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Women of Heart and Mind

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller (Washington Square Press; $17.00; 608 pages)

This is, quite simply, a fabulous book about the careers of three key singer-songwriter-musicians of the ’60s and ’70s and beyond; the three just happened to be women.   There was a big surprise for me in the reading, as I had earlier read that author Weller interviewed both Carly Simon and Carole King.   She did not have the opportunity to directly interact with Joni Mitchell.

Based on this, I fully expected this to be a book strong in details about Carly and Carole, and weak on information about Joni.   This was not the case…  As someone else said, Weller spoke to virtually every musician, friend and intimate in Joni’s life and it shows!

The next surprise is that I was sure the tales of Carly and Joni would sizzle like steak fajitas, while Carole’s life story would sit to the side like a bland order of re-fried beans.   Instead, both Joni and Carole come off as fascinating early hippie-earth mothers, who were blessed with both tremendous intelligence and natural musical skills.   (Despite my initial doubts, Weller fully and effectively makes the case for Carole’s stature in modern rock and music history.)

Carly, sadly, comes off as a patrician – daughter of the extremely wealthy founder of Simon and Schuster – who married a fellow patrician.   This, of course, was James Taylor, whose father ran the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.   “James was a…  lifelong-privilege man.”

Here, Carly’s career appears to be a product of social connections, luck (she was often said to be the least talented of the singing Simon Sisters trio) and blatant use of her long-legged sex appeal.   “(There was) a sex-teasing leitmotif in every one of Carly’s early albums.”

Also, a lot of Carly’s story is devoted to James’ drug use and abuse; a topic that simply does not make for interesting reading.   The days of wine and roses, this is not.   Concerning Carly’s patrician status, Jac Holzman, founder and president of Electra Records said that he and the singer “were from similar backgrounds – haute Jewish New York, although she was certainly more Brahmin.”

Further, Weller notes that Stephen Holden of Rolling Stone wrote of Carly with faint-praise-turned-full:  “She has the whitest of white voices and uses it well, singing…  with her fearless enunciation.   Her almost literal note-for-note phrasing of songs is…  ingenuous.”

Weller has to be given props for finding the fascinating details you won’t find in other musician/band bios.   I’ll provide just one example here…

Weller writes of a young man who cleaned apartments in the Bronx in return for using the occupants’ pianos.   While most immigrant families managed to scrimp and save enough to purchase a piano, this young Italian immigrant’s family was just too poor to do so.   We came to know him as Bobby Darin, and one of the tenement flats he regularly cleaned belonged to the parents of a young woman who came to be called Connie Francis!

Weller may not be quite as talented when it comes to describing the turbulent culture and times of the ’60s and ’70s, but then this is still a rock and folk-music tale after all and not a pure historical overview.   All in all, this is a fabulous read that adds heft to the musical reputations of Joni Mitchell and Carole King, as it somewhat diminishes the career of one Carly Simon.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer at Orinda Books.   Girls Like Us will be adapted by writer John Sayles into a screenplay for a Sony Pictures film.

 

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Wild Horses

rescue

Rescue: A Novel by Anita Shreve (Back Bay Books; $14.99; 320 pages)

“He wants to go to her.   He’s used to caring for a person who’s sobbing.   It happens to him at least once a week.   But he can’t go to this particular person.”

When Anita Shreve writes, everything is set forth in perfect human scale – neither too large nor too small.   This is why she can take a tale, that in the words of another writer might seem pedestrian and predictable, and turn it into something cinematic.   While reading the novel Rescue, I often felt as if I were watching a movie on a DVD.

At first it seems like there will be few surprises in this family novel.   A young paramedic, Peter Webster, comes across a car accident in which a drunken young woman has nearly killed herself.   The woman, Sheila, is clearly troubled and promises to darken the life of anyone who comes close to her.   Peter falls in love with her even before she’s removed from the wreckage.   In a matter of weeks, they’re shacking up before getting married and having a child – a little girl named Rowan.

As we expect from the very beginning of this story, Peter has let an accident come in the front door and his life is nearly turned into wreckage by Sheila.   When Sheila has a second DUI accident, and seriously injures a man, Peter knows he needs to protect himself and his daughter.   He banishes Sheila from their lives.

Fast forward 18 years and Rowan suddenly appears to be the second coming of her mother, drinking too much and endangering herself.   And then the completely unexpected happens… the ever-responsible Peter elects to do something that seems almost mad.   He invites Sheila back into their lives.   And this is where Shreve the writer hooks the reader, putting you in a position where you cannot put the novel down.

Peter let Sheila nearly ruin his life once, and now he’s giving her a second chance?   It’s a disorienting twist on what seemed to be a plot that was traveling down a straight road – now it’s gone sideways.   But this is Anita Shreve and in her cinematic style, this is where the cameras begin to zoom-in, to focus on the major players as events escalate.

“Sheila turns her head.   ‘Go slowly and be careful,’ she says.”

No spoiler alert here, but Shreve will surprise you in the way life itself constantly surprises us.   One never knows exactly what’s coming next; the fact that the telling of this tale reflects this is a reason Shreve is one of our best story tellers.   This story is taut, engaging, realistic and fulfilling.   At its conclusion it teaches us that life’s next lesson is not in the here and now, it’s up ahead, just down the road apiece.   You’ll know it when you get there.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Brooklyn Roads

Sunset Park: A Novel by Paul Auster (A Frances Coady Book/Henry Holt and Company; $25.00; 320 pages)

It is the policy of Joseph’s Reviews to consider each work as to its own merit.   This latest novel by famed Brooklyn, NY writer Paul Auster is the first of his works read by this reviewer which makes it easy to adhere to the policy.   The book has served to pique my curiosity about Auster’s previous novels.   I hope they, too, have the quietness and narrow focus that he grants each of his characters in Sunset Park.

