The White Album

The White Album by Joan Didion

publication date: 1979
pages: 223
ISBN: 0-671-22685-1

Joan Didion’s The White Album is a collection of articles written by Didion for various publications from 1968 to 1978. The articles are divided topically into five parts: 1) introductory; 2) California, where Didion lived during this period; 3) women; 4) a part she titled “Sojourns” and I would describe as essays examining how we interact with ourselves and the space we inhabit; and 5) reflections on living through the 1960s. The collection presents the absurdity and tenuousness of American life. Although the articles were written over 30 years ago, they still pop with relevance and wit.

My favorite part of The White Album was probably the chance to get a contemporary account of the 1960s. I hear pronouncements about what the decade was and what it meant, but reading about it through the eyes of Didion felt more authentic than any modern-day remembering. Reading Didion’s perception, which is admittedly bleak and almost defeatist, I came away with the impression that the 1960s were a parody of themselves. People actually said “Dig it” back then; and not just any people: lawyers! And all the way back in 1975, Didion spoke of shopping malls as places that “recall words and phrases no longer quite current. Baby Boom. Consumer Explosion. Leisure Revolution. Do-It-Yourself Revolution. Backyard Revolution. Suburbia.” Musicians seemingly fell into this arrangement of self-satire. Didion, in discussing some musicians she met over the years, stated:

John and Michelle Phillips [of The Mamas and the Papas], on their way to the hospital for the birth of their daughter Chynna, had the limo detour into Hollywood in order to pick up a friend, Anne Marshall. This incident, which I often embroider in my mind to include an imaginary second detour, to the Luau for gardenias, exactly describes the music business to me.”

Didion also made several memorable and cheeky comments about her home state of California. For example, she describes Los Angeles as “a city dedicated to the illusion that all human endeavor tends mystically west, toward the Pacific.” Additionally, Didion blithely mentions California’s museum-goers and characterizes Malibu’s J. Paul Getty Museum’s collection as “quite inaccessible to generations trained in the conviction that a museum is meant to be fun, with Calder mobiles and Barcelona chairs.”

The White Album also amply discusses more weighty topics, such as the Black Panthers and the Vietnam War. Every topic examined by Didion, from dam engineering to student protests to ocean lifeguards, was handled with aplomb and astuteness, which makes The White Album a satisfying and meaningful read.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews:

London Review of Books
Christa Lawler: Making sentences.  Putting them here.
Ned Stuckey-French

You Remind Me of You

You Remind Me of You by Eireann Corrigan

publication date: 2002
pages: 123
ISBN: 0-439-29771-0

This slim book of poems exemplified what makes a good memoir. It was engaging, individual, intensely personal, and somehow completely universal.

In You Remind Me of You, Corrigan described her battle with anorexia in high school, including her boyfriend’s subsequent suicide attempt. Obviously, the material was very personal and intimate. The language Corrigan used further intensified that intimacy. For example, in the first poem, on the very first page, Corrigan described her initial visit to the hospital after her boyfriend’s suicide attempt:

Right now, I weigh eighty-four pounds. My skin is yellowing
again and each morning my hair fills the shower’s drain. Later,
I will look back and wonder who let me in that room, but at this minute
I’m remembering our first date, how you told me you couldn’t imagine
marrying anyone who wasn’t Jewish and I told you, just as earnestly,
as gently, that I couldn’t imagine getting through high school
without killing myself.

Clearly the above passage is emotionally charged; and each of the dozens of poems contained the same sort of emotional impact. However, the poems also managed to relate Corrigan’s narrative to universal experiences. When Corrigan described her first date with Daniel, her boyfriend, she included these lines:

And when I went upstairs to use the bathroom,
I came back to find both lamps turned off and thought this
is going to be the night I lay back and a boy unbuttons my shirt,
the night someone else besides my older sister helps me
unclasp my bra. By tomorrow morning, I’ll know how hard it is
to breathe with the weight of a whole person balanced on my chest.
But none of those things happened.

