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Joan Didion has always kept notebooks: of overheard dialogue, observations, interviews, drafts of essays and articles--and here is one such draft that traces a road trip she took with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in June 1970, through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. She interviews prominent local figures, describes motels, diners, a deserted reptile farm, a visit with Walker Percy, a ladies' brunch at the Mississippi Broadcasters' Convention. She writes about the stifling heat, the almost viscous pace of life, the sulfurous light, and the preoccupation with race, class, and heritage she finds in the small towns they pass through. And from a different notebook: the "California Notes" that began as an assignment from Rolling Stone on the Patty Hearst trial of 1976. Though Didion never wrote the piece, watching the trial and being in San Francisco triggered thoughts about the city, its social hierarchy, the Hearsts, and her own upbringing in Sacramento. Here, too, is the beginning of her thinking about the West, its landscape, the western women who were heroic for her, and her own lineage, all of which would appear later in her acclaimed 2003 book, Where I Was From.
One of TIME's most anticipated books of 2017
One of The New York Times Book Review's "What You'll Be Reading in 2017"
Incldued among the Best Books of March 2017 by both LitHub and Signature
- ISBN-13: 9781524732790
- ISBN-10: 1524732796
- Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
- Publish Date: March 2017
- Page Count: 160
- Dimensions: 7.5 x 4.9 x 0.7 inches
- Shipping Weight: 0.5 pounds
Well Read: Notes from the past
For one of America’s great writers, Joan Didion has often left her many fans hungry for more. Over a 54-year literary career, she has published a mere 14 books, which more often than not have been concise in length, as deftly pared as her spare, elegant prose. Didion’s latest offering, South and West, is not new writing, although it is material that the public has never before seen. Including excerpts from notebooks she kept in the 1970s while researching articles that never came to fruition, this slim volume offers a window into Didion’s working methods. It also reveals the extent to which Didion’s brilliance as an observer and as a prose stylist exists from the moment she first puts pen to paper.
The lion’s share of the book is comprised of Didion’s “Notes on the South,” written during a trip to Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama the writer took with the idea that it might become the basis for a magazine article. In a passage clearly added with hindsight, Didion writes, “I could never precisely name what impelled me to spend time in the South during the summer of 1970. . . . I had only some dim and unformed sense, a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.”
"Didion’s brilliance as an observer and as a prose stylist exists from the moment she first puts pen to paper."
Didion lived briefly in the South as a young girl, when her father was stationed there during World War II, but hers is, and always will be, a Western sensibility. Her observations of Southern life, with its languid, conservative sense of history, are offered with the cool detachment that marks her work, that understated sense of irony that conveys as much in what is not said as in what is expressed. The small-town South she encounters is still a largely segregated one, where roadside souvenir stands sell beach towels imprinted with the Confederate flag, and the best places to feel the pulse of public sentiment is the local diner or beauty parlor. Didion, near invisible, never confrontational, filters it all through her prismatic lens. This ’70s South seems propelled not toward the future, though, but fixed in the past, or in a present that is totally comfortable being defined by the past. Didion has stumbled upon an alien world, and on more than one occasion resists the urge to leave.
Less alien, but no less discomfiting, are Didion’s “California Notes.” Significantly briefer than the dispatches from the South, these are notes taken when she was planning on covering the Patty Hearst trial for Rolling Stone. Herself a member of an “old California” family—albeit without the Hearst wealth—Didion feels a connection to the heiress and her peculiarly California story. “I am at home in the West,” she jots down. “I am easy here in a way that I am not easy in other places.”
South and West is an archival treasure. It may have limited appeal for those not familiar with Didion’s literary output, but it is essential reading for those of us who admire the work of this peerless chronicler of America’s collective anxiety.