Joan Didion Shares Her Favorite Books of All Time

Aside

Those of you who follow American literary culture carefully mayJoaninthe60s recently have heard that a documentary about Joan Didion’s life and writings is slated to be released in Fall 2015.  The documentary, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, is being produced by Susanne Rostock and noted actor/director Griffin Dunne (Dunne is the nephew of John Gregory Dunne, who was both Didion’s husband and screen writing partner for more than 30 years, and about whose death she wrote so eloquently in The Year of Magical Thinking).

As part of the Kickstarter campaign to raise enough money to complete the film, Didion Joan todaysupporters, including yours truly, received a hand-written list of Didion’s favorite books as a thank you.  Didion’s essays and political writings are heavily influenced by many of her contemporaries of the 60s and 70s, particularly other New Journalists such as Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe. When it came to fiction, though, she largely draws on authors writing one or two generations before her, including Ernest Hemingway, John O’Hara, James Baldwin and Ford Madox Ford. Didion is particularly noted for first mastering, then outshining, Hemingway when it comes to his “iceberg” theory of writing, which posits that what is deliberately left off the page resonates more deeply than what does appear (i.e., how the author’s use of specific words, syntax, repetition, rhythm and cadence enables readers to implicitly understand what lies beneath the surface of the text itself, or what we today call “the emotional subtext”).

Here then are the favorite books and authors that Didion turns to time and time again:

  • A Farewell to Arms (1929) by Ernest Hemingway
  • Victory (1914) by Joseph Conrad
  • Guerrillas (1975) by VS Naipaul
  • Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) by George Orwell
  • Wonderland (1971) by Joyce Carol Oates
  • Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Bronte
  • The Good Soldier (1915) by Ford Madox Ford
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Crime & Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Appointment in Samarra (1934) by John O’Hara
  • The Executioner’s Song (1979) by Norman Mailer
  • Washington Square, Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl, Daisy Miller, The Aspern Papers, The Turn of the Screw all by Henry James (1843-1916)
  • Speedboat (1976) by Renata Adler
  • Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and Notes of a Native Son (1955) by James Baldwin
  • The Berlin Stories (1945) by Christopher Isherwood
  • Poetry of Robert Lowell, W.H. Auden and Wallace Stevens

Just as she was influenced by these writers and others, so too has Didion influenced writers of my generation. Indeed, I read my first Didion novel, The Book of Common Prayer, the summer I graduated from Mount Holyoke–and then went on to devour everything she has ever published. If any of my own fiction or essays resonate at all with readers, it is thanks to her.

If you haven’t yet had occasion to read her work or only know her more recent books (she is well into her eighties now and rather frail), the best place to start would be with her brilliant series of essays, Slouching Into Bethelehem, or the novel Democracy, both of which are readily available from your local library or independent bookstore.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Sandi Sonnenfeld
Founder & Managing Editor
The Lyon Review

Three Poems by Heidi Holliday St. Jean ’88

Heidi St. Jean received her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing/Poetry from Fairfield University, where she was selected as the recipient of its 2013 Academic Achievement Award for the M.F.A. program. She was poetry editor of Theodate, an online poetry journal. She also previously worked as managing editor for the literary journal Drunken Boat, and was one of two poetry editors for Mason’s Road. Her poetry and essays have published or are forthcoming in Spry; Rock & Sling; Afterimage: Inklight; The Lyon Review; The Barefoot Review; Long River Run; Mason’s Road and Theodate. Her ekphrastic poem, “The Lawrence Tree,” was selected as Third Prize winner in the 2013 Al Savard Memorial Poetry Contest, sponsored by the Connecticut Poetry Society. (The judge was Russell Strauss, past president of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies.) Her poem, “Surrealistic Dream of the Synesthete,” won Honorable Mention in the Maine Media Workshop and College contest, displaying in Maine Media Gallery’s “Dreams” exhibit during Spring 2014. She works professionally as a writer and editor.

Last Drive Home
They lined the streets when we last drove you home.
Bone-straight, these black bird mourners gathered,
silent sentinels, witness to our sadness –
standing all the way from here to Maine,
the bond remained unbroken.

Crow after crow after crow
held their posts on the side of the highway,
blessed us from the side of the back road,
directed us along the side of the driveway.
Each one held up the casket corners
of our grief, each wing pall bearing a small bit
of the weight of your leaving.
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The Ticket by Alice Ruvane ’86

Alice Ruvane ’86 makes her way in the world as a promotional writer. She served on the Editorial Board of The Lyon Review during its inception and her first published personal essay, Creating a Life appeared in The Lyon Review in May 2011. Alice’s other works can be found online and in a yellowing copy of the New York Times Magazine (letter to the Editor and www.poetsagainstthewar.org, Truth & Justice.) Alice lives in Maine where she delights in spoiling her dog and her husband rotten (in that order). When she’s not spending time outdoors, on her yoga mat, on stage or with friends, she can be found at her desk writing. It’s no wonder she’s still at work on her first novel.

I didn’t tell my boy where we were headed the morning I threw his duffle bag in the way back and drove him to rehab. I lied. I waved the plane ticket I’d bought to Canada in front of his dazed eyes, “Maybe your father can straighten you out.” I’d had enough. Even if my boy hadn’t reached his “bottom,” I’d sure reached mine.

I packed his things the night before. Four pairs of tube socks, two pairs of jeans, an assortment of T-shirts and a sweatshirt. It wasn’t much, but it was clean. I picked the clothes off his floor and did the washing, drying and folding. He wasn’t home, but that wasn’t news. For the last two years he only came home to sleep, or really, to sleep it off.

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