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We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction Hardcover – Oct 17 2006
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“[Didion’s is] one of the most recognizable—and brilliant—literary styles to emerge in America during the past four decades . . . [She is] a great American writer.”
—New York Times Book Review
“One beautiful sentence follows another . . . Didion has remained a clearheaded and original writer all her long life.”
“Her intelligence is as honed as ever . . . Her vision is ice-water clear . . . Didion has captured the mood of America.”
—New York Times
“Many of us have tried, and failed, to master [Didion’s] gift for the single ordinary deflating word, the word that spins an otherwise flat sentence through five degrees of irony. But her sentences could only be hers.”
“I have been trying forever to figure out why [Didion’s] sentences are better than mine or yours . . . Something about [their] cadence. They come at you, if not from ambush, then in gnomic haikus, ice pick laser beams, or waves. Even the space on the page around these sentences is more interesting than it ought to be, as if to square a sandbox for a Sphinx.”
—from the Introduction by John Leonard
About the Author
Joan Didion was born in California and lives in New York City. She is the author of five novels and seven previous books of nonfiction.
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The first thing I noticed, once I had read just a few of her essays one after the other, was how original--and how widely imitated--her writing style is. I realized I'd been reading Didionesque reportage in the NY Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The NY Review of Books, Harpers, The New Republic etc. for years and had never known it. All the stylistic devices--the opening, all-encapsulating yet at first glance maddeningly indirect anecdote, the jump cut narrative technique that inevitably circles back to a single arresting incident or image, the devastating short-long sentence juxtapositions etc.--are there from the beginning. The thing is, she started it all and has remained the central practitioner of the art. It's as if the most highly accomplished of short story writers has taken to reportage of current and cultural events with a literary vengeance, which is what I suppose that over-used term the "New Journalism" refers to. She leaves Tom Wolfe et al. in the dust though.
What emerges from the perfect blend of personal narrative and relentless reportage is a stunning, unofficial view of our post-WWII national history: we have America's uneasy transition from the straitjacketed, tract-housing idealism of the 50s into the uncertainty of 60s; a quietly lacerating critique of the Haight-Asbury San Francisco era; the nagging presence and perhaps unknowable consequences of American involvement in Cuba, El Salvador and Nicaragua, from the Kennedy-Castro days through to the waning days of the Reagan administration; and always the perverse (almost pathological) underbelly of the Golden State, from the fundamentalist, largely mid-western/southern border states origins of the post-WW II Inland Empire and San Joaquin valley, to her largely unsentimental memories of middle decades Sacramento, where she grew up. Indeed, California's various mutations, as described by Didion, seem to encapsulate the slippery and ungraspable nature of truth in our fabled post-nuclear age. One phenomenon that seems to hold so much of the work together--merging California with Washington--is Ronald Reagan. Didion's contempt for the man is palpable. She writes about him as actor, corporate spokesperson, governor of California and president, and it fits too that this man stands as one of the most image-driven, elusive and vacuous figures in twentieth-century American public life.
What is remarkable is how sustained the quality of the writing is. I found her 80's work on Central America, Miami and Cuba, which was quite a departure from her first two, more famous collections, to be fascinating in their evocation of conspiracies, drugs, mind-numbing violence and chaotic ideological warfare. While for me there's a bit of a drop-off with the "After Henry" collection, her reflections on American political life from the 1988 election through to the eve of the 2000 election (the "Political Fictions" collection) have a remarkable level of perspicacity and unity in their outlook. To me, Didion was the first to notice what is now recognized as a common fact of American political culture: that it is driven by a self-generated, self-perpetuating class of media professionals who have been successfully co-opted by the spin-meisters of both parties. As a class they are utterly disconnected from life outside the beltway, and they endlessly discuss among themselves--at great cost to the quality of political knowledge and discourse in our country--the nuances of the medium and never the merits of the message.
So, if you want a juicy sampling of our culture and history gleaned from the last fifty or so years, as seen through the merciless gaze of a writer who unerringly enters entire decades and cultural fields through the back door, this is the book you're going to want to read. As I said earlier, it's a very intense and demanding experience reading the 1000 or so densely packed pages the Modern Library has put together here, and there's no way you'll do it in one go. However, you'll return to it over and over until you're done, and will find it well worth the effort.
This compilation was actually fun to read. My favourite pieces were the ones that focused on California or Southern California, respectively. She is a gifted storyteller.
I couldn't help but feel a keen sense of sadness for her with the noted timeline of her life (and historical moments, too). She lost both her parents, then her spouse and two years later her daughter.
I would suggest this book to others. It's a real treasure.
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