The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion – 7/10

“Time is the school in which we learn.”

year of magical thinkingThis is the story of a year of Didion’s life – the year started by the death of her husband. A very precise account of the experience of grief, with sections on vortices of grief (the memories, items and events that pull us back into grief when we think we have overcome it), the physiological effects (cognitive failures, cold) and assorted other ponderings. I found the couple of pages on why we consider grief to be a condition to be overcome and a healing process at the same time spot-on.

It is an extremely personal account, and not just of her own life during that year – there are so many names of friends included (one presumes real as they all seem to be personages of modern American literature) and her daughter’s assorted medical emergencies in the year are recounted in some detail. Of course there are some details which are omitted, and their omission is obvious (her daughter’s occupation, information about her mother and father, and there is a reference to her daughter’s adoption which is then never explained).

Didion’s selection of events to be included is selective, and is clearly selected to fit the theme of her book, that is, her recognition of her altered mental state due to grief, her wishes to be able to change history. It’s part memoir, part examination of a particular phenomenon through personal events – not unlike Happier At Home, or Sleeping Naked is Green (though those were happier topics).

The title took a long time to make sense to me, until Didion admits (late in the book) that she had been trying to keep life the same, to bring John back, to freeze time just before he died. The penultimate chapter on his last few days – her horror at obliterating his last dictionary search, working her way through the reading pile next to his chair and finding a newspaper with a date in the New Year (after he died); Didion writes the moments very well.

It’s definitely worth reading and is beautifully written, but I did not find it as moving as I expected, somehow – less moving than The End of Your Life Book Club and similar works.

I think I will read Blue Nights, another work of non-fiction which follows this one chronologically, but I won’t hurry to buy it.

Additional info:

Copy bought at Strand Bookstore in New York on a recent visit. 
Publisher: Vintage, 227 pages (paperback)
Order The Year of Magical Thinkingfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

New York everywhere!

Ever notice how things seem to theme themselves?

I went to New York, and bought quite a lot of books. And while I was there, I read a fair chunk of Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin, which despite assorted other faults, is extremely evocative of the city.

Then I came back and discovered that the Physicist had found a new TV series and SAVED it to watch with me! (this never happens) Or at least he did a reasonable job of pretending he’d not watched it before. And it’s set – in New York (and is rather good and highly entertaining). It’s called Forever and stars Ioan Gruffudd, for whom I have much sympathy for having a more-difficult-to-spell name than my own, and whom we have loved in both Fantastic Four and Amazing Grace. Let it not be said this is a mono-dimensional household in our viewing.

I digress. Forever is set in mid-town New York. So of course I sat there shouting “I was there!” all evening. The Physicist did his best to tolerate this as a sweet foible of mine rather than as something really annoying.

Then I read Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking and followed it up with My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff. The latter not only references the author of the former, but both have lots of references to mid-town New York. I particularly loved My Salinger Year for its references to ludicrously expensive Park Avenue lunches and the Waldorf Astoria and the subway station at Lexington and 51st (which I used a number of times when I was there).

Now I’m deliberately hunting for more New York themed books, I probably won’t find any. My latest read, How It All Began by Penelope Lively, is set in assorted places including bits of north London which might as well be in New York for how little I know them.

Any other geographical themes you can think of (with related reading and viewing, please) I might enjoy?

Sunday Salon – “Scusi!”


A couple of days’ holiday in Rome have done me a world of good. Not least because I’ve now finished 5 books in 5 days and am due to start on the 6th any minute at time of writing.

Couple of catch-up posts have covered what we’ve seen in Rome – days 1 and 2, days 3 and 4. In short, much old stuff, some gelato.

Books read by me while here:

All That I Am by Anna Funder

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

How It All Began by Penelope Lively

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

and next on the list is The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan

(I finished Let The Great World Spin the day before coming on holiday).

Books read by the Physicist while here:

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

(has now started on Matter, also by Banks).

Assorted waiters and waitresses in Rome have thought we are a) insane b) terribly mannered or c) very happy ignoring each other while reading our books, as the books have come out at every meal while waiting for food. We read on the Metro, at the top of the monument to Victor Emanuel I (there were a lot of steps and I needed a rest at the top) and on a wall outside the Pantheon.

Reading makes a holiday.

Rome, days 3 and 4

We’re still here, so this blog is going to keep having holiday updates for now.

Day 3: A LOT of churches. Well, I suppose only 3, but they were all basilicas (basilicae? basilice?) so they took at least half an hour each to look around (in fact, we spent nearly 2 hours at one). They were St Paul’s Outside the Walls, Santa Maria Maggiore, and St John in Lateran (including a little stop to see the Scala Santa). Loads of photos but they are marooned on the iPhone so just this one which I put up on Instagram and totally doesn’t do justice to the scale and majesty of these buildings.

St Paul'sMore photos later, I suppose. There was clearly a fashion at some point for enormous, more-than-lifesize statues in white marble of the Apostles (lots of them at St John in Lateran). They were my favourite part of the day.

Also a nifty little fact – all three of these basilicas have extra-territorial status for the Vatican, i.e. they are in Italy, rather than the Holy See, but they have the same legal status as embassies. How cool is that?

