Sunday, March 22, 2015

A father’s tall tales


“Our first move was from Quebec to California,” writes Paradise author Johanne Cronk Carreau. “We were a French-Canadian version of ‘The Beverly Hillbillies.’ Father was the only one who knew how to drive or how to speak English.” The stories told by Gilbert Carreau “wrapped around us like strong threads in an indestructible fabric ... a bond that outlasted his life.”

Five stories are told in “My Father’s Big Toe” ($12.95 in paperback from JoJo Books; available from or from Lyon Books in Chico, where Carreau was a recent guest). Steve Ferchaud provided the interior illustrations as well as the cover, which features elements of each of the stories.

The title tale introduces the fearsome Loup-Garou, “a mean and hairy beast with the body of a wolf and the face of a man.” He flies through the sky in a magic canoe. And if you saw him, a body part would catch on fire. Is that while Gilbert’s big toe lacked a toenail?

In “Alligator Dance,” Carreau’s father has to fight off a pesky alligator so he can fix a sick tree in the Florida everglades. In the 70s Gilbert worked for a while as an electrician in Zaire, and brought back the story of “Pygmy Stew.” Bottom line: “I didn’t get cooked.”

“A Ball Of String” is about a boy Gilbert grew up with who got a strange present for his ninth birthday. Gilbert’s friend was in a hurry to grow up, and pulling on the string made time go forward. Dream or no, there’s a moral in there somewhere.

In “The Magic Carpet” Carreau writes: “Father gestured a royal invitation with a sweep of his open hand. He bent forward with one arm folded at his waist and the other at his back. ‘Welcome,’ he greeted us in a magician’s tone. ‘Step right up and experience an astonishing and miraculous adventure. Take a seat, take a chance, and take a journey.’ He raised his arms and in a wave unrolled an invisible magic carpet. My sister and I sat as his feet, our shoulders bouncing with giggles.”

Gilbert is the giggle-maker.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Women of mud and manure


Gail Jenner is no stranger to Chico. She graduated from Chico State University “but we are still in Etna (five generations on the ranch now).” In her latest book she’s an editor, collecting dozens of short reminiscences from ranch and farm women and contributing four essays herself.

“Ankle High And Knee Deep: Women Reflect On Western Rural Life” ($16.95 in paperback from TwoDot; also for Amazon Kindle) features contributions from both new and established writers, grouped into such categories as “horse sense” and “lessons.” Jenner notes that “this is not a faith-based book, but this collection of essays does underscore traditional values while providing an ofttimes humorous look at life spent at the wrong end of a tractor, cow, or horse.”

Among Jenner’s lessons: “Don’t hold onto trouble; you’ve got to spread the manure around to make it effective fertilizer.” Those who live on the land, and from the land, can’t help reflecting. “Maybe,” she says, “that’s why farmers eventually become philosophers.”

Chico contributor Laurel Hill-Ward remembers “Mom Was A Beekeeper.” “When Mom got a call from the school, she’d drop everything and head to the rescue of one of her seven children.” She was unmistakable in her “men’s khaki Dickies” and “men’s size ten high-top Redwing boots,” an outfit designed “to keep bees from crawling up her pant legs.”

Madeleine DeAndreis-Ayers knows “Why Liberals Shouldn’t Own Chickens.” “What the liberal eventually learns after he recycles all the self-help books he has read is that a rooster will always be a rooster.” That means “he will always sexually assault every hen within reach and in full view of everyone, including the children who are being raised without television because of the media’s gratuitous sex and violence.” In the end, the liberal will discover that the ax that chops wood “has another use.”

Funny, poignant, telling. As Jenner writes in “Doing What Comes Naturally,” “Deep character is what is cultivated when you have to rely on the seasons and weather--and hope.”

The author was interviewed by Nancy Wiegman of KCHO’s Nancy’s Bookshelf, and the archive is here:

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Chico author’s compelling novel


In the acknowledgements to her just-published novel, Chicoan Emily Gallo makes special mention of Tin Roof Bakery and Cafe, “where I spent many hours writing over endless cups of Earl Grey.”