The above lines might seem relevant only to a teenage girl. And I do sometimes have problems relating to young women in literature (as with Why We Broke Up)because what they are experiencing is so far removed from my current life. But that was not the case here. You Remind Me of You was written years after Corrigan graduated from high school, and this lent the poems perspective and self-awareness. A great example is the passage in which Corrigan tells Daniel she is not well and is leaving for the hospital:

Right now,
I sit in the swivel chair, watching
you summon my parents and
I’m thinking about how grown up
and wise you are, how much older
than me you are. You are six
months older. You’re not even
old enough to drive.

In You Remind Me of You, Corrigan has crafted a beautiful and touching set of poems that does not romanticize young love, anorexia, or suicide. On the other hand, the book does not preach to its readers about those things either. Instead, Corrigan simply lays bare her past and, in the process, lays bare something in the reader, too.

5/6: seek this book out

Other reviews of this poetry:

Publishers Weekly

The Watch that Ends the Night

The Watch that Ends the Night by Allan Wolf

Powell’s Books

publication date: 2011
pages: 467 (including notes, appendixes, etc.)
ISBN-13: 978-0-7636-3703-3

Let me initially say that this book is gorgeous. The book jacket image, of the ship sinking, is vivid and the perspective makes it seem as though lifeboats are rowing toward you. Additionally, the paper is lush. All the pages, including the jacket, have a soft, velvety feel. Plus the beginning font and layout are simple yet evocative. The font used for the bulk of the book however, is not as suggestive; I think it’s Times New Roman. This discussion might seem excessive, but I spent the first five minutes with this book marveling over its attractiveness. And I still stroke the book jacket sometimes!

The Watch that Ends the Night describes itself as a novel, however, a more accurate description would be a collection of perspectives told chronologically, which describe the maiden voyage of Titanic. Generally, the perspectives read more like poems than like prose.

It takes several poems before the book flourishes, but once it does the reader is completely immersed in the characters. Remarkably, I felt compelled to turn the page, even though I knew the end, as we all do. It was Wolf’s distinct and lively characters that kept me interested. Each character (although I shouldn’t call them “characters,” they were all real passengers on Titanic) has an engaging subplot: misplaced money, young love, conning, job advancement. The only fault to be taken with Wolf’s wonderful characters is the ratio of men-to-women: there were far more male characters than female.

The characters, as well as the rest of the book, are all meticulously researched. The last pages of the book contain appendixes describing the known facts of all the characters Wolf writes about. But truly, every single aspect of the book is supremely researched. Wolf describes the likely origin and path of the iceberg, the anatomy of a violin, the complexities of a “Marconi-gram” or telegraph. Wolf even researched a phenomenon he terms a “Rat King,” which occurs when rats’ tails get all tangled up together and they form one giant organism.

As mentioned above, the perspectives are written mainly as poems. Although the book is very powerful, the poetry itself is not innovative. Sometimes Wolf rhymes, sometimes he uses meter, some poems use a cummings-esque typography. Additionally, the first several poems are not distinct enough from each other. However, the poems quickly began to distinguish themselves and the reader could often guess the character just from the poem’s tone. Within these poems, Wolf uses symbolism and imagery, some of which is very good. For example, after a young girl’s brother lies to their father, the girl divulges that “And as Elias and Father turned to go, I found myself unable to move./ Anger had spilled out of my heart and into my feet.” And later, when an undertaker is sifting through the bodies of those who did not find a lifeboat to board but instead were on the ship as it sank, he describes a scene:
A dozen men locked arm in arm altogether in a ring.
The soot-faced stokers, the serge-suited bankers,
the bedroom stewards, and the elevator boys.
Did they cry out in unison, or did they sing?
And how long did it take to watch each member
of their choir lose voice and slump to sleep?

I have always been fascinated by the story of Titanic and it came as no surprise that I enjoyed this book. However, this book is not just for people like me. The actual sinking is only the backdrop of an intricate web of characters who discover what it is to love, to die, to survive. This is a wonderful book that is light-hearted and humorous but still made me cry. And it isn’t just about the passengers on Titanic; it’s about us: you and me.

5/6: seek this book out

Some other reviews:

Bermuda Onion
Encyclopedia Titanica