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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on April 7, 2009
Mark's Arax's WEST OF THE WEST is a rare, lasting and truly inspiring achievement in literary journalism and non-fiction. It is a piece of literature penned with extreme care and a testament to writing from the heart with deep conviction. The stories are rich in variety, sobering and deeply human, each one uncovering a new face of California in the 21st Century. Each story is a voyage into the hidden worlds that exist right next to the highways of Arax's Golden State. After finishing the book, I found myself in a state of extreme shock and joy. Shock, because the story "The Summer of the Death of Hilario Guzman" is probably the most raw, honest and poetic non-fiction piece I have ever read about a California migrant worker, and joy at the realization that great storytelling can inspire new ways of looking at the world around us. This book is right up there with the best of Saroyan and Steinbeck. I read it twice and will no doubt revisit it. The rural, suburban and unforgiving landscapes in Mark Arax's prose put me into the shoes of Triqui Indian migrant workers, Humboldt real estate developers and Armenian moonshiners, among other colorful modern-day Californians. Required reading for all who aspire to be storytellers.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on April 8, 2009
We can talk about Mark as a wordsmith, as a master storyteller, as a truly writerly writer, as the novelist Nancy Kricorian once described him to me. This is all true, but West of the West is more than this. If you ask me, Mark is not providing illustrations of "the human condition." Rather, he's describing a particular place. And any resemblance of that place to your favorite place is up to you to discern.

Years ago, Mark told me that his professional mission was to continue in the footsteps of that true-life California superhero, Carey McWilliams. Like McWilliams and most all good poets, Mark conveys the violence, the strangeness and folly of what is closest at hand. What is closest at hand for Mark are people on the land of his birth. There were his moonshining buddies, waxing poetic around the rakhi still. There were the Hayat father and son of Lodi, California, swept away with the hot foam of 9-11 hysteria. And there was Eric Jones, a small-town boy who was nonchalantly tortured by neighbors, then shot in the back and left for dead in a cotton field near the huddle of tarpaper roofs that goes by the name of Allensworth, California.

In a story entitled "Eyre of the Storm," Arax describes former "leftie" attendees at the eighth annual Conspiracy Conference, the "Con Con," in Santa Clara, forty years after the Summer of Love. Over the course of the decades, a former student activist, now a teetotaling grandmother, had taken a "pilgrimage inward," from collective protest against to an ingrown obsession with nutty conspiracies. What are we to make of the fact that there are so many Arlenes out there--former leftwingers who wind up crackpots? Could it be that leftwing ideas attract cranks-in-gestation? Mark speculates: "Those who had tried so hard to change the social order and failed had retreated into their own psychic order. Protest turned into mysticism, and mysticism led to phantasmagoria and paranoia." Arax is onto something important here.

And then there was the roasted chicken mogul, a poster child for the American dream, who as his last act turned two pistols against his mother and his sister. There was Hilario Guzman, a Triqui Indian from in Oaxaca, who woke up drunk one morning, harvested ten trays of grapes, and then ran his old car off a road through a vineyard. There were the dope farmers of Humbolt County, probiotic dairyman Mark McAfee, and Earl Shelton, the last Okie left in Steinbeck's Lamont. There were Fresno's Friends of Israel, for whom the slogan "Nuke Iran" has become an applause line. And there was Jeff Hubbard, whose two sons, one after the other, died ten time zones from Clovis, California, fighting yet another American war, this one in a place called Iraq.

California, Mark writes, is not kind to memory. All the more reason to thank him for chronicling this part of what Carey McWilliams called "the American apotheosis that is California."

(This is a revised version of Melkonian's introductory remarks at the April 8, 2009 West of the West book event at Abril Bookstore in Glendale California.)
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on April 27, 2009
I just finished "West of the West" last night and I feel compelled to share my enthusiasm for this work. If this is the kind of book you'd never consider reading, I recommend it even more so.

I remember being in graduate school many years ago and gifting myself with the promise that as soon as I finished my studies "I could read anything I wanted to." In those days I resumed my love affair with books by gravitating toward fiction or memoir. To this day, non-fiction rarely grips me, often bores me, and sometimes just feels like work. I share this information only because if you are like me, this is NOT the kind of book you'd pick up at first blush.

