Customer Reviews: California: A History (Modern Library Chronicles)
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on June 26, 2007
This book just blazes along. It's a quick .. too quick .. a read. While the task of covering 250 years (or so) of California in 344 (small) pages is an impossible task, the result is a text that is superficial and that would be appropriate for a summary tourist guide.

I think Professor Starr knocked this one out in his sleep. His other works are much more valuable.

I would pass right by this volume and proceed directly to "California; An Interpretive History" by Rawls/Bean (now in its 8th Edition). For good reason, Rawls/Bean is the standard introductory survey to California history.
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on May 27, 2009
Starr needs a better editor. This book is too full of trivial names and details. He pays way too much attention to writers, who weren't responsible for making the state what it is nowadays. He pays lip service to business leaders and politicians who built this state. He doesn't explore what shaped famous Californians like Disney, Earl Warren, or Ronald Reagan. He neglects why the San Joaquin Delta became one of world's most productive farmlands nor does he explain well how California built its famous freeways. Why did Los Angeles develop into one of world's busiest ports rather than Bay Area, Seattle or Portland? Why did California stop at San Diego and not include Baja California? The differences between the two areas highlight what these two countries are capable of. He even has a chapter on Governor Schwenegger's performance, which is current politics, not history. And the writing is bad. I'm still looking for a better book on state's history.
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on August 18, 2009
Some of the reviewers here seem have an obvious political or regional axe to grind, and I would read their reviews accordingly. I found this to be an informative and highly entertaining overview of California history. I thought the author generally made good calls as to what was important and/or entertaining enough to include. Guess what? A three hundred page overview won't be exhaustive. But if you're interested in the subject, I suspect this book will whet your appetite for more.
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on May 18, 2006
As a student of California history, I was looking forward to Starr's condensed account of the state's history. After all, he has written many books on various eras of California and there was every reason to rejoice over a shorter book to learn more. However, I was very disappointed in this error-prone, often dry and shallow account of our history. While it is a fast read and some of the facts were interesting (like how California got its name), Starr tends to write some of the more uninteresting history of his beloved and favored San Francisco and glosses over some of the more important history of Southern California, one of the largest metropolises on the planet. While I haven't read all of the books on California history, I would not recommend this one as the defining one for those who want to learn more about the Golden state.
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on November 15, 2005
Just the name California brings up images in our minds. They may be of the big Hollywood sign, the Watts riots, the gigantic redwood trees, the pacific ocean, the images run on and on. In this book, Mr. Starr gives a history beginnning with the first mention of the name in a 1510 book where it was stated that California was an island.

From there he has written perhaps the best single volume history of the state yet written. He has pictured California with all its greatness, and with its problems. He talks about the beauty, the climate, the life that California provides. He also mentions the soaring housing prices, grid-locked freeways, poor state government and more. It's a fair look at the state as it exists today and as it was in the past.

Mr. Starr is a professor at USC and for ten years was the state librarian. He has written many time of California, this is the distillation of a lifetime of work.
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on November 27, 2005
Kevin Starr has spent the last quarter of a century chronicling the history of the State of California in 7 thick and comprehensive volumes. I must confess that sadly I've read none of them. When I found out that Starr would be doing a history of California for the Modern Library Chronicles I was overjoyed and California: A History did not disappoint. Starr starts at the point that Europeans first viewed California and takes the reader on a whirlwind history that ends in today's California with the rule of the Governator. Chapters are a combination of chronological and topical. I wish I could give the book perfect marks for accuracy, but I found mistakes in the Chapter 10 [O Brave New World!] which is the one chapter I know enough about to evaluate in detail. On page 258, Starr gets the telescopes on Mt. Wilson fouled up [the "60-inch reflector telescope" is most likely the Snow Solar Telescope (which George Hale did already have and moved to Mt. Wilson), the "observatory with a 60-inch reflector lens" is the 60-inch telescope built in 1908 with a 60-inch MIRROR, and the "100-inch lens" is the 100-inch MIRROR of the most famous telescope on Mt. Wilson, the Hooker Telescope]. This mix up in details makes me wonder about what else the proof readers missed, but aside from that I enjoyed the book immensely.
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on September 7, 2009
I took Professor Starr's history of California class while an undergrad at USC, so I had been interested in reading this one volume history of the state for years. I had read Starr's Coast of Dreams ( previously, but did not feel I had the time to read the other parts of the multi-volume history, so I went with the single volume instead.

