Photo of the Hotel Chelsea by Christopher Macsurak used under a Creative Commons license.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (Ecco, 2010).
In 1967, at the age of 21, Smith left her family’s home in rural New Jersey and moved to New York City to find a new life.  She found herself hungry, lonely, jobless and poor, but she also found a friend, Robert Mapplethorpe, and the two were soon living together in Brooklyn, eking out a living as artists – if not quite starving, then not far from it.  Their lives and careers slowly progressed, and they moved to Manhattan (first to the Hotel Chelsea) and ran in circles with the likes of William Burroughs and Sam Shepherd and Janis Joplin and Allen Ginsburg, and the world was still young. Eventually they become known as Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, but this memoir is about those days before they were famous, and it captures New York at an epic moment four decades now past.  Above all, it is a elegy for Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989.

Here is Smith’s site. Here is Wikipedia’s page about her. Smith talked about the book on NPR’s Fresh Air. It won the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Spinner has an excerpt. Gerry posts some as well. And here is an excerpt accompanied by a mariachi band. Janet Maslin (New York Times) says it captures a moment when Smith and Mapplethorpe were young, inseparable, perfectly bohemian and completely unknown. Edmund White (The Guardian) says it brings together all the elements that made New York so exciting in the 1970s. Laura Miller (Salon) says it’s utterly lacking in irony or sophisticated cynicism. Elizabeth Hand (Washington Post) says Smith evokes Manhattan’s last great bohemian age so precisely that one can smell the Nescafé boiling on a hot plate. Tom Carson (New York Times) calls it the most spellbinding and diverting portrait of funky-but-chic New York in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that any alumnus has committed to print. Gina Myers (Frontier Psychiatrist) says its New York is one where everyone seems to be somebody. Carmela Ciuraru (San Francisco Chronicle) calls it one of the best memoirs of recent years: inspiring, sad, wise and beautifully written. Kate Neary (The Thrill of the Chaise) finished it in tears. Crystal was in tears before the first chapter. Christian Williams (The A.V. Club) says it’s rife with snapshots of ‘70s New York cool at its grittiest and most seductive. Roy Edroso (The Village Voice) says it pulls you in, like with Smith’s clarinet experiments, not so much because the thing is well-played but by the force of devotional fervor. Spacebeer says it will melt even the coldest of hearts. Luigi Scacciante recommends it to those interested in art or love or the human condition. Emily Temple (Flavorwire) says Smith is incredibly successful at immersing the reader in a New York where Allen Ginsburg buys you sandwiches and you move to sit in Andy Warhol’s still-warm chair. Nick Kent (The Sunday Times) says Smith tells her story with honesty and elegance. rundangerously calls it one of the best memoirs he has read. Greg Milner (Bookforum) says it’s a vivid portrayal of a bygone New York that could support a countercultural artistic firmament. Michael Horovitz (The Telegraph) calls it a refreshingly clear-eyed chronicle of a counterculture often over-mythologised. But teadevotee says it’s not so much a story as Smith’s contribution to her own myth.  Elizabeth Periale (xoxoxoe) notes that Smith has a real sense of New York history. Luke Storms collected the artists mentioned by Smith. Jude Rogers (New Statesman) says it’s essentially a love story. Beth Fish calls it surprisingly tender and moving. Erin Lee Carr gleaned some things. Lee Wind felt more enlightened after reading it, but wasn’t sure how. Mac is still catching up to Smith. Kat says it offers a sneak peek into the inaccessible, narcissistic, pretentious and closed world of popular art, music and words. Adrian McKinty says Smith’s prose is spare and beautiful and her narrative is full of compassion, wonderful details, and humour. Steve A. calls it pure poetry. Tracy Seeley read it on a bus and walked all the way home. Akshay Kapur couldn’t relate to her hardship. John Francisconi calls it a work of alchemy. Stuart Weibel can’t recall a finer testament to love and devotion. Bill regretted misunderstanding what was going on at CBGB’s. Maria Hatling doesn’t want it to end. Nataliejill then heard her music for the first time. Olivia Antsis created a companion blog to the book, and gives (e.g.) context for some of the places mentioned. You can see Smith read from the book here and here. John Siddique posts Smith’s interview on KRCW’s Bookworm show. Here she is on PBS Newshour and interviewed by Charlie Rose. David Ward interviewed her at the National Portrait Gallery in December, 2010. David Pescovitz (Boing Boing) found video of Smith performing in 1976. Angela Carone talked to DJ Claire, who created a sort of soundtrack for the book. Laura Bradley (AnOther) reports that the Hotel Chelsea has been sold and will be closed for a year. Rolling Stone says Smith is writing a sequel.

