This post should have been posted last Sunday (on February 4). I was so sick that day, however, that I completely forgot to schedule it for automatic uploading. The end of my second chemo cycle (my fourth treatment on February 2) was difficult. I spent most of the weekend in bed and didn’t really have the energy to do much other than read a little bit and sleep. I hope that this doesn’t get to be a habit, but sometimes when you’re not well, you need to give yourself a bit of a break.
Joan Didion – The White Album
“The weirdness of America somehow got into this person’s bones and came out on the other side of a typewriter.” — writer and critic Hilton Als on The White Album.
The White Album is my first experience with reading Joan Didion. I have not loved a book as much as I love The White Album in a long time. A few years ago I started reading more essay collections and contemporary memoirs because I needed some media that wasn’t fictional and I needed to read words that were put together beautifully, artfully, in ways I could never manage if I typed until my fingers bled and edited myself until I went blind. Joan Didion’s writing is everything I’ve wanted and more.
I don’t mean to sound snobby, but I don’t like reading bad books. I don’t like young adult fiction, the trashy mysteries my mother loves, romance novels or those Shopaholic-type tragedies. I have my sources of fluff and trash (shoujo manga and a lot of video games) and, while I love those things, I want my books to offer something more. I want them to be beautifully written. I want to look at the way an author puts their words together and be in awe. This happens to me less often that I would like, but I find that essayists accomplish this more often than most.
Joan Didion definitely did not disappoint me. In many ways she is the pioneer of personal journalism: news as memoir and memoir as news. The White Album is a collection of essays written on various topics written for many different publications between 1968 and 1979. The topics are an interesting mix of the death of the 1960s, Black Panthers, the Manson family, traffic in Los Angeles, life in Honolulu, the movie industry and shopping center theory. Yes, shopping center theory. In each essay she is informing and teaching the reader by relating her personal experience with it.
One would think that because the essays were written as long as fifty years ago that they might seem dated, but that is not the case. I would say that many of the essays about politics and social change are particularly relevant now, as I believe that we are probably living through the greatest period of social protest and rebellion since many of these essays were written. The personal nature of the essays also assists in making them seem more contemporary — you’re reading more than just a simple explanation of the events of the time.
I would recommend The White Album to anyone who enjoys nonfiction or essays. Once I have taken a bit of a break from her work, I will definitely be checking out Fumbling Towards Bethlehem and The Year of Magical Thinking. I am wildly excited to read more from her.
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold
I finished reading The White Album a good two hours before my usual bedtime. The experience of reading it had been so powerful for me that I knew I wouldn’t be able to start reading, watching, or playing anything else that day. Remembering that Netflix had recently released a documentary on Joan Didion, I decided that this would be a good time to watch it.
The Center Will Not Hold (bonus points if you can, without using Google, tell me which poem this references) is a biographical documentary of Joan Didion made by her nephew, Griffin Dunne, who is a character actor of some note. It is a nicely put together collage of interviews with the subject (both recent and older footage from television interviews), interviews with other writers, friends and family members, relevant film footage, and readings of excerpts of her work as they are discussed in the film. In general, I think it does a good job of providing an outline of her life and does an even better job of highlighting the beauty of her work and her significance in the world of writing.
What I found particularly interesting about Joan is her relationship with her late husband, John Gregory Dunne. Dunne was also a writer and the two had an incredible marriage that seems to have been a truly equal partnership. While they definitely had rough periods in their marriage (this is made quite clear in at least one essay in the White Album) they relied heavily on one another professionally, as mutual editors: before submitting any piece of writing to any outlet or publisher, the other would read it. Joan stated clearly in interviews that there was never any competition between them, which I find to be fascinating.
If you’ve read any of Joan Didion’s work, you should watch this documentary. It will inspire you to read more and if you haven’t yet read any of her work, what on earth are you waiting for?