At Bookforum, Carl Wilson writes on the genuis of Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. In looking at David Yaffe’s Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, Wilson argues that Joni’s musical talent and accomplishments have been “asterisked” over the years because she was a woman, and that it’s long past time she got the recognition she deserves for pushing musical and cultural boundaries with songs built on her “chords of inquiry” (unique chords based on her own tunings).
It’s 1984 or 1985, Prince and the Revolution are in California, and they decide to drive out to Joni Mitchell’s house in Malibu for dinner. All devotees—Prince says his favorite album ever is 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns—they chat and admire her paintings, and then Prince wanders to the piano and starts teasing out some chords. “Joni says, ‘Oh wow! That’s really pretty. What song are you playing?’” as band member Wendy Melvoin later recalls. “We all yelled, ‘It’s your song!’” Prince will perform his gorgeous arrangement of Mitchell’s “A Case of You” in concerts up to the final month of his life.
This anecdote from David Yaffe’s Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell is rare for being sweet and funny, not sad or rancorous. It’s endearingly humbling, while still hinting at her ample ego: She really does love her own stuff, even when she doesn’t know it’s hers. And why shouldn’t she? For more than a decade, the singer from Saskatchewan bounded from masterpiece to masterpiece, her second-string songs superior to almost anyone else’s best. Yet, among her generation’s legends, she is the most persistently sidelined.
Mitchell excelled at channeling the subconscious of her time, especially as it was negotiated between men and women, but she was also always trying to get outside that orbit. She didn’t want to be a case of anything, except herself. The very chords she played were unique, belonging to no tradition except the one she generated with her own tuning system. She’s called them her “chords of inquiry—they have a question mark in them.” It wasn’t until she began working with jazz musicians that she found a band that could follow her (the rock dudes were hopeless). Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter took her as a musical peer. With rare exceptions, she refused to let anyone else—that is, any man—produce her albums, making her a pioneer in the studio too. No wonder Prince identified.
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It’s counterintuitive to think of the British Museum as a happening spot, but for a long time its reading room served as a premier gathering place for London’s brainy bohemians. In the 1880s, these included radicals like George Bernard Shaw, Henry Havelock Ellis, and Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx’s youngest daughter. They worked there, and they talked during smoke breaks and visits to Bloomsbury tea shops. They moved fluidly between politics and the arts, deploring factory conditions as fervently as they dissected Ibsen’s plays. The reading room was a vital seedbed for such Victorian-era social-reform causes as women’s rights and trade-union organizing.
It was also a pickup scene. Edward Aveling, a science lecturer, playwright, and political activist—and a notorious flirt—described the reading room as “in equal degrees a menagerie and a lunatic asylum” and made a tongue-in-cheek proposal that it be segregated by sex so as to bring about “less talking and fewer marriages.”
—Karen Olsson writing in Bookforum about a new biography of Eleanor Marx. Eleanor Marx’s relationship with her longtime partner Edward Aveling was among the liaisons fostered in the reading room. The reading room in question has since closed; according to Olsson, its library holdings were transferred elsewhere in 1997.
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“Just maybe the novel is not the best device for transmitting ideas, grand themes, to hormonal, boisterous, easily distracted, immature teenagers. Maybe there is a better format and genre to spark a love of reading, engage a young mind, and maybe even teach them how to write in a coherent manner. Thankfully this genre exists: It’s called non-fiction.
“Journalism, essay, memoir, creative nonfiction: These are only things I started reading as an adult because of how little I enjoyed reading novels in high school. Surely, the un-made-up stuff would be more of a bore, I thought. Yet when I finally read In Cold Blood, Into Thin Air, the works of Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion, I continually pleaded aloud to my friends in their twenties, ‘Why didn’t anyone make me read this in high school?!'”
— Natasha Vargas-Cooper eviscerates the high school reading list on Bookforum‘s blog.
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Photo: Wikimedia Commons