The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion

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A Year in Reading: Joyce Carol Oates

Among the most engaging new books I’ve perused in recent months are C.K. Williams’s Selected Later Poems — beautifully intricate, contentious, strikingly ardent poems by one of our great contemporary poets; The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, edited by Bill Henderson — a treasure trove of contemporary American writing, fiction, poetry, non-fiction that should be required reading for new and emerging writers; 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories — a wonderfully idiosyncratic collection assembled by Lorrie Moore containing little-known stories by classic writers and with an emphasis upon the very new; and Tracy Daugherty’s meticulously researched, warmly sympathetic biography of Joan Didion, The Last Love Song.

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How the West Was Lost

1.
Ivan Doig is dead. Long live Ivan Doig.

A writer who liked to say he sprang from “the lariat proletariat, the working-class point of view,” Doig died on April 9 at age 75 at his home in Seattle. Now we have his posthumous novel Last Bus to Wisdom, his 16th and final book, a reminder that Doig (pronounced DOY-guh) was a guiding light in a loose but hard core of writers who have chronicled and lamented one of our great national sorrows: How the West Was Lost.

Doig was born in White Sulphur Springs, Mont., where the Rocky Mountains begin their rise “like a running leap of the land.” His father was a ranch hand and his mother a ranch cook — the lariat proletariat personified — and as a boy Ivan accompanied his father on ranch jobs, becoming familiar with the open spaces and the taverns, the bunkhouses and one-room schoolhouses of a western Montana way of life that was already vanishing. It is the ache brought on by this vanishing that was to become Doig’s great subject.

Last Bus to Wisdom is one of Doig’s more autobiographical fictions. Readers of his 1979 memoir, This House of Sky, a finalist for the National Book Award, will recognize some of the new novel’s situations and events. The story is narrated by 11-year-old Donal (“without the d”) Cameron, who, in the summer of 1951, is being farmed off to relatives in Wisconsin by his guardian grandmother, a ranch cook, as she prepares to undergo surgery for “female trouble.” The boy travels alone by Greyhound, “the dog bus,” and in his innocent yet wised-up voice he introduces us to the gallery of colorful characters he encounters on the road. These include a hot waitress, a trio of soldiers shipping off to the Korean War, Jack Kerouac (!), an Indian, oilfield roughnecks, hoboes, a parolee with sticky fingers, and a pint-sized sheriff escorting his own step-brother back to jail in handcuffs. On the return westward journey Donal is accompanied by his great uncle, Herman the German, a World War I veteran with a fondness for Karl May’s Western novels, an iffy command of English, and a fear that the FBI will deport him because he’s an illegal alien. Together, Donal and Herman make their picaresque way west, dodging the law, getting into scrapes, and finally joining a team of hobo hay harvesters near the tiny Montana hamlet of Wisdom.

Donal and Doig, the character and his creator, are both born storytellers. After a string of plausible embellishments roll of his tongue, Donal, in an infectious vernacular reminiscent of characters out of Twain or Thomas Berger, gives us this succinct sketch of what he calls “storying,” the source of all fiction:

I was developing a feel for the perimeter of story that could be got away with. A detail or two expanded the bounds to a surprising extent, it seemed like.

So, there it went, again. Out of my mouth something unexpected, not strictly true but harmlessly made up. Storying, maybe it could be called. For I still say it was not so much that I was turning into an inveterate liar around strangers, I simply was overflowing with invention. The best way I can explain it is that I was turned loose from myself.

It is the nasty little sheriff with the handcuffed prisoner who reveals Doig’s version of How the West Was Lost. Rather than dwelling on the horrors that have begun to show themselves by the mid-20th century — the big dams, big ranches, big highways, big mines, big oil fields, big sprawling cities in places where cities have no business existing — Doig instead paints sepia portraits of the little people who are doomed to be either erased or exploited by these outsize abominations: the ranch hands and cooks, librarians, newspaper photographers, copper miners, and the catskinners who operate the heavy machinery that makes all the “progress” possible. (Donal’s father was a catskinner before he and his wife were forever killed by a drunk driver.) While the Greyhound skims alongside the Missouri River, Donal gazes in awe as the sheriff, Carl, and his prisoner/step-brother, Harv, have a conversation:

The bus suddenly humming in a different gear, it dropped down in a dip and showed no signs of coming out, the road following the Missouri River now. The broad river flowing in long lazy curves with thickets of diamond willows and cottonwood trees lining the banks impressed me, but the sight seemed to turn the sheriff’s stomach. Beside him, though, his hand-cuffed seat partner smiled like a crack in stone.

