Grant Barrett Meets San Diego Through Books
In October, Grant Barrett asked readers of VoiceofSanDiego to suggest books he could read to quickly get acquainted with San Diego, his new home. He received dozens of suggestions -- fiction, non-fiction, biography, history -- and he shares some of them with us.
Guest: Grant Barrett, co-host of "A Way With Words" on KPBS and engagement editor of VoiceofSanDiego.org.
This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.
ALISON ST. JOHN: You're listening to These Days on KPBS in San Diego, I'm Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. One of the best things about going on vacation is reading, and I know I often try to find a book about the place that I'm going to help me sink deeper into it. But what about our home town, San Diego? If you've read any books about San Diego or set in San Diego, that's what we're gonna be talking about. Our guests, Grant Barrett is quite the expert on this genre of books and will be talking to you and also taking your suggestions. The number is 1-888-895-5727. Grant, thanks so much for coming.
BARRETT: It's my pleasure.
ALISON ST. JOHN: And of course everybody recognizes your voice from being the co-host to A Way With Words.
BARRETT: Right, I hope they do. Saturdays at 12, Sundays at two.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Great to have you in studio here again.
BARRETT: Thank you.
ALISON ST. JOHN: And you're also the engagement editor of Voice of San Diego.org.
BARRETT: That's right. Yeah. Online news source, investigative journalism, and so forth. Politics, education and the inside business of the city and the county.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Okay. I think a lot of people are wondering, you know, what does that -- that's kind of an interesting title, engagement editor.
BARRETT: The elevator pitch is newfangled op ed editor. So I find opinions, I find people who have information and are willing to share that information, and I help them get those opinions in print, and inversely, I take our news content and I bring it to the eyes of people who need to see it in order to inform their own decisions and inform their jobs.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Okay. Now you're a words man. Were you the person who picked your own title for that?
BARRETT: No, I wasn't. The title was chosen before me. And it's such a new title that the title itself has been widely discussed in the news business.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Interesting.
BARRETT: Of course, the obvious jokes that an engagement editor has something to do with weddings and so forth. But engagement really is about making sure that people are plugged in. . We are hyper conscious as is KPBS, and all of the media in San Diego are hyper conscious of the need to bring our readers, listeners, viewers, users into the news so they they can understand how it's useful to them.
ALISON ST. JOHN: That's what the media is all about These Days, which is why we want to hear from you, the listener this hour. [CHECK].
BARRETT: Well, that actually started earlier this spring when I was accepted at my new job at voice of San Diego. I was going to move to San Diego for the first time. And now I've been doing a way with words on the air here for a few years. But I lived in New York City, I and was doing it with Martha Barnett my cohost here in San Diego. [CHECK] and I realized that coming to San Diego meant that I needed to get into the deep end of the pool very fast. I couldn't take my time about learning the history of this city. It's not just the history, the facts and dates, the names and the power players [[[CHECK]]]. But the mood and the spirit. What is the character of San Diego and its people? Who are they? Why do they do the things they do in and what are they likely to do next? So I began a survey of looking for books that would help me to do that. And realized that my own efforts were coming out dry. I heard from people that I've never met, all the way up through city council member about the becomes that I should be suggesting -- that they suggested I should read in order to be an informed San Diegan. And so that's what I'm here to share today.
ALISON ST. JOHN: So all right. Why don't want you start and tell us maybe what is the book that seems to have cropped up the most often that's come to the top of the list?
BARRETT: It's funny. I would call this a Madonna book. Madonna is one of those performers who is beloved for her audacity and derided for the shamelessness of her audacity. And this book is Under the Perfect Sun. I had people recommend this to me who felt this book was the one single true document about San Diego.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Now, that is not a very flattering document either, is it?
BARRETT: Well, that's true. And I had people who said you must read this, because it's a terrible lie, and you should be aware of this terrible lie. So I had people from the two political extremes suggest this book to me. The venom from the right towards this book cannot be measured.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Can you give us a thumbnail of what the message of this book is it?
BARRETT: Yeah, it's a three part book. Mike Davis basically does a [CHECK] of the history of San Diego, the hidden governments of these powerful and rich people who according to the book and the historical records seem to have abused their power and made the most of San Diego for their own ends and their own benefits. Jim Miller does a survey of, I guess you would call it labor plus ethnic tensions and problems over the years, and then Kelly may hew does interviews. And this is just really thumbnailed. The third back is Kelly may hew's interviews with people of nonwhite backgrounds, usually poor, perhaps immigrants, undocumented, people who are in labor, and so forth. So the book is definitely -- has a leftist perspective. And all three of these people have no problem whatsoever telling you that they have an opinion. And they're not hiding anything. [CHECK].
ALISON ST. JOHN: So the feeling from this book is that the under pinning of San Diego are very corrupt of there's a lot of vested interests. Do you get the sense that -- has this changed your -- the way that you read the newspaper now for example? Or the way you think about San Diego politics.
