Sunday, April 13, 2014

Local poet charts a family breakup and a tentative hope


Lisa Anina Berman received her M.A. in Creative Writing at Chico State University “as a single mother in her 40s.” Her Master’s project has now become a book, “a compilation of narrative, lyrical and form poetry that loosely follows a path of loss, recovery and redemption.” The poet’s simple words are worth pondering.

SaltWild” ($8.99 in paperback from CreateSpace; also for Amazon Kindle) is available locally at Lyon Books and the university’s Wildcat Bookstore.

The second poem, “Deep Blues,” begins with a romantic dinner in South Lake Tahoe. “Our blue eyes danced,” the poet writes, “smiles doubled,/ in lifted glasses/ of chardonnay.” Too perfect? “In deep/ layers of blues,/ I followed a false light,// and got lost in his dark.”

It’s clear that this relationship, which blossoms into marriage and family, includes something else. An addiction. In “Tahoe Haze,” “I dumped out his pain/ pills in our driveway/ while he watched,/ and I stomped/ them, pulverized them,/ to a powdery pulp,/ the color of our panic.”

Then, later, in “Phone Call From Rehab,” “The sky was numb, grey/ as a dial tone, the day my parents came// with their pickup and trailer./ My husband, in rehab// again, had just called./ ‘I told them I don’t belong here,’// he boasted, ‘everyone’s a loser.’”

And now a new chapter, and the reader is invited to “Huge Yard Sale Today!”: “I walk up to the yard sale, the things that I left him/ when I left him, spread out on tables and the sidewalk.” The poet is coming to pick up the kids “for my week.”

But life must be lived. In “My Son’s Swagger,” the poet writes: “My son, know that I would dive/ into icy waters for you/ wrestle a bear for you, and yet,/ we have to feel the pain// of our own skinned knees,/ experience the strengths and failures/ of building our own character,/ and find the armor that suits us.”

“I wanted to see Jesus/ in my cup of coffee this morning” the poet says. “I wanted to believe that/ it’s all true.// … That He teaches,/ heals,/ forgives/ me.”

Lyon Books in Chico will be hosting a reading and book signing Tuesday, April 29 at 7:00 p.m.

Friday, April 11, 2014

A saga of young love from a Sacramento Valley novelist


The first novel from award-winning short-story writer Heather Brittain Bergstrom celebrates the tenacity of teenage love. “Steal The North” ($27.95 in hardcover from Viking; also for Amazon Kindle) tells the story of 16-year-old Emmy Nolan, sent by her mother Kate in Sacramento to eastern Washington state, there to take part in a healing ceremony for Kate’s sister.

Bethany and husband Matt are part of a fundamentalist Baptist sect; the preacher, Brother Mathias, wants the ceremony to include a young virgin. Beth has had a series of miscarriages that have ruined her health; now she is pregnant again. Kate has kept many things from Emmy, including the existence of Emmy’s aunt and uncle, but Emmy is not forthcoming either. She is no virgin.

While staying with Beth and Matt, whom she comes to love deeply, she meets a sixteen-year-old Native American named Reuben Tonasket. It’s pretty much love at first sight. In their lovemaking, Emmy and Reuben open up to each other, partly. Family secrets still abound.

Kate had grown up in the area, but her husband left her and she became a trucker’s prostitute to pay the bills. She tells Emmy that her father is dead, but that’s a lie. As Spencer, Kate’s boyfriend, puts it: “Guys like women with a little mystery. Kate had a whole sea of it inside her. I was standing on the shore.”

Each chapter is narrated by one of the main characters. In an interview Bergstrom says that “I grew up between the two largest Indian reservations in Washington State: the Colville and the Yakama reservations.” But it was a challenge to get Reuben’s narration right: “How could I possibly begin to understand what it is like to be a Native American youth? How can I possibly understand their spirituality? Their culture? Their sorrow, joy, loss, love?”

Yet Reuben, flawed human, emerges as a noble figure who must make an extraordinary sacrifice. The reader will cheer the ending, but long be haunted by the rawness of a family history laid bare and the courage of the very young.

Lyon Books in Chico will be hosting Bergstrom for a reading and book signing Thursday, April 17 at 7:00 p.m.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

WordFire Creative Writing Conference coming to Butte College April 26


Sponsored by the Butte College English Department, the WordFire Creative Writing Conference is open to the public ($65 for community members and $35 for students). Registration is at or contact Butte College instructor Molly Emmons at (530) 895-2935.

Now in its third year, the conference features workshops on poetry, memoir, fiction, publishing, and more, including one on songwriting from local musician Jeremy Gerrard.

A featured presenter is local YA (Young Adult) author Zu Vincent. Her novel “The Lucky Place” ($17.95 in hardcover from Front Street; also for Amazon Kindle), first published in 2008, was hailed by School Library Journal as “a stunning fiction debut by an author to watch.”

