Tag Archives: Joan Didion

Joan Didion and Her Blue Nights

I’ve spent a great deal of time with Joan Didion lately.  As I was finishing her book, “Blue Nights,” my pal, Janice, told me about the new documentary about Didion on Netflix, The Center Will Not Hold,” so I watched that, too.

Readers who have come late to Joan Didion’s work are most apt to know her memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” the beautiful and award-winning account of the year her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly of a heart attack, at the dinner table, an hour or so after returning from a New York hospital where their only child, Quintana Roo, lay in a New York ICU, on the verge of death.

Grim stuff, that, but Didion tells it, unflinchingly, and in her distinctive voice that readers have admired and praised since the 1960’s when she wrote for Vogue, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, Life. Her writing is sophisticated but approachable, and when I sit in her presence, I often let the book drop in my lap for a moment while I admire that sentence, this paragraph. 

I don’t know how I came to pick up my first Joan Didion book—I suppose I was browsing the non-fiction section in some bookstore or another, and I came across her book of essays on the Sixties, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”

The title, alone, was enough to recommend it.  It is a compilation of articles she wrote to explain, or attempt to explain, the Sixties—the Summer of Love, Haight-Ashbury, the “flotsam of jetsam” of humanity that flees to the golden coast, searching for something, that elusive better thing, only to find a vast ocean, and no where else to run.  In her opening essay, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” she captures the promise and desperation of the mythical place that was California in the mid-1960’s.  The center of the counter-culture, John Wayne, quickie divorces and beauty school, sunsets over trailer parks on the flat, scrub brush edge of town.

“Blue Nights”  is the memoir she wrote after the death of her daughter, Quintana.  She struggled with serious illness before her father died and for two years after.  It has been called an uneven book, but an important book, even so. 

Didion wrote “The Year of Magical Thinking” in three months, wanting to get her thoughts down while they were still fresh, raw, and she tells us in interviews that for her, it is through writing that she processes her life and comes to terms, in a way, with Dunne’s death.  It is a deeply honest book and moving, perhaps more so because there is not a hint of self-pity in it.  We see her, sometimes, blinking in the searing light of her new grief, disoriented perhaps, but never pitiful, as she searches for the word, the thought, the memory to help explain things.

“Blue Nights” is a different kind of book.  One reviewer said it was not a memoir on grief, like C.S. Lewis’s “A Grief Observed,” or indeed her own  “The Year of Magical Thinking.”  He suggests it is a memoir of regret, as Didion grapples with the loss of this child,  the questioning of her effectiveness as a mother, and her own aging. 

They adopt Quintana in a flurry, and Didion tells us at the celebratory drinks party the next day it is her sister-in-law who suggests they shop for a bassinet, that it had not yet occurred to Didion they needed one. 

That this child is wanted and adored we do not doubt. But Didion lets us in on her horrible secret-perhaps all mothers share it—her fear that she might not be up to the challenge.

It is a moving and sometimes painful tale of families, hope, love, desperation and grief.

The actor, Griffin Dunne, her nephew, produced the Netflix documentary.  It adds context and texture to her writing and her life.  She reads from her work in voice-overs, this self-assured voice we hear in contrast to the frail woman we see on screen. 

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is the book I have bought and given away at least a dozen times to friends and fellow writers.  I think Joan Didion is the finest essayist of our time, or certainly one of them.  Spend an evening or a week in the pages of one of her books, a perfect place to hide for a few hours in late autumn when it feels as if our own centers “will not hold.

My Ten Books, In No Particular Order

I have my feelings hurt, you all, and here’s why.  I don’t live on Facebook, but I check in almost daily and I will admit to taking the odd quiz from time to time. You know the ones, those are little tests from places like Buzzfeed.com, with titles like, “How Posh is your Vocabulary?” How Many Famous Artists Can You Identify?” “Which Harry Potter./Hunger Games/Game of Thrones Character Are You?”

long buzzfeedThey are fun little diversions but I almost never post my scores, and sometimes my scores are quite noteworthy. It’s enough knowing I can identify twelve of the fifteen world capitals from a single picture.

For the past several weeks, though, there has been circulating on Facebook a challenge to “name the ten books that have had the most meaning to you”, or something like that. I don’t know the exact wording because no one has shown the slightest interest in my ten books, and therefore no one has posted this to my page.

No one.

I have friends who have posted their books and then challenged several of our other friends to list their ten books. I read their lists with interest and enjoyment and, finally, disappointment when I realize my name is not on the new challenge.

Fine.

It doesn’t bother me, but my pals should know that I have 750 words, every week, right here to do with what I please.

Uh-huh. That’s right.

Here, then, in no particular order, is a list of ten books that have significance for me.

1.  “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” by Joan Didion. This is a series of essays and articles she wrote during the Sixties. Every essayist should own this book. Non-fiction writers should include her in their  evening prayers.

2. “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Besides sounding so cool when I say his name, it was this book and Marquez who introduced me to magical realism, and he did it so deftly that I didn’t even know what was happening until someone explained it to me.

nancy drew book cover3. Any Nancy Drew mystery. Carolyn Keene was, in fact, a pseudonym for a host of ghostwriters for the series. Nancy had it all-a roadster, freedom, talent,  two pals and a sometime boyfriend to mess around with her and help her solve crime.

4. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” written by Harper Lee. I knew, even as a kid, that in this book every word worked. It was a big story, too, although when I first read it I was too young to fully appreciate that.

5. “The Secret Garden,” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I read this as the secret garden gate with birdan adult, but loved it like a child, reading to myself but hearing my grandmother’s voice.

6. “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens. I read it almost every Christmas season. It is a joy to be able to finish one of his books in a span of less than a month.

7. “101 Famous Poems.” My mother had a slim and leather-bound copy in the living room bookcase, and I read it cover to cover and back again. I loved the poets’ pictures, set in ovals like cameos. When my siblings got on my nerves or I got on my own, I retreated to the living room and spent a quiet hour reading poems and thinking deep thoughts.

8. “The Inheritance of Loss,” by Kiran Desai won the Man Booker Prize, and I loved this book, even before I knew it won an award. I have recommended it to many friends, most of whom have tried to read it and didn’t like it, at all.  Which might explain why it is no longer in print. Even so, I found the story compelling, with threads of India, Great Britain, Nepal and New York City running through it, and the writing breathtaking. But that’s just my opinion.  Apparently.

9.“Out of Africa,” by Isak Dinesen. It was one the few books in which I have underlined passages and I return to them again and again. Sometimes it is just a sentence. Sometimes a paragraph or more. Just stunning writing.

Isak Dinesen
Isak Dinesen

10.“Me Talk Pretty One Day,” by David Sedaris. Because it made me laugh, out loud, and all over the place.

That concludes my list of ten books. Let’s hope something interesting happens for me to write about before next week, because there is also a challenge circulating about one’s twenty favorite movies. I’d like to spare you that.