Saturday, January 20, 2018

RECKLESS DAUGHTER, A PORTRAIT OF JONI MITCHELL




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Reckless Daughter, A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, David Yaffe, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2017, 376 pp
 
 
Joni Mitchell's first album was released in March, 1968. I was an off and on student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, dropping out and then enrolling again. I was also singing in various spots around campus, covering songs recorded by Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan, already playing Judy Collins' version of "Both Sides Now." So of course, I bought the album the minute it came out and listened to it daily. Eventually a couple friends of mine helped me figure out her open tunings and how to finger the chords.

I finally saw her perform live in the very coffeehouse where I met my first husband and where we would get married in April, 1969. She played "Little Green." Nervous and tongue-tied, I went down to the dressing room and asked her if "Little Green" would be on her upcoming album.

I cannot describe how much all of this influenced my life. Reading this account of her life, which has its problems but is the best biography about Joni so far, was such a personal experience for me that I find it hard to fully express all that it meant to me. I finished it a few weeks ago and am still processing all the memories and feelings stirred up.

If I ever get to that part of my own memoir, having read this year by year, album by album account will help immensely. Thank you David Yaffe.

So I will only say that if you were a woman of heart and mind from the late 60s onward and at any point fell in love with Joni, you will want to read this book. Especially if you lived a life of conflict between your dreams for yourself and the demands made on you as a woman, you will find much to ponder. It is all here.


(Reckless Daughter is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, January 18, 2018

THE RISE AND FALL OF DODO




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The Rise and Fall of DODO, Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland, William Morrow, 2017, 742 pp
 
 
First thing first: DODO is an acronym for the Department of Diachronic Operations, a fictional US government department of the CIA. It uses witches and time travel to discover how magic disappeared from the world and how to bring it back. Its purpose is to influence world affairs and help keep pace with the country's enemies.
 
Second things second: Who is Nicole Galland and why did Neal co-write a novel with her? She is a historical novelist and had worked with Neal and a horde of others on his series, The Mongoliad (I have not read that). When Neal asked her if she would like to write DODO with him she said yes. In an interview with the two authors she said, "I think I said yes while he was still asking the question."

It turned out to be a match made in speculative/historical fiction heaven. Not that Neal has any trouble writing rip-roaring stories, but Nicole came up with some of the best female characters in the book and, in my opinion, added a certain zing to every aspect of the story.

The plot is so intricate, the book is so delightfully long, that I am not going to attempt a summary. None of the ones I have looked at have begun to capture it. All I will say is that if you love Neal Stephenson, witches, magic, humor, adventure and satire, the time it takes to read The Rise and Fall of DODO will be time well spent.

It reads like a fast paced thriller, is only mildly confusing (on purpose, I think), and all is made clear eventually. I read it in five days during my days of reading whatever I wanted in December. Neal will make you feel smart, as he always does, and Nicole will make you fall in love with all the characters, even the bad ones!


(The Rise and Fall of DODO is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

GREEN GIRL




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Green Girl, Kate Zambreno, Emergency Press, 2011, 250 pp
 
 
I read this novel in the last month of 2017 for two reasons. One is that it had sat, all that year, in a pile of unread books I own; a pile named in my mind Books I Want To Read Soon. The other reason is that in my memoir I am working through my teen years. Oh, what a murky area that is in my mind. Reading novels about teenage girls in the current century helps me recapture those times of confusion, urgency and uncertainty in my own life.
 
Ruth is a girl on the cusp of womanhood, right about where I was in my college years. She is an American who escaped the downward swirl of her first romantic heartbreak by moving to London. She works as a shop girl in "Horrids," as she calls that famous department store. Her job is to offer samples of a perfume called Desire, a marketing device for an American teenage pop star. She has not resurfaced from the downward swirl but she is trying.

