why I consume insane numbers of them. I don’t read to educate myself; I read because I’m curious about people.

As Sean conveys to Will in the movie, it requires far more courage to share who you are and how you think than it does to quote or rehash someone else’s idea. Of course, Will knows this intuitively — as he demonstrates in the Harvard Bar scene, before he even meets Sean:

Who we are and how we see is the truest, most interesting thing each of us has to offer. In The Art of Memoir (2015), Mary Karr writes, “Most of us don’t read the landscape so much as we beam it from our eyeballs.” In other words, how we see comes from within; it’s a gift that cannot be stolen, only shared.

The same sentiment is captured in one of the final scenes from A Star is Born. Bobby (Sam Elliot) says to Ally (Lady Gaga): “Jack talked about how music is essentially 12 notes between any octave. . . All any artist can offer the world is how they see those 12 notes.”

Other people’s stories, told well, do not get old. There are as many unique stories out there as there are people. I will happily read every single one of them.

* * *

Importantly, the truth value of a story has nothing to do with the number of shocking events in it. This perception of memoir is actually counterproductive and can tempt writers to falsity. For example, philanthropist Greg Mortenson wrote two bestselling memoirs about how he came to found a nonprofit supporting girls’ education in the Middle East. His first memoir, Three Cups of Tea (2007) was a national bestseller. I read it for a high school theology class circa 2010 and wrote a book report.

Shortly after Mortenson published a sequel, Stones into Schools (2011), investigative reporters, including John Krakauer, found reasons to doubt the veracity of both memoirs. (Read more about it here.) Krakauer ultimately published a book of his findings called Three Cups of Deceit. In any kind of nonfiction writing, readers have to be able to trust the narrator. Otherwise, the whole enterprise collapses. In other words, it does not matter how well you tell the story of getting captured by the Taliban if your readers find out that it never happened. If I had to burn books for fuel, these Mortenson memoirs would be the first to go. After all, who would read Three Cups of Tea now?

A second example of violating the cardinal rule of memoir-writing — that is, truth-telling — came across my desk this week courtesy of Thom:

Mike Lindell, i.e. the “My Pillow” guy, wrote a memoir titled What Are the Odds?: From Crack Addict to CEO. He boasts “14 near-death experiences,” and a story of “addiction, hope, and divine intervention.”

I don’t want to read Lindell’s book because I already don’t trust him. His promo reveals him to be an unreliable narrator. First, a grammar mistake: “Before this pandemic came upon us, I had already wrote. . . ” Then, he assures the audience that the book includes pictures that “validate” his stories. He concludes, apropos of nothing “By the time you’re done reading my book, you will believe that with God all things are possible.”

In sum, the only thing that really tanks a memoir, in my estimation, is any attempt to cheat the truth. The memoirs that have disappointed me over the years have been ones in which I can sense that I’m not getting the whole story.

This is particularly common (albeit understandable) with celebrity memoirs. Who knows if they even wanted to write the book. They have so little privacy as it is. It’s rare for a celebrity memoir to transcends this limitation. I remember reading Amy Poehler’s memoir, Yes Please, years ago and being disappointed. Even though it had funny moments and interesting stories, she refrained from any major introspection. She basically said “Someone made me write this for money; I would prefer not to talk about my divorce or anything personal,” and moved on to crowd-pleasing SNL anecdotes.

* * *

There is no one-size-fits-all version of the life story. We may arrive at the same central truths, the same 12 notes, but no one sees them in quite the same way as anyone else. Maybe that’s why I keep reading memoir after memoir. “It’s never new and it never gets old,” is how Llewyn Davis defines “folk song” in the Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis. The same might be said of memoir, or life-writing.

As Sean says to Will on the park bench:

You’re an orphan, right? Do you think I’d know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you?

“Does that encapsulate you?” Well, no. I guess not. Mary Karr writes in The Art of Memoir, “Getting used to who you are is a lifelong spiritual struggle.” That is all this is about, really. Your move, chief.

On Burning and Becoming: Glennon Doyle and Mary Karr Part II

Mary Karr’s poem “The Burning Girl,” published in Poetry Magazine in May 2017 and later in her collection Tropic of Squalor (2018) is a devastating poem about a girl suffering from various self-harm disorders. While Karr attends Wimbledon with a group of friends, she observes her friend’s daughter as follows:

Listen to Karr read it herself here.