Designed for those in grades 6 through 9, the story can be enjoyed by adults as well. It’s a heartbreaking tale told by Cassie, three years old as the story begins. She and her five-year-old brother, Jamie, have been taken to the races by their drunken father, Sikes, who calls her “Baby Doll.” It’s Sacramento (“River City” in the novel) in the late Fifties and early Sixties (is Cassie in third grade when President Kennedy is shot?).

Cassie’s attempt to understand her family’s world perfectly captures the young mind: “I wonder what a binge is. I wonder if it’s something you can ride, like a plane or a train, or maybe an elephant. I want to ask Daddy, but this time when he goes away he doesn’t come back, and that’s a secret, too.”

Mama remarries. Ellis is a cook with greater ambitions, and Cassie comes to love her New Daddy, even as her Old Daddy extracts a promise to “love me best, forever!” Cassie: “I try to keep my promise, but it’s hard. After the police take Old Daddy away, we never see him.” The family moves to Diamond Street and Mama says “the white horse that runs in the field where the shopping center will be means good luck, that we have moved to a lucky place.”

Years pass, and Cassie’s writerly voice gains confidence. When she’s twelve, Ellis is diagnosed with cancer, from which he will not recover. Cassie must discover where the “lucky place” truly is, and the reader’s tears stain almost every page.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Local researcher retraces the “Ishi expedition”


“The story begins in San Francisco with Ishi and Professor Alfred L. Kroeber.” He and his fellow anthropologists wanted “to learn how California Indians lived and survived in pre-contact times.” So, on May 13, 1914, “Ishi and his friends” depart by train to Vina where he “becomes the lead guide for a trip into the rugged and remote Yahi foothill country.”

As independent researcher Richard Burrill puts it, “they experience, in all, nineteen days of adventure, turmoil, challenges, discoveries, and some resolution. The group remains in the foothill country until the evening of May 30, 1914, when the sleeping volcano, Lassen Peak, awakens and starts erupting!”

The proceedings are recounted in a kind of narrative encyclopedia. “Ishi’s Return Home: The 1914 Anthropological Expedition Story” ($29.95 in paperback from The Anthro Company, available at or locally at Lyon Books in Chico) contains 357 photographs, almost thirty maps, and numerous documents, including Ishi’s 185 Yahi place names.

The story is driven by many personalities, not least of which is Jack Apperson of Vina. He was hired “as the trip’s lead muleskinner to guide and supply saddles and pack animals.” Kroeber and colleague Thomas T. Waterman made “a calculated decision to work with … ‘One-Eyed Jack,’ as Ishi called him.” Apperson “was the one who had started it all. If truth be known, One-Eyed Jack was the local Vina rancher who led in discovering and sacking Ishi’s Yahi village in 1908.”

Then, a few days later, “Apperson informed the outside world of the wild Indians’ existence” by going to the Chico Record, which headlined the story “Camp of Wild Indians Reported Found in Deer Creek Canyon” in Eastern Tehama County. The story hit the wires and came to the attention of Kroeber and Waterman. In 1914 Apperson was arrogant and “always wanted to be in the limelight.” Waterman despised Apperson, and what must Ishi have felt toward One-Eyed Jack? As Burrill recounts it, part of the tale is one of extraordinary forgiveness.

Sections of the book take the reader to the landforms traversed by the expedition, and detail Ishi’s skills and experiences. It’s an immersive adventure.

Burrill will be speaking about Ishi on Thursday, March 27 at 7:00 p.m. at Lyon Books.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Visiting poet has deep roots in Chico


For Susan Rawlins, sometimes even the most genuine self-expression serves only to hide us from ourselves. In “What Is Important,” the poet observes that “My father has learned a lot/ lately and asks my opinion/ before interrupting to tell me/ the truth. …/ I have said what I have to say;/ it has made no difference.// I have spent my life putting/ words in rows in the cause of/ the small human heart, mine/ especially. The flower that/ favors me by blooming,/ a hand’s warmth, the comfort/ of lunch, of clean white sheets./ Small things my mother taught me,/ small loving things.”

The “small things” are keenly observed with wit and reverence in “Even As We Speak: Selected Poems” ($12.95 in paperback from Class Action Ink). Whether adventures with husband Stan, or the the death of their dog, Rawlins’ simple language reveals a world that’s not so simple after all. “We have given his blankets back to Goodwill,” the poet says in “Willie the Dog Incarnate.” “His dish is on the dryer, but now full of/ clean socks. Stan was never annoyed with/ his getting old and sick. …”

Rawlins attended Chico Senior High; her family, according to a news release, “has been in Chico since 1873, deeply involved in M. Oser and Company, Congregation Beth Israel, and Chico State College. …”

