Admittedly, I haven’t been writing any essays lately (with one exception), but I have been reading some good ones and recently watched the Netflix documentary on the writer Joan Didion. Here’s a quick rundown:
Jonathan Franzen’s “Is It Too Late to Save the World” in The Guardian (November 7, 2017) Albeit rambling and containing enough material for three pieces (the role of essays in the social media world, climate change and birding in Ghana during the 2016 election) you can be sure that Franzen’s take on events is personal, insightful, and misanthropic in tone. Franzen’s collection How to Be Alone (2002) is one of my favorite collections of essays.
In preparation for an upcoming visit to New Orleans, I just finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas (2013) that she co-edited with documentary filmmaker Rebecca Snedeker. This book is a series of essays and corresponding maps about the Crescent City and I read it in part because I am preparing for a trip there before the end of the year. Regular readers of this blog know that I have been a longtime admirer of Solnit’s work. (Just type her name in the search bar and look out!) She recently posted a piece in The Guardian too. “One Year On, Donald Trump Is Still an Illegitimate President” does points out how the system is in place to disenfranchise millions of voters and the perils of social media with respect to future elections as well.
And one other note, Unfathomable City makes another sobering note in the wake of the natural disasters in Florida, Houston, and Puerto Rico. If Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005 (and then followed by the BP oil spill in 2010) is any indication, please note recoveries can take years and forever change a place’s self-identity. (Saying "Be Strong" isn't going to be enough.) The map from the book shown above is entitled: "Oil and Water: Extracting Petroleum and Exterminating Nature."
Netflix has recently released a documentary on essayist Joan Didion entitled “The Center Will Not Hold”, which was directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne. I have been reading Joan Didion since my senior seminar on New Journalism in college in the 1970s and I can recall one my fellow students writing her thesis on Didion and imitating Didion’s dry, detached narrative style, which comes across in the film as well. (I opted for a Thomas Pynchon writing style in college– a bad choice which set me back 20 years as a writer.) The film mentions three of her books in detail: Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), The White Album (1979) and her book The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) on grief surrounding the death of her husband the writer John Gregory Dunne.
I am still that surprised me is that anyone would do a film about an essayist. Who’s next? Wilfred Sheed*?
*Brief anecdotes about Franzen and Didion appear in my The Bookshopper: A Life in Review (2009), but there is nothing about Sheed who is a fine essayist.