Ruth is beautiful, slender, with long blonde hair. She roams the city feeling the eyes upon her, wondering who she really is. She parties, acts out, makes consecutive bad choices. If you were her mother you would be horrified, anxious, protective, maybe controlling. I am not her mother. I was her in Ann Arbor, MI, pretending to be a college student, partying, trying out different versions of myself, making consecutive bad decisions, some of which I still suffer from today.

The writing is evocative and disjointed. The tone is existential. The images are photographic, like stills from a movie. I felt many emotions, all at war with each other, as I read. 

I recalled writers I have read like Clarice Lispector, Sylvia Plath, Lidia Yuknavitch, and many more. Women who explore and express the tangled, grasping, hesitant poetics of desire while creating a self no one in the modern world can give them because she has not existed before.

I am glad I read it.


(Green Girl is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, January 15, 2018

SONGWRITERS AND THE TRUTH


I don't usually write much about music here, though it is music that has run through my life in so many ways and saved me in so many ways.
Last night I learned that an old friend of mine whom I have not seen in years has died.
Today I learned that Dolores O'Riordan, lead singer and songwriter for The Cranberries, has died at 46. Too young.
On this day, 89 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr was born. Today we observe the only American holiday that honors an African American. A holiday that took over 15 years to be approved by our government. I find it fitting that it is celebrated on or near the day of his birth rather than his death. What is important is that he was born, he lived, he fought for justice and freedom.
 On Twitter last night I found a tweet from Margaret Atwood saying she was taking a time out from Twitter due to all the attacks against her for a piece she wrote in The Guardian. You can look it up.
The world is so harsh with people who fight for freedom, justice and rights for all human beings.

As I was writing in my journal this morning I felt stunned, sad, beaten down, and words were hard to find. I found the lyrics of a song running through my mind. So I give you those lyrics, written by Stephen Stills when he was in Buffalo Springfield:

For What It Is Worth
There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind
It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side
It's s time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away
We better stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, now, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Songwriters: Stephen Stills
For What It Is Worth lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc
 (How appropriate that our much vaunted technology had to garble my copying and pasting. At least the copyright is there.)

Saturday, January 13, 2018

BRAIDING SWEETGRASS




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Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Milkweed Editions, 2013, 386 pp
 
 
I read this for my Tiny Book Club. The subtitle is Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. It was a revelation.
 
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a descendant of the Potawatomi Nation, raised on the stories of her tribe. She went to college and trained as a botanist because, as she told her advisor in her freshman intake interview, in answer to his question, "So, why do you want to major in botany?": "I told him that I chose botany because I wanted to learn about why asters and goldenrod looked so beautiful together."

At that moment came the collision in her life between modern science and indigenous wisdom!

Sweetgrass, called wingaashk in the Potawatomi Nation, is an honored and much used plant. The word means the sweet-smelling hair of Mother Earth. Kimmerer uses it as the metaphor for her book, braiding the stories of her people, the development of herself, and the depredations of the white European settlers whose descendants now rule this land, into a heartfelt plea for more understanding.

I sat down and began to read the book. Within a few pages my mind wandered, I felt bored, I had the urge to turn to social media or play Solitaire. I made it through ten pages. Reading group meeting was only a week away!

This went on for several days. Eventually Ms Kimmerer and I came to an understanding. I would read one chapter a day, she would be granted my attention for that long. It became for me something like the way some people read a devotional piece or Bible excerpt or psalm daily. Amazing changes came over my mind, my perceptions, my world view.

I have seen reviews of this book where readers complain that it is too poetic or even incomprehensible. I get it! This is a voice from another culture attempting to translate a sensibility about the true reciprocative relationship with the natural world that 21st century people will have to adopt if we want to remain living on our very own earth.

Have you ever spent time thinking about life without fossil fuels? I have. How could this world ever give that up? We are addicted to the very practices which are destroying our health and our home.

To read this book, I had to slow down, leave the time stream of my daily life. Eventually I became aware that my perception was changing, that I was observing life differently. I admit I haven't stopped driving my car, but I became aware that due to her way of presenting ideas this is a very subversive book. Exxon, etc, if they knew about it would have it banned. Our current administration would try to have it banned.

