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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Part literary memoir, part cultural critique, this collection of intelligent, idiosyncratic essays is seventh-generation Californian Joan Didion's revised look at the Golden State, its puzzling contradictions and legendary excesses, and its unique place in American history. Recalling her Sacramento upbringing in a family whose frontier roots extend back to the 18th century, Didion describes life as a sort of local "dreamtime" in which reality was shrouded in cultural myth. Decades later, she has come to see California as a series of connections that never quite add up.
In prismatic prose, Didion reveals the cloud behind each silver lining: Myth #1: California is a bastion of independent thought. Fact: California is a federally subsidized state with a long history of selling out to the highest bidder. Myth #2: Californians are tolerant freethinkers with a live-and-let-live philosophy. Fact: Californians have traditionally employed a "detain and commit" policy in dealing with immigrants, the mentally ill, and criminals. In similar fashion, she bursts more utopian bubbles, replacing romantic images with the grim reality of a people so in love with the ideas of fresh starts, good luck, and boom times that they refuse to accept the failure of the dream. As the promise of freeways, Silicon Valley, and the university system morphs monstrously into the nightmare of pollution, congestion, sprawl, and unemployment, Californians continue to delude themselves.
California writers, the prestigious Bohemian Club, and the curious, chilling episode of Lakewood's "Spur Posse" come in for their share of Didion's attention, as does her own California-drenched novel from 1963, Run River -- which she reviews through newly unblinkered eyes. Rife with insight, these remarkable reflections on Paradise Lost represent another triumph for one of America's most important writers. Anne Markowski