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Book Review: South and West by Joan Didion

Book Review: South and West by Joan Didion

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“In the South they are convinced that they have bloodied their place with history. In the West we do not believe that anything we do can bloody the land, or change it, or touch it.”

After reading The Year of Magical Thinking, I decided to read more of Joan Didion’s work. Her most recent book, South and West: From a Notebook, is her collection of notes from two trips: the first, a trip she and her husband John Dunne took throughout the South in 1970, and then when she was in California covering the Patty Hearst trial in 1976. These notes give a glimpse into how Didion crafts her writing and shows her writing process.

In her trip throughout the South, she starts out in New Orleans and then makes her way through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. She doesn’t get the full effect of the South, but enough to grasp what makes the South its own little world. She spends her month-long road trip interviewing prominent residents, watching children play outside, and swimming her way through all the motels in these small towns. She notices how everyone seems to be preoccupied with race. Her trip was post-segregation, and some of the folks she talked to seemed on board with it, while others maintained their “casual racism”. As a lifelong Southerner, it is difficult to be proud of a place with such an awful history, but I would like to think we have made strides in the last 40 years at becoming a place where we accept our flaws, but focus on what the South is really all all about: community and hospitality. I think if Didion were to take another road trip throughout the South, I would hope that her less than flattering opinions from 1970 would be changed for the better.

As a Californian herself, Didion is going to be biased towards the West, but when she is in San Francisco covering the Patty Hearst trial for Rolling Stone, a piece she never actually wrote, her notes remind her of her own childhood and how growing up in California is so different than anywhere else in the country, particularly the South. As I was reading this section of notes, I found myself more curious about the Patty Hearst trial than of what Didion’s notes were, but that is a topic for another day.

I have always enjoyed reading books set in the South, whether they be written by a fellow Southerner or an outsider. It fascinates me to see how non-Southerners view the South, and Didion with her iconic writing brings a new perspective to how the South appears to an outsider. She made several comments about not being able to get out of the South fast enough, and maybe for someone who grew up in California, and who would later on split time between New York and the West Coast, she does not have the temperament to appreciate the beauty that is the South, even through all its flaws.

I was able to finish this short little memoir/notebook in a couple of hours, and even though it’s only about 135 pages, Didion manages to pull you into her world, even from just her notes from her travels. If you have been thinking about reading any Didion, I definitely would suggest South and West. I thoroughly enjoyed South and West, mainly just to get a glimpse into her incredible writing process. But Didion is a legend for a reason; her writing is truly in a league of its own. I give it 4 stars!

Let me know what other travel memoirs you enjoy!

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