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Entries in didion (9)


The Reader

There's nothing I look more forward to when visiting England than going book shopping. Unlike Jessa, I prefer UK covers to US covers, or did, for the most part, until very recently. It's even funny to me that she uses David Mitchell as an example: I didn't like the US cover to Cloud Atlas - too many sharp edges in the design, a scattered theme of varying texts. Perhaps this reflects the format of the book better than the UK cover, but I wasn't feeling it. It could be the giddy fan in me that has become attached to the swirling psychedelics of the UK cover, which prompted Mr. Mitchell, on receiving it to sign, to say: "Well, you're a long way from home." Which prompted me, in turn, to melt in my little white tights. (More on my Mitchell crush in coming entries, surely, when the man returns to the States and I embarrass myself once again by shouting silly things in his presence, such as "sex, please!")

On my last trip to the UK, however, I changed my mind while on Oxford Street when I picked a Joan Didion book off the shelf, a book that assembled Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, and After Henry into one collection. To my bewilderment, the UK publishers had turned my steadfast Joan Didion into some fluffy, flower-arranging lady writer. They called the collection Live and Learn, for Pete's sake. The cover, awash with pastels, shows Didion, apparently alone on a deck overlooking the ocean, cigarette in one hand, lo-ball glass nearby. It portrays her as a single woman, or at least solitary, carefree and whispy. As if she were on a Shirley Valentine-esque holiday. Little might the reader know that this is a cropped version of this picture. The recipient of her wistful, carefree gaze is her family. Her knowing smile is triggered not by the memory of last night's tumble in the cabin of a boat with a Greek fisherman, or how she might spend her day shopping for exotic woven handbags and charming souvenirs for the mantle, but by the contentedness, the completeness that her husband and daughter bring to her life. It was used appropriately and with complete success on the back of the jacket for The Year of Magical Thinking. In this case, the UK cover got it completely wrong. Didion is not pastels: she is bold, strong; she is red, she is blue.

A few days later on Bold Street in Liverpool, the great book designers of the United Kingdom redeemed themselves in my eyes with the cover of Ali Smith's The Reader. The woodblock-and-text cover is simple and attractive. Not only is the cover gorgeous, but the concept of The Reader - in which Ali Smith chooses a selection of her favorite pieces of literature for the reader to enjoy - has inspired me, and I've begun to compile a "reader" of my own, at right. As far as I'm able, I'll create links to texts that are available online; otherwise I'll link to places you can get the books for yourselves. Enjoy, reader.


I Can't Get That Didion Out Of My Mind

I will be out of the country for several days, and not knowing when I might next see an internet connection, I thought it might be appropriate to sum up my year now rather than later. I wasn't exactly sure how I could begin to do this, until I was looking back over the list of books I read this year, and realized that there really was only one way. Like bookends she is there: Run River on one end, Slouching Towards Bethlehem on the other. This has been the year of Joan Didion.

I came late to the party. It was like discovering "Alone Again Or" and then someone telling you that they had been listening to Arthur Lee since the sixties and they were through with all that, yet you want nothing more than to listen to that trumpet line for days upon days. I hopped onto a very crowded bandwagon. Still. After Run River, I devoured The White Album in January, Democracy in March, April found Play It As It Lays, and November A Book of Common Prayer. If I had not felt it important to read other writers, I would have read nothing but Joan Didion this year.

It begins, of course, in what we remember.
In February, I ordered Mahi Mahi ("flown in fresh from Hawaii this morning") at a West Side restaurant because I thought it was what Joan might do.

In April, I went with a friend to see her speak with poet W.S. Merwin, where they mused on indigenous migratory birds of the Hawaiian islands. Mr. Merwin suggested that they didn't stop flying until they reached the southern tip of Alaska, and Joan broke in: "Do we know they don't even stop once?"

Afterwards, she signed books, and I was shy to approach her, but did anyway, and mumbled something about how I had discovered her at just the right time in my life. And my memory has wiped away anything she might have said in reply. In my memory, she just smiles, and says: "Name?"