There is aloneness, almost an alienation that Auster’s characters Miles, Bing, Alice and Ellen have in common.   They are approaching midlife without the confidence and skills necessary to carry them into the next segment of their lives.   Each has strongly felt needs that serve to nudge them into the world each day away from the city-owned house in a seedy part of Brooklyn where they have become squatters because all of them are painfully short on funds.   These needs are coupled with real world time-sensitive matters that cannot be ignored.  

Miles’ girlfriend in Florida, Pilar, is a ticking time bomb through no fault of her own (she’s underage).   He is both drawn by and afraid of his need for her.   Alice is closing in on the final chapters of her doctoral dissertation, Ellen knows that her job is in peril if she cannot stay focused and Bing fears his own proclivities.

The housemates are aware that any day Brooklyn city police will serve them with an eviction notice.   Even though there is a sense of passing time and looming eventualities, the pace of the novel allows the reader to observe each character and appreciate how life has handed them challenges that will either serve as lessons or bring them disastrous outcomes.   Of the four, only Miles has a safety net in the form of famous parents and step-parents.   He has a painful secret that he has kept and danced around for over seven years.   This secret has drawn him away from his parents and into hiding.

Auster tells just enough of a tale to capture the reader’s attention.   He leaves out enough to allow the reader space to consider the reality that each of us has issues in life and they can be vastly different.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Sunset Park will be released on Tuesday, November 9, 2010.

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Number 9

The book Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero was released on March 16, 2010.   Here is an excerpt from this book written by Tom Clavin and Danny Peary (Touchstone, $26.99, 432 pages).

October 1, 1961

The savviest photographers got the two money shots.   The first, taken from behind and near the Yankee dugout, was of Roger Maris making solid contact over the plate on a 2-0 fastball by Tracy Stallard.   The left-handed pull hitter is exhibiting his much praised swing with extended bat and arms parallel to the ground, his left hand turning over, his right leg straight and left leg flexed, his right foot pointing toward third base and his left one perpendicular to the ground, his muscles in his face, neck, and upper arms tense, and his hips rotating.

The second picture, taken from the front, was of Maris, one breath later.   With, surprisingly, still-seated fans behind him, he is completing his pivot, releasing the bat with his left hand, and watching with hopeful eyes the flight of his historic home run into Yankee Stadium’s parked right-field stands.   But even the award winners among them missed something quite extraordinary that took place seconds later.   Fortunately, one of the greatest, if most neglected, visual metaphors in sports history would be preserved on celluloid.

Having completed what his bedridden Yankee teammate Mickey Mantle always called the “greatest sports feat I ever saw,” the new single-season home run champion dropped his bat and ran down the baseline.   He rounded first at the same time nineteen-year-old Sal Durante held up the 61st home run ball in his right hand; another ecstatic young male fan leaped into the field; and the clearly dejected Red Sox pitcher concocted an upbeat postgame response to the media (“I’ll now make some money on the banquet circuit!”).

As he neared second base, Maris suddenly escaped dark shadows and moved into the bright, warm sunlight.   Just like that, he had finally found a slice of heaven after a long season he’d sum up as “sheer hell.”   In Roger Maris’s version of hell, he was the prey in a daily media feeding frenzy, lost his privacy, shed some hair, received hate mail by the bundle, experienced vicious heckling from even home fans, and having arrived in New York from Kansas City only twenty-two months before, was treated by the Yankees organization like an outsider, an ugly duckling in a pond of swans.   His blow on the last day of the season was a telling response to all that nonsense.

Maris ran as he always did after a home run – head down and at a measured pace, exhibiting nothing offensively ostentatious or celebratory, nothing to indicate he was circling the bases one time more in a season than anyone else in history.   He was pounded on the back by joyous third-base coach Frank Crosetti as he came down the homestretch.   Crossing home plate, he was greeted by on-deck batter Yogi Berra, then bat boy Frank Prudenti, and, finally, the anonymous Zelig-like fan.   Then he made his way into the dugout – at least he tried to.   Several Yankees formed a barricade and turned Maris around and pushed him upward so he could acknowledge the standing ovation.

He reluctantly inched back up the steps, stretching his neck as if he were a turtle warily emerging from its shell.   He dutifully waved his cap and gave his teammates a pleading look, hoping they would agree that he had been out there too long already.   They urged him to stay put and allow the fans to shower him with the adulation that had been missing all year.   So he waved his hat some more and smiled sheepishly.

The television camera zoomed in, and everyone could see that during his sunlit jaunt around the bases, he had, amazingly, been transformed.   With the burden of unreasonable expectations suddenly lifted and the knowledge that not one more dopey reporter would ask, “Are you going to break Babe Ruth’s record, Rog?”  the strain in his face and haunted look in his eyes had vanished.   He no longer looked double his twenty-seven years and on the verge of a meltdown.

Baseball fans would, in their mind’s eye, freeze-frame forever this image of the young, cheery innocent with the trademark blond crew cut who had just claimed sports’ most revered record.   For that one moment Maris believed all the bad stuff was behind him.   For that one brief moment, he felt free.   In reality, it was the calm before an even more vicious storm…

 

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