James Goldsborough author of “Blood and Oranges” to appear at Coronado’s Bay Books on Aug. 8

Local San Diego author James Oliver Goldsborough has given us a fast-paced, engaging journey through the many twists and turns of Los Angeles as it exploded throughout the 20th century. Having spent his childhood there and attending UCLA, Goldsborough knows firsthand the metropolis and its many distinct neighborhoods.

“Blood and Oranges: The Story of Los Angeles,” is “sweet and sour, just like L.A.,” and is also a cautionary tale for San Diegans. In this historical fiction, the message is clear: Nature’s Paradise can be upended by careless human greed, by short-sighted investors, and by inept public institutions. Ultimately an optimist, Goldsborough has faith that civic-oriented leaders can correct wrong turns and create sustainable cities.

Through his fictional Mull family, Goldsborough traces the growth of Los Angeles from the arrival of water through aqueducts and the drilling of oil wells, the replacement of efficient trolleys with automobile culture, the investments in Hollywood and in aerospace, growth of Pentecostal revivalism and Evangelical radio, the ups and downs of the media industry, and eventually the emergence of a spirit of conservation and good governance.

Now in his 80s, Goldsborough harbors a certain nostalgia for mid-century Los Angeles. He writes: “The 50s were the golden age of Los Angeles, when a perfect balance was achieved between man, his resources and his ambitions: Human life was good. Governments were progressive, but not too… Dwight Eisenhower, a moderate Republican, was elected in two landslides, winning California and Los Angeles both times… It was a period of stability and equilibrium.”

But this stability and equilibrium were upset by excessively rapid growth, by a rapacious capitalist culture, and by demographic shifts that introduced racial tensions. The quality of public life was degraded by owners of newspapers more interested in excessive profits than in quality journalism, by public prosecutors in the pockets of criminals, and sometimes simply by bad, unscrupulous people with power over both public and private resources.

In Goldsborough’s world, the battle is never over, as passions pass from generation to generation. Betrayals and deceit can lead to murder (more than once in “Blood and Oranges”). Frustrated, distracted parents abandon unruly children they can’t handle. Children can inherit the best of their forebearers – or the worst. Who can understand children? “It’s in their nature,” philosophizes one of the book’s wiser characters.

As one character wryly sums up the family intrigues: “Family generations of love-hate, rejection, jealousy, insecurity, all the things psychiatrists make their living on.” In Goldsborough’s skillful hands, these recognizable passions make for great reading.

Readers, men and women, will appreciate Goldsborough’s ability to create recognizable, sympathetic female protagonists. At the center of the Mull family saga are two very distinct but equally talented and attractive sisters, one an early aviator and companion of the mysterious corporate captain Howard Hughes, the other a pioneering journalist and writer (modeled in part after the author?).

Through his female characters, Goldsborough traces the rise of women’s rights. In one of the book’s most dramatic chapters, a female religious leader is raped by her crazed, estranged husband. The old-time judge rules that a husband cannot, by definition, rape his wife. A similar real-world case led to the criminalization of spousal abuse in California and elsewhere. Other women in “Blood and Oranges” struggle to balance professional ambitions and family responsibilities.

A youthful character asks, “Why did Dad spend so much time pounding on the noisy black machine producing reams of paper that often ended up the wastebasket?” If this is Goldsborough pondering his own writing experience, we can be glad that, despite disappointments, he kept pounding away, to gift us this wonderful retelling of Southern Californian history, wrapped in tales of human love, death, defeats and victory. Histories in which we can see ourselves. If we read carefully, we can also draw lessons that leading to a brighter future for San Diego.

Richard E. Feinberg is Professor Emeritus at UC San Diego and serves on the book review panel of Foreign Affairs magazine. “Blood and Oranges: The Story of Los Angeles” is printed by City Point Press, 2021.

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