The Year of Magical Thinking
From one of America’s iconic writers, a stunning book of electric honesty and passion. Joan Didion explores an intensely personal yet universal experience: a portrait of a marriage–and a life, in good times and bad–that will speak to anyone who has ever loved a husband or wife or child. 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.”
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Notice where the author begins to narrate her story. It is clear that important events have already happened that we as readers don't yet know the details of. The author is using a specific technique beginning the narration "in medias res." Watch the short video below to learn why authors choose to begin stories in medias res. (This annotation contains a video)
Here, Didion gives the reader insight into herself as a character in her memoir. We see how important writing has been to her identity. We also see here how she has struggled with the best way to convey the story to her readers. Not only does this give the reader insight into her character, but it also indicates strategies we will have to utilize as readers. When she writes that she will "show you simultaneously all the frames of memory that come to me now," we know as readers that this story will not unfold straight from beginning to end, but rather will jump around the chronology of events.
The image of the fire helps to construct what type of mood?
What does the social worker's response reveal about the attitude of Didion?
Did you know that you can look up any word in the text of the book or the text of the questions and answers? Just click (or press on mobile devices) the word you want to define and hold until the blue text selector pops up. When you release, a define option will appear. Since it's so easy to look up words, make sure you use this feature frequently. Is there a word on this page you need to look up?
Here Didion interrupts the events unfolding in the story's present with events and details from the past. This is called a flashback. Watch the short video below to learn more about how flashbacks contribute to the story. (This annotation contains a video)
The priest uses a metaphor to convey the experience of mourning. Conveying complex emotions to readers can be difficult. Metaphors, and other forms of figurative language, help to communicate abstract feelings and experiences effectively. Watch the following video that explains metaphor. Then, as you continue reading, look carefully for other metaphors the author uses to convey her experience of grief and mourning to her readers. (This annotation contains a video)
To Didion, the word "obituary" connotes
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) was a neurologist. He is most commonly known for developing psychoanalysis, an approach to understanding the mind and treating mental illnesses through unpacking the symbols and associations revealed by the unconscious mind through analyzing dreams and other forms of associative thinking. (This annotation contains an image)
The conversation about organ donation that occurs over dinner is an example of
Didion researches and gathers information from sources in order to better understand
Below is a link to an audio recording of the Auden poem Didion refers to that helped her better understand her own grief. What texts (such as poems, novels, songs, or films) have you encountered that have helped you to better understand an experience of your own? (This annotation contains a video)
Didion says she relied on Auden's poem. What statement below best expresses the theme from Auden's poem that she relies upon?
What information from her research sparks this flashback?
Didion includes details and information that seem unrelated to one another, but in fact are working together to present a theme. Watch the video below that explains theme in literature, and how it develops and unfolds across the text. Then, look back over the details included in the flashback to identify a specific theme that is beginning to emerge here. (This annotation contains a video)
How does the English cultural attitude towards mourning compare to the American cultural attitude?
Which of the following words would best serve as a synonym for the word "acute" as it is used in this context?
Does this image of a fire seem familiar? Motif is the literary device in which a writer uses a reoccurring symbol or image in order to develop a theme. Can you identify a theme the fire motif works to develop?
Didion's description of the look of grief on someone's face uses what literary device?
Like dreams, psychoanalysts (such as Freud) use associations to understand significant thoughts or feelings. Here, the crossword puzzle provides a prompt that Didion's mind answers to bring to light the feeling of loneliness which she has carried in her subconscious mind.
What detail sparks Didion's flashback to the trip to Paris?
Part I Quiz
Watch the following short video about how writers make intentional choices about how to pace a story. How does Didion arrange the details in the story in order to slow the pace and build tension for the reader? (This annotation contains a video)
Didion includes the sequence of events in a matter of fact tone in order to
Didion uses the phrase "one more case" in order to emphasize how she has become more comfortable, more accepting of the way in which life changes in the instant. Thinking back to the where the story begins, Didion turns around because her husband had stopped talking. That was when she saw him collapsed; this is how she understands Gerry's similar experience.
Even though Didion finds information and statistics on FDPs, does what she learn actually give her control over the situation? Or does her need for information illustrate a form of "magical thinking"?
Which of the following thoughts does NOT represent an example of "magical thinking"?
What Didion refers to as the "vortex effect" is very similar to a technique writers call "stream of consciousness" writing. Watch the short video below that explains what stream of consciousness is, as well as how and why writers use it. As you read, look for the details that anchor the reader in Didion's stream of consciousness, or "vortex" of memories. (This annotation contains a video)
Some of Didion's most famous work was written for "Vogue," including the essay "On Self-Respect," published in 1961. Do you see similarities regarding themes of uncertainty and change in both the essay and the memoir? (This annotation contains a link)
What quote best illustrates Didion's use of stream of consciousness technique?
