Thursday, July 31, 2008

Book talk: "Girls Like Us," by Sheila Weller

Disclosure: I was provided with a free copy of this book for review via Nicole Bruce at The Book Report Network. I received no other compensation.

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon--And the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller
Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon--And the Journey of a Generation
Sheila Weller
Atria Books, 2008 (hardcover) (ISBN 0743491475 / 9780743491471)
Biography/music/history, 592 pages

First Sentence: One day after school, fourteen-year-old Carole Klein sat on the edge of her bed in a room wallpapered with pictures of movie stars and the singers who played Alan Freed's rock 'n' roll shows at the Brooklyn Paramount.

Three sentences from Page 123

Book description: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon remain among the most enduring and important women in popular music. Each woman is distinct. Carole King is the product of outer-borough, middle-class New York City; Joni Mitchell is a granddaughter of Canadian farmers; and Carly Simon is a child of the Manhattan intellectual upper crust. They collectively represent, in their lives and their songs, a great swath of American girls who came of age in the late 1960s. Their stories trace the arc of the now mythic sixties generation -- female version -- but in a bracingly specific and deeply recalled way, far from cliché. The history of the women of that generation has never been written -- until now, through their resonant lives and emblematic songs.
Filled with the voices of many dozens of these women's intimates, who are speaking in these pages for the first time, this alternating biography reads like a novel -- except it's all true, and the heroines are famous and beloved. Sheila Weller captures the character of each woman and gives a balanced portrayal enriched by a wealth of new information.
Girls Like Us is an epic treatment of mid-century women who dared to break tradition and become what none had been before them -- confessors in song, rock superstars, and adventurers of heart and soul.
Comments: When I was offered this book for review, the PR e-mail had this to say:
"(T)his book isn't just for women who were kids when Carole King wrote the music for 'Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?'"

It's for women who just love pop music. Women who may not love music so much, but heard the songs of King, Mitchell and Simon as the soundtrack to their personal lives and struggles. The daughters of those women, who want to understand their mothers better. Fans of pop culture. And, not least, the men who love those women --- or that music.

GIRLS LIKE US can appeal to such a cross-section of readers because it's really two books in one. The first is a dishy triple biography that will keep readers awake --- and turning the pages --- late at night or on the laziest beach day. The second is a social history of the women's movement in America; it's a chronicle of a thousand crazy-quilt changes in relationships, careers and expectations."
A sales pitch, of course, but as it turns out, not an oversell.

During my childhood and early teens in the early- to mid-1970's, I remember frequently hearing Carly Simon and Carole King on the radio, and Joni Mitchell to a lesser extent; at the very least, we knew Carly's song "Anticipation" from those commercials for a very slow ketchup, and Carole's "You've Got a Friend" from youth group. And although my consciousness of the world, and what place I might have in it as I grew into an American woman, was being formed at that time, I wasn't aware of how these women were part of what was re-shaping that world. The generational "journey" that frames Girls Like Us is that of the generation just a bit before my own.

The context of social change and how it impacted women at that time, particularly the ones emerging into adulthood, gives the book substance, but the stories that it tells within that context are what make it a page-turner. Weller has done a lot of research and made good use of secondary sources in developing this parallel biography of three women who have more in common than you might have realized.

Weller does discuss each woman's particular musical career in (mostly objective) detail. Carole was barely out of high school in Brooklyn when she started out as a professional songwriter and arranger, and was a seasoned pro when, ten years later, she became a hugely successful singer-songwriter. Canadian Joni was always driven toward artistic expression, both musically and visually, and on her own terms. Carly's privileged Manhattan upbringing led to a relatively late start on her career, as it interfered with her being taken seriously. As Weller discussed the writing of various songs, quoting lyric passages here and there, I found that a lot of them were coming back to me, even if I hadn't thought of them in years.

The context is enlightening and the work is interesting, but the book is also a biography, and it's in these women's personal stories that the real fascination - and fun - is. While I didn't feel that Weller struck a gossipy tone at all, much of anyone's biography involves their relationships, and these three women definitely have had many of them in their lives. Carole was a teenage working mother, and played a maternal role with many of her friends as well - and this tendency was probably also a factor in her attraction to younger men (she's been married four times, and all except her first husband were younger). Both Carly and Joni were rarely without male companionship unless it was by their own choice, and both have been part of musical power couples at various times. Joni was the inspiration for Crosby, Stills, and Nash's song "Our House" (she and Graham Nash were living together when he wrote it), and later was James Taylor's girlfriend. James and Carole were platonic friends, but eventually Carly became his wife. The overlaps in all three women's social and artistic circles are interesting, if a little confusing. I really felt like I'd gotten to know all of them pretty well by the time the book wrapped up, and I enjoyed having the opportunity to do so.

Girls Like Us is put together well, and rarely dull reading, even if you're not a huge fan of these artists (not a big Joni fan, to be honest; I appreciate a lot of her songwriting, but never liked her much as a singer, and while her "beauty" is often mentioned in the book, I guess I just don't quite see it), although I think some familiarity with them will make it more enjoyable. It's a thick hardcover, though, so keep that in mind if you tend to carry your reading material with you.

Rating: 4/5


  1. I used to listen to Carly Simon all the time growing up. I'm familiar with the other two but less so. I don't normally read books like this, but it does sound like a good one.

  2. Literary Feline - I like memoirs, but I don't read many celebrity bios, because many of them are just so gossipy in tone. The fact that this one really wasn't (although there was certainly plenty of gossip fodder in these women's stories) was one of the things I liked best about it; the other was fitting those stories into the second-wave feminism context.


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