Karr’s “burning girl” is not the powerful “girl on fire” Alicia Keys sang of. (See here.) Nor is she the fully feeling girl Glennon Doyle describes in Untamed:

“The fire of pain won’t consume me. I can burn and burn and live. I can live on fire. I am fireproof.”

-Glennon Doyle, Untamed

Here, pain is a refining force, an agent of transformation. Its fire burns down old paradigms and allows the new, better, truer ones to grow.

Doyle understands her past addictions and illnesses as the product of pain avoidance. She writes:

“Pain is not tragic. Pain is magic. Suffering is tragic. Suffering is what happens when we avoid pain and consequently miss our becoming. That is what I can and must avoid: missing my own evolution because I am too afraid to surrender to the process. Having such little faith in myself that I numb or hide or consume my way out of my feelings again and again.”

-Glennon Doyle, Untamed

For Doyle, fire represents the uncomfortable feelings that come with being a human on earth — anger, sadness, resentment, hate, shame, etc. For nearly half of her life, she preemptively struck such feelings down with drugs, alcohol, binging and purging, etc. Letting herself become unguarded against these fiery feelings was how she healed.

But when I read Untamed last week, particularly the line: “I can burn and burn and live,” I was reminded of Karr’s poem. What of the real fear of getting trapped in the fire? How and why does that happen? What should we do about it?

“The Burning Girl” is not fireproof, she is tinder. Karr describes the girl’s arms as “birch twigs” and her body as a “flaming tower.” Even with “ocean endless” love from her mother, the girl’s flames are not extinguished, and ultimately, “she burned.” The past tense of this final line suggests that her body was consumed and she died. (So do interviews with Karr on this poem, in which she reflects upon the unimaginable pain of losing a child.) There is no resurrection, at least not here. The poet has witnessed the burning girl’s suffering in her last days, and that is all we have.

Karr compares the burning girl to “the monk who’d doused himself with gas, lit a match, then sat unmoving and alert amid devouring light.” Likewise, she reminds me of certain female Catholic saints and mystics who died of anorexia mirabilis, meaning “miraculously inspired loss of appetite.” For example, Saint Catherine of Siena died at 33 after she stopped eating anything other than the Eucharist. More recently, French mystic Simone Weil died at age 34 from self-starvation, allegedly out of solidarity with the soldiers fighting in World War II.

St. Catherine of Siena, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

So, again, what about people like these – girls who get stuck in the fire? Who set themselves on fire in a misguided search for the Good? Can we learn to differentiate self-annihilating fires from the fires that enable us to become?

The primary distinction, as I see it, is that Doyle’s fireproof girl is in motion. She walks through and beyond the fire. She is alive. Karr’s burning girl, on the other hand, is stuck in it, unmoving: “She sat with us in flames.” Soon, she is dead.

We are fireproof in a human way, after all, bound by time and flesh. This limits our ability to withstand it. We need to jump in the ocean afterwards. Then maybe we need a long interval of watching Wimbledon in the 70 degree, partly-cloudy weather, tonic and lime in hand. In fact, I think this last in-between place is where we would be lucky to spend most of our time.

The essential mandate of motion during the fire walk reminds me of the “Beach Day” episode in Season 3 of The Office. Michael can’t even take the first step; Dwight overdoes it, falling on his stomach into the hot coals, insisting on staying down until Michael gives him the manager job; and Pam does the fire walk as designed, then is brave enough to tell Jim how she feels about him.


Why is it that so many of us stop walking and get stuck in our pain?

For some, myself included, a simple but important answer might be brain chemistry. For whatever reason, I am prone to getting stuck. To do the fire walk, I need a pair of thick socks, or else I turn into Dwight.

For a long time, journaling, running, music, etc. kind of did the trick to propel me forward when I hit the fire, but recently I’ve discovered how much better it is just to coat my brain in fire retardant ahead of time. Importantly, it’s not a pre-numbing; it’s an extra layer of padding. As my husband Thom observed, Prozac allows me to feel my fiery feelings but then later, feel better. Cry and then stop crying. Get up. Keep moving.

