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Posts Tagged ‘Joan Didion’

Head Cases

November 21, 2014 | by

An illustration from Les gens de Medecine dans l'oeuvre de Daumier. Via the Wellcome Library

Migraines are the most glamorous of headaches. Mysterious, debilitating, unpredictable: they get all the press. Who wants to talk about the workaday irritation of a tension headache, the dull thud of dehydration, the queasy slosh of sinus infections? That’s not sexy. By definition, even; the headache is the punch line to half the Andy Capp jokes in the world. 

But migraines! Everyone relishes a migraine. They have a literal aura! Migraines foster the sort of pure narcissism that only intense, essentially benign pain can. We sufferers (that’s how it’s described, “migraine sufferer”) feel it is meet and right that the migraine should be dramatized in films like Pi or White Heat; this strengthens the perception that migraines are the hallmark of geniuses, or at least psychopaths. Joan Didion writes about them; of course she does. In “In Bed,” she describes the purification arising from this crucible of pain:

The migraine has acted as a circuit breaker, and the fuses have emerged intact. There is a pleasant convalescent euphoria. I open the windows and feel the air, eat gratefully, sleep well. I notice the particular nature of a flower in a glass on the stair landing. I count my blessings.

Yes, Joan, yes! That’s it exactly! Of course, she also says, “My husband also has migraine, which is unfortunate for him but fortunate for me: perhaps nothing so tends to prolong an attack as the accusing eye of someone who has never had a headache.” I disagree. What migraine sufferer wants to share the limelight? After all, we all know in our hearts that no one in the history of the world has ever experienced basically unserious pain like we have.

It’s a bit like cats on social media. On the face of it, social media is a boon for cat fanciers, so long isolated from the easy socialization of other pet owners. And on the face of it, it is indeed a vibrant online community. But the suspicion cannot help but intrude, first, that everyone really thinks her cat is the cutest, the wackiest, the wittiest, the best. And second, that this conviction is unshakeable. 

So it is with migraine sufferers. On the face of it, we’re collegial. Oh, you get migraines, too? We compare triggers (Tyramines? Blood sugar? Hormones?) and triptans. Have you tried Zomig? Maxalt? Imitrex? What about the spray? And then the one-upsmanship begins. How often? For how long? Where is your pain localized? Really, behind the eyes? Interesting. I didn't realize that qualified as a migraine! Light sensitivity? Nausea? Have you tried biofeedback? Beta-Blockers? Botox? Acupuncture? Going GF? (That’s recent.) What about that codeine stuff you can only get in Europe because the FDA hasn’t approved it? Have you been to the ER? How many times? Have you seen a neurologist? (We all have; there’s never anything wrong with us. At least, nothing detectable.) Of course, if anyone plays the “Cluster Headache” card, the conversation is over, and the rest of us have to trudge sullenly away.

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Regarding Mystery: An Interview with Richard Rodriguez

September 9, 2014 | by

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Photo: Timothy Archibald

In San Francisco earlier this spring, I’d hoped to meet the essayist Richard Rodriguez, the author of The Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, Brown: The Last Discovery of America, and, most recently, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, which has just been published in paperback. Though he’s largely associated with his early stances against affirmative action and bilingual education, not to mention his regular appearances on the PBS NewsHour, Rodriguez, who turned seventy in July, has had a wide-ranging career, and I wanted to discuss the shift of his work from cultural identity to religion. But our schedules were tricky to coordinate, and then I lost my wallet. “Pray to St. Anthony!” Rodriguez immediately wrote. (The wallet was recovered by one of the famous bellmen at Sir Francis Drake Hotel. “St. Anthony dressed as a beefeater,” as Rodriguez put it.) Instead, we corresponded for several weeks.

I was excited and surprised by Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography. I had seen you referred to as a Mexican-American writer, a Californian writer, and a gay writer, but never, until recently, as a religious writer. Have you always considered yourself a religious writer? 

Of course, I haven’t, until lately, considered myself a “writer”—in the grand sense. For most of my writing life, I have stood truly, if uneasily, on American bookstore shelves as a sociological sample—shelved “Latino” between a gangbanger’s book of poetry and the biography of a Colombian drug lord. Only in recent years, as it has become clear to me that so few people I know read books, have I been struck by the fact that I am a writer.

My sense of being religious is older. From boyhood, particularly my lower-middle-class childhood in Sacramento, I was transported by religion into the realm of mystery. Consider this: The Irish nun excused me from arithmetic class so that I could serve as an altar boy at a funeral mass. Along with the priest and the other altar boy, I would welcome Death at the doors of the church. We escorted Death up the main aisle. I later went with the cortege to the cemetery. There was a fresh pile of soil piled high at the edge of the grave site, discreetly, if unsuccessfully, covered by an AstroTurf rug that was as unconvincing a denial of the hardness of time as a cheap toupee. I wondered at the mourners’ faces—the melting grief, the hard stoicism. Thirty minutes from the grave, I was back within the soft green walls of Sacred Heart Parish School. It was almost lunchtime. I resumed my impersonation of an American kid. Read More »

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Speaking American

July 7, 2014 | by

The varying temperaments of British and American storytelling.

Ready_to_portage_around_Lower_Basswood_Falls,_07_1961_(5188003652)

Lower Basswood Falls, Superior National Forest, July 1961.