In “Thought on the Stairs” the poet muses, “How long can one grieve for an ice cream flavor? Shubert’s/ Sherbet Shop (since 1938) had the world’s best fresh peach/ ice cream until it didn’t. The chocolate perseveres.” The nativity pageant in “Audiences Won’t Behold” happened at Hooker Oak School in 1952. “The Angel of the Annunciation/ wondered why she,/ so dutiful,/ had one scene and eight lines/ while some nobody/ played the Virgin. …”

In “Way to Go,” “Twenty years later my middle brother played softball/ for George’s Pest and Termite Control, the team of/ Chico State’s English Department faculty. I sat/ with the wives who discussed Doris Lessing, diaper/ rash, how many days he would be depressed having/ bobbled the double play, sexism in Charlotte’s Web—/ then the sudden shriek Awright! Way to go, Pests! …”

Rawlins will be reading from and signing copies of her book Tuesday night at 7:00 p.m. at Lyon Books in Chico.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

In search of Chico’s Chinese temple


Keith Johnson writes that Chico’s “‘Old Chinatown,’ located on Flume Street between East 5th and 6th Streets, was established around 1865.” Then “a second settlement, ‘New Chinatown,’ was firmly established by the early 1880s on Cherry Street between West 7th and 8th Streets. This settlement contained a Chinese temple or joss house.”

As Johnson notes, “Old Chinatown had its gambling and opium dens. … With the aid of Federal agents, the Chico Police finally succeeded in curtailing Old Chinatown’s narcotics trade in 1925. This hastened the decline of Chico’s Chinese population, which continued to drift away from the city. In 1939, the last three elderly residents of New Chinatown deeded the altars and furnishings of the temple to George Orberg, a long-time friend of the Chinese in Chico.”

Johnson, now retired from teaching anthropology at Chico State University, “came here from UCLA in 1963 and initiated the Archaeological Research Program and founded the Museum of Anthropology (now the Valene Smith Museum of Anthropology) at Chico State.”

In 1971 Johnson located many parts of the temple. His museum exhibits class “cleaned and catalogued the temple materials,” some 175 pieces, and put them together for public display at the Museum of Anthropology in 1972-73. And Johnson took many color photographs which now adorn almost every page of “Golden Altars: A Visual Tour of Chico’s Chinese Temple” ($30 in paperback, published by Johnson and The Butte County Historical Society through

“With few exceptions,” Johnson says, “the temple altars and associated religious objects were manufactured in Canton, China, shipped to San Francisco and brought overland to Chico,” with most pieces “produced between 1884 and 1910.” A wooden sign announced the “Temple of Many Gods” “in gold Chinese characters. Stepping inside the doorway, one would look directly at the three magnificent golden arches above the main altar at the back of the room.”

The book is a lovingly detailed and beautiful tribute. “Unlike the towns of Oroville, Marysville, and Weaverville, Chico was  unable to save its temple. The religious furniture and artifacts from the joss house still survive, however. Over the past many decades they have been scattered around town, protected by several concerned citizens of Chico … and now reside, hidden from the public, in a Chico warehouse.”

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Three military pilots, one from Paradise


Paradise author B.J. Bryan tells the story of World War II with a personal touch in “Escape With A Silent Roar: A Trilogy of Three World War II Pilots Including A P-38 Fighter In Combat Missions Over Europe” ($19.99 in paperback from Xlibris; also Amazon Kindle format).

The first chapter, “Thunder From The South,” is the story of Col. Richard E. Clark whom the author met in Paradise. “He brought with him a cassette tape of something he wanted me to hear. He requested that I not listen to it or write his story until he had passed on. I agreed.”

Bryan writes that “the tape was about his experiences flying his plane over Northern Italy.” It was late in 1944; “I was in the 20th Bomb Squadron of the 2nd Battle Group, 15th Air Force,” Clark’s voice says. He made it out in one piece, but loud noises still made him shake. “He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Silver Star.”

“My Adventures In Greece” is a first-person account by Edward W. Smythe which makes up most of the book. His target was an installation about 20 miles north of Athens, “well protected by concentrations of both mobile and stationary anti-aircraft batteries.”

What’s it like to be hit? “There was a shattering explosion just below my feet. I was afraid to look down at them. When I did, I saw the rudder pedals twisted at an odd angle. … ‘Navigator-to-pilot! Bombardier hit bad. He’s—he’s—Flak! Big hole in— … Pilot-to-crew! Abandon ship. Bail out! We are afire!” And that’s only the start of the story, which involves escape and, on January 30, 1944, rescue.

Finally, William “Bill” Burns tells the story of “A P-38 Fighter Combat Mission Over Europe,” a gripping first-hand account. We must not forget, Bryan writes: “History does repeat itself.”

The author will be signing copies of the book at the VFW Craft Fair this Saturday, March 8 from 9:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. and Sunday from 10:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m. at the Paradise Veterans Hall. A book event will also be held at Lyon Books in Chico March 31 at 7:30 p.m.