Thursday, August 15, 2019

"A Fire Story"



n simple drawings, artist Brian Fies (brianfies.blogspot.com) 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 (annesnyder.org), 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 ANCHR.org, 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, phoeniciapublishing.com/book-of-the-red-king.html), 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

"Unseasonable"



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 Amazon.com; also for Apple Books) is about the meaning of that "unfiltered sensation" of the "reality of Oneness."

The book, based on Hart's website (rwhmedicinewheel.com), 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 bête 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.


Thursday, June 27, 2019

"The State Of Water: Understanding California's Most Precious Resource"



Oakland-based Obi Kaufmann is a kind of data-based poetic naturalist. 

In his new book he offers a guide to "The State Of Water: Understanding California's Most Precious Resource" ($20 in hardcover from Heyday; also for Amazon Kindle). Replete with the author's own water colors of birds and beasts, and hand-painted maps of the state waterways, the book is a paean of praise to "Water, always the commodity, rarely the honored vehicle of all life."

He adds: "If genuine restoration is the goal, the solutions of conservation and efficiency are at 
hand, reflected in our hearts that sing, have sung, and will always sing trust in this 
place." He believes that common-sense conversation and technological measures can reduce California's yearly water usage from 40 million-acre-feet down to 30. 

In other words, without building a single new dam (or enlarging Shasta), California would have not only enough water for its present population, but enough for decades to come.

"The aging dams are filling with silt," he writes, "and building more dams won’t 
help. With less precipitation and already an excess of storage, they will never fill." We already have what we need.

"The Oroville Dam crisis of 2017," he notes, "was an excellent and terrifying example of the paramount need to inventory the readiness of the entire system. Instead of building new water projects, our money would be better spent repairing our existing system and even identifying projects that can go. ..."

Kaufmann calls "the bravest of all opportunities" the removal of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park. He says that even without this storage, "San Francisco would still derive most of its water supply from the Tuolumne River. Constructing a new intertie at or below Don Pedro Reservoir would allow the city to have access to its supplies in the reservoir."

Then data yields to poetry: "I see a thousand cranes rise from the reservoir and on their wings, the valley empties. In the morning, the bears dream of their return with sapphire eyes uncut on salmon’s tooth." It is the freedom "of a restored landscape." 

"We are Californians," he writes, and we love "a good challenge."


Thursday, June 20, 2019

"Happily And Madly"



Chico novelist Alexis Bass introduces "bad girl" Maris Brown in her new YA novel, "Happily And Madly" ($17.99 in hardcover from Tor Teen; also for Amazon Kindle). I listened to the audio performance by Soneela Nankani; she captures in Maris' narration her bored cynicism with her dad's "new" family and her twitterpated emotions when she first meets the mysterious Finn. This is no ordinary summer.

Maris' father, George, a rep for Goodman Pharmaceuticals, has remarried. The "New Browns" are composed of George's wife Tricia ("A thirty-six-year-old who looks exactly her age, despite the new-mom short-bob haircut"), Trisha's eighteen-year-old daughter Chelsea (about the same age as Maris but utterly naive), and baby Phoebe (the "love child," Maris puts it).

Maris is invited to spend the summer with her dad and his family, immersing her in the moneyed life in Cross Cove on the New England coast. The "New Browns" are all smiles. Maris hardly fits. "I don’t look like them. I do not have a smile for every occasion. I do not glow. I am a daughter entirely by circumstance. Baggage from George’s first marriage. Nothing about me is beautiful or precious, and my shadow is the first thing you would notice."

Chelsea can hardly wait for the arrival of her London-based boyfriend, Edison, but meanwhile Maris, exploring the woods on a nearby island, encounters a young (and very handsome) man who calls himself Finn, wounded and trying to escape a trio of ruffians out for blood. It is all because of a poker match gone bad, with Finn losing and unable to pay up.

