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Where I Was From [Paperback]

Joan Didion
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

6 Sep 2004

A memoir of land, family and perseverance from one of the most influential writers in America.

In this moving and surprising book, Joan Didion reassesses parts of her life, her work, her history – and America’s. Where I Was From, in Didion's words, "represents an exploration into my own confusions about the place and the way in which I grew up, misapprehensions and misunderstandings so much a part of who I became that I can still to this day confront them only obliquely."

The book is a haunting narrative of how her own family moved west with the frontier from the birth of her great-great-great-great-great-grandmother in Virginia in 1766 to the death of her mother on the edge of the Pacific in 2001; of how the wagon-train stories of hardship and abandonment and endurance created a culture in which survival would seem the sole virtue. Didion examines how the folly and recklessness in the very grain of the California settlement led to the California we know today – a state mortgaged first to the railroad, then to the aerospace industry, and overwhelmingly to the federal government.

Joan Didion's unerring sense of America and its spirit, her acute interpretation of its institutions and literature, and her incisive questioning of the stories it tells itself make this fiercely intelligent book a provocative and important tour de force from one of America’s greatest writers.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; New Ed edition (6 Sep 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007178875
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007178872
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 1.6 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 262,253 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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Product Description


‘Her tough, beautiful, surgically precise prose is like nothing else I’ve ever read.’ Donna Tartt

‘She is a voice like no other in contemporary journalism.’ New York Times

‘Everything Didion writes has a land’s end edginess to it- a hyperattentiveeye on the dramas of the human condition. She writes as someone who has come through great shudders of the earth with a fundamental understanding that everything is subject to instantaneous and complete revision.’ Village Voice

‘She is the best chronicler California has.’ Vogue

‘Valediction and elegy alike, WHERE I WAS FROM is a storm-tossed book… Some writers see Californians as brilliant dreamers; others see failures, seeking a second start. Didion steps over both arguments and portrays the settlers of the state as shrewd entrepreneurs who would stop at nothing to turn dirt into dollars.’ Thomas Curwen, LA Times

About the Author

Joan Didion was born in California and lives in New York. She is the author of five novels and six previous books of nonfiction: among them the great portraits of a decade in essays, Sentimental Journeys, The White Album, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 49 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The collapse of the California Dream 13 Oct 2003
California is changing, and it upsets old folks.
Didion is clearly upset, like a variety of folks ranging in age from those of tender young years
to fossilized old fogies. They are hurt, bewildered, confused and made mad by change.
Arizons is flooded with refugees from California who want to go back to "the good old days"
-- they have utterly restored Prescott into a brand new Victorian town of the 1890s, and
they are now restoring the glory of the 1920s and 1930s in central Phoenix.
Like many of the elderly in mind, spirit and outlook, Didion regrets what is past. She doesn't
seem to understand that even if the future is different, it may be better. It's a story of her
family intertwined with modern California; both her ancestors and California are examples of
people constantly on the move in the search for something better -- even if they don't know
what that "something" might be, and even if they lose their heritage by moving.
Granted, Didion is the "intellectual" of the family. This book gave me the distinct impression
she'd be much happier, fulfilled and content if her ancestors had never left Alsace. Somehow
I doubt if she speaks German -- she wouldn't go back to Alsace unless she spoke German,
just to show the Frenchies that her past is more important than their conquests. So she did
the next best thing, and now lives in New York.
As a genuine New Yorker, which is not "her" city so she doesn't mind how it changes, she
offers a long recital of California happenings as seen by an original family and finds the state
much lacking since her departure. Any one of us, and I'm no exception, can return to our
"hometown" and find similar faults.
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Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  34 reviews
93 of 107 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars America's greatest writer pops out her best book yet 25 Sep 2003
By L Goodman-Malamuth - Published on Amazon.com
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.
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing California 25 Oct 2003
By Cascade Range - Published on Amazon.com
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.
44 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Where we came from 28 July 2005
By C. Ebeling - Published on Amazon.com
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. The lesson about development is also played out through the history of the Lakewood community tangent to LA, one that did not exist until the 1950s when it was created on former ranch land and became a whole town with a resident employer, the defense contractor McDonell Douglas, with whose fortunes, given and taken away by the federal government, it rose and emptied, spewing forth a notoriously violent, purposeless youth culture.

This book resonates deeply with me--as a child, I watched my animal-loving mother weep as she killed the rattlesnake, and the ranch and the winery were gone by the time I was born--but I have to think that this beautifully crafted book should be of value to all Americans because, as John Donne said, none of us is an island and what happens to one part can bear significance for the rest.
27 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Making peace with California 3 Mar 2005
By William Chaisson - Published on Amazon.com
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.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Some dreamers of the golden dream 1 Oct 2006
By E. Kutinsky - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
"A good deal about California does not, on its own preferred terms, add up." This sentence, which opens Didion's third chapter in Where I Was From, is characteristic of the sort of pummeling understatement and reserve that characterizes all of Didion's work - humble, free of ostentation, profound in implication. No, the California Didion presents does not add up - a place defined by a jettisoning pioneer spirit "destroyed" by its own sense of development, a place defined equally by class as it is by people who say sentences like "we don't discuss class here," a place , Didion's Sacramento specifically, both defined by and existing in spite of its geography. Her contradictions of place and identity take Didion from one heavily scrutinized example to another - the Spur Posse, Boeing, Douglas, pioneers on the Sierra Nevadas, prisons, insane asylums - and if Didion's argument of conflicted identity doesn't always connect in thinking later about her specifics, the reading is as fluid, as full-bodied in argument and fact, as merciless an investigation as anything she's ever written. Didion has long been defined by her identity to California, something that comes up in all of her writings, whether in New York or El Salvador, so to see her tackle it so specifically - at one point even deconstructing (with fascinating effect) her own first novel, Run River - is a thrill. What will be of most fascination, undoubtedly, will be the 4th section of the book, the short, devastating section detailing the death of Didion's mother, yet what makes this piece so compelling is the grand scale of Didion's research and work - her California becomes a grand exercise in characterization. Her description in this section is some of the most agonizingly evoked, rich, and understated work of her career, and if the sections preceding it - highly descriptive, full of research often much fuller and drier than expected - can seem aimless when thinking about them, the finest compliment I can give Where I Was From is that, in the effortless and moving reading of the book, it evokes exactly what Didion wants of California, of her, and of her mother, and no more.
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