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.”

Sunday, January 11, 2015

What I was reading when the power went out


The tragic late-December wind storm knocked out electricity for many of us in the northstate, at least for a while, and the steady reports on our cellphones of the loss of life and destruction of property created a sense of somber amazement. We yearned to “get back to normal,” but for some that will never happen.

What if that would never happen for anyone on earth? What if a deadly virus, far more potent than Ebola, enveloped us, leaving only a handful alive? Those are the questions addressed in an extraordinary book by Emily St. John Mandel called “Station Eleven” ($24.95 in hardcover from Knopf; also for Amazon Kindle). As the power flicked off, I found myself deep in the last few chapters of the book.

The story straddles before and after, weaving together the lives of those somehow connected with one Arthur Leander, who, at 51, is playing Lear at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto when he abruptly dies onstage of a heart attack, leaving behind three ex-wives and a comic book, Station Eleven, drawn by his first wife, Miranda.

She gets the message of Arthur’s demise while in Malaysia. Then come the reports of a deadly virus making its way to North America, spreading everywhere. Almost no one is immune. “This was during the final month,” St. John Mandel writes, “of the era when it was possible to press a series of buttons on a telephone and speak with someone on the far side of the earth.”

Afterward, “no more pharmaceuticals”; “no more flight”; “no more countries”; “no more Internet.”

Two decades later, “the caravans of the Traveling Symphony moved slowly under a white-hot sky” near Lake Michigan. The small group stops at mostly deserted towns to play classical music and stage Shakespeare. And a little girl once in Arthur’s Lear is now one of that company.

The comic book Arthur had given her will play a key role in a world fraught with violence--but tinged with grace. Too close to home, I’m thinking, with these musings stationed right here, coincidentally of course, on the eleventh [of January, when the review was first published].

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Murder mystery from a longtime Chicoan


A friend from Eagle, Idaho writes to alert me to a book by P.N. Ofinowicz, who received a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Chico State University and who “lived in Chico and worked for the Postal Service for twenty-five plus years. ... Most folk in town would know him as Nick.”

The book is “The Bigfoot Incident” ($9.99 in paperback from Paul N. Ofinowicz/Telemachus Press; also for Amazon Kindle) by Archer O’Brien with P.N. Ofinowicz. The book is billed as a memoir from now-retired Brenner County deputy O’Brien (with editorial work by Ofinowicz).

As O’Brien admits in the foreword, “There is no Brenner County in California, of course, but I will hint that the shape of the actual county is quite similar to that of Montana. And for those who might complain that this recollection resembles a novel rather than a police report, I can only protest that my personal life was inextricably entwined with the strands of the story. What is written here is as true as anything that has been written about Bigfoot.”

Most of the action takes place in and around Cove, “a small town in these remote Citadel Mountains of Northern California.” The “novel,” my friend writes, “recalls an event in which a honeymooning couple are killed and huge human-like footprints are discovered at the scene.”

The grisly deaths attract nosy reporters, and O’Brien also has his own issues to deal with, not least of which is an estranged girlfriend: “When I wanted to protect, it was interpreted as trying to control the people I care about. What was it Leigh said? That love meant ownership to me?”

It’s up to Deputy O’Brien to figure out just what (or who) killed the honeymooners, and to explain the series of gruesome deaths that came after. Mix in the ups and downs (mostly downs) of O’Brien’s love life with small town shenanigans from a well-drawn supporting cast, and what we have is a noir-ish soap opera murder mystery. It is a beautifully crafted and riveting read, with a dramatic moment of clarity at the end.

Monday, December 29, 2014


Local history, memoir, poetry, children’s books, romance novels, and more filled the Biblio File in 2014. Here are a few excerpts ripped from those columns. Perhaps the reader will be intrigued enough to find out more.

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. (From “Escape With A Silent Roar: A Trilogy of Three World War II Pilots Including A P-38 Fighter In Combat Missions Over Europe” by B.J. Bryan.)

"Sergeant bellows, 'Fire at will!' through the noise, but all I can do is keep low. ... I don't know where any of my boys are, but I have got to do this thing. I get to my knees and then it is time it is time it is time to make my run across moldering logs and branches and dead leaves and men.” (From “I Shall Be Near To You” by Erin Lindsay McCabe.)

“There are powerful, wicked forces in there that can grab hold of you and keep you in darkness if you let them. You must strengthen your thoughts.” (From “The King’s Frog Hunter” by Ken Young.)

