[Review] We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction by Joan Didion, with an introduction by John Leonard

Publisher and Publication Date: Everyman’s Library/Penguin Random House. One volume holding several of Joan Didion’s writings. They were written between the 1960s and 2003. This volume was published in 2006.
Genre: Nonfiction. Essays. Memoir.
Pages: 1122.
Format: Hardcover.
Source: Self-purchase.
Audience: Nonfiction readers. Essay readers. Readers of Joan Didion.
Rating: Excellent.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem- 1961, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968.
The White Album- 1979.
Salvador– 1983.
Miami– 1987.
After Henry– 1992.
Political Fictions– 2001.
Where I was From– 2003.

Link for the book @ Amazon.


Brief summaries of each of the books.

1. Slouching Towards Bethlehem is grouped in three sections. The first section is Life Styles In The Golden Land. This section has eight essays. One of them is John Wayne: A Love Song. The last one is Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The second section is Personals. This section has five essays. The first one is On Keeping a Notebook. The third section is Seven Places Of The Mind. Seven essays are in this section with Goodbye to All That as the last essay.

2. The White Album is grouped in 5 sections. The White Album is the first section and holds an only essay. California Republic is section II. It holds seven essays. Women is number III section holding three essays. One of the essays is on Georgia O’Keeffe. Sojourns is section IV. In The Islands is the first essay of seven. On The Morning After The Sixties is section V. On the Morning After The Sixties and Quiet Days in Malibu are the two essays.

3. Starting on page 343 and ending on page 410 is Salvador. This is a lengthy piece on the country of El Salvador in the early and mid 1980s. It is political, both American politics and what was happening in El Salvador.

4. Miami starts on page 409 and ends on page 550. Miami starts with Cuba and those citizens who came to live in Miami, Florida. The geography and climate are remarked upon. The Miami riots of 1968, and segregation and desegregation. Lastly, the politics of the Reagan administration.

5. After Henry starts on page 551 and ends on page 727. After Henry is the first essay. Henry Robbins was a New York editor and friend. Three other sections are included: Washington holds one essay, California holds seven essays, and New York holds one essay titled Sentimental Journeys.

6. Political Fictions starts on page 729 and ends on page 947. Political Fictions holds nine essays. Some of the people she has written about are Newt Gingrich, former president Bill Clinton, and former president George W. Bush.

7. Where I Was From starts on page 948 and ends on page 1105. It starts with her ancestry. Her lineage and how they came to live in California. The topography and environment of California are examined, and the development of the railroad and factories. The last essay is about her mother’s death.

My Thoughts:

Joan Didion is one of my favorite nonfiction authors. I dislike the term fan because I have a mental image of an Elvis or Beatle’s fan screaming and crying and pulling on their hair. I’ve read some of the books in this volume before. I have read what I can find about her online. Several times I have watched the Netflix original, The Center Will Not Hold. I’m so thankful her nephew directed it.

Several reasons why she is a favorite!

  1. She is an approachable type of person. She is someone I’d smile at if we met at a grocery store. She is a person I’d love to scan her bookshelves or listen to her talk about Ernest Hemmingway or George Eliot. Those are favorite authors of ours.
  2. She is a person I can related to, to an extent. We both had lengthy marriages to hot heads. We are writers. We come across as people who don’t have much to talk about (people tend to overlook.) Yet, our inner dialogue and writings have much to say.
  3. She is a varied writer. She writes about subjects that are from personal experience or political or celebrities or true crime. She stretched her writing to beyond what she thought capable. She was encouraged to do so, but it took courage. She wrote about personal sufferings. She wrote in hopes of understanding or at least as a way to process what had happened.
  4. Joan Didion was born in 1934. My mother was born in 1926. This is a generation of women who did not talk about the hard experiences and sufferings of life. They kept things to themselves. Joan chose to write about certain life experiences. For example, contemplating divorce, and the adopting of a child. This reason is significant and can be overlooked by our saturated social media world where people tend to talk too much about some things and miss other ideas all together.

If I could ask her one question it would be: what stories did you not write or have published?

I read the book cover to cover. The political essays were my least favorite because I am not a political reader (I don’t consider myself to be.)

My favorite essays are Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, John Wayne: A Love Song, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, On Keeping A Notebook, On Morality, On Going Home, Letter From Paradise, Rock Of Ages, Goodbye To All That. All of that list is from Slouching Towards Jerusalem. The second book is The White Album. The first essay I love, and it’s titled the same as the book. Other essays I love are The Women’s Movement, Georgia O’Keeffe, In the Islands, On the Morning After the Sixties, and Quiet Days in Malibu. I enjoyed the piece on Salvador. I did not think I’d enjoy reading it. It is informative and a keen observer of various people she met. These people are from different walks of life. I enjoyed reading After Henry. It is piece that shares the remarkable friendship and his legacy. New York is a piece about the white middle class woman who went running in Central Park New York City and was brutally beaten and raped. Didion examines a bit further, rapes of black women who are raped more often and the media did not impress upon their readership to pay attention. The last essays of the book are about her parents, and it ends with her mother’s death and the sorting through of her things.

I love Joan Didion’s writing style. The sentences are often short, crisp, and to the point. Aptly chosen words that do not rush me through the sentence. There is a patience and calmness to her writing, even if there is chaos in the subject. She is a keen observer of people. The first sentence is often memorable, and replays in my mind long after I’ve finished. That first sentence grabs hold of my attention, and it sets the tone for the rest of the essay.

There is an old saying “this goes without saying” but I don’t really know Joan Didion. However, I feel there is a humanity and vulnerability and realness in her, and it shows in her writing. She expresses enough for me to get a glimpse of her life and views and subject material. But in that glimpse, she allows me to move towards her a bit by the knowledge that she understands, she is listening, and observing quietly, and she has valuable and cherished words to share.


One thought on “[Review] We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction by Joan Didion, with an introduction by John Leonard

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