Rabid Reader: Joan Didion, 'Where I Was From'

Author Finds a Dark Truth Behind California's Golden Myth

Joan Didion courtesy Random House/Knopf hide caption

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Cover for Didion's book 'Where I Was From'

Cover for Didion's book Where I Was From (Knopf, 2003) hide caption

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California native Joan Didion is the author of five novels and six previous books of nonfiction. In her latest nonfiction work, her home state comes under her detailed, sometimes merciless literary microscope.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates talks to Didion about Where I Was From, the author's unflattering portrait of California — the greed, waste and ennui behind the state's sun-blessed image. Instead of a state of hardy entrepreneurs, Didion details how the economy of California is mostly sustained by federal government handouts, its youth emotionally blank.

Didion is from a family that, by California standards, is ancient — her forebears were pioneers who survived a tough trip across the continent, arriving in California driving wrecked wagons. Using her trademark lean, precise prose, Didion charts the path of her ancestors from the birth of her great-great-great-great-great-grandmother in Virginia in 1766 to her mother's death in California in 2001.

The book, Didion says, "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 I can still to this day confront them only obliquely."

Didion questions the very stories Californians tell themselves — the noble odysseys of their pioneer stock, and the vitality of today's entrepreneurs — and deflates them, in a way that shows she both loves and is disappointed by the people who have inherited her home state.

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