Her protagonist, Finn (Finnegan) McGee, who “arrived in New York at age eighteen after a dirt-poor, miserable childhood in Ireland and never went back,” favors whiskey rather than tea. McGee became a best-selling writer but now his best-selling days seem long past. After the death of his second wife, McGee, penniless and often drunk, heads to Los Angeles to stay with his daughter Kate, “an attractive, athletic, forty-two year old with a short pixie haircut, slightly built and spry like her father.”

Kate lives in a town where everybody walks, a place that’s a magnet to the homeless of every description. “Venice Beach” ($14.95 in paperback from CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; also for Amazon Kindle) ushers the reader into the sights and sounds of the famous boardwalk.

“There were singers and dancers doing everything from reggae to hip-hop to eye-popping break dancing. A muscular man wearing a bright royal blue speedo whizzed past on rollerblades followed by a man adorned with twigs and leaves walking on stilts. There were acrobats walking across tightropes and jumping over a line of six or seven people touching their toes. A man did a twenty-minute interactive show walking barefoot on broken glass as professional as any you’d see in Las Vegas.”

As Finn sinks further into booze and pills, he befriends some of the boardwalk oddballs, like Bella, a hoarder and Holocaust survivor, and Jed, a mysterious man with a cat named Mother whose past becomes both Finn’s liberation and maybe his demise.

The novel is compulsively readable and more is promised from Gallo’s talented pen.

The author will be reading and signing copies of her book at Lyon Books in Chico on Thursday, March 12 at 7:00 p.m. She will be the featured guest on Nancy’s Bookshelf, with Nancy Wiegman, March 13 at 10:00 a.m on Northstate Public Radio, KCHO, 91.7 FM, or streaming at

Sunday, March 01, 2015

The Year of the Ram


There’s a tale to be told. “The Jade Emperor, ruler of Heaven and Earth, wished to have a big birthday celebration. He invited his favorite animals from throughout the land, and organized a Great Race to see which one of them could reach the palace first.”

The winner would become the first Jade Star, but other stars would be created as each animal crossed the finish line. Just how some of them got across the river is part of the charm of “The Great Race: How The Chinese Zodiac Came To Be” ($17.95 in hardcover from Greenleaf Book Group Press,; also for Amazon Kindle). Written by Charles Huang and Stacey Hirata, with illustrations by Jerome Lu, the book explains the ordering of the lunar calendar, from the rat to the pig, twelve animals in all.

Huang “co-created the Guitar Hero video game franchise” and Hirata, “a fourth-generation Japanese-American ... raised in San Francisco,” has led “creative teams for hundreds of video game creators.”

I also found out that Hirata has visited Chico several times and as a child swam in the Feather River during the hot summers. She dedicates the book “to my amazing husband Ford (Year of the Monkey) and my favorite twins Kennedy and Ryder (Year of the Ox).”

Some of the animals take advantage of others in the race. The Rat was small and asked the Ox for a ride. “The Ox, being generous and kind, agreed and began to cross the river. When the Ox reached the other side, the Rat quickly jumped off his back and ran across the finish line, earning first place in the Great Race.” The Ox came in second.

The Rooster found a raft stuck in some weeds, and enlisted “the friendly Monkey and the rugged Ram” to help. “The Jade Emperor was so impressed with their cooperation that he awarded the Ram eighth place, the Monkey ninth place, and the Rooster tenth place.”

The Chinese New Year on February 19 ushered in the Year of the Ram (or Goat or Sheep, depending on who’s telling the story). And now you know why.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

A novel from George Keithley


“Ring Of Fire” ($19.95 in paperback from Plain View Press) begins with a bang--the eruption of Mt. St. Helens--and carries the reader into the life of a family that is set to explode as well. Chicoan George Keithley, renowned for his poetry, brings a sharp sensitivity to the human condition in the story of Dr. Robert Pell, a volcano expert.

Pell is working with Dick Darwin of the National Emergency Planning Agency, whom Darwin wants to become the voice of authority in case other volcanoes threaten to blow. Too many lives gone at Mt. St. Helens caused by haphazard responses from state and local agencies. Dick is out to change that.

Pell is headquartered near Lassen Peak and Darwin is immediately smitten with his daughter, Linda, who, like Dick, is in her twenties. Eventually they live together for a while in the Bay Area, but there’s a parting amidst confusion about the nature of love.

