Thursday, March 1, 2012

Blue Nights By Joan Didion

Alfred A Knopf, New York 2011
Memoir, Biography
Themes of: death, illness, aging, motherhood
Reminds Me Of:
The Year of Magical Thinking, also by Joan Didion, White Oleander- Janet Fitch, A Wedding in December & Light on Snow by Anita Shreve

Joan Didion's husband of 40 years has died. Less than two years later, their only daughter followed. Th
en, Didion's own health begins to deteriorate. What's left is the opportunity to make art from her sorrow. In the face of such tragedy, even her words falls short, but they leave readers with the promise that it's possible to confront mortality with bravery, dignity and curiosity.

Didion's descriptions glitter in your mind, images of New York City in the twilight and California blossoms in the dusk. There is champagne and watercress sandwiches, jazz, movie stars and poetry. Designer names and fashionable places dot the pages like discarded jewelry. Hers seems like a luxurious, jet-setting life; between it and the horror of the events described, there is an outspoken contrast. It speaks of our carelessness towards life, which becomes more precious when we confront death.

Didion, the su
rvivor, agonizes over what she could have done differently for her daughter. She explores the fears of motherhood and her conclusion is unique:

Yet there were always dangers to children.
Ask anyone who was a child during the supposedly idyllic decade advertised to us as the reward for World War Two. New Cars. New appliances. Women in high-heeled pumps and ruffled aprons removing cookie sheets from ovens enameled in post-war "harvest" colors: avocado, gold, mustard, brown, burnt orange. This was as safe as it got, except it wasn't: ask any child who was exposed during the postwar harvest fantasy to the photographs from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ask any child who saw the photographs from
the death camps. (Didion, 98)
She goes on to talk about Suzanne Degnan, a child kidnapped and killed in 1946, a JonBenet murder in a period when such things (supposedly) never used to happen. This in lieu of the stereotypical lament about how the world has changed for the worst. Didion is too honest for such self-delusions.

She confronts her own own mortality as she battles a feeling of frailty. She gets shingles. She falls, injures herself and wakes up covered in blood, not even knowing how it happened, realizing that she is finally "old". It's as if Didion were observing her life through a window. She's there to take notes, to try to make sense of it all.

The book's title comes from twilit evenings in the city, just before night falls.
L'heure bleu. The "gloaming". A long period of blue light before the day ends forever:
"This book is called Blue Nights, because at the time I began it, I found my mind turned increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning." (Didion, 4)

Actress Diana Lynn, a family friend of Didion's, figures prom-
inently in her memories.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

"Me Talk Pretty One Day" To Be Releasd in Iran

Considering the fundamentalist attitude toward homosexuality (and some of the other books that are banned in Iran) it seems unlikely that Sedaris' frank discussion of homosexuality will be a big hit. But I would love to have a copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day in Persian.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Candide by Voltaire

By the end of February 1759, the Grand Council of Geneva and the administrators of Paris had banned Candide.[2] Candide nevertheless succeeded in selling twenty thousand to thirty thousand copies by the end of the year in over twenty editions, making it a best seller. The Duke de La Vallière speculated near the end of January 1759 that Candide might have been the fastest-selling book ever.[82] In 1762, Candidewas listed in theIndex Librorum Prohibitorum, the Roman Catholic Church's list of prohibited books.[2].
Sometimes, when i read a book, I start craving another book. Case in point: Barbara Ehrenreich comes off as a curmudgeon in her most recent book Brightsided, in which she takes on the recent trend of irrational optimism as preached by megachurch leaders and self-help books like The Secret. She's not saying to be angry and disagreeable all the time (although let's face it: she comes off that way), she's just making the case for reason- something her book has in common with a classic French work by the philosophe Voltaire.

In his book, a woman gets her butt cheek cut off. Also, there are a lot of references to sex. (Pourquois pas? Voltaire was French).

Maybe it's because he had a sense of humor. Maybe it's because it is fiction. But when Voltaire decided to take on irrational optimism (represented by philosopher Gottfried Leibniz's in his day) he did it way better .

Candide is short, fast-paced. It relates one event after another and along the way, deals with the problem of evil, the church and the government, which might explain why they were so pissed off about the book.

Essentially, the protagonist goes through a series of truly awful events and at every turn, his master,Pangloss, a parody of Leibnizian philosophers, maintains that it's okay, because this is the best of all possible words. The name of this character has become synonymous with irrational optimism. Panglossianism is still with us today and after 250 years, this book is still funny, still has a sharp witty edge.

It is similar to Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift in that it is satirical, was controversial and came out of the Enlightenment. So Brightsided made me crave Candide and Candide made me want to read Gulliber's Travels. This is how my binges get started...

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Interesting Internet...

It turns out that, contrary to popular belief, the Internet is more than just porn and Facebook: there is some good reading out there.

Like this article on Freethought Today. It's old but I keep coming back to it. It is an excerpt from an acceptance speech by neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, for the Emperor Has No Clothes Award. In the speech, Sapolsky makes some fascinating suggestions about the origin of religion:

To get a real insight into this, we have to come to that question, "Why is there this similarity between religious ritualism and OCD rituals?"

You could say, "It's just by chance."

Or you could say, "There's a biological convergence going on there." It's not random that we're most concerned with rituals about keeping our bodies healthy, our food clean, that sort of stuff.

But another answer in there has got to be, "People with OCD invented a lot of these religious rituals."

Let me give you one example of this.

A 16th-century Augustinian monk named Luder for some reason left a very detailed diary. This is a man who grew up with an extremely brutal father, had a very anxious relationship with him, was very psychosomatic-illness-oriented. One day he was out walking in the field. There was a thunderstorm, and he got a panic attack, and vowed, "If I'm allowed to survive this, I will become a monk and devote the rest of my life to God."

He survives, becomes a monk, and throws himself into this ritualism with a frenzy. This was an order of monks that was silent 20-some hours a day. Nonetheless, he had four hours worth of confessions to make every day: "I didn't say this prayer as devoutly as I should have. My mind wandered when I was doing this, doing that."

The first time he ran a mass, he had to do it over and over because he got the details wrong. He would drive his Father Superior crazy with his hours and hours of confession every day: "God is going to be angry at me for doing this, because I said this, and I didn't think this much, and I didn't do this the right way, and I . . ." until the Father Superior got exasperated with him and came up with a statement that is shockingly modern in its insight. He said, "The problem isn't that God is angry with you. The problem is that you're angry with God."

The most telling detail about this monk was, he washed and washed and washed. As he put it in his diary: "The more you wash, the dirtier you get." Classic OCD.

The reason why we know about this man Luder is because we know him by the Anglicized version of his name: Martin Luther. [laughter]