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South and West
Cover of South and West
South and West
From a Notebook
Borrow Borrow
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.
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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  • From the cover New Orleans

    . . . the purple dream

    Of the America we have not been,

    The tropic empire, seeking the warm sea,

    The last foray of aristocracy . . .

    —­Stephen Vincent Benét, John Brown's Body

    Would that I could represent to you the dangerous nature of the ground, its oozing, spongy, and miry disposition . . .

    —­John James Audubon, The Birds of America, 1830

    In New Orleans in June the air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology. The place is physically dark, dark like the negative of a photograph, dark like an X-­ray: the atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence. The crypts above ground dominate certain vistas. In the hypnotic liquidity of the atmosphere all motion slows into choreography, all people on the street move as if suspended in a precarious emulsion, and there seems only a technical distinction between the quick and the dead.

    One afternoon on St. Charles Avenue I saw a woman die, fall forward over the wheel of her car. "Dead," pronounced an old woman who stood with me on the sidewalk a few inches from where the car had veered into a tree. After the police ambulance came I followed the old woman through the aqueous light of the Pontchartrain Hotel garage and into the coffee shop. The death had seemed serious but casual, as if it had taken place in a pre-­Columbian city where death was expected, and did not in the long run count for much.

    "Whose fault is it," the old woman was saying to the waitress in the coffee shop, her voice trailing off.

    "It's nobody's fault, Miss Clarice."

    "They can't help it, no."

    "They can't help at all." I had thought they were talking about the death but they were talking about the weather. "Richard used to work at the Bureau and he told me, they can't help what comes in on the radar." The waitress paused, as if for emphasis. "They simply cannot be held to account."

    "They just can't," the old woman said.

    "It comes in on the radar."

    The words hung in the air. I swallowed a piece of ice.

    "And we get it," the old woman said after a while.

    It was a fatalism I would come to recognize as endemic to the particular tone of New Orleans life. Bananas would rot, and harbor tarantulas. Weather would come in on the radar, and be bad. Children would take fever and die, domestic arguments would end in knifings, the construction of highways would lead to graft and cracked pavement where the vines would shoot back. Affairs of state would turn on sexual jealousy, in New Orleans as if in Port-­au-­Prince, and all the king's men would turn on the king. The temporality of the place is operatic, childlike, the fatalism that of a culture dominated by wilderness. "All we know," said the mother of Carl Austin Weiss of the son who had just shot and killed Huey Long in a corridor of the Louisiana State Capitol Building in Baton Rouge, "is that he took living seriously."

    As it happens I was taught to cook by someone from Louisiana, where an avid preoccupation with recipes and food among men was not unfamiliar to me. We lived together for some years, and I think we most fully understood each other when once I tried to kill him with a kitchen knife. I remember spending whole days cooking with N., perhaps the most pleasant days we spent together. He taught me to fry chicken and to make a brown rice stuffing for fowl and to chop endive with garlic and lemon juice and to...
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  • AudioFile Magazine Narrator Kimberly Farr dissolves the barrier between author and listener, creating an intimate atmosphere. Her unforced performance conveys Didion's unguarded reactions to life in the South, primarily in 1970. Farr enlivens Didion's recollections, highlighting the author's curiosity about the people she meets and the conversations she overhears as well as her uneasiness both in backwoods communities in rural Mississippi and at social gatherings in New Orleans' Garden District. When Didion reflects on her native California, Farr's tone lightens, underscoring the author's comfort at being in familiar territory. This collection of unedited notebook entries emphasizes the sociocultural differences between the Gulf Coast and the West Coast, most of which still ring true decades later. Essayist Nathaniel Rich reads his own foreword to the audiobook. C.B.L. � AudioFile 2017, Portland, Maine
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South and West
South and West
From a Notebook
Joan Didion
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