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Where I Was From

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  3,156 ratings  ·  330 reviews
In this moving and unexpected book, Joan Didion reassesses parts of her life, her work, her history, and ours. 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, confusions as much about America as about California, misapprehensions and misunderstandings so much a part of who I became that ...more
Hardcover, 240 pages
Published September 23rd 2003 by Knopf (first published September 2003)
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3.86  · 
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 ·  3,156 ratings  ·  330 reviews

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Nov 02, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 22, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Miss. Gray
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
Jan 01, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Anne B
Oct 24, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
M. D.  Hudson
Apr 14, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Hank Stuever
Jul 16, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
Jun 28, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 21, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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.
Sep 30, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Sep 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Matthew Wilder
Jan 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jimmy R
Jul 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.)
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.
Aug 08, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Feb 14, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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...
Jul 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Bruno Franco
Aug 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Nov 28, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
JD's stylistic and communicative abilities circa 2002
Jan 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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
Kim Fay
Oct 15, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 cr ...more
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
Jan C
Nov 27, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, 2014
Enjoyable read. Joan Didion has long been a favorite. She hasn't lost it. Here she brings us across the country with her relative who survived the trek with the Donner party. And she brings us through the years as California aged as her family did.

I liked that she ended as she had begun, with Sacramento and her family's role. This includes the agrarian and industrial roles. I found it interesting that she names multiple members of her family going to the same university but not her own daughter;
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 ...more
Oct 17, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Revisited cuz I went to Sacramento. This is a lot better than I remembered but still not quite top-tier Didion.
Nancy Chadwick
I wish this book was more memoir and less history of California. Unless I was from there too, my interest waned.
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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.
“I closed the box and put it in a closet.
There is no real way to deal with everything we lose.”
“The past could be jettisoned . . . but seeds got carried.” 23 likes
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