Friday, March 9, 2012

Review: Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Joan Didion in the 60s (via)
Reviewed by Ingrid


It's about: This is a collection of Joan Didion's early essays originally published in various publications in the 1960s. The title of this collection comes from one essay describing Didion's experience in Haight-Ashbury, and comes from a W. B. Yeats poem called "The Second Coming." You can read the poem here.

I thought: I've been hearing about Joan Didion for awhile now - first Christine-Chioma reviewed her novel Democracy here on The Blue Bookcase in 2010, then I read Benoit's review of Slouching Towards Bethlehem and knew Joan and I were meant to be. I quickly added this book to my amazon wish list, where recently it resided back on page 5 or 6 until I heard her read from her most recent book, Blue Nights, on NPR, which pushed me a little closer, then I read this essay after perusing a google search and it was a done deal - I ordered Slouching Towards Bethlehem from Amazon that night and waited by the mailbox until it came.

Now that you have sufficient background, here's what I thought. There is a personal touch to Joan's writing that is radically appealing to me, for a number of reasons. She speaks from a place that is familiar and dear to me - she is about the same age as both of my grandmas, both of whom I am very close to and influenced my mindset and outlook on life as a little girl, when I lived in Newport Beach within 5 minutes of both of them, and now, as I go visit them both a few times every year. Joan and my grandmas all lived in California in the 60s and onward in similar, what one reviewer on goodreads described as "privileged" circumstances. All three were strong, articulate, beautiful women. As I read this book, Joan and my grandmas all meshed into one voice in my brain.

I loved how Didion writes about the "real" California, with its strip malls, deserts, Santa Ana winds, and endless expectations. She captures that 60s zeitgeist so wonderfully - in this way her writing reminded me of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In fact, the author of the articles I linked to up there says Joan Didion is like Hunter S. Thompson for women. Her writing style is so infused with details that women especially have seemed to relate to deeply - her description of the smell of jasmine, what she was wearing at certain important moments of her life, and how these and other details have affected her emotional life. Somehow she embeds these things in serious essays about society in the 60s. Of course, Joan Didion is for boys too. This is far from chick lit.

My favorite essays were the more personal ones, especially "On Keeping a Notebook" and "On Self Respect." Didion has been criticized for being too self-focused in her writing, but that is what makes her writing most appealing and significant to me. I've added my name to the waiting list at my library for Blue Nights and A Year of Magical Thinking. I'll also be borrowing another book of her essays, The White Album, from my friend Lauren. Joan and I have a lot more time to spend together.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf.

Reading Recommendations: Check out the links above for more reviews and articles on Joan Didion. Also, I'm obsessed with this picture of Didion in her New York apartment. Especially that beautiful painting hanging above her sofa, and those sticks in the corner, the collection of framed photographs, the tidy piles of books. Beautiful.

Favorite excerpts: "Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss."

What I'm reading next: A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman