Non-Fiction, Reviews

Where I Was From by Joan Didion (2003)

A disclaimer: I did not manage to finish this book, even though it’s not very long. I love Joan Didion’s journalistic writing, as well as the two other memoirs of hers that I have read (The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights), but I just could not get on with Where I Was From.

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It is a memoir, about Didion, but mostly it is about California. The book begins with some of Didion’s family history, going back to her ancestors who migrated from the east of the US over to California. I liked this part. But quickly the book becomes more and more about California, and less and less about Didion. I found myself just switching off during chapters dedicated to this landowner or that one, none of whom have any real connection to Didion apart from maybe living in the same town as one of her ancestors.

The book starts to get rather list-like as she moves through time, and I just could not engage with the material. Didion’s rather flat style of writing works perfectly when she’s writing about something interesting, so that the subject matter is the focus and you get swept along with what she is telling you. But here her style means that I was too aware of how uninterested I was in what she was actually talking about. Didion obviously did copious amounts of research as the book is very detailed, but a lot of the time I felt like I didn’t need that amount of detail. I found myself skimming over whole paragraphs.

I honestly feel bad that I didn’t get on with this book, given that I am a fan of Didion’s other writing. I think it was a combination of the book not being what I expected (I thought it was going to be a more straightforward memoir, with a bit of Californian history thrown in), my not being engaged with such niche American history, not being American, and my having a busy few weeks where I just wanted a super engaging and easy book to read. Where I Was From was just not the right book for me at the moment. Perhaps I’ll try and give it a go another time, but for now, I’m looking forward to reading more of Didion’s other work that I know I’ll get on with better.

*

Originally published in 2003 by Knopf. I read the 2004 Harper Perennial paperback (pictured above).

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Vintage Didion, by Joan Didion (2004)

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(image: goodreads.com)

This little book is one of the Vintage Readers that were released in the early 2000s. As pointed out on the back cover, this is a small collection of Joan Didion’s essays that are a good introduction to her work. The essays cover politics, crime, the war in El Salvador, crime and corruption in Miami, the culture of New York (including a fascinating essay on the Central Park Jogger case and its impact), and, at the end, an essay from 2002 on the after effects of 9/11 and the subsequent ‘war on terror’. It’s a wide range of subjects, but they work well together, given that in each essay Didion explores or analyses something ‘bad’, something that made a real cultural and social impact in some way. I particularly enjoyed the essays on New York, and ‘Clinton Agonistes’, from the book Political Fictions (2002), which covers the Monica Lewinsky scandal, its media coverage, the impeachment of Bill Clinton, and the cultural impact of the whole situation. In this essay Didion reminds us of the absurdity of most news coverage, particularly when it comes to politics and sex (together and separately), and how the reactions of those in the public eye, both in and outside of politics, has such an influence on the general population. Reading this essay in 2017, you can really see the lasting impact of the scandal, and its influence on how America deals with the personal lives of those in power to this day.

Previously it hasn’t mattered to me if I have read Didion’s articles that were written years before I was born, about things I’ve never experienced – I’ve still enjoyed them and found them interesting. This time, however, I felt more disconnected from the subject matter, and felt that I would have benefitted from some background knowledge, especially about El Salvador and Miami, two places I know nothing about. I engaged more with the New York essays, as well as the one about Clinton, as I had more of a frame of reference for those, and had heard of the Central Park Jogger case. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed Didion’s writing, her long and complicated sentences, as well as her acerbic charm and scathing criticisms. Every time I read her work I feel like I learn something and expand my horizons a little.

The Vintage Readers are intended to serve as introductions or overviews of writers, and I think this works well for Didion. I think it would have made sense to include some more of her writing on California, however, as this is where she really excels. Perhaps something from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, like her writing about Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco in the 1960s. But, having said that, if you’re more interested in politics and the later 20th century, this book would certainly be a good introduction to Joan Didion.