BARRETT: I would say that this was a good book to recommend it a newcomer to San Diego. And it's because from the outside, San Diego has the -- you have the impression that it's run by the boosters in the Chamber of Commerce. There's a thing that you know about San Diego from the outside that it's beautiful, which it is, and that it's a fun place to play, which it absolutely is, and that people here are pleasant and friendly, which they are. But then there's the noirish, dark, unseemly side that every city has that really doesn't make it outside of the borders, you know? We can have some of of the more horrific scandals here in San Diego. And they just kind of don't seem to show up. Some of them have, but there have been some over the years that just really haven't been talked about outside of the region.
ALISON ST. JOHN: They sort of sink beneath the blue waters of the bay.
BARRETT: Yeah, somewhere between mere and LA County, they just go -- they fizzle like a bad firecracker.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Now, there's another book okay okay.
BARRETT: I believe he's a blogger or a writer over there. This is Captain Money and the Golden Girl. It's the Jay David affair, first published in 1985. It describes the shenanigans of a nebbishy kind of nerdy broker who allied himself and, I guess, became the lover of a classic California gal, a beautiful, vivacious, and stunning -- by the name, at the time, of Nancy Hoover. And these two people basically perpetrated a Ponzi scheme, written they took lots of money, promised extraordinary returns, and then spent it on themselves and on their various causes. It wasn't that they banked today and put it in Swiss accounts or something in the Cayman islands but they used this money for their own and basically were arrested and convicted and sentenced.
ALISON ST. JOHN: And this is a true story.
BARRETT: Absolutely true. 100 percent true.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Written into the threads of San Diego history connected Wymer Roger Hedgecock.
BARRETT: That's right. Hedgecock was convicted of some smaller offenses which later were expunged from the record. And you know, the big talk radio guy now. Actually, on the other end of this, Michael Aguirre, who came the city attorney, he pushed civil cases involved in this, and he developed his own reputation as the guy who was trying to get some justice. It's just so much a part of San Diego that if you take this story out, then you remove a lot of the current players in politics who got here through the connections and the byways of so-and-so convicted so-and-so, and then so-and-so married so-and-so. And you could do a family try of all of this, this scandal and you would see the --
ALISON ST. JOHN: Ripples.
BARRETT: The great grand children of the parents of this scandal in current politics and business and society everywhere you go.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Ask is it a fun read.
BARRETT: It is. You know, it's funny, when I was reading sections of the book, and I started making notes, as I tend to do, 'cause I'm a word guy, of words that I had never read before. And there were quite a few of them. He has an extensive vocabulary. [CHECK].
ALISON ST. JOHN: Before we start painting a picture of San Diego as just a hotbed of corruption, are there other books that you read that might give us a different perspective on the town.
BARRETT: Well, it's always fun to talk about the naughty stories, isn't it?
ALISON ST. JOHN: Uh-huh.
BARRETT: The naughty stories are the ones that -- they always feel like ah, ha! Now I'm getting to the meat of it. We don't go to family reunions so you can hear about 5th graders getting As on their report cards. We go to the family reunion so we can hear --
ALISON ST. JOHN: The gossip.
BARRETT: Yeah, who was cheating on who? That sort of thing. I will say that one of the better books that I like which only lightly touches on San Diego, is the visionary state, by Mike Davis, who is by relation to Mike Davis. [CHECK] that has to do with the various histories that we have here, the various kind of -- spiritual is kind of a throw away word These Days, but the spiritual [CHECK] belief sets that this book encompasses are uncountable here. Because it's just -- it's stuff that was big in the '70s and now it's faded, and it's decrepit, sometimes it's a home, sometimes it's a piece of land or a hillock. He calls the book a psycheography.
ALISON ST. JOHN: A psycheography.
BARRETT: He calls it, a psycheography, a dreamlike movement through space that uncovers hidden stories and symbolic connections.
ALISON ST. JOHN: And San Diego was very much, again, a fertile territory for people asking the question, why, what is life about.
BARRETT: Yeah, because there's no separating San Diego from California's reputations. And I say that intentionally as I plural, California has many reputations.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Yes.
BARRETT: And he makes a point of saying here that it's not just the hippie flower power that he's writing about. That is a lot of times what people think San Diego is stuck into. . But he calls it a laboratory of the spirit, that the state of a whole is not a place where religions are created and where they go to die. But it's where they simmer, and they develop their particular characters that give them a vitality.
ALISON ST. JOHN: That's a wonderful description. Yeah. And of course these are the most important questions to be asking upon so that's a more positive sign. Let's go to the callers 'cause we'd really like to hear what you have to suggest about books either about San Diego, either fiction or nonfiction, to add to Grant Barrett's list here, the number is 1-888-895-5727. And Daniel has a suggestion. Daniel, thanks for calling. Go ahead.
