Wednesday, December 21, 2005

I've been reading...

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion

I love Joan Didion's writing, particulary her early works Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album -- so I was pleased to hear that TYOMT was a supposed return to these roots.

SDG lent me the book, and I devoured it in a weekend. Still, despite rave reviews and general acclaim, I felt a bit empty after finishing. Why? I'm not sure. Perhaps it's because I had read so many excerpts that the prose felt a bit stale. But I think it has something to do with my life, my years of magical thinking. There has been so much death, so much regret, so much longing in the last five years (give or take), that Didion's thoughts were far from revelatory to me -- in fact, they sounded like so many of the pages I've filled, trying to synthesize all that's happened.

When it rains, it pours. Her husband died and her daughter fell into a coma. I spent time in the hospital; my cousin died (was murdered? killed herself?); my godparent's daughter was murdered by her husband, who then killed himself; my mother lost her job. Didion's grief was more immediate, but mine was no less reflective.

You sit down to dinner and your life changes in an instant. It's true and it resonates, and yet I've...heard it before. She writes:

" . . . confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy. . . . 'It was just an ordinary beautiful September day,' people still say when asked to describe the morning in New York when American Airlines 11 and United Airlines 175 got flown into the World Trade towers. Even the report of the 9/11 Commission opened on this insistently premonitory and yet still dumbstruck narrative note: 'Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States.' "

Didion is essential reading, in my opinion, for every writer. It's strange to see the words you've thought on a page, in someone else's hand. Perhaps that is why I was so uncomfortable with TYOMT. A great read, hands down, but Slouching will always be my favorite Didion tome -- vaguely familar, and yet startling in its beauty with every new syllable.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke

I usually don't go in for this sort of fantasy crap. I read a Harry Potter book and thought it was nice enough -- but could be improved by discarding all that magic crap. So Strange and Norrell was a bit of an odd choice for me.

Overall, a quaint story with adequately developed characters. Clarke constructs a fantastical world of magic in early 19th century England, and does convincingly evoke the time period by using period spellings and adhering meticulously to the coded behavior of the drawing room.

The book, of course, is far too long; epics may be in vogue, but my attention span doesn't keep with the signs of the times.I'm sure there's some greater allegory in it that I'm missing, impression was "meh". More than 700 pages, and at the end, I'm left with an expansive knowledge of a world that never really existed?

You can convince me to try new things, but you can never really take away my pragmatic realism. But at least you tried, Ms. Clarke; at least you tried.

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