Doyle acknowledges her own need for additional padding, or fire-retardant. She writes in Untamed: “I am on Lexapro, and I believe it to be — along with the personal growth shit — the reason I don’t have to self-medicate with boxes of wine and Oreos anymore.”

Per Doyle, pill nay-sayers are “two-legged people calling prosthetics a crutch.”

I am with Doyle here. There are few things I am more thankful for than the invention of SSRIs.

My brain, left to its own devices has done a variety of weird things upon encountering fiery feelings. It has stopped all other activity and made it its full-time job to numb itself to the pain — reveling in its success. Like the burning girl. Other times, it has gone in the opposite direction and become hyper-feeling, so ceaselessly buffeted by pain that it becomes obsessed with it. In Darkness Visible, William Styron describes his depressed self as follows: “My brain, in thrall to its outlaw hormones, had become less an organ of thought than an instrument registering, minute by minute, varying degrees of its own suffering.”

Thus, in my experience, feeling too intensely can be just as confusing and destructive as becoming numb. I’ve tried to ditch pain — too cool for it — and I’ve also tried to get an A+ in pain. It’s as if my subconscious wants to outsmart all oncoming fires by beating them their natural conclusion. Meanwhile, this need to direct and control the fire only amplifies its importance; making its effect way worse than it was ever going to be.

Karr’s burning girl continues to haunt me. She’s dead and gone, not saved by the vast love shown her the poem. “She burned,” and there is no certainty of resurrection. Perhaps all we can do is bear witness — which is what Karr does. “Force her sadness close,” she writes. It seems insufficient. In moments like this, I turn to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets — that perfect meditation on human insignificance, temporality, and the circular nature of all things. Any excerpt might do, but here’s a favorite of mine:

Growing Up Female: On Nonexistence

Rebecca Solnit’s new memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence resembles her many essay collections that came before it: provocative yet relatively opaque. She weaves ideas together, creates surprising connections, and guides readers to see their experiences in new ways (a la “Men Explain Things to Me”) — but she does not delve into personal details. Unlike other contemporary memoirists, she writes towards commonality. Through brief vignettes that begin with her own experiences as a young woman, she reveals the conditional of all young woman. She makes us visible to ourselves.

Thanks to Subterranean Books in Saint Louis, MO for shipping books during quarantine 🙂

As a reader and 26-year-old woman, I found this book hard to read — but not for the usual reasons. Solnit pushes right up to the edge of Emily Dickinson’s advice that “the truth must dazzle gradually.” Many of her conclusions felt like looking into direct sunlight. In a way, I need to write this review to process that initial sting.

Though her memoir collection also includes essays writes about growing up in San Francisco, studying the southwestern U.S., and becoming a writer, Solnit’s most powerful chapters meditate on feminism, i.e. growing up female. She uses the titular word “nonexistence” because “in my case, it wasn’t a silencing. . . no speech was stopped; it never started, or it had been stopped so far back I don’t remember how it happened.” Her goal, she states, is encouragement: “a word that, though it carries the stigma of niceness, literally means to instill courage.” To do so, she begins by examining how courage is ripped away from young women. She then discusses how they might go about getting it back.

Solnit’s careful recounting of her past nonexistence (in “silent fury”) shed new light on my own. I’ll explore a few such instances here.

“I became an expert at fading and slipping and sneaking away, backing off, squirming out of tight situations, dodging unwanted hugs and kisses and hands, at taking up less and less space on the bus as yet another man spread into my seat, at gradually disengaging, or suddenly absenting myself.”

“Life During Wartime”

For me, passages such as these yank to the surface a decade-long pattern of suffering under patriarchy, but not understanding what was happening to me, or knowing what to call it. Solnit’s words brought up so many memories; memories that make me sweaty and nervous; memories that make me sad about the state of the world; memories that, despite my efforts to bury them, inform the way I move through the world.

“Dodging unwanted hugs and kisses,” takes me back to my first job out of college as an executive assistant to a 69-year-old lawyer, a founding partner at a Chicago law firm and real estate attorney for one of the world’s richest men. He would ask me to dinner with business partners, take me out for drinks in the afternoon (“You’ve never had mezcal? I’m ordering it for you”), put his arm around me, ask me why I wasn’t having fun, try to kiss me in greeting (he got the cheek), tell me I was attractive, and make sex jokes to his coworkers, knowing part of my job was to listen to all of his phone calls and read all of his emails.

