Thursday, January 11, 2018

"Mexican Marimbas"

Travel writer Chloe Ryan Winston (, who lived in Mexico, uses her knowledge of the country to fashion a fast-paced novel which features unpleasant encounters south of the border with drug cartel baddies, including Joaquín ("El Chapo") Guzmán.

Winston, who now lives in Redding, has created a series of books, including "China Caper," telling the tale of a small band of unofficial "couriers" working for a U.S. Government spy agency. The new novel is called "Mexican Marimbas" ($15 in paperback from Dorrance Publishing; also for Amazon Kindle).

The unlikely group is composed of Phillips, a professor at an east coast Ivy League university, and his recruits: Derry, Jude, and Briana (who tells the story). Briana Fraser owns Let's Travel in Ashland, speaks fluent Spanish, and spent growing-up time in Mexico. She is able to get the group out of numerous scrapes as they travel to outposts in Mexico, known to be drug lord habitations, in an effort to photograph those responsible for the flow of drugs into the U.S., especially Chicago.

That city, says Phillips, "is now the transfer hub of drugs in our country. It's within a day's drive to about seventy-five percent of our population, plus it's a railroad axis for half of our nation. This is why Chicago has such a high rate of gang violence and murders today."

Bri notes that many in Mexico have a "love-hate-fear relationship" with the cartels. "And, with no one knowing who is friend and who is foe--even sometimes among relatives--they just mum up." That makes the mission all the more difficult, but even worse, a strange young woman named Amaria keeps showing up at many of the towns they stop at. Friend or foe?

The cartels are on to them, and the group has to keep renting vehicles after they explode or don't fare well in gunfights, or are pushed off the road by big trucks. It's a miracle that they survive.

But when Bri is thrown into a Mexican prison, the jig seems to be up.

Part mystery, part thriller, part travelogue, the novel makes the reader glad that the real El Chapo is in the hands of the authorities. Isn't he?

Thursday, January 04, 2018

"How To Grow Old: Ancient Wisdom For The Second Half Of Life"

As the old year gives way to the new, some of us (ahem) remain in the "old" category. We can't seem to shake advancing age. Now, thanks to translator Philip Freeman, we have an opportunity to examine some old words by an old man, one who saw the weight of years not as a burden but as the fruit of one's character.

Freeman teaches classical languages at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, but he holds his learning lightly in a fizzy new version of a book by the Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero. "How To Grow Old: Ancient Wisdom For The Second Half Of Life" ($16.95 in hardcover from Princeton University Press; also for Amazon Kindle) was written "just before Caesar's murder on the Ides of March in 44 BC."

Cicero "was in his early sixties and alone." His daughter had died the previous year and, not able to support Julius Caesar, he "had retired to his country estate. There he remained, far from Rome, an old man in his own mind useless to the world."

But just as Cicero's last act seemed over, he began to write a series of treatises that endure today, including one on old age. His fictional dialogue featured the aged Roman leader Cato "from the previous century" in which "Cato shows how old age can be the best phase of life for those who apply themselves to living wisely."

The Latin text in Freeman's book is followed by his translation (with notes identifying all the names), and he summarizes Cicero's points in the introduction. Key: "A good old age begins in youth," Freeman writes, with habits of "moderation, wisdom, clear thinking, enjoying all that life has to offer."

"Cato" tells his young questioners that "older people who are reasonable, good-tempered, and gracious will bear aging well. Those who are mean-spirited and irritable will be unhappy at every period of their lives." He's realistic. "It isn't a light burden if a person, even a wise man, is poor. But if someone is a fool, all the money in the world won't make aging easier."

Words that will never grow old.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

"Prison Vocational Education And Policy In The United States"

"It's a custody world." Spoken by an administrator of a prison vocational education program, it sums up the challenges faced by three Chico State University researchers contracted to help the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) determine whether new basic and vocational education programs instituted in 2007 were reducing recidivism. Back then, some 66% of those released were re-arrested within three years.

The idea was to assess the situation, modify behavior, prepare prisoners for re-entry into society, and follow up. All very logical, all very numbers-based. And, it turns out, all very misguided.

The story of the final report, and the behind-the-scenes reality, is told with wry wit by the three professors, a curriculum consultant and two sociologists: William Rich, Tony Waters, and Andrew J. Dick (who died in 2012). "Prison Vocational Education And Policy In The United States: A Critical Perspective On Evidence-Based Reform" ($100 in hardcover from Palgrave Macmillan; also for Amazon Kindle) sounds dry. Far from it.

