If you haven’t been introduced to Joan Didion before this must-read list, then by the end of it, you’ll be heading to the nearest bookstore to pick up what will most assuredly be your favorite book to quote or re-read.
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Best Nonfiction Joan Didion Books
Joan Didion’s zenith collection of nonfiction is listed here, whether critics agree or not. Her’s is a fearlessness of authorship, where interesting lives and beautiful stories mingle with what is sometimes miserable or even humiliating.
1. The Year of Magical Thinking
After her husband's sudden death, Didion attempts to make sense of her life in the immediate days and following months. Her flawless, skillful writing guides the reader through description and grief stages using rhythmic wording and authentic emotion. Didion writes:
"Grief is different. Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life."
While praised for her style and authenticity, some readers found that the author’s general lifestyle was unreachable for the average person and therefore unrelatable.
Check out a more in-depth The Year of Magical Thinking book review from our Cake contributor Rev. Nancy Niero for more on this raw and intense look into one widow’s travel through grief.
2. Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Didion's first nonfiction work came budding out of the late ‘60s in a coming-into-her-own story about traveling the sunny west coast observing, writing, and ingesting life. From every essay, especially "Self-Respect," you can pluck any number of beautiful quotes. Such quotes will lock you inside beautiful but indiscriminate truths, offering far more value than any shiny bauble. Here's one to chew on:
"To have that sense of one's intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack, it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference."
Some find her work pretentious at best and unfulfilling at its worst, but the eye and mind see art differently with age. What may be boring homework to a college student one day often becomes one of the most revelatory or best memoirs with time.
3. The White Album
The White Album will help you appreciate the feminist essayist. Didion's flawless use of commas and artful texturing of phrases melodically and effortlessly weave you in and out of a moment in time until she reveals the glorious truth.
"All one's actual apprehension of what it is like to be a woman, the irreconcilable difference of it—that sense of living one's deepest life underwater, that dark involvement with blood and birth and death—could now be declared invalid, unnecessary, one never felt it at all."
The Sixties were a moment of change for women in all landscapes. However, critics suggest that Didion often sacrifices the complex, dusty realities of the everyday or commonplace for the beautiful, contemporary, or fashionable.
4. Blue Nights
Some of Joan Didion's critics decry Blue Nights as selfishly about Didion and those that are the backdrop or wallpaper of her life; people who happen to be famous. She writes:
"I tell you this true story just to prove that I can. That my frailty has not yet reached a point at which I can no longer tell a true story."
Didion doesn't grieve through the eyes of others, nor does she grieve what others have lost. It's impossible to know loss through their lens. Instead, her grief is authentically displayed. After the loss of her husband and partner, grief was already familiar.
Here, you'll find the rawness in the loss of her daughter. And while her writing style seems to spin around into repetition and grief like a conveyor belt, it nonetheless brings you relentless sorrow.
5. Let Me Tell You What I Mean
Didion isn’t for everyone. Her social circle is often off-putting as if to make her experiences inauthentic because someone she knows once had their name in lights. But to brush off these didactic moments of American life as fluff simply for their famous names is to miss out on a piece of history.
In previously unpublished essays, Let Me Tell You What I Mean supports the cultural significance of a writer who’s been part of the fabric of American authorship for decades. She’s humble, recalls humiliating events, and at best offers a vulnerability most are too insecure to share.
If you’re the kind of person who appreciates growth and substance over immediate perfection, this book may be the best read ever.
Best Fiction Joan Didion Books
In no particular order, you’ll find Joan Didion’s best fiction books listed below—whether you agree or not.
6. Play It as It Lays
One can best describe the character Maria Wyeth’s life as decayed, miserable, and desperate. Didion’s novel, Play It as It Lays, is not one best ingested on a happy Saturday afternoon among the birds. Still, the often putridity of self-destruction is too interesting to deny. In the story, Maria clings to various happy moments, some with her daughter, others throughout her overall despondent life. Agonizingly, Maria says:
“I was raised to believe that what came in on the next roll would always be better than what went out on the last. I no longer believe that, but I am telling you how it was.”
The truth of the end seems necessary and authentic to the novel. Maria will remind you of Lily Bart from Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, where the finality and degradation feel like a rush of relief as the character is released from her anguish. There, you’ll discover that there is far more beauty in the pain of truths than in the lie.
7. A Book of Common Prayer
This Joan Didion novel is about politics, tragedy, and womanhood in Boca Grande, Central America. Narrator Grace Strasser-Mendana is an American expatriate who marries into one of the dominant and controlling families therein.
In a parallel story of anguish, anger, and hopelessness, Grace, acting as either a witness or eulogist, tells the reader Charlotte Douglas's story—another American. Of Charlotte, Grace explains:
"She died, hopeful. In summary. So you know the story. Of course, the story had extenuating circumstances, weather, cracked sidewalks and paregorina, but only for the living".
With journalistic prowess and knowhow, fans hail Didion's book as a deep dive into the plot and twists of human behavior inside that of terrorism, intrigue, and violence.
In Democracy, Didion sets up a cryptic puzzle set in Hawaii's post-Vietnam backdrop. For some, her efforts are more irritating than interesting, mainly when the slowness of the reveal seems sluggish, confusing, and filled with odd or misplaced colloquialisms. While for others, the novel feels like a brilliant character study, especially of Jack Lovett.
If this makes you confused or unsure if you're even going to like the book, then buy it bargain-priced. From the moment you pick it up, even if you've decided to dislike everything about it, you'll be free to fall madly in love with every bit of nuance in its complex narration. The artful weaving and tale-telling abilities from Didion are where the story truly lies.
9. The Last Thing He Wanted
Many who are fond of Didion's fiction credit her with the ability to tell a tale in puzzle form. Each piece fits together with a knowing sigh of relief after assessing the details. You'll find that writing prowess throughout her novel, The Last Thing He Wanted.
In it, Journalist Elena McMahon revisits her experience in 1980s Costa Rica. There, she became a stand-in weapons runner for her father and gets caught up in a plot to frame him—now her—for the ambassador's assassination. She escapes, but her father isn’t so lucky.
Her novel is a quick read with repetitive, rapid-fire sentence structures. Although it doesn't have the same Didion-esque bursting sentences, it's still a page-turner right up to the end when the critique of Central American governments and greedy politicians takes the stage.
10. Run River
Run River begins with a marriage, ends with suicide, and languishes slightly in the middle.
You’ll discover several California pioneering references. Plus, her character study is true to the style of typical Didion dynamism.
Except, there seems to be an almost byline to every character. One of “perpetrator-victim.” Nearly everyone has a lonely, horrid life with too much time, bourbon, and money to complain away the afternoon. It’s tough to be in a situation you’ve created and yet feel somewhat victimized by its honesty.
But apart from the Gatsby-esque terror of being so despairingly (or overwhelmingly) privileged and unhappy, the novel is nonetheless insightful. Read it with some bourbon, or not, and prepare yourself to enjoy Didion’s first tragedy novel.
Introducing Joan Didion
It’s a late introduction for those who’ve never heard of her, but Joan Didion has been writing for decades. Her observations, writing style, and character study make her one of the most well-known authors in our diverse American history.
- “A Book of Common Prayer.” Zola Books, Inc, The Joan Didion, n.d., www.thejoandidion.com/a-book-of-common-prayer