Also I conquered the Metro ticketing machines. It was a hard-fought battle, but I won.

Day 4: got off to a rocky start with the water pressure in the hotel having gone entirely, but eventually we got underway on a day of a lot of walking: through the Piazza (I can’t type that without typing it as “pizza” first!) in front of St Peter’s dodging street hawkers to the Metro, over to the Colosseum for a quick peek at that and the Constantine Arch, then up to the monument to Victor Emanuel I (me: “I want a monument that impressive in my memory after I die,” the Physicist: “Then I need a job that pays more”).

Lots of stairs and pizza later, the church of St Ignatius of Loyola (another very fancy church), the Trevi Fountain (under scaffolding and now featuring a hideous plastic walkway – disappointing), the Spanish steps (also not hugely impressive absolutely covered in tourists and a massive advertisement at the top) and Santa Maria del Popolo, which has two famous Caravaggio paintings, but was otherwise a bit underwhelming compared to the other churches of the last few days. Gelato on the way home from the Metro, obviously.

Back home again tomorrow. It’s been a great couple of days!

Strange ways to get to this blog

Below is the list of things people searched yesterday to land at my blog:

a of witches book

funny comma mistakes

vowell writes, “i’ve always been more of a jeffersonhead”. what is the effect?

statue reading

The third one is definitely the most amusing. I assume it led the searcher to my review of The Partly Cloudy Patriot, (which I did enjoy and I would like to read more of Sarah Vowell’s work) but who knows!

Since my blog has been so much less active this year, the search terms have definitely got weirder.

Rome, day 2

Got here yesterday after epic journey. Why is it that when I go to Northern Europe the process feels like it happens instantly, and when I go to Southern Europe it seems to take an entire day to get there (see earlier escapades with Croatia Airlines)? and “London’s closer to Northern Europe” doesn’t count as an answer.

No matter, we got here. Yesterday we wandered up a big hill and had a nice time at the top figuring out what we could see – in this case it was mostly Victor Emmanuel’s mausoleum (the white thing with the horses on it), with Santa Maria Maggiore right off on the horizon:

Rome2Sat and read our books for a while (wow is Anna Funder’s All That I Am depressing!), then sauntered back downhill. A quick trip over into town in search of a restaurant that served food at British times i.e. before 8pm left us succumbing to a tourist trap which at least had the decency to have fantastic food. Nice view on the walk home too:


(and yes, I’m having a bit of fun with the filters on Instagram!)

This morning was all about a slow start to the day (I do enjoy a good hotel breakfast), the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, a couple of impressive churches, then the whole afternoon at the Vatican Museum. We were both a bit underwhelmed by the Sistine Chapel (pretty pictures, but… something missing. Possibly silence and any kind of idea of a sacred space?) but pleasantly surprised by the rest of the museum. Which did take 3 hours to walk around…

I’m quite impressed by the amount of walking I’ve got in (actually, both here in Rome and last week in New York) considering the extra 3-4 kg I’m carrying around with me these days.

Reading: I finished All That I Am (which I had started the day before leaving the UK) yesterday and made a good start on The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Finished that about lunch today and have started Penelope Lively’s How It All Began, although I’m not finding that riveting and and have also started My Salinger Year by Joanna Smith Rakoff on the Kindle – which is wonderful after The Year of Magical Thinking. The Physicist bought 3 Iain M. Banks books at Gatwick and has nearly finished The Hydrogen Sonata.

Tomorrow – depending on how we feel after today’s extensive walking, the tombs of St Peter and Paul outside the walls beckon, as might the catacombs, or it might just be a lazy day with a bit of walking to find cioccolata calda…


First impressions: Anna Funder’s All That I Am

all that i am
The Book Accumulator lent me this one – he’s a big fan of Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall (Funder’s first book – a real breakthrough work of non-fiction) but I was not convinced, so I was very sceptical about whether I would enjoy this. I’m also over Nazi Germany. I studied it 6 times at school. (Once, maximum twice is enough)

But I’m 82 pages into this and I will keep going for now. The main voice, Ruth’s, is both intriguing in the “present” and the past. In the present she is an elderly woman living in Bondi, struggling with the start of dementia and the close-minded mentality of her carer. In the past, she is a young woman swept into the revolutionary movement in Munich in 1917-1920, trailing around after her glamorous older cousin Dora. This particular part of German history is not a part I know much about (my history classes always swept from the Treaty of Versailles through hyper-inflation very quickly and into the Great Depression).

The other voice, Toller’s, irritates me – the story works well from Ruth’s perspective and is already split into past and present there. To intersperse with his perspective, in very late 30s or early 40s New York, to where he has fled Nazi persecution, breaks up the flow even more and it rankles. His narrative is sad, and worth telling, but this could have been separated out in the way in which Elizabeth Wein separates the narratives in Code Name Verity.

While Ruth has the higher share of the narrative, I’ll stick with it.

I do enjoy reading “second-hand” copies of books – this one comes with TBA’s annotations (which are very helpful for pointing out the quotes I might like to use in my final review!). There is something pleasantly communal about a book in which someone else has left a light smattering of marginalia! (not that I would ever deface a book so).

Anyone out there read it? Am I going to be disappointed?


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