Thursday, August 15, 2019

"A Fire Story"

n simple drawings, artist Brian Fies ( tries to make sense of the "mind-numbing disaster" he and his wife faced not so long ago. "Karen and I evacuated our home north of Santa Rosa ... at around 1:30 a.m. on Monday, October 9, 2017. Based on when our neighbors began getting text messages from their home security systems, we think our neighborhood burned around 2:30 a.m."

The couple was taken in by their twin daughters, and the next day, using "a pad of low-quality pulp paper, one permanent marker, a fine-point felt-tip pen, and four colored highlighters," he began telling the tale in word and image. Soon KQED aired a short animated version of Fies' work, and recently the PBS News Hour reported on what has now been published as a full-length "graphic memoir."

"A Fire Story" ($24.99 in hardcover from Harry N. Abrams; also for Amazon Kindle) is not just about escaping the flames, but what happened afterward, from disorientation to the eventual decision to rebuild. Readers who survived the Camp Fire may find an uncanny emotional resonance with Fies' narrative (the scope is different, of course, but the similarities are stunning), so much so that they may be moved to tears. At least, a certain book columnist I know had that reaction.

Fies intersperses stories of his neighbors and friends. Neighbor Mari and her husband lost everything, including two cats. "I feel like someone forced me into the witness protection program," she tells Brian. "I have no history." 

"Well-meaning people say 'It's just stuff,'" Brian writes. "But it was ourstuff. Stuff we created. Stuff we treasured. Stuff from our ancestors we wanted our descendants to have. Stuff is a marker of time and memory. It's roots. I am uprooted."

Then, "a day in the new life." Karen is reading the newspaper, and Brian says, "I think I'll make a pitcher of iced tea." "Sounds good," she says. Pause. Pause. "No pitcher," he says. "Put it on the list," she says.

Finally, "within a few weeks of the fire, green reappeared amid the black and gray. ... Flowers and trees can come back, changed and scarred but still beautiful. So can we."

Thursday, August 08, 2019

"The Fabric Of Character: A Wise Giver's Guide To Supporting Social And Moral Renewal"

D.C.-based writer Anne Snyder (, the new editor of Comment Magazine (dedicated to "public theology for the common good"), attended a meeting recently of the Chico Triad discussion group which focused on altruism. Her interest is in how strategic giving can foster community renewal through character formation; she spent a week in Butte County interviewing those who are leading the restoration projects in Paradise and surrounding areas.

Character, she writes, "is a set of dispositions to be and do good, engraved on a person in multiple ways," including by the cultivation of habits of self-control; "by religious instruction on honest, courageous, and compassionate living; through institutions that establish standards for good conduct," by mentors and "through experiences of struggle, positions of responsibility, and the blessings and demands of enduring commitments."

Such qualities strengthen a community over the long haul. Snyder wants to provide philanthropists not only encouragement to support "initiatives that attempt to form character and transform lives," but guidelines for evaluating them. "The Fabric Of Character: A Wise Giver's Guide To Supporting Social And Moral Renewal ($15 in paperback from The Philanthropy Roundtable) provides moving examples of how organizations across the country are building character.

That includes The Other Side Movers out of Salt Lake City, Utah, a number-one-rated moving company with members from The Other Side Academy, "a life-training school for people with long criminal or addiction histories." There's Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (with an "emphasis on cultivating the whole person") and The Positivity Project, giving grade schoolers "new ways of understanding their emotions."

Snyder identifies 16 "interwoven" aspects of an organization that help it succeed in building character, in its own members and in those it serves. These include Telos (a sense of purpose); Liturgies and Rituals ("communal rhythms, routines"); Struggle and Growth (are struggles "given meaning and direction?"); Joy and Transformation (is the whole person changing?); and Generativity (do those who leave carry on the ideals?).

Snyder's clear and engaging writing shows the significance of character formation in community renewal, even as she now explores what it means for Paradise nine months after the horrendous fire.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

"Tales Of The Paradise Ridge"

"January 1960 saw the beginning of a new adult night class in Butte County History, taught by Ruby Swartzlow." As Sherrie Gobin Rosen writes, "It did not take long before this large class decided there was a lot of history in and around Paradise, but not much of it was written down anywhere. The group decided they really needed to remedy that, thus the first issue of Tales of the Paradise Ridge was born in June 1960." Sherrie's dad, Ted Gobin, was deeply involved in exploring local history. He was also my bus driver during my grade school days in Paradise.

