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on 29 April 2003
As a huge Joni fan, but one who actually not read that much about her, I found this book a great read: very informative, lots of things I didn't know, and some good commentary.
Where it left me very unsatisfied was that it really never got near to appreciating or describing her musicianship and her music. I can only assume that the author isn't a musician, because there is really no feel for this in the book. It's good on the outline of her life, it's pretty good on her lyrics, strong on here art, but weak on the music. And while the wonder of Joni is in part the astonishing combination of her talents, as a musician myself, I feel this book really doesn't do her music justice.
For instance (as a very small example), Joni's ear is obviously so good - does she have perfect pitch? I've always assumed she probably does, but after reading this book, I still have no idea.
Having also just read Brian Glasser's fantastic biography of Joe Zawinul, you see what a good musical biography can do - really get under the skin of the music & the musicianship. This book hardly touches the surface of her music/musicianship.
On the personal front, after all her relationships, Joni suddenly decides to get married. Why? Why him? Why then? I don't know.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in Joni, and as I say, I enjoyed it greatly and got a lot from it, but the 'definitive biography' is a work still to be done.
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on 31 October 2001
"Shadows & Light" attempts to uncover the person behind the persona of Joni Mitchell. It traces, rather methodically, Mitchell's rise to fame in the late 60's and earlier 70's through her disappointment of being abandonded by her fans in the 80's and then onto her tentative "return" in the 90's. The book seems rather rushed in a sense: her meetings, for instance, of some of the most important men in her life -- Graham Nash & James Taylor -- are almost dismissed with a quick throw away sentence. There's really no explanation of why she was attracted to them or any analysis as to why the relationships ended. Also, the time that Joni lived in Laurel Canyon was home to one of the most remarkable communities of musicians: Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, CSN&Y, Mammas & Poppas. This time of her life was also given the short shrift. Mingus and O'Keefe do get their fare share of space, though. It's funny dealing with such a reluctant candidate for a celebrity biography: most of her fans probably already know most of the information contained herein; new comers may find it hard to get to know this person who has done so much to change the forms of popular music for over four decades.
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on 4 December 2001
This workmanlike effort is accurate, careful and terribly shallow. Joni is by most accounts a genius and a complex, difficult woman, but this biography just recounts the facts of her career. It isn't bad, by any means, but it is not the biography I've been waiting for.
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on 10 February 2002
This book was a joy to read -- at long last, a hugely intelligent, articulate and fascinating biography of the iconic Joni Mitchell. O'Brien's book is meticulously researched and beautifully written; she's interviewed dozens of people including major figures in Joni's life and work : Larry Klein , Elliot Roberts, Tom Rush, Graham Nash, Joel Bernstein et al. It was a relief to read a book that actually focussed on the immense body of work and the vitality and character of Joni Mitchell , rather than gossip about her boyfriends from the 1960s. In fact, there is a very refreshing lack of unsubstantiated gossip and sleazy hearsay in this book. The chapters that cover Joni's collaboration and friendship with Charles Mingus and the detailed over-view of her paintings and photography, and the great Mitchell Miscellany in the Appendix ( guaranteed to tell you lots of things you never knew about Joni ! ) are alone worth the price of the book . The Art chapter is the most in-depth examination of the genesis and evolution of Joni's art, that has appeared anywhere ; understanding Joni's passion for painting is integral to understanding her creative life and O'Brien clearly gets this. The book also gives an intriguing insight into Joni's friendship with the great artist, Georgia O'Keeffe, and includes previously unpublished letters between them. And the ending is truly poetic.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 14 August 2006
Those who have read my review of Mark Bego's Mitchell biography will be aware I was not impressed; but the happy ending to the tale was that I finally found this, Karen O'Brien's Mitchell Biography.

I'm pleased to say that there is far more to like about this one. It is well-written, well researched, relies on first-hand interviews (though not with the great lady herself, of course) and therefore does not have a recycled feeling, and is excellent at picking up the pieces of references - Nietzsche, Bellow, Hemingway et al - and making the connections with Mitchell's work.

One such is the comparison between Mitchell's cathartic process in composing the songs for Blue and Virginia Woolf's in To the Lighthouse. Mitchell's songs work because as with authors like Woolf she has been able simultaneously to make the experience her own and ours - she generalises enough for us to identify with it, like a good fortune teller, a recurring motif in Mitchell's life which O'Brien covers well, incidentally.

There are some fascinating explanations of the origins of some of the songs and effects, as where she describes the actual storm evoked in Paprika Plains, where the wolves came from in Wolf that Lives in Lindsey, and particularly the story about the wedding dress on Staten Island in Song for Sharon. But she doesn't paint herself into too many corners speculating on who is being sung about in specific songs. And she manages to dispel some myths such as the one about The Hissing of Summer Lawns being Rolling Stone's worst album of 1975 (it was worst album title).

Intriguingly, along the way she seems to dangle a few question marks regarding Mitchell's motives in particular circumstances, as with her marriage to Chuck Mitchell which also coincidentally gains her US citizenship. After which she does a runner under cover of darkness. Wisely, O'Brien leaves it to her readers to make conclusions on such occasions. And as "flawed hero" is one of life's safe-bet tautologies, the possibility that Mitchell had a totally utilitarian view of matrimony beats the hell out of learning about Miles Davis's HR policies, and allegations about his pimping and wife-beating.

The book overall makes a good job of contextualising Mitchell's work, as where she places its meaning vis-à-vis the Reagan era in Chapter 10. What also works well is the way she groups the albums together stylistically within chapters, rather than an album per chapter, as Bego does. The only place where she is less thorough than Bego is in Mitchell's younger years, especially things like her time as a model, which I feel Bego does cover better. Pictorially though O'Brien wins hands down, with photographs deployed to illustrate an event, not to pretty things up a la Hello magazine.

But, like Bego, she does not join up the dots of the songs, comparing similar themes in different songs, for example. I don't know, maybe that isn't the job of a biographer, but then again maybe it should be, and that's why the book only gets four stars, I'm afraid.

That doesn't deny the essential value of this book, however. If O'Brien hasn't managed to join up the dots herself she has at least given us an excellent helping hand to do it ourselves.

Finally, O'Brien reminds us during her coverage of the Mingus recordings that there are tapes sitting at Asylum of the original sessions for the album, featuring the likes of John McLaughlin, Jack DeJohnette and Tony Williams. When are Asylum going to dust them off and release them?
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on 12 September 2013
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on 4 May 2015
Fascinating book to read. Would recommend. Had issues with book condition which has been resolved.
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on 6 February 2016
Very well researched and written. Book in good condition and received within time expected.
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on 3 April 2015
Very readable and entertaining
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on 29 July 2016
No problems!
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