Thursday, February 22, 2018

Rolling Stone, Joni Mitchell, and Other Gems: An Accidentally Seventies Post

I have been in a strange zone with reading materials lately. I read Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone magazine, by Joe Hagan, which is well-written but took me a few days to get into because, like Springsteen's memoir and a whole lot of rock biographies, Sticky Fingers clocks in at just over five hundred pages. It was fun to learn about the inception of the magazine, and how Mick Jagger and Jann Wenner have been in a lifelong tug-of-war about who owns the rights to the phrase Rolling Stone, but reading about what a mess one of my semi-idols Annie Leibovitz was in her youth, and how sodden with drugs and boundless relationships the seventies were for a lot of people, a) made me think about what glamor really means to your personal life and b) made me pause before diving into the rest of the book.

It's a commitment to settle in for someone's whole life history but, generally, once I cross the one-third mark of a big book, I'm in it for the long haul. Some books teach you how to read them, and I find that to be the case with these big rock bios. Another book I've been reading recently is David Yaffe's portrait of Joni Mitchell called Reckless Daughter
Reckless Daughter overlaps somewhat with Sticky Fingers (Tim kept calling it Icky Fingers; I don't know which title is more gross). Both feature the music industry and some of the same people, like David Geffen, and I would have thought reading about Joni's start as a young folksinger who grew into a California goddess would have been satisfying, but it turns out I was much more interested in the latter half of her life, when her music was morphing out of commercial reach and her relationships were increasingly fraught. The same was true for me of Wenner's biography - I wanted to know what he was up to in his forties and beyond, when he was having children and coming out of the closet and buying multiple mansions and navigating divorce. His ruthless ambition and drug-addled days as a young, hustling journalist-turned-publisher were full of famous events and names, including the disastrous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont in 1969, but it's almost too easy to be young and ambitious. I like learning about people after they've gotten roughed up a bit, not because I like other people's suffering, but because often that suffering gives people perspective. It can soften them in interesting, if not welcome, ways.    

I also picked up The Vanity Fair Diaries by Tina Brown, thinking it could be fun, but it seemed Diane Von Furstenberg appeared right away. Furstenberg appeared in quite a few pages of Sticky Fingers, and I was tired of reading about glittering parties. The VF Diaries also omits the first person pronoun, a style that generally leaves me with vertigo (an exception of course being George Saunders' haunting story "The Semplica-Girl Diaries").

Another book from the psyche of the 70's on my desk right now is All the President's Men, about Nixon/Watergate.  I sometimes accidentally refer to it as All the King's Men, a confusion for everyone around. I haven't decided if I'm going to commit to it yet. For one, it's co-authored by Woodward and Bernstein and in the third person (!). It's also one of those books where I read a paragraph and realize I absorbed nothing in it, and so I start again. And again. But I sort of love accounts of hard-hitting reportage, perhaps because I could never, ever do it, myself. 

Accidentally continuing the seventies theme, Tim and I watched Battle of the Sexes, about Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carrel, with Elisabeth Shue whom I frankly would watch water her lawn or buy drapes. The story is based on a tennis match in 1973 and I loved taking in the imagery of those days.  

A welcome departure from the dizzying shimmer of all the pop-culture books lately was Our Lady of the Prairie, Thisbe Nissen's fifth book and third novel. I know Thisbe socially and read Osprey Island sometime after we moved to Michigan. You know I'm a sucker for a water-y tale (and picture! Osprey's Island's cover is right up there with Brian Groh's Summer People for me) and was moved by her descriptions of weather and water and the people on the island where the book takes place. It's a story I think about often, with some terrifically-drawn characters and events that feel both dramatic and true.

I was pleased to find Our Lady of the Prairie just as engaging as Osprey Island, with endearing characters in a Midwest I love to read about: hay-filled and sunny or snow-covered and icy, with hoarder-landlords, dairy workers, motel owners, professors, Amish defectors, old people, and a whole lot of dubious chain-store snacks. 

It's also really funny and I found myself laughing out loud, a LOT. Of her mother-in-law, the fifty-year-old narrator says:

"She did keep photos of us - Michael, Ginny, and me - in frames in her room at East Prairie, though she probably tolerated my face in those shots with her beloved son and granddaughter the way she tolerated my actual presence: grudgingly, and with unconcealed displeasure. I always imagined that, if Michael and I split up, she'd relish X-ACTOing me out or sticking something over my face - an Easter Seal, a Chiquita banana sticker: That's not my daughter-in-law; that's just PLU #4011."

Nissen's awareness of the absurd always feels close at hand, something I welcome at any time. I also found myself continuously happy to see objects I had forgotten about, such as a shower radio inside a tornado shelter, and the following rural setting I didn't know I wanted to so badly to hear described until Nissen does so with characteristic finesse:

"Aldous Bontrager, landlord of 1867553 John C. Wolffson Road, got to the house before me to weed-whack a path to the front door. His trousers were spattered with grass, and when he lifted his cap to resettle it on his head before extending an arm toward me, his hair stuck to his brow in a wet band. The house was surrounded not by lawn but by a bizarrely ordered and organized junkyard: a pile of bicycle parts sat beside a reserve of household appliances; a nearby depression held vacuums, shop vacs, and electric brooms. Broomsticks, yardsticks, trim molding, and other long, skinny things were bundled in twine and stacked against the house like firewood.

'I own it all.' Bontrager swept his hand, indicating either the farmland or the junk.'" 

One of the perks of reading for me right now - and maybe, hopefully, always - is that the right book at the right time provides a sort of subconscious river, a water table beneath my days, where my thoughts go to settle while the world around me explodes. There's a continuity for me, when I'm reading a book I like, that counters the herky-jerky nature of life with a small child. I love my daughter, who is a gem of surprises and dead-on humor, and my little baby who is flipping over and saying "hi" - I swear - and who right now is cooing from a swing in the dining room. But if I don't have some quiet mental space away from the noise, I get out of whack, quickly. In days overrun with errands and meals and Curious George, my non-negotiables are: books, words, fresh air, and sleep. 

I don't mean to be all tiny-violin here, but it's hard to read behemoth hardcovers while wrangling/nursing a baby, and I'm looking forward to taking a break from celebrity bios for a bit. I know there are e-readers and other options out there but please don't take my martyrdom from me. (Joking! Sort of.) 

In the meantime, it's almost my birthday. I'm due chocolate, a cake of some kind. Presents, roses, you name it, I'll take it. "Maybe we can make something for you," Samantha said, when she learned about my day.  I look forward to seeing what she engineers.