So it is with a sense of sheer delight that key articles from Tales, selected from its entire run through 2018, have been published by the Association for Northern California Historical Research (ANCHR) in cooperation with the Paradise Gold Nugget Museum (temporarily located at the Depot Museum, 5570 Black Olive Drive). 

"Tales Of The Paradise Ridge" ($19.95 in paperback from, available at ABC Books in Chico and a host of other locations listed on the ANCHR website) brings together three dozen articles, including images, exactly as they appeared in the original issues of Tales.

Though the Gold Nugget Museum burned in the Camp Fire, Don Criswell, Board President, writes that "the beauty of Paradise is in its people, people of good will who are connected with each other and with this place. We will rebuild Paradise and the Gold Nugget Museum." 

To that end, ANCHR Publications Editor Josie Reifschneider-Smith has compiled this volume specifically focused on the Paradise area, and the place of the Museum in Ridge life, as a Museum fundraiser.

There are nuggets aplenty in the book. Swartzlow writes about the development of the Skyway (which opened July 1950); Lois McDonald on the Paradise census of 1880 (spoiler alert: 301 persons "on the Ridge"); Connie Rogers on the Depot Museum; Rosen on Paradise in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties; Criswell on Yellowstone Kelly (and the Heritage Trail); Tonya Dale on the Paradise sign.

There's also a picture of the front of Barnett's Market in the midst of the 1964 Gold Nugget Parade. My dad would have been proud.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

"The 51st Directive"

FBI agent Erica Brewer is a wise-cracking, drop dead gorgeous 31-year-old blue-eyed brunette divorcee who uncovers a plot to take over the U.S. Government--from within. The tale that unfolds is a deftly crafted political techno-thriller that will have readers turning pages late into the night.

"The 51st Directive" ($9.99 in paperback, self-published; also for Amazon Kindle), by Chico writer (and photographer) Michael Agliolo, takes its title from an actual document. As Agliolo notes, it's a "Presidential Directive which claims power to execute procedures for the continuity of the federal government in the event of a 'catastrophic emergency.'"

In the novel, the unnamed President of the U.S., along with his associate, four-star general Raymond Wallace, hatch a brazen scheme to get rid of Congressional liberals, never mind the cost. "The writing was on the wall. The left was gaining momentum. The nation was reversing course, turning away from the ultra-conservative direction the President had imposed the previous year."

Readers know the plan early on. Release deadly gas during a joint session of Congress. Frame Iran. Declare war. And then "the President would enact Presidential Directive 51 and take complete control of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the government." 

But wait. There are Erica Brewer and D.C. Detective Sam Marco to contend with. Together with some key players (including Brewer's boss, Washington FBI Bureau Chief David Gilliam; computer specialist Shreya Aswini; and Colonel Steven Mitchell, Commander of the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton), the good guys try to foil the insane machination. It means hacking the Dark Web, getting help from the General's addict son, planting electronic recording devices to gather evidence.

Erica and Sam have to hide. "We were being hunted, we just didn't know by whom. On the bright side," Brewer cracks, "there are worse things in the world than being stuck in a room with someone you're falling in love with, a king size bed and a mini bar."

What if they fail? And what will happen to the rule of law if they do fail? If the President is exposed as the real perpetrator, who could arrest him?

It's a roller-coaster ride. Agliolo is a writer to watch.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

"The Book Of The Red King"

Former Paradise resident John Wilson (@jwilson1812), who edited Books and Culture for all of its 21 years, calls poet-novelist Marly Youmans "the best-kept secret among contemporary writers." Youmans (@marlyyoumans), who lives in upstate New York, has just published a stunning collection of poems that together constitute "The Book Of The Red King" ($15.95 in paperback from Phoenicia Publishing,, illustrated by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.

Enigma haunts the Red King, his Fool, and the Fool's "Precious Wentletrap." (That's the common name for a seashell, housing a marine gastropod, "That jails so beautifully the sea/ Of pulse and whispered mystery.") The Fool is of the earth but in moments of doubt touches heavenly joys. The Red King is of the stars, yet in moments of joy touches earthly doubts--and transforms them.

In the poem which gives the book its title, we read that "The Fool has made the Red Bookfor the love/ Of the Red King, has taken and put on/ The handsome cap that the Red King gave him/ As a birthday present, and has lifted/ The feather in his hand to ink the words/ With the very blood of his veins: so much/ And that is all, that is all, that is all."

