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Old 09-12-2019, 07:56 PM   #1
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The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

'Several days before Christmas 2003, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion saw their only daughter, Quintana, fall ill with what seemed at first flu, then pneumonia, then complete septic shock. She was put into an induced coma and placed on life support. Days later–the night before New Year's Eve–the Dunnes were just sitting down to dinner after visiting the hospital when John Gregory Dunne suffered a massive and fatal coronary. In a second, this close, symbiotic partnership of forty years was over. Four weeks later, their daughter pulled through. Two months after that, arriving at LAX, she collapsed and underwent six hours of brain surgery at UCLA Medical Center to relieve a massive hematoma.

This powerful book is Didion's attempt to make sense of the "weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness . . . about marriage and children and memory . . . about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.'


Goodreads


Discussion is split into two pliant phases.

The first phase begins immediately and lasts around a month until the next selection is chosen, so the 10th or so. This phase is generally meant for conversations about anything pre-completion, such as reading progress, thoughts on sections read, found info on the book, etc.

The second phase begins in about a month once the next selection is chosen. This phase is meant for post-completion conversations, and anything else anyone wants to discuss concerning the selection.

These phases are recommended but anyone can discuss any part or aspect at any time.


This is the MR Literary Club selection for September 2019, and is our 100th selection. Everyone is welcome so feel free to start or join in the conversation at any time; the more the merrier!



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Old 09-15-2019, 04:52 PM   #2
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I wonder if Didion was very specific about the covers used, as there was hardly any variety. Although, it does look nice seeing such similar covers in a row. Two of the covers (the first and third) have some differently coloured letters and I didn't think much of it at first, until I suddenly realised they spelled my name. While a pleasant surprise to someone with that name, it was bittersweet when I then realised it had to be as an homage to her husband.
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Old 09-17-2019, 12:21 PM   #3
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I wonder if Didion was very specific about the covers used, as there was hardly any variety. Although, it does look nice seeing such similar covers in a row. Two of the covers (the first and third) have some differently coloured letters and I didn't think much of it at first, until I suddenly realised they spelled my name. While a pleasant surprise to someone with that name, it was bittersweet when I then realised it had to be as an homage to her husband.
It's interesting because her second memoir of grief, Blue Nights, about the death of her daughter, did a similar play on color, but did not spell out her daughter's name. It just said "No." Having said that, it could still have been 100% intentional given the subject.

I have been doing a listen of this as I have read the physical copy many times. I am still just as floored by it on a re-read as I was the first time.
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Old 09-17-2019, 03:28 PM   #4
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I had not noticed the covers. Very interesting observation!

I’m halfway through the book and find it extremely thought-provoking. I think it’s a curious pairing that we happened to read a Brian Moore book followed by a Joan Didion book considering the friendship between their families. When she brings up their life in LA and visiting the Moore home, I can picture it from that article I posted last month.
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Old 09-17-2019, 03:35 PM   #5
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Here is a new article that I found about their LA Literary Society. It gave me some more insight into Brian, Joan and John as people and writers.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/archi...-ef03414e3ce9/
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Old 09-17-2019, 06:11 PM   #6
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I finished my re-read today. I was just as heartbroken by it as I was the first time I read it. I will wait for the discussion to get rolling before I post any quotes. I will say, however, I think it instructive to read an early essay of Didion's, "Goodbye to All That," that is essentially an elegy for her time in New York as a young woman. She processes that loss in much the same way. I won't post any links here, as I suspect that most of them are not legal.

I also don't want to spoil what happens beyond what has been yet said, but I will say that she left to conduct the book tour for this book two weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

It was turned into a one-woman play in 2007 starring Vanessa Redgrave and directed by David Hare. Cate Blanchett filled the role in Australia.
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Old 09-17-2019, 11:25 PM   #7
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I better get started then else I will be left behind .
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Old 09-21-2019, 02:41 PM   #8
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I just read the last sentence at the end of Chapter 17. An internet search revealed that it is from the same poem which Didion quotes in Chapter 6, "Calmly We Walk through This April’s Day" by Delmore Schwartz.

