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Book Review

CultureCatch 9/17/07

Memoir of a Free Spirit (St. Martin's Pres) devastates with emotional sabotages that seem so outrageous that you swear you must be reading fiction. I read the advance copy in one sitting, blown away by the poignancy and ease with which Miss James shares her years of perilous plight. The abuse she suffers at the hands of her Hollywood femme fatale mother Diana reads like Mommy Dearest meets Piper Laurie’s character in the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie. Chapter after chapter she is left pummeled by another emotional battering from someone close to her. Even when she’s able to finally run away from tortuous reality, which is one of her early blessings, she encounters emotional hardships that rival any I’ve read or seen in film. Only her grandmother Mimi – one of the few normal eccentrics she encounters – is courageous enough to try to shield her beloved granddaughter from harm’s way, although she ultimately loses her.

To say that she was trapped in a house ruled by a witch would be a gross understatement of the human condition. Her mother continually tortures her both physically and emotionally, whether it’s tying her to chair or locking her in closet to keep four-year-old Catherine in line so that Mom might socialize on the town without worry. Or not feeding her and making her swill hot sauce or dishwashing soap for punishment. Poor young Catherine is not out of harm's way until she is finally able to run away from her forever. And not until the very end of the memoir is there any contrition from Mom, as though that would suffice the years, though Ms. James emotionally detached herself from her shamelessly narcissistic and destructive mother years earlier. She continually denies her daughter’s safety in all areas of parenthood. You’d be hard pressed to find such abuses in today’s family courts.

Thankfully she is befriended by many wonderful and colorful characters along the way who help shine a brilliant light on her budding spirit, including such very famous folks as Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, and Roger Daltrey, to name but a few.

From the musically charged ’60s of Los Angeles to Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York to the swinging parties of London and back to the woodsy solitude of Connecticut, mature beyond years Ms. James crisscrosses America seeking solace in a tranquil corner.

Her unlucky-in-love character remains optimistic even when her life seems to be spiraling out of control. Time and time again you are certain the fates will finally cast a favorable light on such a courageous soul. But it is not to be.

Even as a pregnant teenager, she is able to rise above her condition and find the silver lining in a seemingly desperate situation. When Denny Laine, her son Damian’s father, once of The Moody Blues, Ginger Baker’s Airforce, and Paul McCartney’s Wings, swoops her up, you think she’s turned the corner. But the physically abusive rocker only adds more heartache and pain to the young bruised beauty’s tale.

Her supremely dysfunctional family will remain with you long after you’ve finished this book. And her triumphant spirit will make most readers take stock at how petty most of life’s seemingly unfair inequities might actually be quite trivial in comparison. Dandelion deserves to be picked from your local bookstore shelf immediately. - Dusty Wright

July 15th, 2007

James, Catherine
DANDELION: Memoir of a Free Spirit

Abused child and lover of many a rock star puts her life down on paper.
James first hit the music scene in the 1960s, when the Gods of Rock still blazed paths of wanton devastation across America before retiring to their well-appointed British castles for heroin and philosophy. She came from a Southern California kind of nowhere, raised by a speed-freak mother of uncommon brutality and a mostly absent, alcoholic father who later became the world’s ugliest transsexual (we learn this in a shocking flash-forward that opens the book). Sent to an orphanage at age 12, James managed to get out one weekend and make friends with 22-year-old Bob Dylan, who was playing a gig in Santa Monica. In 1964, still only 14 years old, she lit out for Greenwich Village. Being someone who makes things happen, she remade herself into a fabulous It girl, landing a screen test with Andy Warhol and partying with rock stars. Two years later, involved in a romance with the Moody Blues’ Denny Laine, she forged papers to get a passport and joined him in London, where she bore his child. More harrowing abuse, a whirlwind romance with Mick Jagger, infatuation with Jimmy Page and plenty of Performance-like decadence followed. Her later years were calmer, as she concentrated on raising son Damian Christian and finding odd employment as a model, a movie scenery painter and a stand-in for Diane Keaton, but she still found time to fall hard for Jackson Browne. James is no prose stylist, but she cuts to the quick with an admirable economy, treating the mundane passages of her life with the same sanguinity as the ones littered with the rich and famous. There’s plenty of pain here, but little wallowing.
The rare celebrity-crammed memoir that would be worth reading even without the bold-faced names. (Agent: Peter McGuigan/Foundry Literary & Media)