New Titles and Old Favorites

Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going with reviews of July’s selections.

SCORECARD

July
4 down, 19 to go!

REVIEWS

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Walker’s first novel has been compared to The Lovely Bones, another elegy for a lost childhood.

One Saturday morning, just before soccer practice, 11-year-old Julia’s entire world is upended. At this age, everything feels like a catastrophe – from break-ups with BFFs and crushes on boys to parental betrayals – and she’ll have to go through those traumas, too, but on this day, Julia is just one of billions whose life on Earth changes, literally and irrevocably, by the slowing of the planet’s orbit.

Some of Julia’s friends turn to religion, other families stay on “real time,” rather than “clock time,” as the days gain minutes and then hours, stretching to 30 hours and beyond, followed by equally long, frosty nights. Birds, whales and even people succumb to “gravity sickness.”

There is some hoarding and looting, but mostly folks cling to ordinary life and hope things will go back to normal. This means Julia enters middle school on schedule and has to cope with everything that adolescence (the Age of Miracles of the title) brings with it, including loneliness.

“Maybe it had begun to happen before the slowing, but it was only afterward that I realized it: My friendships were disintegrating. Things were coming apart. It was a rough crossing, the one from childhood to the next life. And as with any other harsh journey, not everything survived.”

The one person who seems to understand her is Seth, the boy she has a crush on, but he’s experienced a personal catastrophe, which leaves him standoffish, serious and a bit morbid.

“We collected the neighborhood’s last blades of grass. We kept the final flowering of daisies, of marigolds, of honeysuckle. We pressed petals between the pages of dictionaries. We lined our shelves with relics from our time. Look here, we pictured saying someday, this one we called maple, this one magnolia, this aspen, this oak. On dark days, Seth drew maps of the constellations as if those bodies, too, might soon fall away.”

As you can see, there’s some beautiful writing in this novel. There are also some real clunkers, especially at the beginning:

“Bare of the glasses, his eyes always looked squinty to me, and too small.”

“I was glad to be sitting in a classroom full of kids who had none of them been at the bus stop.”

“At the appointed hour, my alarm clock exploded.” (It rang loudly.)

Basic science is discarded in favor of lyricism:

Describing the astronauts stranded on a space station because of the slowing: “They’d been away for ten months, the last humans left who had not yet experienced a day longer than twenty-four hours.” (Well, no. Space stations don’t simply float around in space, they orbit the earth, like satellites, yet none of these man-made heavenly bodies apparently is affected by the change in gravity from the slowing Earth. Nor are insects. Only birds.)

Later, when the Earth’s magnetic fields weaken and sunlight brings risk of radiation exposure, no one goes out during the day again. So it was odd to read that, weeks later, Julia spies Seth’s tan stomach.

Simple editing and scientific fact-checking would have gone a long way to making this book more accurate. The story also would have benefited from a bit more extrapolation: it moves along on the rather unbelievable premise that there is no panic, rioting, looting, or war as food supplies dwindle, huge swaths of territory grow arid and water dries up.

Ultimately, Julia, at far too young an age, becomes a lot like her octogenarian grandfather. The story sings when these two are together, each locked in a house of memento mori.

Crazy Salad by Nora Ephron
When Ephron passed away June 26, many news stories credited her as the ultimate Hollywood hyphenate: screenwriter-director. Growing up as one of four talented daughters of two screenwriters, this second career was probably inevitable. But, she started out as a journalist and essayist, and a darn good one, too.

After learning the news of her death, I immediately pulled this essay collection off my bookshelf and began re-reading. This is one of the books I cherished as a journalism student, learning about literary journalism and magazine writing.

More than a salad, this book is a smorgasbord of subjects that were buzzing around the zeitgeist of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. The fact that they were buzzing was thanks to Nora Ephron’s brilliant observations about Linda Lovelace, Dorothy Parker, breasts, Gloria Steinem, bake-offs, feminine hygiene, sex fantasies and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, to name a few.