In June, I took other friends to see her read in Central Park, where she read "Goodbye To All That" and an excerpt from The Year of Magical Thinking. We cried where she couldn't, wouldn't: one of the two. Philip Gourevitch sat opposite her in a chair and asked mildly probing questions about her own obsession with words. "Yes, words and rivers. They're the only things that seem real to me." And the sky felt ripples of thunder, before finally breaking into the most glorious and powerful rains we had seen that summer. "Run for cover!" She shouted as we darted through trees and benches, flapping the weighted capes of wet sheets behind us, tossing aside useless umbrellas. Wet and inspired, I came home to find my husband napping, and I remember thinking that the world seemed too perfect for words and rivers, so prone to meandering.

It sounds like an unreasonable and wild obsession, possession even (as I thought to myself today on the bus, panicking, before I was exorcised by a woman who kindly told me to "have a blessed day"). But what more perfect writer could I have discovered on the early teetering edge of my thirties? Who has more to say about the condition of a woman's mind as she feels out the world, starts to finally realize who she is, and who she is not? And who can say it without sounding dogmatic? I cannot think of anyone else who so well describes this condition, this joy, this affliction.

It was the year when I realized the power of thirty, how it frees one to be as confident as one wants, without suffering the embarrassment of the misplaced and naive arrogance of one's twenties, and at the same time, I discovered thirty's shaming vulnerabilities, when one is still young and feeling fears with sharpened awareness. The year when I picked up my notebooks again after years of empty pages, the year when I decided to listen more and talk less (though I'm unsure if I succeeded here). The year when my own imagination several times got the better of me, the year of impossible scenarios played out months ahead in my mind. And these things were all there, mirrored on the page.

Every now and then I think I hear a rattlesnake, but my husband says that it is a faucet, a paper rustling, the wind.
I have pried her voice into my writing, hoping to sound more fluid (as, apparently, have others), and, in the end, I just feel slightly creepy. Seeing all of this bared on the page, I know that I have said too much. But it is what Joan might have done. And so I bare my soul and order Mahi Mahi flown in from Hawaii, look towards thirty-one and fear that my year has been not mine at all, but hers.

(If now you are tired of hearing me ramble on about Joan Didion, go watch Lloyd Cole & The Commotions do it: "Rattlesnakes")



Years ago, I was a person who would see a book through to the end. Then one day, I counted how many books I had left to read in my life (based on how many I am capable of reading in a year, subtracting a sizeable chunk for the distractions of having children and/or going blind). The number shocked me so greatly that I vowed not to waste it reading books that weren't enjoyable to read. And so I became a quitter. I started quitting left and right. The books in our apartment with bookmarks a quarter or even half of the way through are many: Donna Tartt's Little Friend. Nick Laird's Utterly Monkey. Yuri Rythkeu's A Dream in Polar Fog. Tom Bissell's Chasing the Sea. George R.R. Martin's A Clash of Kings. Even F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is The Night has a bookmark in it, somewhere just after one of the hotel room freak out scenes.

It's not always easy to pinpoint why these books have let me down. There are aspects of each that I love, but they failed to call to me to pick them up at every spare second. Perhaps it was down to an off-season pick: Rythkeu's book, set in an Arctic region of Siberia, was something I had started in June. I am sure I thought it would wisk me away to some unimaginable climate, but the pulsating New York sun surely distracted me from imagining the pain of frostbite. Perhaps it was the temptation of some other book I would rather be reading, as was the case with the Fitzgerald, which was what I had in my bag when Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler arrived in the mail, and who could resist that?

The most recent addition to the list of abandoned books is A.L. Kennedy's Everything You Need. As much as I loved the Uncles and Mary Lamb, as much as my curiosity was piqued by Nathan Staples' self-torture, I couldn't keep my eyes on the page. Perhaps it's down to distractions in my own life, but the timing of what I was reading in front of me seemed all off, and I felt compelled, on my way in to work today, to remove the book from my bag and replace it with something familiar and comforting, even though that something originally came all the way from Sacramento via London via Ballarat, Australia: my autographed, half-read 1969 Andre Deutsch copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

This is one of the lucky few I actually return to. (The only other I can immediately think of is Orhan Pamuk's Snow, which got a second chance a year after I had set it aside in the first place.) Didion's first book of essays was one I had begun to read earlier this year, but had deemed far to precious to waste in one sitting, and so I left a few of the essays unread, a lonely bookmark sitting somewhere between chapters, quivering with anticipation. Now is the time to find it again.

