Books on GIF #48 — 'South and West' by Joan Didion
This Sunday's book is 'South and West' by Joan Didion.
Anyone who knows me well knows that I LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE Joan Didion. I mean, I've read 'Slouching Towards Bethlehem,' 'A Book of Common Prayer,' 'Democracy,' 'Salvador,' 'Play It As It Lays,' 'The White Album,' 'The Year of Magical Thinking,' 'Political Fictions' and now 'South and West,' which was given to me as a birthday present by a dear friend. So when it comes to Joan Didion, I'm like:
'South and West,' published this year, is not Joan Didion's best, however. The book is cobbled together mostly from notes she took during a 1970 road trip through the deep south for a magazine piece that never came off. Even just writing notes, Joan Didion is still
or me, or just about any writer in the game. Her trip begins in New Orleans and from there meanders through Mississippi, Alabama and back. She records what she sees and hears in small towns — chatting with folks, hanging out around swimming pools, asking for directions — with aloof detachment. At times, though, her disdain comes through. For example: "It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken. Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?" This is just one of the several lines I underlined (it is a very underline-able book) that reveals the central premise: The South is a place that's trapped in its past, whereas the West is a place that has none. Here's another example: "The time warp: The Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were three hundred years ago." And the question behind that premise is, how did we get here:
The book somewhat answers that, but with nothing we didn't already know. It basically says that southerners are still upset about the Civil War (see, more recently, the Confederate monuments issue in New Orleans), they feel that northern liberal elites think they're stupid, and they don't think political graft is that big of a deal. Also, the book confirms that there's a lot of racism lingering there. But still, these insights, while not new, are delivered in a way that's clear and punchy. On the downside, however, the book feels like a play by a publisher to cash in on the name of a popular author and the disdain toward a president by most people who still read books. I can almost hear the meeting.
KNOPF: We need to get something out there about these Trump people. What do we have? Joan?
JOAN: Well, I have these old notebooks about rednecks...
Still, reading Joan Didion is never a bad experience, and I enjoyed this book. The notes come from a time when she was at the height of her powers, so fans and newcomers will enjoy it. 'South and West' also pulls the curtain back somewhat on her writing process. That was a real treat. Any budding writer or journalist should read it for that insight alone.
'South and West' by Joan Didion was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2017. 126 pages.
What's next? In the coming weeks I'll review 'The Moor's Account' by Laila Lalami and 'The Luminaries' by Eleanor Catton, among others.
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Thanks for reading!*
* Thanks especially to Donna for copy editing this review!