Where I Was From

ISBN: 0679752862
ISBN 13: 9780679752868
By: Joan Didion

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Reader's Thoughts

Lori Ide

Didion, a native of California, has written a set of essays about the confusions and contradictions of California life. She is all over the place (in a good way). She writes about the Big Four (Stanford, Crocker, et al). I learned that the Southern Pacific Railroad owned a good part of California at one time. She touches on CA writers such as Jack London and Frank Norris. She writes about the Bohemian Club,the Donner Party, and the aerospace industry--seemingly unrelated but tied together nicely by this meticulous writer. She has done a lot of research to touch on all that she does. I was surprised to not see a bibliography, though.This was written a decade ago, but feels very current. For example,she writes of CA's long-existing water issues. I give this a big thumbs up.

Emily Yelencich

In 'Where I Was From', Didion writes an examination of California that is a historical account, while remaining deeply rooter in her personal experience and point of view. I am still as enamored by her writing as I was in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Didion structures Where I was From beginning with macro questions regarding California and proceeding to address those questions through her own filter. Much like certain essays in Crouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion ends this collection and examination quite abruptly with a highly personal series of essays. She does not dictate what the 'real' California experience is or the 'real' pioneer experience, but rather what is real for her family and her story. Through her own examination, it inspires a 'what's yours' but as a Californian it is impossible not to address the question.What is my relationship to California. To the 'change' Didion talks about? Or to the 'scrappy' entreprenureals? I would love to hear her take on Silicon Valley. Something I was thinking about that is adjacent to her points and perspective is how people from other states view California. Culturally it is still a highly idealized place with roads of gold. A promise land of sorts. People think of beaches and LA wealth and Silicon Valley and google and apple and San Diego sun and on and on. I found didion's examination of Lakewood SO interesting and beneficial the point she is trying g to make which is, it's an illusion. Somehow, between the people who live here and the people who dream of living here, we've created an image that Californians ourselves believe and buy into while the state as a whole is failing. The circumstances she illustrates in Lakewood have only gotten worse in the 13 years since this book was published. And yet.Also the way governments does and does not work! Californians have the strangest politics because there is still such a Sense of the pioneer and entrepreneur and individual. It was mostly individuals who made it here and as didion points out it grew too fast to think long term and plan a political system that would work for the broad demographics that the state ALREADY encompassed.After living in the northwest and reading Annie Dillard's intimate essays, musings and fiction based here, I would love to hear the two of them take a similar approach or even tone/subject on the two and do a comparison a grand west coast exposition. Just fun to imagine.Haha wrote this on a bus on my phone. Sloppy, but wanted to get it down :)

Jason Mckinney

As several people have already mentioned here, this is a disjointed attempt at a cohesive book. Split into four sections, this is more of a hodgepodge of reportage than the California memoir that I had hoped for. In fact, Didion seems to have culled a couple pieces from the past that she then incorporated into this, in addition to examining and analyzing her first novel. This isn't bad, and there truly are some interesting insights on her California life and the State's history, but it's not too solid of a work either.


This book suffered do to the circumstances in which I read it, a time of transition, hard to get a rhythm. Still, I didn't love this like I hoped. I thought it was solid, more of a 2.5, but lacked a lot of the power, craft, and voice of "Slouching." While she does investigate some of the history and myth-making of California, the most compelling parts of the book are personal, as at the end with her mother, and I wish it were the other way around. Still, as someone fascinated by his home, it was a book I could sympathize a lot with: "Yet California has remained in some way impenetrable to me, a wearying enigma, as it has to many of us who are from there. We worry it, correct and revise it, try and fail to define our relationship to it and its relationship to the rest of the country."

Lynn Kanter

I very much enjoyed this thoughtful, incisive examination of what it really means to come from, or belong to, California. Didion grew up in Sacramento surrounded by the pioneering legacy of California and its ethos of self-reliance and independence—only to look more closely and realize how thoroughly dependent the state’s agriculture, water and economy is on taxpayer funding from the very federal government that so many Californians disdain. Reading Didion is like listening to music, because her prose is so spectacularly sharp and clear, and her themes re-emerge and connect to one another in such unexpected yet harmonious ways.

David Boyd

I probably would have enjoyed this book if I had more of a long standing connection with California. Joan Didion writes really well, with a certain sadness and a satisfying way of bringing things together. In this and 'A Year of Magical Thinking', her non-fiction works, she uses extracts from a number other writings, including her own, which I find off putting, almost like a critique of other writers and her younger self. It seems to interrupt the flow, for me. I probably wouldn't recommend it unless you'd lived in California for a long time.