That birthday hat signals transformation of misspent youth. When the Fool "remembers alchemy of change/ That blazed his blackened self to silver-white/ And fed his mouth with unfamiliar words/ He laughs in joy and turns a somersault.// The Fool, punch-drunk with sleeplessness and wine,/ Goes whirling on his axis, shouts the news/ That there's a wisdom given to the fools/ Who in this mortal world of woe + woe/ Are those who blindly grasp at paradise."

And the Red King? To the "stricken man" he says: "I am the Red King. I give you the stars, / I give you angelfish beneath the sea,/ I give you the rose-fragrance and the rose..../ Out of the gusts and silences of air,/ Out of the crimson-feathered phoenix fire,/ I call to you, see you and know your name./ This world is my kingdom come. You are mine."

Get the book and read it through. And then again, more slowly.

Thursday, July 11, 2019


J.R. Henson, a Paradise resident now living in Chico after the devastation of the Camp Fire, has written a series of deeply felt observations about the emotional upheavals of life. "Unseasonable" ($10 in paperback from Valley View Press) comes with an author's note that in the poetry, fiction and non-fiction in the book "readers are advised that there is no necessary connection between the author's life and the experiences represented here."

In more than fifty short pieces, "the writer" expressively responds to events in sections on happiness, sadness, death, anger, fright, and drama, in that order. "Lazy River" in the happiness section recalls tubing on the Sac with younger work acquaintances. Even then there is a feeling of estrangement which the river eventually overcomes. "I'm quietly enjoying the serenity of God's love" which seems most apparent in nature.

The world intervenes, including depression and an addiction to food that seem to undo him (comfort him?) at every turn. In "True Love Is Served On A Plate," his soul touches the soul of the woman he loves ("I release my life's luggage as if I have finally come home from a long trip") yet something goes wrong. Later, alone at home, "my addiction gives me a hug as I pull some pizza from the refrigerator and eat it cold" to "fill the holes in my heart and soul."

After the death of the writer's beloved cockapoodle, Smokey, detailed in Henson's first book, "Reflections And Dark Truths," a "young white poodle, Gabie," tries to fill the void, with only some success. There's another dog, Fazio, in "Goodbye To You," in which the narrator is homeless. There's mention of a slide presentation gone bad, a stay in a mental hospital, and a piece of paper that says "I want to be a better person."

The book provides acute observations about recovery, burning bridges, grief. 

Yet a passion emerges to change a wrongheaded view of nature expressed in "Hole In The Sky": "Instead of having the characteristics of a caretaker, many of us believe that the earth has been bestowed upon us to do as we see fit." 

Here is a fight, unseasonable at times, worthy of a man's energy.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

"Medicine Wheel: The Evolution Of Consciousness"

Chicoan Robert W. Hart was twelve years old when he experienced what he now calls "a spontaneous transcendent moment," a "moment of perfect vision" in Buddhist terms, that changed his life. 

"Medicine Wheel: The Evolution Of Consciousness" ($25 in paperback from BookBaby, available on; also for Apple Books) is about the meaning of that "unfiltered sensation" of the "reality of Oneness."

The book, based on Hart's website (, begins with an explanation of the Medicine Wheel, adapted in part from Native American spirituality, which acts as a kind of "map" for the inward journey of breaking through the illusion of separateness, toward the discovery that "no one's home" (that is, there is no "I"). 

South on the wheel indicates our current desires for material things, "consuming the planet and destroying ecosystems in this search for the next pleasurable moment." It all leads to suffering. To the West on the wheel, we ask who we are as humans as we search for "new perspectives." In the North we begin to "connect the dots." Finally, in the East, "separateness is still experienced because you are still in a body but there is no reality to it. ... This world no longer has any hold on you. ..." 

The second section is autobiographical, noting the author's use of LSD in college and, later, psilocybin mushrooms, which bring him something of the experience he had at twelve (others may not need "entheogens," psycho-active drugs, to achieve higher consciousness). 

His relationships with others, women especially, seem to flounder as he journeys inward, surrendering to this new consciousness, "a reality where all things are connected to and determined by all other things" so that "the idea of imperfect or mistaken or wrong has no meaning. Everything," he adds, "is simply unfolding in the only way it can unfold."

The book concludes with short pieces, including poems, reading recommendations, and reflections on spiders, witches, and more, in the service of being a "torch bearer" for others. Institutional Christianity is his bĂȘte noire ("male-dominated Christian culture" has created a "delusional world view") and the reader must decide whether this judgment is consistent with the reality the author describes.