If it were a country, California would be one with more people than Canada and an economy the size of Chinas. Its scientists shoot, with their rockets, for the moon; its films spread Hollywoods culture around the globe; its athletes break world records; even its wines now rank with the best of Frances. Somehow, it is always at the cutting edge, be it in the flower-power days of the 1960s or the dotcom boom of the 1990s. As Kevin Starr points out in his history of the state, California has long been "one of the prisms through which the American people, for better and for worse, could glimpse their future". Mr. Starr is too good a historian to offer any pat explanation; instead, he concentrates on the extraordinary array of people and events that have led from the mythical land of Queen Calafia, through the rule of Spain and Mexico, and on to the governorship of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Moreover, he does so with such elegance and humor that his book is a joy to read. What emerges is not all Californian sunshine and light. Think back to the savage violence that accompanied the 1849 Gold Rush; or to the exclusion orders against the Chinese; or to the riots that regularly marked industrial and social relations in San Francisco. California, it should be remembered, was very much the wild west, having to wait until 1850 before it could force its way to statehood.