‘Careless self-interest and optimism’: Joan Didion

Joan Didion’s work after 1980 remains her best. The essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album boast too perfect a marriage between form and content. Covering the El Mozote massacre, the prestidigitators working in the Reagan administration, the Michael Dukakis campaign, and the Bill Clinton impeachment applied her talent for selective quotation to… More ‘Careless self-interest and optimism’: Joan Didion

‘Saltwhite crumbling mush of corpse’

I don’t reread Ulysses often, but when I do I flip to the sixth chapter. Called “Hades” because it purportedly mirrors Odysseus’ descent into the underworld, it follows Leopold Bloom and his acquaintances to the funeral of a Dubliner. In the carriage with Bloom sit Simon Dedalus, the lachrymose blowhard and professional drunkard; and the… More ‘Saltwhite crumbling mush of corpse’

The price for rejecting partial victories

At the airport in April I read fifteen pages of Frank, the memoir by the acerbic congressman of Massachusetts Fourth District who declined to run for another term. Reading it, I’m struck by how well he writes: few instances of jargon, sentence after sentence of clear forceful prose. I’ll probably review it. In his review-essay,… More The price for rejecting partial victories

‘I didn’t have any adult experience when I started to write’

I haven’t read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret but Iggie’s House, Pickle Juice, Then Again, Maybe I won’t, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and Superfudge formed an indissoluble part of my adolescence. The eighties paperback editions emphasized, sometimes garishly, their appeal to young women. I bought them in book fairs, about which… More ‘I didn’t have any adult experience when I started to write’

Prelude to war: ‘Dead Wake’ and the Lusitania sinking

“A life jacket did not guarantee survival,” writes Erik Larson. “Many who entered the sea had their jackets on incorrectly and found themselves struggling to keep their heads out of the water. The struggle did not last long, and soon survivors who did manage to outfit themselves properly found themselves swimming among bodies upended in… More Prelude to war: ‘Dead Wake’ and the Lusitania sinking

Lessons in survival: Roosevelt and Stalin

In right wing lore, Yalta persists as the ultimate example of Franklin Delano Rooevelt’s perfidy: a well-intentioned blunder by an infirm, dying man at best, evidence of FDR’s Communist sympathies at worst, with Alger Hiss as Iago. Right wing mythology uses the agreement produced in 1945 as urtext, therefore no amount of scholarship will change… More Lessons in survival: Roosevelt and Stalin

The stories of my life

The first short story I loved was “A Day’s Wait.” Dependent on a sick child’s confusion regarding Celsius and Fahrenheit, Ernest Hemingway’s vignette — three scenes, two in the same sickroom — suggested that what Wallace Stevens called the malady of the quotidian had possibilities. That spring of eighth grade I devoured the collected stories,… More The stories of my life