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on December 20, 2017
Blue Nights belongs to the category of what I call "Prime Lit". In my set of literary values, books belonging to "Prime Lit" list are not just time killers or compedia of useful info. Hence, even three stars in "Prime Lit" beats five stars in thrillers, romance, How To books, etc. Prime Lit should be judged on the basis of their literary form and more than contemporarily fashionable content, and not on whether they allowed me a pleasant afternoon. Joan Didion's book wins on both counts. In essence, Blue Nights tries to offer Didion's life-time setting of personal accounts. The book attempts to cope with the terrible loss of her husband and her adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, as seen through her own perspective of aging, frailty, fear of debilitating disease and death, and above all - loneliness. Didion painstaikingly (and painfully) tries to re-create the past, to resuscitate Quintana's ghost by attempting to create a mosaic of fading mementos and memories. Understendably, she mostly fails, and what should have been a therapeutic healing process becomes a somber dirge. Several years ago I read "The Years of Magical Thinking", an account of her husband's death and her daughter's illness. I loved that book. It was frightening exactly because it touched every raw nerve in my own life. Blue Nights however was different. Initially, I disliked it. Its repetitious format, its lists of truisms and eternally valid and therefore almost pedestrian complaints seemd like whining and turned me off. I also resented Didion's resentment of being regarded as belonging to the privigeledged class. It is obvious - she was priviledged. Yet the book inadvertently emphasizes how all the fame, relative affluence, entitlement, failed to protect Didion, her husband, and Quitana Rool from physical and mental illness and suffering. Slowly the form to which I objected, the elegiac repetitions, the pain and fear, got to me. Above all, Didion is masterful writer. She manipulates terse slivers of text, in their repetitions and in their laconic lack of pathos, to create the emotional impact of the book. This is not an easy book to read, but in its unique way it is a book about being human, a reminder of who we all are and whtre most of us are going when they age. A must.
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on December 8, 2017
It's an incredibly personal moving tribute and chronicle of loss, you have to keep that in mind. It's raw and unpolished. It's not meant to have any great epiphanies or any kind of bright outlook or moving personal growth, etc. It's simply the act of and details surrounding loss, which is all very personal. So I can't say that I liked or loved it. it just is what it is.
God, what Didion has been through. She has got to be the toughest broad I've ever heard of. If you haven't read 'The Year Of Magical Thinking', try to read that first, then this one.
For being able to write through it, for being able to survive it, she is my hero.
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on August 22, 2015
This was a very fast read for me. Did read "The Year of Magical Thinking" right after my own husband past away and I found it helpful and comforting. This book is her memories of her daughter who passed away not long after her husband. I've read some negative reviews about Joan Didion name dropping and it's all about her. Well, if you are looking for a "biography" of her daughter, this is not it. For me, the book is about yearning for those we have lost and as she wrote, what we have left to lose. Of trying to remember the good and if wishing could bring them back, that's what we would do. Joan Didion is a famous author, so she has a lot of equally famous friends, so sue her. I didn't think of this as name dropping, she's mentioning her friends in connection with certain life events. As for being about her, since she is writing about the memories of her daughter and about aging, about her deep need and yearning for her daughter, then yes it is about her. When you are grieving, it is about you, your loss, your future, going on without those you love. I found that the book did make me sad, but as someone told me, I can give myself permission to be sad as opposed to what I usually do, which is burying the sadness. If you enjoy Ms. Didion's work, you will enjoy this book. And hey, I'm not taking to aging any better than she is!
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on October 14, 2017
I give this book five stars because of its beautiful writing. It will be most meaningful to mature adults who enjoy frank writings about difficult subjects such as death and aging. The sentiments expressed are sometimes uncomfortable to read and the account of her daughter's untimely death is elusive in its details. I had to go to the Internet to get the full account. Nonetheless, this book is an important read.
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It can't be easy to be Joan Didion and it certainly wasn't easy to be her adopted daughter. As most readers know, Ms. Didion had to endure the cruelest kind of one-two punch: the death of her husband John Gregory Dunne followed by the death of Quintana Roo at age 39.

And now, years after writing The Year of Magical Thinking, she revisits this dark year in Blue Nights: "This book is called "Blue Nights" because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning."

I quoted this prologue at length because the book is less about Quintana than it is about her mother, the author. Ms. Didion eventually states, "The actual subject was not children after all...the actual subject...was this failure to confront the certainties of aging, illness, death." Or, in other words, "it's now about me."

The author eschews the word "privilege" ("Privilege remains an area to which - when I think of what she endured, when I consider what came later - I will not easily cop.") But it is hard for the reader to NOT think of Quintana Roo as privileged, at least from a material sense. Joan Didion asked for - and received - a beautiful baby girl from St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica (the girl HAD to be "beautiful"), purchased miniature wooden hangers and expensive dresses. Quintana, at the age of five, had stayed at the St. Regis and the Regency, The Dorchester in London, and so on.

We learn that Quintana was not a happy child or adult who was terrified of an imaginary "Broken Man" and lived with a fear of abandonment. But more than that, we learn that Didion needed her daughter and that her own vulnerability may have trumped Quintana's overriding need for protection. Whether Joan Didion was a good - or at least a good enough - mother is for her to judge, although there is evidence that she loved Quintana to the best of her abilities.