In response to this treatment, I, to my own frustration, did nothing but comply and evade. “Okay I’ll drink that,” “yeah I’m fine,” “haha,” “okay,” just get through the day and get out. I vented to my friends, where it was safe, but never to him. As Solnit describes, evasiveness stems from a fear of escalation. Escalation leads to violence. She writes, “Men would make proposals, demands, endeavor to strike up conversations and the endeavors quickly turned to fury. I knew of no way to say No, I’m not interested, that would not be inflammatory, and so there was nothing to say. They was no work words could do for me, and so I had no words.”

Eventually, I gave my boss what it seemed he wanted: I vanished. I packed my things and called him to let him know that I was quitting. To him, it was a shock; to me, it was the natural conclusion of his year-long effort to annihilate my personhood. That was in August 2017. When the Harvey Weinstein story broke two months later, I believed for the first time that I had done the right thing. (And considered that maybe I should’ve gone to HR, or Ronan Farrow – but that’s another story.)

“I erased myself as much as possible, because to be was to be a target.”

“Life During Wartime”

Maybe it started earlier than a decade ago. As a 10-year-old in Boise, Idaho, I took a Hunter’s Safety class with my dad, my friend Austyn, and her dad. Austyn’s dad was an avid hunter who wanted to take us duck hunting with him that season. I was game for anything – I just wanted to hang out with my buddy, even if the activity did not particularly appeal to me. The rest of the class was full of other young boys and their dads. One evening, as I remember it, the teacher called on me to answer what turned out to be a trick question. My hand had not been raised. He said, “You there.” I snapped to attention, the blood rushing to my face. “What’s the difference between bending the law and breaking the law?” I quietly began to stumble through some explanation of how the two might be different, but the teacher interrupted. “Wrong, he said, “there’s no difference.” Then another kid’s dad shouted: “Women, am I right?!” and the whole room cracked up.

I took away a feeling that it was dangerous to speak; that I lacked knowledge because of my gender; and that men only listened to me insofar as it gave them an opportunity to appear superior, or to make other men laugh.

“Thinness is a literal armor against being reproached for being soft, a word that means both yielding, cushiony flesh and the moral weakness that comes from being undisciplined. And from consuming food and taking up space.”

“Disappearing Acts”

Around 16-years-old, when my body started shape-shifting, I was horrified to be losing the one thing I had long been praised for — being skinny. When I tried to regain control of my body, I tripped some internal brain wiring and fell into the obsessive hamster wheel of an eating disorder. I went from 120 ish pounds to 96, eating with rigidity and running every day. I stopped caring about boys, about friends, about what people thought of me – which in a dissociative way, felt like freedom. But as my condition deteriorated, I realized it was a dark kind of freedom. When I began to fight against it almost a year later, it was because I began to understand that life had moved on without me – sports, friends, boys, prom etc. I had wholeheartedly embraced nonexistence, only to find that nonexistence did not lead to societal acceptance, but to a lonely death.

“And so there I was where so many young woman were, trying to locate ourselves somewhere between being disdained or shut out for being unattractive and being menaced or resented for being attractive . . . trying to find some impossible balance of being desirable to those we desired and being safe from those we did not.”

“Disappearing Acts”

Most of the compliments about my thinness (and disparaging comments about other girls’ thickening, maturing bodies) came from a grade school friend who later came out as gay. I still remember him telling me that I was pretty “because you are skinny” and that other friends were losing their edge for “fat thighs,” “mom butt,” or “grandma butt.” He called my best friend a “butterface” (i.e. everything looks good but her face). I have no idea how he’d explain himself now, but I imagine that it was a way of processing his own sexuality; of coming to realize that he did not desire women’s bodies, and, taking full advantage of his power as a white male, used his voice to disparage and reject them. As Solnit says, within patriarchy “no [woman] is ever beautiful enough, and everyone is free to judge you.”

