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The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California

4.44  ·  Rating details ·  410 ratings  ·  87 reviews
Author Mark Arax is from a family of Central Valley farmers, a writer with deep ties to the land who has watched the battles over water intensify even as California lurches from drought to flood and back again. In The Dreamt Land, he travels the state to explore the one-of-a-kind distribution system, built in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, that is straining to keep up with Cali ...more
Hardcover, 576 pages
Published May 21st 2019 by Knopf Publishing Group
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Average rating 4.44  · 
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Stuart Woolf
Jul 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
Note: The second-to-last chapter of this book, titled "960-acre babies", is about my extended family. Jack Woolf, the family patriarch, is my grandfather; Stuart Woolf, his son and successor, is my father. The reception of the book within our family has been mixed: it does not present us in a positive light, and some feel it is factually inaccurate. (This latter group includes me, but the inaccuracies are minor: my brother Wiley, for example, was not named after Wylie Giffen, who led Sun Maid in ...more
Jun 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating and well-written history of the Central Valley in CA told mainly through the lens of farmers. Based on that description alone, I would agree that it doesn’t exactly scream ‘Read me!’, until you realize the skill of the author (a former LA Times reporter) to weave the foundational history (eg gold rush) with the current challenges of water, drought, law, immigration, environment, and capitalism - oh, and the ego of man to bend nature to its will. Ultimately, it’s a story of America. ...more
Jun 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
If you are a land owner in California this feels like a must read! An excellent history of California’s water woes punctuated with many stories of the local growers. I listened to the book and was rapt to his every word, it’s a long book, maybe 13 hours, my batteries don’t last that long so forced to make this a two day venture, I yearned to get back to it! I am an avid gardener with a deep interest in nuturing the land, was gardening the entire times I listened and enjoyed hearing all aspects. ...more
Mar 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
”I’ve gone through three of these (boom bust agricultural) cycles [connected to drought / flood cycle] , and none of them has been crazier than this one. In my grandfather’s day, if you didn’t have your land paid off, you couldn’t add a single acre. Today, you can be carrying a debt of eight grand an acre, and they’ll let you borrow twelve grand an acre to plant more almonds and pistachios. Equity and cheap interest rates means oversupply. And oversupply means a demand for water than cannot be m
Elizabeth Rynecki
Jun 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I’m a bit more than halfway through this book. At 530 pages it is not a light summer read. It is, however, a beautifully written book and one that lots of people ought to be required to read - particularly California politicians. It’s the story of water, the California land grab, politics, agriculture in the arid West, greed, and ingenuity.
Julianne Burk
Apr 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A brilliant blend of investigative research, history and storytelling. There’s even poetry in these lines. A massive accomplishment by Mr. Arax!
Aug 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
To get my one complaint out of the way: this book needed more maps! There's one basic one at the beginning, but the author references many different geographies than are labeled on it, and in different levels of detail. Especially as a non-Californian, I very much wanted a little more illustration of exactly what kinds of places I was dealing with in each chapter.

A fascinating read overall - natural and man-made history, California mythology and myth-busting in all its contradictions. I love the
Sep 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
“Of the fifty-four thousand, how many will make it back here, you think?” “If we’re lucky, maybe seven or eight,” she said. It was at that point that I fully understood what we as a people had done. A river is a highly dynamic force that possesses incredible powers to heal itself. Like the salmon, it had been coded to find its way back. But our destruction of the San Joaquin—six dams upstream, a seventh dam right here, a flow devoted to agriculture with only a trickle left over for fish—was an i ...more
Oct 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is the ultimate story about CA and water explaining more than you care. We read this for Book Club, otherwise I would have missed it. Very easy and interesting read. More than you would think.
Jul 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Mark Arax is a great writer and story teller and here he tells an incredible tale of the monumental re-plumbing of the rivers of central California to serve the needs of (Big) agriculture and growing cities and subdivisions. The story is astounding. Arax provides great context for the California boom-bust, drought-flood culture and mentality that leads to this re-plumbing by going back to the Spanish settlement of California and the discovery of gold in the 1840's at Sutter's Mill. Throughout th ...more
A disturbing and timely book about climate change and the history of American exploitation of California. The Spanish then the Mexicans enslaved the Native Americans but Sutter and American settlers brought money and technology to a whole new level when they arrived. One of Sutter’s men did discover a small nougat of gold and was overheard trying to verify it with a mining specialist in town. The rush of miners and people searching for gold brought about the dissemination of the natives who were ...more
Craig Petinak
Jun 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
For anybody thinking their opinion about water in California is well-informed, read this book and you'll learn how the history of how we arrived at today's (and tomorrow's) situation is far more nuanced than you could possibly imagine. As a grandchild of a small acreage farmer in the Central Valley, this book connects me to my ancestors in so many ways that I lost track of the stream. Really wish I could have read this book with my own grandfather and my great-great grandfather, Thomas Law Reed, ...more
Jun 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
If there is one book to read on water AND the history of California (which are essentially synonymous), this would be it.
Aug 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Brilliant telling of the history of California through the lens of water use. Arax's writing is superb.
Jul 15, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: did-not-finish
This is my first DNF of the year, and I'm sorry it had to end this way. I really am interested in this topic and it is clearly a massive effort of research, but the writing doesn't work for me. It's just too long, too wordy, too pretentious. I didn't quite make it halfway through and I kept getting distracted while reading. After 10 days of wondering if I'm just too basic to get into this book, I remembered I'm not (that) basic and have read a lot of challenging books, plus this being an area of ...more
Jul 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book is both informative and entertaining, especially to those of us in California. The history and personal stories hold your interest through a well written narrative. I listened to the book and I recommend it as the storyteller is the author. The book adresses the growth of "the Valley", Sacramento, San Joaquin, Kern, Kings and others and the growth that was brought about by politicians and large land holders. But the growth of the land use has come with much controversy with increased w ...more
As usual I've waited too long after finishing to write up any thoughts. My remaining impressions are equally typical: edifying but maddeningly lacking in citation, rendering what could have been a valuable history of water in California down to a hodge-podge of of errata and autobiography. An entertaining, educational hodge-podge full of great leads, but on the whole not something I would ever feel comfortable citing directly.

