Sunday, March 12, 2017

"Paleontology: A Brief History of Life"

The Chico Triad on Philosophy, Theology, and Science brings academics, students, and independent scholars together each month to wrestle with big issues, such as "what does it mean to be human?" We've been meeting for over a decade now and recently the group considered the work of Ian Tattersall, a curator in the Division of Anthropology at New York's American Museum of Natural History. Trained in archaeology, anthropology and vertebrate paleontology, Tattersall has specialized in the evolutionary analysis of the human fossil record and most especially the mysterious origin of human cognition.

His "Paleontology: A Brief History of Life" ($19.95 in paperback from Templeton Press; also for Amazon Kindle) is a lucid overview of the field. Part of Templeton's "Science And Religion Series," the book begins with the development of the "Tree of Life" and ends with an exploration of Homo sapiens.

Tattersall maintains that "the traditional paleo-anthropological expectation that human evolution has been a single-minded, unilinear slog from primitiveness to perfection" is just plain wrong. "At virtually all points in human evolutionary history," he writes, "several hominid species have coexisted (and at least intermittently competed). That Homo sapiens is the lone hominid in the world today is a highly atypical situation."

His final chapter considers "A Cognitive Revolution," and Tattersall writes about the identification of "symbolic artefacts," such as engravings, cave paintings, or necklaces, and the development of language, as pointers to a new kind of thinking. The bottom line: "Symbolic Homo sapiens is not a simple extrapolation of what had gone before; it is a qualitatively different entity, not an incremental improvement."

There is an important place, Tattersall says, for human spirituality, and the author considers science and religion to be complementary.

His conclusion, using the image of a rocket, encourages continued thoughtful conversation: "Starting firmly in the material world, you can ride the scientific first stage to the point at which its fuel is exhausted, the point that lies at the limits of testable knowledge. From there—if you wish, or feel the need, as most people seem to—you can ignite the spiritual second stage, and be transported to the limits of the human ability to understand."

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Thirty Years of the Biblio File Column

Cartoon by Steve Ferchaud used by permission of the artist

Back in the last millennium I realized that, though perfect in every other way, the E-R lacked a regular book review. My wife, bless her, encouraged me to do something about that, and to call it the "Biblio File." Though the details have flown the memory coop, I was given my first chance to lay an egg when the column debuted in March 1987, thirty years ago this month. Since then, of course, I've made many omelets possible.

In the early days, way before the digital revolution and the flourishing of local authors, pickings were slim. In one column I reviewed the newly redesigned telephone directory. You want local names? The book was full of them!

Another column was devoted to letters from Chico-area writers published in such prestigious places as The Wall Street Journal (yes, I reviewed letters from locals) and when that vein played out I resorted to connecting my own life experiences.

A memory book recalled my being in a speech contest in which another speaker, who had tried to memorize word for word, stumbled, stopped, and then cried out, "I can't believe it. I just forgot my whole life." Over the years I talked about my uncle's apple orchard, a failed attempt being the family plumber, and about Larry's Little Diner on the Skyway.

As time went by, not only did my picture change (more distinguished now, don't you think?) but so did the column. Personal stories fell away; most weeks now feature a book by an area author or visitor. My goal is to evoke the tone of the book and let readers know what it's about so they can make up their own minds.

Along the way there have been some gratifying notes from readers. Among the most cherished is from the college instructor who wrote in 1997 that "I'm finally compelled to write, simply to thank you for broadening my world…. I am continually inspired by your writing. I appreciate, too, your variety of books."

Variety has been the watchword; from teen romances to government contracting, from travelogues to game wardens, from sci-fi to an elephant ballerina, my own world has broadened as well.

Thank you, writers, and thank you, readers, and thank you, Dear Editor.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

"Your Mindful Guide To Academic Success: Beat Burnout"

Gayle Kimball is Chico State Department of Sociology professor emerita. In her writing she blends "energy work" (using acupressure, meditation and visualization "to harness the power of the mind") with a deep passion for reaching students around the world who are trapped in conditions that make it a challenge to succeed.

Challenges may come from without (poverty, social discrimination) but also from within (procrastination, fear, aimlessness), and in her new book Kimball provides hundreds of resources that help students become overcomers, even activists. She also includes "the advice and experience of young people from various countries to discover how they succeed and to provide insight into the global youth culture…."