Maris' quick thinking saves Finn's life, and though she doesn't believe the story for long, she also realizes that Finn's presence makes her heart beat faster. She craves "mystery and excitement"--and Finn's kisses. Later, when Edison shows up for Chelsea, she sees immediately who he is and admits (surprise!) she wants him all to herself.

But this well-crafted and heartfelt novel is not just about a romantic triangle. Everyone seems to be lying (except Chelsea) and it turns out that murderous plots are afoot, with Edison--and George--deeply involved.

Love must persevere, because justice can be rough indeed.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

"No Finis: Triangle Testimonies, 1911"



Seattle-based poet Deborah Woodard, an invited presenter for a recent poetry reading at Chico's 1078 Gallery, gives voice to small voices in "No Finis: Triangle Testimonies, 1911" ($12.95 in paperback from Ravenna Press, ravennapress.com).

Woodard was drawn to an exhibition at New York University on the hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, on March 25, 1911, in the Asch Building in New York City. The fire, she writes, "resulted in the deaths of 146 garment workers--mostly young women and mostly recent Eastern European and Italian immigrants."

The factory "occupied the top three floors of the building. Workers on the eighth floor (where smoke was first detected) and the tenth floor (with access to the roof) survived in almost every case. However, the ninth floor became a death trap." The small elevators stopped working and fire spread to escape routes. "Forced to choose between those engulfing flames and plunging to their deaths, scores of young workers leaped from the ninth-floor window ledges."

Fire fighters on the scene, their life nets broken, yelled to the workers not to jump. But they did, sometimes in groups of two or three.

"The Triangle Shirtwaist owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were tried for the death of a single employee, Margaret Schwartz. The owners were acquitted, thanks in large part to defense attorney Max Steuer's canny and often brutal cross-examination of the witnesses, many of whom ... were forced to testify in English, and had to do their best not to get tripped up."

Woodard's poems are based in part on the trial transcript. The book also contains drawings by John Burgess illustrating the "claustrophobic workspace" and the burial sites, "strewn dots," of the victims.

Mr. Steuer asks Mary Domsky, "It is normal to look up once and awhile at the other girls when they pass, isn't it?/ It is if you don't get caught." Kate Alterman says to Steuer, "There was a wall of smoke. Probably I can make my escape, I thought. The Greene Street door was a curtain of flame, but I was as cool and collected as you are./ I am not half as cool as you think, Miss Alterman."


Thursday, June 06, 2019

"Choosing The Dark"



Ridge-area novelist Brian Marshall has written a psychological coming-of-age story about life and death. "Choosing The Dark" (self-published, for Amazon Kindle) transports the reader to the early 80s in San Francisco. Punk is on the wane, hippie heaven a chimera, and a mysterious disease is taking lives in the gay community.

"Way back when, in Pleistocene times," the narrator remembers, "there were people who lived on the margins, people for whom having little, caring less, wasn’t an outcome, but a choice. A decision to live in the dark. To shout, and sneer, and flail away, burning at both ends. Love, as it turned out, wasn’t the answer, and so they’d tried something else. Something that tasted like Drano, and sounded like a scream."

This is the scene that attracts young Robert Walstein, finished with high school in Mill Valley, one of those "spoiled white kids from Marin," who yearns to escape the shadow of his mother Carol, a classical/modernist composer, from whom he is estranged. 

In the first half of the novel, "Learning To Live," Rob hooks up with the mysterious Annie and becomes the drummer for a band headed by Kurt, whose song lyrics are "crazy, nonsensical, completely left-field, but totally, totally right. Spilling from Kurt in this deep baritone, the sob of some lost soul. He is singing from hell, Rob suddenly knows. The place that he calls home."

The second half, "Learning To Die," is dominated by Sol Myers, an older gay man who becomes Rob's mentor, his guide to coping with death (ominously, Carol is diagnosed with breast cancer), who finds in Rob a kind of naive passion needing to embrace the truth about human mortality. 

Rob feels ashamed of the one-time "raunchy, burlesque Marx Brothers number" that he dances with Sol, but he "knows instead that it’s Life. Dragging him round the dance floor. Wringing his body dry. Letting him know that, yes, he will die, but in the meantime there is this. A moment between being born and being buried. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it, fool."

