Year of Magical Thinking (Didion)

Author Bio
Birth—December 5, 1934 
Where—Sacramento, California, USA 
Education—B.A., University of California at Berkeley
 Awards—National Book Award, 2005 
Currently—New York, New York

For over forty years, Joan Didion has been widely renowned as one of the strongest, wittiest, and most-acerbic voices in journalism, literature, and film. With such fierce works as Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Salvador, and The White Album, she exposed shifting cultural and political climates with humor and unflinching clarity. In classic novels such as A Book of Common Prayer, Democracy, and The Last Thing He Wanted, Didion further explored American culture and politics through the veil of fiction.

Together with her husband John Gregory Dunne, she co-wrote films like The Panic in Needle Park and Play It As It Lays. Firmly established as a heavy hitter in the field of sober political criticism, contemporary literature, and cutting humor, no one could have been more unnerved by Didion's psychological unraveling in the wake of a pair of tragedies than Didion herself — a fact she conveys in her brilliant, shattering latest work.

The Year of Magical Thinking chronicles an exceptionally unforgiving period in Didion's life. Her recently married daughter Quintana had been stricken with pneumonia and fell into a coma. Only a week later, her husband and partner of 40-years died of a heart attack. Battered by these events, Didion felt her grip on reality suddenly slipping, expecting her husband to return home at any moment. "Nothing I read about grief seemed to exactly express the craziness of it," Didion later told New York magazine, "which was the interesting aspect of it to me — how really tenuous our sanity is."

As a means of dealing with her intense grief, Didion found herself unconsciously composing the book that would help her work through the pain of losing a husband while watching a daughter slowly fade away. As she told Barnes &

When I began doing it, I was just writing down notes on what the doctors had said, and their telephone numbers, and their recommendations for other specialists, and then I realized that I was writing other stuff down too — and then I thought, well, I'll just write it all down, and then I realized I was thinking about how to structure it, which was kind of a clue that I was writing something.

What she was writing was The Year of Magical Thinking. She explained to New York magazine that she structured her book so that it served as a parallel to the grieving process, "the way in which you obsessively go over the same scenes again and again and again trying to make them end differently." The book ultimately fuses her finely crafted, sardonic prose with a story more personal than any she had ever told before. As Robert Pinsky of the New York Times Book Review wrote, "As in Didion's previous writing, her sense of timing, sentence by sentence and in the arrangement of scenes, draws the reader forward. Her manner is deadpan funny, slicing away banality with an air that is ruthless yet meticulous." Pinsky is not alone in his praise of Didion's latest; The Year of Magical Thinking has also received well-deserved raves from publications such as the Washington Post and Library Journal.

Most important of all is the role the book has played in Didion's own recovery from her disastrous year. "It became very useful to me," she says, "useful in terms of processing and trying to figure out what had happened."

Blue Nights about the death of her daughter...and her own impending demise was published in 2012. Kirkus Reviews called it "a slim, somber classic."

From a 2006 Barnes & Noble interview:

• "My first (and only, ever) job was at Vogue. I learned a great deal there—I learned how to use words economically (because I was writing to space), I learned how to very quickly take in enough information about an entirely foreign subject to produce a few paragraphs that at least sounded authoritative.

"I would like my readers to know that writing never gets any easier. You don't gain confidence. You are always flying blind."

• Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, co-wrote seven screenplays, including: The Panic in Needle Park (1971), Play It As It Lays (1973), A Star Is Born (1977), True Confessions (1982), Hills Like White Elephants (1990), Broken Trust (1995) and Up Close and Personal (1995).

• She is the sister-in-law of author Dominick Dunne and the aunt of actor/director Griffin Dunne.

When asked about which book influenced her most as a writer, here is her response:

It's hard to limit this to one book, but the book from which I learned the most as a writer was Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. I taught myself to type by tying out passages from a lot of Hemingway, but that book especially—it taught me the importance of absolute precision, of how every word and every comma and every absence of a word or comma can change the meaning, make the rhythm, make the difference.

(Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)

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