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Photo by sizumaru used under a Creative Commons license.

Kate T. Williamson, A Year in Japan (Princeton Architectural Press, 2006).
During a year in Kyoto, Williamson kept a sort of artist’s journal, which she has turned into this book.  Her watercolors are full of details that grabbed her attention. Williamson has a designer’s eye for the telling detail, be it food, clothing or anything else.  (N.B. — The above is not one of her drawings.)

Williamson’s site will give you a sense of her work. And here’s a slideshow of some of her illustrations. Mark Flanagan ( calls Williamson’s watercolors simple and playful, and infused with a keen attention to light and color. Heather says it has the intimate feeling of a diary. Vanessa Raney (guttergeek) thought the illustrations were skillful but the descriptions weak. Charlie Dickinson ( says it sumptuously illustrates what’s compellingly different about Japan. Max Nikoolkan says its last focus become the uniqueness and brevity of everyday Japanese life. Julia Rothman says it tells you all the little, more important things you could never learn in a travel guide. Mary Ann Moore says it’s a reminder to appreciate what is unique and precious about what’s in front of us. Jill (I’m feeling formal) says it’s a beautiful memory of Williamson’s time in Japan, an introduction to aspects of Japanese life, and just fun to look at. JoAnn, who shares some of the illustrations, says: Who knew there was such a thing as an electric rug? Leah Hoelscher was inspired. Miss Lynsey has some favorite illustrations. Rebecca calls it a splendid record of Japan. Rosecrans Baldwin, who suggests the book is as though the love child of Maira Kalman and Kenneth Koch went abroad, interviewed Williamson upon the publication of a subsequent book.

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Photos of Tokyo by spDuchamp used under a Creative Commons license.

David Mura, Turning Japanese (Anchor Books, 1992).
A memoir of a year in Tokyo, from the perspective of a third-generation Japanese-American writer.  Mura, who grew up in Chicago, was awarded a fellowship to spend a year in Japan with his wife, a white American doctor.  Though Mura perhaps starts with the thought that the trip is a homecoming of sorts, it would be more appropriate to say that sometimes one needs to leave a place to discover one’s relationship with it.  Mura’s transitional status in Japan often makes him a more acute observer than many other foreigners.  Many of his observations are introspective, but there is much of Tokyo here as well.

Here is the author’s site, and here is the Wikipedia page about him. Karl Taro Greenfield (Los Angeles Times) says Mura’s wide-eyed gawk at Tokyo captures some subtle nuances of the Japanese-American experience in Japan. Here is a recent interviewby E. Ethelbert Miller. FWIW, Stephanie Wössner was not satisfied. The author’s site has a short excerpt from Chapter 1. Tadaaki Hiruki collected favorite quotations.

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Photo of the New Territories by countries in colors used under a Creative Commons license.

Austin Coates, Myself A Mandarin (Oxford University Press China, 1988).
As a young man, soon after World War II, Coates went to Hong Kong to work in the civil service. Three years later, he became a magistrate in the New Territories, deciding civil disputes in rural villages which had been bypassed by the twentieth century. Another person in his circumstances might have insisted on applying British common law, but Coates was fortunate enough not to know any of it, and instead had to use his wits to find the just resolution which would be accepted by all sides to a dispute. Many chapters are devoted to memorable cases; none disappoint. (This book can be found in bookstores in Hong Kong, but good luck tracking down a copy elsewhere.)

Here is Wikipedia’s entry about Coates, who spent much of the rest of his life in Hong Kong. Here’s an excerpt. Kay Danielson appreciated the author’s bafflement at deciphering indirect communication and managing the cultural minefields of face, ceremony and duty. James Garriss calls it delightful. Rory Boland considers it a classic book about the city. Coates’ cows went feral, apparently. Nell Freudenberger picked it as her favorite obscure book.

For Van der Heijden ring ALL THREE of the RED bells
Photo by .m for matthijs used under a Creative Commons license.

