The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion – Review

The appeal of a memoir is typically one of empathy, of plunging and swimming inside in the life of another, becoming fully submerged in experiences far outside your own. At least, that’s always been the appeal in picking them up for me. It’s strange, then, that most renowned memoirs tend to be about lives whose experiences would devastate readers who try to become immersed; tragedy is seen as something we can learn from, something that can be understood and therefore prepared for, in case such horrendous events ever happen to ourselves.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, however, Joan Didion accounts the first year of her life without her husband John Gregory Dunne, who died of a heart attack at the beginning of 2004, and explains her feelings of numbness and the absurdity of trying to learn something from a black hole called death that’s left you far weaker than you ever would have been had it not appeared.

It’s a harrowing account, detailing the way grief erodes day-to-day experiences like an earthquake tearing apart the mantle of life. ‘I could not trust myself to present a coherent face to the world,’ Didion laments, and for a woman who values control as she does, this is truly damning.

As the book continues and you see her clinging to the pain like a limpet, as though to let go of it would be a betrayal to the man whose absence caused it. She explains how harrowing it can be to mourn in a society that values letting go, moving on, making the best of things. She didn’t want to make the best of things. She just wanted her husband back. I was reminded of a lyric from Mount Eerie about the passing of his wife, ending the song Death is Real:

It’s dumb
And I don’t want to learn anything from this
I love you
This isn’t a rational way of approaching things, I thought, but of course it isn’t; that’s why this book is so valuable: it shines a light on the irrational ways minds approach the world after tragedies, the strange thought-patterns that make sense to no one but yourself. Nothing about grief is rational, after all; it just is.
To those looking for a salve to spread over the wounds caused by the departure of someone beloved, The Year of Magical Thinking may not be what you had in mind. It’s an brutal account of grieving that eschews sentimentality and looks the rawness of death in the face. It isn’t, basically, a comforting read. It is a valuable one, though, and anyone who has experienced a tragedy knows the value in seeing the world from the eyes of someone who feels like you do, even if that feeling isn’t positive.
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Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach

“Kinsey wanted Dellenback to film his own staff. There are three ways to read that sentence, all of them true.”

If you’re the kind of person who would like to know the story of how researchers discovered that electrical dick machines can stimulate knee orgasms in paralysed people, oh boy, do I have a book for you.

To give you an idea of the tone of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, here are a selection of chapter titles:

  • Dating the Penis-Camera: Can a Woman Find Happiness with a Machine? [Spoiler: Yes!]
  • Re-Member Me: Transplants, Implants, and Other Penises of Last Resort
  • The Upsuck Chronicles: Does Orgasm Boost Fertility, and What Do Pigs Know About It?

This is a hilarious chronicle of science, and the ridiculous lengths some people will go to figure out the most efficient way their bits can fit in people/objects. After Bonk you’ll come away with ridiculous stories, an appreciation for Roach’s sense of humour and renewed gratefulness for puns. This thing is almost annoyingly funny. I kept sniggering, but really, really didn’t want strangers sitting near me on the train to ask me what I was reading. “Oh no, it’s not like that, it’s funny, I promise. Why are you moving seats? There’s no pictures!”

Mary Roach, for our entertainment and knowledge, performed the following acts during her research: measured the length between her clitoris and urethra; observed penile surgery in person, during which metal shafts were inserted right up a man’s shaft; had sex with her husband inside a confining magnetic tube so that researchers could see what people look like inside during the beast with two backs. She then managed to make my most prominent impressions of her as a person ‘shrewd, hard-working and extremely funny’, instead of ‘the woman who was really into weird sex stuff’. She worked too hard for me not to recommend this enthusiastically.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments by David Foster Wallace

“I am now 33 years old, and it feels like much time has passed and is passing faster and faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun, and then I have to live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time. It is dreadful. But since it’s my own choices that’ll lock me in, it seems unavoidable—if I want to be any kind of grownup, I have to make choices and regret foreclosures and try.”

A good collection of essays can enlighten, entertain, and persuade without feeling like it’s trying too hard to do any of these things. That’s what A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again does. You’re swept along weird, quirky, or banal topics, subjects which other writers might make boring but not, fortunately, this one. It’s littered with funny and smart observations, and its arguments/explorations are interesting and the style playful. If you’re looking for a place to begin reading David Foster Wallace, this is it.

Wallace zeroes in on the weird bind that comes from life in the Western world (particularly America, capitalist bastion that it is): mental discomfort, weird thought patterns, and eventually ennui can actually be instilled by our physical comfort and societal wide sense of entitlement for luxury and ease. This all creates some strange ways of responding to entertainment and art. Most of us are (relatively) pampered people, who eat tasty food, have (compared to most of the world) good educations, and are unlikely to be blown up by mortar shells. We also have some of the highest mental illness rates on the planet.

We’re bombarded with advertising and cultural prompts about what to want, when to want it, and what it means to want what we want when we want it and why wanting what we want means we should also want this different product, as that will be what truly makes us individual, and when we want that we should want this other thing, but we’re not the kind of person who wants too much, as that would make us materialistic…

It all gets a bit complex and weird and frustrating, but these essays are great at pulling back the layers of modern life and revealing what it is at heart: mildly absurd. I don’t get the feeling that Wallace is being a Luddite, either. If you had planted him anywhere from 12th century France to present-day Saudi Arabia, he would have come away from these cultures with some bizarre and fascinating musings.

It’s just nice to be reminded of how silly all us humans look from the outside sometimes.