“There ’tis, Carl. What’s left of the river, hmm?”

“Shut up, Harv, I don’t need to hear about it.” Sounding fit to be tied, the sheriff shot a look over to where I still was taking in everything wide-eyed, and growled, “We’re just past Fort Peck Dam, the outlaw is talking about.” His mouth twisted. “Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t think the Missouri River worked good enough by itself, so he stuck in a king hell bastard of a dam,” a new piece of cussing for me to tuck away.

In one ingenious stroke, the sheriff is made to simultaneously embody and disparage the source of the West’s ruin: he, along with Indian reservation police, sheriffs, the FBI, and anyone else wearing a badge, is authority, the sworn enemy of individual freedom; yet he also despises the monstrous things authority has visited on the land, in this case the Fort Peck Dam. In the West, this authority has worn many name tags. In the 19th century it was the Central Pacific railroad, cobbled together by Leland Stanford and his robber baron cronies with the assistance of federal subsidies and land grants. In the Cold War it was the “military-industrial complex.” Lately it’s been Big Agra, hydroelectric dams, mining interests, the real estate boys, the federal government, the aerospace industry.

Doig was a conventional novelist, and he was less interested in these big villains than in the troubles they brought upon their little victims, the lariat proletariat. In his essay “E Unibus Pluram,” David Foster Wallace wondered if there’s any way out of the suffocating loop of knowingness for contemporary American writers. He concluded, “The next literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching…(w)ho treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.”

The operative words in that sentence are untrendy and reverence and conviction, and they beautifully capture Doig’s approach to the writing of fiction. What I liked best about Last Bus to Wisdom is that it’s wise to the ways of the world yet free of the cheap cynicism found in so much writing today, and it’s content with being a conventional novel. Doig’s writing is so post-postmodern that it manages to be both old-school and fresh. That took some daring, and sizable skill.

Sven Birkerts called Doig “a presiding figure in the literature of the American West,” and while that’s certainly true I don’t want to get into the tired question of whether or not Doig was a “regional” writer. He wisely shunned the label and the handcuffs that come with it. As he put it, “I don’t think of myself as a ‘Western’ writer. To me, language — that substance on the page, that poetry under the prose — is the ultimate ‘region,’ the true home, for a writer.”

2.
Few American writers possess a gaze as cool as Joan Didion’s (which is different from calling her gaze “chilly” or “cold”). She has said famously, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Just as famously she has said, “Writers are always selling somebody out.” Something she hasn’t said, to my knowledge, could stand as the guiding tenet of her long and distinguished career as a writer of fiction and journalism: The lies we tell ourselves in order to live are what keep us from being truly alive.

Didion’s 2003 book Where I Was From, a mix of autobiography, history, reportage, and literary criticism, is an unflinching examination of the myths spawned by her native California, what she calls “the local dreamtime.” The past tense of the verb in the book’s title signals that this is to be a work of revisionism.

Didion begins by establishing her California bona fides. Her great-great-great grandmother came west in 1846 with the ill-fated Donner-Reed party, and Didion was born in 1934 in Sacramento, eventually earning a degree in English from the University of California at Berkeley. She will soon turn 81, and she has spent the majority of her life in the state. From an early age she was fed various versions of the crossing stories of her forebears and other early California arrivals, stories built on hardship and danger, loss and fortitude, which would form the basis for something known inside her family as “the code of the West.” Didion, with typically acid humor, distills the code to its three essential mandates: “You were meant, if you were a Californian, to…show spirit, kill the rattlesnake, keep moving.”

When she fixed her cool gaze on the facts, though, she began to see that the bedrock on which the code of the West was built — the nearly sacred notion of unfettered individualism — was actually nothing but sand. “A good deal about California does not, on its own preferred terms, add up,” Didion writes, noting that it is “a state where distrust of centralized government authority has historically passed for an ethic.” But as Didion’s digging reveals, Californians have always leaned on the largess of the federal government. The leaning began with Leland Stanford and his fellow Sacramento shopkeepers when they put together the railroad, with a generous assist from Washington. The leaning continued with the federal subsidies that brought the water that fed such thirsty, unsustainable crops as alfalfa, cotton, and rice — and, in the bargain, enabled Los Angeles to sprawl across miles of once-inhospitable desert. After the elaborate system of dams and levees came the defense contracts and the aerospace industry (“Star Wars,” anyone?), all of it built not on unfettered individualism, but on the broad back of the American taxpayer.

