Sunday, July 23, 2017

"Spectators: Flash Fictions"



Rob Davidson teaches creative writing and American literature at Chico State University. In 2012 he and photographer Tom Patton presented an "image-and-text collaboration" at 1078 Gallery in Chico. Inspired as well by artists Stephani Schaefer and Sara Umemoto, Davidson has constructed a deconstruction of the "monuments" built by words, the stories we tell ourselves and often settle into. "We love limits," he writes in his new and strangely haunting book, "we feel safer behind an enforced perspective."

"Spectators: Flash Fictions" ($16 in paperback from Five Oaks Press) is a collection of short meditations, some somber, some flirtatious. The book invites reading and re-reading (the publisher has nominated it for a Pulitzer Prize in literature), and each time the reader will see something new. In a way, that's the point.

Patton's photograph of a man taking pictures of the Grand Canyon inspires a mordant observation: "He will not remember the canyon. He will not remember the smell of sage, or the breeze, just slightly cool, wafting up from the riverbed…. He will remember taking multiple shots from different angles…. He shoots again and again, and with each new image he builds another, different canyon, thereby justifying the existence of the first. We are only the stories we tell ourselves."

One ought not put too much store in one's words and yet "the world without words is the world unmade." "Author's Note" distinguishes Davidson the writer from Rob the ordinary bloke, the married man with two kids and a day job at the university. This Davidson guy "steals from me. From my memory." Yet in the fictions Davidson creates "I see myself most clearly." A fiction is a way of listening.

We can't help being spectators but we can also be shaped by a Buddhist understanding of presence. "The mistake most commonly made by those asked to wait is to focus on that which has not yet happened…. There is only the waiting itself, for which there is no wait."

"There is inside us," Davidson writes earlier, "a child's wish that the world would yield to our demands. Yet it's only when we stop to listen that something unexpected opens, like the ear of a parenthesis."


Sunday, July 16, 2017

"Reflections From The Rear View Mirror: A Love Story"



"Two major themes have been with me all my life," writes retired professor Kaye Owens ("Mr. Kaye"), "my abiding love and interest in people, especially children, and my fascination for anything with wheels and how they could be usefully employed." Now in his mid-eighties Kaye has compiled reminiscences of his many vehicles, and it's quite a list.

"Reflections From The Rear View Mirror: A Love Story" ($16.99, spiral bound, self-published) is available from Kathy's Books, 6848 Skyway in Paradise; and by mail order directly from the author, 5645 Butte View Terrace, Paradise, CA 95969 or through kayeowens.com.

The largest section catalogs the dozens of cars, trucks, and trailers that have been part of his family, beginning with a 1936 Ford Pickup. When Owens was eight "my father invited me to take the wheel." The family lived on a farm near Boise, Idaho. "I stalled the engine," he remembers, "but I managed to get it going again, slowly creeping across farm country until I rammed into the corner of a hog pen and stalled again." He was hooked.

Each vehicle, most accompanied by the author's own sketches, receives a paragraph to a page (or more), focused mostly on the circumstances of how it came into Owens' possession and the part it played in his life. Subsequent chapters offer more sustained narratives about planes, bicycles, carts, and even boats.

Over the years there are marriages, children, divorces, and many moves as a teacher and later professor of psychology and special education, but family names are never given. This is a vehicular memoir.

At one point, needing to teach off-campus classes in Utah, Owens becomes a licensed pilot flying a 1946 Erco AirCoupe. Owens the tinkerer delights in solving problems (like a broken canopy), but "I was very lucky. Mostly, I had feelings of inconvenience rather than danger."

These days, "with the help of children and adult family members, I am working on constructing a motor scooter made entirely of repurposed materials," like a bed frame and pump motor. "Reflections" will bring knowing nods from those of a certain age; it's a testament to a "restless spirit" who loves his wheels.


Sunday, July 09, 2017

"Bull's Labyrinth"



Oregon writer Eric Witchey (ericwitchey.com), a presenter at the Butte College WordSpring writing conference, has a penchant for the offbeat. In "Bull's Labyrinth" ($17.95 in paperback from IFD Publishing; also for Amazon Kindle), he has fashioned a modern day romantic suspense fantasy out of the quest for missing glyphs of the ancient Minoan script called Linear-A. He pulls it off with aplomb, interweaving the story of the brilliant and stunningly beautiful Dr. Nikkis Aristos, 25 years old, with an ancient curse 3500 years old.

The Minoan civilization developed on the island of Crete; there, Nikkis is invited by a detective named Andros to aid in the search for artifact forgers. Andros is "the unfortunate son of Turkish and German parents" and is held in contempt by the locals because, he says, "they believe my ancestors murdered their ancestors. Which, to be candid, is true."

