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A Book Of Common Prayer (1995)

A Book of Common Prayer (1995)
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3.81 of 5 Votes: 3
ISBN
0679754865 (ISBN13: 9780679754862)
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English
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vintage international
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A Book Of Common Prayer (1995)
A Book Of Common Prayer (1995)

About book: A Book of Common Prayer, although it is Joan Didion's third novel, is a relatively early book (1977) for she is still working today in 2012. What I enjoy most about it is what I also loved about her later book Democracy : a distinctive style that orchestrates and shapes, using white space as silence. She herself has written about her fixation on arrangements of words, on sentences themselves. Didion also communicates essentials about characters through a focus on externals: actions, words spoken, setting, objects, appearances. A $600 handbag with a broken clasp, for instance, speaks about the main character here: Charlotte Douglas. In both books Didion creates a special tone of narration too, that of an intelligent and insightful observer.. It is an investigative voice, of someone who knows instinctively that her presence colors what she sees. For the narrator is a woman, but with almost nothing of conventional "womanliness" or, certainly, "femininity" as that word is used to imply shallowness, timidity, giddiness, or prying. It is fascinating how seldom both narrator and main character are women. In Democracy I often forgot the gender of the narrator, or rather, and more interestingly, I would slip into the peculiar relationship with reading in which narration just "is" male after a long history of reading books almost exclusively by men: the narrator is a sidekick, a Watson, a historian or investigator like a Marlow, or unnamed and only male only because the author is.In Common Prayer, the narrator is definitely a character; she has a name, a class, a singular history, and family relationships with other characters; still, she remains free of the feminine. A 60-year-old widow with extensive financial control of a wealthy family in the small oligarchy of a Central American country, she drily regrets her inability to like her adult son very much. We learn that she renounced a career in anthropology because (is this a Didion trope?) it became meaningless: "Let me go further," she says. "I did not know why I did or did not do anything at all." So she married the elder son of a planter family in the fictional Boca Grande (maybe modeled on El Salvador, which Didion will later visit at the height of the death squads and atrocities of Roberto D'Aubuisson in 1982). All of this is disclosed early in tidy unemotional prose.To Boca Grande comes Charlotte Douglas, mother of an 18-year-old daughter and owner of the said $600 purse, a particularly vacuous presence at first. Although tourists are not uncommon, Charlotte catches the attention of the narrator Grace Strasser Mendana, partly because Charlotte's visa is on a "special-attention" U.S. State Department list.Here is how the book begins:ttI will be her witness.ttThat would translate sere su testigo.ttt.t.t.t.ttHere is what happened: she left one man, she left a second man, shettraveled again with the first; she let him die alone. She lost one childtto 'history' and another to 'complications'. . . .. ttt.t.t.t.ttShe died, hopeful. In summary. So you know the story. Of course thetstory had extenuating circumstances, weather, cracked sidewalks andtparegorina, but only for the living. That this summary is entirely inadequate is perhaps Grace's point; as anthropologist she had "stopped believing observable activity defined anthropos." Interestingly, much of what happens to fill in the story of Charlotte Douglas occurs far from the narrator's observation, again as in Democracy. The scenes that are background, the cracked sidewalks, the weather, and especially the extenuating circumstances are written in lively present-action dramatization, realistically, word for word of blistering exchanges between witty educated persons. Little time is spent on what Charlotte felt or thought; Didion writes mostly what Charlotte says and does, what those around her do and say, but we can definitely surmise. "Charlotte did not open her eyes." "Charlotte stood up." 'She's overwrought,' Charlotte heard Warren say as she fled the room." The powerful hook of the story, especially in 1977 on the west coast after Patty Hearst and SLA news, is how Charlotte "lost one child to history": two FBI men arrive at her home in San Francisco one morning and show her a picture of her eighteen-year-old daughter and four others setting a pipe bomb at San Francisco's Transamerica building, after which the five hijacked a plane and disappeared. The scene in which Charlotte receives this news affected me deeply as she tries to connect this "pitiless revolutionist" they talk about with her recollections of her child. She insists they are wrong; her daughter is skiing at Squaw Valley "Or so Charlotte tried to tell the fat FBI man." When Marin's father (the first man she left) arrives in San Francisco, Charlotte's tensions ratchet up to higher gear. Later Grace will try to get Charlotte to Boca Grande before "all hell breaks loose," for revolution is a hot topic not only in the U.S. : Grace's family will play different sides in a particularly chaotic upheaval there. The book parallels the chaos in Charlotte's life before she arrives in Central America with a full picture of the utter dysfunctions in Boca Grande's ruling party—neurotic wives, sociopath brothers (only two of four survive), their mistresses, their boredom, their luxury, their power, and their "touchiness." Much is also made of Charlotte's class: "as a child of comfortable family in the temperate zone," she took for granted orthodontics, living grandparents, ballet lessons and how to care for "flat silver." In her prayers she had asked that "it" turn out all right and fully expected "it" would. "Until later," Didion adds. She had faith in "thrift, industry, and the judicial system, of progress and education, and in the generally upward spiral of history." But, Grace observes: "She was immaculate of history, innocent of politics."A word