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

Great Hawk: Presence, Presence This by Becca Tarnas

Becca Tarnas ’10 is an artist, writer, and doctoral student at the California Institute of Integral Studies in the Ecology, Spirituality, and Religion program in San Francisco. She uses art and storytelling as a means to reconnect with our planet Earth in this critical time of ecological crisis. Becca attended the San Francisco Waldorf School for 13 years before pursuing Environmental Studies and Theater Arts at Mount Holyoke. She also holds a master’s degree from CIIS in Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness. Becca has been published in Archai: the Journal of Archetypal Cosmology, where she is currently an assistant editor. A collection of her essays, poetry, paintings, and photographs is available on her website, beccatarnas.wordpress.com.

Emotion held, a breath caught, dark feathered wing-tips,

All rush, all bustle, all anxiety—all suspended.

There is but you and me caught in the inhale of this moment.

Or are you me? Is this suspension nothing more than a pause

A breakdown of the barrier that lies between what I understand,

Between what I understand makes you be you

And makes me

Be?

Dark wings soar, cutting hawk shape from textured sky,

Yet when you appear that sky is no more: merely backdrop.

Gripped between razor claws, your prey—my attention—is caught,

Passing mere feet from this barrier I call skin

You land, you presence, you settle, you ignore, you own,

You own my focus, draw me in, alluring

Me to drop all my life in this moment

Simply

To watch.

Heart beat, heart beat, wing beat, breath,

Heart beat, wing beat, heart beat, breath.

The branch moves, the outside world closing out—

Am I within your envelope of tearing want

Or has that gateway closed?

You shred, you rip, what lies within your grasp,

Talons, razor beak, dark feathers etched with

Beauty, etched with

Death.

Two cries rupture this world into which I gaze alone,

Yet not alone, no more:

Ravens twain disrupt your reign

A pair, a couple, a bonded force, cry out

No!—Do not enter our sacred nest, for which we give our lives

Do not, be not, crisis cries—away, please God

What have you

Done?

Who do you hold between your claws?

How did it come to this? My heart

It beats with desperate want,

Presence, presence this—this moment, this hour,

These days are lost, all brought to focus now

Great hawk, whose heart do you devour

Please tell me, how did it come to

This?

Poetry by Barbara Goldberg

Barbara Goldberg graduated Phi Beta Kappa in Philosophy from Mount Holyoke College. She went on for an MA from Yeshiva University, MEd from Columbia University; and an MFA from American University. She has authored four prize-winning books of poetry, including The Royal Baker’s Daughter, recipient of the Felix Pollak Poetry Prize. Her most recent book is Scorched by the Sun: Poems by Moshe Dor. Goldberg translated the renowned Israeli poet’s work from the Hebrew. Goldberg and Dor translated and edited three anthologies of contemporary Israeli poetry, including After the First Rain: Israeli Poems on War and Peace. The recipient of two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as awards in fiction and speechwriting, Goldberg’s work appears widely, including American Poetry Review, Best American Poetry and the Paris Review. Currently she is Visiting Writer at American University’s MFA program.

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