#005 — Grammar is a Piano

Hi, hello, how are you? This is your latest issue of Tendrils, an email newsletter from me — Adam Wood — from here in… Kent, where we’re spending the weekend. It’s overcast and a little chilly here in The Garden of England™, but vanilla sponge cake has been eaten, and cats stroked.

Before we left Oxfordshire, we spent Friday afternoon at Harcourt Arboretum. It’s a joy to visit with some of these amazing trees, including — some of my favourites — Corsican Pine, Western Yellow Pine, Blue Cedar, & Coastal Redwoods. The photo above is of one that caught my eye this time around, with its yellowish, upturned leaves: Shirasawa’s Maple.

This week I read Let me Tell You What I Mean (2021), the final collection of Joan Didion’s non-fiction work published during her lifetime. The risk when writing about Didion, is the impulse to simply quote her, frequently and at length. Since that would make for a less-than-fascinating newsletter, I’ll hold myself back on this occasion. Suffice it to say that I found this latter collection — which comprises a dozen previously published, but heretofore uncollected pieces, ranging from the 1960s to 2000 — to be as vital and arresting as any of Didion’s previous. Across pieces pertaining to (amongst other subjects) Nancy Reagan, recovery from addiction, William Randolph Hearst’s castle estate, and — of course — writing itself, Didion’s unmatched instinct for the perfect detail is on display. No matter the topic, her sentences are always a joy, her paragraphs a revelation, and her essays as a whole the sort of writing one comes away from a little saddened that more contemporary journalism doesn’t share the same flair, or insight.

Reading the new collection sent me on a bit of a Didion spree. First, I turned to Caitlin Flanagan’s cover story for the current issue of The Atlantic (June 2022): ‘Joan Didion’s Magic Trick’. It’s an enjoyable piece, in which Flanagan retraces some of the geography of Didion’s life: homes and neighbourhoods she lived in; her college dormitory etc. The heart of it, however, is the author’s deeply-felt connection to Didion, which lends the essay a kind of doubly-biographic (or perhaps (auto/)biographic) quality. The tone is reverent without being hagiographic, and does some work to place Didion — only newly absent — in the context she leaves behind.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album created a new vocabulary of essay writing, one whose influence is on display every day of the week in the tide of personal essays published online by young writers.

Alta Journal also recently published a special edition dedicated to Didion, which I’m working my way through. David L Ulin’s piece ‘Joan Didion’s Singular Voice’ is a worthwhile overview of the writer’s much-imitated prose style, across both her fiction and non-fiction work.

What Didion discovered in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” was a way to think about fragmentation as a literary strategy. The essay works as a pastiche of moments, always circling, never fully adding up, much like the events it is recording.

There is also a piece by Didion’s nephew, Griffin Dunne, which serves as a sort of primer for his 2017 documentary, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold — which I also watched, and recommend to anyone with an active Netflix subscription. Centred around extensive interviews with his aunt, the film provides the sort of insight into Didion’s life that I have not encountered elsewhere. It succeeds admirably with respect to the motivation that Dunne lays out, in the Alta piece, for making the movie:

[that] her devoted readership would see her not as the queen of doom, as she was often described, but as the laughing, dry-humored woman I grew up with.

Finally, I went back to one of Didion’s most famous pieces, written for Vogue in 1961 (to a strict character count!): ‘Self Respect: Its Source, Its Power’. Here, I give in finally to the impulse to quote her:

There is a common superstition that “self-respect” is a kind of charm against snakes, something that keeps those who have it locked in some unblighted Eden, out of strange beds, ambivalent conversations, and trouble in general. It does not at all. It has nothing to do with the face of things, but concerns instead a separate peace, a private reconciliation.

That ‘Finally’ of mine, above, is a lie. I’ve the rest of the Alta pieces to go through, and at the time of writing I am a few chapters into Didion’s 1970 novel, Play it as it Lays. All of which makes it likely I’ll have a Didion-related note or two to share with you in the future.

