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The White Album

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Overview

First published in 1979, The White Album records indelibly the upheavals and aftermaths of the 1960s. Examining key events, figures, and trends of the era—including Charles Manson, the Black Panthers, and the shopping mall—through the lens of her own spiritual confusion, Joan Didion helped to define mass culture as we now understand it. Written with a commanding sureness of tone and linguistic precision, The White Album is a central text of American reportage and a classic of ...

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Overview

First published in 1979, The White Album records indelibly the upheavals and aftermaths of the 1960s. Examining key events, figures, and trends of the era—including Charles Manson, the Black Panthers, and the shopping mall—through the lens of her own spiritual confusion, Joan Didion helped to define mass culture as we now understand it. Written with a commanding sureness of tone and linguistic precision, The White Album is a central text of American reportage and a classic of American autobiography.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
I first traveled to California the summer after I graduated from college. I wanted to give Los Angeles a trial run because I had an idea about writing for television, because the weather seemed ideal, and because Joan Didion had made it seem so interesting. Perhaps if she had written about Minneapolis, or St. Louis, I would have opted for one of those places. But Didion's landscape was California, northern and southern: Born and raised in Sacramento, she moved to Los Angeles as an adult.

It was Los Angeles that she wrote about in "The White Album," the titular essay from her 1979 collection of essays. Didion was an insider who wrote as an outsider, from a detached, journalistic perspective. She wrote of sitting in on a Doors recording session, counting dials on the control board to combat boredom, of having Roman Polanski spill wine on her at a Bel-Air dinner party, of hosting Janis Joplin in her home, of the trials of making dining reservations for rock musicians: "First we wanted a table for twelve, fourteen at the most, although there might be six more, or eight more, or eleven more: there would never be one or two more, because music people did not travel in groups of one or two." She met Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P. Newton and interviewed Linda Kasabian; she even chose the dress that Kasabian would wear to testify at the Manson trial. Still, Didion always remained apart, somehow, an observer rather than a participant. Taken with the idea of narrative, how we make stories out of disparate events, and what happens when we are no longer able to tell ourselves sensible stories, Didionwove, in the late '60s and early '70s, a "California narrative" of deterioration.

I wanted to see the Los Angeles Didion wrote about, not the glitzy, unreal Hollywood of glamour and movie stars, but the underneath, the "invisible city" where 22-year-olds take out full-page ads in Variety and dream of becoming famous. I wanted to see the water-starved Los Angeles, the place where rock stars waste hours in air-conditioned studios and ordinary people have swimming pools. I wanted to see the state that defined the national zeitgeist, if only for a moment, in the late '60s.

While in Los Angeles, I lived, oddly enough, on Franklin Avenue, the same street in Hollywood where Didion had lived, but in other ways my newcomer's life was nothing like hers. My first disappointment was the weather: As summer gave way to autumn, I found I missed the change of seasons. Though I am sure native Angelenos have some time-telling device, some way to mark the days and seasons and years, I did not. The string of sunny days seemed endless, and I feared I would one day wake up to find that I was 60 years old, that years had passed and I had accomplished nothing.

The people were also disappointing. I saw celebrities and artists only from afar, and the executives and assistants with whom I dealt in my job as the assistant to a television vice president were far less interesting. Motivated by the predictable twin demons of greed and ego, they dined in fancy restaurants, drove expensive cars, and seemed blissfully devoid of self-awareness.

Then there was the rain. The rain didn't come. Instead, there were drought alerts. And when the rain did come, traffic slowed to a crawl with drivers unsure of how to handle wet roads. But mostly it didn't come. The omnipresent sun, along with salesgirls' vapid cheeriness, made my tendency toward feeling gloomy seem terribly inappropriate, and so, deprived of depression, surrounded by blonde women in pastel suits, I took to wearing black and drinking coffee far more often than I ever had in New York. And then, of course, there were the Santa Ana winds, which blew like bus exhaust in my face and into my home.

In "Holy Water," her obsessive, mesmerizing paean to that rarest of California elements, Didion writes, "The apparent ease of California life is an illusion, and those who believe the illusion real live here in only the most temporary way." By the time I had learned about mud slides and brushfires and lived through my first earthquake, I came to realize that California living takes ruggedness, a pioneering spirit, and a healthy dollop of denial, none of which I felt I had in even short supply. Having lived in Los Angeles in "only the most temporary way," I returned home to New York City.