Dr. Pell’s wife, Annette, is addicted to cocaine and her dealer, A.J., a courteous young man, takes a liking to Linda. For reasons revealed in the novel, Dr. Pell cannot abide A.J. “But while Doctor Pell had traveled the Pacific Rim,” Dick says at one point, “lecturing on its volcanic hazards, his wife had remained at home where she understood, if anyone did, that the family too is a ring of fire.”

That includes Pell’s brother, Father Ted, a misplaced Catholic Priest taken with the writings of an old pioneer who sanctioned the killing of Ishi’s people and then spent a lifetime repenting. “The fire that burns us with our guilt is the fire of love, isn’t it?” Father Ted tells his congregation. “Only if we care for each other can we know our guilt, feel shame, and hope to be forgiven.”

The tragedies that bring the story to an end offer hope, but muted. Keithley has written a deeply insightful account of painful love that will not soon be forgotten.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Free time in Israel


Michael Leitner teaches in the Department of Recreation, Hospitality, and Parks Management at Chico State University; Sara Leitner teaches in the Department of Kinesiology. Together the couple has made extensive study of leisure--free time--with a special emphasis on Israel. And now they've produced a remarkable book exploring "Israeli Life and Leisure In The 21st Century" ($40 in paperback from Sagamore Publishing; also available in ebook format at

The book is a collection of reports from a wide variety of scholars as well as those involved in leisure movements in Israel today. The 55 chapters focus on aspects of Israeli life outsiders may know little about, from folk dance to chess, weddings to wine tourism.

Eight chapters deal with "recreation programs for promoting peace in Israel," such as ice hockey and Friendship Games. Nine chapters present facets of leisure diversity in Israel, including "leisure culture in Arab society in Israel"; life of the Ultra-Orthodox; recreation for those with special needs; and "calculating hedonism among Israeli gay men."

The Leitners contribute several chapters, and note in the introduction that though Israel is "one of the safest places in the world to visit," "because of the unique security threats that Israel faces, military service is mandatory for Jews. Males serve for 3 years after high school and women serve for 2 years." An epilogue discusses "Israeli Leisure and Life Under Rocket Fire," and Michael Leitner writes that he and Sara were living in Tel Aviv in July 2014 when war broke out and "red alert sirens were sounding at least twice daily." Beach times by the Mediterranean Sea are interrupted by rocket alerts.

Yet the Leitners insist "the future is bright" for Israel; "its people are among the happiest in the world ... there is so much more than what is shown in the popular media." Their book is a corrective, with something surprising on every page.

Michael and Sara Leitner will be presenting their book and signing copies at Congregation Beth Israel, 1336 Hemlock Street in Chico, this afternoon from 4:00 - 5:15 p.m. Admission is free and light refreshments will be served.

It doesn’t have to be “creation vs. evolution”


Consider: “A graduate student immersed in evolutionary biology at a major university was on the verge of completing his doctoral degree when Jesus captured his heart and he turned over his life to the sovereign God of the universe.” Did becoming a Christian committed to the Bible’s authority mean the end of this student’s studies in evolutionary biology? Not at all, writes Gary Fugle, longtime biology instructor at Butte College, recently retired. In fact, says the Paradise author, and my friend, “this is my story.”

That story has led to “Laying Down Arms To Heal The Creation-Evolution Divide” ($35 in paperback from Wipf and Stock), just-published and the product of years of reflection. Fugle writes to those “who are softened to the possibility of reconciliation in which the powerful message of Christian faith and the fascinating scientific understanding of evolution are integrated,” not to young-earth creationists or to “committed atheists ... convinced that these are two mutually exclusive propositions.”

Though Fugle recognizes that some biologists are uncomfortable with a professing Christian among their ranks, he writes primarily to conservative Christians uncomfortable with an evolutionary biologist within the fold.

Identifying himself as an “evolutionary creationist” (“God utilized the modifying and molding processes of evolution over very long periods of time to create the vast diversity of life on earth”), Fugle addresses a number of issues with compassion and grace: Was there a real Adam and Eve? Was there death before the Fall? Doesn’t an evolutionary view require purely naturalistic explanations? Why would God use evolution?

