Where I Was From

ISBN: 0679752862
ISBN 13: 9780679752868
By: Joan Didion

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Reader's Thoughts

Heather Anderson

I was born in California and lived there until I was 37 years old. We studied State History in grade school, the whole thing from the native tribes and the Spanish padres and settlers. Joan's book is unique in that here is are parts of California history that I am unfamiliar with. I particularly like the parts about the asylums. It's not all rosy happy sunshine. Her family's story is unique and it was refreshing to read a story from a completely different perspective from what I have known. I'm biased, she is one of my favorite authors. I found this in the nonfiction section of the public library in the California History section.

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 :)

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.


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.


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.


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.


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 love Joan Didion. Really, I do. She's kind of my idol. But most unfortunately, Where I Was From didn't really do it for me. I was expecting to love it: it's about California, gritty LA sprawl California with teenage gangs (actually, that part was good) growing up in Sacramento in the '40s and '50s, the decline of ranches and the rise of water wars, and the consequences of the arrival of the railroad. The railroad part is mostly what killed it for me, because she started talking about The Octopus, by Frank Norris circa 1901. I read this book my senior year of college in a late 19th century American lit class. It is an extremely boring book, even though I'm theoretically interested in the railroad and what it did to the west. I don't even remember the particulars about what was so boring about The Octopus because I didn't finish it, and have blocked out what I did read. So when Didion started talking about it, she lost me. Mentioning The Octopus is stale and dense. I don't care how relevant Norris and his account are, surely there's a more exciting way to talk about a significant historic event. So basically I still love Didion. And everything else of hers I've ever read. But not this book.

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.


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.


"Where I Was From" is a personal and critical examination of the author's years living in California. I enjoyed this book very much, having a personal link to California. My mother's family settled in Tulare County, in the southeast of the San Juanquin Valley. My mother migrated East for university and then marriage. Trips to California were not frequent, but always an event. Perhaps that is California's magical hold on me. A brave new world not tied to the increasingly disappointing realities of life back home.Reading "Where I Was From" I was able to witness Ms. Didion's growth as a resident of the Golden State and share her growing understanding of tarnish of her home state. As the book is in the form of a memoir, it allows for the inclusion of all subject matter presented as the author knows it. Subjects are presented from the author's point of view as well as from the common or popular point of view.I live in a place with a fascinating history, Washington, DC. If you are one of many who hate Washington (some in spite of never having been here), I would try to tell you of the may wonderful about my city (please note, Washington, DC is not a state). I feel that is what Ms. Didion has done with "Where I Was From", not so much only her California, but the many Californias that exist for the many different people with California on their minds.


This book was about the "confusions, misapprehensions and misunderstnadings" about California, where the author grew up. Her family moved from Virginia in 1766. Didion grew up hearing the wagon-train stories of hardship and abandonment and endurance. She thinks these stories, part of California folklore, created a culture in which survival would seem the sole virtue. She sees the pattern of "folly and recklessness" leading the state to mortgage itself first to the the railroad, then the aerospace industry, and then the federal government. An example of Californians selling themselves out to the highest bidder is the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. The state loves prisons. In 1994 standardized testing of reading skills of CA fourth graders placed them last in the nation, tied with LA. It was 1995 when, for the first time, CA spent more on its prisons than on its two university systems. The Univ. of CA has ten campuses and CA State Univ. has 24 campuses. Another interesting thing was mental institutions. In 1978, CA had a higher rate of commitment for insanity than any other state. A state mental hospital physician says it was not just the mentally ill, but "imbeciles, dotards, idiots, drunkards, simpletons, fools, the aged, the vagebond, and the helpless." Between 1906 and 1929, 59% of those committed to mental institutions were not because of violence or a threat to themselves or others, but because they exhibited "odd or peculiar behavior." An interesting quote from Didion was: "There was near Sacramento an asylum where I was periodically taken with my Girl Scout troop to exhibit for the inmates our determined cheerfulness while singing rounds, nine-year-olds with merit badges on our sleeves pressed into service as Musicians and Assistant Attendants." Now a description of Didion's mother: "She was passionately opinionated on a number of points that reflected, on examination, no belief she actually held." Her mother's most frequent line was: "What difference does it make?" Interesting book. I should have given it a four-star rating. I just changed it. Victor Davis Hanson: "Material bounty and freedom are so much stronger incentives than sacrifice and character."


This might just be my favorite Didion, as it’s at once a deeply personal memoir about growing-up in booming, post-war Northern California as well as an exacting examination of stark and precipitous change—and the promises, the devastation, and the hypocrisy that follow. As someone who grew up amidst acute change—in my case, it was the massive population explosion in the 80s and 90s along the Colorado Front Range—this book hits home, reminding me that I did understand more than I realized and that it’s all too easy to put a “Native” bumper sticker on one’s car and explain away all unwanted change as something others brought with them. Where I Was From is about acknowledging our complicity in such a shift, proof that "'change' itself [is] one of the culture's most enduring misunderstandings about itself," (p. 188) and a reminder that the entire West was founded on the alluring but false idea—the manqué promises—of “the cutting clean which was to have redeemed them all.” (p. 159)

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.

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