Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Monday, March 10, 2014

Slouching Towards Bethlehem
by Joan Didion
Didion’s famous collection of nonfiction essays gives readers a glimpse into the rapidly changing world of California in the 1960s. From hippies in San Francisco to a piece on Joan Baez and her Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, Didion traces the paths of a new generation of Americans across the state.

Her prose takes your breath away with it’s descriptive beauty. Regardless of the subject matter, it's so easy to get lost in her words. She tells each person's story without condemning or praising their belief system.

"She does try, perhaps unconsciously, to hang on to the innocence and turbulence and capacity for wonder, however ersatz or shallow, of her own or of anyone's adolescence."

I felt like the essays on Didion's personal life and experiences were a little stronger than the rest. There was also a story that opens the book, "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream," that really stayed with me. It's about a woman convicted on murdering her husband in a burning car. It was a haunting tale, as so many things are in Didion's hands. Even a trip to the tropical isles of Hawaii becomes a morose reflection for her.

"Las Vegas is the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification."

One of my favorite pieces in the book is about how we change when we return to our childhood homes. Our personalities revert back to the roles we took on within our family dynamic. Our spouses often can’t understand the strained relationships or odd attachments that we have with the place and the people there.

“I had by all objective accounts a ‘normal’ and a ‘happy’ family situation, and yet I was almost thirty years old before I could talk to my family on the telephone without crying after I had hung up. We did not fight. Nothing was wrong. And yet some nameless anxiety colored the emotional charges between me and the place I came from.”

BOTTOM LINE: As with most short story collections, not every single piece was my favorite, but with a writer like Didion you’re sure to find some gems. Didion conveys moods and feelings with such incredible talent and this collection is one of her best.

“I have said that the trip back is difficult, and it is – difficult in a way that magnifies the ordinary ambiguities of sentimental journeys.”

"Innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself."


Sandy Nawrot said...

I've never read her, although I've always wanted to. I've heard she can be a little dour. But the description of the story about our changing roles when we visit our family home strikes a chord. When my parents are here at my house, there is definitely an order to things. When I go home, it is something completely different. Interesting...

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Sandy - I think she tends to have a very dark outlook on life, but she's an incredible writer.

Laura said...

I definitely need to read this, cause it's maybe the most famous Joan Didion book? And I have discovered that I love her now, so there's that. I feel like I might relate to this a crazy amount, so yeah. Definitely need it.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Laura - I think this is one of the most famous for sure. I loved her book on grief, The Year of Magical Thinking too.

thecuecard said...

You can't go wrong with Didion's nonfiction books I think I've read all of them. I think her fiction ones are more hit and miss. Cheers.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Thecuecard - That's good to know! I'll try more nonfiction of her's next.