South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion

Title: South and West: From a Notebook
Author: Joan Didion
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1524732790
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 160
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4/5

Joan Didion’s works are not easy to read. But once you read her books, there is no stopping. I remember reading “The Year of Magical Thinking” when it was first published in 2005 and wrenched completely to the gut by its honesty. Since then, I haven’t missed reading a single book by her. My copy of her latest, “South and West: From a Notebook” came all the way from Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, a gift from my sister. Anyhow, now back to the book.

Her essays are introspective unlike her fictional works. Don’t get me wrong here, I adore her writing, just that I feel her non-fiction is stronger than fiction. This thin volume contains two pieces: the first, a collection of assembled jottings in her notebook from a road-trip through the South in 1970; the second piece is about the Patty Hearst trial.

The first piece forms the bulk of the book – with details on everything South as they traverse that landscape – from its swimming pools in motels, to meeting regular people, knowing their views on class and racism (nothing has changed since then or so it seems) to the sedentary life lead there. At the same time, her keen eye for detail and candidness, makes you wish there was more to this book and more so to this piece.

Didion makes the South alive for you – every nuance, twitch of the faces of the people she observes and interacts with to the weather (more so important for the South) is pat down to the last nitpicking detail and as a reader you are only too happy for it. At the same time, you also feel that it could very well have been a travelogue (or is it?) with rich descriptions of the landscape and the minor details that are paid attention to.

What struck me about the book the most is that though written in the 70s, it still is so relevant today given the views of the people in the South – where discrimination – racial and classist are taken as the norm and no one seems to object – it was almost as though this were a warning for the times to come with the current President of the United States of America.

The second piece in the book is too brief – it finishes even before you have started reading it which is quite a pity. It is just a collection of notes and sketches (which of course what the entire book is) and nothing else adds to it. In fact, I had to go to Google to know more about the Patty Hearst trial.

All said and done, “South and West: From a Notebook” is a book which perhaps isn’t meant for all – or I don’t even know if it will be enjoyed by all. I wouldn’t recommend it to a beginner to Joan’s works but for someone who is familiar with her writing, you will love it, just as I did, so please pick it up.

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2 thoughts on “South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion

  1. tengel265

    I read this a few weeks ago, ironically, while on a trip through Mississippi and down to New Orleans. I grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, about 50 miles from Oxford and Ole Miss, where she spent some time. I remember hearing Stan Torgeson (sp) call Ole Miss football while I was in college (in the book he owned the black radio station in Meridian. I would have been 8 or nine when she was driving through Mississippi, and it was interesting to see the world from her perspective (an accurate recording, in my opinion). I stayed in Mississippi through undergrad, then spent another 7 or 8 years in South Mississippi working and going to graduate school. I live in Arkansas now, and I agree, the book still speaks to our times and explores the attitudes of the south, although there are plenty of enlightened people there who don’t accept racism, though it is still quite active. It’s a good book to look at, and if you’re still interested, you might try the travel writer Paul Theroux’s Deep South. It’s similar in that the author is from New England and travels the south meeting people and taking notes. Deep South was researched during the 2012 election year, and illustrates the lingering effects of what Didion was observing. It also shows the devastating effects of jobs outsourcing in the U.S.

    1. thehungryreader Post author

      Thank you so much for taking the time out and commenting on my post. I will for certain read Deep South. I have read his Sir Vidia’s Shadow and enjoyed it a lot. But I can so imagine the place you are coming from with your personal experiences adding to reading South and West. How was it though, growing up in Mississippi? Would love to know your stories.


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