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

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What Comforts You When Another Year Dies

Aside

For my day job I work as a Director of Public Relations for one of the nation’s largest corporate law firms, a highly demanding position which generally requires me to work 50-60 hours a week.

In that capacity, I got to know Richard Smolev, a partner, who after being diagnosed with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) about five years ago, immediately retired from the firm.

Rather than feeling sorry for himself, he decided to do something he had always aspired to professionally–write novels.  Two of them, Offerings and In Praise of Angels were both published by Chicago’s Academy Press last year. While I only met Richard in person once when my team helped organize a firm book signing for him in honor of Offerings’ publication, likely because he knew that I too was a writer, he and I became “email” friends.

He would send me updates on his book reviews, or when he received a kind note from someone about his work, saying how much it touched him. I receive more than 400 e-mails a day at work, so it’s rare for me to spend much time over each message, but I always took such care with my responses back to him, not wanting to tire him out (he was already living in an assisted living facility by this time and confined to a wheel chair), nor wanting to treat him too gingerly which sometimes happens when those of us who are healthy interact with the chronically ill.  I once expressed to him my frustration and despair at having to invest so much of my time and energy working at the firm, when I really wanted to be working instead on the first draft of my latest novel. He sent me back a short two-sentence reply: “It’s better than starving. Keep at it.”

Keep at it. Indeed, as ill as he was, Richard did keep writing. In late December, I emailed  to congratulate him on an essay of his that appeared in Poets & Writers.  He thanked me and forwarded on a query from an editor of a medical publication who had seen that essay and asked if Richard wanted to write a piece for them about coping with ALS.  He ended his email saying, “Sadly, I had to decline. Not much time left now.”

On New Year’s Day, facing again the difficult task of resuming work on chapter five of my novel after not having had a moment to think about it, let alone write something, for more than two weeks, I procrastinated by writing a list of people and things that I turn to when life felt both fragile and challenging at the same time and realized he too was on the list. I didn’t send it to Richard, though, because with so little time left, why should he have to waste any of it by reading a silly list of my inner thoughts?  And he had never seen any of my writing before, my real writing–neither a story, nor an essay, I didn’t want this one  piece to be his first introduction to my work.  I didn’t want him to think badly of me; I didn’t want to let him down one writer to another.

Still after deliberating about it for several days, I finally did send it to him, my potentially wounded ego notwithstanding, because I wanted him to know how much he had come to mean to me even though we didn’t know each other well.

I sent it to him ten days ago. He responded within hours, saying he enjoyed seeing it, “especially the part about ‘fracking.’  My wife has worked very hard campaigning against fracking in the area where we live,” he said.  I did not hear from him again.

Last night he passed away. So though this may not be up to the usual standards of The Lyon Review, I hope none of you will object to my including this small tribute to him:

What Comforts You When Another Year Dies
To R.S. for teaching me the true meaning of courage

What Makes You Afraid

  1. Global warming
  2. Fundamentalism
  3. Watching Hitchcock’s Vertigo
  4. FOX “News” commentary
  5. Sharks
  6. Snakes
  7. What to do next after typing “Chapter One” on a blank computer screen
  8. Jack-in-the-Boxes
  9. The pointed tip of an umbrella
  10. Tuesday, ten p.m. on any deserted street in America
  11. Falling through a subway grate
  12. A gun

What Makes You Feel Safe

  1. The back of your father’s head as he drives you to ballet class when you are ten
  2. Spooning with your cat
  3. The feel of your husband’s hand when he strokes your hair
  4. Watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  5. Reading a novel in your hammock while eating an apple
  6. Laughing incessantly for no reason with your best friend
  7. Extended child pose in yoga
  8. Walking through the Accademia in Florence
  9. The sound of waves when the tide shushes in
  10. Freshly laundered underwear
  11. Checking your bank balance online and seeing your automated pay check posted
  12. The smell of sunlight

What You View as Essential

  1. Universal healthcare
  2. Forgiveness
  3. Mint chocolate chip ice cream
  4. Friends
  5. AFI’s Top 100 Movies of All Time
  6. Libraries
  7. Hot showers
  8. A liberal arts degree
  9. Protecting the U.S. Bill of Rights
  10. Empathy
  11. The sound of your cat purring
  12. Self-respect

What You Wish Didn’t Exist

  1. Panty hose
  2. Brussels sprouts
  3. Avarice
  4. Malls
  5. Bed bugs
  6. Self-doubt
  7. People who hold grudges
  8. The five-day work week
  9. Chlorofluorocarbons
  10. Hate groups
  11. “Reality” television
  12. Famine