At a young age, Didion began to sense a disconnect between her family’s myths and its actual circumstances, and, by extension, between California’s “dreamtime” and its actual history. In Where I Was From, Didion recalls asking her mother which class the family belonged to. “It’s not a word we use,” her mother replied. “It’s not the way we think.” This leads Didion to muse:

On one level I believed this to be a deliberate misreading of what even a twelve-year-old could see to be the situation and on another level I understood it to be true: it was not the way we thought in California. We believed in fresh starts. We believed in good luck. We believed in the miner who scratched together one last stake and struck the Comstock Lode. We believed in the wildcatter who leased arid land at two and a half cents an acre and brought in Kettleman Hills, fourteen million barrels of crude in its first three years. We believed in all the ways that apparently played-out possibilities could while we slept turn green and golden.

Already at that young age, Didion understood that her family was old California, part of that class known loosely as the gentry. She also sensed that something was lacking from this class, as Tracy Daugherty writes in his new book, The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion: “For all its visibility and influence, the family felt prosaic, muted, sad to Didion, even as a girl. Clerks and administrators: hardly the heroes of old, surviving starvation and blizzards…A whiff of decadence clung to the gentry.”

Eventually, of course, most of the defense contracts dried up and the jobs vanished and the state of California fell on such hard times that it welcomed a boom in prison construction. By now, having dismantled the myths that propped up the bankrupt code of the West, Didion is appalled but hardly surprised by this latest turn of events. “We are seeing one more enthusiastic fall into a familiar California error,” she writes, “that of selling the future of the place we lived to the highest bidder, which was in this instance the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.”

And now, as a final indignity, California — that Eden where alfalfa and cotton and rice once grew, where green lawns and blue swimming pools once carpeted the desert vastness known as Los Angeles — is suffering through a brutal, four-year drought. The New York Times reports that the wealthy Los Angeles enclave of Beverly Hills is among the first to be fined for failing to meet the state’s stringent water-conservation targets. On the day the fines were levied, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency over an infestation of bark beetles that has killed tens of millions of trees during the drought. He is seeking help removing the dead trees from — you guessed it — the federal government. I’m sure Joan Didion was not surprised when she heard the news.

3.
For all their many differences of temperament and style, Edward Abbey and Jim Harrison could agree with Ivan Doig’s sour little sheriff on one thing: the West was lost through environmental degradation, a direct by-product of human greed, and there is no more potent metaphor for this greed than the very American urge to tame the wilderness by building dams. Dams — or, more precisely, the urge to blow them up — drive the plots these two authors’ most indelible novels: Abbey’s cult classic, The Monkey Wrench Gang, which inspired a whole generation of eco-saboteurs; and Harrison’s booze- and drug-addled caper, A Good Day to Die.

The novels have telling similarities. Abbey’s titular gang has an equal-opportunity loathing for billboards, construction machinery, barbed wire, coal trains, strip mines, lumber companies, copper smelters, nuclear power plants, and, above all, the massive Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River, 60 miles north of the Grand Canyon. Harrison’s trio of eco-saboteurs form a lopsided love triangle — two unhinged guys falling in love with the same sexy girl — as they drive west to blow up a non-existent dam in the Grand Canyon, then set their sights on a small earthen dam in Utah that prevents steelhead trout from moving upstream to spawn.

Here’s George Hayduke, the unruliest of the four monkey wrenchers, likening the degradation of the West to the eco-horrors he witnessed as a Green Beret in Vietnam: “When I finally…found out they were trying to do the same thing to the West that they did to that little country over there, I got mad all over again.” And here’s Harrison’s unnamed narrator, hungover, trying to impress a roomful of strangers: “My voice became tight and humorless as I began a tirade against the realtors, land developers and lumber companies. In a few years there wouldn’t be much worth looking at and if anyone in the room planned on having a son there wouldn’t be any rivers or forests left and our sons wouldn’t have any fishing and hunting. What was needed was some sort of Irgun like the Israelis had when they drove out the British. Some men brave enough to blow up dams and machinery.”