It was quite funny to realize that Ephron gave Sally Allbright in “When Harry Met Sally…” her own sexual fantasy. And to read again about consciousness raising, encounter groups and The Rap (not a type of hip-hop, but a very formal-sounding way of describing “rapping,” also known as “letting it all hang out”). I was going to say this is what people did before reality TV, but ever ahead of her time, Ephron includes a discussion of the Louds, the family with “no selectivity index whatsoever” when it came to letting it all hang out in the spotlight.

Ephron is up front with her concern about reporters “getting really involved in what they were writing about.” But, one reason she was hired by Esquire and New York magazines was to represent what women were thinking, especially as the women’s movement took hold in the American psyche.

“I would still hate to be described as a participatory journalist,” she writes in one essay, “but I am a writer and I am a feminist, and the two seem to be constantly in conflict…ever since I became loosely involved with it, it has seemed to me one of the recurring ironies of this movement that there is no way to tell the truth about it without, in some small way, seeming to hurt it.”

Personally, I think Ephron’s honesty about some of the divisions in the women’s movement, between Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, for example, is what keeps this book relevant some 37 years after it was published.

She allows everyone their say and if sometimes people hang themselves out to dry, Ephron lets them do it in their own voices, on their own terms. And, with a sharp wit, she lets you know what she’s thinking about it all, too. (Like the brief fad among consciousness-raising groups for – this is as delicately as I can put it – bodily self-examination, about which Ephron sighs, “It is hard not to long for the days when an evening with the girls meant bridge.”)

She aims her wit at anti-feminists, as well, penning excellent pieces on the man who brought feminine-hygiene sprays to market, the porn industry that corrupted Linda Lovelace, and Bobby Riggs, among others.

According to Entertainment Weekly, which wrote a moving tribute on Ephron’s legacy, Crazy Salad is “tragically out of print and unavailable as an e-book.” Ephron died at 71, having written six essay collections, 13 screenplays, plays and the novel Heartburn. Her latest collections, 2006’s I Feel Bad About My Neck and I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections, shared her thoughts on aging.

I’m sorry we won’t have Ephron’s insights and humor to get us through the crazy salad days ahead. But, gosh, it was delicious tucking in to this well-worn book again.

Blue Nights by Joan Didion
I had the opportunity to hear Didion speak at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hamshire, in late June, and combined Didion’s comments on writing with a few thoughts about her latest memoir in a previous post, “A Blue Night with Joan Didion.”

Navigating Social Media Legal Risks: Safeguarding Your Business by Robert McHale with Eric Garulay
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher. My review, “Unraveling the Mystery of Social Media Law,” can be found on the Social Media Club website.

A Blue Night with Joan Didion

Joan Didion at the 2008 Brooklyn Book Festival in New York City. Image by David Shankbone, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I was thrilled when I heard one of my favorite literary journalists, Joan Didion, was speaking about her latest memoir, Blue Nights, in, of all places, New Hampshire.

Didion seemed at once the smartest of all the New Journalists documenting the 1960s and ‘70s scenes and the least concerned with the accolades heaped on that literary movement. She just got on with the work.

If, like me, you’ve followed her career from the early days, perhaps you’re as in awe as I am of her way with sentences. The accretion of facts and details – about California, hippies, El Salvador, Miami, migraines – that leads to stunning revelations and brilliant observations about the world around us. I’m always rereading Didion, and I discover something new every time, about her writing and her subjects.

As a fan, the publication of a new Didion book always was cause for celebration – followed by long, deep stretches of reading. The last two books have been more painful, as Didion dealt with the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, in The Year of Magical Thinking, and then with the passing of her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne.

When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children,” Didion emphasizes in the second chapter of Blue Nights, where she begins to explore the secret that so many of us harbor – that we and those we love will be exempt from the ravages of time.

When I tell you that I’m not going to be able to review this book for you – only describe it and share what Didion had to say about it and her writing at the June talk – I hope you’ll understand. I’m too daunted to provide critical distance and, frankly, losing a child is such an individual blow that I feel any comparison or critique only diminishes the experience each author endures.

A Strong Voice in the Gloaming

Didion dissects the meaning of her title in the opening chapter, starting with the meteorological – “there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice…when the twilights turn long and blue” – and concluding, a page later, with the metaphorical: “Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.”