And so I have replaced a "can't read" with a rarely tackled "re-upped read." Peter Carey's Theft or possibly PD James will be hitching a ride in with me tomorrow as backup. And Ms. Kennedy will have to sit on the shelf, Three Lives & Co. bookmarking her somewhere near page 100. Just in case.

I cannot feel guilty. After all, there are only 1489 books left to read, if I make it to 80, eyesight intact...

(Everything You Need was one of the books in my From the Stacks Reading Challenge, and by quitting the book, I'm afraid I've had to quit the challenge as well. Apologies to the organizers; you inspired, but my insatiability won over.)


Lists of Five

Another challenge, this one from Overdue Books, via So Many Books (whose site I was browsing via Syntax of Things...)

From the Stacks Book Challenge

The object is to read 5 books between now and January 30th which you currently own and have been meaning to get to for a while. I have a slight advantage here, seeing as I own literally dozens of books I have been "meaning to get to." So there is much to choose from. Still, I have managed to go into two bookstores recently and come out empty-handed, and while I've eyed both Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, the guilt of unread books at home has been hanging over for me for a while. So perhaps the door has finally opened for me to give the sweet little orphans some precious brain space (in that cozy space right between extension numbers from the place where I worked nine years ago and the names of the 50 states in alphabetical order).

A list of the possible five (certain to be changed with every passing whim and fancy in my dizzy little head):

1. The Road Through The Wall - Shirley Jackson
I spent $5 for this old Ace Lion Books paperback back in August, and it has been sitting on my bedside table ever since. Shirley Jackson is a sure thing for me lately, so she goes to the top of the list.

2.The Last Thing He Wanted - Joan Didion
I know I'll crack at some point and want to round out my year with a bit of Joan Didion. My ownership of this unread book is the result of my embarrassing habit of falling in love with an author, and acquiring every book he or she ever wrote, whether I am going to read them over the next four weeks or over the next four years.

3. Mrs. Parkington - Louis Bromfield, or Colorado
Revisiting Pleasant Valley made me look up the other Bromfield books I have sitting around the apartment, and Mrs. Parkington - an old leather-bound and gold-stamped copy purchased used, one volume of a set - was staring me down. For further temptation, I'll refer back to the 1944 New York Times review of the movie based on Bromfield's book. It is a little daunting, though, and so I include Colorado as a substitute.

4. Everything You Need - AL Kennedy
One of the books on the list, I think this one has been on my shelf since it came out in paperback in 2002. Goodness me, I am sure it has gathered some dust.

5. Mason & Dixon - Thomas Pynchon
Hahaha, no I'm totally kidding. Have you seen the size of that thing? (But it is on my bookshelf.)

Instead, I'll leave the 5th slot empty for now. I need some time to go back to my shelves and mull it over.

And speaking of lists of five... Which five comedies would you want to take with you if you were stranded alone on a desert island? (My choices: 1. The Jerk, 2. Shaun of the Dead, 3. This Is Spinal Tap, 4. Annie Hall, 5. The Party)


I may even enter the caption contest

This week's New Yorker is one of the choice ones that I actually might end up reading cover-to-cover (which doesn't happen that often, I'm afraid). Palatable subtitles ("The strange case of Minou Drouet") and interesting topics (when's the last time you read about both video games and cholera in the same magazine?).

Also from the New Yorker, but online only: Bedside reading. Whenever interviewees are asked what is on their bedside table, I always giggle. As if we only read in bed. Whilst wearing frilly nightcaps. None of the interviewees ever acknowledge this turn of phrase literally, but of course I couldn't resist. Here is what is currently on my bedside table:

    A 1960s European road atlas
    A French fashion magazine from August 2005
    A colorful children's pencil, unsharpened
    My 1940s Portable books (Hemingway, Parker, Swift, Whitman, Fitzgerald)
    Two Gidget paperbacks
    A bunch of old Shirley Jackson paperbacks (The Road Through the Wall, The Lottery, Hangsaman, The Sundial, Bird's Nest)
    My autographed copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem
So now you know.