These seemingly single-minded people are, in fact, dogged by doubts — doubts that blowing up one dam, or even 100 dams, will change the world; doubts that their motives are lofty; doubts that they even possess tangible motives. As Harrison’s narrator puts it, “It occurred to me that I should question my motives but found that I had none.”

In other words, the trip west is little more than a lark. A similar sense of pointless futility begins to overtake the Monkey Wrench Gang. While there’s no denying that the West has been scarred by these characters’ various nemeses, it becomes apparent as the two novels play out that their crusades are both feckless and doomed. They remind me of the high-minded Occupy Wall Street movement, with its fuzzy distaste for “the 1 percent” and its equally fuzzy refusal to formulate a strategy to bring about actual change. If you’re going to go to all this trouble and risk — sleeping on the streets, getting maced and clubbed by cops, burning billboards, blowing up bridges and dams — shouldn’t you have specific goals and a reasonable chance of realizing them? Otherwise, isn’t it all just posturing?

In the end, Ivan Doig, Joan Didion, Edward Abbey, and Jim Harrison come to very different conclusions about How the West Was Lost, but they share a sense that the loss is as irreversible as it was wrong-headed. The Glen Canyon Dam, a king hell bastard of a dam if there ever was one, stemmed the flow of the Colorado River in order to bring water and cheap electricity to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and other “cities of the plain,” as Abbey called them with a Biblical sneer, putting them on a level with Sodom and Gomorrah. In a crowning irony, the most ardent sponsor of the dam, the arch-conservative Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, eventually came around to admitting that building the $750 million monstrosity had been a mistake. As consolations go, this doesn’t even begin to qualify as small. Lake Powell, with its 1,800 miles of shoreline, still sits there where Glen Canyon used to be. Meanwhile, drought-stricken California is losing tens of millions of trees. No wonder Abbey called Lake Powell “the blue death.”

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Joan Didion, America’s Truth-Teller

“I’m not sure that I have a social conscience,” Joan Didion once said in an interview about her 1983 book, Salvador, about the El Salvadorian civil war. “It’s more an insistence that people tell the truth. The decision to go to El Salvador came one morning at the breakfast table. I was reading the newspaper and it just didn’t make sense.”

This is what separates Joan Didion from the rest of the world. We all wake up to news that makes no sense every day. What, we wonder, is going on with all these white cops shooting black men on our streets? How can it be that we still haven’t closed the prison at Guantanamo Bay? On what planet is Donald Trump a viable candidate for president? We register the answers we receive to these questions as nonsensical, but then we click the next link and go on with our day. Didion, facing her era’s knottiest public puzzle, hopped the next flight to El Salvador.

Salvador, as it happens, was not Didion’s finest hour as a reporter. She spent just 12 days in-country, had little Spanish and less knowledge of the country’s culture and history, and the book she wrote had, by her own admission, “no impact. None. Zero.” But her reasons for writing it offer a revealing window onto her working method and provide her biographer, Tracy Daugherty, with a crucial plot point in the thematic arc for his sprawling biography, The Last Love Song, which comes out this week.

In the 1960s, as Americans battled in the streets over civil rights and the war in Vietnam, Daugherty reminds us, Didion lost faith in the defining narratives of American life. A fifth-generation Californian whose ancestors had crossed the plains in covered wagons, only narrowing missing disaster at Donner Pass, Didion found that the country she lived in had ceased to make sense to her. A popular presidential candidate was shot in a hotel kitchen just miles from where she lived. A newspaper heiress was abducted from her Berkeley apartment and weeks later strapped on an M1 carbine to help her abductors rob banks. A scrawny self-styled guru set up camps in the desert where he persuaded a loosely organized family of runaways to kill a pregnant woman and three friends with steak knives. “I was supposed to have a script and I had mislaid it,” wrote Didion in the title essay of her collection The White Album.

I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequences, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie, but a cutting room experience.

Putting her finger on the sense of dislocation felt by Americans of her generation, raised on John Wayne movies and rousing tales of America’s triumph in the Second World War, made Didion famous, but it also left her at an intellectual and emotional dead-end. This, after all, was the woman who opened The White Album with the words, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” If the stories we tell ourselves no longer make sense, if even the briefest glance at the underlying facts exposes our national and personal narratives to be transparently hollow, how are we to live with ourselves?

