With the light, revealing touch of a master reporter, Fradkin (Wanderings of an Environmental Journalist, 1993, etc.) takes the Golden State's measure, top to bottom. For the author, California is seven states rolled into one, with landscape playing the defining role: Deserts (southeast), Sierra (east), Land of Fire (northwest), Land of Water (north coast), the Great Valley (central interior), the Fractured Province (central coast), and the Profligate Province (south coast). Each of these substates draws its internal cohesiveness not only from geography but also from economics, customs, heritage, and culture. In each region Fradkin has discovered some powerful landscape element, a particularly distinctive node of pyschogeographical intensity, such as the deserts' dry lakes, with their intaglios and bombing ranges; the sierra passes that tested every westward-bound emigrant's mettle; the divisive, despoiling role of timber in the Land of Water. Each of these features serves as a lodestone for chunks of history (Fradkin judiciously employs fragments of period diaries to give the narrative pungency) and for his own detailed, filigreed observations. The text is salted with shrewd minibiographies, of everyone from William Mulholland (the man who brought water to LA and trouble to Jack Nicholson in Chinatown) and Harry Chandler (owner of the Los Angeles Times) to survivors of the infamous Donner Party and the fishermen of Humboldt Bay, Bitingly ever-present is the explosive racial hatred that has marked California's history since Europeans moved in: Tensions between whites and Native Americans, Chinese, African-Americans, Japanese, East Indians, Mexicans, and Filipinos have roiled and boiled through the centuries. California might be ""beguiling and lyrically beautiful,"" but it is also suspect terrain: chaotic and unstable, a violent medley, a land of extremes. Fascinating, intimate, and readable in the extreme.