The book presents the report in the context of prison bureaucracy and the inherent limitations of gathering data. (In the prison system, the researchers are warned, everyone lies.) Eight vignettes provide personal reflections from the white professors ushered into a world of mostly black and brown faces.

In the end, the report went nowhere as the Great Recession hit hard and vocational programs were abandoned. Yet lessons abound. "A class may be well conducted, teachers well trained, and a curriculum well chosen, but the fact that the students may have to submit to anal cavity searches before and after class has consequences for how much learning occurs and the quality of that learning."

The authors "still think that vocational education in prison is a good idea," especially for those with limited sentences, "but this is no longer all we think. We know that prison populations are far more difficult than spreadsheets at the main office may indicate…."

Prison is about punishment and restriction of freedom. "Classes will always be disrupted" for "lockdowns, sudden transfers, gang segregation, safety training, tool checks, and many other routines that trump the educational goals specified by the Legislature."

It's a custody world.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

"Joy: 100 Poems"

Christian Wiman is Professor of the Practice of Religion and Literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. A few years ago he was diagnosed with an incurable blood disease, underwent a bone marrow transplant, and through days of treatment and a measure of recovery wrestled with a fundamental question, expressed in a 2012 interview: "What might it mean for your life--and for your death--to acknowledge the insistent, persistent call of God? … My work--prose and poetry--is still full of anguish and even unbelief, but I hope it's also much more open to simple joy."

It is the season of joy, but "what might that one word, in these wild times, mean?" That question appears in an extraordinary introduction to a poetry anthology, edited by Wiman, that attempts not to define but to inhabit its subject.

"Joy: 100 Poems" ($25 in hardcover from Yale University Press) "is aimed against whatever glitch in us or whim of God has made our most transcendent moment resistant to description. … The great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai once wondered why it is that we have such various and discriminating language for our pains but become such hapless generalizers for our joys."

Wiman's essay drives the reader beyond the safe bounds of mere happiness. Joy "is a homesickness for a home you were not aware of having." Richard Wilbur knows: "Joy's trick is to supply/ Dry lips with what can cool and slake,/ Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache/ Nothing can satisfy."

"But," Wiman writes, "there's no forcing it. Clamoring after joy leads only to fevered simulacra, … the collective swells of manipulative religion, the manufactured euphoria of drugs. … So what does one do with this moment of timelessness when one is back in time?"

The answer comes from experiencing the poems, mostly from our own time, whose diverse voices are sometimes hard, profane (there's an ode to urination), but also comprehending something about our lives that can't be said flat out.

It's like, writes Lisel Mueller, the sadness that comes when we are transported by music. "Joy, joy, the sopranos sing,/ reaching for the shimmering notes/ while our eyes fill with tears."

Sunday, December 17, 2017

"How To Think: A Survival Guide For A World At Odds"

Former Paradise resident John Wilson (@jwilson1812) was for twenty-one years the editor of the now-defunct literary journal "Books and Culture." He published many pieces by his friend Alan Jacobs (@ayjay), Distinguished Professor of Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Texas.

Jacobs  makes significant use of social media and that got him thinking about thinking, especially in a connected world where we can craft our own ideological cocoon. While some writers seem pessimistic about our ability to overcome biases, Jacobs is more hopeful.

The problem is not so much about biases but about "an orientation of the will: we suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking. Thinking troubles us; thinking tires us. Thinking can force us out of familiar, comforting habits. … Who needs thinking?"

Well, we all do. In "How To Think: A Survival Guide For A World At Odds" ($25 in hardcover from Currency; also for Amazon Kindle), Jacobs focuses not on the fallacies of argumentation but instead attempts to reach the reader at an emotional, self-reflective level.

We do not actually think for ourselves. "We think in active feeling response to the world, and in constant relation to others. Or we should." And we need to recognize how important those relationships are in our thinking and at times push ourselves to connect with the "other." ("People who like accusing others of Puritanism," he writes, "have a fairly serious investment … in knowing as little as possible about actual Puritans. They are invested, for the moment anyway, in not thinking.")