In the 1980s, in a series of books that began with Salvador, Daugherty argues, Didion learned to look past the official narrative and focus on the story behind the story, the one found in a close reading of trial transcripts, declassified cables, and the back pages of underground newspapers. “Increasingly, in the 1980s,” Daugherty writes, “Didion’s writing discovered the real American stories not in the scenes, but behind them, in obscure rooms in queer places with unpronounceable names, where our government’s military and economic interests coiled in dark corners.” There, “in the outposts and archives, in the safe houses and bunkers, a logical, continuous, and traceable — if findable — narrative was unfolding all along.”

Didion’s pursuit of the story behind the story lifted her out of her post-1960s malaise and set the stage for a stream of brilliant late-career reportage, much of it written for The New York Review of Books, that peeled away the façade of American political and cultural life, laying out in Didion’s distinctive flat, declarative sentences how things really work. This late run culminated in Didion’s best-selling book, The Year of Magical Thinking, her 2005 memoir of her husband’s death in which she turned her formidable powers of analysis back on her herself, exploring how the lies we tell ourselves can also save us.

The Last Love Song is far too long, devoting hundreds of pages to decades-old Hollywood gossip and exhumations of skeletons in the closets of Didion’s extended family members, but at its core it provides an indispensable guide to understanding not just the value of Didion’s contribution to American literature, but how she pulled it off. Among the pleasures of Daugherty’s portrait is the light he sheds on Didion’s literary education, first at U.C. Berkeley, where she learned the close reading skills that came in so handy later in her career, and then at Vogue in New York, where a first job writing captions for photo spreads taught her how to get the most meaning from the least number of words.

In this age of blogs and YouTube rants, when the length of a piece of prose is determined largely by the amount of time its author can afford to spend writing it for free, we forget how formative the demands of writing for a physical page were for writers of the print era. At Vogue, Didion’s photo captions were a kind of fashion-plate haiku, “blocks of text, thirty lines long, each featuring sixty-four characters.” Didion’s editor would have her write 300 to 400 words, and then, attacking the page with a blunt pencil, whittle it down to the most evocative 50. “It is easy to make light of this kind of ‘writing,’” Didion later said. “I do not make light of it at all: it was at Vogue that I learned a kind of ease with words…a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy, but as tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page.”

From caption writer, Didion climbed the masthead at Vogue while taking assignments from publications as varied as Mademoiselle and The National Review and writing her first novel, Run, River, at night and on weekends. These were the fat years of the Age of Print, when television was still in its infancy and the G.I. Bill had just put a generation through college. At Time, where her husband John Gregory Dunne worked when Didion was at Vogue, “waiters from the Tower Suite on top of the Time-Life Building rolled in buffet carts with beef Wellington and chicken divan and sole and assorted appetizers and vegetables and desserts.” Liquor was served in “prodigious quantities” and hotel rooms “were available for those suburbanites who had missed their last train, or would so claim to their wives when in fact all they wished was an adulterous snuggle with a back-of-the-book researcher.”

The largesse of the print-era gravy train meant that when Didion and Dunne moved to California, they not only could count on a national audience for the columns they wrote for Life and The Saturday Evening Post, but that they could afford to do so while living at the edge of an estate overlooking the sea a few miles south of Los Angeles. In fact, in the 50 years since Didion left her editor’s desk at Vogue in 1964, decades in which she and Dunne lived in some of the toniest neighborhoods in New York and L.A., neither of them ever held a job other than writer.

Of course, the economic bounty provided by glossy magazines and Hollywood script deals would have meant nothing if Didion had nothing to say, as is demonstrated, perhaps unintentionally, by Daugherty’s exhaustive chronicling of the checkered careers of John Gregory Dunne and his brother Dominick. Daugherty’s tales of the Brothers Dunne, along with that of Didion’s sad, alcoholic adopted daughter Quintana, who died of acute pancreatitis in 2005, comprise a sort of shadow narrative in The Last Love Song, one that bloats the book to more than 700 pages and occasionally threatens to overwhelm the central story.

