Thursday, January 10, 2019

"Sequoia Chronicles"



You're an investigative reporter for a small, northern California radio station, but now, toward the end of December, 1978, you are hiding out at the Little Grass Valley Campground, and it's freezing. You're twenty-seven and your life isn't making sense.

You write in your journal: "If this were one of my newscasts, here's how I would report the events of the past year: ... 'I've watched two people die violently. I worked with an undercover detective investigating a grisly murder. I've made enemies of a motorcycle gang and some local land developers. I have been threatened a lot. Even shot at once. ... I lost several of my best friends this past year. Ed, Grandpa. And now Emma. Oh, and this is my last newscast, because I was fired last week.'"

So begins "Sequoia Chronicles" ($15.95 in paperback, self-published; also for Amazon Kindle or visit sequoiachronicles.com) by Jim Moll. A former North State Voices columnist, Moll, nicknamed "The Voice of Oroville," draws on his own radio news experience to tell the story of Mark Keating, News Director at the fictional KBSC ("Broadcasting for Sequoia City") in a fictional Sequoia County, not all that far from Oroville.

Keating's mind has a soundtrack; his journal entries are replete with lyrics of the sixties and seventies, like "A Horse With No Name." "Sequoia Chronicles" consists of those entries along with the chapters of the suspense tale Keating is writing, about a (fictional) plot against President Carter fomented by a man in New Delhi named Zia, who wants to change history. Keating's working title is "Mark's Great American Novel."

Keating is at first a just-the-facts newsman, detailing in his journal the land fraud he discovers, the personal histories of his friends and those who may be after him (is he being paranoid?), as well as the details of President Carter's goodwill tour to India early in 1978. But when Emma comes into his life, emotions begin to surface that he has long suppressed. 

Local references abound and add to the verisimilitude of this tale of human extremes, a fascinating yarn about what it means to make a difference in the world--and whether the cost is just too high.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

"Calypso"



Humorist David Sedaris is now in his sixties, and that is cause for taking stock. His new collection of personal essays, "Calypso" ($28 in hardcover from Little, Brown and Company; also for Amazon Kindle) does just that. He wonders if he will someday be like that old guy on the plane who pooped in his pants. He tries coming to terms with an alcoholic mother (gone for three decades), a father in his nineties (a man of few words and very conservative views) and the suicide of his sister Tiffany in 2013. 

When Sedaris remembers some of the things his mother said about him to others in the family, he writes that "it was hurtful the first few times her criticism got back to me. ... Then I realized that it didn't mean anything. Opinions constantly shifted and evolved, were fluid the same way thoughts were. ... It was all just storytelling." 

That's key to understanding the Sedaris clan, from his longtime boyfriend Hugh, to David's siblings, Gretchen, Lisa, Amy, and Paul. The essays evoke a quirky family constantly on the move (especially David in his Fitbit obsession), with opinions flying and bouncing into each other, morphing sometimes into silliness and sometimes into sentiment: storytelling binds them together. 

Wry, rude and gross (like when, after surgery to remove a non-cancerous fatty tumor, he feeds it to a turtle), Sedaris is also funny. He names the family beach house he buys on the coast of North Carolina the "Sea Section." 

He describes in detail doing public readings while suffering intense gastrointestinal distress. He inveighs against everything being "awesome" these days, and learns the giant snapping turtle with a growth on its head actually has a name. "I felt betrayed, the way you do when you discover that your cat has a secret secondary life and is being fed by neighbors who call him something stupid like Calypso."

Chico Performances is presenting an evening with David Sedaris on Monday, January 14 at 7:30 p.m. at Chico State University's Laxson Auditorium. Tickets from the University Box Office (csuchico.edu/boxoffice or call 530-898-6333) are $60 Premium, $50 Adult, $48 Senior, $40 Youth and $15 Chico State Students.

Now isn't that awesome?

Thursday, December 27, 2018

"What Some Would Call Lies"



Rob Davidson (robdavidsonauthor.net) teaches American literature and creative writing at Chico State University. His latest book comprises two novellas that brilliantly explore the tricks of memory in coming to terms with the past. 

"What Some Would Call Lies" ($16.99 in paperback from Five Oaks/Formal Feeling; also for Amazon Kindle) begins with the tale of one Monica Evans, entitled "Shoplifting, or How Dialectical Materialism Can Change Your Life."

Monica, 27, her husband Jeff, and their toddler son Jacob move to Chico, "a little hamlet of progressive thought surrounded by a wasteland of backwater conservatism," as she tells her mother, Claudia, her bĂȘte noir. Claudia encourages her to write, but not about Saundra, Monica's late sister. Yet Monica, who raises Jacob pretty much alone because of Jeff's long work hours, is obsessed with her.

