At a moment when the state seems at a loss as to which abyss it will careen into first, Starr’s book offers a portrait of a time when so much still seemed possible: financially, of course, but also socially, artistically, and so on. Developers were reinventing the ranchland of the San Fernando Valley as a mega-suburb, even as writers were retreating to artistic compounds in Carmel. Reading Golden Dreams, one gets the sense that this period saw the last, fervent stand of Modernist moxie in the West. In fact, it’s the nakedly utopian ambition (for better and worse) of the Fifties that seems most distant from us now. But as initiatives calling for a new constitutional convention circulate, perhaps the ability of Californians to rip it up and start again hasn’t vanished altogether.

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Toby Warner is a writer and editor living in Oakland, Calif. He is the managing editor of Boldtype, an online magazine about books, and a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley, where he focuses on Francophone African literature.