I’m glad I picked up Vintage Didion at Skoob back in 2015, and I’m glad I read it. It has inspired me to read more of Didion’s books, and I have in fact just bought a copy of her most recent book, South and West: From a Notebook. What are your favourite Didion essays and books?

*

Published by Vintage in 2004.

Purchase from Blackwell’s. Not available from Wordery or Foyles, but they have all her other books here and here.

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Fiction, Reviews

#thisbeautiful : Growing Up in the 1970s

Tinder Press 2014 cover. Image: goodreads.com

Tinder Press 2014 cover. Image: goodreads.com

There was buzz around this novel a long time before publication. I started seeing the #thisbeautiful hashtag on Twitter in I think May, a full five months before the publication date. Promotion seems to be starting earlier and earlier for books these days! As long as we keep it up and don’t forget the books by the time they are published…

I am writing the first part (at least) of this review in June, shortly after having read #thisbeautiful. I thought it best to get my thoughts down when the book is still fresh in my mind.

First let’s talk about that title. If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go. Aside from the fact that I keep thinking ‘never’ and ‘would’ should be the other way around, to me it sounds more like the title of a poem than a novel. Or at least a prose poem (does anyone write those anymore?). It is a phrase that the author has clearly pored over and crafted to make it just right – otherwise it wouldn’t be so important to include all of it in the title. At first I just thought it was way too long, but after having read the book I see that it is necessary in its own way. While this is not a long novel it is one that is complex and rambling, filled up with stories and images. It is the story of a group of friends over one summer in the 1970s, and the story of so many other young people living with the presence and aftermath of war.

Katie narrates our story for us. She lives on Long Island, at Elephant Beach. ‘The Beach’ is a place but it is also like another character. It influences everyone that comes to live in it, and while it captures some it drives others away. Katie lives there with her adopted mother, and she feels a great sense of security in the familiarity of life at the beach, of seeing the same people in the same places everyday and always having something to do and people to see. She and most of her friends are in their late teens and are just leaving school. They are simultaneously independent and heavily reliant on their parents, and exist in a strange limbo between childhood and adulthood. Katie recounts memories of growing up with the people around her, and their lives as small children do not seem very far away – but already they are dealing and taking drugs, having sex in cars and falling asleep, barefoot and drunk, on the beach. They are bored and adventurous in the way that most teenagers are, but they are also overshadowed by the war in Vietnam. They all know someone who has been to fight, whether or not they returned. They all know that the war is complicated and morally unstable, and they all yearn for love and stability – though I doubt they would really characterise it that way.

Katie and her friends are essentially hippies – they reminded me a lot of the ‘disaffected’ young people that Joan Didion writes about in her essay ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ (included in the collection of the same name). They live in San Francisco in the 1960s, and though they exist in a very different environment there are stark similarities. Drugs and sex abound, as well as a lack of parental authority and the attitude that everything will be alright if you just ‘go with the flow’. They live in a supposedly amazing and almost idyllic place that should give them a wonderful life, but the reality of that life is almost nothing like the ideal – that applies to both Didion’s subjects as well as Katie and her friends. She tells us about several of them in little ‘vignettes’, a chapter dedicated to each incredible story.

As well as disillusionment and apathy, these young people also have to deal with unplanned pregnancies. There are several of these in the book and Katie relates the tales of three of her female friends, one who has the baby and struggles to cope and eventually moves away from the beach with her boyfriend; one who has her baby adopted and then joins a communal Christian household; and one who has a secret abortion, at which Katie is present. I felt these girls’ desperation and sadness, as well as their guilt at doing things ‘wrong’ and not being ‘good’. It is easy to forget that at this point the pill was not available to everyone, and abortions were illicit (though legal in the state of New York). These girls are not guided by their mothers, sisters, or (it seems) sex education at school, and have to muddle through on their own. There is a relaxed attitude to sex (though Katie and some of her younger friends are still yet to experience it), but no one is prepared for the consequences. To me this demonstrated the importance of not leaving young people like these to entirely fend for themselves – they have no support or help from anyone except each other, and they are all clueless.