Many of the criticisms in some of the other reviews seem to reflect the fact that the reviewers chose to go with the single volume condensed history, instead of the more detailed multi-volume books. Having read Coast of Dreams, I can say that at least that entry does not have the shortcomings other reviews mention which are somewhat accurate. This book does not go into too much detail, some sections are fast tours through different aspects of California and its culture, and some paragraphs read almost like lists of famous Californians. But that is the point of the one volume book.

The book starts chronologically, but the 20th century is primarily told thematically. There are chapters on public works, art and culture, politics, and more. That can be a little confusing, for example a governor does something a few pages before he is elected. But overall, this is probably a good way to relay lots of information about 20th century California.

If you want more detail, read Starr's other books. If you want a quick tour through California, go with this one volume book.
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on September 30, 2015
I just finished this book and really enjoyed its rollercoaster ride through California history. Starr has a good sense of how to contextualize topics that helps one see California from many views. As an example, he takes California's labor and union history starting with its earliest days up to near modern times, all in a swoop, but in a way that helps one better understsand both labor and union and California. He does similar journeys for other topics like California art and literature. Sometimes California can be such a grand topic that it is hard to grasp its true shape and contours. Starr does an excellent job of giving one person's summary of it, and helps to make the subject more easily graspable. It may not be for everyone, but I recommend Starr's California
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on May 7, 2014
Getting all of this in one book is quite an ambitious task, and for the most part, Starr has given us a very interesting story.

Readers wonder about the absence of any mention of the Klondike Gold Rush that began in San Francisco in 1897 with the arrival in San Francisco of the Excelsior with a half million dollars of gold. Not only did Californians make up a large proportion of the prospectors who migrated to Yukon, but Klondike gold helped to rebuild San Francisco's fire-damaged city.

On p. 199, Starr writes of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW);

"Energized by a theoretically hazy but psychologically potent amalgam of romantic anarchism, marxist socialism, and a distinctly American distrust of big shots, the IWW movement looked to the workers of the United States eventually to seize the state and establish an industrial utopia. Their quasi pacifism, however, did not discourage member from reverting to violence to achieve such ends, and it was this capacity for violence--in fact as well as rhetoric--that gave the IWW its dreaded reputation."

What is the evidence for this?

The IWW had a major impact on the strikes that Starr describes. By 1917, they had led strikes by 10,000 migrant workers in California and were a significant factor in the San Pedro and San Francisco candy strikes.

Like many other revolutionary unions before it and since, they wanted to end capitalism. They wanted 'One Big Union" with all the workers joined together in different crafts and industries. They were the first union to embrace women, immigrants, Asians, and African Americans. In fact, you did not even need to have a job to join.

The Wobblies were based on the theories of anarcho-syndicalist first proposed by Pierre-Joseph Proudhom and dominant in many struggles world-wide including the Spanish Civil War. They held, contrary to Marxist Leninism, that the revolution did not require state or any political activity. All that was required was workers on strike. They promoted non-violence and had an almost mystical view in the power of a general strike: "To stop all the trains and ships at sea, all we have to do is fold our arms."

Their goal was simply the "Wobbly Shop," worker-managed enterprises, co-operatives, which, according to economists like Richard Wolff, are still the best alternative to capitalism.

Unlike the Communists--who were hampered by being answerable to the Comintern--the IWW was very anti-dogmatic and open to new ideas. The crowded IWW meetings were always full not just of oratory but of labor songs, and poetry. The workers knew all the songs. Their favorite song-maker was labor hero Joe Hill. The copper-mine owners in Utah finally had Hill framed, convicted, and executed. It was at Hill's execution that he said, "Don't mourn, organize."

Joseph Conlin, writing in the Wisconsin Magazine of History (Summer 1968) wrote:

"The IWW also rejected violence because the nature of the revolution they envisioned simply did not require it. To the IWW, the new society was to be accomplishednot by an electoral victory nor by taking to the barricades but by a general strike which would paralyze the economy and force the employing class to hand over peacefully the means of production. Wobblies were nearly mystical when they spoke of the power of the workers who 'folded their arms."