Family reconciliation is possible, Marshall says in this deeply probing novel, but the cost may be beyond what you can imagine.


Thursday, May 30, 2019

"Once Upon A River"



British novelist Diane Setterfield, author of the bestselling "The Thirteenth Tale," returns with a mesmerizing tale about mesmerizing tales. "Once Upon A River" ($28 in hardcover from Atria/Emily Bestler Books; also for Amazon Kindle) considers the central mystery of a child who was dead and is now alive.

I told my wife about the book after I finished it and she seemed mildly intrigued. But one evening recently I read her the first two chapters. She was captivated (and so was I, especially knowing the end from the beginning). Her comment: "I want that book!" We purchased the ebook version and she spent the next three or four days buried in the book every chance she got. She couldn't put it down.

What I realized when I read aloud the two chapters was Setterfield's attention to the sounds of words, something I didn't pick up on as much when I read the galley silently. The book is a big, glorious homage not just to story but to how language can enrapture us, weaving readers into the warp and woof of the events themselves. In such a masterly author, that needs no strong arming. Just an Armstrong.

That's a reference to one of the key characters in the book, a good man determined to find the truth. Blogger Sarah Ullery summarizes the beginning: "In an ancient inn by the River Thames a group of men and women gather on the longest night of the year to tell stories about a 14th century battle that had claimed the lives of eight hundred men. As the stories inside the inn unfold, the door bursts open and a man with monstrous injuries appears in the doorway holding a drowned little girl. The girl has no pulse and isn’t breathing; but hours later she stirs, coming back to life."

But whose child is she? Astoundingly, she is claimed by three families. A mother is certain she is her kidnaped daughter; a couple is certain she is the offspring of their son's secret affair; and a parson's maid is certain she is her younger sister. 

The reader will be certain that this extraordinary story will not soon be forgotten.


Thursday, May 23, 2019

"The Kingdom Of Dadria: A Lamb Amongst Wolves"



We are not in Kansas anymore: "His human form fell away the same way one might throw off dirty clothes or a snake would shed its old skin. He fell on all fours, thick black fur sprouted all along his body, hands and feet became paws, his face stretched into a muzzle full of sharp teeth. He was no longer a man, he had allowed the wolf to take over."

Many are the mysteries in the Forest of Wayward Souls, not least of which are the Skinwalkers, humans from native clans able to change into Wolf, Bear, Panther, Hawk, a gift of the Great Spirit enabling them to defend against the pale invaders from the kingdoms beyond the forest.

An ancient prophecy says a young wolf warrior who died in battle would return, when his people were in greatest need, "as a wolf with fur red as flame, born to a woman called the Aleutsi, the Great Mother."

The Skinwalkers play a pivotal role in Chico writer N. J. Hanson's riveting sword-and-sorcery epic, "The Kingdom Of Dadria: A Lamb Amongst Wolves" ($17.99 in paperback from Ink Drop Press; also for Amazon Kindle). The cover, by Steve Ferchaud, features red-headed Princess Endelynn of Dadria, the only heir to the throne, soon to be wed to Prince Sedrick of Kahren to unite two great houses. What could go wrong?

Well, pretty much everything. There's a plot afoot instigated by the king of Kahren, Sedrick's older brother Kendrick, to take over the kingdom of Dadria and threaten the peoples of the forest. 

Add to the mix the loyal Dadrian bodyguard Sir Aridain, protector of Queen Beatrice (especially after King Cassius dies unexpectedly), skeptical of the planned union; and Sir Darren, "captain of the Black Swords of the King," a man willing to carry out the king's dastardly plan.

A plan that includes the fake kidnaping of Endelynn so Sedrick can show his heroic chops, but things go awry and she finds herself captive of the Wolf Clan. Therein lies the tale, so to speak, full of violent action, narrow escapes, and a promise in the next book for all to be resolved.


