This year my goal is to read or listen to 25 books, and I started 2018 with two interesting collections. One was disappointing, and the other served a reminder that you shouldn't ever take any moment for granted in real life. It also gave me a reason to post this photo of Lake Harriet in Minnesota.
Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I read the reviews, was impressed by the author's bio and awards... and I wanted to hear stories that were different, eclectic and thought-provoking... and yet... I came away with mixed feelings about this book. Which is polite-speak for, "I really didn't like it."
I had asked the Reading Genie for three wishes, was granted them all, and then was left unsatisfied. It's not you, Adam, it's me.
I can't rate this any lower because, hell, I gave four stars to Alec Baldwin's book. Also, be forewarned, some of the endings here aren't really endings at all. Not (and I'm sighing as I write this) that there's anything wrong with that.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Any book that takes its title from Yeats has a lot to live up to. But, personally, I’ve set the bar even higher for this collection of early essays by Joan Didion.
First, let’s get this out of the way: this is an extraordinary author, and this review is by no means a criticism of this book or her impressive career. The essay here about Haight-Ashbury is amazing, and it’s all a great time-capsule of the 1960s.
But here’s the thing: I didn’t read this book, I listened to it… the production narrated a few years ago by Diane Keaton.
The actress’ measured cadence is so articulate and clear, you can speed up the playback by half, and it’s still perfectly understandable. This is an almost magical way to experience this book. The words come at you in a crazy jumble of images that on some intellectual level make sense — but then they don’t seem coherent, the center doesn’t hold.
Personally, it reminds me of one of my dearest friends. She can do the same thing… extemporaneously, guilelessly. You go for a walk with her — say, around one of the many lakes in Minnesota — and you find yourself transported to another world of seemingly incongruous observations and one-liners and literate confessional narrative.
My friend will stop suddenly during that walk, turn to lock eyes with you, then break into a wide smile and ask, “What the hell am I talking about, anyway?” She’ll laugh at herself. And that’s when you fall in love with her.
Joan Didion, in this book, writes the way my friend talks. My criticism is that, unlike my friend, this great writer never stops, looks you in the eye and laughs at herself or admits that she doesn’t know any better than you.
Even though — I know, I know — she probably does.
Related, and highly recommended, is the 2017 documentary about the author, directed by her nephew, Griffin Dunne, and currently available on Netflix.
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