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From the best-selling author of the National Book Award-winning The Year of Magical Thinking: two extended excerpts from her never-before-seen notebooks--writings that offer an illuminating glimpse into the mind and process of a legendary writer.
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.
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Even in raw form, Didion's (Blue Nights) voice surpasses other writers' in "elegance and clarity," Nathaniel Rich astutely observes in his introduction to Didion's notebooks from her 1970 trip to Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi and much shorter 1976 musings about her California youth. Didion's notes display her characteristic verbal power: details such as "bananas would rot, and harbor tarantulas" (about New Orleans weather) punctuate this short volume. Moreover, Didion reveals remarkable foresight about America's political direction: Rich traces a direct line from her nearly 50-year-old musings on the Gulf Coast as America's "psychic center" to the Trump election. But most strikingly, Didion's observations reveal differences with today, such as a degree of civility now often missing from public discourse. In one dinner exchange, for example, a wealthy white Mississippian gripes about busing, yet says, "Basically I know the people who are pushing it are right." Students of social history, fans of Didion, and those seeking a quick, engaging read will appreciate this work: the raw immediacy of unedited prose by a master has an urgency that more polished works often lack. This review has been corrected to reflect a slight change in the title.