November 17, 2005

The Year of Magical Thinking

Last week, Jennie and I went to a reading sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Co and the Seattle Public Library. The reading was by Joan Didion, and she read an excerpt from her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking.

The reading was packed. We got to the library at least an hour early, and we weren't anywhere near the front of the line. The auditorium in the downtown branch of the public library holds 200-plus people; there were probably 300 people there that night. Even arriving an hour early, the best seats that Jennie and I could get were clear up in the nosebleed section. While waiting in line, I worked on some ribbing for a sweater I've recently started and that I'd brought along with me in my purse to keep me occupied during the wait, and chatted with Joy from knitting guild, who coincidentally was also at the reading that night; she and Jennie and I noticed another woman in line who was knitting on a gigantically long scarf. (Although Jennie's still working on her striped scarf, she did not bring any knitting with her that night.)

I bought Joan Didion's book that night and finished reading it over the weekend. It's a memoir of her year immediately following her husband's sudden death from a heart attack, a year in which her adult daughter was several times in the hospital and on life support due to bacterial infections. The premise of the book is that Joan introspects about her mental state -- the "magical thinking" she experienced because of her grief. At times she wondered if she might have been able to save John at the time of the heart attack; at times she's in denial of his death and thinks that he might come back. It's a very honest account.

I found it a very compelling read. I also found it a little confusing in places and hard to follow at times. If the book is an examination of her mental state in the year immediately following John's death -- and she wrote the book in one year -- then that confusion I experienced as a reader no doubt is similar to the confusion Joan experienced at times, and perhaps also the result of the book being written so quickly. Overall, though, this was a very powerful book, and I could neither get her literary voice out of my head nor put the book down.

Today I heard on the news that Joan Didion has won the National Book Award for The Year of Magical Thinking. She certainly deserves it.

Knitting notes: While I have a severe case of startitis, I've been treating the symptoms by only looking at pretty yarns (well, and there is that sweater whose ribbing I was working on while waiting in line at the reading), and by focusing on this project every day:


This is a vest I'm designing from Jamieson's Shetland Double Knitting. It's the vest I'm designing for Level II of the TKGA master knitter program.

Posted by Karen at November 17, 2005 03:51 PM

Wow. "The shallowness of sanity". I'm going to have to read that. It's interesting, I've heard the term "magical thinking" as applied to how children think the world works - is that how she's using it? Except about herself?

Posted by: Patti at November 17, 2005 06:09 PM

Yes, as she explained at the reading that evening, she took the term "magical thinking" from how children think the world works. When she uses it about her own thoughts and emotions, she's referring to the fact that she was "in no way prepared to accept [John's death] as final: there was a level on which [she] believed that what had happened remained reversible." (p. 32) She keeps looking for the key that would reverse his death, make him come back.

Posted by: Karen at November 18, 2005 04:24 AM

i love the purple and white combination.

Posted by: vanessa at November 18, 2005 07:13 AM

Thanks for the reading recommendation. Your vest looks beautiful and I love the color combination. I joined TKGA yesterday and my goal is to get started on the master knitter program in 2006. See what you've started?

Posted by: Jewel at November 18, 2005 07:17 AM

Beautiful vest, Karen!!

Posted by: Ryan at November 18, 2005 09:03 AM

I just checked my library hold status on this book and I'm number 131 of 470. Woohoo! In the meantime I'm starting _A Widow for one Year_ by John Irving. I think there's a theme going on here.

And then I move on to the book that explains why people believe they've been abducted by aliens. (Again the magical thinking.) I suspect the answer will be that it so neatly explains *so* many things.

Posted by: Kit at November 18, 2005 10:18 AM

I heard an interview with Joan Didion on Fresh Air on NPR this afternoon. I cried for her several times during the interview. Once was when Terry Gross asked her if losing her husband and daughter made her worry more about her own death. Joan's answer was that no, she didn't worry about her own death at all. She said you mostly worry about dying if you're going to leave behind someone you feel like you need to care for. But she didn't have anyone left to leave behind. Then she said, with tears in her voice, maybe this isn't a good thing to talk about right now.

I sure cried for her then.

Posted by: Janice in GA at November 18, 2005 02:11 PM

The opening text of the book, along with the Terry Gross interview is available at :

Posted by: Kit at November 18, 2005 02:49 PM

Thanks, everyone, for the nice comments about my vest. I was very unsure whether to post any photos of it at all, as it is very much a work in progress. It's like a cake that's still baking in the oven and I'm not sure it's a good idea to open the oven door and show everyone, Look how my cake is rising! How sweet and yummy it smells! That would cause the cake to fall and be inedible, for sure.

Kit, let me check with Jennie and see if she is done with the book. If she is, I'd be happy to lend you our copy . . . especially if you were to come to Ferals next Monday night and pick it up.

Janice, in part I have mixed feelings about this book coming out so soon after the events. Joan was determined to finish the book on or by the anniversary of John's death . . . and she did meet that self-imposed deadline. She did a little rewriting of the last couple of chapters in the following month. (These are things she said at the reading in Seattle.) On the one hand I appreciate someone being so honest and exposing her inner life like this, it's instructive for all of us. I also felt, at the reading, that it was very healing for her to be out in public, telling her story. On the other hand, she's still processing the losses and the grief, and maybe it's too soon to say some of these things, so publicly, before she's fully processed them. And I'm not entirely comfortable with what it says about us and our morbid curiosity, that we might ask questions like this of someone who's grieving.

Posted by: Karen at November 18, 2005 04:44 PM

Good book review, and wow, the vest looks terrific. Definitely blog-worthy. Good going!

Posted by: Anne at November 18, 2005 05:09 PM