Indigenous wisdom is something modern life has lost and buried, but science is not evil. Robin Wall Kimmerer has spent her adult life in efforts to connect the two. Of course, one could not command or force a climate change denier to read it. I think a teacher of biology or botany or social studies could get her class to read it though. A college or university could make it required reading for graduation. 

This morning I saw a video clip on Twitter of a bison crossing a road in a National Park. We could still save ourselves a lot of suffering and this book could well be a how-to manual. Because of reading it I now am aware of and honor the many groups of our indigenous peoples who are doing their utmost to bring back the lost wisdom of the land and plants, who only wish us a long, prosperous, and happy life on Planet Earth.

I recommend, no I urge you, to check out what this book has to offer for the future.


(Braiding Sweetgrass is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

ILL WIND




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Ill Wind, Nevada Barr, G P Putnam's Sons, 1995, 309 pp
 
 
This was the third mystery by Nevada Barr, all set in United States National Parks. Ranger Anna Pigeon is now posted in Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park located amid the preserved cliff dwellings of the ancient Anasazi native civilization. Those ancestors of the Pueblo Indian vanished in the 12th century BC and left enough mysteries to occupy historians to this day. Barr weaves this into her own mystery.
 
It is summer and week after week park visitors are succumbing to respiratory attacks and having to be rescued by the rangers. One of them dies in the hospital. When Anna's fellow ranger is found dead in one of the cliff dwellings, the FBI arrives in the person of Agent Stanton.

Anna had been forced to work with Stanton in the last book, A Superior Death, where to say that they did not hit it off would be putting it mildly. Now Anna is more haunted than ever by her personal demons and Stanton becomes a good friend to her as they work together to find the killer.

Another of the park personnel is a woman who holds strong beliefs in New Age theories about the Anasazi. A strange phenomenon of mist and winds has been appearing on a weekly basis all summer. This woman is convinced it is being caused by spirits who deplore mankind's depredations around the park, as construction is being done to upgrade some of the park's crumbling infrastructure.

Once again the author combines the internal problems of the National Park's administration as well as the quirks of the Mesa Verde crew and visitors with Anna's prickly personality to create a complex mystery. I have been to the New Mexico section of the cliff dwelling ruins and could picture the locations, the weather and the skies in and under which Anna finds herself.

The book gets off to a jagged start as we meet the characters, not one of which is admirable. We also learn why Anna is there and how her situation has become less stable than ever. The cast of characters seemed larger than in the two earlier books. All of that made for quite a few confusing chapters. I was worried Ill Wind would be one of the duds that mystery series writers sometimes have.
 
Once the murder has been committed though, the story takes off and comes to a stunning conclusion. All the clues were there and I had to admire how she did it. All I will say is that ill wind was man made and justice was done. 


(Ill Wind is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, January 08, 2018

THE COLORS OF SPACE




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The Colors of Space, Marion Zimmer Bradley, 1963, 190 pp
 
 
This is one of MZB's early books (she began publishing in 1958.) It is a stand alone, not part of any series. Sometimes considered to be a young adult novel, it features a young man just graduated from college.
 
Bart Steele, the recent graduate of the Space Academy on Earth, learns that his father has been murdered but has sent him a message: "Bart, I send money and instructions by my friend. Do as he says. Don't go home, Dad."

The time is far future, space travel is common, but the secret of travel faster than the speed of light is jealously guarded by a non-human race, the Lhari. The pace is relentless and Bart becomes the young man who must wrest the secret from the Lhari by going undercover as one of them.

Though the writing is a bit lame, the story is a fun read with interesting twists. Bart learns that the Lhari are non-violent and peace loving but color blind. His mission is to avert war while learning the big secret without being discovered. What he discovers is the "eighth color." 

If college graduates these days had chances to grow up as fast as Bart had to, who knows what our future would be.


(The Colors of Space is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)