Quote:
Time is the school in which we learn.
I found a copy of the poem on the Poetry Foundation's website. It struck me that the structure of the poem is also very similar to what I like about the book. There are repeating words/images/events/themes, but when they reappear they are sometimes varied slightly in the telling or phrasing. This technique to me builds an increasing emotional response in the reader. It's familiar enough to link the chapters/passages together but doesn't become too repetitious. It re-emphasizes the key themes of the narrative at the same time that your own thoughts about the subject of grief and mourning have been building while reading.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poe...his-aprils-day
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Old 09-21-2019, 03:01 PM   #9
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I finished my re-read today. I was just as heartbroken by it as I was the first time I read it. I will wait for the discussion to get rolling before I post any quotes. I will say, however, I think it instructive to read an early essay of Didion's, "Goodbye to All That," that is essentially an elegy for her time in New York as a young woman. She processes that loss in much the same way. I won't post any links here, as I suspect that most of them are not legal.

I also don't want to spoil what happens beyond what has been yet said, but I will say that she left to conduct the book tour for this book two weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

It was turned into a one-woman play in 2007 starring Vanessa Redgrave and directed by David Hare. Cate Blanchett filled the role in Australia.
Thank you for the additional information, astrangerhere! It appears that "Goodbye to All That" can be found in Slouching Towards Bethlehem and also We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is available in the Amazon Prime Lending Library for members for free and as a bonus the audiobook is only $1.99 and narrated by Diane Keaton.

It looks like a very interesting collection. From the Audible description:
Quote:
Universally acclaimed from the time it was first published in 1968, Slouching Towards Bethlehem has been admired for decades as a stylistic masterpiece. Academy Award-winning actress Diane Keaton (Annie Hall, The Family Stone) performs these classic essays, including the title piece, which will transport the listener back to a unique time and place: the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco during the neighborhood's heyday as a countercultural center.

This is Joan Didion's first work of nonfiction, offering an incisive look at the mood of 1960s America and providing an essential portrait of the Californian counterculture. She explores the influences of John Wayne and Howard Hughes, and offers ruminations on the nature of good and evil in a Death Valley motel room. Taking its title from W.B. Yeats' poem "The Second Coming", the essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem all reflect, in one way or another, that "the center cannot hold."

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Old 09-26-2019, 01:38 PM   #10
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Thank you for the additional information, astrangerhere! It appears that "Goodbye to All That" can be found in Slouching Towards Bethlehem and also We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is available in the Amazon Prime Lending Library for members for free and as a bonus the audiobook is only $1.99 and narrated by Diane Keaton.

It looks like a very interesting collection. From the Audible description:
There is a used bookstore around the corner from my office that I like to wander in when I need a break. I bought myself the Picador Modern Classics version of Slouching Towards Bethlehem for a meager $6USD today. The book is just a bit smaller than a 4x6 notecard. I've read it twice already, but I love it enough to have it in paper.

I own the big hardbound collected nonfiction as above, but I do love a pocket sized book to carry about. I think I shall place it in my court bag for the interminable waits I have in the courtroom. Can't use my e-reader there as no devices are permitted.
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Old 10-04-2019, 06:43 PM   #11
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Well, for me this book was a write-off, at close to the 50% mark I gave it a rest and thought about it for a while and after a few days decided there was much better reading about.

First, I have to say I know little about Joan Didion or her husband; in that I am maybe like most outside of the USA. Her work has been mainly USA centric. She may not be anything like the picture I make for myself out of this book, I am limited to the message the book passes to me.

I wondered if the book was self serving written from some sort of guilt rather than grief (or for the purpose of describing the psychology of grief), or a vehicle for name dropping and "I've been everywhere man, and there many times", although I was not engrossed enough to figure out if the "many times" was just the flood of repetition though the book or were actual many visits.

Around the 35% mark the flood of everyone with a name worth dropping started being dropped, most being names before my time or pretty much unknowns outside of (and perhaps within) the USA. When names were not dropped we got told the likes of she knew all the right surgeons, politicians, journalists, airline people and who have you to call so that she could manage (sic) situations. We even get to know the make and model of her husband's pacemaker, all the various medications, treatments and choppings up after death that floated through the family's medical adventures, poems and poets float into the story like falling snow, even what weather app she uses on her phone (AccuWeather, just in case you have forgotten ).

And did I mention that the repetition was tiresome for me?