In 1890, a thirty-seven-year-old Scot named James F. Muirhead arrived in America with the intention of carrying out an extensive survey of the republic for the “Baedeker’s Handbook to the United States.” Muirhead spent the next three years traveling to almost every state and territory in the Union, approaching his vast subject matter with none of the condescension often expressed by Victorian Englishmen of the era. In 1898 he published The Land of Contrasts—A Briton’s View of His American Kin, which he considered to be a “tribute of admiration and gratitude.” His colorful chapter headings show the range of his interests: “An Appreciation of the American Woman,” “Sports and Amusements,” “American Journalism—A Mixed Blessing,” and “Some Literary Straws.”

In that last chapter, Muirhead attempts to throw some light upon the “respective literary tastes of the Englishman and the American.” While he notes the grammatical wrongness of the American idiom—at least to his ear—in phrases such as “a long ways off” or “In a voice neither could scare hear,” he is most interested in “the tone, the temper, the method, the ideals” of an American writer. He singles out William Dean Howells—who challenged American authors to choose American subjects—as “purely and exclusively American, in his style as in his subject, in his main themes as in his incidental illustrations, in his spirit, his temperament, his point of view.”

But what does it mean to have an American point of view? Muirhead keeps trying to put his finger on this elusive quality: “Mr. Howells … possesses a bonhomie, a geniality, a good-nature veiled by a slight mask of cynicism, that may be personal, but which strikes one as also a characteristic American trait.” And then: “To me Mr. Howells, even when in his most realistic and sordid vein, always suggests the ideal and the noble.” Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Twain, Gilbert, Visconti

December 13, 2013 | by

sandralarge

Late at night for the last few weeks I’ve been rereading The Innocents Abroad. I think Mark Twain will always be my favorite writer, or at least the one I enjoy most easily, even when he’s not being great. The Innocents Abroad—his magazine account of a tour through Europe and the Holy Land—is not great Twain. He knows nothing about art. (Mainly he hates it.) He’s bigoted toward Muslims and Catholics, in his grumpy unserious way. He spends most of the trip tired, skeptical, and bored, at times you can almost see him counting the words in a sunset, but for me this is all part of his charm. Twain wears his shtick so easily; a book like The Innocents Abroad reminds you that he was not only our first great allegorist of race, or our first great master of dialect, or the one who first understood American prose as such, or the perpetrator of several extremely weird book-length satires—he also happened to be the David Sedaris of his time. Which is to say, a humorist, an easy writer, who speaks to what is ordinary and irredeemably podunk in us all. —Lorin Stein

I was lucky enough to catch the new print of Sandra at New York’s Film Forum last week, but it is well worth seeking out on your own: Luchino Visconti’s lush 1965 retelling of the Electra myth is gorgeous, campy, and lurid beyond measure. Claudia Cardinale and Jean Sorel are undressed for absolutely no reason far more often than they need to be; there’s Italian palazzos, stunning scenery, and just a pinch of “Blood of the Walsungs”-style incest. Need I say more? —Sadie O. Stein

Following the sage advice of my Paris Review Facebook feed, I read Jack Gilbert’s Art of Poetry interview from issue 175. Two things, in particular, felt essential to his work: his romantic distain for “clever” poetry—i.e., poems that are “extraordinarily deft” when it comes to technique, but hollow at their core; and his unabashed admission that of course his poems are taken directly from experience—“why would I invent them?” One need only pick up his collection The Great Fires. In “Finding Something,” we see Gilbert caring for his wife Michiko as she is dying of cancer. He describes a scene both unbearably sad and totally mundane: she has become so weak that she cannot go to the bathroom without leaning against her husband’s legs. There’s nothing even remotely clever about the final lines:

How strange and fine to get so near to it.
The arches of her feet are like voices
of children calling in the grove of lemon trees,
where my heart is as helpless as crushed birds.

—Fritz Huber

Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays is only 214 quick pages, yet in these eighty-four brief chapters she to leave us with a nightmare that we can neither explain nor get enough of. It’s a relatively sparse novel, but still a hypnotizing, morbid story of a wounded woman incarcerated by the misfortunes of her own making. Every word is laden with Maria’s torment, heavy with cafard; yet there’s a peculiar pleasure derived from Didion’s control over language. “All day she was faint with vertigo, sunk in a world where great power grids converged, throbbing lines plunged finally into the shallow canyon below the dam’s face, elevators like coffins dropped into the bowels of the earth itself.” —Caitlin Youngquist

This morning, Lorin, Edan Lepucki of the Millions, and Square Books’ Richard Howarth discussed their favorite titles of 2013. Check out the audio here. —S.O.S.

 

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Dream Weaver

December 5, 2013 | by

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INTERVIEWER

You have said that writing is a hostile act; I have always wanted to ask you why.

JOAN DIDION

It’s hostile in that you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It’s hostile to try to wrench around someone else’s mind that way. Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else’s dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.

—Joan Didion, the Art of Fiction No. 71

 

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Airbrushed Austen, and Other News

November 5, 2013 | by

austennotelarge

  • Jane Austen scholar Paula Byrne calls the author’s likeness on the new banknote “a nineteenth-century airbrushed makeover.” The image is based on the famous portrait by Austen’s sister Cassandra. Says Byrne, “It makes me quite angry as it’s been prettied up for the Victorian era when Jane Austen was very much a woman of Georgian character. The costume is wrong and the image creates a myth Austen was a demure spinster and not a deep-thinking author.”
  • Zola Books is offering several previously unavailable Joan Didion works in digital form.
  • Speaking of new paradigms, Douglas Coupland will be serializing a new work, Temp, in the giveaway paper Metro.
  • A new book showcases the art of the pizza box, and it’s kind of wonderful.
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