How then did the IWW get its bloody reputation? Conlin answers:

"This reputation is a historical distortion of the worst sort, for the fact is not merely a matter of shifted emphasis but almost the diametrical contrary... Primarily it was a reputation foisted upon the union by its enemies: the employers it struck; the cities whose anti-street-speaking ordinances it defied; AF of L unionist rivals; anti-unionist politicians; and the reformist wing of the Socialist Party.The IWW's brief age of prosperity was an era when unions were widely suspect in the United States, and the IWW represented the most militant sort of unionism."

When the federal government and the states enacted the draconian Criminal Syndicalism laws beginning in 1919, it unleashed an unparalleled attack on workers. Cities brought in waves of goons, police, and state and federal troops to beat up, shoot, arrest, imprison, and execute thousands of strikers. The Wobblies were not the transgressors but the transgressed upon.

The IWW eventually failed not because of hazy rhetoric or poor organization but because of this brutal persecution by government. In a short while, all its leaders were either in prison or murdered.

While Starr briefly covers many of the land-use conflicts that were part of the state's story, he fails to mention the contribution of 1930's Rooseveldt's New Deal programs to the state's development, in particular, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

In 1937, for example, there were 10,000 CCC enrollees in 101 camps throughout California. They engineered and built trails and magnificent facilities in national and state parks that still attract millions people from around the world. They built 306 lookout towers and houses, strung 8,704 miles of telephone wire, built over a million miles of truck trails and minor roads and performed tree and plant disease control on nearly 800,000 acres of land, among countless other projects.

Just in Los Angeles, the WPA helped build major public facilities that are still in use today, including the Arroyo Seco Parkway, Angeles Crest Highway, the Griffith Observatory, the Glendale Aqueduct, Los Angeles City College, the Federal Courthouse, Los Angeles International Airport, and countless schools throughout the county.

While Starr mentions the Hoover Dam and the water-delivery system of the Metropolitan Water District, he neglects to mention the construction of the Colorado River Aqueduct from Parker Dam on Lake Havasu to Lake Matthews and the construction of the California Aqueduct from the Feather River to Lake Castaic. The Colorado River Aqueduct was the largest federal project in Southern California during the Great Depression. The California Aqueduct is now part of the massive California State Water Project, the largest water system in the world.

The author also neglects to describe the founding of Los Angeles. In his report of the massacre by the Yuma Indians of soldiers and colonists from Mexico, he fails to mention the name of the city towards which they were on their way to founding.
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on September 17, 2006
A history of California, from the founding years through to Gov. Schwarzenegger, was always an ambitious undertaking, one fraught with difficulties, starting with how to approach it. A large, diverse state with a complex history, there are only a few options: compile an encyclopedia, focus on a few defining events, or create lists. Unfortunately, Starr takes the last approach, keeping the book to a short 350 pages, but filling those pages with one or two sentences on every event and every major figure in California history.

Unfortunately, while comprehensive, the disjointed style and lack of detail on any topic make for painful reading. Nearly every paragraph deserves its own book or at least its own chapter. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 rates 3 paragraphs.

Here's one example taken at semi-random: "The previous evening, a drunken miner had tried to break into Josefa's cabin, where she was living with her common-law husband, also a Mexican. Upbraided by Josefa the next day for his conduce, the miner called her a whore. Enraged, she stabbed him to death."

This was the most interesting passage on the page I opened at random, but it certainly needs to be its own story. As a novel or movie, this event could succeed in illustrating life during that period in California history, but as half a paragraph, it's just more event in a long list of things that happened.

When Starr turns to arts and literature, the effect is even worse, pages packed with names of artists and writers. Starr seemed to feel the need to include every writer who ever even visited San Francisco.

Further, parentheticals in nearly every sentence and a reliance on passive voice make the book feel as if it was dictated by a PBS narrator. Though cleared of footnotes and written in large text on small pages to appeal to a general audience, Starr is clearly a historian rather than a writer. Possibly this would have been a more interesting book had it been written by a journalist or novelist rather than an academic, though I expect that a journalist or novelist would realized that this undertaking was impossible and would instead have focused on one particular person or event.

In the end, I felt that I learned more about California history by reading a book focused on a particular theme - for example, Dennis McDougal's Privileged Son, which in the process of telling the history of the LA Times through multiple generations of the founding Chandler family, goes a good job telling the history of Los Angeles itself.

Overall, this book is far too dry to recommend it to someone looking for an overview of California history, and too cursory for anyone looking to learn anything about one particular time or place.
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