The radio show Didion listened to each morning still airs. After listening to a song or two from the radio show, how would you describe the mood evoked by the music? (This annotation contains a link)
Sidney Korshak (1906-1996) was a Los Angeles lawyer with strong ties to the Chicago mob. According to the FBI, Korshak was "the most powerful lawyer in the world." (This annotation contains an image)
Have you ever heard the expression "That's a rhetorical question"? Rhetorical questions are often misunderstood as questions without answers. It's not that they don't have answers, but rather that the actual answers aren't important to the point the author is trying to make. A rhetorical question is a specific figure of speech in which a question is asked in order to make a point, rather than to elicit an actual answer. What is the point Didion makes by utilizing these rhetorical questions?
In this sentence, "This" pertains to
The recurring image of the ice floes is an example of what literary device?
What do the chords of stacked wood symbolize to Didion?
By connecting a more familiar idea to a related new idea, we can better grapple with and uncover the complex meaning of the new idea. The complex, academic diction Freud uses to explain grief is difficult for most readers to understand. Didion helps us along here, by drawing the comparision between this academic diction to her metaphor of the "vortex." Apply what you already know about Didion's description of the vortex in order to better understand what Freud means by the "painful unpleasure...taken as a matter of course" by those who grieve.
"Mudgy" most closely means
The Hoover Dam is built on the Colorado River on the border between Arizona and Nevada, forming Lake Mead. At the time construction began in 1931, the Hoover Dam was to become the largest concrete structure built. (This annotation contains an image)
Didion includes the disagreement over what type of hamburger they ate as evidence to support what point?
Just like Didion draws a distinction between grief and mourning, psychologists who study the effects of grief distinguish between grief and mourning as two distinctly different experiences. Watch the short video below that explains the difference between grief and mourning. Do you think mourning is a necessary step in the grieving process? (This annotation contains a video)
Which of these is an example of a rhetorical question?
The following essay, written by Dominick Dunne, brother to Didion's husband John, reflects on the deaths of his daughter and his brother from his own point of view. In nonfiction, examining the same event from contrasting points of view can reveal deeper truths about the events and the people they impact. What does Dominick Dunne observe that Didion fails to see, or vice versa? (This annotation contains a link)
"Harp," like Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking" is an autobiography framed around death and grief. Based on the excerpt that Didion includes here, how does his point of view contrast Didion's? (This annotation contains an image)
John's attitude about the diagnosis can best be described as _____ while Joan's can best be described as ______ .
What is Didion's purpose in quoting from her previous novel?
Which of the following inferences best explains what Didion's dream about the airport reveals about her emotional state?
In studying grief, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified specific stages that people experiencing grief go through. Among these stages is the experience of anger. About anger, she writes, "It is important to feel the anger without judging it, without attempting to find meaning in it. It may take many forms: anger at the health-care system, at life, at your loved one for leaving. Life is unfair. Death is unfair. Anger is a natural reaction to the unfairness of loss." What evidence do you see in the text that show Didion has entered into this stage of grief?
Which of the following statements best summarizes Didion's point she conveys with the use of these rhetorical questions?
What literary technique impacts the rate at which the author of the short story "Blind Man" reveals details about the characters' lives?
Didion chooses the song "How High the Moon" to represent the "score," or in literary terms, the mood of her generation. As you listen to the song, decide what word or phrase would best describe this mood. (This annotation contains a video)
Part II Quiz
Describing her memories as "shards" connotes
Stephen W. Hawking is a famous physicist and cosmologist renowned for his contributions to the understanding and theories of black holes. (This annotation contains an image)
The United States Information Agency was a government agency intended to spread American culture and diplomacy. Begun in 1953 and operating until 1999, the USIA was the largest public relations operation in the world. While the agency no longer exists, many of its operations are now carried out within the U.S. Department of State.
In this context, "inexorable" most closely means
The Portuguese Bend is a geographic region along the southern California coast. The area has experienced shifts and slides for over 250,000 years, but the area became particularly unstable in the late 1950s due to increased construction and development in the area. (This annotation contains an image)
This is a well-known and highly quoted poem. It was even quoted in the film "G.I. Jane," about a woman who, despite doubts and naysayers, successfully completes combat military training. In what ways might this poem offer strength and encouragement to those who might otherwise feel sorry for themselves? (This annotation contains a video)
Which of the following statements best summarizes Didion's theme about the relationship between mourning and self-awareness?
Julia Child was a candid and well-loved American chef and television personality best known for making French cooking popular in American households. Prior to establishing her career as a chef, however, Child worked as an agent, or in other words a spy, for the Office of Strategic Services during WWII. (This annotation contains a video)
"The collapse of the dead star" is an example of
Which of the following is NOT an example of a rhetorical question?
Following John's death, Didion seeks to find a sense of control in her research and her writing. In this brief interview with Didion that dates back to the 1970s, Didion speaks about how she finds control through writing, a practice put into place long before John's death. After watching the interview, think about how her life-long practice of writing has helped her to face her grief. (This annotation contains a video)
Here Didion is referring to the earthquake that caused the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004. About 228,000 people were killed in what is considered the deadliest tsunami in history. The following article explains the cause, the immediate destruction and devastation, and the lingering impact this catastrophic geological event has had. As you read the article, consider Didion's motif that life changes in an instant. (This annotation contains a link)
Which best represents an act of mourning?
Part III Quiz