Magpie Book Club: Joan Didion’s “South and West.”

Four stars. In the forw0rd to these notebooks from a trip Didion took to the South in the summer of 1970, Nathaniel Rich writes: “Didion’s notes, which surpass in elegance and clarity the finished prose of most other writers, are a fascinating record of this time. But they are also something more unsettling. Readers today will recognize, with some dismay and even horror, how much is familiar in these long-lost American portraits.” I agree heartily with the first observation: even in draft, scattershot, off-the-cuff observational mode, Didion’s writing is more piquant, evocative, and well-put than prose to which the rest of us dreamily aspire. Behold the precision and breadth of such impressions as: “In New Orleans, the wilderness is sensed as very near, not the redemptive wilderness of the western imagination but something rank and old and malevolent, the idea of wilderness not as an escape from civilization and its discontents but as a mortal threat to a community precarious and colonial in its deepest aspect.” The quality of her discernment is unparalleled in any other writer I have to date encountered.

But the second bit I grappled with. Didion notes early on that she has long held certain conceptions and constructions of the South whose origins are dubious — snippets of memories, impressions gleaned from pop culture. And so she travels south to “find out, as usual, what was making the picture in my mind” (a phrase I underlined and returned to with fresh marveling at least six times). I admire her mission: she travels directly to the root to observe and unpack and, if appropriate, unseat her presumptions. However, I felt frequently throughout the journals and also as I sat back and mused over the context for their publication now, in 2018, of all years, that I was being tugged towards certain anti-Southern biases. “How bizarre and backwards,” was the subtext (at its most genteel)–a difficult one to dispute given the range of vignettes Didion presents, ones showcasing dark and despicable racist traditions to sickening gender slurs. The book in this sense seemed to have an agenda: to remind its readers of the recalcitrant backwardness of the South. Didion at one point writes: “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.” Rich’s foreword states outright what its publication intimates on this front: “Not much has changed.”

I idle over this not so much from a “is this true or not?” vantage but from a “what are we achieving by burrowing into such regionalisms”? Constructing some kind of coastal elite — the enlightened liberati of the West Coast versus the retrogressive dullards of the South? Where do such distinctions land us?

But then — it is not for Didion to propose solutions and so perhaps my concerns are misplaced. She is a keen observationalist and journalist, an incisive observer of the times. But I will admit to wondering at the rifts that are deepened in the publication and reading of this book.

Perhaps this was the book’s intent, though: to put in front of us the stark topography of social, economic, and political difference between regions in this country.

What were your thoughts?

Note that one of Didion’s books made my list of 10 books that will change your life. Please, please read it; it will not disappoint.

July Magpie Book Club Pick.

For our July Magpie book club pick: I am going rogue. We’re reading a YA novel: Nicola Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star. This book won substantial praise (and several prestigious awards) and, as I mentioned in a recent post, my sister — whose literary tastes normally run higher brow than my own — admitted that it is on her reading list this summer, too. The premise:

Natasha: I’m a girl who believes in science and facts. Not fate. Not destiny. Or dreams that will never come true. I’m definitely not the kind of girl who meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and falls in love with him. Not when my family is twelve hours away from being deported to Jamaica. Falling in love with him won’t be my story.

Daniel: I’ve always been the good son, the good student, living up to my parents’ high expectations. Never the poet. Or the dreamer. But when I see her, I forget about all that. Something about Natasha makes me think that fate has something much more extraordinary in store—for both of us.

The Universe: Every moment in our lives has brought us to this single moment. A million futures lie before us. Which one will come true?”

I feel this will be substantive fodder for conversation. And go.

Post Scripts.

+What else to read this summer.

+A sweet option for a Fourth of July outfit for an itty bitty. (More ideas here.)

+A smart way to keep all those pouches for babies/toddlers organized.

+These ikat loafers are amazing.

+Love the print on this dress — not sure if I prefer it more in the blue or the pink!

+Smocked tops are all the rage this season. This one ($30!) would be cute with high-waisted linen pants or white jeans.

+Thinking ahead to the school year: how cute is this Barbour-esque field coat for a little boy?

+My favorite home products.

+A friend gave me one of these house-brand baby towels from Nordstrom and I have to say it was the thickest, most absorbent baby towel I used for mini — I always reached for it over every other brand I tried (including PBK!)

+Adore the back of this dress, and that brown linen color is so unexpected!

+10 maternity musts.

+The thrill of the chase.

4 Comments

  1. I still haven’t read South and West — I am AWFUL at keeping up with your book club picks, but they’re always on my radar! I’m a huge Didion fan and have found many of her other works to be in the “life-changing” category — excited to dive into this at some point, hopefully sooner rather than later.

    And: I’m so excited you chose the Nicola Yoon! It’s just the push I need to start it. Now: to find my copy! eek. haha.

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