This Beautiful is not particularly plot-driven. It is more a portrait of a time, and a group of people, and a place. Katie serves as a good narrator as not much seems to happen to her in comparison to her friends, and she is a good observer of the drama around her. Yet she is still just as lost and naive as the rest of them, and often wonders about the mother who gave her away – particularly when faced with her friends’ impending parenthood. Was her mother also some lost young girl, afraid of the future and growing up? Was she also without guidance and support, left to deal with things on her own? While Katie and her friends are a product of their era, perhaps the youth of every generation cannot escape the confusion of growing up.

Published in October 2014 by Tinder Press (UK). My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

You can read more about Judy Chicurel here.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

 

Blue Nights is a funny little book. The hardback is beautiful, with a blue background and lettering, a black and white photograph of a young Quintana covering the back. Beautiful, but funny. It is several things; but should not be viewed as a sequel to The Year of Magical Thinking. The earlier book was the literary actualisation of Didion’s reaction to the premature death of her husband John, and Blue Nights is her reaction to the death of her daughter, Quintana. John died in 2003, Quintana in 2005. Quintana had been ill for some time, and was unconscious in hospital at the time of her father’s death. With Didion’s mother having died in 2002, the first five years of the 21st century were made up hospital visits for Didion, with hours spent contemplating death, illness and aging. Throughout both books she mentions her own ailing health and visits to the doctor. The two books of course share themes, but I do not see Blue Nights as a sequel to the earlier memoir. It does not matter which book you read first. One cannot learn of the death of John or Quintana without learning about the death of the other. Both events are now firmly ingrained in both Didion’s psyche and public image.

(image: goodreads.com)

(image: goodreads.com)

Blue Nights is about Didion’s relationship with her daughter more than anything else, and her own feelings about motherhood. She and Dunne adopted Quintana at birth in 1966. The adoption process was different back then, Didion states, and very soon after signing papers she and John took Quintana home. Like all new parents they experienced the overwhelmed and emotional feelings when left alone to look after a fragile baby. Didion and Dunne were unable to have children naturally and Didion states with ease that she never thought there was any guarantee she would have children; but, like many women, she still experienced a deep desire to have children – once her career had taken off, of course. She often felt that she did not meet ‘the standards’ of motherhood, though she does not say whose standards she wished to live up to or felt that she failed.

Didion does not paint either herself or her daughter as ‘easy’ people. She was often working, and when she wasn’t she could be withdrawn and quiet, awkward and sad. Quintana was a precocious child with a vivid imagination and endless questions about the world and why things were the way they were. She had a strange recurring dream about ‘The Broken Man’ who would come and displace the parts of their family life. She suffered from a handful of mild mental health problems and often mused on macabre subjects. Didion repeatedly recalls her daughter wishing she could ‘just be in the ground and go to sleep’. She was certainly troubled. Of course there were factors beyond Didion’s control – mental health, the abandonment fears and worries that Didion states all adopted children feel – but the book is filled with the image of a mother worrying what she did wrong and unable to stop blaming herself for every minor problem. She often asks if she could have done things differently, made different choices or decisions. There is no conclusion or solution to these worries; no one could convince Didion that she did nothing wrong, regardless of the truth.

Didion’s musings on her motherhood are explored through various memories of Quintana’s life, particularly her wedding in 2003 and their time living in California in the 1970s. For the rest of the book Didion recalls her own psychological reactions to Quintana’s death and her health problems. Here the tone is very similar to The Year of Magical Thinking, with Didion repeating memories and phrases, and pondering the depths that illness can affect both the ill and the family of the ill person. Certainly the themes are similar, almost the same, as the previous memoir, in which she pondered marriage and being a good wife. Now she ponders motherhood and being a good parent. Her husband John is not mentioned often. Quintana appears as a spectre haunting Didion’s dreams and worries, asking questions that she dare not, or does not want to answer. This is of course a very sad book. It is beautifully written in the usual Didion style – frank and careful, covering all the details and asking endless questions. I cannot say that if you ‘liked’ The Year of Magical Thinking you will ‘like’ Blue Nights; it is not as simple as that. These memoirs are not enjoyable in that sense that they are fun and entertaining, but they are well written and interesting, challenging and moving. Fans of Didion will want to read Blue Nights for the writing and the insight into her life and psyche; newcomers will enjoy the writing too, but also the discussion and musings on death, ageing, illness and family. Blue Nights is recommended, with warnings of tragedy.

