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Where I Was From Paperback – September 14, 2004

4.1 out of 5 stars 47 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

California comes under Didion's captivating, merciless microscope in her controversial look at the greed, acquisitiveness and wasteful extravagance lurking beneath the state's eternal sunshine. In admirably lean, piercing prose, she describes her ancestors, women who could shoot, handle stock and shake snakes from their boots every morning. These pioneers had lived through an arduous crossing far removed from the noble odysseys chronicled by California mythmakers and arrived in wrecked wagons, facing desolation and death. Didion dramatically highlights the gap between California's rosy notion of itself as a land that stood for individual entrepreneurship, and the reality of growing government control and reliance on federal money. As a Sacramento native now living in New York, she conveys the tension of loving an area that's also disappointed her. She utilizes the 1993 Spur Posse scandal, in which teenage boys in Southern California slept with as many girls as possible and then regarded them as notches on their gun, to portray the spiritual vacancy of young Californian men, particularly in light of an overindulgent public attitude that downplayed their moral callousness. Didion cites cozy, pastel paintings by artists like Thomas Kinkade as contributing to the hazily romantic view of a state that treated foreigners early in its history with vicious bigotry, underrated education's importance and committed disturbed citizens to institutions on unacceptably flimsy evidence of their mental state. Throughout, Didion digs deep to find the "point" of California. Many will find her conclusions inflammatory and may rise to California's defense, but the book is a remarkable document precisely because of its power to trigger a national debate that can heighten awareness and improve conditions on the West Coast and throughout the country.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From The New Yorker

For four decades, Didion has written in masterly fashion about the contradictions of California culture. In this book, she casts an arctic eye on recent phenomena—the Rodney King riots, the Spur Posse—and on her own upbringing in the Sacramento area. Her great-great-grandparents "crossed" to California in the eighteen-hundreds, and she was brought up on wistful recollections of the past. Her family lived in dark houses, ate with tarnished silver, dressed her in "an eccentric amount of black," and prized anything that was "old." Along with a recipe for India relish and a green-and-red calico appliqué, she inherited a view that California had been spoiled. And yet "the logical extension of this thought, that we were the people who had spoiled it, remained unexplored." Addressing her own confusion about the place, she identifies the settler imperative—"the past could be jettisoned, children buried and parents left behind"—in the fact that her birthplace is now "a hologram that dematerializes as I drive through it."
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (September 14, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679752862
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679752868
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #43,996 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Joan Didion was born in California and lives in New York City. She is the author of five novels and seven previous books of nonfiction. Joan Didion's Where I Was From, Political Fictions, The Last Thing He Wanted, After Henry, Miami, Democracy, Salvador, A Book of Common Prayer, and Run River are available in Vintage paperback.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is possibly as close as the famously oblique Joan Didion will ever come to writing a memoir. It takes a master stylist to weave together such disparate threads as one family's heritage, manifest destiny, Didion's eighth-grade commencement speech, her first novel (an atavistically brave move), the works of other writers (Jack London, Victor Davis Hansen), notes on pop painter Thomas Kinkade and Lakewood's infamous "Spur Posse," and more.
I can't think of any writer could do a better job than Didion at examining the weird admixture of passion and ambivalence that a native Californian may have for her state. I share it, and I admire this book especially because I know the terrain she dissects and lays bare. Her spare prose is a joy to read.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I grew up in the mountains south of Yosemite in the 1950's and 60's and have lived here ever since. I've worked as a logger, carpenter, and building designer and now spend much of my time hiking the trails in the High Sierra (not in that Arizona nursing home yet).
Anyway, I've had a lifetime spent drinking in the reality that is California. Reading Joan Didion's book has furthered and edified my knowledge, thoughts, and intuitions of this region. Reviewers who think she is upset or complaining are missing the point. Didion delves deep and helps people like me fill in some blanks to this fascinating human comedy.
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Format: Paperback
WHERE I WAS FROM is Joan Didion's meditation on her native state of California. Though much of the huge population of the state was not born there, Didion, like this reviewer, is the descendant of 19th century pioneers who established ranches that are long gone. Didion went looking for what makes California itself, what it imparts to its natives. Her findings, rendered in that elegant stingray voice like ice water splashed on the face on a scorching day in the Central Valley, may surprise a lot of readers.