One of the most interesting things about the book is its unique form: alternating historical and personal essays centering around California and its history. I would not call it a "memoir" (though it is often billed as such). If you approach this expecting a cohesive story, you may be disappointed, but as a collection of essays, it is quite wonderful, full of interesting tidbits, literary references, and juicy history. Didion tries to grapple with some of the most basic tensions underlying Californian identity, and the results left me more ambivalent than ever about this crazy state (but no less fond of it). The next time I feel a pang of nostalgia for the "old California" I will surely think of this book, and wonder if the "old California" was really all it was cracked up to be (or whether it was maybe just a figment of my imagination).I recommend this for anyone identifying as "Californian." I imagine the deeper your roots in this state, the more you will appreciate this book.(The only reason this does not get five stars from me is a general lack of forward momentum that makes sense when you view this as a collection of stand-alone essays. While this is in every way a worthwhile read, it cannot be classified as a "page turner.")

Hank Stuever

In a way, everything Didion wrote led to this book. I think it's one of her best and I sort of consider it the end of the trail, even though her biggest publishing success ("The Year of Magical Thinking") was just around the corner. This is Didion's elegiac farewell to California, going back over her life and work and the pioneer myths onto which she had projected so much of her core narrative sensibilities. There's a real scope to it -- collecting a New Yorker piece about the teen sex posse in Lakewood, Calif., and some other California-related pieces for the NYRB -- and then some very good personal work near the end, on the death of her mother, which is in a way more powerful than the grief story told in "Magical Thinking." "The White Album" is my favorite Didion book, but this one is a close second.


Nobody writes better about California and what it means being a Californian then Joan Didion. In "Where I Was From" Didion looks at the state from a distance of time and geography as she breaks down California's essence. First there was the promise of the railroads and the rush of the '49ers exponentially increasing the state from a western dream into a disparate and unsustainable reality. After the railroads there's the promise of water and as before in previous essays Didion writes clearly about the problems of California's water systems. Water shapes and divides this state like no other and Didion fills California's water history with knowledge and passion. The military brought in promise too, mostly seen in the leftover shells of McDonnell Douglas plants and the vacant souls of Southern California communities stretching from Santa Monica to the unfortunately named Lakewood where there's no lake but only a mall to center the town. Santa Monica has a beach at least to fall into, Lakewood does not fare so well. The postwar boom years warped the California imagination and the expectations of its citizens. We really did believe we could educate everyone in one of the two great university systems. We really did fall for the ruse of instantly built cities where malls stood in for geographic backdrops. It could never really be the place that proved true the three-strikes-your-out law was just a machination of the prison guards union, could we? Being from California I found more truths to ponder in this book than I cared to. But Didion writes such lyrical truth about California and has for so long that even our native distorted visions of paradise still seem exotic and enticing and enduring. There's no reason not to disbelieve in California not even now. The taps still turn.


Read it for a California history course, so I read it over most of a semester. Unique look at this state that I'm glad I read. It was my first exposure to the work of Joan Didion; it convinced me I'd like to read more of her work.


I picked this one up after a close friend of mine had recently come in contact with someone who has spent significant time in California. This book is a collection of essays, uniquely Didion and therefore uniquely personal, about the history of California. In short, Didion says it best, “. . . this book represents an exploration into my own confusions about the place and the way in which I grew up, confusions as much about America as about California, misapprehensions and misunderstandings, so much a part of who I became that I can still to this day confront them only obliquely.” [What an example of a truly terrific Didion sentence.]This book is billed as Didion’s indictment of the State of California that is so very much a part of both her work and who she is in the larger scheme. I don’t know that it is exactly that, indeed to even contemplate writing a book about the “point” of California means that you are giving homage to its larger role within this country. I can’t really imagine being interested in reading a book about the “point” of Idaho, Oregon, or Maryland, for instance. Some of this book was a bit of a slog, but there were also moments of great brilliance. The section of the book involving the Spur Posse, a group of suburban Los Angeles county students at Lakewood high school who allegedly tracked sexual conquests with their own point system. Of course, Didion has larger, though uniquely subtle points to make about the changing nature of California. All in all, not my favorite Didion - but still worth it for the usual flashes of Didion’s greatness.


