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Girls Like Us (Weller)

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey of a Generation
Sheila Weller
Simon & Schuster
592 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780743491488


Summary
A groundbreaking and irresistible biography of three of America's most important musical artists — Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon — charts their lives as women at a magical moment in time.

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 midcentury 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. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Sheila Weller is a New York Times bestselling author and award-winning magazine journalist.

She is the author of five previous books, most recently her 2003 family memoir, Dancing at Ciro's, which the Washington Post called "a substantial contribution to American social history." She is the senior contributing editor at Glamour, a contributor to Vanity Fair, and a former contributing editor of New York. To learn more, visit the Girls Like Us website. (From the publisher.)



Book Reviews
Captivating. And it defies expectations, to the point where Ms. Weller's grand ambitions wind up fulfilled…Girls Like Us is a strong amalgam of nostalgia, feminist history, astute insight, beautiful music and irresistible gossip about the common factors in the three women's lives.
Janet Maslin - New York Times


Weller, a journalist whose other books include the 2003 memoir Dancing at Ciro's, is…interested in exploring how these three distinct yet dovetailing artists bucked the expectations that had been laid out for them by previous generations and blazed a new path for women to follow. She's only partly successful: the book unintentionally makes the case that two of these women changed things for themselves more than for anyone else. Then again, even self-determination has value, and much of Girls Like Us is entertaining and intelligent, thanks to Weller's skills as a storyteller and her understanding of the musical traditions that inspired each of her subjects…She's also perceptive about the social milieus that, kicking and screaming, these women had to bust out of.
Stephanie Zacharek - New York Times Book Review

 

Let's get one thing clear right from the start—this is a fabulous book...Girls like Us unfolds with drama and panoramic detail. Written with a keen journalistic and, more importantly, female eye, [it] works as a healthy, long overdue counterweight to the endlessly repeated, male-sided version of rock 'n roll. Before these women broke the cultural sod during the rock 'n roll years, there were no girls like us. Now there are millions.
Caitlin Moran - Sunday Times (London)


Even at 500-plus pages, the book goes down as easy as a Grisham yarn on a vacation flight... The only flaw to Girls Like Us is that it comes to an end. Few people lead lives as action-packed and spiritually opulent as Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon did during such intensely interesting times. And few writers are able to impart so much freight with such vigor. The towering triumvirate got what it deserves.
Toronto Sun


Juicy... I doubt I'll listen to Mitchell's songs again without considering the child she gave up for adoption... and her subsequent bouts with depression or hear the oft-married King's music without thinking of her tumultuous relationships. As for Simon, Weller captures fully both the richness and glamour of her romantic life and the profound sensitivity that made her especially vulnerable to ex-husband James Taylor's drug abuse and the cavalier charm of Warren Beatty.
USA Today


As an avid music reader, sometime reviewer, and teen of the '60s myself, I was sure I knew just about everything there was to know about Carole, Joni, and Carly.... But Girls Like Us, an ambitious collective biography by six-time author and magazine journalist Sheila Weller, showed me exactly how much I didn't know. This absorbing, well-reported book chronicles a time when women in all walks of life were exercising new-found freedom. And as icons of that era, nobody did it better.
Christian Science Monitor


An avid music reader, sometime reviewer, and teen of the '60s myself, I was sure I knew just about everything there was to know about Carole, Joni, and Carly.... But Girls Like Us, an ambitious collective biography by six-time author and magazine journalist Sheila Weller, showed me exactly how much I didn't know. This absorbing, well-reported book chronicles a time when women in all walks of life were exercising new-found freedom. And as icons of that era, nobody did it better.
Ladies Home Journal