The more important question in this book is whether memories - or art - can save us from life's worst tragedies. There is deliberate repetition here - a lot of it - as the author strives to create order from chaos, presumably to answer that question in the affirmative. Yet at the end of the day, there is an elusive, even insubstantial quality about the book as it gradually shifts to the diminishing sense of her own possibilities.
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on November 2, 2011
I've been reading Joan Didion's work for nearly half a century--I got hooked by her early collection, Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968) and have read every thing she's written since. For years I began my Contemporary American Literature class at San Diego State University with the famous first sentence from her collection, The White Album: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." I used that as a keynote to the course because I wanted students to understand that stories are not merely entertainment (although they can be that) but life essentials. Without them life as we know it would be impossible. Ask anyone a basic question: "Where are you from?" "What school did you go to? What do you do for a living? And so on, and he or she will tell you a story. We use stories to link together the disconnected moments of our lives, or as Didion so cogently puts it in "The White Album," "We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the `ideas' with which se have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience." "Shifting phantasmagoria"--that's how we perceive our lives-- just one thing after another. And sometimes those kaleidoscopic images can shift from bright dazzling colors to dark opaque hues with just a single twist of the lens.

This is of course what happened to Didion. As everyone knows, in the last several years she has suffered mightily. Her stunning, heartbreaking book, The Year of Magical Thinking, which told the story of her husband John Gregory Dunne's sudden, unexpected death, haunts the memory and takes us inside a deep, unsettling grief that turned her life upside down. Blue Nights is in a sense a sequel to that book, as grief piled upon grief and less than two year's after her husband's death, she lost her daughter, Quintana Roo, , who had been seriously ill since even before her father's death. Blue Nights tells the story of that second loss, and conveys the incomparable anguish a parent feels upon losing a child. But it also goes beyond that to become a meditation on the inevitability of death, and both the frailty and surprise of old age.

This latter part of Blue Nights, which explores Didion's newly-bestowed identity as an ailing, anxious, lonely, disconnected, forgetful old woman is especially hypnotic reading. As Gertrude told Hamlet, " `tis common; all that lives must die/Passing through nature to eternity." This universally common reality is the story that Didion tells in the last and strongest section of this book. All of her yearning for the presence of her daughter while extremely moving, echoes much of the longing she experienced for her husband's presence in The Year of Magical Thinking. But here she takes us even more deeply inside her anxieties and vulnerabilities. She worries about losing her ability to write, to move about, to walk without pain, to remember things. She acknowledges the strange heightened sense of accelerating time that is peculiar to old age. Read this remarkable passage, which anyone older than 70 will surely relate to--but because many readers will be much younger than that, it will give them an inkling of what's coming.

"Aging and its evidence remain life's most predictable events, yet they also remain matters we prefer to leave unmentioned, unexplored: I have watched tears flood the eyes of grown women, loved women, women of talent and accomplishment, for no reason other than a small child...has just described them as `wrinkly,' or asked how old they are. When we are asked this question we are always undone by iots innocence, somehow whammed by the clear bell-like tones in which it is asked. What shames us is this: the answer we give is never innocent. The answer we give is unclear, evasive, even guilty. Right now when I answer this question I find myself doubting my own accuracy, rechecking the increasingly undoable arithmetic (born December 5 1934, subtract 1934 from 2009, do this in your head and watch yourself get muddled by the interruption of the entirely irrelevant millennium), insisting to myself (no one else particularly cares) that there must be a mistake: only yesterday I was in my fifties, by forties, only yesterday I was thirty-one."

It's hard to stop quoting from Didion as she connects dots. She was thirty-one when Quintana was born...and that of course was only yesterday as well, and then all the yesterdays come tumbling down, all her "what-ifs," all her nostalgic memories of her early life in LA when they called freeways by names instead of numbers, when she "could still do arithmetic, remember telephone numbers, rent a car at the airport and drive it out of the lot without freezing, stopping at the key moment, feet already on the pedals but immobilized by the question of which is the accelerator and which is the brake." This is unsparingly honest and brave writing about the kind of thing old people usually go out of their way to cover up. How honest it is is revealed in the final two sentences which contrasts what she tells the rental car attendant with what she tells the reader. Here is absolute honesty about the ongoing dishonesty of us who have entered our seventies:
"I invent a reason for the Hertz attendant to start the rental car.
"I am seventy-five years old: this is not the reason I give."

When you have the kind of long-term life relationship with a writer that I have with Joan Didion you feel that you know him or her personally. Although I have never actually met her, it feels like I'm reading about my own family--my own life. Don't be put off by the grimness of the subject matter; this book is a treasure.
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on December 2, 2011
There was something about her essay "Goodbye To All That" that resonated with me years ago. I picked up the threadline years later with her book "Where I Was From" which started out as a history of California but ended as a touching goodbye to her mother. Then the book about the loss of her husband. Then this book about the loss of her daughter. What resonates with me now are two lines from the final page of this book which I edit down here to what I think the book is really about and what I think we (people of a certain age) are all struggling to accept and articulate: "The fear is not for what is lost, the fear is for what is still to be lost." Thank you, Joan.
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on May 31, 2015
Joan Didion needs no exhortation but this book has so seared me that a review becomes more a warning. There is no escape, there is no avoidance. The Ferryman must be paid and the most we can hope is that we choose when and in what currency. Didion offers exactly what 21st century communities need. Confrontation.
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on November 23, 2015
I love Joan Didion's writings but I felt this one was flat and somehow not authentic. About the loss of her daughter, Quintana, after losing her husband. The Year of Magical Thinking is a much stronger work. I think when she wrote it, she was suffering great depression and her writing losings something.
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on August 27, 2016
I have always been a fan of Didion's writing but I particularly appreciated this book. It was a pleasure to read. I suppose because I am aging right along with Didion. As such, many of her preoccupations are my own even though our lives are so dissimilar..
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