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Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays by Joan…

Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays (1968)

by Joan Didion

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This is the book that made me fall in love with Joan Didion. Her prose is like a razor. What style she has. Her essays in this collection prove that it's not what you write but how you write it. Of course, I appreciated her subject matter too and her eye for a good story, and the way she cut through social issues, as she did the hippie myths of Haight-Ashbury during the 1960s in San Francisco.

One of my favorites is one called, "On Keeping a Notebook," where the great Didion talks about writing (and notebooks):

"How it felt to me: that is getting closer to the truth about a notebook...See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write— on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there..."

( )
  HunterMurphy | Jun 26, 2015 |

I'm pretty sure you can't read a Didion book and not recognize the power of her writing style. Unfortunately, I feel like I need to be an anthropologist, or perhaps a psychotherapist, to parse and value what she's saying.

I liked a couple of these essays a great deal, i.e., "On Keeping a Notebook" and "John Wayne: A Love Song", because they were simple but resonated with what I know or have experienced in life. Most of the rest were banal, such as "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" or "Goodbye to All That", which I chalk up to it being 50 years after the fact and everything about these places/venues/people has been done or said before. Or the essays were impenetrable, such as "Notes from a Native Daughter" or "On Morality", which just made me feel utterly dumb. Or they were of the - well, I have to write something or they won't pay me - ilk, such as "Where the Kissing Never Stops" or "Rock of Ages".

I'm not interested in needing a masters degree in literature (or anthropology or psychotherapy) to get something out of an essay. But I still think her writing has a depth and strength to it that makes me want to read something more penetrable by her. Perhaps her post-1960s work is more accessible? ( )
  khage | Apr 11, 2015 |
There was a certain time in America, or the world, when the zeitgeist was slightly ahead of its time, when no one was really aware of what was happening until long after it had already happened. At such a time, fiction takes a backseat to journalism, especially sardonic, closely observed journalism, the kind that is both all about the voice of the journalist but which, once that voice is locked down, suddenly becomes all about whatever that voice is talking about. In the mid-sixties, Joan Didion definitely had one of those voices. Whether she was writing about John Wayne, or Comrade Laski, or the waifs fluttering through San Francisco who know nothing and are desperate to keep it that way with meth or acid or pot or whatever — Joan Didion described America to itself. For good or bad.

Of course the title essay here is now so famous as to be almost unreadable as journalism. It is almost frightening in its portrayal of this lost generation of American youth. Didion is less successful, perhaps, in the five essays collected under the heading, “Personals”. It is as though by focusing too directly on herself she loses her perspective. Much better to let us see the author obliquely, around a corner, when the author’s attention is focused on something else. Two of the best essays that accomplish that are the final two in the collection, “Los Angeles Notebook” and “Goodbye to All That”. The former offers up a fragmented but entirely crisp impression of LA, the latter is almost mournful of lost youth and lost hopefulness, which perhaps is always symbolized by giving up on New York.

Didion’s writing is clean and concrete and always willing to make the jump-cut. But she herself is not naive about it. It is, or was, a product being sold. And as she notes at the end of her Preface, “writers are always selling somebody out.” And sometimes that somebody is themselves. ( )
1 vote RandyMetcalfe | Dec 16, 2014 |
I wish I could do this collection of essays justice, but I’ve read it over such a long period of time, that much of my impressions have long faded away. What I can tell you is that this book is a beautiful collection of essays covering a wide range of topics, but most of the pieces discuss some aspect of 1960s California.

I was introduced to Didion through her essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” which I was really impressed by. (Some of this is a lie-- I was actually made to read part of her essay “Los Angeles Notebook” in high school, but that was before I realized what literature and words could really be, so I paid no attention to it.) Didion sunk somewhere into my subconscious after that, and a little while later I found this collection at a $1 book sale. I immediately bought it, because I knew that I would be an idiot not to.

I read this book slowly and in bursts. A few essays a night, then maybe a few weeks later a few essays more. I slowly began to wear the book down. I tore off a corner of the cover after my friend startled me in Starbucks. The spine is flaking away at both ends. This book intrigued me greatly, and somewhere within it I fell in love with the essay as a medium. Some of them hit me particularly hard. “Goodbye to All That,” for example, forced me to take a walk at midnight to be alone with my thoughts. The essay had given me so much to think about, not to mention that I was sad that I had just finished such a brilliant book.

Didion devastates me a tiny bit. Even writing this review, I am starting to turn quiet. I want to carry this book around with me, but it falls apart every time I touch it. ( )
  danlai | Sep 1, 2014 |
What an amazing group of essays, written about universal and personal topics. Joan didion writes in such a wonderfully precise way, I just want to pick it back up and read some again. They evoke certain emotions and time periods without being too flowery or too "of a certain era." Favorites were "some dreamers of the golden dream," "John Wayne: a love song," the title essay, "on going home," and "goodbye to all that." Prior to this I'd only read her two most recent about the deaths of her husband and child, but will definitely plan to go back and read more of her early work.

Side note: why did they choose such an angry looking picture of her to put on the front? ( )
  abbeyhar | Jul 23, 2014 |
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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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