"Your Mindful Guide To Academic Success: Beat Burnout" ($9.99 in Amazon Kindle edition from Equality Press) focuses on cultivating good study skills, developing strategies for taking tests and writing essays, "clearing emotional blocks to success," using the internet to increase educational access, and joining youth movements around the world to "fight for a more just and equitable world."

Kimball draws on a wealth of  information about, for example, learning disabilities, "balancing the left and right sides of the body," positive self-talk, depression, being a student of color, and more. (The section on how to research is written by former Butte College librarian Morgan Brynnan.)

Kimball advises students to "structure regular time for exercise, socializing, quiet time, and volunteer work that you feel passionate about so you don't burn out. I'd also like you to think about the influence of sex-role socialization in your choice of major and career objectives. Try to think outside the typical, the normal. In a world that's increasingly global and unequal, my other hope is that you'll be an activist in whatever cause is most important to you."

There's a companion Facebook page called Test Success: How To Cope With Stress And Anxiety (

Kimball is scheduled to speak at a free workshop on "Mind Power To Achieve Your Goals" during the Emotional Tune-Up Seminar, sponsored by the Chico Area Recreation and Park District, Thursday, March 23 from 12:30-4:00 p.m. at Lakeside Pavilion, 2565 California Park Drive. For information contact host Gerald Darling at

Sunday, February 19, 2017

"Gulf Music"

Robert Pinsky, US Poet Laureate from 1997-2000, continues to revel in poetic voices. In "Gulf Music" ($14 in paperback from Farrar, Straus and Giroux; also for Amazon Kindle) Pinsky begins with the vagaries of human remembering and ends with the poet's vision "beyond all boundaries, at memory's undoing," in an excerpt from his translation of the final Canto of Dante's Paradiso.

In between is his discovery of the original meaning of "thing." It "first meant an assembly," he writes in a note, "then the issue discussed, and then from that relatively abstract meaning came the modern sense of a concrete object. … Every artifact, every natural object, with its ghostly wrapping of associations and meanings, begotten and forgotten, is a gathering of minds or contending voices: every thing is an invisible assembly."

The poet considers a book, a glass, a jar of pens, a photograph, a door, paper currency, and--pliers ("What is the origin of this despair I feel/ When I feel/ I've lost my grip, can't manage a thing?// Thing/ That means a clutch of contending voices--/ So my voice:....").

There is an assembly gathered in the book, and the poet is not afraid to berate his own "Immature Song": "Do you disrespect Authority merely// Because it speaks so badly, because it deploys the lethal bromides/ With a clumsy conviction that offends your delicate senses?--but if// Called on to argue such matters as the refugees you mumble and/ Stammer, poor citizen, you get sullen, you sigh and you look away."

Does music have a place in such a world? Maybe, sings the poet, it is exactly the right place.

Pinsky and Grammy Award-winning jazz pianist Laurence Hobgood are scheduled to perform Sunday, February 26, at Chico State's Harlen Adams Theatre. The 7:30 p.m. production is called Poemjazz, in which jazz improvisation and the poet's words are rhythmically interconnected, as the language of jazz brings out the melodies of voice. Pinsky's funny, poignant and political words are not just set to music; they become a kind of music themselves.

Tickets are available through Adults are $32, Seniors $30, Youth $20, and Chico State students $10. For more information call (530) 898-6333.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

"Love & Other Theories"

Aubrey ("Brey") Housing, the narrator of a deeply perceptive novel by Chicoan Alexis Bass (, will soon be saying goodbye to Lincoln High. She'll be going to a prestigious university but now the voice of her BFF, the achingly beautiful Shelby Chesterfield, is ringing in her head: "Now that you’ve been accepted into Barron, you need to join the rest of us and get a real life. It’s your senior year, Brey, time for you to party it up."

It's also a time navigating the emotional uprisings brought on by the ever-fluid hookups with boys at the school, to sort out who is friend and who is foe among the girls, and to decide how important any of this is. "Love & Other Theories" ($9.99 in paperback from HarperTeen, recommended for ages 14 and up; also for Amazon Kindle) traces the breakdown of all that Aubrey thinks is secure within her heart.

Aubrey and her friends have part-time jobs "that produce at least enough money to pay for stuff our parents wouldn't approve of. Booze. Cigarettes. Birth control. Brazilian bikini waxes." Brey, Shelby, and Danica and Melissa, have got each other's back.

Then strangely attractive Nathan Diggs transfers to Lincoln and sits near her. "In all honesty, I'm uncomfortable. I stay perfectly still, though, because it's against everything I believe in to show how physically altered I feel just because of a boy."