It turned out to be a hot, clear blue night, the night she appeared, a few hours before the arrival of the summer solstice. Didion spoke at the beautifully renovated Music Hall in the now-thriving downtown area of New Hampshire’s oceanfront city, Portsmouth.

She was helped onstage by an assistant, and there were many pauses in her reading, but her voice was strong. At first sight – wearing tortoiseshell-frame glasses, a black sweater on this sweltering night, and black tights too baggy for her petite frame – my first impression was “frail.”

“I’d just as soon prefer to not feel as fragile,” she told the packed hall, addressing her current state, which is also a theme in the book. “Life no longer seems as simple and straightforward as it once did.”

With her legs crossed and arms tucked into her torso, she barely took up half the space in her chair. Frequently dropping personal pronouns added to the sense of discomfort in the spotlight.

Nevertheless, like always, she got on with the work, promoting Blue Nights, now out in paperback, autographing 1,000 or more copies, and giving short, but astute answers to her onstage interlocutor, as well as to questions submitted by the audience.

“I decided I was a writer as a very young child,” she said of her chosen career. “My mother gave me a notebook and advised me to write to stop whining about being bored.”

The Writer as Interpreter

“Writers are always selling somebody out,” she’d written in 1968’s landmark appraisal of the people, politics and culture that would be known as “The Sixties” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

What did she mean by that?

“Nobody wants to be interpreted by somebody else. Being written about is not a good experience,” she explained. “It’s always the way someone else sees you. That’s what I meant.”

It was interesting to think about her answer in the context of Blue Nights. Didion is unusually clear-eyed in her journalism. This latest memoir is by no means the standard chronological narrative of the series of medical nightmares that ultimately took Quintana’s life 20 months after they first appeared. Nor does the story flow from Quintana’s birth and adoption by the Dunnes through childhood episodes and onward to the teen years, young adulthood and marriage.

Didion takes her younger self to task for the way she parented Quintana. She shares various scenes from her daughter’s life – childhood fears and examples of precociousness, her wedding – but allows the reader to draw her own conclusions. (Which, to my mind, is incredibly generous given some of the criticism Didion has endured over not revealing all during the writing of these two memoirs. Some writers might not have been able to resist answering those critics in their next book…)

Didion takes great care not to sell her daughter out. She asks questions – “Was that her anxiety or mine?” – rather than make definitive statements. Quintana’s medical problems seem to run their course without doctors making definitive findings or statements, so how could the writing about them be otherwise?

It’s no easy feat to bare your grief and your shortcomings and your fears of the future all in one go.

Asked what her advice to a 33-year-old writer might be, Didion stated: “Appreciate it.”

Reading the book afterward, you understand the full context for such a blunt remark:

“My physical confidence seems to be reaching a new ebb. My cognitive confidence seems to have vanished altogether. Even the correct stance for telling you this, the ways to describe what is happening to me, the attitude, the tone, the very words, now elude my grasp.
The tone needs to be direct.
I need to talk to you directly, I need to address the subject as it were, but something stops me.
Is this another kind of neuropathy, a new frailty, am I no longer able to talk directly?
Was I ever?
Did I lose it?
Or is the subject in this case a matter I wish not to address?”

As much as she worries about losing her faculties in Blue Nights, onstage in June, she was clear (and her own harshest critic) in her analysis: “Everything I’ve ever written has been indirect. I think I got closer to it in this book.”

Comparing the two memoirs, her interviewer noted that whereas Magical Thinking was about somebody who’s gone through an experience and come out the other side, Blue Nights is about somebody who hasn’t and doesn’t know if she will.

“I still haven’t,” Didion responded.

“Aging is the experience that [I] may not survive,” she added, leaving out the pronoun again.

But dying isn’t what Didion fears the most after the loss of her husband and daughter.

“The fear is for what is still to be lost,” she writes. “You may see nothing still to be lost.”

I won’t give away how Didion ends Blue Nights; read the final pages of this brave memoir, and you’ll understand what she means.

Writing that inspired me:

“In other words it was another story without a narrative.”
~ Joan Didion, “The White Album, 1968 – 1978,” from The White Album