Thursday, October 10, 2019

"Burn Scar: A Contemporary Disaster Thriller"



T. J. Tao is the pen name of Michael J. Orr (wordsmithmojo.com). Now based in southern Idaho, he and his family survived the Camp Fire, and though he wanted to publish a factual account, "the truth was that our story had no ending, yet." Conspiracy theories hung in the air.

So he "settled on fiction, weaving the story with more than twenty very real survivor stories (including my own) and some of the conspiracy theory storylines: gold, corruption, government land grabs, etc."

Then he "found a ridge in west-central Idaho that had much the same shape and many of the same features as the ridge that Paradise sits on." The novel's focus is on the town of Genna (Maltese, he says, for "Paradise") with a fire that started in Bear County near Bonneville Road and so was dubbed the Bonn Fire."

The result is a riveting story of a corrupt town manager, a scheme to secure mineral rights along the eastern ridge by any means necessary, murderous henchmen, a dedicated sheriff, and the heroism of first responders and local citizens in the midst of the worst fire in Idaho's history. 

"Burn Scar: A Contemporary Disaster Thriller" ($16.99 in paperback from WordsmithMojo Publishing; also for Amazon Kindle), by T.J. Tao, also fictionally imports the "firenado" (from the Carr Fire) to plague Genna's Rite Aid.

Three weeks before the fire, "Mayor Joana Moody was in the midst of an unexpectedly difficult bid for re-election to the Town Council of Genna. ... In most towns and cities, the Town Manager worked for and at the pleasure of the Council. Not in Genna, here Jillian Dupree ran the show. ... She needed Mayor Moody" pretty much as a pawn as Jillian maneuvered the idea of bolting a sewer system onto the eastern cliffside into a fortune for herself.

The novelist is not pleased with Council doings or with "Idaho Electric Power." (Locations and identities of some key players are thinly veiled.) Despite some editing infelicities the story is a page turner in its own right, with a satisfying conclusion. 

There's comeuppance that lends an air of finality to something that never really will be finished.


Thursday, October 03, 2019

"Love Revolution: Rediscovering The Lost Command Of Jesus (Revised Edition)"



In 2001, with almost three decades in the pastorate, Chicoan Gaylord Enns experienced debilitating burnout. Months later he faced cancer surgery. Granted time away from his congregation to regain his strength, he began studying the Bible and, on May 1, 2002, found the answer to a simple question that profoundly changed his life.

The story is told in "Love Revolution: Rediscovering The Lost Command Of Jesus (Revised Edition)" ($15.99 in paperback from Love Revolution Press, loverevolutionnow.org; also for Amazon Kindle). 

In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus tells his followers to make disciples, "baptizing them ... and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." For Enns, baptism referred to faith in Jesus Christ--but what exactly had Jesus commanded?

Enns writes that Jesus taught many things, but only commanded one thing, as in John 15:12: "Love each other as I have loved you." As Enns observes, "I had started ... with a question: What all did Jesus command His disciples to obey? ... It was the New Commandment--His Command."

This contrasts with the Old Covenant commands, the first, to "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" and the second, to "love your neighbor as yourself." How can one ever fulfill the first? Doesn't the second interfere with it? As Enns writes, "I struggled with a nagging sense that I wasn't really living up to what God expected of me. My responsibilities as a husband, father, son, friend and pastor kept me from being as devoted to God as I felt I should be."

Jesus' command broke through all this. "Rather than shouting 'I love You, God!' into the sky for hours, I began to realize that maybe I should give just a couple of shouts and then go back into the kitchen and help my wife clean up the pots and pans after dinner. ... In the New Covenant, loving God and loving our neighbor are expressed as we put our faith in Jesus Christ and love one another."

Enns is a winsome writer and a gentle guide. Readers will find much food for thought.


Thursday, September 26, 2019

"People, Places & Pieces Of Paradise: The Inferno, Aftermath & Recovery From The Most Destructive Wildfire In California History"



Chico writer-photographer Doug Keister showed up for his morning softball game on November 8, 2018, knowing something was amiss but not knowing the extent of the conflagration that was to come. Several of the players would lose their homes in the Camp Fire.

"In the weeks and months that followed," he writes in an extraordinary new book, "I journeyed to the fire zone of Paradise and nearby smaller communities of Concow and Magalia several times each week, doing my best to document the effects of the fire, on the land and on the people. I also made note of the residents of Butte County who had escaped the ravages of the fire. The generosity they gave--and continue to give--to the community and survivors, still inspires."

