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A review of Last Night at Chateau Marmont: A Novel by Lauren Weisberger.

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Take It All

The Bird House: A Novel by Kelly Simmons (Washington Square Press; $14.00; 272 pages)

“Every family has its secrets.”

“Don’t you know there’s a stronger thing keeping us together?”   Pete Ham (“Take It All”)

This is a novel about a family secret.   Ann Biddle is a grandmother with a big secret about something that happened in her past.   Her granddaughter Ellie is doing research on the family for a school project.   Despite declining mental resources, Ann seeks to assist her loved one in filling in the blank spaces in the family’s past while simultaneously hiding the dark event in her own past.

There is, fortunately, not much in the way of detail in the book’s synopsis; this is a plus.   The less you, the reader, know about the story before you arrive at the final, 272nd page the better.   The read was partly destroyed for me by an early release review that carelessly divulged the secret in question and other key facts.   But there will not be a repetition of that here.

“This was the heavy burden of secrets: the longer you held them, the larger they grew, the more people they entangled.”

Second time novelist Simmons has a no-nonsense style that calls to mind Anna Quindlen or Laura Lippman.   She neither needlessly embellishes nor writes too sparsely – she provides just enough detail to make you identify with the female protagonist.   And Ann Biddle is a real human being, with true strengths and also defects of character.   And yet, despite her rapidly failing mental skills, she’s one tough and clever cat; those who think they’re going to get the best of her discover otherwise.

“Things never turn out quite the way you expect, do they?   In love or in life.”

At its end, this a tale about honesty and love versus deception and protection.   It is also a story that touches upon human hypocrisy – the tendency of some to hold themselves out as one thing while living a life different from the facade they wear:  “He always said the right thing, but he didn’t always do the right thing.”   It is a novel about powerful secrets, which is why some will be reminded of Fragile by Lisa Unger.

This novel is well worth the read and is well recommended. Just don’t let anyone who has already read it share its secrets with you.   Tell them, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “I was hooked from the very first page.”   Chevy Stevens, author of Still Missing.

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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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