Half collective biography, half music-industry dish about three singer-songwriters who represented a generation of women on "a course of self-discovery, change, and unhappy confrontation with the limits of change. Vanity Fair and Glamour contributor Weller (Dancing at Ciro's: A Family's Love, Loss, and Scandal on the Sunset Strip, 2003, etc.) doesn't veer from the traditional image of her subjects. Carole King is the Brill Building tunesmith whose vinyl warmth reflected earth-mother instincts; Joni Mitchell, the Canadian prairie-born poet/artist whose yearning for love and commitment conflicted with the need for freedom (and its concomitant loneliness) that fueled her greatest songs; and Carly Simon, the neurotic, alarmingly candid and sexy Manhattan chanteuse. The author has pored over numerous documents concerning these three and interviewed scores of current or former lovers, friends, colleagues and relatives. Reflecting this prodigious legwork, many pages are crammed with the longest parentheses this side of Faulkner. Weller's prose frequently falls into cliche (Mitchell's "exorcising of demons"), and although she dutifully proclaims her subjects' stories to be tales of feminine empowerment, she more often sounds like Gossip Girl. The narrative frequently becomes a roundelay of ecstasy, insensitivity, drugs, madness, betrayal and loss at the hands of the men that got away, including James Taylor, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Jackson Browne, Leonard Cohen and Gerry Goffin (King's first husband and collaborator). Weller neglects the musicianship behind some of the memorable songs of the last half-century: You'd never know, for instance, that Mitchell's open style of tuning landed her on a Rolling Stone list of the 100 greatest guitarists in rock history. Yet the author's research has unearthed so much little-known material (including King's "Rick One/Rick Two period": successive marriages to Idaho mountain men) that her account is essential for understanding how three female superstars survived male chauvinism, romantic disaster and late-career neglect by the music industry to become icons. Definitely a guilty pleasure, but still a solid contribution to the story of 20th-century popular music.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
Introduction
Carly Simon, Carole King, and Joni Mitchell remain among the most enduring and important women in popular music. Each woman is distinct, in both her individual vocal style and in her singular transformation of American music history. Carole King is the product of an ethnically diverse Brooklyn neighborhood; Joni Mitchell is a granddaughter of Canadian farmers; and Carly Simon is a child of New York intelligentsia. They collectively represent, in their lives and their songs, every girl 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 that altogether avoids 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 three heroines are famous and beloved. In Girls Like Us, Sheila Weller captures the character of each woman, giving a balanced portrayal enriched by a wealth of new information.

__________________

Questions
1. "Women's liberation had been the work of female civil rights and antiwar activists in collectives in Berkeley, Boston, New York, and elsewhere...but now [in 1971] it was fully entrenched in the mainstream intelligentsia." To what extent do the early careers of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon seem animated by the spirit of the women's liberation movement? In what respects does their music seem toaddress the theme of the role of women in a world largely dominated by men? How did the words of their songs — and their personal and professional lives — embody a new spirit of young women being as adventurous as young men had always been?

2. How did Carole King's marriage at seventeen and subsequent early motherhood affect her development as an artist? To what extent could her marriage with Gerry Goffin be considered a partnership of equals? Why did their phenomenally successful pop-soul-plus-Broadway compositions seem less impressive by the time the Beatles and Dylan became popular, and how did that public perception affect Carole's own transformation as a musician in midcareer?

3. What does Joni Mitchell's decision to bear a child out of wedlock (and to refuse to hide in a home for unwed mothers) at a time when pregnant, unmarried women were considered scandalous in Canada reveal about her strength of character and her personal beliefs? How did her decision to give the child up for adoption play out in her music, and — much later — in her own history? How might such a difficult decision have reflected a kind of centuries-later version of the theme of the Child Ballads?

4. How did Carly Simon's complicated family life — her father's open love for a much older woman, her mother's semi-secret affair with a much younger man living in their home — factor into her own feelings about relationships and love? To what extent did her involvement with psychotherapy enable her to come to terms with her discomfort with being in the public eye? How might her insecurity as a professional musician be connected to her own feelings of inferiority in her eminent family?

5. How did Carole King's separation from her husband and collaborator, Gerry Goffin, in 1967, alter the course of her career? How did her move with her two daughters from suburban New Jersey to Los Angeles, a freer, cutting-edge city largely unfamiliar to her, affect her music? How significant was that move to her emergence for the first time as a truly independent woman?

6. In her song "Cactus Tree," Joni Mitchell writes that women should keep their hearts "full and hollow, like a cactus tree." How does that line resonate with Mitchell's own life in terms of her romantic and professional choices? How would you characterize the influence of fellow artists Judy Collins, Leonard Cohen, and David Crosby on the musical career of Joni Mitchell?

7. "Too much freedom doesn't help you artistically." To what extent did Carly Simon's musical career bloom in the wake of her marriage to fellow musician James Taylor, and how do you reconcile this fact with her having to juggle the responsibilities of musician, wife, and mother? How did Simon's marriage to Taylor allow her to publicly air her decidedly feminist take on gender politics?

8. "Though this would be hard to imagine in 1956, when standards of feminine beauty were at their most unforgiving, in fifteen years Carole would represent an inclusive new model of female sensuality: the young 'natural' woman, the 'earth mother.'" What role did physical beauty play in the musical successes of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon? To what extent did physical beauty serve as a barrier of sorts for up-and-coming musicians in the sixties, and how do you think their experiences compare to those of female musicians today?

9. How have the contours of fame changed for Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon as they enter their more mature decades? As they've transitioned from young stars to legends, how has their music changed? How would you characterize their musical preoccupations at this point in their lives?

10. Of the many details about the careers of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, which did you find most fascinating and why? How did the author's inclusion of political, social, and historical facts from the era in which these musicians were establishing themselves heighten your appreciation of their accomplishments? To what extent were you surprised by the intersection of their musical careers, given their distinct styles and their different backgrounds?
(Questions issued by publishers.)

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