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Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays by Joan…

Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays (1968)

by Joan Didion

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    Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (WSB7)
    WSB7: See "things falling apart" in very different (?) cultures.

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This is Didion's fist book of essays. It evokes the mood of 1960's California, in which the author feels herself to be part observer and part participant. Read it to a soundtrack of Simon and Garfunkel moved out West: introspective, searching, maladjusted, but still able to string words together artfully. The essays feel like the work of a young writer who will get better, as she did. ( )
  gbelik | Feb 23, 2016 |
Ages ago, a friend recommended Miami, an extended essay by Joan Didion. Try as I might, I could not keep my mind on the text. Something about the style drove me away. A page from my daily Book Lovers Calendar, a comment from my wife, and a book that had fallen behind a shelf all conspired to my reading Didion’s acclaimed book of essays, Slouching toward Bethlehem. I decided to give her one more chance.

The first essay, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” tells the story of a woman accused of murdering her husband, who, apparently, suffered from depression and other ailments and wanted to die. Joan began the essay with a description of San Bernardino, California, site of most of the story, when Lucille Miller visited a 24-hour minimart. She writes, “…on the night of October 7, 1964, […] the moon was dark and the wind was blowing and she was out of milk, and Banyan Street was where, at about 12:30 a.m., her 1964 Volkswagen came to a sudden stop, caught fire, and began to burn. For an hour and fifteen minutes Lucille Miller ran up and down Banyan Street calling for help, but no cars passed and no help came. At three o’clock that morning, when the fire had been put out and the California Highway Patrol officers were completing their report, Lucille Miller was still sobbing and incoherent, for her husband had been asleep in the Volkswagen. ‘What will I tell the children, when there’s nothing left, nothing left in the casket,’ she cried to the friend called to comfort her. ‘How can I tell them there’s nothing left?’” (6). Quite a story, but as Didion unwinds the tale, numerous pieces of evidence do not add up. Miller ends up in the San Bernardino County Jail charged with first degree murder. I could not stop reading this 28-page essay.

Other essays involved a portrait of John Wayne, whom Didion admired since she was a child. Eventually, she meets the Duke and recounts dinner at an exclusive restaurant with her husband, when suddenly three men appeared playing guitars. She writes, “…all the while the men with the guitars kept playing, until finally I realized what they had been playing, what they had been playing all along: ‘The Red River Valley’ and the theme from The High and the Mighty. They did not quite get the beat right, but even now can hear them, in another country and a long time later, even as I tell you this” (41). I have met a few people I really admired, John Updike, John Cheever, and Joyce carol Oates to name a few, and I can vividly recall the time, the place, and the topics we discussed.

Finally, I would like to share the opening paragraph of the title essay for the collection. Didion writes, “The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Parents were missing, Those left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves. // It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967” (84). How could I not continue reading an essay that began this way.

I think I see another visit to Joan Didion’s Miami in my near future. 5 stars

--Jim, 2/2/16 ( )
  rmckeown | Feb 13, 2016 |
This is a nonfiction work composed of essays. Each piece has its own individualized theme and some pieces are longer than others. This is great for this particular book because if a particular essay does not speak to you it will be over in mere pages and you will be onto the next one. This makes it a easier read than some other books that you wonder if it will ever be over. She has many themes throughout the book, but many of them focus on places that she has visited or lived in, such as San Francisco, Hawaii, and New York. Never do you feel like she is rubbing these experiences in your face, which could have happened with a less skilled writer. You simply feel like a friend is sharing a story with you over coffee.

If you are unsure of Didion because you are not a fan of nonfiction work I would suggest reading the essays that are contained within entitled "Goodbye to All That" which focuses on her realizing she no longer belonged in New York and the title piece "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" which is about a visit to San Francisco. Both pieces are classic Didion and will showcase her writing style for you.

What can I say about this author that hasn't already been said by more prestigious individuals? Not much. She is a well-respected author for a reason and I say hats off to her for writing about the American experience even if it is told through her lens. ( )
  SoulFlower1981 | Jan 20, 2016 |
So I think I had too high of expectations for this book and I don’t want to take my expectations out on the book. Possibly because I hear this book referred to here and there and so I thought it would be better. It is not bad! But like any collection of essays, some are better than others. Some of them are so outdated that I had to keep rereading paragraphs because I didn’t really understand what she was talking about. However, there are a couple truly great essays in here including the title one, which is about hippies but is still relevant in a lot of ways, and the final essay which is called “Goodbye to All That” and is rather memoir-y. I’ve read a novel by Didion (whose name escapes me), it was good. Fine. You know. Forgettable (obviously) but not a bad way to have spent my time. I have also read the wonderful and wonderfully depressing “The Year of Magical Thinking”. TYOMT is a masterpiece of a book and I think I was hoping for that. There are glimpses in some of the essays, especially the second half of the book that focuses on personal essays, but not as much as I would have hoped. Overall I think it is worth reading, but feel free to skip the pieces that don’t grab you, I can assure you they don’t get better. Also, a warning: the title essay has some incredibly disturbing parts about drugs and children. I’ll give it 3 stars (out of 5) ( )
  KatieTF | Dec 9, 2015 |
To read Didion for the first time is to regret not reading her earlier.