What Inventions Enrich Humanity

  1. The toothbrush
  2. Crayons
  3. French toast
  4. Kissing
  5. Immunizations
  6. Printing press
  7. Blue jeans
  8. Flush toilets
  9. Replacement limbs
  10. The hula hoop
  11. NGOs
  12. Theatre

What Inventions Do Harm

  1. Religion
  2. Fracking
  3. The AK-47
  4. Gerrymandering
  5. Concentration camps
  6. Atomic bomb
  7. Suburbia
  8. GMOs
  9. Fascism
  10. The “G-string”
  11. Asbestos
  12. Money

What Makes You Despair

  1. Deliberate ignorance
  2. Sex trafficking of women and children
  3. Mendacity
  4. US Congress
  5. Cruelty
  6. The smell of rotting raw fish on Grand Street in NYC
  7. Having to wait an entire year to watch the last five episodes of Mad Men
  8. Stories about how Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, or Kim Kardashian represent the new face of feminism
  9. Bullies
  10. Intolerance masquerading as piety
  11. Tweeting
  12. The Koch brothers

What Inspires You

  1. The view of the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset from the B line
  2. Eating fresh pesto at a café overlooking the Mediterranean in Cinque Terre
  3. Meryl Streep
  4. A line of books on display for sale at The Strand in Greenwich Village
  5. Defiance
  6. Making lists
  7. The marble lobby and staircase at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue
  8. Novelist Richard Smolev, who, despite being in the late stages of ALS, asks his wife to tape a pen to his right forefinger and thumb so he can still write each day
  9. Contradictions
  10. The essays of Joan Didion
  11. Olympic athletes
  12. That shiver of pleasure that occurs when you look at words on a page and realize they are yours

Sandi Sonnenfeld is a fiction writer and essayist and the Managing Editor of The Lyon Review. Visit www.sandisonnenfeld.com for more.

Answers to Literary Trivia

Aside

Below are the answers to this month’s trivia quiz and some background you might find of interest:

1B. At 82 years of age, Canadian short story writer Alice Munro was long overdue for this honor.

2B. While Poe is probably best known these days for his Gothic tales like the Tell-Tale Heart or The Fall of the House of Usher, he is widely credited for invented the detective story or mystery.  Indeed the Mystery Writers of America‘s top prize, the Edgar, is named in his honor. And Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a huge admirer.  Poe did also write science fiction but was not the first to do so.

3E. Annie Dillard attended Hollins University, a women’s college in Roanoke, Virginia. An essayist, poet and novelist, Dillard is particularly known for her gorgeous prose and contemplations on nature, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek at just 28 years of age. Plath and Steinem both attended Smith, Le Guin attended Radcliffe and Wasserstein, of course, Mount Holyoke.

4D. Novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published by Austen’s brother after her passing.  She had worked on and off on both novels for many years.

5C. Agatha Christie remains the world’s best-selling author. Her 82 books have been translated into 44 languages with an estimated four billion copies of her various mysteries  sold.

6D. Jordan Baker was Daisy’s best friend and love interest of Nick Carraway.  African-American dancer and night club star Josephine Baker was the toast of Paris during the 20s and 30s–the same period in which Fitzgerald wrote and coined the term, The Jazz Age.

7D, E, F, C, B, A

8D. James Baldwin began publishing in the mid-40s, about twenty years after the Harlem Renaissance. His best known work today remains Go Tell it On the Mountain.

9B. British author Fowles said the masterful psychological novel in Greece. Perhaps best known for his novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman thanks to the 1982 movie version starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, Fowles once said that all of his novels, he loved The Magus the best because it was the most flawed.

10D. While Margaret Atwood writes everything from science fiction to historical novels to poetry to literary criticism, Lark and Termite is a novel by Jayne Anne Phillips, about two siblings living in West Virginia in the 1950s during the Korean War and for which Phillips was nominated for the 2009 National Book Award.

11B. Vietnam

12D. While the concept of the tesseract is real, to date no one has been able to bend time and space in such a way to make hyperspace travel possible.

13B, D, A, F, C, E

14. “Absolution” was written by that other brilliant Catholic American short story writer, none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald. Some literary scholars say this story was originally part of one of the earlier drafts of The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald wrote more than 400 short stories, mostly for the Saturday Evening Post, to cover Zelda and his living expenses while he worked on his novels.

Notes and commentary by Sandi Sonnenfeld ’85, Managing Editor of The Lyon Review.