Sean Condon, My ‘Dam Life (Lonely Planet, 2003).
A decade ago, Australian writer and funnyman Condon and his wife moved to Amsterdam, where she had a job editing a magazine.  It folded almost immediately, but the two of them stayed on, scrabbling for housing and work, and eventually this book.  Though Condon can be cloyingly self-absorbed, his book gives an outsider’s perspective on Amsterdam unlike that which most tourists will get.

Condon’s site is not uninteresting. Hans J.W. Werner calls it a treat, a travel book that’s not a travel book. Shriram Krishnamurthi calls it a moody, introspective book, sometimes horrifying but almost always compelling. Lonneke van Holland was ticked off a day later. Pip Farquharson says it’s realistic, witty and humourous. Don Heller calls it hilarious. Ian Sanders was amused. Alasdair Kay did this profile/interview. Jay Lee ought a copy from Condon in Amsterdam.

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Verviers front window
Photo of Verviers by MrTopf used under a Creative Commons license.

Luc Sante, The Factory of Facts (Pantheon, 1998).
Born in Verviers, Belgium, in 1954, Sante emigrated with his parents to New Jersey as a child and grew up between the two worlds, unmoored from Belgium and adrift in America.  To understand and retrieve his heritage, Sante wrote this memoir of sorts, often more a book about where Sante came from than about his own experiences.  Verviers is a hard-luck industrial town in the Walloon south of Belgium, and generations of his ancestors have lived there within a few miles.  Sante has escaped Verviers’ gravitational pull like none of his forebears, but this book is the result of something pulling him back.  On a personal note, the notion for this blog came to me one night two years ago as I was fretting over an impending trip to Belgium and realizing that I didn’t have a book.  Now I’ve found a Belgium book.

Wikipedia tells you a little about SanteThis excerpt, the first chapter, will not tell you what the book is like. This passage is perhaps more representative. Here is a list of pieces he has written for the New York Review of Books, some of which are available to non-subscribers. More about Sante and his home here. W.S. Di Piero (The New York Times) calls it a forensics of remembrance, an investigation of selfhood as it is articulated in and by history. Geoff Dyer (The Independent) read a compelling narrative compiled from the shavings of memory, with lapses into accretion and survey. Charles Taylor (Salon) tuned out during long sections on Belgian history and culture (I quite liked them). Steven G. Kellman (USA Today (Society for the Advancement of Education)) calls it a lush, exotic plant that garnishes the varnished wooden shelves that house most other memoirs. Richard Bernstein (The New York Times) says Sante strives to sustain a literary and psychological intensity that the material itself doesn’t quite allow. It didn’t make Ronnie Cordova want to go to Belgium. Sante writes about FrenchThe Believer interviewed Sante in 2004. So did Peter Doyle, for Scan. Brian Berger interviewed him in 2008. So did Suzanne Menghraj, for Guernica. Watch Sante talk about cigarettes in 2007. Listen to Sante discuss Belgium’s split personality on this BBC programHere is Pinakothek, Sante’s blog about pictures. Sante posted these pictures, discussed in the book (I think) and complementing it well. I won’t try to explain this.

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Photo of Budapest by Panoramas used under a Creative Commons license.

Anna Porter, The Storyteller (Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., 2006).
A memoir of Porter’s childhood in Hungary, and a remembrance of her grandfather, Vili Rácz, for whom the book is named. Born Anna Szigethy in 1944, Porter grew up in Budapest until her family emigrated to New Zealand after the 1956 revolution. Rácz was something of a renaissance man, an athlete and an intellectual, and the publisher of magazines and newspapers until the Communists seized what assets survived the war. He loved Hungary’s history and culture, and he loved to walk through Budapest with Porter and tell her stories. Here too are the tales of the three Rácz daughters, of the struggle to survive under Stalinist rule, and of centuries of Hungary’s struggles with powerful neighbors – Turks, Hapsburgs and Soviets – and Rácz stands amid all these stories.

Here are a bio posted by her publisher and another brief profile. Here is a profile of Porter by Jessica de Mello. Historia liked it. Linda Richards interviewed Porter for January Magazine upon the publication of The Storyteller. Jessica de Mello interviewed her for The Danforth Review upon the publication of a more recent book.

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