94 of 108 people found the following review helpful
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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.
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on October 25, 2003
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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.
44 of 50 people found the following review helpful
on July 28, 2005
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. The lesson about development is also played out through the history of the Lakewood community tangent to LA, one that did not exist until the 1950s when it was created on former ranch land and became a whole town with a resident employer, the defense contractor McDonell Douglas, with whose fortunes, given and taken away by the federal government, it rose and emptied, spewing forth a notoriously violent, purposeless youth culture.
This book resonates deeply with me--as a child, I watched my animal-loving mother weep as she killed the rattlesnake, and the ranch and the winery were gone by the time I was born--but I have to think that this beautifully crafted book should be of value to all Americans because, as John Donne said, none of us is an island and what happens to one part can bear significance for the rest.
27 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on March 3, 2005
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.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on October 1, 2006
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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. Her description in this section is some of the most agonizingly evoked, rich, and understated work of her career, and if the sections preceding it - highly descriptive, full of research often much fuller and drier than expected - can seem aimless when thinking about them, the finest compliment I can give Where I Was From is that, in the effortless and moving reading of the book, it evokes exactly what Didion wants of California, of her, and of her mother, and no more.
21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on January 16, 2004
Californians think they're special. There is no doubt about that. The first thing a native will tell you upon introduction is how many generations their family has been here. They don't do that in Boston -- where old families know they're old families and don't really give a damn if you know it or not. They don't do that in DC, New York or Toronto. But they do it in California. Those who have been here awhile will tell you exactly how many generations a long while is.
Didion's book is filled with that brand of smugness - the one-upmanship of who's been here longer.
Personally, I don't care.
I don't mean to be too harsh on the book, though, for on another level this is a story not of geography or genealogy but of a generation - the generation born in the mid-to-late 1930s - too young to remember the Depression but old enough to remember the way America "used to be."
My parents are from that same generation, and Didion bears a resemblence to a cousin. My grandparents are of the same generation as Didion's parents. Like them, we also have a family graveyard (ours is still in the family, still accepting members). And my father was an aerospace worker who lamented how things changed in his 42 years on the job, happy to now be retired.
I mention all this because "Where I Was From" had its greatest impact on me not as a depiction of the changes in the Golden State, but as a depiction of how a family ages, of how the older generations pass over the Great Break of the grave and the Great Divide of death. While it may feel true that the land is yours only after you bury your dead in it, underlying much of this book is a sadness that this may not be enough, that not even the graves of the elders shall be respected with the passage of time - that graveyards will be sold, driven over, dug up. That progress will efface all markers.
In retrospect there appears to have been no redemption for passing over the Great Plains. Perhaps there will be or will not be a redemption after passing through the grave. There is here an acceptance of the possibility that all is meaningless; and I was left with the impression that the title is facing the wrong direction. Perhaps it is not so much "Where I Was From" but "Where I Was Going." The promised land of the Golden State may prove to be nothing other than a hustler's illusion, there for the masses to devour only to enrich those who in turn will become the Disillusioned.
28 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on May 25, 2004
Didion writes in her characteristic style -- the clear, hesitant sentences that are reminiscent of James Baldwin. And, as usual, she tells a story behind a story, here about how the golden promise of California was often based on illusion, on schemes that enriches outsiders at the expense of the suckers who came to the state looking for a better life. Mixed in with all this is the story of her own family (the sophisticated New Yorker started life as a Sacramento girl).
So why only three stars? For me, as is often the case with this writer, I felt that she was straining to make a negative point, putting the worst spin on everything. Any time you devote a good chunk of a short book to the story of kids who turn to gang violence and drugs you're going to make a place look bad. Her limited focus on prison construction and other ideas that fail to bring in the promised wealth to locals overlooks the industries that have helped make the state rich, such homegrown enterprises as the wine growing of Napa, the silicon and software farms of Silicon Valley and, oddly enough, Hollywood (odd, because Didion has written so many screenplays herself).
All of these industries -- along with the state's once-vaunted school system, the University of California, the highways, etc. -- may be shadows of their former selves. But Didion refuses to find reasons for hope even in the natural beauty of the place, which is surely without rival in this country. The book is instructive about some of the underlying reasons for California's tough times and surely helps to deglamorize the place, but it ain't the whole story.
18 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on December 31, 2003
I grew up in San Diego and have lived in the Golden State all my life, but only in the previous three years of doctoral research into the psychic fallout of conquered California did I come to appreciate her history--including its shadows. Didion paints us vivid pictures of how closely the history of a place parallels what goes on in its current inhabitants. (Susan Griffin's A CHORUS OF STONES comes to mind, but it is less geographical.)