This was a tough book to get through, often dull, frequently depressing. Didion, a Sacramento-area native, examines the myth of the Calfornia Dream. She provides ample evidence that state residents are self-deluded and that their values frequently contradict (ie: believing we are anti-government mavericks, yet being reliant on the DOD for so many jobs). The book is well-researched and accounts of the media coverage of the "Spur Posse" and the number of prisons and insane asyllums in the state (that the penal system frequently received more funds than public schools!) are shocking and disturbing. Ultimately, this is a sad wake-up call for those who believe Calfornia is somehow immune to the nation's ills or has been "ruined" by "outsiders." The Golden Past is only real in a reminiscier's memory.


Joan Didion's constant name-dropping is such a turn-off to me that I almost didn't finish this book--she reminds me of the "cool kids" at high school. One of the reasons I completely avoid my class reunions. That said, I learned quite a bit of California history from this book that I'd not heard before (or perhaps slept through). We all know the stories about the pioneers who often had to bury their dead and jettison all personal effects on the trail, not to mention the ill-fated Donner Party. But California history and development is much more than that. I was familiar with the water issues after hearing Mark Arax, co-author of "The King of California" interviewed at Copperfield's, but I really didn't understand the impact of the railroad barons and later WWII and the aerospace industry in the development of Southern California. We can't forget about our burgeoning prison industry and the correctional officers' political machine behind the tougher sentencing laws and three strikes initiative that is keeping our prisons bursting with small-time pot offenders. Oy vey. I didn't realize that the anti-immigration attitude has been a part of our past back when the Chinese were subjected to miscegenation laws.If you can get past the "in-crowd" mentality--I mean, after all, she did grow up next to Jerry and Kathleen Brown fergodssake--read this book. If you love California despite her checkered past and present, read this book. If you can't imagine living anywhere else on this green earth, read this book.


Well, I only got half way through this one. The last chapter I landed on, about the Spur Posse and the stark reality of a pre-designed faux ownership class called Lakewood, seems to be the best chapter in the book. It was a struggle to get there. I feel odd reviewing a book I only read half of, but take a jab at this if you need to. Correct me if I am wrong. Tell me Joan Didion didn't write a whole book about the underbelly of the California dream and leave out the injustices done to people of color. Tell me it ain't so. Because, as far as I can see, Joan, who is a CA native, wrote this "expose" on the great golden state, and seems to feign shock that the westward expansion was less than pleasant, that the water wars and the railway building did not benefit the masses in conception or manifestation. And mostly from the viewpoint of the privelaged. Her book starts with a twisting and turning history of the Sacramento River, dives loosely into the trek from east to west, the railways, etc, etc. We have heard this story. Joan is correct in pointing out that this is usually a glamorized, romantic tale of rugged individualism. She is also correct in pointing out that CA is one of the more dependant states on federal funding in the nation, and has been from the start. She delivers this as if this contrast were some massive epiphany, as if she truly discovered this novel idea. Strcuk gold, if you will.Some how, Didion misses the bulk of CA history. All her stories (or at least half of them) are told from the trite viewpoint of wealthy white men and women. Property owners. Barons. She misses the true injustices that have built CA into the amazing place it is today. I am not asking her to write the story of the Native American, I am not asking her to conjure images of every Chinese man's sweat and blood over the iron tracks they lay, or to pay book length homage to Hispanic families who are the backbone of the agricultural industry in CA- but a nod, a wave from your new Manhattan pedestal Joan! Something. I knew the minute she started this historical account without a mention of the people and land that came before the white "settlers" that we were in for a one way perspective ride. Don't trash CA unless you trash it right. Otherwise, you won't see the people who overcame the struggles. That's why CA rocks it.

Kim Fay

Reading this book was like being given half the pieces of a puzzle and trying to create the whole image from them. The result was far better than having been given all of the pieces, because I spent part of the time with this book in my hands, reading it, and other part with this book in my hands, thinking about what I was reading and making the connections, based on my own experiences and opinions. The book, essentially, is about place. Specifically: California, and the myth of idealism that created it and continues to drive it. Most interesting to me in all of Didion's observations are those that regard economics. And how economy shapes mindset and morality (and I don't mean the latter in a churchy way). California was and continues to be built on boosterism and pipe dreams, and yet it is in fact a place of hard reality and always has been ... except perhaps for the movie stars! Also, as this book shows, California is very much a cautionary tale for those who believe in the fairy tale version of the American Dream.

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