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100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Self-Help

The cool customer strikes again.

You know I am a Joan Didion fan.

BlueSo of course I have been waiting for her latest memoir, Blue Nights, for some time. And, as much as you can't be disappointed by the terribly sad story of a mother losing her only daughter when said daughter is only 39 years old (and little more than a year after the same author lost her husband), I was not disappointed.

Didion won the National Book Award for her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, which was about the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, and her grief in its aftermath. It's one of my favorite books of all time, and in it, she tells the concurrent story of the health struggles of their adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, who entered the hospital with pneumonia shortly before Dunne's death, and would eventually spend nearly two years in and out of hospital intensive care units with increasingly severe health problems. Quintana died in 2005, and in this memoir Didion revives her most powerful memories about her, while circling around the topic of her own aging and increasing frailty.

The title of this post comes from a line in The Year of Magical Thinking, when one of the medical personnel at the hospital where Dunne was taken and eventually pronounced dead describes her as a "cool customer." This is, in fact, what I love about Didion: even at her saddest, when dealing with the most personal and devastating of losses, she is never, ever sentimental. By this I don't mean that she doesn't care. Anything but. Consider this anecdote, a memory of Quintana walking to school when they lived in California, told from both John's and Joan's point of view (actually, this is a bit of a cheat, since it's the text John wrote down from his wedding toast to Quintana, but it's Didion who saved the text and has decided where to put it in her story):

"So I'd [John] take Q to school, and she'd walk down this steep hill. All the kids wore uniforms--Quintana wore a plaid jumper and a white sweater, and her hair--she was a towhead in that Malibu sun--her hair was in a a ponytail. I would watch her disappear down that hill, the Pacific a great big blue background, and it was as beautiful as anything I'd ever seen. So I said to Joan, 'You got to see this, babe.' The next morning Joan came with us, and when she saw Q disappear down that hill she began to cry." (p. 29.)

I love everything about that story. I love how it shows the depth of love for Quintana that both her parents had, but how their reactions to her beauty and the beauty of the situation differed. At the risk of sounding sexist, I think that right there is the essence of the difference between the experience of being a father and of being a mother.*

The next part I'll quote IS Didion's writing, about the title of the book:

"In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue...During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. AS the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone. This book is called 'Blue Nights' because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning." (p. 4.)

It's a beautiful book. I've done a horrible job of describing it, but you can read some much better reviews of it here and here. You should also know that it's a short read, but a draining one: don't read it when you're already emotionally fragile (I did, and it led to some crying, which I try to avoid now, because it makes my eyes so tired the next day).

 *I could explore this subject endlessly but this post is already too long.