In October I asked for recommendations on books about San Diego’s recent history. Although I’ve had connections to San Diego for years, now that I live and work here I need to quickly learn about my new home.

I haven’t read any of the recommended books yet, but here’s the list so far.

Numerous people suggested Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See, 2003, by Mike Davis, Kelly Mayhew and Jim Miller as a good place to start, though seven years after it was first published a number of people still spoke of the book — off the record — with venom for its leftist politics.

Other recommendations, some recent, some not:

Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape 2006, by Erik Davis, who grew up in Del Mar. In the introduction on the website, Davis writes, “By the time I went east to college, I had engaged with Wiccans, Hare Krishnas, est leaders, Shivananda yogis, Zen monks, born-again surfers, Satanists, LSD mystics, and wandering white-robed mendicants who abjured meat but smoked tobacco.” Judging by the book’s website and reviews, it chronicles spiritual or religious sites in natural and man-made Western landscapes, including some in and near San Diego.

Kate Sessions: The Mother of Balboa Park, a children’s book by Joy Raab, and Kate Sessions, Pioneer Horticulturist, 1976, by Elizabeth MacPhail, the latter published by the San Diego Historical Society (now called the San Diego History Center, of which I am a member). Both are of interest because Sessions was a compelling person and plant-life in California is so different from what I know that it seems paleobotanical. Some of the xeriscaping looks carnivorous.

Confetti for Gino, 1959, by Lorenzo Madalena, which is “set in the Italian-American fishing community centered on Our Lady of the Rosary parish, where young men were dealing with the complexities of liberated young women from non-Italian San Diego,” according to Kevin Starr in Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance. San Diego Reader also has an extract and a short biography of the author that seems to capture its spirit.

Corpus of Joe Bailey, 1953, by Oakley Hall. It “concerns a young man growing up in San Diego during the Depression and World War II,” as Hall described it in How Fiction Works. The book also has what Hall describe as “so-called bitch heroine, a desiring machine,” about whom Hall tells this story:

Many years later I was invited back to San Diego by the San Diego Historical Society for a discussion of my old novel, which I discovered was still renowned among my generation there. I thought these gray-haired men were interested in my hero, Joe Bailey, because their life experiences had been similar to his. Not at all. Like many readers, they tended to think that fictional characters were based on real ones, and they were interested in Con Robinson. On what San Diego girl of the forties was she modelled? They suspected that there was a hot number that I had had access to and they had not.

I couldn’t bear to tell them that Con Robinson was based on Emma Bovary.

By the way, the link above to Starr’s book, part of a fantastic multivolume history of California, lays out a pretty good course of reading for anyone who wants to get a feel for San Diego writers over the last 60 years.

What else should I be reading?

I’m Grant Barrett, engagement editor for Drop me a line at, call me at (619) 550-5666, and follow me on Twitter @grantbarrett.

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