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Where I Was From

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  3,533 ratings  ·  366 reviews
In her moving and insightful new book, Joan Didion reassesses parts of her life, her work, her history and ours. A native Californian, Didion applies her scalpel-like intelligence to the state’s ethic of ruthless self-sufficiency in order to examine that ethic’s often tenuous relationship to reality.

Combining history and reportage, memoir and literary criticism, Where I Wa
Paperback, 240 pages
Published September 14th 2004 by Vintage (first published September 2003)
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Average rating 3.86  · 
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 ·  3,533 ratings  ·  366 reviews

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Mar 22, 2012 rated it really liked it
So, so good. Family memoir, social history, contemporary reportage and literary criticism (of Frank Norris, Jack London, and Joan Didion) in perfect proportions, synthesized in her sad and piquant prose, her "astringent lyricism." A patient autopsy of the myths of the American West, of Progress. I want to shelve this with the Bridge novels and Son of the Morning Star; Didion and Connell children of the Plains and the Far West, with their doubts and dry wits, sly siblings winking to each other ac ...more
Nov 02, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2015
“Discussion of how California has 'changed,' then, tends locally to define the more ideal California as that which existed at whatever past point the speaker first saw it: Gilroy as it was in the 1960s and Gilroy as it was fifteen years ago and Gilroy as it was when my father and I ate short ribs at the Milias Hotel are three pictures with virtually no overlap, a hologram that dematerializes as I drive through it.”
― Joan Didion, Where I Was From

“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it h
Miss. Gray
Jun 26, 2007 rated it it was ok
Shelves: politicshistory
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 c
Anne B
Oct 24, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was raised in California, still live here, and have read Didion all my life. I was thinking of her words on the Santa Ana winds when I finished this book, while a firebug in Los Angeles took advantage of the hot winter weather to set cars on fire across the Westside. Ain't no crazy like a California crazy, I thought; but Joan says it better.

We can divide Didion's work into phases: investigative, fictional, and her late work, mostly memoir. I reject the idea that her earlier stuff is somehow s
Jan 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
Joan Didion discusses her family and their migration to California. She separates fact from fiction in the stories told, not only about her own family, but also about her native California. Exploring bits and pieces from the 19th century to 21st, readers are treated to well-written essays showing the spirit of true Californians.My favorite essays, of course, were those exploring her own family or which included information on the family of her subjects. Thomas Kincade was the starting point of o ...more
Hank Stuever
Jul 16, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
M. D.  Hudson
Apr 14, 2010 rated it really liked it
Joan Didion strikes me as being one of the smartest writers in America, with a firm but quiet authority that makes me trust her absolutely. She is also probably the last social commentator in America who is not shouting with little rivulets of mad-dog spittle flying from the corners of her mouth.

Sometimes the book was truly thought-changing for me in not only how I regard California, but how I regard the whole westward expansion aspect of the USA. I live in Fort Wayne, IN – once the hot center
Jun 28, 2011 rated it it was ok
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 (t ...more
Sep 06, 2010 rated it liked it
During college, I heard Joan Didion read from this book. She is a miniscule person with giant glasses, a quiet voice, and a knack for putting words together that really blows me away. I finally got around to reading it. Joan Didion could write a book about plastic bags and I'd still read it, and still probably like it. This topic wasn't something I particularly give a damn about (California history), but her writing is so elegant, understated and thoughtful that I liked it for form over substanc ...more
Sep 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
How does she do it? How does Didion masterfully write in so many different genres at once?

