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California

California by Kevin Starr

This should have been subtitled A Brutal History instead of just A History. I had no idea that my current home state was born of such violence: The Spanish slaughtering and displacing Native Americans, the L.A. Chinese massacre of the 1870s, Protestants vs. Catholics in San Francisco, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake (whose inept “recovery” program destroyed more of the city than the Earth moving), the environmental devastation caused by the Gold Rush, the Donner Party, the internment of the Japanese during WWII, the 1992 Rodney King riots, the 1965 Watts riots–and that’s just off the top of my head! I don’t know if state historian Kevin Starr focuses on so much blood-letting to give his brief book popular appeal or if he’s got some morbid obsessions, but it makes for some darn engaging reading.

For me, as a still recent transplant to the West Coast, Los Angeles is California mostly because I haven’t been out of the city much yet. The actual size of this state is truly mind-boggling, so I don’t even try. However, despite its enormity, California really is divided up by the triumverate of L.A., San Francisco and San Diego. Starr even hardly goes beyond the confines of these metropolitan areas once the history catches up to their formation.

One thing I wasn’t aware of (ok, I’m not aware of a lot of things since I took a pass mentally on history during my school years) is how San Francisco grew more rapidly as a city than Los Angeles. San Fran was basically the cornerstone of the state with the biggest population and being a very urbane and sophisticated city, housing a number of early art schools, literary clubs and other organizations. But then the city was slammed by the 1906 earthquake and then the swift, meteoric rise of the entertainment industry made L.A. the premiere destination for people moving out west.

California is a fascinating, easy read, i.e. easy as in Starr keeps the momentum going as he spews out dates and facts, not that it’s a dumbed down text or anything. But, of course, it’s short length lends itself to big omissions. As I said, once the state gets settled Starr focuses most of his attention on the three major urban areas. The things I would like to know more about are the more rural sections of the state, like what exactly goes on out there. There’s a whole third of the state above San Francisco that I still know mostly nothing about.

The majority of the book also seems to be concerned with pre-1900 history. Starting with the birth of the film industry, Starr seems to kind of race through the modern era. But that’s not entirely a bad thing. I’m glad he only offered a brief overview of the early movie business since you can read about that garbage just about anywhere else. However, two omissions did seem sort of odd: 1) He didn’t mention Fritz Lang (M, Metropolis) in his list of Eastern European directors fleeing Hitler; 2) Frank Capra didn’t rate an entry into a list of “All-American” directors either for his WWII propaganda movies or It’s a Wonderful Life.

To make up for those omissions, though, Starr earns extra bonus points to devoting a lengthy paragraph to L.A. novelist/screenwriter John Fante whose legendary Ask the Dust was just adapted into a good film by Robert Towne. You can read my review of the film here.

Starr also doesn’t cover much about L.A. art culture beyond film and authors like Fante and Raymond Chandler. You don’t really hear much about it, but L.A. does have a pretty thriving art community. One interesting thing I learned a few years ago through a film my wife co-produced was about how, in the ’50s, ceramics was combined with Abstract Expressionism by a few enterprising students at the Otis College of Art and Design to create an entirely new artform. The movement was led by ceramist Peter Voulkos, but the real innovator was his student Paul Solder, the subject of the documentary Playing With Fire. Since my wife did work on it, I won’t “review” it, but the topic of the film is very interesting.

So, there’s probably a few things one could nitpick about this book, but overall it’s a really satisfying, entertaining read. And if I want more info about the state, I can still read Starr’s more detailed histories.

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