Andros lusts for Nikkis, who constantly fends off his demeaning advances. He takes her to the ruins of Knossos, where King Minos, called the "Bull Among Men," reigned more than three millennia ago. The Master Carver who built his palace is named Daedalus. Nikkis knows the name; Daedalus was "the father of crafts and tools. He built the bull that let the queen of the Minoans be mounted by the white bull, the gift of Poseidon, and hence gave birth to the Minotaur."

Alternating chapters return to Daedalus and the "real story," of how he and his son Ikarus tried to escape the island kingdom by flying away, and how Daedalus, returning when his son plummets to his death after flying too close to the sun, eventually marries a mysterious woman, a goat tender named--Nikkis. The King, jealous of Daedalus' craft, curses him to fall in love with Nikkis and then lose her in life after life; but the Queen, craving the erotic dimension of existence, makes it possible for the curse to be broken, for love to be consummated.

The worlds of archaic Daedalus and present-day Nikkis are drawn with compelling detail, and the action pulls the reader along as, Witchey notes, "the battle between ancient male and female energies" plays out on the page to its breathless conclusion.


Sunday, July 02, 2017

"Storybook Style: America's Whimsical Homes Of The 1920s"



Chico writer/photographer Doug Keister (www.douglaskeister.com) has teamed with architect and syndicated columnist Arrol Gellner for a study of what they call “consummate artifice.” Their sumptuously illustrated coffee-table book examines the development and spread of "Storybook Style: America's Whimsical Homes Of The 1920s" ($34.99 in hardcover from Schiffer Publishing).

Blame it on Los Angeles; “… it is perhaps inevitable that the the epicenter of the Storybook style—that most theatrical of design modes—lies in the capital of make-believe: Hollywood.” In the Roaring Twenties “movie people” wanted homes to match their status. “Unlike the sedate manors of bankers and businessmen,” the authors write, “these houses would be fanciful monuments to the pathologically flamboyant, … evoking the appearance of long-gone eras and faraway lands.”

Period Revival included more than just Storybook homes but as motion pictures brought exotic styles into theaters around the country, whimsey took hold. “The Storybook style’s arrival into the mainstream was all but certified when Sears, Roebuck and Co. offered a medievalizing English cottage in its catalog of 1931, complete with catslide roof and rubble-stone trim around the entrance.”

The history of the Storybook style is a bit more complicated than that, and the book details many of the complexities. But readers will also find an abundance of anecdotes and hundreds of photographs, including of a Storybook house on Arbutus Avenue in Chico (showing “a curiously tentative use of random brick in the chimney”) and four pages on Chico’s Eastwood Park tract, developed by Oroville E. Tracy from 1926-1929.

Clinker bricks make frequent appearances. At first “considered discards, having been vitrified by over-firing and hence emitting a distinctive clinking sound when struck,” their “distorted shapes and dark purplish colors” proved to be irresistible to the Storybook sensibility.

Readers will revel in this serious history of a fanciful period.

Doug Keister is scheduled to be interviewed by Nancy Wiegman on Nancy's Bookshelf this Friday from 10:00 - 11:00 a.m. on mynspr.org, North State Public Radio (91.7 FM). This marks the tenth anniversary of Nancy's Bookshelf, and it’s fitting that Keister will open his "storybook" as a kind of tribute to Nancy’s long and fruitful series of author interviews.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

"Odd Otis: A Special Needs Dog Who Doesn't Know He's Special Needs"



Odd Otis is a "special needs" Australian Shepherd, born in 2007 and blind and deaf from birth. He was rescued from the middle of the Skyway and came to live with Magalia residents Alan and Kathi Hiatt. The story is told in "Odd Otis: An Unusual Tail (Tale) About An Unusual Dog" and his notoriety led to signings and school presentations.

Kathi writes me that "we talk to the kids about the importance of patience and tolerance when dealing with special need animals and people." But because "some of the children have been a little too young to actually read the book," the Hiatts have now published a picture version, with color photographs, to show kids how Odd Otis "can pretty much do all the things other dogs can do." And maybe a few they can't.

"Odd Otis: A Special Needs Dog Who Doesn't Know He's Special Needs" (Amazon Kindle; see oddotis.com) features a large image and a simple caption on each page, written by Odd Otis himself responding to the natural curiosity of children. "I can't see," he writes, "but I can find the doggie door to go do my outside business!"

Why the sporty sunglasses shown on the cover? "When I'm outdoors I wear doggles to protect my eyes from flying bugs and low branches." "Ottie" also has "a special water bowl so it won't tip over if I step on it." On car trips he rides in a car seat.