Saundra died from a fatal combination of booze and sleeping pills. "That's what torments me," she tells her therapist. "Whatever was going on in my sister's head. Nobody really knows." Was it an accident? Suicide? Monica has to know, so she attempts to duplicate Saundra's feelings, like the time she was caught shoplifting (when Monica did the same, "it felt wrong andexciting, perverted andglorious"). She writes Saundra's autobiography, calling on memories that never existed, ghosts wearing Saundra's favorite yellow dress.

In the second novella, an older Jackie Rose looks back on his childhood in Duluth, Minnesota (Davidson's own birthplace). On the verge of becoming a teenager, he is naive about his world of 1980 until his substitute sixth grade teacher, Ms. Poindexter, introduces the class to the underbelly of American history, definitely not standard textbook issue. "There is always a history other than the history you receive," she says, "other ways of telling the story."

Jackie's parents fight more and more; his mom wants to go to college, his dad (who sells kitchenware) drinks too much and, as his son discovers, is stepping out and lying about it. Jackie meets an older girl whose affections stoke his nascent sexuality. And then she disappears, leaving only the wisps of memory. 

If these memories are lies, these stories poignantly suggest, perhaps they are some of the truest things about us.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

"Slugger: A Legal Thriller"



"Simon Schuster walked out of his chambers like Zeus upon a cloud, white hair flowing and black robe swishing as he climbed the secular altar. ... His judicial bench was raised, like in every courtroom built for the American high priests of justice. The man was in his mid-sixties, Rod guessed, and as impressive in intellectual firepower as he was in girth."

Rod is Rod Cavanaugh, "for the defense." A young star in Oregon's legal firmament, Cavanaugh, in the midst of a painful divorce from Julianne, who has mostly succeeded in turning his two teenage daughters against him, is as skilled as they come in the courtroom. Exhibit A: He gets low bail for his client, Rudy Randal, charged with "setting a disabled man's car ablaze before beating him nearly to death."

Here, in the opening chapters of "Slugger: A Legal Thriller" ($18.95 in paperback from CreateSpace; also for Amazon Kindle), Chicoan T. B. O'Neill (tboneill.com) unfolds the intricate tale of a man whose legal and personal lives become hopelessly intertwined after a series of surprising revelations. Real justice, the story implies, is not only messy but challenges faith in the legal system itself.

"Slugger" refers to a book with the same title published on Amazon by his young assistant, Brooke McCarthy, based on Cavanaugh's confidential case notes. But Brooke too thinly disguises the characters and there is a threat of a libel suit against Rod in the portrayal of Ritchie Cinquini, the man allegedly beaten by Rudy Randal. Cinquini manages Spanky's, an Oregon strip club, which in turn is owned by a mysterious not-to-be-messed-with company called CIPMANCO (Chicago Investors Property Management Company). 

Along the way there are beatings, and murders, and a blow-your-socks-off ending.

O'Neill practiced law for three decades, his website says, and now he's turned to writing, populating his novels with composite types of those he has jousted with on the legal field of battle. The courtroom scenes have the ring of authenticity. The characters are fleshed out in all their human frailty. This is masterful writing (and plotting), a legal page turner that would not be out of place on an Amazon best seller list. "Slugger" bats a thousand.


Thursday, December 13, 2018

"The First Testament"



Verses from Isaiah 11, often read during Advent and seen in the New Testament as fulfilled in the genealogy of Jesus Christ, are startlingly fresh in a new translation by scholar John Goldingay.

"But a shoot will go out from Yishay's [Jesse's] stump, a branch will fruit from his roots./ Yahweh's breath will alight on him, a breath with smartness and understanding,/ A breath with counsel and strength, a breath with acknowledgment and awe for Yahweh; his scent will be awe for Yahweh. ... He will exercise authority with faithfulness for the poor, and reprove with uprightness for the humble people in the country." (1-3a, 4)

Because the group of books later called the Old Testament is "hugely significant for Christian faith," as Goldingay writes, he has chosen to call his literal rendering "The First Testament: A New Translation" ($60 in hardcover from IVP Academic; also for Amazon Kindle).

Goldingay is emeritus professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. He and his wife Kathleen now reside in Oxford, UK, where he continues to write (see johnandkathleenshow.com). His revised translation of the Old Testament, which first appeared in his seventeen volume "Old Testament For Everyone" series, aims to supplement more familiar translations using common English words in an accessible format including maps, glossary, and introductions to each book. "It uses the name for God that God invited Israel to use, the name Yahweh."