NEW SPEAKER: Yes, I have a suggestion. It's the book by bill powers, it's called San Diego smart energy 2000, the 21st century alternative. And it's a hundred and 58 page book, and it really tells about what is needed to be able to keep us, to sustain our society here in San Diego because we are continually using more and more energy. And because of the beaut of San Diego, we don't want to have that golden layer that we get from LA coming upon us regularly.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Okay. So this is talking about, really, is it green energy? Is it making the case for more solar energy? That kind of thing.
NEW SPEAKER: Not just so much green as much as it's sustainable at the time. It's generated here in San Diego, and also limits the pollution at the same time so it is kind of green that way too. But the biggest thing is, when you generate energy at your locale, at your region where you're at, that means you don't have to rely on a super grid, and then the other thing is that means when there are blackouts or brown outs, your community might be saved because you're energizing yourself.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Good, well, thank you so much for that suggestion, Daniel. We've got grant scribbling that down and adding that to his list. Tell us, Grant, about another book that you feel is really worth recommending to people about San Diego.
BARRETT: Yeah, as we were saying before, the caller -- San Diego cannot be separated from California. And I find that Kevin star's, I believe it's seven-volume.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Epic, yes. [CHECK].
BARRETT: And he's taken the history back from the 1800s up through, I believe, 2003, the latest version, the latest book is -- let me find it here. I've got it written down of he's got these interesting titles.
ALISON ST. JOHN: He breaks it down by decade.
BARRETT: Yes, well, the one that I read, paid the most attention to was the 1950 to the 1963-volume called golden dreams, California in the age of abundance. These are books where he takes all the historicalidate this that we know, plus some analysis, and tries to we've these narratives. And he'll follow the example of the career of a star, or a star in Hollywood, or he'll follow a politician, and use them, keep coming back to them to indicate how they were a character or person or event of their times. But the thing is, as star has written elsewhere, the problem with doing a very recent history, and that's what I'm most interested in, the late 15 years or so, is that as you're living it, you cannot write a very accurate history. 20 years ago.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Gotta have a perspective.
BARRETT: Is actually still very recent. You can't write a very successful or enduring point of view on that.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Although I would imagine [CHECK].
BARRETT: There's fantastic stuff going on in San Diego right now. But how much of that will stick [CHECK] we don't know. Where is this money being shoveled to right now that is going to build the -- that is gonna recover our neighborhood and turn it into the new hot district? We really don't know.
ALISON ST. JOHN: What are the scandals that will turn out to be just sort of common place down the line that everybody's experiencing. Of yeah.
BARRETT: And [CHECK] I lived for a long time in New York City, which is a -- is very self involved. You know, San Diego has a deserved reputation of putting itself down. That's one of the things that I see throughout all of the reading that I'm doing. Is San Diego doesn't think in general very much of itself. Which is kind of astonishing. So you have the Chamber of Commerce point of view, then you have the one-on-one point of view, where it's a little deprecating. Whereas in New York City, they practically write books about cracks in the sidewalk.
ALISON ST. JOHN: What leads you to say that?
BARRETT: Well, New York City, it's a popular city, the biggest one, blah blah blah. We all know about New York. [CHECK] internally it has these myths that it tells itself. One of my favorite things that ever happened, I was talking to a New York Times reporter, he was asking me some words related to garbage trucks. [CHECK] and I said you guys just wrote a story about 3 or 4 years ago, and he said, well, 3 or 4 years ago, that's a lifetime. We just keep [CHECK].
ALISON ST. JOHN: Reinventing.
BARRETT: And in San Diego, we tend to forget ourselves stories rather than tell them over and over.
ALISON ST. JOHN: [CHECK] go ahead Michelle.
NEW SPEAKER: Oh, hi. I have a great vampire series by Janey C. Stein.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Is that set in San Diego?
NEW SPEAKER: Yeah, it's called Ana Strong Chronicles, and it's great, it's got, like an undercover society that lives under Balboa park. And I love how she goes through the local coffee houses in Northpark and she's always going down to Tijuana. And it's so much fun to read the book. Not only is it pretty well written for fiction, I just love all the locality.
ALISON ST. JOHN: What's the name of it again?
NEW SPEAKER: It's the Ana strong chronicles.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Okay.
NEW SPEAKER: By Janey C. Stein.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Okay. Okay, well, we'll add that to the list. And I know -- thanks so much for the call, Michelle. I know that there's a pretty well known mystery writer, T. Jefferson parker who wrote the fallen, where I think there's a reporter from the Union Tribune, and characters in it, and bodies found under the [CHECK] so that sounds like another one, fiction one to read. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. And then we're right on the border here, grant. And so Tijuana also has a lot of good stories to tell about it, doesn't it? Do you have any suggestions of things that would give us a better insight into the history of Tijuana.
