Thursday, August 26, 2010

Four Recent Memoirs

I must recommend four memoirs. The first two bring to life New York's downtown art scenes of decades ago. Suze Rotolo's A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties, recounts her life with Bob Dylan amidst the folk music world of the early sixties, with Dylan on the cusp of his leap into fame. But her book does more than that, for her subtitle is exact. Despite the tragedy of out of sight rentals destroying the Manhattan artist communities, one can still see much of the Village of the sixties, made vivid by this memoir.

Patti Smith, in her Just Kids, is her memoir of the years she spent with Robert Mappelthorpe, from 1967, when they met, penniless and virtually homeless kids of twenty one, and how, over the following years, in the Village and in Chelsea, lived, loved, and created their art, he ultimately becoming the photographer who would capture in striking blacks and white s/m tableaux vivants among others, and she, the plastic artist, poet and punk-rock performer. They separated physically as Mappelthorpe discovered his homosexuality and Smith went on to marry and start a family, but they were never apart in their hearts and sensibilities. Her recounting his coming down with AIDS and dying in 1989 is terribly poignant. Smith's writing is poetic, tender, sublime.

A rather different memoir is Norris Church Mailer's Ticket to the Circus, in which one learns much about Ms. Mailer's colorful life in Arkansas, where she got to know the young Bill Clinton, how she met Norman Mailer, became his sixth and, as she let people know, his last wife, and became virtual mother of his many children. But Ms. Mailer was no stay-at-home mom: she has had her own career as a writer. This memoir, fun in its own right, will provide Norman Mailer fans with insight into the foibles and as well as the moral strengths of a good man, our late, great novelist and essayist.

Christopher Hitchens' Hitch-22 is a reliving of his childhood, university, and political and journalistic life. A lifelong man of the left, Hitchens seeks to justify what compelled him to support the American invasion of Iraq. Agree with him or not, this brilliant essayist (see especially his 2000 collection, Unacknowledged Legislation) writes with force and great wit. To many on the political left, Hitchens has become a notorious apostate. But one should follow J.S. Mills' dictum, that by reading someone you know a priori is dead wrong you may very well wind up with your position punctured or, if you can muster your arguments, strengthened. You decide. Meanwhile I recommend this book to every thinking person, left and right.

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