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).

Sunday, January 22, 2017

"Tehama County"

"The first branded cattle in Tehama County belonged to William B. Ide," writes Josie Smith, "who drove 165 head of cattle to California in 1845." A year later Ide became the "civil leader of the Bear Flag Revolt" which declared California to be an independent republic. "The Bear Flag Republic lasted 25 days. It was brought to an end when US Navy lieutenant Joseph Warren Revere (Paul Revere's grandson) arrived in Sonoma and raised the Stars and Stripes on July 9, 1846."

The William B. Ide Adobe State Historic Park honors Ide, though the original adobe, built in 1852, was not his actual home ("he lived farther downriver").

While Ide was a historic figure, Smith focuses on capturing everyday life in "Tehama County" ($21.99 in paperback from Arcadia Publishing,; also for Amazon Kindle) by Josie Smith and the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society. (Though a Chico resident, Smith notes in her acknowledgments that the society "adopted a Butte County person as a board member.")

The book is part of the "Images of America" series featuring large black-and-white photographs with detailed captions. Tehama County came into existence in 1856, carved "from territory belonging to Shasta, Butte, and Colusa Counties." No one knows for sure where the name came from, though there are stories. What is certain is that the book captures the vibrant rural life in the county, from Red Bluff to Paskenta, from Corning to Jellys Ferry.

The book is divided into chapters devoted to the four corners of Tehama County interspersed with sections on transportation, agriculture, and recreation. There's a dramatic picture of the "1915 blast of Lassen Peak … from Walnut Street in Red Bluff 37 miles away," and a closer image of the eruption a year earlier.

There's a picture of a Cushman Harvester, drawn by forty mules, working in the southwestern part of the county around 1902. Elsewhere a caption notes that "by 1890, there were 700,000 gallons of brandy stored in the Internal Revenue brick bonded warehouse at (Leland) Stanford's Vina Ranch. Federal law required brandy to be aged under lock and key and then taxed when removed."

Harvested and aged, the pictures and text are a delight.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

"Dark Associations"

Chico writer Marie Sutro evokes the gritty reality of police investigations in a stunning debut novel of violence, eroticism, and suspense that holds the reader in its grip until the very end. In "Dark Associations" ($9.99 in paperback from Viper Press; also for Amazon Kindle) a serial killer, a psychopath obsessed with medieval torture methods, horribly mutilates a succession of young women whose bodies each bear the brand of the ancient Norse thorn symbol.

The novel's central figure is Kate Barnes, a Special Victims Unit detective with the San Francisco Police Department, a thirty-something beauty racked by her seeming complicity in the death of her younger sister when they were kids.

She is paired with Detective Tyler Harding from Boston. He had failed to catch that city's "Tower Torturer" who killed seven young women. Harding and Barnes realize the murders have begun again, this time in San Francisco. And the new victims are all somehow connected to Kate.

Stymied, the department captain calls in FBI superstar profiler, Special Agent Ben Fraye, with whom Harding had worked in Boston in the fruitless effort to track down the "unknown subject."

Detective Barnes had not dealt with a psychopathic killer before, so Special Agent Fraye explains to her that the UNSUB "sees something in you--something he feels he can relate to." Such killers "cannot relate to others in terms of compassion and empathy" but, "oddly enough, while you can't figure them out, at least one of them seems to understand aspects of you--and you're the one accusing them of being emotionally handicapped."

Complicating matters is the growing attraction between Barnes and Fraye, Harding's own past with Kate, and a killer taking lives just because he wants to. The characters are deeply drawn and the complex plot provides surprises at every turn. The grisly details are there, but so also is a pulse-pounding story that keeps the pages turning.

Marie Sutro ( will be signing copies of her book at Barnes and Noble in Chico this Saturday from 2:00-4:00 p.m. The author has also scheduled an interview with Nancy Wiegman, who hosts Nancy's Bookshelf on; readers can subscribe to the podcast version on iTunes at

Sunday, January 08, 2017

"Lulu Meets The King Of Poo"

Chico resident Janice Condon (, a retired occupational therapist, writes in an author's note in her new children's book that "the overuse of antibiotics in childhood" took its toll when she reached middle age. She joined a local group which followed nutrition principles of the Weston A. Price Foundation (, emphasizing "nutrient-dense foods" (such as raw dairy). Condon found renewed energy once her digestion improved.

Helping children care for their "bio-terrain" is at the heart of "Lulu Meets The King Of Poo" ($14.95 in paperback from Austin Macauley Publishers; also for Amazon Kindle), with colorful illustrations by Paradise's Steve Ferchaud.

A glossary at the end provides key definitions. "Bifidus" refers to "friendly bacteria living mainly in the colon (large intestine)" and "acidophilus" to "friendly bacteria living mainly in the small intestine; also the bacteria added to dairy products (as yogurt and milk)."

One night young Lulu complains of a stomach ache to her mom. It might be the result of a big piece of birthday cake she ate, but maybe anxiety over a science project she had yet to begin. Once asleep, "she had an amazing dream: she climbed into her mouth--and swallowed herself!"

In her stomach she meets a new friend. "I'm Emily Enzyme, and this is my space./ How great that you've landed in just the right place./ Your science project is what you came for./ I'll give you an incredible, digestible tour!"

From the stomach to the small intestine where Lulu meets Abby Acidophilus. "We help your food digest," she says: "We hula in the villi; that's what we do best!" (Speaking of hula, the author's website features a music video called "Do The Acidophilus Hula.")

Then Lulu puts on rubber boots for the journey to meet someone who lives in the large intestine. "Big Benny Bifidus, King of Poo! At your service. How do you do?" Benny tells Lulu that "there are more Bifidi in one quarter inch of your colon, than all the people that ever lived on Earth!" And he adds: "It's our most important duty/ We make things happen in your bootie."

Bottom line (so to speak): That microbe team is pretty gutsy.