This is a transcript of Recommended Season 5 Episode 9.
You’re listening to Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. From childhood favorites to classics, to new and forthcoming reads, you’ll hear how the people who make books happen have been influenced by the ones they’ve read.
Today, Jami Attenberg chose Just Kids by Patti Smith, and Valerie Valdes chose Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.
Jami Attenberg is the author of the short story collection Instant Love, and the novels The Kept Man, The Melting Season, New York Times bestseller The Middlesteins, Saint Mazie, and national bestseller All Grown Up. She has also written about food, travel, books, relationships and urban life for The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, the Sunday Times, Longreads, and others. Her newest novel, All This Could Be Yours, is an exploration of what it means to be caught in the web of a toxic man who abused his power. It shows how those webs can tangle a family for generations and what it takes to—maybe, hopefully—break free.
My name is Jami Attenberg and Just Kids is my recommended.
It’s Patti Smith’s first book. It was a national book award winner and it’s the story of her starting out in New York and her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, who was a very famous photographer and it’s them being young artists in the sixties and seventies in New York. Most of the book is that.
I encountered it because I worked at a bookstore, at WORD Bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I think that she had poetry collections. I don’t want to say that it was her first, the only books she’d ever written. She obviously had produced lots of work, but it was her first memoir and full length nonfiction book. It showed up and I picked it up there. Everybody was really excited and really buzzy about this book. I think I had and I just consumed it immediately.
I had moved to New York as a young writer, so it was really refreshing for me to see somebody else’s struggle, to see a woman’s struggle. It reads a little bit like a fairy tale because she’s just meeting all these fabulous people and there’s like a glamorous glitzy yet druggie scene around the Chelsea Hotel where she and Robert Mapplethorpe end up living for a period of time, but they struggle. They’re broke a lot and they really build this life out of nothing, out of randomly meeting each other on the street as two people who are homeless. They’re homeless when they meet. So it was just a very gratifying experience for me to read it and it just made me feel like anything is possible.
I reread the whole thing in the last couple of days because I just wanted to refresh my memory on what I had loved about it. It is a book that I actually push into peoples’ hands all the time and just insist that they read it. Especially young writers who are just starting out because I think it gives them a great idea of how much work it is to just keep turning out … You have to be really passionate and you have to turn out your work and these were two people who were just always making their art and always being really focused on it.
I really loved the historical quality to this book. It’s the late through the seventies and I really enjoyed reading about New York City in that era. Because it just felt like a different New York then and it’s just sort of star studded with all the people that they run into. If you’re interested in arts and artists and musicians and writers that were running through the Chelsea Hotel in the seventies, that’s what she was doing. She was sitting in the hotel lobby. I identify with being a person who would sit in a hotel lobby just to see what was going on.
So I was like, “Yeah, that feels right to me.” And then the other thing, which I don’t feel like I mentioned is that it’s really beautifully written. She’s a poet and all the sentences are just individual gems that she just hits all these really nice notes and it’s all very musical because she’s a musician too. So the reading experience, it’s just a delightful reading experience beyond all the juiciness to the story and the themes and how you sort of root for her to succeed as a woman artist in the world. It’s just really pleasant to read the book.
I’ve loaned this copy, my copy of this book, to easily a dozen people and it’s always come back to me. Because they’ll read it and then they’ll want to talk about it with me. And it seems that when I hand this book to people that are, usually it’s peers of mine or friends of mine, not writers but creative people nonetheless. And it seems to show up just when they need it. I give it to people who are sort of questioning what they’re doing. Maybe they’re struggling with their work and they’re trying to figure out how to recommit to what they’re doing because being a creative person, whatever that means … I’ve given it to a friend who was an interior designer. I’ve given it to other writers. Given it to people who cook for a living. It can be really hard. It can be really a struggle. And there’s something gratifying about seeing somebody else succeed by following their instincts.
There’s nobody who’s ever given it back to me like, “Eh, eh.” Everyone’s always like, “Thank you.” That’s amazing for me to be able to … I wish that the books that I wrote would make people feel that way. But at least there’s a book I can give them that will, even if it’s not mine, it will make them feel that way.
