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Reading Roundup: Joan in Flames, Happy Birthdays, Word o’ the Year

December 10, 2017
by Pat Joseph
Joan Didion in Flames illustration

Ill Winds

California fires are dominating the news again, this time in the Southland. The names of the North Bay fires (Tubbs, Atlas, Nuns … ) are being supplanted by a new list of blazes (Thomas, Creek, Rye, Skirball…). They all have in common the exacerbating effect of the sustained offshore winds, known in the Bay as Diablos and in LA as the Santa Anas. The latter, although less menacing in name, evoke a certain dread in Angelenos. Raymond Chandler wrote that the Santa Anas “come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.”

In her equally distinct, if less hard-boiled, style, Joan Didion wrote in Slouching Toward Bethlehem:

“It is hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles to realize how radically the Santa Ana figures in the local imagination. The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself; Nathanael West perceived that, in The Day of the Locust; and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end. Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”

You Say It’s Your Birthday…

Didion, who turned 83 this week, graduated from Cal in 1956 and was named CAA’s Alumnus of the Year in 1980. As Martin Snapp cracked in a recent piece on the “other Nobels,” that’s like the Nobel Prize of alumni awards.

As it happens, we nearly missed our own birthday. California is 120 years old. According to the Centennial Record, an encyclopedic history compiled by former California Monthly managing editor Verne Stadtman to mark UC Berkeley’s 100-year anniversary, the University of California Magazine was launched in 1897 as an independent voice for Cal alumni. Subsequent iterations included the California Alumni Weekly, California Alumni Fortnightly and California Monthly. The magazine changed its name to California in 2006. We’re a quarterly but of course you can read us everyday online.

In 2018, the university itself will turn 150. Joan Didion once called her alma mater “California’s best idea of itself.”

In a Word

Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Information, is a regular contributor to NPR’s Fresh Air, where he provides commentary on language and, once a year, picks a ‘Word of the Year.’ Past selections include normal (2016), gig (2015) and no (2010).

So what did he pick this year?

Tribal—a word that, while problematic, captures the politically polarized times.

Writes Nunberg: “There’s virtually no phenomenon in public life that someone hasn’t tried to discredit as tribal.” And yet, he observes that, “however people map out the geography of American political tribes, they always exempt themselves and their neighbors. In modern America, we don’t think of our own political allegiances as tribal; we’re the creatures of reason.”

It’s a word California contributor Chris A. Smith used repeatedly in an essay he wrote for us on the nature of patriotism in 2016. “My wariness of patriotism comes from the tribalism that creeps alongside it and the Us and Them divisions it inevitably creates,” Smith wrote. The essay also cites famous biologist and author E.O. Wilson, who likens humans to ants in our need to form groups. He called it “our greatest, and worst, genetic inheritance.” Word.

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