The Lords of Discipline
South and West, From a Notebook
Published by Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2017
Joan Didion, perhaps one of our most gifted and celebrated authors, prepared for her writings by keeping extensive notes and observations. Her newest book, South and West, is a compilation from two of her notebooks: the first, a 1970 road trip through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama; the second begun from a Rolling Stone assignment in San Francisco. Although these notes are often unstructured and free form, it is a remarkable view, first into southern America, and then into Joan Didion herself. As usual, her prose is crystalline; her imagery immaculate.
In “South”, Didion interviews local business people, and describes, among other things, diners, roadside views, a deserted reptile farm, a ladies’ brunch at the Mississippi Broadcasters’ Convention, the heat, the air, overheard conversations, confederate flag beach towels at motel pools, a slave owner’s certificate framed on a wall.
In the hypnotic liquidity of the atmosphere all motion slows into choreography, all people on the street move as if suspended in a precarious emulsion, and there seems only a technical difference between the quick and the dead…..It’s vertiginous preoccupation with race, class, heritage…are the basis of much conversation.…. they also talk…as if talking about anything at all could keep the wilderness at bay…the idea of wilderness as a mortal threat to a community precarious and colonial in its deepest aspect.
…the isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold. All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down. Does it matter where Taos is, after all, if Taos is not in Mississippi?……The solidarity engendered by outside disapproval, a note struck constantly.
On the Road from Meridian to Tuscaloosa, Alabama: “We crossed over the Tombigbee River, another still, brown river. I think I never saw water that appeared to be running in any part of the South. A sense of water moccasins.”
As “West” begins, what is instantly felt is the marked difference between southern culture defined by the past, and western culture where the past seems inconsequential. Begun as a “possible piece” about the trial of Patty Hearst, this notebook morphs into self-reflection as Didion discusses her privileged upbringing in Sacramento; social hierarchies, women she has seen as role models, and her thoughts on the West.
In the center of this (California) story there is a terrible secret…and the secret is the story doesn’t matter, doesn’t make any difference, doesn’t figure. The snow still falls…the Pacific still trembles…tectonic plates strain against each other while we sleep…..In the South they are convinced that they have bloodied their place with history. In the West we do not believe that anything we do can bloody the land, or change it, or touch it.
Fifty years ago, Didion writes with eerily prescience: “I had only some dim and unformed sense…that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was…:the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.”
It is fascinating to read these notes in 2017.
The One In A Million Boy
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 5, 2016
This is a touching story of Ona Vitkus, a 104-year-old Lithuanian woman, and a kind, socially awkward, nameless 11-year-old Boy Scout obsessed with counting and world records. Very soon into the book (page 3) we discover the boy dies from a one in a million condition. His untimely death comes after 7 weeks of Boy Scout old person “duty calls” that gracefully morphed into motivating Ona to become a Guinness World Record holder (and not due to her age!) Wood has the tragic death of the boy serve as the catalyst for the twin story lines – that of loss and redemption. The reader is confronted with a large cast of characters, but it is Quinn, the boy’s guilt-laden musician father, and the acerbic Ona that keep us interested. Their unlikely relationship only exists because of “the boy” and the legacy he leaves behind. The reader soon realizes through Wood’s prose that theirs is a poignant journey towards self-realization albeit motivated by an imposed friendship.
I strongly recommend this book. The plot is simple but clever; the characters well developed and beautifully sketched, and the writing is simultaneously witty and heart wrenching.
Published September 13, 2016
I was already a fan of this author, having read several of her award-winning books, but this book about ill-blended families was even better than I had hoped. The story is told in back and forth fashion over 50 or so years, from the 1960s in California to the present, moving from the Midwest to Brooklyn to Virginia, one of the “commonwealths” in the story.
A la the Brady Bunch: “Here’s the story of the two Keating sisters, Caroline and Franny, and their lovely mother, Beverly, who meet a man named Bert Cousins and his children Cal, Holly, Marjorie, and Albie.” Beverly and Bert actually meet at Franny’s christening, to which the uninvited Bert brings a huge bottle of gin rather than a more-appropriate gift. After a few hours of drinking, Beverly smooches Bert and all hell breaks loose.
After both marriages dissolve, Beverly and Bert move back to his native Virginia to be close to his wealthy parents. The Keating girls live with their mother and stepfather year-round and visit their father, Fix, for two weeks in the summer. The Cousins children spend the school year in California with their mother, Teresa, and the entire summer in Virginia with their stepsisters. Somehow the diverse kids cobble together a relationship, tolerance if not genuine affection.
Caroline is fiercely loyal to her father and treats everyone terribly, especially her sister. Franny just tries to get along. Bert’s kids are no better: Cal bitter, Holly and Marjorie both disengaged, and Albie just the odd little kid who slows everyone down. Cal takes to giving Albie “tic tacs,” which were actually the Benadryl he was always supposed to have on him, to get Albie to sleep and the older kids to have their adventures. Then something goes horribly wrong and the family fractures.
As the children grow up, they have varying ways of dealing with their childhood. Franny drops out of law school and meets a washed-up novelist while waitressing at a swanky Chicago hotel. Eventually they become involved and he turns her childhood stories into a best-selling novel, “Commonwealth.” And again the apple cart is upturned.
Patchett is an elegant writer and gives so much life to these characters. I will be in line to read whatever she writes next.
The Sandcastle Girls
The Sandcastle Girls is an historical fiction that contains parallel stories of a young Boston woman, Elizabeth Endicott, in 1915 and a young woman, Laura Petrosian, in 2010.
Elizabeth in 1915 accompanies her wealthy banker father on a philanthropic mission to Aleppo, Syria. Laura in 2010 researches her Armenian heritage and discovers secrets that her grandparents never shared with the family.
Elizabeth’s father’s mission in 1915 is to aid Armenian refugees fleeing atrocities committed by the Ottoman government. Elizabeth is a recent Mount Holyoke graduate, with a crash course in nursing, and very little ability in the Armenian language. She meets an engineer, Armen, who believes that he lost his wife and daughter during the chaos of deportations and mass murders of Armenians. Their friendship strengthens and Armen leaves Aleppo for Egypt to fight with the British Army in World War 1. He returns to Aleppo and the couple makes their way to America. The author, Chris Bohjalian spares no gritty details in describing accurately the atrocities of the Armenian genocide and World War 1.
Nearly a century later, Laura is living in a suburb of New York City when a friend tells her that there is a photo of her grandmother, Elizabeth, being used to advertise a photo exhibit about the “Slaughter You Know Next To Nothing About.” As Laura explores her past, the story of Elizabeth and Armen unfolds. Laura discovers a wealth of letters, photos, and documents that explain that what she and family considered just to be her grandparents eccentricities are really tied to a rich and tragic history.
The author, Chris Bohjalian, skillfully writes this historical fictional keeping the complicated historical events of the Armenian massacres at the forefront. He is a prolific best selling author who through his novels takes readers on spectacular journeys. The Sandcastle Girls makes the reader want to explore more of the history of Aleppo, Syria, the Ottoman Empire, and the tragedy of the Armenian people.