Goldingay kindly responded to an email asking about his use of the word "smartness," in Isaiah and especially in Proverbs. He pointed to a definition that Google provides: "having or showing a quick-witted intelligence."

He says on his blog that "The depth and the wonder of the words I have been reading have come home to me more and more. I’ve sat there marveling that I’m privileged to let this sacred text soak into me. I’ve felt more and more that I have been on hallowed ground. Yes, they are holy scriptures. Of course it’s because they’re all about God. So simply reading them for hours every day has made me wonder at the God whose activity lies behind them and who is the most prominent character in them."


Thursday, December 06, 2018

"Ten Miles Of Roadside Archaeology Along The Old Humboldt Wagon Road"



In late August 2016 a fire began off Highway 32 at Santos Ranch Road, south of Forest Ranch, which eventually burned 88 acres, including the south rim of Upper Bidwell Park. According to former Chico State University professor Gregory White, co-owner of Sub Terra Consulting: Archaeology and Paleontology, several public trails sustained damage.

White identifies four "cultural resources" that are "eligible for the California Register of Historical Resources," including portions of the Humboldt Wagon Road (built by John Bidwell). White's project report, aimed at the rehabilitation of the area, provides detailed documentation of artefacts, including wagon tire ruts and even "a distinctive Coors 7-ounce can with a double church key opening, one of the very first aluminum beer cans made, dating to 1958-1959."

As those affected by the Camp Fire wrestle with the enormity of the destruction, we must not forget the past. As a model of how it might be documented, White's project is given a lively and accessible historical context in "Ten Miles Of Roadside Archaeology Along The Old Humboldt Wagon Road" ($19.95 in paperback from the Association for Northern California Historical Research, anchr.org). 

The book, with hundreds of images, features contributions from ANCHR writers Nancy Leek (on Bidwell's vision for the Chico and Humboldt Wagon Road, "open for business in 1863" as a toll road), David M. Brown (on the lure of mines; and a stage ride to Quincy), Ron Womack (on the "Hooligans and Heroes" of Ten-Mile House; and Wakefield's Station, "a long day's horseback ride from Chico"). 

Josie Reifschneider-Smith, Publications Editor, writes on those who built the roadway and on Frank Bidwell Durkee, who, starting in 1919, pushed for improvements to the Humboldt Wagon Road.

Key to the book is public awareness of the destruction by inattention and vandalism of the rock fences, writes Reifschneider-Smith, "and the ruts carved into the tough volcanic bedrock by the iron-rimmed wheels of thousands of wagons and stagecoaches." A group called Respect The Walls (https://www.nvcf.org/fund/respect-the-walls/) is raising funds to preserve what has come before. 

When tears are dry, and Paradise rises, let us applaud local historians and archaeologists as they preserve our own collective memories.


Thursday, November 29, 2018

Uncontrolling Love: Essays Exploring The Love Of God"



Immense tragedies, such as the Camp Fire, may for some call into question the traditional idea of God as both all good and all powerful. How is one to make sense of how a loving God acts in a world so full of suffering?

Recently, Thomas Jay Oord, who teaches theology and philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho, has proposed a reformulation of the attributes of God, suggesting that "love comes logically first in God's nature" and that this love "cannot override, withdraw, or fail to provide the power of freedom, agency, or existence to creation. Consequently," says Oord in the introduction to a collection of short essays on his ideas, "God cannot control creatures or creation."

For Oord, "the God who must love and cannot control others is not morally responsible for failing to prevent evil. ... God doesn't even 'allow' suffering, because God can't stop it acting alone. Therefore, God is not culpable for the genuine evil in our lives."

Implications of Oord's theological position are presented in "Uncontrolling Love: Essays Exploring The Love Of God" ($16.95 in paperback from SacraSage Press; also for Amazon Kindle), edited by Chris Baker and others.

The dozens of accessible essays consider "who God is," "how God acts," and "how creatures respond." One of the contributions is from Butte College and Chico State University philosophy instructor Olav Bryant Smith. In "Contributing To God's Growing Perfection," Smith writes that when we say that certain special events in our lives are "perfect" (like "a first kiss") we also recognize they are fleeting, our circumstances ever-changing.

Could it be the same for God? Rather than ascribe total power and knowledge to God, Smith writes, perhaps God grows in "perfection" "in response to the expressions of a universe of creatures striving to participate in establishing their own myriad beautiful creations.... Much of the Bible suggests a God waiting to see what we'll decide and then responding accordingly."

Readers will have to decide whether Oord and Smith resolve the problem of evil satisfactorily. In emphasizing human free will that can't be overridden by God the book offers a sometimes startling rethinking of traditional theology.