Published by Fourth Estate in 2011. 

 

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The New Journalism movement of the 1960s was about reporting the situation exactly as it was by way of the journalist involving themselves in that situation as much as possible. This meant going in and talking to the protestors, spending nights with them in the tents, attending the entire political conference and getting to know the campaigners, becoming friends with those involved; in short, immersion. Joan Didion was one of the key writers of New Journalism. Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album are two seminal books of essays that explore practically all facets of 1960s society and  perfectly demonstrate the immersive and ‘real’ nature of New Journalism. Didion spent considerable time with her subjects, becoming involved in their lives and documenting everything as it was. More than anything the word ‘cool’ was associated with her and her work – her style has always been calm and slow, full of detail but only what seems relevant. She never includes the mundane unless it demonstrates her point. She is entirely realist.

(image: goodreads.com)

(image: goodreads.com)

She brings this same style to The Year of Magical Thinking; but here something is different. This is not reportage or fiction; she is not reporting something that happened to someone else. It is an account of the year after her husband died. She and John Gregory Dunne married in 1964. He died in 2003. Except for a few months at the start of their marriage, they both worked at home. For forty years they were together pretty much all the time. There were only a few weeks here and there when one or the other had to go away for work. After forty years together he collapsed while they were having dinner one evening at home and died shortly afterwards. Dunne had had heart problems for more than ten years before his death, but this did not make the actual event any less sudden. Didion called an ambulance, they came and did what they could, they all went to the hospital and about an hour after his collapse Didion’s husband of forty years was pronounced dead. And that was it. He was gone.

The quote on the back of the small white book is the opening line of the text and a note Didion made to herself shortly after Dunne died. ‘Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.’ The main theme of the book, if there is one, is Didion’s attempts to come to terms with those changes that happen in the instant. Her account of how she herself tried to deal with the death of her husband is calm and slow, like her other work, but this time deeply personal. During the time covered by the book their daughter Quintana is in and out of hospital with severe flu and later neurological problems. In fact she was unconscious in hospital when her father died and did not learn of his death until over a month later. Over the next year there are several times when she seems very close to death, and Didion is acutely aware of this. She wonders a lot about death and whether we can know when it is coming for us. She wonders if John knew he was going to die when he did; she examines certain things he said or certain things that happened that made it seem like he knew he did not have very much time left. She wonders if this meant something or whether it is just part of her grief, a constant asking of questions as an attempt to comprehend and understand what happened.

Didion is able to look back and examine not only what happened when in relation to her husband’s death but also what she did and when in its aftermath. Her ability to analyse and assess her own past behaviour is quite remarkable – it is as if she can look at her past as if it were someone else’s and through this she able to write about it as if she were reporting it. Perhaps. Either way it is quite brilliant. Her journalistic skills mean that when she ponders something she does not simply ramble or get muddled, she goes through some kind of logical pattern of thought. Even if she repeats questions or phrases – which she often does – at different points in the book, they are always brought to her mind by a different memory or question and do  not seem unnecessary.

Writing The Year of Magical Thinking must have quite cathartic for Didion. She is able to look back at what happened and lay everything out before herself and the reader, to work together with the reader to try and work out what to do when your husband dies and your daughter is seriously ill. How to look back at your life and fit it together with the situation in which you now find yourself. Quite simply it is a very sad but very beautiful book.

Published by Knopf in the US and Fourth Estate in the UK, in 2005.

 

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