No one could possibly achieve a personal portrait of California and include every iconic landmark or quirk. The film industry does not figure into this, LA's waterworks is not here. This is not Steinbeck's California, or Kerouac's or Dashiell Hammett's. It is, however, the landscape of Frank Norris's THE OCTOPUS, Jack London's VALLEY OF THE MOON, Faulkner's short story, "Golden Land," and Henry George's prescient essay, "What the Railroad Will Bring Us," to which Didion brings a close reading. The settling of California was made possible by the government and the sense of entitlement still resounds, as does the seemingly contradictory rugged pioneer individualism that claims the right to do as one pleases without strings attached. There is a pioneer code, "kill the rattlesnake," meaning to act in the interest of the greater good so others are not hurt, but there is also the overwhelming theme of development, the meaning of which Didion finds in the act of selling the family cemetery, along with the ranch.
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Format: Hardcover
I was disappointed by California the first time I visited and that disappointment deepened into dislike when I happened to live there for a year. And yet I always felt ambivalent about this dislike, because when I went out into the small towns of California, away from the glamor spots and the sprawl, I liked the place and its people ... well enough. Californians felt unknowable to me. They were often so friendly initially, but I never got the feeling that I would ever get to know them any better, no matter how much effort I put into it.

Where I Was From circumvents this dilemma. A native California has decided to tell us some of the secrets of the place: how it has shaped its people and how they in turn have shaped it. One of Didion's revelations is that California has enormous amounts of agricultural land and yet very few Californians call themselves "farmers". Golden State land owners treat their land purely as a commodity and do not have the visceral attachment to the land itself that is found in farmers in the rest of the country. You see how a lot of other things could cascade from this basic difference between Californians and everyone else.

Didion's long discourse on the Spur Posse of Lakewood at first seemed like a digression. But it soon became clear that she sees the nature of the Lakewood community to be a logical latter-day expression of the California socio-historical phenomenon. Lakewood was built only to provide a place for aerospace workers to live. It is housing, not a real community. It is planned rootlessness. And this has consequences.

By relating some of her own family history, Didion reminds us that all Californians are from somewhere else and so must have been more like the rest of us at some point. She suggests that it was the isolation of being on the far side of the Sierras in a land of enormous natural wealth that unmoored and, to some extent, unhinged Californians and their culture. I believe her.
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"A good deal about California does not, on its own preferred terms, add up." This sentence, which opens Didion's third chapter in Where I Was From, is characteristic of the sort of pummeling understatement and reserve that characterizes all of Didion's work - humble, free of ostentation, profound in implication. No, the California Didion presents does not add up - a place defined by a jettisoning pioneer spirit "destroyed" by its own sense of development, a place defined equally by class as it is by people who say sentences like "we don't discuss class here," a place , Didion's Sacramento specifically, both defined by and existing in spite of its geography. Her contradictions of place and identity take Didion from one heavily scrutinized example to another - the Spur Posse, Boeing, Douglas, pioneers on the Sierra Nevadas, prisons, insane asylums - and if Didion's argument of conflicted identity doesn't always connect in thinking later about her specifics, the reading is as fluid, as full-bodied in argument and fact, as merciless an investigation as anything she's ever written. Didion has long been defined by her identity to California, something that comes up in all of her writings, whether in New York or El Salvador, so to see her tackle it so specifically - at one point even deconstructing (with fascinating effect) her own first novel, Run River - is a thrill. What will be of most fascination, undoubtedly, will be the 4th section of the book, the short, devastating section detailing the death of Didion's mother, yet what makes this piece so compelling is the grand scale of Didion's research and work - her California becomes a grand exercise in characterization.Read more ›
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