Thursday, May 16, 2019

"The Silent Patient"



Infidelity pervades "The Silent Patient" ($26.99 in hardcover from Celadon Books; also for Amazon Kindle). Author Alex Michaelides, in his novelistic debut, has written a psychological thriller murder mystery, a story that explores the character of thirty-three-year-old Alicia Berenson, an accomplished painter, deeply in love with her husband Gabriel, who one evening shoots him fatally in the face.

The evidence against her at trial is overwhelming. But Alicia refuses to speak in her defense (if any defense is possible); in fact, she refuses to speak at all. Ever. To anyone. In the end, swayed by the recommendation of Lazarus Diomedes, "professor of forensic psychiatry at Imperial College, and clinical director of the Grove, a secure forensic unit in North London," she is found to have "diminished responsibility" and is sentenced to the Grove under the care of Diomedes.

The novel presents tantalizing excerpts from Alicia's journal but is mostly narrated by psychotherapist Theo Faber, forty-two, who has followed Alicia's trial closely and is determined to help her. He joins Grove's team and Alicia becomes his patient. She remains unspeaking, lashing out violently at times yet never saying a word in therapy sessions (or any other time). The only clue to her inner self is an extraordinary painting she called "Alcestis," a self-portrait painted after the murder.

Alcestis, Faber says, is "the heroine of a Greek myth. A love story of the saddest kind. Alcestis willingly sacrifices her life for that of her husband, Admetus, dying in his place when no one else will. An unsettling myth of self-sacrifice, it was unclear how it related to Alicia's situation."

The connection with Alicia will be revealed, but not before Michaelides, a screenwriter by trade who grew up in Cyprus, has taken the reader (or the listener) on a wild ride with twists and turns aplenty and surprise endings that turn out to be surprise beginnings. I listened to the audiobook version and was struck by the beautifully executed telling from narrators Jack Hawkins and Louise Brealey. 

The book is also a study of Theo Faber, whose growing compulsion to get Alicia to speak calls into question his fidelity to professional ethics. 

The novel is maddeningly good.


Thursday, May 09, 2019

"Beware The Boojum"



In "The Hunting of the Snark," a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll, one of the hunters is given a warning: "But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,/ If your Snark be a Boojum! For then/ You will softly and suddenly vanish away,/ And never be met with again!"

The Boojum, then, is particularly dangerous; no wonder that Bracken MacFie, stationed on an asteroid named Hope, characterizes his own dangerous work as boojum hunting. And when one is found? Therein lies a science-fictional tale by freelance writer Eric Witchey (ericwitchey.com), a recent Butte College visitor and conference presenter.

"Beware The Boojum" (IFD Publishing; available from e-book retailers including Amazon Kindle) imagines the discovery of extraordinary crystals "from the pre-birth of the universe," made of "pre-baryonic matter."

MacFie holds one in his space-suited hand. "The crystal looked like clear, faceted quartz. Thread-like, golden impurities twisted, joined and radiated inside. Unlike quartz, the pre-baryonic matter was so transparent that every edge teased his eye to strain harder to resolve it. The harder MacFie focused, the more the edges and angles faded away, stretching thinner until the surfaces slipped between the fabric of space-time and hid in folded dimensions where mortal vision couldn't see."

It's "the elusive, crystalline residue of the Big Bang."

It turns out these crystals are the key to human travel throughout the universe. For certain unique individuals, "pilots," holding a crystal can instantly transport a person to a given location. There's only one rub: One must give up one's sanity in order to achieve the result. MacFie's wife, Astra, has become a pilot, pressed into service by the corporate state in the form of project manager Dr. Maxwell Craig. She is also insane. And unpredictable, as is the boojum crystal.

MacFie is a miner of the scarce crystals; he, too, has given up his sanity to do the job, contending with the voice of "Steve" and fending off a scrub jay on the airless asteroid. 