C’mon C’mon dir. Mike Mills (2021)

This week I caught up with a movie I’ve been wanting to see for some time: the fourth feature from Mike Mills, whom I would be increasingly likely to name amongst my favourite working directors.

In some ways I wonder whether C’mon C’mon isn’t the movie towards which Mills has been working all this time. There is a way of seeing his three previous features as dealing with similar subject matter, but plotted on a spectrum of decreasing degrees of façade. Thumbsucker (2005) is the most obvious fiction, with the broadest characters and comedy. Beginners (2010) is certainly more directly personal, but its style retains certain flourishes (voice-over, montage, subtitled speech attributed to a dog) that nevertheless mark it out as a stylised version of a truth. 20th Century Women (2016) dispenses with a great deal of these affectations, and moves towards something like straight realism. But, to me, C’mon C’mon (2021) feels like a further reduction to essentials, as perhaps is suggested by its having been shot in black & white. Even the (relatively muted) burning car set piece from 20th Century Women would feel out of place here. This is a movie that holds at its centre acts of documentarianism, and feels closer itself to working in that mode than Mills has previously come in the feature format.

Oh, it’s also beautiful, smart, funny, sensitive, and thoroughly charming. I recommend it to anyone and everyone, and if you have Amazon Prime, you can — at the time of writing, at least — watch it for free on Prime Video.

Deception dir. Arnaud Desplechin (2021)

I also sat down to this French adaptation of Philip Roth’s 1990 novel, Deception — I came away feeling decidedly meh about the whole thing, despite impassioned turns from Denis Podalydès and Léa Seydoux.

I’m confident that a large part of my relative dissatisfaction is owed to my being monolingual. It seems that much of the texture of the thing rests upon national identities and the interactions between them: time and again characters are referred to by couplets referencing nation, and role in the story: eg. the ‘American writer’. Léa Seydoux & Madalina Constantin’s characters are even credited as ‘The English Lover / L’amante anglaise‘ & ‘The Czech / La Tchèque’ respectively. However, as they are all played by French actors, speaking French, with French accents, I was unable to discern much in the way of varying national timbres between them. Therefore, in a scene where an American is remarking to an English woman about her reserved demeanour, it read to me more like a French man complaining to a French woman, about the English. Again, entirely my failing, and it did make me wonder whether people from other nations find British actors’ depictions of their countryman similarly lacking.

For what it’s worth, the central conceit of the story itself seems promising enough that I may well seek out Roth’s source novel at some point.

How to Steal a Million dir. William Wyler (1966)

I am too infrequently asked to name my favourite Audrey Hepburn movie, but if I were, most days I would probably say Roman Holiday (1953). And yet I had not seen William Wyler’s other light-hearted caper team-up with Hepburn until this week.

I could probably watch Audrey drive around Paris in her ridiculous little toy car, wearing Givenchy outfits, for hours beyond the film’s actual running time. And, much of the script is a delight:

“Where precisely were you in the early part of the sixteenth century?” “I don’t know, but that’s not how I was dressed.”

I am also yet to see The Children’s Hour (1961), but — as a Lillian Hellman adaptation — that looks to be a different prospect.

• • •


Safe to say things are going to change around here a little over the next six weeks or so. The annual summer read-along begins today (Sun 5 Jun), which means I’m already committed to producing something worth reading on a weekly basis. I’m by no means conceited enough to think that anyone out there would care a jot if Tendrils didn’t drop into their inbox next weekend, but — in a very real way — this newsletter is as much for me as it is for you: I enjoy putting it together, and it works as a forcing function for me to actually put into words my thoughts and feelings about what I’ve been spending my time and attention on. That’s valuable to me, and I’m going to attempt to keep it up, in some form, whilst I’m also leading the read-along. (I’m actually a little excited to play around with the form a bit; things may get a little more impressionistic and piecemeal. Who knows?)

Well, you will, next week. But until then, I hope the first full week of June treats you well. Remember, you can always hit reply and say hello, or forward this to a friend who you think may enjoy it.


— Adam