A handful of pages into this book, I thought it was going to be a historical chronicle of family history. But then it was literary criticism. And then it was trenchant cultural commentary. And then it was almost poetry. Around page seventy-five, I realized that I wouldn't be able to place the literary form. This genre-bending tale transcends them all. Because it's not just a little bit of this and a little
Jul 21, 2007 rated it really liked it
this is not a book i ever would have picked up on my own. i didn't think i cared about a personal history of california told by a wealthy white woman. i underestimated how a mind and a pen like joan didion's can shape a subject. navigating between irrigation, mythology, american dreaming, race riots, and the muted undercurrent of class, didion creates a poignant landscape that refuses to indulge mere sentiment. there are turns of phrase in here that took my breath away. quote(s) to come.
Jul 07, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: usa-california
My new friend Chris sent me this book after I took him to Point Reyes for the day. I think I did a pretty good job of convincing him that California is a really nice place to live. He recommended (and sent me) this book - an homage and narrative of the state by one of its most revered writers. It's really fascinating. It's a fairly slim book, but it took me two weeks to get through. That's a big compliment - I kept slowing down and rereading passages, unwilling to miss anything.
Jimmy R
Jul 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I read this when it first came out. I returned to it yesterday specifically to read the second part of the book, the part about Lakewood and how the Spur Posse came to be. To my mind, there is no better reporter than Joan Didion, no better essayist. She has what used to be called "a way with words." She has the rare ability to zone in on the particular details that make a story compelling. (She can do no wrong.)
May 07, 2020 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: anyone who loves this complex and contradictory State
Joan Didion thoughtfully and dispassionately examines the contradictions in California's ethos, the central one being a State that prides itself on rugged individualism and the spirit of entrepreneurism, which was only sustained by massive Federal subsidies of the railroads, waterways, and military contracts. Most of these contradictions are explored through her family's multigenerational history in the Central Valley, and through the writings of Jack London, William Faulkner, and her own debut ...more
Aug 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
I picked up Joan Didion's WHERE I WAS FROM to fill a space on a summer book bingo card: A book that takes place in the area where I was born. Having grown up in the Greater Sacramento Area and lived in California nearly all my life, I really enjoyed this book-- its reluctant corrections of the history we were taught, its continuing search for place and self. As my first read of Didion, this was a good choice for me.
Sep 30, 2012 rated it really liked it
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.
Jan 09, 2020 rated it it was ok
What a useless thing to pretend to rate Joan Didion’s book. The fact that I could not fight my way into this book, yet finished it, speaks entirely to me and my own incapacity to share Ms. Didion’s fascination with her familial and historical anecdotes.
Bruno Franco
Aug 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the most amazing books I ever read in my life. Didion is one of the best American writers for sure! Highly recommended.
Beth Bonini
I am at home in the West. The hills of the coastal ranges look ‘right’ to me, the particular flat expanse of the Central Valley comforts my eye. The place names have the ring of real places to me. I can pronounce the names of the rivers, and recognize the common trees and snakes. I am easy here in a way that I am not easy in other places. (From ‘California Notes’, 1976)

I was born in Sacramento, and lived in California most of my life. I learned to swim in the Sacramento and the American,
Sep 05, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
It was okay. There was a fairly big chunk that was blindingly brilliant. There was another fairly big chunk that was almost totally throw-away. The chapters about Lakewood, the military/aerospace industry town, were completely fascinating. I also liked the beginning and end chunks that were largely memoir. Some of the sections in between these were boring, abstruse, with absurdly long sentences that contained dozens of names of rivers, or ranches, or whatever. It was like she, who usually writes ...more
Matthew Wilder
Jan 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The California of 2019—that which its custodians and citizens imagine as a leader pointing toward America’s future, and that which Fox News fans in red states fear and loathe—is nowhere present in Joan Didion’s magisterial study of California and America. The state of immigrants and of a post-labor world is glimpsed, maybe, but barely. Instead Joan focuses on the change from the world of the settlers and their radical individualism and belief in California as the place of good luck and second ch ...more
Any book of essays by Joan Didion is superb, and this is no exception. I recently moved to San Francisco from Philadelphia, so Didion’s ironical POV on the self-made, artificial identity of the Western “do it all myself” character resonated. Plus, her acute analysis of “all American” towns left behind as the (government subsidized) defense industry collapsed is, eerily, prescient— high schoolers raping girls, for one.
Tara Hardy
Jan 22, 2020 rated it liked it
3.5...3.75?? I'm torn! I had a hard time getting into the beginning about the original California settlers, though I know it was necessary for her to provide that context to drive the whole message of the book. I thought the description of Lakewood in particular was fascinating and really brought out the journalistic voice that is so iconically Didion.
Feb 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
Though I am not from CA and moved here as an adult, I could still identify with a lot here. I love her writing style. I echo the critique about not really addressing the role of people of color in CA, but it also wasn't a long book...
Nov 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
JD's stylistic and communicative abilities circa 2002
Jul 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I’m a person infected by where I grew up. I don’t think everyone feels that way, but certainly Jane Didion does. As a “new Californian” myself, it was interesting to experience through Didion’s eyes how the crazy pace of growth of CA affected her. I really like her dispassionate, observational style of writing.
Oct 23, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Parts 1 & 4 gorgeous; skip 2 & 3. ...more
Jan 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Devastating -- particularly as a passionate Californian transplanted 19 years ago. I am intrigued by the state's history, which yes, is contradictory to its promise, sometimes, and I often find myself alone in my confusion. This book was revelatory. I bow to Joan Didion - a writer like no other.
Tyler Jones
Dec 15, 2015 rated it it was amazing
The statement, "where we are from makes us who we are" seems both an obvious truth and a gross over simplification and is usually dismissed without too much thought. Most of us are aware that there is a connection between our childhood environment and the values we use to define ourselves as adults, but very few of us look too closely at the mythology that shaped us. Didion does. This is a remarkable book, one that will force the reader to re-examine their own past and, if we are as honest and i ...more
Robert Isenberg
Jul 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
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? A ...more
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Didion's "Where I Was From" 3 9 Apr 13, 2013 05:26PM  

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Joan Didion was born in California and lives in New York City. She's best known for her novels and her literary journalism.

Her novels and essays explore the disintegration of American morals and cultural chaos, where the overriding theme is individual and social fragmentation. A sense of anxiety or dread permeates much of her work.

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