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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.
One of Time's most anticipated books of 2017
One of The New York Times Book Review's "What You'll Be Reading in 2017"
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By Carole T. on 03-11-17
"Notes" Are Not a Book
Joan Didion is an elegant writer. Her observations are crystal clear and spot-on. So it is in this "book". Although the notes (especially from the South) are decades old (her trip was for a month in the 1970's), the knack she has for quick and accurate characterization and insight are evident.
This insight is also dated. The introduction and advertisement for this book refer to its relevance in today's political climate - Didion, it seems, was able to "see the future" in the old, weary, and cynical South rather than in the forward-looking West. That claim only goes so far, because it becomes evident very quickly that the South she visited for a short while then has changed in many ways.
Can these observations be interpreted as a foreshadow of today's divisions in the country? Sure, in a way. I'd argue that the real enlightenment here is in realizing just how the casual judgment and amused contempt Didion shows for the Southerners she meets and observes (between visits with celebrated writers, that is) certainly has helped foster the seemingly insurmountable anger by those who see themselves as overlooked by America. In her eagerness to hop a plane home to the West, she is a perfect example of the "red States'" view of the dismissive Coastal city intellectual.
I'm not from the South, and I share some of Didion's regional biases. Although drawn with appreciation and some sympathy, the people she meets and describes in her notes and anecdotes are presented as local color - as stereotypical "characters" of the rural South. And the "West" part of the volume is more an add-on than a real analysis of contrasts or differences between the regions
It's not fair, of course, to assume any book or article Joan Didion might have produced from her notes at the time would have been about stereotypes or filled with judgment. Yet, in this form, there it is!
I'm afraid that, despite the respect I have for the author, I can't recommend this book. It's very short and disconnected (understandably; these are "notes") and, it seems to me, really just adds up to an excuse to publish and sell an incomplete, unfinished manuscript as a book.
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