more about style and structure: it is written in undesignated parts One through Six, major segments quite different in length, style and structure. Part Three, for instance, is only ten pages long with three smaller segments. The Sixth part is also ten pages long, but it has five sections, ranging from a half-page to just over two pages long, and with ample white space between parts. Other parts are longer: 87, 68, and 35 pages each, with six to nineteen sections. The structural variety reads like a screenplay—is it incidental that Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne worked on a number of movies and were Hollywood Insiders? There are long leisurely realistic scenes, long lively tense scenes, short takes, flashbacks, fades and jump cuts. Moments leap out. Scenes! Here, however, words themselves take on weight and tactile presence without actors.It would be fascinating to compare this book with Margaret Atwood's Bodily Harm. In Atwood's book the suffering of the people of a Caribbean island in revolution is the fulcrum driving a Canadian woman to grow up and face herself. In Didion's tropical country there seem to be no people, no populace. The "guerillas" are an explicit joke, pawns of different factions of the ruling class. They will be "picked off one by one," but they are never people. Grace doesn't notice that Charlotte is trying to be perhaps one of the people through volunteering at a clinic. Grace only tells us about the people of her class, those of Charlotte's class. And Didion doesn't explain Charlotte's motivation either. In Didion's Salvador (1982) which I am reading at the moment she will write of "the population that make $750 per capita." But they will not really exist, I fear. For her, or for her reader.In George Orwell's essay "Marrakech"(1938-39) he writes about the day he finally noticed what he'd been seeing every day but not seeing: a string of tiny old women carrying heavy loads of firewood past his lodgings. He muses that he had noticed at once upon his arrival in Morocco the "abominable overloading of small donkeys," noticed, and been shocked, incensed. But, he points out, [European] visitors never do really "see" brown people, a blindness that all colonial empires depend upon. How else could tourists visit Africa and Asia (in the U.S., I would add Mexico and Central America) except to go and surround themselves with their own kind, in privileged isolation, without seeing the lives, and the deaths, around them?I think Didion misses some of this sensibility in her Grace-Strasser-like cynicism, neurosis, privilege, isolation—whatever it is. But she writes with keen insight into the suffering of women in the privileged classes, and her books are beautifully orchestrated and somewhat terrifying.

I hardly know what to say about this book. My only other exposure to Didion was her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, exploring grief and marriage--which was brilliant and beautiful. In A Book of Common Prayer, Didion employs a narrator, Grace (a woman nearing death from pancreatic cancer), who describes the life of Charlotte, a woman whom she encountered in Central America during a violent time of political unrest. This was yet another book to be made into a movie this year, and although it was not easy to read, nor were the characters even remotely likeable, I look forward to seeing it on a screen. The conversations of these people are just incredible--almost Tarantino-like in humor, and randomness, and each person has a clipped, biting, unique-to-their-character quality. It's a story about memory and the revision of history, delusion, loss, power, and complex humans and relationships. At least from what I could tell. I had that distinct impression again that I'm not smart enough to "get" this book without sitting in a classroom with smarter people who could help discuss it.Some quotes:"I understood what Warren Bogart could do to Charlotte Douglas because I met him, later, once in New Orleans: he had the look of a man who could drive a woman like Charlotte right off her head. I have no idea what I mean by 'a woman like Charlotte.' I suppose I mean only a woman so convinced of the danger that lies in the backward glance. I might have said a woman so unstable, but I told you, Charlotte performed the tracheotomy, Charlotte dropped the clinic apron at the colonel's feet. I am less and less convinced that the word 'unstable' has any useful meaning except insofar as it describes a chemical compound.""She would hang on by the usual routines, fill in whole days with by the usual numbers. The problem was that Charlotte did not know that any of this was 'usual.' Charlotte had no idea that anyone else had ever been afflicted by what she called the 'separateness.' And because she did not she fought it, she denied it, she tried to forget it, and, during those first several weeks after Marin disappeared and obliterated all the numbers, spent many days without getting out of bed. I think I have never known anyone who led quite so unexamined a life."Here's an example of the dialogue--a conversation between Charlotte and her ex-husband in the bedroom she shares with her current husband:She did not want Warren to be in any room where she slept with Leonard, did not want him to see Leonard's Seconal and her hand cream together on the table by the bed, did not want to see him examining the neckties that Leonard had that morning tried, rejected, and left on the bed. In fact she did not want him to see the bed at all."We don't have anything in common anymore." Warren picked up a yellow silk tie and knotted it around his collar. "You and me. Leonard won't miss this, he's jaundiced enough. You ever noticed? He's got bad color?""One thing we have in common is that we both agree that as far as having anything in common goes--" Charlotte broke off. She was watching a tube of KY jelly on the table by the bed. She did not see any way to move it without attracting Warren's attention. "As far as having anything in common goes we don't have anything. In common.""You sound like you had a stroke. You had a stroke?""I happen to have a headache.""You mean I happen to give you a headache.""I mean I want you to leave this room.""Don't worry, I'll leave this room." Warren sat on the bed, picked up the tube of KY jelly and put it in the drawer. "I don't like this room."
