South and West by Joan Didion

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Grade A-

Many of my recent reviews seem to be peppered with statements such as “especially in this day and age,” “in this political climate,” and “in these dangerous times.” These are strange days, indeed, and so many new books as of late have taken on a deeper meaning as they purposefully or inadvertently reflect our country today or hold a mirror to our country’s past. I’m not sure if Joan Didion intended her new—let’s call it a notebook rather than a book—notebook to be some sort of parable or treatise on the state of the nation, but this collection of musings, notes, observations, interviews, and lists is a travelogue of sorts of Didion’s journey through the south in the early 70s and I couldn’t help but relate her musings on race, local government, poverty, and even climate to where we are as a country (and especially where the south is as a mythical region) 47 years later. I’m not sure America or the south have come that far and it gives this book somewhat of an elegiac tone of nostalgia. If anything, Didion paints a south that feels like it is slowly accepting its new diversity and desegregation in 1970 far more than the south of today, a south that often appears more like 1950 than 2017. Didion’s writing in South and West is as unhurried and relaxed as the Mississippi heat she depicts in sweltering detail and her prose. Even here in note taking form, it’s still as vivid and erudite as we’ve come to expect from such a masterful writer. The setting abruptly switches from the south to Patty Hearst and Berkeley, California as quickly as the plane Didion and her traveling companion, husband, and author John Gregory Dunne board to whisk them out of the south. The Berkeley/Hearst section is even more ramshackle than the south section as some passages and pages feel like nothing more than Didion dusting off some leftover writing from decades ago, a literary yard sale if you will. Nonetheless these leftover writings are a fascinating glimpse into the mind and the creative process of Joan Didion and, perhaps more so, a sobering and contemplative glimpse into the psyche of the south and our nation’s moral trajectory. It’s a quick, evocative read and worth every note of it.

South and West: From a Notebook available now.

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