But if Daugherty makes too much of John Gregory Dunne’s angst over his mediocrity and Dominick Dunne’s long road from cokehead movie producer to closeted bisexual celebrity crime journalist, one comes away from The Last Love Song with a renewed sense of how rare true talent is, what a gift it is — for the bearer, and for her audience. John Gregory Dunne was every bit as committed to his craft as his his wife, and Dominick Dunne far eclipsed her gift for self-reinvention, but only Didion possessed the luck of serving as a human tuning fork for the anxieties of her age and the dogged curiosity to pursue those anxieties wherever they led.

No More Lies: The Great Second-Half 2015 Nonfiction Preview

Last week, our crack team of literary prognosticators gave you the early scoop on 82 of the most anticipated books due out in the next six months, but most of those books were fiction. Today, we offer a preview of some of the most compelling nonfiction titles set to arrive in bookstores between now and December.

The big preview already included write-ups of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Last Mass by Jamie Iredell, The Lost Landscape by Joyce Carol Oates, Behind the Glass Wall by Aleksandar Hemon, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell, The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson, and Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens by László Krasznahorkai. Below you will find 14 more upcoming books on topics ranging from modern-day witches to the science of creating a catchy pop tune, along with biographies of Joan Didion and George Custer and histories of post-Katrina New Orleans and the 2013 gay-rights ruling that paved the way for last month’s Supreme Court decision allowing gay marriage in all 50 states.

July
Rethinking Narcissism by Craig Malkin: “Narcissist” may well have replaced “chauvinist” as the go-to blanket insult of the post-millennial age. Malkin, a Harvard Medical School psychologist, would like to change that, and help Americans see the positive side of self-admiration. Most people’s personalities, he argues, fall somewhere on a spectrum ranging from pure selflessness to laughable grandiosity. Those whose narcissism is extreme can be sociopaths, but those in the middle range possess a strong — and healthy — sense of self. It wouldn’t be pop social science without some news you can use, so Malkin offers tips on “how to promote healthy narcissism in our partners, our children, and ourselves.”

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan: Raised in California and Hawaii, Finnegan has journeyed through the U.S., South Pacific, Australia, Asia, and Africa in search of the perfect wave. In this memoir, Finnegan, now a New Yorker staff writer, relates tales of life in a whites-only school gang in Honolulu, riding the surf off an uninhabited island in Fiji, and his further travels through Samoa, Tonga, and Indonesia. Barbarian Days is being marketed as “an old-school adventure story, an intellectual autobiography, a social history, a literary road movie, and an extraordinary exploration of the gradual mastering of an exacting, little understood art.”

August
The Last Love Song by Tracy Daugherty: Pioneering New Journalist Joan Didion gets her first full-length biography from the author of Hiding Man, the 2009 biography of Donald Barthelme. The emphasis here is on full-length: The Last Love Song clocks in at 752 pages. But then Didion has led an usually full life, from promotional copywriter at Vogue, to novelist, to tough-minded chronicler of the Age of Aquarius, to screenwriter, to tough-minded chronicler of aging in The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights.

No House to Call My Home by Ryan Berg: In the U.S., according to a recent study from the UCLA  School of Law, 43 percent of LGBT homeless youth were forced out by their parents because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Berg encounters the raw reality behind this statistic when he takes a job in a group home for LGBT teenagers, many of them minorities. As he works to wean his charges away from sex work and drug abuse, he comes face to face with a system that focuses on warehousing kids rather than on helping them develop skills and relationships that could lead them to successful adult lives.

Katrina by Gary Rivlin: Ten years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005, flooding 80 percent of homes in New Orleans, the city is still recovering from the human and architectural damage the storm wrought. In this deeply reported new book, Rivlin, who witnessed the immediate aftermath of the hurricane as a reporter for The New York Times, details the perfect storm of natural disaster, neglected infrastructure, and centuries-old structural racism that made Katrina so devastating.

September
South Toward Home by Margaret Eby: Today, we seem to prefer our literary critics to leaven their critical insights with healthy doses of travel writing. As Elif Batuman did for Russian literature in The Possessed and Olivia Laing did for alcoholic writers in The Trip to Echo Spring, so Eby does for Southern writers in her second book. A displaced Southerner now living in Brooklyn, Eby peers into William Faulkner’s liquor cabinet in Oxford, Miss., and interviews the man who feeds the peafowl at Andalusia, the rural Georgia farm where Flannery O’Connor wrote her most famous stories, all in an effort to pin down the elusive quality that makes a Southern writer Southern.