In order to open the universe to humans, the transport process must become predictable. Craig embarks on a devious plan that plays on MacFie's love for Astra--but human emotions bring an unexpected consequence in this mesmerizing yarn.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

"The Leon Lewis Band"



According to an author's note, L.M. Levin (lmlevin.com) "is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, in private practice" in Chico. Now retired from working almost a decade-and-a-half in adoption services, Levin has completed his first novel. "The Leon Lewis Band" ($28.99 in paperback, self-published through iUniverse; also for Amazon Kindle) is a novelistic memoir told by Jackie Klein about his talented musical friend Leon (Lee) Lewis.

In the 1950s in Brooklyn, Jackie says, "we were a couple of the few Jewish kids in a predominantly Italian, working class neighborhood. I was a quiet, shy boy. Lee, three years my senior, was outgoing and actively engaged in the struggle to gain respect from the other kids on the block."

Anti-Semitism is rampant. Tough-guy Johnny Emilio rules the streets; his lieutenant, Tony Carpissi, is Lee's bête noire who "went out of his way to run up to him, push, shove, and whisper antagonistic things to him." After Emilio is killed in a robbery attempt Tony disappears. He returns later in Lee's life is a most disquieting way.

Lee, Jackie, and others begin playing music together. Then "Lee went off to college that September of 1964. His college was the streets and highways of America, the bars and clubs where he met new musicians and new friends." Two years later he returns to his old stomping grounds, Café Flo in Greenwich Village, eventually forming a touring band attracting more and more attention, including from the authorities because of the outspoken opposition to the War in Vietnam.

The band includes, as Levin's website notes, "a flamboyant country boy, a hippie manager, a smooth café manager, an eccentric concert promotor and recording engineer." Much of the novel recounts the group's travels out West, to Europe, and south of the border. Lee meets progressive journalist Catalina Blake, whose Guatemalan parents managed to escape the political troubles in their home country by coming to the US. Or did they?

Political intrigue mixes with counter-cultural sensibilities in this "good times" memoir. But always there is the music: "Music is the only thing we know," Lee says. "Music is our lives. We do it because we must. That's just the way it is."

Thursday, April 25, 2019

"Prewriting Your Screenplay: A Step-By-Step Guide To Generating Stories"



Michael Tabb knows screenplays inside and out. He's worked on projects for Universal Studios, Disney Feature Animation, and many more, and has developed a mentoring program for new scriptwriters. 

He'll be speaking at Butte College this weekend, focusing on his immensely helpful guidebook: "Prewriting Your Screenplay: A Step-By-Step Guide To Generating Stories" ($39.95 in paperback from Routledge; also for Amazon Kindle).

The book begins provocatively. "I've never had writer's block," he says. "I never have to wonder what I'm going to write or how to cinematically show it. Why? I have a method. It starts before characters, structures, outlines, and beat sheets." The foundation is what Tabb calls "the premise."

Instead of looking around for a story idea, start from what's in your heart. "I start every script with a premise, the core of a strong idea in all visual media. The idea should be presented as a single statement, no more than that. It must be an incredibly clear and succinct point of view that the writer intends to explore. Story and characters come later." Tabb defines premise as a "hypothesis. It's the story's purpose for existing at all." 

The premise is the answer to the question, "If you could convey just one truth to the entire world from your deathbed, and all the world will hear it with your final breath, what would you say?" Some of his suggestions: "Secrets are essential to a happy marriage"; "Absolute power has no true friends"; "Guilt is the roadblock to happiness."

Tabb offers hundreds of examples as he explores the premise, then character creation (from protagonists to love interests to mentors to allies), and finally how a concept is turned into a living story. 

Can't wait for the movie!

Tabb is scheduled to present two screenplay prewriting workshops at the eighth-annual WordSpring creative writing conference, Saturday, April 27, from 8:00 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. on the Butte College main campus. 

