Life in the Slow Lane

Contemplating life, faith, words, and memories

Blue Nights by Joan Didion (A Review) — May 9, 2013

Blue Nights by Joan Didion (A Review)

From one of our most powerful writers, a work of stunning frankness about losing a daughter. Richly textured with bits of her own childhood and married life with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and daughter, Quintana Roo, this new book by Joan Didion examines her thoughts, fears, and doubts regarding having children, illness, and growing old.

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Blue Nights—the long, light evening hours that signal the summer solstice, “the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but also its warning”—like The Year of Magical Thinking before it, is an iconic book of incisive and electric honesty, haunting and profoundly moving.

(Summary from Goodreads)

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The summary as found in Goodreads and the inside book jacket is correct.  Having read The Year of Magical Thinkingwritten following Didion’s husband’s sudden death and during which her daughter, Quintana, fell seriously ill, I was curious to see where Didion journeyed following these crises.

I was not disappointed to find the same voice telling her story.  If Didion is anything as a writer, she is frank, honest and at times the reader might think her cold and uncaring. However, underlying her printed words is a sense of loyalty to her family members, both of whom have left her as she enters the decade of her 70s.

Blue Nights is a revelation of sorts as Didion dissects her life as a mother, wondering if she and her husband had forced Quintana into adulthood — was she too cold — and on the other hand Didion confesses to coddling Quintana — “I had been raising her as a doll.”  Concerned about how Quintana sees her childhood, Didion asks her adult daughter her opinion. Quintana responds:  “I think you were a good parent, but maybe a little remote.” (Emphasis mine.)

Yet, throughout the book Didion’s love for Quintana is ever-present as is her pain at losing this child, a child adopted when Didion and her husband were unable to conceive their own.

Didion’s writing style is strong despite sometimes rambling and straying from the topic the reader expected — the story of Quintana and her death.  Often Didion seems dispassionate about Quintana while writing about material things, like the number of dresses in a closet, places Didion had lived, the expense accounts she and her husband used while travelling on book tours and other business related matters.  Where is the story of a mother and her daughter and the end of that daughter’s  life?

I struggled through Blue Nights.  In many ways, the books were on a similar theme of loss and grief, and yet they were quite different.  Didion is quoted several times in various news articles as saying that The Year of Magical Thinking “simply wrote itself” and of Blue Nights: “This book did not write itself.”  Perhaps the writer struggled with this book herself.

I would not recommend that a reader unfamiliar with Didion’s other works read Blue Nights as first exposure to Didion’s writings.  There are so many other things she has written which show her true talent for writing.  For more information on her work, visit her author page on Goodreads.  Here you will find a listing of her novels and essays, which are a good starting point for first-time Didion readers.

Morning at Wellington Square by Susan G. Weidener (A Review) — January 23, 2013

Morning at Wellington Square by Susan G. Weidener (A Review)

When I read the last words of Susan G. Weidener‘s Again in a Heartbeat, I knew I would be picking up Morning at Wellington SquareSusan had shared the story of a blissful courtship and love found under blossoming dogwood trees with a man who loved her more than she had ever imagined possible.  A story of building a family and careers disrupted by her husband’s long and difficult battle with cancer.
I wanted to understand how a young woman with two young sons moves on from the hurt and pain of loss, a loss many of us will never experience, much less so early in life. Morning at Wellington Square is Susan’s honest and moving tale of finding her way through a maze of responsibilities and social interactions as a single, working mom.

Wellington Sq coverLike a tapestry woven from rich and vibrant threads, Susan invites us along as she searches for identity beyond the roles of daughter, wife, mother, journalist.  The book opens 11 years after John’s death, and John and Susan’s son’s are away at college.  Living in their home alone, Susan is aware it is time to map out her journey into a new role.

However, as Susan’s writing shows us by using flashbacks and memories, lives continually build upon memories while anticipating the unknown waiting down the road.

For me, the search for community or, as others might describe it, relationship was the most meaningful and poignant part of Susan’s story.