It’s a hard truth that in my own experience, the harshest judges were men who felt disempowered themselves – gay men, awkward men, short men, etc. Men whose fathers talked about women disparagingly inherited their menace. It all rained down on the teenage girls in my middle school and high school. And it shaped how we entered the adult world.

“There was a real joy in the creative and intellectual life, but also a withdrawal from all other reals of life. I was like an army that had retreated to its last citadel, which in my case was my mind.”

“Disappearing Acts”
Solnit’s writing desk, given to her by a friend who had been stabbed 15 times by a violent ex-boyfriend. She writes, “Someone tried to silence her. Then she gave me a platform for my voice. Now I wonder if everything I have ever written is a counterweight to that attempt to reduce a young woman to nothing.”

Like Solnit, one of the only places I ever felt confident was in academia. Reading, writing, twirling ideas around my mind like a strand of hair around my index finger. If I am smart, so went my thinking, at least I have somewhere from which to draw courage. And writing was a place where I could say what I was thinking and feeling without fear of upsetting men — in other words, without fear of escalation.

Solnit’s greatest gift to me, and to all women, is finding the courage to become a writer (“despite it all”), and to hold fast to her perspective. She gives young women permission to question the literary and cultural canon, to investigate the untold impacts, and to push for change. She points out how many stories – told in books, on TV, in movie theaters, on podcasts, and in music feature the abuse, torture, and death of young women. Solnit observes this reality and its impact without agreeing that any of this (Tarantino, Eminem, The Ted Bundy Tapes) are productive, revolutionary, or attention-worthy works of art despite their commercial success. For me, that is a powerful permission to stand firm in my aversion to violent “art,” and to call it what it is: mundane.

In addition, Solnit gives herself (and everyone else), permission to put down canonical literary works that subjugate women, such as On the Road by Jack Kerouac:

“I did like some things bout Kerouac’s prose style, just not the gender politics of the three men who were most often meant when people talked about the Beats. . . It seemed to me that I would never be the footloose protagonist, that I was closer to the young Latina on the California farm who gets left behind, and halfway through I put the novel down. The book was going to go on without people like me, and I would go on without it.”

“Diving into the Wreck”

I’d recommend Recollections of My Nonexistence to any and every young woman, with the caveat that it’s not easy to read. But as Solnit herself says, “Sometimes when you are devastated you want not a reprieve but a mirror of your condition or a reminder that you are not alone in it.” Solnit reminds me of this, and makes my experiences, my painful memories, less personal. It’s not my fault that I was taught to be skinny and silent, and that I then became my own oppressor. It’s not my fault that my efforts to push back against the system that annihilates women — efforts such as not wearing makeup, not shaving my body hair, or not wearing a bra – actually exacerbate my fear and self-consciousness when I enter public spaces. It’s not your fault, either.

I’d also recommend it to men. As Solnit points out, “One of the convenient afflictions of power is a lack of [] imaginative extension. For many men it begins in early childhood, with almost exclusively being given stories with male protagonists.” She continues, “Perhaps there should be another term for never looking through the eyes of others, for something less conscious that even single-consciousness would convey.” I established that I have given permission to put down Kerouac (and DFW) thanks to Solnit. Still, I believe I am the better for knowing, intimately, the male reality — and for being taught (by default) to extend my perspective beyond myself.

It’s not always useful to spend a lot of time thinking about the things that make life hard or unfair. It can lead to despair. (In my case, it has to be followed by episodes of Parks and Rec.) What’s more — as Solnit emphasizes repeatedly, categories of doubly-oppressed women, such as young women of color, young women who are gay, or young women whose growing bodies otherwise deviate from Western beauty ideals, have whole additional systems working to exclude and disregard them. That’s a lot to face down, just to exist as a person every day. I don’t know what to do other than begin trying to take up space — even though it scares me.

For more on the treatment of women in Beat literature, read my earlier blog, “Watching Boys Do Stuff.” Thank you, Rebecca Solnit, for giving me permission to quit the Beats, and all woman-erasing literature put to page before or since. Not only giving me permission to quit, but giving me something encouraging to read instead.

