Joan Didion Shares Her Favorite Books of All Time

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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

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“Fembots Have More Fun” by Sandi Sonnenfeld ’85

Sandi Sonnenfeld ’85 is a fiction writer and essayist. Sandi authored the memoir, This is How I Speak (2002: Impassio Press), for which she was named a 2002 Celebration Author by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. The Managing Editor of The Lyon Review, Sandi holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Washington, where she studied under National Book Award Winner Charles Johnson. Her work has appeared in more than 30 literary magazines and anthologies, including Hayden’s Ferry Review, Sojourner, ACM (Another Chicago Magazine), Mr. Bellers Neighborhood, The Raven Chronicles, and Perigee among others. “Fembots Have More Fun” originally appeared in the October 30, 2012 issue of the Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review.

It all started 18 months ago when I saw a new ad from a national anti-abortion group being promoted on the subway. The ad featured a sad-looking woman hugging herself for comfort and a single sentence, “Abortion changes you forever.”

It was so simplistic a slogan, an affront to every woman who has ever agonized over her choices. It meanly implied that women who unexpectedly find themselves pregnant blithely rush out to get an abortion without giving any thought to the consequences, which directly contradicts my own personal experience and the other women I know who faced such a decision. What made the ad particularly galling, however, was that it was sponsored by the same group that was egging on former Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann and others in Congress to defund Planned Parenthood, one of the few affordable places left for women to obtain reliable birth control that would help prevent the need for an abortion in the first place.

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The Orange Notebook

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The Orange Notebook

by Jennifer Grow ’94

Unbound, I am dismantling notebooks. And it feels so good. Throwing away old lists. Forgotten sentences. Half-finished writing projects and plans for writing projects. I am streamlining the places where I record my own creativity. Trying to spill out into only a few notebooks this fall, a season of change, both atmospheric and academic.

I’ve de-spiraled two notebooks already, salvaging only the pages that still interest me, pulling the long silver coils from cardboard bindings. As I sit on a bench outside my daughter’s ballet studio (because don’t the biggest moments of writing progress always happen during times of forced waiting, when there is simply nothing more to do but check Twitter one more time or face the writing demons) I hold on my lap an emaciated composition notebook, its guts in a pile beside me. Now the blank pages fill up behind the organized lists of various projects in progress–or not–and I feel ready. Ready to stop procrastinating. Ready to stop making excuses. Ready to write–both for here and not, keeping my eyes set on bigger goals.

And as I sit here, I read this quote again, the third time since discovering it in the small, orange notebook that now is in pieces in the bottom of my bag and will be safely discarded when I get home.

Jennifer Grow ’94 lives in Florence, Mass., and blogs at Momalom.com about life as a mother writer of three children. In the professional world, she is a writer, editor and, most recently, social media strategist at Williams College. Her work has appeared in Meat for Tea and (the late) Shovel Magazine, and she has written guest posts on several blogs, including www.melissacamarawilkins.com.