The White Album by Joan Didion

The White Album is a 1979 book of Joan Didion’s essays. She wrote them between 1968 and 1978. They mostly chronicle her life in Southern California during that weird decade. Among the topics are a Doors recording session, a business that grows orchids, life in Malibu, how movies are made (it’s all about the deals and money), California’s water supply, the Hoover Dam, the women’s movement, Honolulu past and present, Georgia O’Keefe, Doris Lessing and the Manson murders. One of the topics she doesn’t write about is the Beatles’ White Album.

I’ve read quite a few of Didion’s books. She is a great writer. Sometimes I’ve had trouble understanding the point she is making. I didn’t have that problem this time. In the first few pages of the first essay, she explains her point of view:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live … We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

Or at least we do for a while. I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself, a common condition but one I found troubling…. I appeared, on the face of it, a competent enough member of some community or another, a signer of contracts and Air Travel cards, a citizen… I made gingham curtains for spare bedrooms, … put lentils to soak on Saturday night for soup on Sunday, made quarterly F.I.C.A. payments and renewed my driver’s license on time…

This was an adequate enough performance, as improvisations go. The only problem was that my entire education, everything I had ever been told or told myself, insisted that the production was never meant to be improvised: I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no “meaning” beyond their temporary arrangement…

She made it through this especially disordered period, which lasted six years or so, but the fact that she went through it at all made it easier for me to understand her perspective on things. In these essays, she views the world from a distance, remarking on the interesting things she observes, some of which resist understanding. Shares her observations with us. It’s an excellent book.

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Ladies and Gentlemen, Our President

Putin is a thug who has his opponents and critics jailed and murdered. He annexed Crimea. He interferes in elections, contributes to war crimes and has stolen millions, probably billions, from the Russian people. This is him arriving at a ceremony in France attended by our president and foreign leaders.

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Meanwhile, the global, man-made phenomenon that our president says is a hoax gets worse every year. Among the results: California has never had such terrible fires.

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South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion

Most of South and West is composed of notes Joan Didion took during a month-long road trip through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in 1970. She intended to publish something about the trip after returning to California, but didn’t. Now selections of her notes have been published. She’s such a good writer that her impressions are worth reading, but I can see why she didn’t finish the project. 

She hated the place. 

I’ve read a few reviews of this book but none of them conveyed her intensely negative feelings about the landscape, the weather and the culture she encountered along the Gulf Coast and in the Deep South. It’s a region she’d never been to. She makes it feel like a unpleasant foreign country that she couldn’t wait to escape. She even claims that she and her husband avoided big cities because if they’d been near an airport, they would have immediately flown to California or New York. If you don’t think much of the South, this book will confirm your attitude, even though the its word were written almost 50 years ago.

The book concludes with a small selection of notes from another project she didn’t complete. She had agreed to write about the Patty Hearst trial in 1976: 

I thought the trial had some meaning for me – because I was from California. This didn’t turn out to be true.

I enjoyed this part of the book too. It’s mostly random thoughts and memories about growing up as a privileged young woman in Sacramento, mixed in with some thoughts about San Francisco, where the Hearst trial took place. Having grown up in California, I like reading about it and nobody writes better about California than Joan Didion.

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein

This is an oral history of Los Angeles, especially Hollywood. It focuses on the wealthy and powerful Doheny family, Jack Warner of Warner Brothers, the troubled actress Jennifer Jones, and an unknown actress named Jane Garland. Some of it was interesting. Much of it wasn’t, which is why I didn’t read every word.

L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City by John Buntin

Southern California became an interesting, fast-growing place after they started making movies in Hollywood and drilling oil wells wherever possible. The population boomed and so did crime. L.A. Noir tells the story of crime, crime-fighting and police corruption in Los Angeles between 1920 (when L.A. had become bigger than San Francisco) and 1992 (when Rodney King was beaten and 54 people died in a riot).

The book tells this story by focusing on the parallel careers of Mickey Cohen, a well-known local gangster, and William Parker, L.A.’s most famous police chief. They each had their good points, but Mickey Cohen was a thug and Chief Parker was a misguided right-winger. Los Angeles improved after they were both gone.  (2/14/13)

The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

Cain wrote these two novellas in the 30s. Each is about a man and a woman who knock off the woman’s husband. Both are written in the first-person, from the man’s perspective. There are few descriptive passages, just fast-moving narrative and lots of dialog. The men and women meet and quickly start plotting their crimes. Neither story ends happily. And neither story is very plausible. (Maybe greedy, passionate people trying to commit the perfect murder always come up with plans that are too complicated.)

One bit of commentary from Double Indemnity: “I had killed a man, for money and a woman. I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the woman”. That sums up the situation for both these guys.  (12/10/10)