“If there is a river whose potential for biological richness and natural wealth can lead us to wholeness, it is the Sac. El Rio del Sacramento. River of redemption. Miraculous river.” (From “Sacrament: Homage To A River,” by Rebecca Lawton; photography by Geoff Fricker.)

Lewis experienced a lifelong sense of “poignant longing. He described it as a search for joy (which Lewis frequently capitalizes because he uses it as a technical term). The taste of joy—and the desire it evokes—began early in his life and gradually expanded, like a time-release capsule that drove him to God.” (From “C.S. Lewis And The Crisis Of A Christian,” by Greg Cootsona.)

Parkinson’s mind


Denver-based writer Kirk Hall collaborated with Paradise artist Alison Paolini to produce two children’s books to help kids understand Parkinson’s. “Carson And His Shaky Paws Grampa” and “Carina And Her Care Partner Gramma” help adults explain in a non-scary way what may be happening to loved ones.

And yet, as Hall recognizes, the progressive nature of the disease can be frightening indeed. As a “person with Parkinson’s,” he’s written a book that is part memoir and part guidance, honestly confronting his own fears and providing resources.

Window Of Opportunity: Living With The Reality Of Parkinson’s And The Threat Of Dementia” (self-published through Smashwords; available for Amazon Kindle) wrestles with an aspect of Parkinson’s that is not often addressed. Diagnosed with the disease in 2008, Hall, a “high functioning” individual with a good but stressful job in the corporate world, had to deal not only with tremors but with “cognitive issues.” 

He recounts times when it was hard to understand what people were saying and times of memory lapses. He and his wife Linda got mixed messages from the array of doctors they consulted, and that added to Hall’s fear. Was his brain scan normal, or not? Were times of “slow thinking” just part of being in your mid-sixties, or is there a neurological disorder?

He wanted to find out as much as possible about the cognitive effects of Parkinson’s. “I remember thinking that God may have provided me a ‘window of opportunity’ and I wanted to make the most of it if that was the case.”

Chapters deal with stress, faith, cognitive impairment, deep brain stimulation, resources, and more.

A breakthrough came when he became a patient of Dr. Benzi Kluger, Associate Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry and Director of the Movement Disorders Center at the University of Colorado in Denver (who provides the book’s foreword). Dr. Kluger focused on the question of Parkinson’s-related dementia, and Hall found a measure of hope in adding Namenda to his medications, which improved his “mood and working memory” so that he was able to complete the book.

The book is an invaluable gift to those with Parkinson’s.

Book in Common: A memoir of life in the margins


“In 1980, when I was four years old” writes Reyna Grande, who grew up in poverty in Mexico, “I didn’t know yet where the United States was or why everyone in my hometown of Iguala, Guerrero, referred to it as El Otro Lado, the Other Side. What I knew back then was that El Otro Lado had already taken my father away. What I knew was that prayers didn’t work, because if they did, El Otro Lado wouldn’t be taking my mother away, too.”

Grande’s account of her formative years, and the turning point in her life that created an award-winning novelist, is told in “The Distance Between Us” ($16 in paperback from Simon and Schuster; also for Amazon Kindle).

Chosen as the 2014-2015 Book in Common by Butte College, Chico State University, and other local groups, the story is not just about geographical distance but about the emotional divide that threatens a family with disintegration. Though Reyna and her two older siblings, Carlos and Mago, find strength in each other, it is severely tested by an alcoholic and abusive Papi and a Mami who abandons her family.

Even if one manages to get to the Other Side--paying smugglers for an uncertain future--Reyna comes to realize that one must never forget one’s heritage. One day in Iguala, “Mago and I sat on the dirt floor, and she told me about the day I was born exactly the way Mami used to tell it. ... Mago pointed to a spot on the dirt floor and reminded me that my umbilical cord was buried there. That way, Mami told the midwife, no matter where life takes her, she won’t ever forget where she came from.”

The second half of the book is about life in the United States (green cards arrived in 1990 after five years in El Otro Lado), and the life-changing encounter in an English class, at Pasadena City College, which opened her to writers who understood. “How did you know? How did you know this is how I felt?” Now, Grande has become one of them.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

A children’s book about gifts


“My mom,” the otter tells the skunk, “said that I have a really special gift! I am wondering if it is something that sparkles! She said if I went out and played and found something that I loved to do, I would surely find it! So I am looking for my gift … but I haven’t had any luck yet.”