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Reviews
Suzanne
I first heard of this when I read The End of Your Life Book Club . The author's mother loved this book, and I couldn't put that out of my mind. So, when I walked into my local library a few weeks ago, and saw it sitting on a shelf as I walked in the door, it was almost as if there were a golden shaft of light shining down on it. I picked it up this morning and thought it might be a quick read. I was right. The book is narrated by Grace, an American woman living in the fictional country of Boca Grande, which is constantly torn apart by revolutions - one occurs so frequently, they have a countdown for it, when it begins. Grace is focused mostly on Charlotte, another American woman who shows up in Boca Grande one day, for no real reason and without knowing anyone. Charlotte has woven a fiction for herself, and she often seems to forget what really happened in her life prior to arriving in Boca Grande. Grace and Charlotte become something resembling friends, but Charlotte's behavior is so odd, that no one can truly get close to her. The book is written beautifully and in a spare prose that wastes no time letting you know all is not as it seems with this beautiful American lady. I really liked this book, not necessarily loved it, but it was definitely a good book. It seems everything is connected in life, and this book exemplifies that beautifully.
orsodimondo
IL LIBRO DELLE PREGHIEREIl libro delle preghiere comuni è il testo base della comunione anglicana. Mi chiedo se le preghiere comuni sono quelle più semplici, o invece comuni sta per collettive. E mi chiedo cosa abbia a che fare con questo romanzo. Domanda che rimane senza risposta, un grosso punto interrogativo dalla prima all’ultima pagina. Mai incontrato titolo più enigmatico. Mi ha colpito la sensazione che in questo racconto di una donna narrato da un’altra donna, Didion sappia esattamente cosa scrivere, non perda tempo, ma sappia sfruttare quello a sua disposizione, senza eccesso, né di risparmio né di prodigalità.Didion trattiene l’emozione, anche se il melodramma è alla base del mondo che descrive: si adopra per risparmiare parole e scegliere quelle sottotono facendo ampio ricorso all’ironia. Sa rimanere distaccata mentre penetra a fondo. Eppure l’emozione mi arriva, in certi momenti perfino struggente. Ghiaccio bollente, è la sintesi che mi viene alla mente per descrivere questa sensazione.Due donne protagoniste, molto diverse. La narratrice, prossima alla morte per malattia, che sembra saperla lunga, sul mondo la vita e la gente, ma non è mai saccente, mai un passo avanti agli altri: anzi, sembra preferire restare un passo indietro, per poter studiare meglio il proprio interlocutore - privilegia ascoltare piuttosto che spargere il sale della sua esperienza. È di rara onniscenza riguardo ai fatti che coinvolgono la protagonista, la fica norteamericana.E Charlotte, intorno a cui gira la storia del romanzo – Charlotte così ingenua da credere che geografia e storia universali siano ricalcate sulla California, e gli US in genere. Ma anche nella sua ignoranza, Charlotte è innocente, quasi vittima. E’ una preda, circondata da mariti che non brillano per empatia e comprensione, è una madre respinta dalla figlia cui forse ha sottratto attenzione una volta di troppo.Chi non ha più nulla di innocente, chi ha perso completamente ogni traccia d’innocenza è il mondo: nello specifico, il continente americano, il mondo nuovo. È successo già tutto: l’assassinio di JFK e poi di suo fratello Bob, di Malcom X e Martin Luther King – il Vietnam è un carnaio senza uscita – Charles Manson – i figlio dei fiori si sono trasformati in ben altro – l’esercito Simbionese ha già rapito e cooptato Patricia Hearst (Marin, la figlia terrorista di Charlotte?) – l’11 settembre, il primo 11 settembre, il golpe cileno – e mentre Didion scriveva e stava per pubblicare, la guerra sporca argentina inventava i voli della morte e moltiplicava i desaparecidos…Didion mi ha riportato con forza agli anni Settanta. Come leggere un libro di Vidal. Come vedere quei film surreali dai dialoghi assurdi scritti da Jules Feiffer dove le star erano Elliott Gould, Alan Arkin, Donald Sutherland…Joan Didion è stata una sorpresa che non mi aspettavo, e ancora faccio fatica a chiarire la mia reazione, il mio pensiero. Si dice che le cose migliori scritte da Didion siano di non-fiction, prima di tutto di giornalismo. Io ho cominciato assaggiando proprio la fiction: vuol dire che mi aspettano tante altre belle scoperte.http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2651744/?...
Sharonlee
Wonderful book. Didion is a genius. It's interesting to read something that was written so long ago, it seems another lifetime--and yet I was alive when it was written. The times were a-changing and the world that they lived in was so very different from what it became by the time I was an adult.At some point, I was struck by some similarities between this book and another book that I really loved, Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett. Neither is a real, named place (although Bel Canto seems to be based on something that happened in a South American country sometime during the 1990s, IIRC), but there's an evocation, especially in this book, of an equatorial country and its heat and poverty and corruption that makes me feel like I've been there, even though I'm as removed geographically from anyplace like that as I am from that period of time.Anyway, glad I finally got to read it. It was a "found" book--someone put it out on their stoop in a box of other freebies. I'll have to think about letting it go the same way.
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