Keister has created stunning images that capture the soul of Paradise, from the burning to the aftermath, with stories of survivors telling of the human cost but also of the indomitable spirt of hope that is, indeed, part of the soul of the town. 

"People, Places & Pieces Of Paradise: The Inferno, Aftermath & Recovery From The Most Destructive Wildfire In California History" ($29.95 in hardcover, self-published, from paradisebook.org; also available locally at Made in Chico and the Gold Nugget Depot Museum) contains almost 200 color images and 20,000 words. 

Sections include "Ignition," "Aftermath," "Recovery," "The Murals" (a comprehensive guide to Shane Grammer's Paradise art), "Portraits From Paradise" (three dozen stories of individuals and families who survived), with a closing memorial dedicated to those who did not.

In the book, Keister writes about the power of the image. "Imagine returning after the fire, turning onto the street where your home once was and seeing…nothing. You feel your heart sinking and your eyes welling with tears. You are struck by the utter silence. No birds chirping. No chattering squirrels. No dogs barking. No squeals of children playing. Nothing is anywhere close to normal. Photographs will tell these stories, if you let them."

Those images are deeply moving (my first school, Paradise Elementary, has disappeared into memory). 

The book itself is a treasure.


Thursday, September 19, 2019

"As Many Nows As I Can Get"



Imagine a little Colorado town named Graceville ("Western slope, two hours out of Denver"). It's the last summer fling for graduating high school seniors Scarlett Oliveira, best friend Hannah, Cody Martinez (Scarlett's first love), and David Warren (her second love). 

"Scar," a physics major, turns down an offer from MIT and instead will head to Colwyn College in Watertown, Maine. David will head to Stanford. They are Graceville's finest. All the planets seem aligned.

But in physics, gravitational and other forces can set things to wobbling, a perfect metaphor for how Scarlett's orderly life is upended when she jumps with David off the Mine Gulf Bridge into the waters below. "I want to feel everything," David says. "What it's like to be that heron, or those clouds, and to jump off that bridge." After Scar's impulsive choice she and David are in each other's orbit--but orbits decay.

What follows is Scar's account of lives upended by love and death, an emotionally resonant debut YA novel by Paradise native Shana Youngdahl. Now living in Maine, she teaches writing at the University of Maine at Farmington.

"As Many Nows As I Can Get" ($17.99 in hardcover from Dial Books; also for Amazon Kindle) flits in short chapters from Scar's present (a road trip with her Colwyn College roommate Mina) to moments in the previous two years when David's magnetism was irresistible, when Cody moved on to someone else, when the past was a "now." 

"The past is not gone," Scarlett writes, "it's just not being witnessed. One flip and I'm headed out on the road with David ten months ago, another flip and I'm in this car with Mina today, another, it's eight months ago, and I'm sweating through college orientation. All these nows happening at once. And if all our nows happen at once, then death--it's just a scavenger hunt through time."

Brilliant student Scar makes life-changing mistakes, David makes a fatal one, and the story, with its electric repartee among friends and spot-on grasp of the lives of these teens, presents Scarlett with the question: Who am I in this now? The answer is not to be missed.


Thursday, September 12, 2019

"The Sound Of The Snow Geese: A True Story Of Surviving California's Deadliest Wildfire"



Dax Meredith, the pen name of a Chico State and Butte College instructor, was caught in the Camp Fire as she and one of her young sons fled towarrd Paradise from Magalia. Her harrowing story, including the aftermath with its own trauma, is told in "The Sound Of The Snow Geese: A True Story Of Surviving California's Deadliest Wildfire" ($15.99 in paperback, self-published; also for Amazon Kindle).

"I’m relatively young," she writes, "to have survived the things I’ve made it through so far. To date, these include near death from a virus and secondary infections, extensive nerve damage, long term illness, near death by wildfire, loss of home to fire, relocation, and the post fire list goes on and on." She's also a single mom, bringing up two boys called in the narrative Andy (age eleven) and Tommy (who's nine). 

On that fire morning, the author is home with a feverish Andy; Tommy is driven to school in Chico by his grandmother. A little after 8:30 her mom calls, the phone voice crackling. "Huge plume of smoke. Ugly. Maybe plan to evacuate."

Meredith walks outside. "I know immediately that something is different, something is wrong. The skies are an unnatural glow of greens and oranges, and ash is collecting like deathly snowfall on the deck, on the cars, like an ominous dusting of the destruction that has begun."