California's past is more troubled than most realize. From the mission system that wiped out thousands of Indians to the settlers who fought for "purity of labor" in the mines while supported by newspapers calling for outright eradication of native Californians; from the war against blacks (IF HE HOLLERS, LET HIM GO), ethnic Mexicans (see the work of Stephen Piti), and Asians (chronicled by Kevin Starr); from the replacement of green hills and native plants with asphalt and strip malls: the history of the state is a history of brutal conquest, Big Four imperialism, Southern Pacific "factories in the fields," and masses of people who cannot tell fantasy from reality. Ethnic cleansing, concentration camps, slave labor, bare-faced corruption in high places: we've seen it all and go on seeing it all. Eugenics laws in several states enforced the sterilization of those deemed unfit to breed, but only here could one find an actual State Lunacy Commission to oversee the process. (We now have a Self-Esteem Committee, a kinder, gentler form of control).
Why does this matter? Because the pain involved continues, as do the machinations and the pavings-over, the taking of roles for selves and the destruction of people and resources (hasta la vista, baby). In California we have not learned from our own past; we have covered it over and called ourselves liberals and agents of change, we whose Southern California cities were founded primarily by ex-Confederates looking for new places to build plantations. A hundred years of psychology should have warned us that what we repress from awareness does not go away: it festers like an untended wound. For that reason exposes such as Didion's perform the valuable service of showing us where our collective psyche hurts and stands in need of healing.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on March 31, 2013
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Perhaps I should have read this book before The Year of Magical Thinking, because I have now completely reversed my opinion (in the positive direction) of Didion and her writing. In Where I Was From, Didion has written a book that makes my scalp tingle with admiration. I read the book over a period of one week, in supermarket lines, doctor's offices, every sort of place I could squeeze in another sentence, paragraph, or chapter. I read aloud sections of chapters to my beloved husband, and made a pest of myself - interrupting his morning read of the New York Times. "You MUST hear this!" I would announce, and indeed, he would always end up glad.
The Crossing: Are you interested in the pioneers and the westward movement in the 1800s? This book brings intimate stories of particular families (including Didion's) to life, but in the CONTEXT of the larger move West, what it signifies, and how it has shaped the character of California and its residents TODAY. "The crossing" is the title Didion gives to what had to be chucked without a backward glance, to "make it to the pass in time before winter." California, she tells us, was flooded by people, not JUST the Donner party, who had to learn to let go and cast their pasts and cherished possessions and even faltering children and parents to the winds, the prairie, to unmarked graves, to the Dust Bowl - and move forward.
Why is California what it Is? Are you interested in the railroads, urban sprawl, the loss of wetland, the missing "old California" (which may have been an illusion to start with), the unemployed and homeless, the loss of funding for education, the millions occupying our prisons, the budget crisis in Sacramento, the water wars, agribusiness, and.... how all this ties together and links to the pioneers and the gold rush? Nothing is accidental, says Didion. It is the same "movie" replayed over and over. We have been careless in the way of the Great Gatsby, here in this state, breaking things, but with a spirit of optimism and good will that may save us after all. This book is profound and sad, half poetry, half NPR, half Men to Match my Mountains, and I have run out of halves!
I wish you the pleasure of finding this book, reading it, and perhaps being inspired to write a memoire of a similar sort: putting personal lives into the larger historical context. We need more of this!!!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 9, 2014
Daughter of a Sacramento "pioneer family", Didion sets out to demolish the pioneer mystique here by showing that the "rugged individualism" on which pioneers to the West in general and California in particular prided themselves was mostly empty posturing that depended on federal support for its "accomplishments."
Many other writers have said this, and Didion cites some of them-- Henry George, Josiah Royce, Frank Norris, John Muir, Robinson Jeffers. Most of them have seen a possible answer to the "boom and bust" chaos of western "development' in taking a lesson from Native Americans and learning to adapt to the natural world instead of trying to conquer and control it to fabricate various kinds of socioeconomic Disneylands.
But that possibility isn't open to Didion because. like a pioneer, she sees the natural world as a horror show with a rattlesnake behind every bush, a rattlesnake which she feels a duty, as a pioneer, to kill. So she generally cites her critical forebears mockingly or contemptuously unless, like Wallace Stegner and Bernard de Voto, they are too respected for such treatment. Then she ignores them, as she ignores Native Americans except as enemies of her pioneer ancestors.
So what is the point of this derivative exercise? It seems it is to be to justify Didion's personal decision to subdivide her land in California and move to New York, where she is a member of the literary elite. Not much of a learning experience for the reader who doesn't own Sacramento Valley land or publish in the New York Review of Books. And publishing a book like this without a bibliography or an index is surprisingly stingy. She couldn't afford to pay an indexer out of her royalties?
Still, Didion's writing is always readable, and there are some witty and evocative passages scattered through the lists and diatribes. I wish she'd had more to say about Thomas Kinkade, for example-- a phenomenon truly worthy of mockery and contempt.