Kirkus Reviews is the sort of bible of book publishing. The publication, along with Publishers Weekly, sets the tone for reception of new works, guiding book buyers, book sellers, book reviewers, and book readers. A Kirkus review is not guaranteed an author, and a good Kirkus review is like manna from heaven. So I’m immensely relieved that The World According to Joan Didion just got its first review, from Kirkus, and it’s a good one. It’s not long, so I’ll quote the whole thing here.
A biography of a significant American writer.
Most of us have a Joan Didion origin story: the article, or book, or photograph, or quote that first made us want to know more about this quiet oracle,” writes journalist McDonnell, author of Mamarama and Women Who Rock. When the author was in college, she read Didion’s essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” which asked what happened to the American dream, “the theme of much of [her] work.” Thus was born a lifelong appreciation for one of America’s most noteworthy stylists. McDonnell covers all the relevant biographical details: Didion’s Sacramento childhood; her early years writing for New York magazines; and her family life, which included the tragedy of adopted daughter Quintana Roo, who died at age 39 in 2005 (the subject of Didion’s Blue Nights). The author also offers personal reflections on Didion’s importance to her life and career as well as interviews with people who knew her, including Calvin Trillin and Gay Talese and nephew Griffin Dunne. Admirably, McDonnell notes that Didion was a more complicated figure than many of her fans acknowledge. She grew up in “deep American conservatism,” “never lost her distrust of big government,” and voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964. She had a habit of “glamorizing consumption,” which her early stint at Vogue underscored. Also, “when it comes to being an icon for women, Joan Didion can be deeply problematic,” starting with her “mean-spirited attack on second-wave feminism,” which “revealed her blindered privilege”—although she would moderate these opinions in later works. Overall, McDonnell offers a thoughtful assessment of Didion’s importance but doesn’t shy away from Didion’s flaws—e.g., that she struggled with motherhood. During her childhood, Quintana Roo “made a list of her mother’s favorite sayings: ‘Brush your teeth, brush your hair, shush I’m working.’ ”
The England-born, Long Beach-raised only child had deflected the ravages of puberty by teaching herself to play the leads of Jimi Hendrix, Ritchie Blackmore, Tony Iommi and Jimmy Page. As she tells it in her straight-talking, dirt-dishing memoir, “Living Like a Runaway,” neighbors used to visit her 1970s teen-girl version of a suburban man cave just to watch her shred.
My review of Lita Ford’s memoir Living Like a Runaway is in the Los Angeles Times today.
I just came across a summer story from Entertainment Weekly in which Lin-Manuel Miranda cites the book about Rent as an inspiration for the forthcoming book on Hamilton:“When I fall in love with a musical, I want to know everything about it. I remember Rent changing my life on my 17th birthday and being so grateful for the Rent book, which so beautifully brought the story behind Jonathan Larson’s musical to life.” I wrote that book, with my friend Katherine Silberger. The funny thing is, I’m dying to see Hamilton not just because it sounds like such a great show, but because my family lore is that I’m related to Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton is my grandmother’s maiden name, and the middle name of my dad, brother, and son.
Chrissie Hynde’s memoir Reckless has been surrounded by controversy because of some boneheaded comments the rock icon made in an interview. Apparently, having the appropriate response to one’s experience of abuse is another one of those boxes women artists now have to check off correctly, while men can carry on doing the raping and pillaging — no questions asked. I found her book to be a story not about sexual violence as much as about the American dream turned sour, as I wrote for the Los Angeles Times.
Oral histories and punk r0ck go hand in hand. No scene lends itself better to this anti-hierarchical literary form than my little town of San Pedro, whose music scene has had a steadfastly populist vibe since before the Minutemen. Local artist Craig Ibarra documents Pedro punk of the ’70s and ’80s masterfully in A Wailing of a Town, a — you guessed it — oral history I reviewed for the Los Angeles Times.
What with early Hanukkah this year, the holiday season is already here! I’m sure you have someone on your list who would like a copy of a widely heralded book about a band of teenage girls in 1970s LA. As much as I like to see my Amazon rankings rise, I recommend you buy your gifts of Queens of Noise from an independent bestseller. Book Frog in Rancho Palos Verde has signed copies, and you can order them online. You should be able to get a signed copy from Books and Books in Miami and Book Soup in West Hollywood too. And of course, there’s the incredible Powell’s Books in Portland. Available for the Kindle too! Perfect for music lovers, teenage girls, Twi-fans, Miley fans, California history buffs, etc. I will even send you a personalized, signed sticker if you email me at email@example.com
It still amazes me when reviewers completely get what I wanted to achieve with Queens of Noise. Fortunately for me, a lot of them do. The latest wonderful review of the book comes from Wayne Wise in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Spoiler alert: the ending follows.
“Ms. McDonnell cuts through the mythology and personal memories to find the larger story. She looks beyond the labels without losing their significance. The Runaways were exploited teenage girls. They were revolutionaries who changed history, strong women who followed their dreams.
They were vulnerable girls who were overwhelmed by sex, drugs and rock and roll. They were rock stars. They were, in their time, failures. They were all of these things. Ms. McDonnell is aware of the mythology that surrounds this band without ever losing sight of the real people involved. She gives them back their humanity while maintaining their status as legends.”