Enter "the theories." Since "the only thing we needed to know about high school boys and love (was) how you couldn't have both, we could have anyone we wanted. If you want more, you have to give less. This logic seemed backward compared to the you-get-what-you-give crap we'd always heard, but it worked."
Sex? Momentary fun, that's all (Aubrey had lost her virginity to Trip Chapman; but no commitment.) In fact, "it's only a matter of weeks (two weeks is the average dating cycle at Lincoln High) before he'll get distracted by someone else."

All theories need testing and Aubrey finds she may not be as "evolved" as she thinks. Yet the last words of this emotionally sensitive novel inspire confidence that she finally understands the real meaning of "goodbye."

Sunday, February 05, 2017

"Do We Not Bleed?: A Jon Mote Mystery"

Sister Brigit is among a group of Minnesota nuns who ran a group home for cognitively disabled adults. She tells Jon Mote, the unlikely hero of Daniel Taylor's new mystery, "Do We Not Bleed?" ($25 in hardcover from Slant,; also for Amazon Kindle), about J.P.

"J.P. was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. He had serious oxygen deprivation in a tiny rural hospital not equipped to deal with it. … Physically perfect except for cell death in a square inch or two of his brain. No less valuable for that than he was fifteen minutes prior."

Mote had returned his sister Judy to Carlson Group Home on the New Directions campus. Having failed in academe (recounted in "Death Comes For The Deconstructionist," which won the Christianity Today book award for fiction), Mote takes a staff job at Carlson, responsible for six clients, including his eternally optimistic sister as well as smack-talking Bonita and J.P., in his late forties, who cannot tell time.

Mote himself is damaged; he no longer hears voices but now faces a kind of metaphysical silence, angry at God for not existing, living a life of "coagulated pointlessness."

Then J.P. is accused of the rape and murder of Abby Wagner, a more independent resident at New Directions, and is shipped off to a facility for the criminally insane. But could he have done it?

With the help of the others from Carlson, and his estranged wife, Zillah, Jon finds courage to confront the truth. But not just the truth about the murder. In characteristically sharp observations he notes that those who want to reduce life to "kilos, kilometers, angstroms, and curies" are missing what can't be measured: "compassion, sacrifice, suspicion, and honor."

"For the last few years," Jon says, "I've had too many problems to think much about God. (If God made me, I want a refund.) If pressed, I would say, out loud, 'No, I don't believe in God.' But inside a still, small voice would add, 'But I hope God believes in me.'"

The novel is a captivating meditation on the worth of human life and the meaning of suffering.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

"Navy Daze: Coming Of Age In The 1960s Aboard A Navy Destroyer"

"I would not trade my Navy experience for anything," writes Michael Halldorson (now a board member of Chico's Janet Turner Print Museum). His memoir tells "the story of a young man from a small northern California town who, with no clear direction in life, joined the Navy and came of age aboard a destroyer during the Vietnam War."

The tale of Halldorson's two tours of duty aboard the USS Hopewell (which began in 1964) is written with honesty and self-deprecating good humor. "Navy Daze: Coming Of Age In The 1960s Aboard A Navy Destroyer" ($20.50 in paperback from Heritage Books, follows a "tin can sailor" with a little too much liberty, somewhat obsessed with "girls, cars, alcohol."

There are "vivid memories of having my nose broken in Japan and a tooth sheared off in the Philippines; both incidents took place in drinking establishments ashore." There are better memories, but also the daily routine, "hours-on-end spent inside a hot and humid five-inch gun mount while patrolling off the coast of South Vietnam."

The big guns would fire offshore to protect troops inland, but, at least during the first tour, "we did not know the effectiveness of our fire. … Our reality was the smell of gunpowder, the noise and violent shaking of the gunmount, and the acrid air inside the mount."

On leave, "one of the highlights of my visit to Chico was going out for a beer in my dress blues with a friend at a new restaurant, the Italian Cottage. The owners … furnished me a gratis pitcher of beer. I have never forgotten that act of kindness they bestowed upon me, especially with the way that the general public treated us."

And the ship's fate? "I found out my former destroyer was resting on the seafloor off San Clemente Island in southern California, sent to the bottom while serving as an unmanned target ship during a test of a new type missile."

Photographs, diagrams, and explanations of nautical terms help readers enter the life of a young sailor-artist on a journey of self-discovery (with stops at a few bars along the way).