Now, against that I can read the worst of the most name dropping of memoirs by popular musicians who tend to drop a flood of names that would drive Joan Didion to drink. While they can be a little tedious it is part of their career to actually work with those people and generally forms an important part of the story. So, when Elvis Costello writes about working with Paul McCartney, for example, it is the "working with" that is the matter; or when a string of names are given associated with an event they come across as giving structure to the description of the event. Whereas Didion gave me the feeling that names just dropped like snow flakes for little reason other than mentioning them (and none of them really that famous to be worth having their names dropped, I thought).

And did I mention that the repetition was tiresome for me?

In the end (well at the just before 50% mark) I gave up for the reasons above and the feeling that she had a better opinion of herself than I thought she was worth. And did I tell you that she was repetitive?

All in all, for me I thought it could stand being thinned down into a short chapter in a whole of life biography, but perhaps there is not enough other stuff to flesh out such a work (cynic that I am), or, of course, she could just use repetition, name dropping, "I've been everywhere, man", etc. to get plenty of words down. In case I haven't done so, did I tell you that I didn't read the whole book?

Nasty aren't I, but honest (well most of the time ).

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Old 10-05-2019, 09:46 PM   #12
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Great post, AnotherCat. It would be less interesting if you didn't tell us what you really thought.

I didn't get the sense of overly annoying name dropping. However I have read through various comments on Goodreads and noticed similar thoughts to yours. So, you are not alone in your perspective.

I really enjoyed the book and need to go back through the quotes that I highlighted. I felt that the book was very relatable in situations to what people you know have been through and that it gave me insight into what they may have been feeling.

One example that I remember is the irrational thinking that your loved one will come back. I've had dreams about loved ones after they died where they "came back" and just went away to get better from their illness. Or, she discusses how she thought she could go on a trip to Boston for work and there wouldn't be anything as a trigger for her grief but just a date can have a profound effect on our mental/emotional state. I could relate to that too from my own experiences.
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Old 10-06-2019, 01:40 AM   #13
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I'm finding this discussion very interesting with the gamut of ratings from (more or less) a 1-star to a 5-star, and reading such different perspectives on it.

I suppose I'm the last of us to finish up on it but I'm closing in on 80% now so should be done in a few days, though if I get a chance for one good sit down I'll probably finish it in a go.

Some of you may know, but I suddenly caught pneumonia a few years ago, and I was rather young to get it and generally very healthy so I was caught by complete surprise (although, I suppose who is ever ready to catch pneumonia?). Before I went to hospital and was put on a form of morphine, I felt like I was suffocating as I could only breathe with extreme shallowness because of the stabbing pain (the worst I've ever felt in my life, by far). As well some years earlier I had an auntie that suddenly caught pneumonia and died the same day overnight before she was even 60.

At one point a doctor had told me I was lucky in the end though, and reading about Quintana I see why very clearly. When Didion first started listing Q's early symptoms I recognised them immediately. I've made a basically full recovery, except that I can't take a large breath or go in cold weather without feeling a strange cottony tingling sensation now, and I've been recommended to do certain breathing exercises every day ad infinitum. Although this book is about Joan's journey, I can't help but relate to the early part of what happened to Quintana and feel for how unlucky she was.

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Old 10-08-2019, 03:10 PM   #14
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Anothercat -

I'm sorry that you didn't like the book, but I appreciate that you tried. I don't know that any perspective I might offer would change your mind, so I won't try on that count. I will say, on the name dropping - her and John Dunne made their livings in Hollywood. Hell, Harrison Ford, as a young carpenter, built a deck for her. I don't think it is name dropping so much as it is genuinely her circle of friends. This crops up again in Blue Nights when she is shocked to discover she is doing her own rehab in the same place that the New York Yankees use.

I think being married, I cannot help but view this book in the "what would I do?" lens. I have a lot of answers, and, frankly, none of them are as good as Joan Didion's.
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Old 10-20-2019, 05:11 PM   #15
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I think being married, I cannot help but view this book in the "what would I do?" lens. I have a lot of answers, and, frankly, none of them are as good as Joan Didion's.
I agree. As we age, these types of questions become louder in our head, and it's hard not to read this book without thinking "what would I do?" too. Death is inevitable for all of us. One of the things that really struck me was the emphasis on it happened in an instant - an ordinary instant. So true for so many people. Even when it may be expected due to poor health, it still may not be expected at the instant when it occurs. It's scary to think about going from a partnership with shared everything (past memories, present reality and future dreams) and then suddenly being single and figuring out how to navigate that new world both internally within your home and externally around others.
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