The White Album

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I think I really just don’t like Didion. Unless my mood is swinging hither & yon and causing me to veer one way and the next. The White Album I thought would be a terrific dinner mint about the 1970s. Instead, I could barely muster enthusiasm to turn the pages as Joan drones on in her dull flat unemotional voice. Some parts are good– descriptions of the abandoned Governor’s mansion that Jerry Brown refused to live on, opting instead for a mattress on a floor in an apartment in Sac, a glimpse at Nancy Reagan attempting to act naturally as she’s in front of a TV crew “going about a normal day” as the governor’s wife, tales of the dryness of California, especially quoting Bernard DeVoto: “The West begins where the average annual rainfall drops below twenty inches.” Also an interesting peek at a Jaycee convention where the 1960s appeared not to have happened:

The word “apathy” cropped up again and again, an odd word to use in relation to the past few years, and it was a while before I realized what it meant. It was not simply a word remembered from the Fifties, when most of these men had frozen their vocabularies: it was a word meant to indicate that not enough of “our kind” were speaking out. It was a cry in the wilderness, and this resolute determination to meet 1950 head-on was a kind of refuge. Here were some people who had been led to believe that the future was always a rational extension of the past, that there would ever be world enough and time for “turning attention,” for “problems” and “solutions.” Of course they would not admit their inchoate fears that the world was not that way any more. Of course they would not join the “fashionable doubters.” Of course they would ignore the “pessimistic pundits.” It occurred to me finally that I was listening to a true underground, to the voice of all those who have felt themselves not merely shocked but personally betrayed by recent history. It was supposed to have been their time. It was not.” (1968-70)

Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays

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Someone once expressed to me a very negative opinion about Joan Didion’s writing and I accepted it without thinking or without reading her much. I’ve now reconsidered and enjoyed this book of essays from the late 1960s. Apparently I read this three and a half years ago and was dismissive, but Didion grows on me. One of my favorites in this reading was the first essay—Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream—about a woman convicted of setting her husband on fire in their VW and running up and down the highway for an hour trying to summon help. The titular essay, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, is also solid, giving a detailed peek into 1967 Haight Street hippies and concerts in the Panhandle. This time around I enjoyed the New York piece (Goodbye to All That), myself being gripped less by the thrall of NYC and understanding the waves of feeling toward it that crash and recede.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays

I’ve avoided Didion for most of my life, but had this book thrust upon me by the Biblioracle. Most of the stories are from other publications, published in the late 1960s. Didion sneers at her victims, too good for them, clinically and dry-panning exactly how they are freaks but not in a welcoming way. Writing about the Communists and hippies in San Francisco, you get the sense that she is an automaton, simply recording facts, passing judgement, not living. And oh, her precious essay about leaving New York after eight years, after being too exhausted, simply, to go on. Into the warm welcoming arms of jasmine-scented Los Angeles. Blech. California’s native daughter is not the best writer it’s produced, and Didion is full of a pretentiousness even in her late twenties that I can only assume grows greater with age.