Slouching Towards Bethlehem: A Review

Oh hello book lovers! Fancy seeing you here… in my world where I have totally neglected you.

How embarrassing.

But I have not forgotten and I have finished the reading list. Only this and 1 other to go and I am finally complete with this little experiment. More book loving and reviewing and reading to come, I promise. But only once I can be relied upon to make a deadline.

Anyways, on to the point. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion is one of her best known works and one I had only read excerpts from in grad school. It’s a collection of essays about the free love era and the hippy movement in San Francisco.

I love Didion as a writer. Her craft is something I aspire to in my own work. A Year of Magical Thinking changed the way I saw relationships. The way Didion writes a sentence, her use of echo and repetition speaks to me beyond any other writer. And this collection of essays is equally as powerful. It lead to an evening of researching videos of people experience LSD, of old news shows about Haight street during exactly this time, of me reading whole sections out loud to Kamel and crying over the really terrible parts. It’s amazing. And it left me with one majorly nagging feeling.

In college professors were always adding Hunter S. Thompson onto nonfiction reading lists and holding up as this pillar of gonzo journalism. Didion was also just as much of a gonzo journalist during the exact same time as Thompson. She isn’t quite as insane about it and maybe not quite as reckless, but she puts herself into the world that she is investigating, she goes there, she becomes part of the story. Why did it take me until grad school to read this? And excerpts at that? Why isn’t Didion standing next to Thompson on that gonzo journalism pillar? It reeks of another example of how men are the “pioneers” and women are the work horses.

It’s not just my voice you get to hear today! We are also hearing from Melissa who has been very kind about my absolute tardiness when it comes to getting up her review.

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Melissa: Initially, I was excited in the way that you are excited when you are doing something good for you that you might not love but, you know, it should be good for you. Reading non-fiction is like eating my vegetables, except I like vegetables. Reading non-fiction is like getting up early and exercising. A few pages into the first essay, I thought, “Okay, this is going to be an easy read and at least mildly entertaining.” I am from Southern California, though I have been away 14 years (I’m old!) and I do enjoy books that evoke a certain California mystique.

Part I: Joan Didion’s self-indulgent look at other self-indulgent people around California in the 1960’s, through essay. I kept thinking, these are well-written and I like them, but who bought these things? This was her job? Answer: Vogue and The Saturday Evening Post bought these things. Best essay and best essay title, in my humble opinion: Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream. This passage took me home:

January 11, 1965, was a bright warm day in Southern California, the kind of day when Catalina floats on the Pacific horizon and the air smells of orange blossoms and it is a long way from the bleak and difficult East, a long way from the cold, a long way from the past.

Part II: Navel gazing. Reads like a teenager/early 20-something’s journal. Except Joan was in her 30’s, I think. Though she may have ransacked her younger self’s journals for the material. Still, I kind of liked it. Her way with words enables me to forgive a lot of the pretension, but it’s my least favorite section.

Part III: More personal reflections, this time focusing on different locales of importance to the author.

My favorite essay is found in this section, “Notes from a Native Daughter.” Her titles are so intriguing, and I love this passage:

…California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.

Yes, it makes me have a lot of feels, so… success!

Lauren: Yes. The one thing that at times really irks me and at other times I find refreshingly honest and naive is the way Didion consistently writes with a very self-indulgent and privileged view. She lives in a world of old money and of never really feeling like she couldn’t do something. Sometimes I feel like UGH! White American viewpoint I’m so over this! And then other times I think, Wow this is really honest and so naked feeling. It’s not necessarily PC, it is just like… very wide eyed and pure. Not brave necessarily, but I respect it for what it is.

Melissa: Didion creates sense of place so very well and I would recommend the book based on that alone. The Haight hippies and the various “intellectuals” were vomit-inducing. However, Joan (we’re on a first name basis now) seemed equally unimpressed by them. The tone of her writing was like a little wink to the reader: aren’t these people ridiculous? Yes, yes they are.

Lauren: But I also felt like she saw them as both misunderstood and horribly uneducated. They were fascinating and also tragic. And some stuff with the small children I had a horrible horrible time with. I really do wonder what happened to all of those people. 

Melissa: [in regards to being surprised by anything in particular] I don’t remember enjoying her writing style as much when I read The Year of Magical Thinking. My memory may just be faulty, but that was a nice surprise.

Melissa: I did enjoy it. I am all about style and poetic prose. I would recommend the book to others who love clever wordplay and mulling over pretty lines.

Overall what do people think of Joan Didion? Have you read Slouching Towards Bethlehem? I would love your thoughts!

4 thoughts on “Slouching Towards Bethlehem: A Review”

  1. I read (well, mostly read, a little skimming) this article yesterday. I haven’t spent much time thinking of Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, or gonzo journalism (never even heard the term), so your comparison to Thompson brought this right to mind as one of my few -and very newly gained- reference points. It also struck a chord with me because as more time has passed since I finished the book, I really, really like Slouching Towards Bethlehem. And I really, really have little to say about The Year of Magical Thinking. So, I kind of relate to the comments about Didion’s earlier works being what won her a fan base.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/01/the-autumn-of-joan-didion/308851/

  2. “Why did it take me until grad school to read this?”

    Yes!! I have thought that about so many books lately. “Why wasn’t I forced to read this earlier?”

    The only Didion I’ve read was Year of Magical Thinking, and I did enjoy it. It’s funny, even though I haven’t read Slouching, the way Melissa describes it makes me think, “Oh sure, that sounds like Didion” 😉 She has a distinct style, for sure.

  3. I’ve read a fair amount of Didion’s work and I feel like her style is fairly divisive. Most people either like it or they don’t. I do love the way she seems to give small nods to her readers, letting you feel in on the joke, without ever really breaking down the fourth wall. I actually liked the essays in The White Album better then Slouching, although they are pretty similar. I’m working up to reading Blue Nights — I feel like I need to be in the right headspace to tackle it.

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