Where I Was From

ISBN: 0679752862
ISBN 13: 9780679752868
By: Joan Didion

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Reader's Thoughts


3/4 of this book is wonderful. Didion, one of my favorite writers, does a fantastic job of exploring the history of California and of her own family, whose ancestors came to California in the mid-19th century; I suspect many people, like me, think of California in strictly modern (if not postmodern) terms, so the fact that the state even has a history is something of a revelation. She does a great job, unsurprisingly, of filtering that history (and, as she moves to the present, sociology) through her own well-developed sense of irony about the contradictions that attend it. Unfortunately, all this is derailed by Part 2 (of 4) of the book, an extended discussion of the Spur Posse episode of the 1990s; this section, which has been collected elsewhere (perhaps in After Henry ? I can't recall), feels like padding and disrupts the overall flow of the book, to its detriment. A shame, really, because the rest of it is terrific.

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.

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.


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.


One of my goals is to write a single sentence as good as one of Joan Didion's, an ambition fueled, in part, by the fact that she grew up near Sacramento (as I did). This is a personal reflection of familiar things, a different perspective than my own. I suspect that all places carry inherent contradictions: certainly California, with its successive waves of immigrants (both from other states and other countries), and its money-making potential (land, ports, intellect) has many. Didion comes from a family that has been here for a long time, a family that made money by, at least in part, being speculators and developers. Not unlike many here. While for some, there is a dedication to the "land" as an almost spiritual source of food and life, for many, there is always a belief that somehow, someway, things will be even better than they are now. Certainly, it's no wonder that we are grappling with bad mortgages, bad planning, and now a bad educational system. Perhaps our current love of prisons is our only way to reconcile the widely disparate parts of the "California dream."


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."


"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.

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 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.


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.


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.

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 :)


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.

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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