Solnit’s signature: a lesson in taking up space ❤

A Miss for Patti Smith: My Thoughts on “Year of the Monkey”

Year of the Monkey is Patti Smith’s third full-length memoir. The book came out last month but the story takes place in 2016. Thom snagged it for me as a birthday present because (a) he knows I love Patti and (b) before we knew each other well, he used to say “Happy Birthday,” instead of “Hi” every time we saw each other, and when I lodged a complaint approximately 4 months in, he switched to “Happy Year of the Monkey.” And now we’re getting married.

I hate to say it, but I didn’t like this one. (Still, it was the perfect birthday present @Thom.) I underlined one good line (to follow), but I had a hard time staying invested and interested.

I deeply enjoyed her previous memoirs Just Kids, M Train, and even Devotion (Why I Write). I also find her photographs and style inspiring and even used to have a prominently displayed poster of her in my apartment. But along the way, I have come across a few of pieces that have not captured me – e.g. most of her music and a lot of her poetry.

So it’s not entirely shocking that a memoir finally fell into the latter category. But first, a few things I did like:

The element of Patti’s memoir style that keeps me coming back is her way of living and thinking like a monk. M Train, for example, was mostly scenes of her walking down the street, drinking vats of 7/11 coffee, strolling back to her house, and watching cable news in bed. She zooms in on these little things, creates a sensory space for the reader, and is not at all anxious or self-conscious. I find these passages relaxing, and almost too weird (too good?) to be true, so I keep reading. An aging, successful artist who takes the same foam cup back to 7/11 every day for 16 oz burnt coffee refills? Puzzling, yet wholesome.

She puts this concept into words halfway through Year of the Monkey: “All is but an intermission, of small and tender consequence.”

It’s the opposite sentiment of Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players;” or the darker Macbeth version: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.”

In contrast to Billy the Shake’s distressing picture of the pressure on each of us to perform as we move through the world, Patti’s philosophy of life is a major relief. The spiritual isn’t found in creation and achievement, but rather in getting stale M&M’s from a vending machine during Romeo and Juliet’s intermission. She does not spell out what she’s doing here (the above sentence is the closest she comes); instead she just dives in. Her faith in the value of these small moments calls the reader to buy in and see these daily sensory experiences with new reverence.

Yet Patti can’t entirely get away with this attitude towards life, because she’s a career stage performer. She is currently performing live perhaps more than she has in several decades. Now 73 years old, she has become wildly popular among a new generation of young people and is publishing a book every two years. But she doesn’t acknowledge any of this change. In Year of The Monkey, where her late-stage success was presumably most prevalent – she alludes to it least of all, never going further than explaining that she’s in X city because she played a series of concerts there Y days earlier.

Moreover, Patti executes the aforementioned concept (“all is but an intermission, of small and tender consequence”) much better in her earlier memoir, M Train than she does in Year of the Monkey. In this new book, Patti oscillates between dreams and reality in a way that’s hard to track and ultimately not that interesting. For example, one scene opens with her sitting on a porch near a beach in Santa Cruz, looking at the waves, feeling the wind, putting up her sore feet, etc. – but quickly shifts and becomes an imagined conversation with a motel sign and hallucination of thousands of misprinted candy wrappers on the beach. I wished she would not keep introducing the latter element. I find the small moments more affecting without the accompanying visions – probably because that is the less-universal part of being Patti Smith.

Furthermore, to put it crudely, all of the real friends she writes about in the book all have one foot (or both) in the grave. That her world was contained to either small sensory moments alone, or imagined, chronically ill, comatose, and dead companions made the whole reading exercise kind of lonely and sad. I wanted more grounded human interaction – and I know it must exist, because she has a band, living kids, and tons of fans.

Maybe she wants to hold onto the vagabond, bizarre parts of herself by describing dreams and (imagined?) hitchhiking experiences and voices in her head. But I can’t help but think there’s some important element of her life missing from this picture. The narrative almost struck me as dishonest – as if her new audience/platform hasn’t changed her days or thought patterns at all. As if this new life was not perhaps responsible for her increasing loneliness. I think she could add some such reflection without losing her artistic center. In any case, I’ll keep an eye on her because, despite it all, I remain her devoted reader.


Thanks for reading! I’ve read dozens of books since I last blogged… but not everything inspires a type-athon. I will be writing reviews more regularly now that I’ve got some unstructured time this winter. ❤