October
Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations by Greil Marcus: The longtime Rolling Stone critic traces the history of American music through three examples of “commonplace songs,” songs that convey the sense of having no single author. In this book drawn from his 2013 Massey Lectures delivered at Harvard, Marcus discusses Bascom Lunsford’s 1928 “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” Geeshie Wiley’s 1930 “Last Kind Words Blues,” and Bob Dylan’s 1964 “Ballad of Hollis Brown” to examine how a song that sounds as though it was written by no one can speak to everyone.

The Song Machine by John Seabrook: Can’t get that Katy Perry song out of your head? Seabroook, a reliably entertaining staff writer at The New Yorker, ventures behind the glamorous façade of the music industry to learn how teams of specialists working in digital labs create melodies brimming with “hooks,” musical burrs designed to snag your ears every seven seconds. Traveling from New York to Los Angeles and from Stockholm to Korea, Seabrook traces the growth of manufactured hits from their origins in 1990s Sweden to their omnipresence on today’s pop charts.

Witches of America by Alex Mar: When we hear the word “witch,” most of us think of black hats and broomsticks. Mar, a former editor at Rolling Stone, goes past the Halloween clichés to provide an inside look at Paganism, a nature-worshipping, polytheistic religion practiced by some one million Americans. After participating in dozens of Pagan rituals attended by a wide cross-section of society, ranging from single moms to war veterans and computer programmers, Mar comes away from her five-year journey into the occult with an unexpected take on faith in post-millennial America.

Hemingway in Love by A.E. Hotchner: In the late 1940s, at the apex of his fame, Ernest Hemingway befriended a young writer named A.E. Hotchner. The friendship has proven lucrative for Hotchner, who is best known for his 1966 biography Papa Hemingway, and valuable for readers hungering for an unvarnished glimpse at the intimate life of America’s master prose stylist. Now 95, Hotchner recounts his last conversations with Hemingway in 1961 — conversations Hotchner says he kept secret for decades out of respect for Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary. Just weeks before his suicide, Hemingway unburdened himself to Hotchner about the romantic dalliances that ended his marriage to his first wife, Hadley, in 1920s Paris, and about the many later macho escapades that made him a legend.

Custer’s Trials by T.J. Stiles: Who was George Custer before he led his troops into the most ignominious defeat in American military history in the Battle of the Little Bighorn? Stiles, who won a Pulitzer for his last book, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, follows Custer’s public life as a soldier in the Civil War and American frontier, and offers glimpses of his private life in his tumultuous marriage to his highly educated wife, Libby. Stiles’s first book, Jesse James: The Last Rebel of the Civil War, sifted the truth from the tall tales about another legendary 19th-century American. Look for more of the same here.

Then Comes Marriage by Roberta Kaplan, with Lisa Dickey: Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer had been a couple for more than 40 years, but when Spyer died, the federal government refused to recognize their marriage, forcing Windsor to pay a huge estate tax bill. Enter litigator Roberta Kaplan, who, along with the ACLU, took Windsor’s case all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 2013 issued a landmark ruling declaring the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, thus paving the way for the more recent ruling granting gay couples the right to marry in all 50 states. A perfect wedding gift for the lawyer in your life, gay or straight, planning to get married this fall.

November
St. Marks Is Dead by Ada Calhoun: Once the site of Colonial Dutch Director-General Peter Stuyvesant’s pear orchard, St. Marks Place, three short blocks in the heart of Manhattan’s East Village, later came to exemplify downtown cool for generations of hippies, artists, and revolutionaries. Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk played jazz there, at The Five-Spot. Punk rockers like the Ramones and Debbie Harry shopped there, at Trash and Vaudeville. Radical feminist Shulamith Firestone raised consciousnesses there. Calhoun, herself a native of St. Marks Place, profiles local denizens from anarchist Emma Goldman to white-boy rappers the Beastie Boys in this history of the iconic street organized around pivotal moments when critics declared “St. Marks is dead.”

Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker: Anyone who has watched Parker work her lip-rippling charms on stage or screen could bet she would be whip-smart and funny, but who knew America’s favorite TV pot dealer had a literary streak? Here Parker tries a novel take on the celebrity memoir, styled as a series of letters to men, real and imagined, who have shaped her life. To judge from early reactions on social media, the people who didn’t expect to like the book because it was by a famous actress liked it, while those who picked it up because it was by a famous actress came away bored and perplexed — a good sign.

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