He'll be presenting "Going From Zero To Story" and "Going From Story To Structure." Tickets are $30 for students and educators, $60 for the general public, free for the first 50 attendees affected by the Camp Fire; visit buttewordspring.org.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

"Is There Purpose In Biology?: The Cost Of Existence And The God Of Love"



With the approach of every Good Friday, Christians around the world contemplate the suffering that Jesus endured on the cross. His resurrection on Easter morning is a promise that one day our world's torment will be banished forever.

Yet, for many, the presence in our world of so much suffering, over geologic ages, seems more a product of chance than any larger theological purpose. For some prominent voices, it's what Denis Alexander calls "a denial of any ultimate reason for the existence of a biological process such as evolution."

Alexander, an evolutionary biologist and cancer researcher, Emeritus Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge, and a Christian, maintains in a recent book that mere chance doesn't rule in biology. He argues that while a theological conclusion can't be drawn from studying biological processes, they are surprisingly compatible with the Christian story.

"Is There Purpose In Biology?: The Cost Of Existence And The God Of Love" ($16.99 in paperback from Monarch Books; also for Amazon Kindle) is currently being discussed by the Chico Triad on Philosophy, Theology, and Science. The group brings academics, students, and independent scholars together each month to wrestle with big ideas, such as Alexander's claim that "evolutionary theory is consistent with a creator God who has intentions and purposes for the world."

Early chapters in the book focus on the meaning of "random mutations" as part of the engine of evolutionary biology, showing that in the world of DNA it's not a matter of "anything goes," not "random in any strict mathematical sense of the word."

But what might be God's purposes for evolution? Through a theological lens, Alexander suggests the development of biological diversity, which is intrinsically valuable; that "creatures like ourselves should emerge" who can engage in loving relationship with God; and that "the end of our own planet does not entail the end of life as we presently know it."

Carrying out these purposes is necessarily a costly process in a world governed by physical laws. There is much suffering. But, Alexander might say, Good Friday is not the end of the story.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

"After/Ashes: A Camp Fire Anthology"



As the editors write in a new anthology of prose, poetry, and images--a creative response to the Camp Fire--it took seventeen days to completely contain it. During that time a group of Butte College students and instructors, themselves deeply affected by the fire, began assembling "stories and visual art featuring both immediacy and recollection; stories that signal not just the end, but a new beginning."

The result is "After/Ashes: A Camp Fire Anthology," a paperback with full-color photographs produced by WordSpring Press. It's available at the Butte College bookstore on main campus and at the Chico Center, and in downtown Chico at Naked Lounge, Kona's, Upper Crust, and The Bookstore. For updates, visit buttewordspring.org/anthology; price may vary with location. (The Butte College WordSpring Creative Writing Conference is Saturday, April 27.)

Edited by John LaPine, with assistance from Claire Grant, Tim Hayes, Grace Armstrong, Lia Deromedi, and WordSpring advisor Molly Emmons, the book begins with "My First Fire," an account of her escape from Magalia by Anne Sheridan. Their house survived, but "devastation still surrounds us. … I see people trying to fix what was broken and reclaim what was theirs. They are coming out stronger in the end." 

There is sorrow in the midst, a realization, writes Molly Fisk in "Particulate Matter," of what one is breathing in. "How many miles of electrical wire and PVC pipe swirling into the once-blue sky: how many linoleum acres? Not to mention the valley oaks, the ponderosas, all the wild/ hearts and all the tame, their bark and leaves and hooves and hair and bones…."

A section of photographs by retired English instructor Neal Snidow (the cover is a closeup of "Chevy Side Panel"), and others as well, captures the strange landscape created in California's deadliest conflagration. 

And now? Tim Hayes imagines "A Conversation" between the scorched field and the emerging grass. "You stand in the place of a/ late companion,/ how dare you appear so suddenly?"; to which the grass replies: "perhaps I am that same companion,/ I grew from the fragments that/ were left behind./ carnage is necessary for/ creation./ wounds are made for healing./ comfort is the enemy of change."

Thursday, April 04, 2019

"Amish Guys Don't Call"



Secrets. "We’ve all got them," writes Portland-based author and actress Debby Dodds. "And sometimes that’s ok, and those secrets are nobody’s business but our own until we are ready to share them. However, sometimes those secrets control our decisions and torture us."