With Andy and their puppy Harley, she begins driving toward Paradise. Then traffic stops at the turnoff to Pentz.

Soon, "sparks, ash, debris, and huge demonic flames are right there behind us. They don't dance or flicker. They eat everything. ... I can't wrap my brain around it." There will come sheltering in place near the Optimo, then eventual escape. 

She is filled with emotion and yet also a confidence in God. Hardships continue afterward, but there are new starts.

Trained as a counselor, the author discusses coping techniques in the last chapter, including identifying triggers, prayer, visualization, music, and more. 

The book is a superb and heart-stopping account of the unimaginable, full of honest faith and true grit. When you are ready--read it.


Thursday, September 05, 2019

"In Search Of The Canary Tree: The Story Of A Scientist, A Cypress, And A Changing World"



"Some people call it the Alaska cedar," writes Lauren E. Oakes, who teaches Earth System Science at Stanford. "Others call it the yellow cypress. ... Alaskans use the name yellow-cedar." In remote parts of Alaska groves of yellow-cedar are on the decline. Just what is going on had not been documented until Oakes, in 2010, began a years-long research project for her doctorate. 

The book that emerged is a nuanced and poignant exploration of the impact of the dying trees. "What I didn't know then," she writes, "was that these dead trees would eventually ... give me a sense of conviction about our ability to cope with climate change. They'd motivate me to do my part. They'd move me from pessimism about the outlook of our world to optimism about all we still can do."

"In Search Of The Canary Tree: The Story Of A Scientist, A Cypress, And A Changing World" ($27 in hardcover from Basic Books; also for Amazon Kindle) has been chosen as the 2019-2020 "Book In Common" for Chico State University (csuchico.edu/bic), Butte College (butte.edu/bic), and the larger community. (Oakes is scheduled to speak at Chico State in April.)

In addition to teaching, Oakes works for the Wildlife Conservation Society. Her book presents the scientific questions she set out to answer in Alaska, such as how to distinguish the normal growth and decay cycles of a healthy forest from the threat to the yellow-cedar species itself. 

On some Alaskan archipelagos there is significant yellow-cedar dieback, but that has made room for spruce to flourish. There is grief at the loss, especially among the native Tlingit community, but that leads to questions of how the relationship with the forests will change. 

Oakes comes to realize, through dozens of interviews, that the many perspectives she finds (economic, ecological, spiritual) present a complex pattern of how those affected face the loss.

The yellow-cedar is the canary, the early warning that profound change is upon us. The species teaches "that there's simply no imaginable tomorrow ... that could ever possibly nullify the need for unwavering care and thoughtful action today."


Thursday, August 29, 2019

"Stutterer Interrupted: The Comedian Who Almost Didn't Happen"



The author's name is "Nina G.," her moniker in the Bay Area comedy circuit. Recently she presented her story to Butte College faculty and staff during the new semester convocation. Nina and husband Ethan live in Oakland; she works at a community college as a counselor for students with disabilities but is also part of a comedy troupe called The Comedians with Disabilities Act.

Though her talk at Butte College was rated PG, the story she tells in her new book is far edgier (she is no stranger to F-bombs). But it's also a poignant journey of a childhood that "took all the negative social cues and internalized them, like a box of baking soda absorbing every rotten odor in the fridge."

"Stutterer Interrupted: The Comedian Who Almost Didn't Happen" ($16.95 in paperback from She Writes Press; also for Amazon Kindle) is half autobiography, half reflection about embracing the person she is, stuttering included. But for supportive parents and counselors, Nina may have remained that "weird kid."

At sixteen she volunteered for the National Stuttering Project in San Francisco. "I was surrounded by well-adjusted adults who could speak without fluency and still lead normal lives." She resolved not to "hide behind the 'weird kid' persona. I spoke in my natural voice and started making peace with my repetitions and blocks."

Later she earned her doctorate in psychology and became "a frustrated dyslexic-stuttering academic" who found real joy in venues like the bar in San Bruno "where a fight breaks out and I have to resort to my dirtiest jokes to distract from the screaming man being dragged out in handcuffs. What other job lets you have all those experiences? To be a comedian, you have to love what you do. And I do love what I do."

There are practical chapters on how well-meaning folks who hear a report on NPR suddenly become experts on stuttering. How Howard Stern helped her find self-acceptance. How she "stopped denying myself a voice out of fear of inconveniencing others. I became upfront about my dysfluency...."

Her dream? To make "the world a more stutter-friendly and loving place." One life at a time.