Having been a single mother with a son in my 20s, the search for relationships, whether with the opposite sex or not, can be like walking through a mine field.  After all, how do we ever know who another person really is?  Is a relationship or community the source we seeking to heal our scars?

Following a testing of friendships and even a move to Arizona, Susan comes home and unexpectedly finds a way to share her gift of creative writing.  One day while driving around she happens upon a bookstore called Wellington Square.  And here she and others gave birth to the Women’s Writing Circle.  These women, through Susan, have experienced a new life through writing and sharing their writing with others.  And through Susan, her books and her blog, Susan shares her experiences as a journalist and writer with the rest of us.

I highly recommend Morning at Wellington Square to those working their way past grief and loss and to those who are looking for a way to heal from those painful emotions through writing.  Susan is a gift to fellow memoirists and other writers.

Again in a Heartbeat by Susan Weidener (A Review) — November 6, 2012

Again in a Heartbeat by Susan Weidener (A Review)

Again in a heartbeat . . . an ordinary turn of phrase.  We’ve all said it.  Some of us mean it; some of us say it jokingly.

Susan Weidener, in writing about her husband John and their life together, through good times and bad, means those words.  In fact, she uses them as the title of her memoir, Again in a Heartbeat.

Susan’s writing style is comfortable and her story draws you in immediately . . .a  young woman meets the chair of the English department at the military academy where her father had chaired the same department and went on to become dean.  Immediately, the reader is caught up in the potential for romance, a life together forever, and dreams.  Susan writes in an engaging manner of their joys and plans, of their intense love for one another.  Their life together is so believable.

And yet it will come to be a story of love, loss and starting over again.

Soon, Susan and John are happy parents of two sons.  But in the midst of that second pregnancy, something evil and daunting enters their life together, their family.  John is diagnosed with cancer, and this uninvited guest begins to change the course of their lives forever.

Susan Weidener is not shy in sharing her most intense emotions during this time in her life.  In fact, at times the rawness of her exchanges with John are almost unfathomable to the reader.  You ask yourself how could she love him and say that?  But the reader must remember, he or she is not at the center of the story.  The writer is opening a door onto her story, and the reader is allowed a glimpse of what was.

Weidener takes her reader on a journey through serious illness, loss of John, and then to starting life over again on her own with two young sons.  She tells this story with frankness and honesty, and anyone reading her words is soon awash with a sense of hope and promise.  As the title so aptly states, Susan Weidener was willing to do it all over “again in a heartbeat.”

When the reader arrives at the last page, there is no doubt that Susan and John shared an incomparable love for one another, that Susan felt hope as she faced her tomorrows, and that this author has written a guide for anyone who has loved and lost.

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In September 2012, the sequel to Again in a Heartbeat was published.  It is called Morning at Wellington Square, the story of a woman’s search to find herself outside of traditional roles.
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen (Book Review) — October 29, 2012

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen (Book Review)

Perhaps the subtitle (A Memoir of Going Home) is what threw me a curve when I first put this memoir on my “to read” list.

You see if the title, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, precedes a hint at this Mennonite going home the reader may expect some facts about the Mennonite faith, what life was like growing up a Mennonite, stories of buggy rides (or am I confusing them with the Amish?).

But that is not what Rhoda Janzen has written.  Janzen, who is not only a writer but also a poet, teaches English and Creative Writing at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.  Using her expertise as a writing professional, Janzen weaves her story with nostalgia, humor, some facts about her family’s faith, talk about aging, and tops it off with a look at parents who have accepted the woman Janzen grew up to be.

I found Janzen’s book so engaging that at times I found myself chuckling out loud or uttering an affirmation of my agreement about “going home.”  A journey toward the home of your childhood as a 40-year old divorcee whose husband left her for a gay man he found on Craigslist isn’t paved with thoughts of warmth and welcome.

Yet Janzen’s deadpan, witty and wry humor makes it a journey her reader enjoys.  My recommendation is:  If you haven’t read it, do!