The first section is a wonderful snapshot of California at a particular stage of its existence—not pulling in those searching riches, as in the Gold rush and Silicon boom, but instead in those seeking a certain set of values. Those were the days when you could actually hitchhike, when your life could begin again in a new city. Sure, Didion goes the route of showing how darker intentions can lay under the placid, flourishing exterior of California's boom. But she also shows us places where there really aren't any dark impulses, or any impulses at all besides the urge to shut out the world.

This all comes to a head in the title essay of the book, whereby Didion bounces around San Francisco drug culture at around the same time that it was also portrayed in Pynchon's Lot 49. Unlike Pynchon, though, Didion's disaffected harbor neither suspicions nor aspirations of grand schemes—only a solipsism disguised as enlightenment or self-improvement.

I'm going on a tangent from the book here, but Didion's portrait of the era notably eludes a single question: why did this drug culture spring forth, and why did it go away? Here's a stab at a thesis.

The first answer has to be the dissolution of institutions; while that's been happening for a while, the combination of civil rights, second-wave feminism, and Vietnam was quite potent to the youth of that era. All three were quite destabilizing, at least the first two for the better.

So why did this culture stop? Well if the effect of drugs were to anesthetize yourself from the worries of the time, another development quickly outpaced drugs in both variety and reach: modern advertising. Advertising and consumer culture offer a release by buying things, while drugs are a more direct method. And those without money—those who advertising doesn't care to speak to, and those who have the most horrors to escape—are the populations still ravaged by drug abuse. Again, this is just a provisional thesis, but Didion's damning portrait of drugs as solipsism practically oozes from the page.

Didion's personality comes across in the opening and closing sections as an ever-present undertone, but asserts itself for the personal essays that comprise the middle third. There's a tremendous force of will there, along with an accepting understanding that she's fundamentally damaged goods—jarringly attested to by multiple asides. Didion would win a staring contest with the abyss.

All this talk about Didion's tone and ideas may obscure the most wonderful part of the book: her prose. She exhibits a tremendous command of the language—beautiful when she wants to be, but one of the all-time pithy greats when not. An image recurred in my mind while reading, impossible to quash or push away for long: a steel cable pulled taut, ringing from the tension. Aside from being a joy of craft, these qualities only add to Didion's thematic elements of a fallen race.

By the end, the collection title that seemed a mere lodestar at the outset has become a thudding truth. For Didion, death and loss suffuses all. She remembers New York City with the pure fondness of someone who accepts those times are gone, and doesn't harbor nostalgia's hidden bitterness that they ever went away. California—and to an extent, Hawaii—are a strange attempt at societal tabula rasa, constantly sweeping away the past to create itself anew, but beset by forces that would continue the cycle, do the very same back. Deliberately forgetting the past will only do so much to stave off its effects, and not learning words to describe the gathering storm… that won't stop—not even for a moment—the violent crash of reality. ( )
  gregorybrown | Oct 18, 2015 |
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W. B. Yeats's poem beginning:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

...is set down in full, as well as a quote from Miss Peggy Lee:

I learned courage from Buddah, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein, and Cary Grant.
For Quintana
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This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country.
To have that sense of one's intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference.
It is often said that New York City is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city for only the very young.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374521727, Paperback)

Universally acclaimed when it was first published in 1968, Slouching Towards Bethlehem has become a modern classic. More than any other book of its time, this collection captures the mood of 1960s America, especially the center of its counterculture, California. These essays, keynoted by an extraordinary report on San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, all reflect that, in one way or another, things are falling apart, "the center cannot hold." An incisive look at contemporary American life, Slouching Towards Bethlehem has been admired for several decades as a stylistic masterpiece.


Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream
John Wayne: A Love Song
Where the Kissing Never Stops
Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.)
7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38
California Dreaming
Marrying Absurd
Slouching Towards Bethlehem

On Keeping a Notebook
On Self-Respect
I Can't Get That Monster out of My Mind
On Morality
On Going Home

Notes from a Native Daughter
Letter from Paradise, 21° 19' N., 157° 52' W
Rock of Ages
The Seacoast of Despair
Guaymas, Sonora
Los Angeles Notebook
Goodbye to All That

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:52 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

American novelist Joan Didion's first volume of nonfiction essays, first published in 1968, consisting of twenty works that reflect the atmosphere in America during the 1960s, especially in California.

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