Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Democracy and Design

A quick business trip to Oklahoma afforded me time to read two great, very different, books, Democracy by Joan Didion and Grace Bonney's Design*Sponge at Home, of the blog of the same name.

I have been devouring Joan Didion books recently--when I like an author I read their near- or entire oeuvre, most gratifying with a prolific author over many decades, like Didion.  I did the same thing with John Irving (A Prayer for Owen Meany has been a favorite for many, many years) but sort of dropped off with Son of the Circus (didn't like) and have been meaning to start again with his newer books.  [If you haven't read Owen Meany, you really should- my high school English teacher Mr Pogue called the Christmas pageant 'one of the great scenes in contemporary literature' and I absolutely agree.  Note to self: re-read. It's been five years or so.]

A few lines that stood out to me in Democracy:

(published in 1984, the book has incisive comments as applied currently to our Facebook-tag me!- Instagram-Foursquare-blogging-this very blog culture)
By which I mean to suggest that [she] had come to view most occasions as photo opportunities.

New York magazine: 'They [Didion's novels] usually feature a distant woman, intelligent but inscrutable and generally fatalistic. Almost invariably, she has a troubled daughter.'  Here, an example of this disaffection:
They had gone to bed in silence, and, the next morning, after Harry left for the campus without speaking, Inez took her coffee and a package of cigarettes out into the sun on the redwood deck and sat down to consider the phrase 'quite palpable unhappiness'.  It did not seem to her that she was palpably unhappy, but neither did it seem that she was palpably happy.  'Happiness' and 'unhappiness' did not even seem to be cards in the hand she normally played, and there on the deck in the thin morning sunlight she resolved to reconstruct the details of occasions on which she recalled being happy.  As she considered such situations she was struck by their insignificance, their absence of application to the main events of her life.  In retrospect she seemed to have been most happy in borrowed houses, and at lunch.
And, interestingly, a line in the novel I recognized from Blue Nights, as uttered not by a fictional character but Didion's daughter Quintana herself (Democracy was published when Quintana was 18)
...Inez found Jessie on the floor of her bedroom with the disposable needle and the glassine envelope in her Snoopy wastebasket.
    "Let me die and get it over with," Jessie said.  "Let me be in the ground and go to sleep".
Indeed:  from New York magazine ' “Let me be in the ground and go to sleep,” a teenage Quintana is quoted as saying, several times, in Blue Nights. Or, rather, she is quoted once, while depressed, on the floor of their Brentwood home. But, having appropriated the line for Democracy, Didion appropriates it once more in Blue Nights, repeating the phrase again and again throughout the book, like a mantra of self-flagellation.'

Didion employs an unusual narrative voice in which she is both reporter and novelist, commenting on her narrative and how she chooses to tell the story; unfortunately some nameless Wikipedia entry writer has surmised this literary device better than I could:

'Democracy is unusual in that its narrator is not a character within the novel's world but a voice whom Didion identifies as herself, a writer self-consciously struggling with the ambiguities of her ostensible material, the ironies attendant to narration, and the inevitable contradictions at the heart of any story-telling. Didion's deft and economical use of this conceit allows her to comment not only upon the novel she chose to write, a romantic tragedy, but also upon the novel she chose not to write, a family epic encompassing generations of Inez's wealthy Hawaiian family, artless emblems of the colonial impulse.'

and now for something completely different, the inspirational, aspirational Design*Sponge book.

Featuring oodles of gorgeous photos of beautiful homes (about half the book are 'sneak peaks' into the impossibly fashionable homes of impossibly fashionable people), the book is enough to send anyone (maybe just me) into a This American Wife shame spiral...

Why don't I repurpose wine crates?
Why did I not see the potential in that piece of twine?  I could have hung up the  a.m.a.z.i.n.g birdhouse I made out of toilet paper rolls with it!
When I shop at Ikea, I see furniture with a lifespan similar to Old Navy camp shirts.  These people see midcentury design at a postmodern mass-consumer price point.

The answer to all of these questions/declarations, is that maybe home design is, at first blush, appealing to me, but not quite enough for me to stop sorting mail on our dining room table.  Or going any farther with our home makeover because my entire life (starting as a military brat, moving ~ 2 years) I have approached every place as temporary.  And transience doesn't require drapes.  Peripatetic people don't buy furniture that will only fit in one space.  People with one foot out of the door do not purchase festive seasonal doormats on which that foot is poised, ever ready for flight.  


The other day Luke said - I hope we live in this house for the entire time we are in San Antonio.

This took me aback.  And I thought about it last night and today as I was reading this book, overcoming my initial WELL IF I LIVED IN AN AMAZING BROWNSTONE WITH INCREDIBLE ARCHITECTURAL DETAILS IN BROOKLYN, RUNNING A LETTERPRESS FIRM, MY HOUSE WOULD LOOK AMAZING TOO it occurred to me that I do live in an amazing house, albeit with a dated kitchen and challenging floorplan.  We rent, which limits the amount of renovations possible.  But can I, with planning and care, make it more homey? Corral our mutual inclination toward clutter?  More an expression of our personalities?  Actually dig in and instead of abdicating responsibility (we rent!), craft a home that I am proud of?  A home that says, we live here.

                                                           Stay tuned.

(relatedly, the airport-perused premiere issue of HGTV magazine had many good ideas, and overall an aesthetic that I enjoy (bright).  In browsing books and magazine, I find a resource for renters is sorely needed (though apartment therapy is a good one) with ideas for re-imagining spaces in which cabinet rip-outs and re-flooring are not options.


  1. you are such a gifted writer!

  2. oh thanks... but most of this post is material from other writers! :)

  3. Hey Julie! I've nominated you for a little blogger award. You can "pick" up your award over at my page! Have a great evening!!