My Mom Writes a Book Review

May 17, 2009 at 3:36 am (By Amba) (, , , , , )

My mother has always been a good writer, but now she’s at the top of her powers.  She’s 85.  So I guess there’s hope for the rest of us.

It took me all these years since this book was published (2005) to get up the courage to read it. It is pretty remarkable. For those acquainted with grief–and who isn’t?–there is insight to be gained as you recognize the overwheming humanity of loss and the bewildered responses of the newly bereaved. We do negelct the mourning and grieving that has always been part of existence. Whether this book compensates for that or not, I can’t say.

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.” In The Year of Magical Thinking, her account of a life upended by her husband John’s sudden death, Joan Didion chronicles the craziness, the jumble of events, emotions, memories she endures as she tries to make sense and order out of his death and her life. But what sets this book apart is Didion’s meticulous documenting of her mind’s twists and turns, her application of magical thinking to escape the inexorable rules of time and place and create a different ending for what has already happened. But all the king’s horses can’t repeal the law of the Democratic Republic of Death and alter an outcome. It is her straightforward narration, in all its dignity, complexity, and pathos that makes this such a riveting story. Not a “comfort book” in the conventional sense, it is a saga for explorers into the human heart and spirit, the Marco Polos, the Walter Raleighs, the Shackletons who enter unknown territory.

Maybe part of why I wanted first to make myself read that book and then to write something about it is that being old gives one a changing persepctive on death, maybe even on the act–or art–of dying, the part of the phenomenon of life that we don’t deal with very well. If being alive is a fulcrum, then life is one arm, death the other. I envision a seesaw. The death end is shrouded in fog and fear. Why?

~ Jean S. Gottlieb



  1. Sissy Willis said,

    He must know somethin’ but don’t say nothin’ . . .

    I gets weary and sick of tryin’.
    I’m tired of livin’ and scared of dyin’,
    ButOle man river, he just goes rollin’ along

  2. joared said,

    I’m interested to read another person shared some of my feelings and concerns about reading Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking.” Thanks for writing of your own reactions.

    I deliberately avoided reading Didion’s book immediately after publication. I wanted to, but was apprehensive about doing so because I wasn’t sure I was prepared to cope with the words emotional impact. The edges of my feelings were still tender. My husband had died suddenly in ’06, an event to which I was still adapting. A couple of years later I finally read the book, an act that resulted in mentally releasing me to write a blog piece in May ’08 about part of my own experience. Subsequently I’ve periodically written about my adaptation and emotional evolution during which I have been sometimes rationally irrational.

    My perspective on death has not changed with aging. I’ve never been fearful of death, nor am I now as I draw closer to the inevitable end. I am curious. Dying is simply part of life’s continuum. What comes afterward is debated by the world’s spiritual and religious communities. My what an enormous amount of thought and time is expended in seeking.
    that question’s unknown answer. Does knowing matter? Surely practicing the Ten Commandants and following the Golden Rule is sufficient. Isn’t everything else just man made rules and ritual?

    The above thoughts would be different from my mother’s, but I think my attitude toward death is a reflection of my upbringing in which the fragility of life was automatically accepted. I attribute fostering this view to my mother who was a spiritual person of strong faith engaged in organized religious practices. She showed by example including through her own death, living and dying by what she believed.

    The poem “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant I memorized in high school best expresses my attitude toward death.

  3. Elizabeth said,

    I’ve been avoiding that book as well since my mother died for much the same reason as joared above. Thank you for that perspective.

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