Susanna Moore is best known for her critically acclaimed novels—complex and compelling works like In the Cut and My Old Sweetheart. Now, Moore’s Light Years is a shimmering look at the early life of this cherished novelist. Taking the form of a Commonplace Book, it mixes reminiscences with passages from famous works of literature that were formative in her younger years. Born in Hawai’i at a time when the islands were separated from the U.S. mainland by five days’ ship travel, Moore was raised in a secluded paradise of water, light, and color. As a child she spent endless days holed up with a bundle of books while the sound of the ocean and the calls of her brothers and sister drifted toward her through the palm grove. All around her, Moore saw flashes of the ocean described in those pages: a force of kaleidoscopic beauty and romantic possibility, but with an undercurrent of unfathomable darkness. In Light Years: A Girlhood in Hawai’i, she weaves reminiscences of her childhood with some of her favorite pieces of literature—excerpts from Robinson Crusoe, Moby-Dick, Treasure Island, Kon-Tiki, To the Lighthouse, and many others.
Susanna Moore grew up in the 1950s and 60s on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Many locals considered her and her family "haole", a white & privileged family living in a fine home staffed with servants. Moore writes of attending cotillion classes at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Her mother struggled with mental illness and sadly passed away when Moore was only 12 years old.
That's about the gist of what I learned from this super short (less than 200 pages) "memoir" of hers. I've heard of Susanna Moore as a writer but have not picked up any of her novels yet. I stumbled upon this at a discount sale one day and was intrigued mainly because my grandmother lived in Hawaii for a time (also where she met my grandfather) and her stories of island life always captured my attention as a child (have yet to see it for myself though). I was hoping for something similar from this book.
So that's where we run into the confusion with the excerpts. Moore writes, "I began to keep a journal about the sea by copying passages from the books I was reading..." but that's about the only explanation the reader gets for what follows: the large majority of this book just being long excerpts of OTHER people's work. I didn't have an issue with that by itself so much, but more with the fact that the excerpts have little to no preface. Other than many of them having the "sea" theme, there's not much explained as to WHAT about these fragments of books was so compelling to her. What about these passages specifically spoke to her? I would have been interested in those stories but no such luck. I ended up flipping past these pages as much of it was stuff I've already read over the course of my life.
That these excerpts make up the bulk of the book is what annoyed me so, rather than Moore sharing more of her OWN stories. If I pick up this book, I don't want an anthology of others, I want to hear about HER experiences, as the title promises. There is a little bit of that here, just not enough. Though there is a portion that I found interesting where she discusses the issue of racism running throughout the islands that has spanned for generations.
"It was a hierarchical, snobbish, and quietly racist society... there was a fairly unconscious racism all around us..." but then it turns weird because in some ways her words starts to sound as if she's trying to make it seem okay because you know, it's just how it was...
Yeah, in short... not all that impressed with this. Felt a bit like a lazy, thrown-together excuse for a book.
Several days before Christmas 2003, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion saw their only daughter, Quintana, fall ill with what seemed at first flu, then pneumonia, then complete septic shock. She was put into an induced coma and placed on life support. Days later–the night before New Year's Eve–the Dunnes were just sitting down to dinner after visiting the hospital when John Gregory Dunne suffered a massive and fatal coronary. In a second, this close, symbiotic partnership of forty years was over. Four weeks later, their daughter pulled through. Two months after that, arriving at LAX, she collapsed and underwent six hours of brain surgery at UCLA Medical Center to relieve a massive hematoma. This powerful book is Didion's attempt to make sense of the "weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness . . . about marriage and children and memory . . . about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself."
In the year 2003, Joan Didion and husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne, receive word that their daughter, Quintana, has been rushed to the ICU (on Christmas Day, no less). Quitana had been battling a severe case of pneumonia when her condition had suddenly turned septic. Just a few days later, December 30th, Dunne and Didion are settling into their dinner meal when Dunne suffers a massive, fatal coronary right at the dinner table.
By October 2004, Joan Didion decides to start journaling some of her thoughts since experiencing all this pain and loss, this journal being the seed that would eventually become this book, The Year Of Magical Thinking. Here, Didion thinks on moments over the course of her forty year marriage to Dunne. Moments where she now, in retrospect, believes there were warning signs of the grief that was to come. As far back as 1987, she recalls, Dunne had expressed fears of premature death. By 2003, what would end up being the year of his death, Dunne had developed a long history of heart trouble, even having a pacemaker installed. Numerous times that year he had said he felt sure he was dying, but Didion admits she dismissed these moments as him just having momentary bouts of depression.
Like most people trying to cope with the sudden loss of a loved one, Didion struggles to navigate through feelings of guilt, that sense that you could have done something more to save them. She even toys with the idea that she can still reverse the outcome of the events. But hey, don't judge. It's wild what grief can do to an otherwise seemingly sane mind.
Didion also shares her feelings on being a mother having to witness her child suffering in illness and feeling helpless to fix it. While Didion's passages regarding her husband read strangely distanced in tone to me, it was these moments where she talks on Quintana that touched me much more. How awful that must have been for her to witness her daughter pull through brutal pneumonia and septic shock only to improve a bit before suffering a hematoma, pretty much putting the poor girl's health struggle back at square one!
This book didn't land quite as perfectly for me as it did for a lot of other readers. That could be, in part at least, to the fact that I often don't do well with books -- either fiction or non -- that are written in a stream of consciousness style. As I mentioned earlier with some of the passages that speak on Didion's husband, the writing, at times, had a distanced feel to me. I acknowledge that grief can often bring on a certain sense of numbness and detachment from the world, but from time to time, this just read a little too arm's length to me, alternately reminding me of either a police report snapshot of events or perhaps a college paper being written on the theme of melancholy.
But that's not to say I got nothing from this book. There were definitely passages that resonated with me, maybe moreso in that I read this the same year I lost my mother. That said, I am a little confused as to where the "magical thinking" comes in? Well written, no doubt, but it struck me as just a general sort of grief memoir rather than the life-changing work so many have touted it to be.
* Author Joan Didion has worked as a writer for both VOGUE and LIFE magazines
* There are a few spoilers for other books to be aware of in this book: namely her husband's novels DUTCH SHEA, JR. and NOTHING LOST, but also the play ALCESTIS and the film ROBIN & MARIAN starring Audrey Hepburn and Sean Connery.
I have no idea quite how to rate this book so I'm going with 3.5 stars. My first impulse was 4 because I thoroughly enjoyed it, but then I finished it, sat back and actually thought. Most of the plot wouldn't have happened if the main character Jazz hadn't been such a petulant asshole, and pretty much everything is her fault. It's hard to feel sympathy for those kinds of characters, the ones that keep making terrible life choices over and over and never seem to learn. And then in the end get away Scott free. Talk about maddening.
But the writing was well done, the plot moved along at nice clip, and the science seemed sound. Not too much over the top like in the original Jurassic Park books where I wanted to gouge out my eyes every time Malcolm talked. I just wish Weir had dialed it down on the bitch scale a bit because Jazz damn near ruined everything and seemed to think she was entitled to no punishment. Talk about arrogant.
P.S. early in my marriage we had a black pug named Artemis. He was a needy shit but we loved him.