For sixteen-year-old Samantha (Sam) Stonesong, attending high school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania is a chance to move away from her past and the secret of getting nabbed for shoplifting. She's the whip-smart, blunt, yet vulnerable narrator of "Amish Guys Don't Call" ($19.99 in paperback from Blue Moon Publishers; also for Amazon Kindle). The novel is funny, poignant, and wise, sometimes all at once.

More than a teen romance (though much of the action revolves around ogling guys at parties), the book explores deeper issues of emotional loss, cyberbullying, betrayal, the meaning of friendship and faith, and being an "outsider."

The virginal Sam is befriended by Madison who gets her into a female clique called the Sherpas (ruled over by a girl named Hillary--named for Edmund Hillary). 

Lancaster is Amish country (Dodds grew up in Lancaster County) and, as Sam notes, "the Amish didn’t go to our schools or talk to us; they stayed in their communities, and we stayed in ours. It was some weird modern-day, mutually-agreed-upon segregation. Except that sometimes Amish teens would sneak out and pretend not to be Amish for a little while. They just weren’t very good at it."

When Sam meets a dreamboat guy named Zach at a party she falls for him big time, especially because they both love horror flicks. But he has a secret, too. 

Dodds is scheduled to present two workshops at the eighth-annual WordSpring creative writing conference, Saturday, April 27, from 8:00 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. on the Butte College main campus. "Bringing The Funny To Your Writing" will show "how different writers tickle the funny bone and how attendees can do that in their own writing." "Tips For Terror And Hints For Horror" "examines masters of communicating the dark and teaches techniques of horror writing."

Tickets are $30 for students and educators, $60 for the general public, free for the first 50 attendees affected by the Camp Fire; visit buttewordspring.org.


Thursday, March 28, 2019

"Digger's Izy"



Until recently, local writer Nancy Weston has enjoyed a long career in professional management, from the aerospace industry to the medical device field. She helped craft processes to more effectively respond to crises, such as Butte County's 2008 fires.

Now, with her debut novel, Weston has turned her attention to a different kind of crisis, where a family must face the reality of a dad who is intellectually brilliant but also mentally ill. "Digger's Izy" ($14.95 in paperback from Weston Writes; also for Amazon Kindle) follows Isabella ("Izy") Reinhardt, born in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, "just at the dawn of madness."

Grandy, Izy's maternal grandmother, "was like a great oak tree, anchoring the land around it with roots, protecting with shade and shelter." Being around Grandy, who hailed from Scotland, was an opening into a rich family history and wise words Izy would never forget.

Izy's father, Gunter, had German roots. On good days he tutored his daughter and when she was eight brought home a model railroad kit. But there was little expression of love; on the contrary, Gunter found his daughter lacking in every way, telling his wife, Missy, "She eats like a pig. She is a pig. A brown-eyed pig!" 

Though she tries to be a peacemaker, Izy finds herself, as the years slip by, joining disruptors at school. It is a time of racial conflict, assassinations, Cold War tensions, hostage taking, Watergate, the war in Vietnam, and the novel interweaves news of the day with the personal challenges Izy faces as she realizes her father is not just demanding, but dangerous.

Rejecting her mother's faith in God, Izy is nevertheless haunted by questions of meaning. This coming-of-age story follow's Izy's surprising rise as a scientist, her fight against discrimination, her father's sacrificial contribution to brain research. "My whole life has been about my father," Izy says. "He has been the single most overwhelming aspect of my life: A great light, warming me, blinding me, burning me, but always shining ahead to show me the way."

This first novel heralds the advent of a new talent and a new way for the author to make a difference in the world.


Thursday, March 21, 2019

"From The Inside Quietly"



The eighth-annual WordSpring creative writing conference is Saturday, April 27, from 8:00 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. on the Butte College main campus with workshops on poetry, fiction, and cross-genre writing.

