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Where I Was From Hardcover – September 23, 2003

4.1 out of 5 stars 51 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.

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
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 226 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (September 23, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679433325
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679433323
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #710,048 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By L Goodman-Malamuth VINE VOICE on September 24, 2003
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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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?
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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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