I really just hand this book to people. I really just say, “All right, I think this is the …” I just did it to someone the other day in a cafe because I was sitting there reading it and I ran into this woman who runs a reading series here in New Orleans. She’s also a writer and she runs a small press and she’s kind of this young, very cool woman around town who has her fingers in a million things and she’d never read it before. And I said, “You have to read this book.” And in fact, I’m unconvinced that she was listening to me. So I’m going to text her and say, “I’m done reading my version of it and now I’m going to give you my copy of it.” So I make sure that she reads it because I do, I honestly, I don’t think she needs any encouragement, but I think that it’s just a really great perspective to have.
I always think about whether or not I would recommend it to my mother. I think about any book that I would … my mother, whether I would recommend it to my mother, and I would definitely recommend this book to her. I don’t know if I would recommend it necessarily to more conservative people, because there is so much talk about … I don’t know, though. They’re the ones who should be reading it, you know what I mean? It is a really fascinating story in part about how Robert Mapplethorpe, his emerging homosexuality and how their relationship was affected by it, and how they remained close even though they were originally a couple, and how she came to terms with it and how he came to terms with it, and how it impacted his art.
That’s all very interesting, and I really think that it would be great for anyone to read this book. But why I think it works from an age perspective that’s interesting, is that if you’re a young person, you may not have heard of all these people that they’re talking about in the book, but it’s a young person’s story. So, I think that that’s kind of appealing, and young people can connect to it. And then, I think if you’re an older person, just the fact that it’s set in the sixties and seventies, it’s a historical time capsule because they’re talking about Manson murders, and then they’ll talk about wars that are going on, and it’s … People can connect to it who are older through that way, whether or not they’re as interested in the arts.
I think it’s just told in such a pure, sweet, sincere, simple voice. It’s just a very clear voice. So I think that she … I don’t know, she just sort of holds herself on the page where you want to listen to her. So I would … I wish everybody would read this book. There’s just a lot that’s going on there that I think is really important.
That was Jami Attenberg, recommending Just Kids by Patti Smith. Her newest novel All This Could Be Yours, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is now available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at jamiattenberg, that’s j a m i a t t e n b e r g.
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Valerie Valdes’s work has been published in Nightmare Magazine, Uncanny Magazine, and the anthologies She Walks in Shadows, and Time Travel Short Stories. She is a graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop. Her debut space opera, Chilling Effect, skewers everything from pop culture to video games. It features a foul-mouthed captain and her motley crew, strange life forms, exciting twists, and a galaxy full of fun and adventure.
My name is Valerie Valdez, and Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones, is my recommended.
So Howl’s Moving Castle is a story about Sophie Hatter. She is the oldest of three, and her father is passed. Her stepmother is in charge of the hat shop where she and her sisters ostensibly work, except it’s not quite like that. What ends up happening is that she is working in the shop, her sisters get apprenticed out, and this is a world in which when you have three sisters it’s the youngest, of course, who is going to have the amazing, magical adventures while the oldest is going to sit at home and do nothing. And so Sophie has pretty much resigned herself to this really boring life.
What happens is into her shop wanders the Witch of the Waste, who curses her to be old. And Sophie then proceeds to go off and have a bunch of magical adventures and fall in love with Howl, who is, of course, and evil wizard who eats women’s hearts, which is very naughty of him. But of course he doesn’t actually do that, and it is a charming, wonderful love story. It is young adult, but it’s great for adults, and I love the book so much. And the movie, of course, is amazing as well, but the book is what has charmed me for a good portion of my life.
I saw the movie for Howl’s Moving Castle before I read the book. So that is a Miyazaki film, it’s amazing, wonderful. I definitely recommend watching it.
And so I dig up Howl’s Moving Castle the book, and in a similar way to The Princess Bride, the actual book is definitely different from the film. And so while The Princess Bride actually sticks closer to the book, loses a lot of the sort of narrator voice and the kind of interiority, which happens a lot when you adapt something, but the Howl’s Moving castle book and film are actually wildly different. The movie has a lot more to do with concerns about war, things that you would expect from a creator who is coming out of kind of a post-World War Two conception of what happens when you go to war, what happens when there’s violence between countries. And that’s something that is an undercurrent of the book Howl’s Moving Castle. But that’s very much a C plot as compared to the love story in it, which is much more the A plot. And so the two things are wildly different.
