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November 18, 2005

My 24 Hours with Joan Didion

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I love it when a series of moments pull themselves together and become a story, especially when you never saw the story coming. For me, the story is about what I am calling "My 24 Hours with Joan Didion."

Last night I attended the National Book Awards, an literary evening where Toni Morrison introduced Norman Mailer, who won the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet-founder of San Francisco's City Lights Books was awarded the first Literarian Award in a ceremony emceed by Garrison Kellior. I sat in the upstairs press area, having declined an invite to sit on the main floor since the press area is about absorbing and inspires thinking whereas the main floor is all about hard core socializing and networking, neither of which I was much in the mood for as I am nursing a rather annoying cold/cough.

As many of you may know by now, Joan Didion won the award in the nonfiction category for THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING. Her win and her acceptance speech where she said, "There's hardly anything I can say about this but thank you... thank you all" --- set the course for last night and today.

I had read an excerpt of THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING in the New York Times Magazine and been moved by it. We had reviewed it here on I had the book on my "to read" pile and over the last weeks had wanted to make time for it, but pressing schedules and projects kept me from picking it up. I made a note to pack it for the plane ride today drawn to do so by Didion's graciousness last night as well as the fact that I knew she was going to be reading tonight at the Miami Book Fair, at the first event I planned to attend.

After driving home through a particularly hellacious rainstorm, I packed a bag and my laptop and way more books than I will have time to read the next four days. And then I started reading MAGICAL THINKING,picking up beyond the excerpt that I already had read, until I dropped off to sleep. This morning I read more in the airport, on the plane, sitting by the pool, through an early dinner and even while blow drying my hair (reading while drying is an art form that I have perfected!). I have about 20 pages left, but as I want to savor them, I am writing this blog first.

For those of you who are wondering about the plot of this memoir, it goes like this. On December 23rd, 2003, Didion's daughter Quintana fell prey to an illness that began as the flu turned into pneumonia and then complete septic shock. On December 30th she was in an induced coma when Joan and her husband, John Dunne, visited with her at the hospital. When they arrived home Joan made a fire in the fireplace and a dinner that they sat down to eat in the living room when Dunne had a massive coronary --- and died.

The book explores the next year of Didion's life as she learns to live without Dunne, while wishing him back, and Quintana rallies, relapses and enters in a course of ongoing treatment for an illness that no one really understands. (Note that after the book ends, Quintana dies at the end of this summer of 2005.)

I have said many times that I am not a fan of author readings. Tonight at the Miami Book Fair I saw an exception. Didion read about 13 pages, and the passages resonated with me even more vividly with her reading. I had my book with me and I found myself reading along re-living a story that already had captivated the author's own voice this time.

She answered questions from the audience (hundreds were in attendance)with the same graciousness that I had seen in her acceptance speech last night. There were some moments where the questions were a tad naive, and the audience tittered, but Didion responded to each like she was being interviewed by NPR or Charlie Rose. What I also took away was her fairness. Instead of striking blame or pointing fingers when talking about Quintana's illness, she rather understood the plight of the doctors who were treating her.

As she was talking and reading I took a long look at the cover and saw the four letters in Didion's name and the book title that spell J-O-H-N were colored differently from the rest of the cover. I had missed that before. It was a perfect way to visually show how Didion and Dunne were so intertwined. Except for the first five months of their marriage they spent nearly every day together for almost forty years.

After the event I headed to my car and was almost there, when I turned back and walked to the end of a very long book signing line. I am not one who has a collection of signed books, but somehow I wanted this one. As I stood waiting, I thought of people who I knew would appreciate this book. The woman in front of me shared that she had lost her husband three years ago and how she wanted to read the book as she still is processing her grief and her memories and what Didion said stayed with her.

When I got to the table, I told Didion I had been at the award ceremony last night and I wanted to congratulate her. She looked up almost surprised that I was saying this. Of course, that was a natural reaction as we were in Miami and not New York. Again she was gracious.

What I did not say to her was that I wish she had letters from Dunne to re-read. I had just finished reading the pages where she said that while they spent most of their time together and spoke a few times a day on the phone when they were apart, she had no letters.

Reading this book will inspire you to do something to live your own life more fully and embrace those around you a bit more and tug them a bit closer to you. For me, it will make me sure to write more notes and letters to the ones I love so that they have something besides memories to live by. Of course, Didion has Dunne's work, but there is a part of me that thinks she would have loved a big thick stack of letters to read and re-read and treasure.

Last night and today I had no idea that any of these pieces would come together as they did. I had never read Didion, but I can see myself wanting to explore more of her work.

It was a perfect way for me to kick off the Miami Book Fair. If any of you have read THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, drop me a line and let me know what you thought of it.