BARRETT: I do. Your listeners may remember that in July, you had Paul Vanderwood on the program, on These Days, and he spoke about his book, Satan's Playground.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Right.
BARRETT: And this is about Agua Caliente, in large part, this was a famous gambling facility in the twenties and thirties and had an incredible influence [CHECK] on -- how shall I put this? The playful class. The people with money and time to spend it. [CHECK]. And he weaves throughout this story a tale of a robbery, of money being shipped north to San Diego in a car. But it's about the high life, and the wealth, and the class. Of and this kind of resort that we know in LA where they give you the impression that you are important, that you have taste and sophistication, they throw a lot of stuff at you that purports to be classy, and you are expecting to believe that it's classy [CHECK]. And it's an incredible story, and it's not far off from the way we behave now. There are clubs in LA that don't reach the levels of opulence, but they certainly reach the level of elitism.
ALISON ST. JOHN: But those are the sort of by gone days of Tijuana that right now, anyway, unfortunately --
BARRETT: Yeah, all that's left is a grey hound track of Agua Caliente.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Good heavens. One hopes that things will move on and Tijuana will see better days but that was sort of the glory time for Tijuana, right.
BARRETT: Yeah, it definitely was.
ALISON ST. JOHN: And you've found some things about Native American history, which is sort of the origins, the roots of San Diego County.
BARRETT: Yeah, it's interesting, I just took my family out to mission trails regional park this past weekend. And we ate lunch by one of the water courses there. And you can look at the rocks. And you request see the depressions in the stone where grain was ground. It must have been ground for decades, if not centuries. Acorns,or what have you. And this is where the Kumeyaay -- I believe that's how you say it.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Kumeyaay. Uh-huh.
BARRETT: And that's where they lived and played. [CHECK] and there's a great book which tells you a lot more, by Richard Carrico, I believe. C-A-R-R-I-C-O. It's called Strangers in a Stolen Land. And he updated the 2008 edition, which I recommend because it brings it more into the recent days. But it covers roughly the 1850s forward, and he talks about the first inn counters of the Native Americans with the Europeans. And here we go back to the sad stories because it's one terrible event after another. There are massacres, there's disease, there are labor abuses, there are all kinds of civil rights abuses before, of course, civil rights were a well defined thing in this country. And even after that where you could still get away with it even though there were laws on the books. Just an incredible level of injustice there. The book is very readable, I should say though. It's written at an under graduate level. It's something that's completely comprehensible. And it changes your view of San Diego and the county. Because you begin to see traces of these other people everywhere you go.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Interesting.
BARRETT: When you were driving down the eight, and you see the name, the Kumeyaay highway, your mind immediately pings back to these people, and [CHECK] their trek.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Every year.
BARRETT: Yeah, so you begin to feel this history everywhere you go. And not in the carefully cultivated spaces, but literally everywhere you go, in the names of the streets and the -- and if you can recognize some of the plant life that they used and that he had a part of their life, you begin to see that too.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Sounds like a worth while read.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Let's take another call. Jana from Jamul is calling us with a -- [CHECK].
NEW SPEAKER: There were mystery novels that book place in ocean beach and Jamul, and they were really fabulous. They were way cool. And I have not heard mention of them since I lived here. But I would strongly recommend them.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Well, thanks for that suggestion, Jana. I think it's such fun to be reading about a place where you live, isn't is it? Where you actually -- those scenes that are familiar to us, streets that are familiar, show up in Ia fictional thing. I'm thinking about -- I come from Edinburg, and [CHECK] about Botswana also wrote's series about Edinburg. And it's true ground, isn't it? It's just really neat to be reading books to find maybe not just the history and the culture, but also a lot bit of the fantasy about the place where you live.
BARRETT: Yeah, I'm still -- that is -- that's why I love these fiction suggestions because I want to find the character of a place. And while some of these books that we're talking about are written in narrative form that suggestion the novel, they're not really novels and they can't venture into the psychological territory that a novel can where you begin to get into touch with the average person and kind of the outliers that really say this is truly what San Diego is about. That is exactly what I'm looking for.
ALISON ST. JOHN: So GRANT, tell us where can people find this list that you're compiling.
BARRETT: Part one of the list is already up on voice of San Diego.org. I will put the second part of the list up either today or tomorrow. We'll also share some of the links of these pages with the books on KPBS. A lot of these books are available in part or in whole on Google books or on Amazon. And I'll have a lot more than what I talked with [CHECK].
ALISON ST. JOHN: Great. Grant Barrett, co-host of A Way With Cords, and the engagement editor of a voice of San Diego, thanks for coming in, Grant.
BARRETT: Thank you.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Stay with us. We'll be talking about another thing that would really make the holidays fun, and that's board games.