I will say that Arax has a nose for errata that are not trivial to loo
Oct 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: book-club
I don't know which is the greater feat - that Mark Arax wrote a comprehensive book about the manipulation of water in California or that I actually finished this book. Picked by my book club, so not a book I would normally read, it was at first a chore to read but by the end it became a need to find out what conclusions the author would come to after his rumination on this subject. Starting with John Sutter the author begins the history of agriculture in California and covers everything that's h ...more
Tom Brennan
Apr 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: own
The history of the American West is a history of water. Arax understands that in his bones. He's chased that story much of his life, and it shows in this very good work. Yes, he inserts himself into it too much. Yes, he can be unbalanced at times, erring on the side of unreasonable environmentalism. But those things said, he writes a very good (his)story here. It helps that he is a very good writer, and it helps even more that he is clearly passionate about his subject. My favorite portions were ...more
Jul 30, 2020 rated it really liked it
if you've ever been on the i-5 in california and passed those signs that say "congress created the drought" and wondered what the hell that means, then this book answers that question and many more. like, i didn't know that california was prone to flooding, or that california has one of the most impressive/complicated hydraulics systems in the world, or that farmers regularly go against the law during droughts and draw groundwater that is rapidly depleting, thus causing the ground in those areas ...more
Jill Cordry
This book is very informative, but could have been New Yorker magazine article length.
Jan 02, 2020 rated it liked it
Reading the book highlighted to me how very little I know about how water is handled as a resource in California. It's a fascinating book, an opinionated enough that it left me feeling like I should read more about the subject, to get a broader picture of water management (or lack thereof ) in the state.
Myfanwy Johnston
Mar 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Angela Juline
Aug 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Who knew the story of water in California could be so interesting. Seriously - I loved this book. I listened to the author read it, and I wish I had a print copy of the book to really focus on the mind-blowing information he presents. The water issues in California are not as simple as we like to make it. There have been so many deals that water from one place is sent to another place to be taken from another place to replace the water from the first place. California wouldn't be the California ...more
Dec 05, 2019 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Alexander Poulsen
Oct 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
“You can’t understand California without understanding water.” I grew up in central California, but this book taught me so much that I never knew about my home state. Some things I had heard inklings of, but didn’t understand. For many others, I was completely unaware. California truly is the “dreamt land,” more than I had ever realized— meaning that the way it currently exists was dreamt up and created, contrary to its true nature. Mark Arax writes beautifully and passionately as a native son o ...more
Linda Gaines
Mar 13, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, anthropology
This book is way, way, way too long. It was clearly well researched, but the author either can't keep on topic or couldn't decide what the topic is. The books for the most part is about the constant drought and flood cycles in California and the users of water. For the most part, it is about farmers and just a little about city users. The history of farming and water use, where all the water is coming, and the effects of using more water than is really available is interesting. The politics of i ...more
Sep 23, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audio, memoir, non-fiction
both enlightening and disappointing
many parts of the the book are straight from his West of the West book.
both books repeat phrases that come across as affectations.
Lots of research is covered and is to be applauded.
Keith W
Aug 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the best books I have ever read — certainly in the top ten and probably in the top five. The story is compelling and the writing downright magical. Mark Arax is a master of the English language who can make words and sentences dance on the page.

Drawing on a wealth of sources, including between "275 and 300" personal interviews, 130 hours of oral history and his own top-notch investigative reporting, Arax tells the story of water usage and water manipulation in California and espe
Jun 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
Dreamt Land tells the complex history of agriculture and water in the San Joaquin Valley which story reaches a little into the Sacramento Valley as well. From a reader's perspective with no prior knowledge of that history, I think they will struggle. Too often Arax wanders through storylines that are confusing. Having personally had a considerable amount of experiences with many of the characters and events portrayed in Dreamt Land, it was easier and of interest to me to see how Arax portrays th ...more
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In the world of journalism, Mark Arax stands out as a rarity. On one hand, he is a skilled investigative reporter who unearths secrets from the depths of shadow governments. On the other hand, he is a gifted writer whose feature stories and books are distinguished by the “poetry of his prose.”

His Los Angeles Times stories revealing state sanctioned murder and cover-up in California prisons were pr

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Are you spending this season bundling up against the chill or enjoying summery southern hemisphere vibes (in which case we are...
77 likes · 28 comments
“He wants to think of himself as pious, honorable, churchgoing, civic-minded. The bent-down Mexican can drive the farmer to madness, to drink, to whoring, to collecting Ferraris, to the roulette table to gamble it all away. That’s why the labor contractor came into existence. It’s not as if the farmer can’t” 1 likes
“At the counter sat the biggest fruit grower in the valley, a soft-spoken Lebanese-American named Ray Gerawan who knew my family and pulled me closer. Let me explain what seems like a paradox to you, he said. It isn’t a paradox at all. The farmer and the Mexican are engaged in a centuries-long game. As rich as the farmer might be, his workers can still bring him to his knees if they realize their power. The farmer doesn’t like feeling vulnerable. He supported the ballot measure because he knew that even if it went” 0 likes
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