I soon learned that Didion had moved back to New York as well (she had lived there for a time in the early '60s). And while I enjoyed reading her perceptive, shrewd account of the "New York narrative" in various publications, I missed those letters from Los Angeles that I had found in her books and in The New Yorker, those insider's looks at a faraway city.—Gail Jaitin

From the Publisher
“[Didion] can strike at the heart, or the absurdity, of a matter in our contemporary wasteland with quick, graceful strokes.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“All of the essays—even the slightest—manifest not only [Didion’s] intelligence, but an instinct for details that continue to emit pulsations in the reader’s memory and a style that is spare, subtly musical in its phrasing and exact. Add to these her highly vulnerable sense of herself, and the result is a voice like no other in contemporary journalism.” —Robert Towers, The New York Times Book Review

“Didion manages to make the sorry stuff of troubled times (bike movies, for instance, and Bishop James Pike) as interesting and suggestive as the monuments that win her dazzled admiration (Georgia O’Keeffe, the Hoover Dam, the mountains around Bogota). . . A timely and elegant collection.” —The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374532079
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 11/10/2009
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 164,824
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Joan Didion is highly regarded as a writer of both nonfiction and fiction and received the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2007. She lives in New York City.

Biography

One of the strongest voices in American letters, Joan Didion has made her mark with fiercely intelligent novels (Play It As It Lays, A Book of Common Prayer), insightful nonfiction (Salvador, Political Fictions), and screenplays co-written with her late husband, John Gregory Dunne (Panic in Needle Park, Up Close and Personal).

Born in Sacramento, Didion attended the University of California at Berkeley, graduating in 1956 with a degree in English. After college, she moved to New York to work for Vogue magazine. Recognized immediately as a talented and insightful writer, she contributed frequently to such diverse publications as Mademoiselle, Esquire, The New York Times, and National Review; and in 1963 she published her first novel, Run River. She and Dunne were wed in 1964; and for the remainder of their married life, they divided their time between New York and L.A., collaborating frequently on Hollywood scripts while developing separate and distinguished literary careers.

In December of 2003, Dunne died of a massive heart attack, while the couple's recently married daughter, Quintana Roo, lay comatose in a New York hospital. Didion spent the next year blindsided by a grief so profound it propelled her into a sort of madness. She chronicled the entire experience in The Year of Magical Thinking, a spellbinding memoir of bereavement written in the spare, elegant prose that has become a hallmark of her work. Published in 2005 (scant months after Quintana's death), this elegiac book -- Didion's most personal and affecting work to date -- became a huge bestseller. It received a National Book Award and was turned, two years later, into a successful Broadway play starring Vanessa Redgrave.

Since her 1963 debut, Didion has alternated between novels and nonfiction, proving herself a wry and astute observer of America's shifting political and cultural landscape. Written nearly a decade apart, her two essay collections Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979) are considered classics of 1960s counterculture. Moreover, the author's identity as a seventh-generation Californian has colored her writing in profoundly significant ways. For our money, no contemporary American writer has examined more deftly the unique role of "place" in everyday life.

Good To Know

A few interesting outtakes from our interview with Didion:

"My first (and only, ever) job was at Vogue. I learned a great deal there – I learned how to use words economically (because I was writing to space), I learned how to very quickly take in enough information about an entirely foreign subject to produce a few paragraphs that at least sounded authoritative."

"I would like my readers to know that writing never gets any easier. You don't gain confidence. You are always flying blind."

Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, co-wrote seven screenplays, including: The Panic in Needle Park (1971), Play It As It Lays (1973), A Star Is Born (1977), True Confessions (1982), Hills Like White Elephants (1990), Broken Trust(1995) and Up Close and Personal (1995).

She is the sister-in-law of author Dominick Dunne and the aunt of actor/director Griffin Dunne.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      December 5, 1934
    2. Place of Birth:
      Sacramento, California
    1. Education:
      B.A., University of California at Berkeley, 1956

Table of Contents

Contents

I. THE WHITE ALBUM

The White Album

II. CALIFORNIA REPUBLIC

James Pike, American

Holy Water

Many Mansions

The Getty

Bureaucrats

Good Citizens

Notes Toward a Dreampolitik

III. WOMEN

The Women's Movement

Doris Lessing

Georgia O'Keeffe

IV. SOJOURNS

In the Islands

In Hollywood

In Bed

On the Road

On the Mall

In Bogota

At the Dam

V. ON THE MORNING AFTER THE SIXTIES

On the Morning After the Sixties

Quiet Days in Malibu

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 10, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Can't go wrong with Joan Didion

    Joan Didion is just plain old amazing! She has chronicled American life for decades through her essays and journalistic endeavors. The White Album perfectly captures a feeling and style that is completely Didion's. The connections and observations she makes are dead-on. Highly recommended!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 9, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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