I always come back to Howl’s Moving Castle when I’m feeling down, when I’m feeling sad, when I’m feeling like real life has become so grimdark that it’s intolerable. And so you want to retreat to a fantasy where you know bad things are happening, they’re happening to the people in the book that you care about, not even just offscreen, on the side, in the background, but they’re literally happening to the people as you’re watching. But at the same time, the problems all feel very surmountable. They all feel very controllable in a way, even as, again spoiler alert, it’s ultimately revealed that in a way Sophie is holding onto the curse. And part of the reason that Howl can’t lift it is because she’s kind of gripping onto it. She’s latched onto it due to her own insecurities and her own problems.
But it’s a book that, like a lot of young adult books, it makes you feel as if you have power, as if you have agency, as if you can get stuff done. And it also is just really heartwarming. It’s a story of these two people who have their own different problems, and how they fall in love with each other and how they also learn to accept themselves for who they are. Because one of Howl’s problems, of course, is that he is very kind of stuck up, conceited, but it has to do with the fact that he had made this deal that was born out of compassion. And he wanted to save the life of this other creature, but it ended up that the bargain that they made was actually detrimental to each of them, even as it was helping them both as well.
But he’s mischaracterized in some ways, but also he does have his own flaws, and so watching him work through those, watching him overcome them for the sake of this person that he’s fallen in love with, and watching her overcome her own insecurities as well, it’s a beautiful story to read and it’s so wonderful to have that kind of secondhand experience when everything around you feels like it’s collapsing in a bonfire.
Howl’s Moving Castle has influenced me in so many ways. At the time that I was reading it, I had actually just about given up on writing, which is weird to say. I was writing poetry way more than I was writing prose, and even then I had just come out of college basically, and, I know, I’m just dating myself, but I had done a poetry thesis in college. I was focusing on writing poetry. I was barely trying to get it published because the concept of even publishing work at that point, my own work of course, was so outrageous to me that … I was working with that in mind and I was working towards that, but it seemed like such a pie in the sky thing that I had all but given up.
And at the same time I was also involved in an online workshop that was very harsh. And for some people that was really good and it motivated them and it helped them grow. And I will say that it did help me improve my skills, I don’t want to undermine that aspect of it, but it also really made me feel very ill-equipped to write. It made me feel like a failure. It made me feel like, for all the work that I was doing, for all the growth that I was having, it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t fast enough, it wasn’t good enough, and so I stopped writing for a while. And books like Howl’s Moving Castle, they really energized me. They really filled the well. And they made me feel like going back to prose was something that maybe I could do.
How would I pitch Howl’s Moving Castle? So I guess you would say, A girl is cursed by a witch to become old and tries to get help from an unscrupulous wizard, who ends up teaching her more about herself than she realized, and they fall in love and live happily ever after.
I would love to say it’s for everyone, but I definitely know that some people are not into feel-good stories, and so I would say that if you’re not into that kind of fairytale, feel-good, happy ending story, then it’s not for you. It doesn’t have a whole ton of nuance, but it is a delightful semi-portal fantasy, secondary world fantasy, with adorable characters. Everyone’s a cinnamon roll. It’s charming, it’s delightful, it’s fun. It doesn’t shy away from exploring certain psychological issues that the people involved have, but it does it with a very light touch. And so it really is just, it is fluffy, it is warm. It is the warm blanket on a cold day in front of a fireplace while you’re sipping hot chocolate. It’s a delightful comfort read, and so anyone who’s into something that is light fairytale, magic, love, and a woman kind of fiercely coming into her own power, this is the book for you.
That was Valerie Valdes, recommending Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. Her novel Chilling Effect, published by Harper Voyager, is available wherever books are sold. You can find her on Twitter at valerievaldes, that’s v a l e r i e v a l d e s.
Many thanks to Jami Attenberg and Valerie Valdes for joining us and sharing some favorites.
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