The keynote presenter is Eloisa Amezcua. Originally from Arizona, now living in Ohio, she has collected many of her poems in "From The Inside Quietly" ($12 in paperback from Shelterbelt Press, shelterbeltpress.org), an exploration of the inner life as both hard-edged and fragile.

Tickets are $30 for students and educators, $60 for the general public, free for the first 50 attendees affected by the Camp Fire; visit buttewordspring.org.

Amezcua arranges her poems into four sections, each introduced by a poem about "E." "E Does Ballet" (and his called "chubby" by her mother); "E Goes To The Museum" ("the shark teeth tell stories/ she wants to learn by heart"); "E Walks Home: An Inner Monologue" ("wear nothing/ that clings to your shape/ be shapeless/ don't look scaredworriedpanicked/ don't look/ friendlyapproachableopen/ don't look back/ look natural...."); and "E Watches Mother Primp" ("trying on/ dress after dress/ stubborn/ as a tongue/ pressed/ to the roof/ of a mouth/ shut tight/ staring").

What travels through the poems is a growing sense that the poet does not have to remain silent in the face of fraught relationships with parents and lovers. 

In "Teaching My Mother English Over The Phone," "she wants to know how/ a word can be both/ a thing and an action/ like war and mistake// although I can't put into words in Spanish/ how I know the difference/ so I tell her I have to go/ and I go/ and she goes/ I haven't taught her anything"; "On Not Screaming" introduces a sinister voice: "I told you/ to be quiet,/ he said,/ is to love/ me enough/ to let me in--// ... This is how I was/ taught to love:/ to silence yourself/ is to let the other in."

No. One may not see oneself clearly, but one can speak. In the "Self-Portrait" at the end, "I'm dangerous," the poet avers, "I'm a mirror./ I see everything/ except myself./ This way I can't/ lose: even when// broken, a polished/ surface reflects/ whatever looks in."


Thursday, March 14, 2019

"Critical Thinking Enablers: The Skills Of Fact Finding And Taking Back Science"



Independent scholar Richard Burrill is perhaps best known for a series of anthropological forays, through big books and public presentations, into the life and times of Ishi (ishifacts.com), the last living member of the Yahi people (he died in 1916).

Burrill is now developing a new project which has a far larger aim, to prepare Americans for the 250th anniversary of the country's founding, in 2026 (journeyintoamerica2026.com). He is self-publishing a series of books designed to improve cultural literacy; as his website says, "Imagine a majority of Americans who are informed throughout the land with shared knowledge about America’s diverse peoples, its traditions, its stories, the metaphors we live by...."

The first is called "Critical Thinking Enablers: The Skills Of Fact Finding And Taking Back Science" ($20 in paperback from The Anthro Company Press, journeyintoamerica2026.com). Readers can call (530) 809-2451 for more information. The book, or "syllabus," "is designed to help the people value knowledge in order to think critically and be informed, as best we can to direct our government who serve us."

The two sections (on fact-finding and how science works) contain a total of sixteen chapters intended for individual learners or seminar groups. The "enablers" in each chapter, often with an anthropological focus, form an eclectic collection of historical investigations, puzzles, illustrated lectures, discussion starters, and a thirteen-page critical thinking glossary. 

Topics include distinguishing primary from secondary sources, recognizing propaganda, scientific thinking, and mastering numbers. They're not the last word, but rather fun and interesting jumping off points for further exploration.

The bottom line, Burrill says, is to develop in learners what Ernest Hemingway called (when asked what a great writer needed) "a built-in, shockproof crap detector."

Burrill, teaming with local computer literacy consultant and educator Lon Halley, is scheduled to present "Critical Thinking Enablers by Using the Best of Technology Today" during Chico State University's This Way To Sustainability conference. 

The session is scheduled for Thursday, March 28 from 2:15-3:00 p.m. on campus. For more information on the two-day conference, and to register, visit bit.ly/csucsustainability; one day admission is $35, a two-day pass is $50, with free admission for all students.