The book is not defensive; rather, in clear, accessible language, it’s a celebration of science (especially the section on “the value of biological evolution”) and a paean of praise to the Creator.

The author will present a talk entitled “Should God Be Mentioned in Public Science Classrooms?” at the Science and Religion conference, February 6 (5:30 - 8:30 p.m.) and 7 (8:00 a.m. - noon) at Colusa Hall on the Chico State University campus. Suggested donation at the door is $10, $5 for students. Check “Science and Religion Conference (2015)” on Facebook for details.

God, miracles and free will


Butte College philosophy instructor Ric Machuga, my friend and colleague, has just published “Three Theological Mistakes: How To Correct Enlightenment Assumptions About God, Miracles, And Free Will” ($33 in paperback from Cascade Books).

For Machuga, the European “Enlightenment” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the flourishing of experimental science and consequent love of mechanistic explanations, seriously distorted the thinking about God. The consequences, he writes, have been profound, and profoundly disturbing.

Mechanism assumes that “physical causes always have predictable effects fully determined by the laws of nature.” If that’s the case, so Enlightenment thinking goes, then these laws can be fully quantified mathematically. The implication is that “if something is physically caused, then it was not caused by God” (and vice versa). And the cause has to be one or the other. If an outbreak of cholera devastates the invading Assyrians, then the Biblical tradition ascribing the cause to God (Isaiah 37:36) is rejected.

These are all bad ideas, Machuga argues, because they’re false, but also because they embroil Christians in controversies over free will vs. an all-powerful God; who or what is responsible for evil; whether God acts miraculously; how hell can exist if God is good; and whether God’s existence can be known in the first place.

By contrast, the author responds with comprehensive “correctives” drawn from the perhaps surprising agreement between St. Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century Catholic philosopher, and Karl Barth, the Reformed Protestant theologian in the twentieth. The book will repay careful reading and may lead to an “enlightenment” of a far better sort.

What unfolds is an understanding of God and his creation that transcends either/or thinking, exposes Enlightenment errors, and sets the stage for the working out of a deep and winsome Christianity.

The author will be presenting a talk on “two views of God” at the Science and Religion conference, February 6 (5:30 - 8:30 p.m.) and 7 (8:00 a.m. - noon) at Colusa Hall on the Chico State University campus. Suggested donation at the door is $10, $5 for students. Check “Science and Religion Conference (2015)” on Facebook for details.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

A fighter pilot remembers


Robert “Smoky” Vrilakas was born in 1918 on his parents’ farm near Red Bluff. His father was a Greek immigrant, his mother a teacher from Wisconsin, and his nickname came from his love of cigars as a high school student from Proberta.

He received his draft notice in the spring of 1941, reporting to the selective service board in Red Bluff “for induction into the army. I sold my beloved Model A Ford for $80” and he was off to basic training at Fort Ord.

It was the beginning of an extraordinary career in the military, where he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Legion of Merit, the Air Force Commendation Medal, and more. He tells his story in “Look, Mom--I Can Fly!: Memoirs Of A World War II P-38 Fighter Pilot” ($16.95 in paperback from Amethyst Moon Publishing,; also for Amazon Kindle) which includes maps and a wealth of photographs.

Eventually he had the opportunity to train as a pilot. “Flying took me into another world. ... For better or worse, I was hooked.” Then, “about midway through advanced flight training a notice appeared on the bulletin board asking for eighty volunteers to fly P-38s after graduation.” Vrilakas signed up.

He trained at Luke Air Base and graduated in 1943; two others in his class would make a name for themselves, including Chuck Yeager who would become the first human to travel faster than sound, and Dick Catledge, who later “organized and led the first Air Force ‘Thunderbird’ demonstration flight team.”

“The P-38,” Vrilakas writes, “was an awesome sight to us. It was at that time the Air Corps’ top high-performance, high-altitude fighter.” (The “prop wash” once knocked over a portable toilet. The guy inside “made a do-or-die dash for safety.”)

Assigned at first to a base in Tunisia for the 94th “Hat in the Ring” Fighter Squadron, the author flew 50 missions, and details each in the book. As part of the “greatest generation,” he survived. The real heroes, he writes, are those who “made the supreme sacrifice in the very prime of their lives.”