Some groups stifle thinking by insisting we conform. Instead, we should strive for "true membership in .. a fellowship of people who are not so much like-minded as like-hearted. … Learning how to feel as we should is enormously helpful for learning how to think as we should. … You have to be a certain kind of person to make this book work for you: the kind of person who, at least some of the time, cares more about working toward the truth than about one's current social position."

As we approach a new year, there is perhaps no better resolution.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

"Conversations With The Past"

Ruby English was Annie Bidwell's maid, and later also secretary, from 1914 until Bidwell's death in 1918. In an interview recorded in 1964 English remembers: "I was beside her when she died. I was right at the side of her bed when she breathed her last breath. She didn't say anything except, 'My head feels like it's full of piles of grass.' She would say that over and over. What kind of pain that was, I don't know."

English added: "Of course, before Mrs. Bidwell was cold, people were trying to get me to work for them. I never had to have a reference. Everybody said, 'If Ruby could please Mrs. Bidwell, she could please anybody.'"

Oral history from English and sixteen other interviewees is captured in "Conversations With The Past" ($16.95 in paperback from the Association For Northern California Historical Research,, superbly edited by David Brown, Nancy Leek, Josie Reifschneider-Smith, and Ron Womack. Past president Dorothy Hill, now deceased, began the interview project in the mid-1970s.

Subtitled "Vibrant Voices From Butte, Colusa, Glenn, Modoc, Plumas, Shasta And Tehama Counties," the book is available at The Bookstore and Bidwell Mansion in Chico; Discount Books and the Butte County Historical Society in Oroville; My Girlfriend's Closet in Paradise; and Gridley Museum. Footnotes and historical photographs provide helpful context, and there's a list of a dozen contributing local museums at the end, all to spark a reader's further exploration.

The voices include Adolph "Ad" Kessler with a firsthand account of his discovery of Ishi. Llewellyn Gay remembers pioneer life in Orland and Newville, in Glenn County, and a letter to President McKinley that was answered by the bunkhouse muleskinners instead.

The book ends with retired Lassen Volcanic National Park Chief Ranger Lester Bodine, interviewed by Ruby Swartzlow in 1979. He talks about all the preparations necessary for the visit of President John F. Kennedy, who stayed the night at the park and then dedicated Whiskeytown Dam and lake. (Kennedy is shown on the cover feeding a deer.)

It was September 1963, and a chilling editor's comment concludes the book, noting that this "was Kennedy's last official act before heading to Dallas two months later."

Sunday, December 03, 2017

"Nancy Kelsey Comes Over The Mountain: The True Story Of The First American Woman In California"

The new children's picture book from retired librarian Nancy Leek of Chico is called "Nancy Kelsey Comes Over The Mountain: The True Story Of The First American Woman In California" ($15.95 in paperback from Goldfields Books; It's available on Amazon and locally at Bidwell Mansion, Made In Chico, and ABC Books. Each page features a full-color drawing from Paradise's own Steve Ferchaud.

In a postscript Leek tells the story in greater detail, noting that Kelsey "thought that she was the first American woman in California. In fact, when she got to Sutter's Fort, Mary Walker, the wife of explorer Joel Walker, had already arrived from Oregon. But Nancy was the first woman to come to California by the perilous route over the Sierra Nevada."

Kelsey and her ever restless husband Ben "joined the Bidwell-Bartleson Party for California" in 1841. "It was a hazardous trek," Leek writes in the postscript. "Nancy was pregnant during this six-month-long journey, and gave birth to a boy at Sutter's Fort after arriving there in December 1841. The baby did not survive." She eventually had eleven children (two died in infancy). Kelsey herself died in 1896.

The children's story starts with Kelsey left alone in the mountains while the men of the party scouted ahead. She "sat on her horse, holding her little girl, Martha Ann, on her lap. She was afraid to dismount her horse. Who knew what stranger, what bear or mountain lion, might come on her suddenly?" The story quotes Kelsey's own account: "I was left with my babe alone, and as I sat there on my horse and listened to the sighing and moaning of the winds through the pines, it seemed the loneliest spot in the world."

The story then picks up the start of the journey, the arrival in California, and in 1846 Kelsey's part as the "California Battalion" helped "take California away from the Mexican government." Perhaps she helped sew the original Bear Flag.

It's been almost two centuries since Nancy Kelsey was born. This captivating book keeps alive for a new generation the life of an extraordinary woman.