Nevertheless, I STRONGLY urge you to spend some time in these pages. My bet is that you will experience a wonderful surprise: through keen storytelling, you will be exposed to social commentary that is respectful enough to give you room to come to your own conclusions. You'll glide over descriptive paragraphs that could have been plucked from a beautiful novel. Most remarkably, you'll bear witness to Arax making deeper sense of all of this by juxtaposing his own vulnerabilities as a man-and as a human being- onto the stories he tells.

Through his wonderful prose he masterfully reminds us that even though our personal experiences may vary, our own microcosms of truth, formed within the immensity that is California itself, are invariably more similar than not.

Take the journey with him.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on June 15, 2009
I recently moved from the midwest to southern California, and of course though I knew about stereotypes, I had my ideas about what life in the West would be like. Mark Arax's well-written book has more than balanced my ideas of what the Golden State is like. The book contains a fascinating sample of portraits of different aspects of California, ranging across migrant labor, pot growing, the FBI, the home front re Iraq, and much more. It is a great read, no matter where you live, but it is especially great for someone like me who has recently moved to the state.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on April 7, 2009
Brilliant. Arax gets California. His journey, both external and internal, offers intrigue, emotion and discovery at every turn.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Mark Arax, for 25 years a reporter for the LA Times, has long proven his willingness to get all the facts necessary to tell a full balanced story, even to the extent of causing his own divorce, that his earlier books, In My Father's Name and The King of California, apparently triggered.

In traveling for 4 years across this vast and complex state his collection of observations, anecdotes, and situations leaves one astonished at what the Golden State has recently become as rampant immigration from everywhere has turned it into an unmanageable polyglot of races, religions, and rationales, much of which he weaves into a fascinating story, like John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, did earlier for the USA.

From an immigrant Armenian family himself, Arax's writing about the illegal immigration issue, a currently hot political potato, burst with keen insight, to wit, "By underwriting the relocation of Mexico's most desperate, we are giving a giant handout to farmers, meat packers, home builders, hotel chains and big box retail outlets. Taxpayers are picking up the front end costs of cheap labor the same way we are subsidizing cotton and oil and home mortgages."

And in the final part, Arax brings his personal life under a completely honest microscope, as he doggedly and manically seeks to find his father's killers and their motivation.

If you haven't been to California lately beyond the usual big city sites of San Francisco and LA and you want a tour that will give you the most up to date story, here is your book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 17, 2009
I highly recommend this book--you don't have to be interested in California. Arax's writing style is so good-- kept me up late until I finished it. I read his earlier book, "In My Father's Name," some years ago and found myself turning the pages faster and faster--a poignant thriller if there can be such a thing. The last chapter of "West of the West" serves as closure to the 30-year-old cold case.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on August 30, 2009
This book is well worth reading for anyone interested in modern California, and how it got to be that way. It is a pity that the publisher could not have spent a few pennies on an index, which would have made the book more useful as a reference. But, really, this is a book of essays, and darned insightful ones, not a history book. It is unfair to compare Arax to McWilliams, whom I think was a hack with a clear agenda.
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VINE VOICEon June 11, 2012
Arax does an excellent job of showing the stories of California. In this book, he has 13 essays that describe the varied conditions of California. It was interesting going into these thirteen essays. One involved an immigrant from central Mexico. He brought his wife and children to live the hard life of an illegal worker in the farm industry. This immigrant takes solace in licquor and crashes his car/killing himself. Now his family has an even worse time surviving because of the loss of a wage earner. Even with the little money they earn as farm pickers, it is a difficult life.

Arax also relates the story of how a police officer solved the killing of his father, a bar owner. What was once considered a conspiracy turns out to be a botched robbery. Or was it? The author comes to terms with how the death of his father pushed him into a journalism career. The failure of the LA Times to remain an independent corporation pushed him in the direction of a book writer.

I thought these were interesting perspectives of California. California is such a unique state that several books could be written about the various characters who inhabit this diverese state.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on May 29, 2015
The writing and storytelling are good, but the insistent political messages are off-putting. I stopped reading the book, which I seldom do.
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