That’s about to change when “Ruby The River Otter Find A Lucky Penny” ($14.95 in paperback from CreateSpace Independent Publishing) by Thersa Mallinger, illustrated by Bonnie Lemaire. The book is available in Chico at Lyon Books, Made in Chico, and Apple Blossom Baby.

An author’s note says that Mallinger “lives with her husband, three boys, and her hyper-active dog in Chico.” With her background in teaching kindergarten, middle school language arts, and her training in Montessori methods, Mallinger encourages “self-exploration and discovery through creativity.”

That’s what happens to Ruby. Her new-found skunk friend is named Penny. “‘A penny does equal one cent, and phew-eeee, you sure do have one stinky scent,’ giggled Ruby. ‘You really should work on that! Maybe try rolling in the mud or wiping fresh pine needles under your armpits!’”

Ruby’s not sure of the meaning of her own name, nor why her mom “gave me this special key” which hangs around her neck. But she knows she has a friend, and together they will search for Ruby’s gift to unlock.

Eventually they find a treasure box, and Ruby’s key opens it. It’s not quite empty. Inside is something that helps Ruby understand. “Your gift is not something that you can hold in your hand. It is something that you hold in your heart! Find the key to unlock your heart. Then, open it up. There, deep in your heart, your special gift will be sitting, just waiting to come out!”

As the friends unlock their own gifts, the message at the end resonates: “Listen to your Heart Voice and find your treasure.”

Mallinger will be a guest of honor at the author open house at Lyon Books in Chico Sunday, December 14, from 2:00 - 4:00 p.m.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Local writer embraces the wisdom of the Native Peoples


Garth Nielsen of Paradise, now in his mid-70s, writes that “I’ve always been a seeker, aware that my spirituality was at the center of my being and that the Creator was guiding me onto the less travelled spiritual paths.”

Nielsen’s journey is given voice in “The Odyssey Of A Spiritual Nomad” ($9.95 in paperback from Heather and Highlands Publishing), which includes a number of the author’s drawings.

It began in 1946 when his father showed him an “enormous cave. Part of the roof had fallen in, and a shaft of bright sunlight illumined part of this room. Kneeling in the pool of light, my father picked up fragment of finely woven basket. Then, with a stick, he stirred the surface of the talcum-fine dust. In doing so, he uncovered another object, a human tooth. Placing  both the tooth and the basket fragment into my hand, he said to me, ‘This was someone’s home a long time ago. I’ll bet little boys like you lived here once.’”

It was a never-to-be-forgotten experience. “I have become convinced that there are beneficent and benevolent spirits, sent by the Creator, to guide each of us. I believe that such a spirit became a part of me and my life in that ancient place so many years ago.”

Eventually, Nielsen writes, “I realized that Turtle Island was sacred. Through this earth, the people who live upon it communicate with the Creator in a constant, reciprocal cycle.” Indeed, he says, “I have found that traditional Native teachings enhance the words of Christ, bringing clarity to His teaching on how to walk in balance and harmony with all creation.”

Adopted in a private Iroquois ceremony, Nielsen found his life phrase in the Lakota Sun Dance. “When the prayer is completed, the one speaking ends his words with: ‘Metakuye Oyasin,’ or, ‘All My Relations.’ In this way, the prayer is never ended, but merely passed on to the next one to pray.”

A serial mystery from Dan O’Brien


Local writing entrepreneur Dan O’Brien is venturing into the world of the mystery serial with a series of six episodes to be released over the next few weeks. Copiously illustrated by Paradise artist Steve Ferchaud, the first of the six is “Mobsters, Monsters and Nazis” (in digital format from Amalgam; available for Amazon Kindle). The story is the tale of a hard-bitten detective named Derrick Diamond who receives a strange package from a courier only to have the package stolen by a human-sized lizard.

Diamond follows the thief to the Yellow Monarch nightclub. The thief proves elusive, but the Yellow Monarch draws the detective’s attention. “Patrons called it the Yellow Monarch because of the iridescent, winged, creature that seemed to rise from above the foyer. Derrick approached slowly, feeling as if he was being watched from a distance.” 

Of course he’s being watched. “Serpentine and dressed to the nines, the reptilian thugs watched through thin eye-slits as Derrick walked across the empty street and past the board announcing Ava Harpy as the crooner of the night. They slithered along the wall, bodies bending to get a better vantage point.”