"There's an upside to being deaf," he writes. "When the rugs are being vacuumed the loud 'VROOM' doesn't wake me from my nap … and when I'm being brushed the noisy hairdryer doesn't scare me!"

He shows "children how to say 'hello': Ask my human if it's OK to pet me; make a fist and let me smell your hand; pet my chest and sides, not the top of my head."

Many of the pictures will tug at the reader's heart (I admit it.). But the book is not about feeling sorry. Instead, it's a celebration of the active life of an unusual dog--and how family love makes all the difference.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

"The Daughters Daring And The Crystal Sea"



Biggs resident Steven J. Thompson has created a fantasy world of sword and sorcery, where the kingdom of Highcynder is threatened not only from without, but now from treachery within. It is a world of gnomes and dwarves, faerie folk and harpies, orcs and witches, a world in which magic exerts its power and tempts even the purest heart.

The kingdom had been saved for a time from the cruel witch and her minions by the heroic Duke Daring and his two young daughters, Emily and her younger sister Elizabeth. That tale is told in "The Daughters Daring." Now, two years later, the witch has become Queen of Newcynder and is preparing to claim Highcynder as her own.

There are adventures aplenty in book two, "The Daughters Daring And The Crystal Sea" ($15.99 in paperback from KECELJ Publishing; also for Amazon Kindle; see facebook.com/SJThompsonBooks). Suitable for kids and young adults, the story features a magic energy ball, a fight with living skeletons, and sea battles that will shiver one's timbers.

Emily is now 14 and practices swordplay with Tobias Ocwen, a year older and also of the Highcynder nobility. Tobias finds Emily "annoyingly beautiful." His father, Baron Ocwen, a foul influence on the Knight's Council, becomes the "first noble to own slaves," creatures called Gharidians, amphibians who talk and walk upright.

Elizabeth takes after her mother, the Duchess Daring, cousin to the King of Highcynder and nemesis of the spider queen Evelyn. The younger sister, Elizabeth practices spells from her mother's book of magic and yearns to find a special flower that grows only in a perilous land, a flower to magnify Elizabeth's magical powers.

One must not forget young Joseph Daring, the sisters' kid brother who in his irrepressible curiosity accidentally sets fire to the King's ballroom. Joseph, perhaps in spite of himself, helps bring to light some things that are just not quite right in Highcynder.

The exciting story keeps several plots in motion at once and Thompson's writing is sure and polished as the reader is drawn into the action. Much remains unresolved, and we eagerly await the magic of the third book in the planned trilogy.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

"The Sleepy Hollow Mystery: A Chick Corbett Yarn"



Chico's Doug Keister is fascinated by cemeteries and has published guidebooks to some of the more prominent resting places. A few years ago he discovered that as a novelist the cemetery settings could yield some most interesting, uh, plots, especially if you have a cast of oddball characters dealing with issues of national security. What has followed is a series of romps with historical back stories and guidebook excerpts interwoven (complete with GPS coordinates).

The newest is "The Sleepy Hollow Mystery: A Chick Corbett Yarn" ($9.95 in paperback from Doublewide Productions, www.douglaskeister.com; also for Amazon Kindle). Chick makes his home with Uncle Ray in the desert town of Gerlach, Nevada, only now the story finds them "high in the Limbo Mountains about a hundred miles north of Reno."

They, along with "a three-legged border collie named Phydeaux," on loan from sheepherder Elwood LeFoote, are there to take pictures of a series of petroglyphs found in a cave.

It's the result of a request from Chick's best friend, Mensa-brilliant six-foot-seven Tom Twotrees, a Paiute now working for the Pentagon. FBI agent Desiree Depardieu, Chick's girlfriend, is helping Tom investigate a series of East coast murders due to a gruesome human form of mad-cow disease. A strange symbol is associated with the bodies, and that's what Chick and Uncle Ray are looking for.

Add to the mix the Dark Shadows movie; the fate of Michael Rockefeller (the fifth child of Nelson Rockefeller), who may have been eaten by cannibals during an expedition to New Guinea; and some pretty lurid descriptions of blood drinking.

There's a Nevada connection which leads to Artemus Collins, "Arterial Artie," a man afflicted with hematomania, which is, as Uncle Ray explains, "a craving, often sexual, to drink blood … human blood." Imprisoned for murder, Artemus had escaped, vowing revenge against all those who had wronged him. Triangulating the deaths leads our heroes to the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in New York (sleepyhollowcemetery.org), where Washington Irving is buried.

And where Artie's attention turns, chillingly, to Chick and Desiree.

Keister delights in the intricacies of history and characters he has come to love, and readers can be grateful for both.