January 4, 2012

Blue Nights: A Book Review

"Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning."

"When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children."

"We still counted happiness and health and love and luck and beautiful children as 'ordinary blessings.'"

The previous quotes are a small sample of the phrases I highlighted in Joan Didion's most recent memoir, Blue Nights.  You see, I have a conversation with every book that I read.  Unlike your average bookworm, I always read with a pen in hand, and when I read a word, or a phrase , or a paragraph that I find particularly powerful I underline it, or circle it, or bracket it (or some combination thereof).  With some books I have more in-depth conversations than with others.  With Blue Nights, I had a particularly profound conversation.  As I flip through my copy of the memoir, I notice that almost every page has some sort of hand-made marking.  In fact, on some pages almost every word is highlighted.

In her first memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion grappled with the death of her long-time husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, following an unexpected heart attack in December 2003. Throughout the book, Didion refers to the dark cloud of an illness affecting their daughter Quintana Roo, who tragically died just two months before The Year of Magical Thinking was published.

"When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children."

In Blue Nights, Joan Didion attempts to deal with the loss of her 39 year-old daughter.  Throughout the book her writing is raw and, at times, stunningly harsh.  As one book review explained:

"[The memoir] opens on July 26, 2010, as Didion thinks back to Quintana’s wedding in New York seven years before. 'Today would be her wedding anniversary.'  Reflecting on her daughter but also on her role as a parent, Didion asks the candid questions any parent might about how she feels she failed either because cues were not taken or perhaps displaced. Finally, [she acknowledges,] perhaps we all remain unknown to each other. Seamlessly woven in are incidents Didion sees as underscoring her own age, something she finds hard to acknowledge, much less accept."
In my opinion, Blue Nights, like The Year of Magical Thinking, is an iconic book of brutal honesty, haunting loss, and unexpected human strength.  Both memoirs will forever hold an invaluable place in my home library.

"For my having a child there was a season.  That season has passed.  I have not yet located the season in which I do not hear her crooning back to the eight-track."

Didion looking at a painting of her deceased daughter, Quintana Roo.

Perhaps the greatest lesson that Didion shares in both of her memoirs is one of carpe diem.  As she recalls fond memories of Quintana Roo she acknowledges that, "in theory these mementos [should] serve to bring back the moment.  In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here."  Our past is behind us, our future is before us, only our present is here with us.  Always strive to embrace the golden present.

On the final page of Blue Nights, Didion leaves us with a reflection on loss (and its frequent sidekick) fear:

"I know what it is I am now experiencing.
I know what the frailty is, I know what the fear is.
The fear is not for what is lost[...]
The fear is for what is still to be lost.
You may see nothing still to be lost.
Yet there is no day in her life on which I do not see her." 

Perhaps we never fully lose those we love.  Perhaps "there is no day in [their] life on which [we] do not see [them]."  Perhaps the only thing we can truly lose is ourselves.

Question of the Day:

What is the most influential book you have ever read?

Ally and Bo


  1. HHhhhmmmm....A dark book on death, loss, and regrets. Not my cup of tea. you know my most influential book; The Bible. More specifically Luke, Mark, and in the OT, Proverbs, & what are more beautiful stories than Ruth and Hosea?

    Anyway, to those who don't know, I am Steve Hudson, AKA...Allison's Dad. I have been submitting posts for some time to no avail, but we got that straightened out over the holidays.

    I am especially glad that Allison and Brandon began their blog with an emphasis on food. When I was moved to foreman over the plant laboratory, one of the first things I learned was from the senior technician. He told me "When you begin a big job or project, always line up the food first, and everything else will kind of fall into place" I have found that to be sage advice. I'm glad Brandon and Allison are following suit!


  2. APPLAUSE, Dad! I am so happy you were able to successfully submit a comment :)

    I thought for sure you would say "The Old Man and The Boy" was your most influential book, but then again I suppose I wasn't thinking about the Bible. As far as non-religious texts, would you say that's the one? I have very find memories of you reading it over and over again when I was a little girl...it always set on your bedside table as well.

    Tomorrow I will be back to a food post! I try to change it up pretty regularly.

  3. Cha-Ching! You are correct my dear. In fact I actually started typing "The Old Man and the Boy" (by Robert Ruark) when I thought to myself "What book really affects the way I am every day?". It was no contest so I revised my reply. So you read me right, as you usually do!



  4. Maybe I should read "The Old Man and the Boy." I think I read it a very long time ago, but perhaps if I read it now, as an adult, I would appreciate it more!