Inside the club, Roaring 20s jazz. The “music filled the air and women with blood-red corsets carried trays filled with cigars and scotch.” At one table in the back is the Fat Man, whose face “seemed cluttered with a mass of tentacles that created a slimy beard beneath beady black eyes.” Derrick has to tell the Fat Man the mysterious object has been stolen.

Over there at another table, “crisply dressed Nazis who were looking in Derrick’s direction.”

This stuff is straight out of pulp comics, and it’s a hoot. There’s a strange logic at work here, and in the second installment, “Phantasmagoria,” the Object is the subject of the Nazi’s attention. It turns out to be an “antikythera mechanism” which will help them achieve some nefarious end. Derrick and Ava escape assassins in the first episode; in the second they become something of a team. Maybe Ava is more than a floozy singer.

O’Brien promises it will all make sense—in time.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Sword and sorcery from a Paradise author

Though his day job enables Ken Young of Paradise to build custom homes, in his first novel he has built an entire realm, populating it with strange creatures and a central mystery that drives the adventure forward to its satisfying conclusion.

With a background in literature, Young has written screenplays, short stories and poetry, and his talents are on full display in “The King’s Frog Hunter” ($15.95 in paperback from North Point Publishing; also for Amazon Kindle). It’s a gripping quest story suitable for early teens and adults as well.

Something is wrong with old King Ahmbin. His mind, twisted by the evil magician Metro, refuses to accept the magnificent statue of himself, carved by the sculptor Veracitas, because what is carved in stone looks too much like the King himself in his aging humanity. Ahmbin rejects the truth. Veracitas is thrown into prison but he escapes under mysterious circumstances.

His daughter, Boschina (“bah-sheen-uh”), reaches out to Thalmus, the mysterious frog hunter to the King, for help in finding her father. In the land of Ameram, frogs are the size of humans, crafty and deadly (though their legs are a delicacy), and Thalmus is legendary in his skill. But he is also the keeper of an ancient prophecy: “When the king’s only child is a woman and the daughter of the stone cutter searches the land….” Boschina had set in motion forces that would change the land forever.

Thalmus is aided by his extraordinary friends: “a great horned owl, a giant shell creature, and a paint stallion.” Hunted by the King’s troops seeking a reward, the companions encounter evil in Rainland, on Table Top—and in a dark tunnel. Thalmus’ words are frightening: “There are powerful, wicked forces in there that can grab hold of you and keep you in darkness if you let them. You must strengthen your thoughts.”

Young excels in describing the landscape (even an odd place called Jarbo Gap). The battles are thrilling, the writing superb.

A journal for local naturalists

Scott Huber of Chico, and his young photographer son Liam, have issued an invitation for readers to step outside and look—really look—at the world of nature. And then to write down their experience. The invitation takes the form of “NorCal Naturalist: Journal And Calendar” ($16.75 spiral bound, self-published, available at Lyon Books in Chico as well as local nature centers).

The format is simple. On the right-hand side are seven numbered blank boxes (each week of the year gets an undated page) so you can turn to the appropriate week of the month and start writing. The left-hand side may contain one of the 24 color photographs (most taken by Liam) or one of Scott’s 48 short nature essays. Huber’s stories of his and Liam’s encounters with the natural world exemplify the work of a true amateur—a lover of nature (and words) with a keen eye and intense curiosity.

As the reader’s own journal takes shape, Huber recommends comparisons, month-by-month and eventually year-by-year.

The essays are miniature excursions into the natural world, one graced by hummingbirds, butterflies, bobcats, deer, wild turkeys, newts, Black-headed grosbeaks, and more. Here are photographs of White-whorled lupins and a Humboldt Lily from Chico Creek Canyon, curling manzanita bark in Butte Creek Canyon, a Blacktail deer in Forest Ranch, and a bobcat hunting voles in the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve.

“As avid birders,” Huber writes, “my son and I have spent countless hours listening to recorded bird songs and practicing the recognition of birds using only our ears. … My friends will confess that it’s not uncommon to see me suddenly hush them, cup my hands around my ears and tilt my head towards some sound no one else has noticed, and then exclaim, ‘Did you hear that?’”

In March 2013 it was Lawrence’s goldfinch. “There, just thirty feet away, swaying on the arcing stocks of fiddleneck flowers was not one, but a male and female pair of these striking little yellow and gray birds with dark black masks.”

My observation? It’s good to share the love. Get the book.