Where I Was From

ISBN: 0679752862
ISBN 13: 9780679752868
By: Joan Didion

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Reader's Thoughts


I’m tempted to just throw down a one sentence review that says, “Damn, this woman can write!” and just leave it there, by itself. But then I suppose that would be completely obvious to anyone who has ever read anything Didion has written or spectacularly unhelpful for anyone wondering what this book might be about. So “Where I Was From” finds Didion wrestling with the “confusions and contradictions in California life” in both the larger sense and, as the title intimates, the personal one. Subjects range all over the map from the dying Orange County aerospace industry, to San Francisco’s Bohemian Club to um Thomas Kinkaid, “Painter of Light”. And it is a mark of Didion’s skill as a writer that she can make even subjects like this, of which I have very little curiosity, interesting to read about. And she’s at her absolute best when that razor-sharp insight is turned towards herself and her family.

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.


I am a fan of Joan Didion, a voracious reader of her books, but WIWF gave me pause. Just as Didion was asking "the point of California," I started to ponder the point of Joan Didion. Always brilliant, of course, but also morose and sour. Her subjects meander, and she seems displeased and disappointed by everything. (Could she really not find a novel more suitable to summarize the Californian experience than "The Octopus"? Had she simply avoided Steinbeck her whole life? Was Ellroy too lowbrow? And did she really have to dedicate so many pages to the "Spur Posse"? Did the Spur Posse really denote the Californian zeitgeist, or was she simply obsessed with their antics? And what a pathetic bunch, those "Spurs"; for a second, I thought the place Didion was from was Texas).What's more, her approach is routinely passive-aggressive; she rarely condemns explicitly, but lets the absurdity of people's actions and comments speak for themselves. This gets tiresome, after so many books, and I can't say I look forward to another bleak volume. I was going to leapfrog to "Miami," but I might leave that for next year, when the Californian malaise has worn off.


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.


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."


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."


I loved this book.


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.

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.

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.


While I wouldn't say this is my favorite Joan Didion book I did enjoy it. She would probably be my desert island author if I had to choose one. I always love the way she intertwines her own life narrative into a larger (usually political) story. And since I too grew up in California, a generation after Didon(my parents driving their Ford station wagon west in 1984,) there is a connection to the story for me. In Third Grade I got caught up in the California Mythology. I wanted to be one of those pioneers that came west in wagon trains and I was convinced there was still "gold in dem dar hills." Eventually you have to comes to terms that school only gives us the heroic side of the story. The chapters on the Bohemian Club, and who exactly owns most of the land and how they got it, were eye opening. Especially coming off just having seen There Will Be Blood. So here's what I learned from this book: Greed, it would seem, can make an oasis out of a desert. On the increasingly dimming bring side, there are still a few left who see a snake on the road and kill it.


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.


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.


"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.

Susan Eubank

How she processed her mother's death.Here are the questions we discussed at the Reading the Western Landscape Book Club at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden.• How did the stories she chose to tell tie in with each other? Or not? Examples?• Give examples of the ties or lack of flow from one story to another?• How does the Lakewood story relate to the Sacramento Delta story?• Do the individuals she tells about have characteristics in common?• Do the California gyrations she describes differ from the rest of the nation?• How does her mother’s death fit with the stories she tells?• Which story resonated for you the most or made you the most mad or upset you the most? Why?• Do you have a relationship to any of the stories?

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