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 (, 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 ( "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

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; 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

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,, 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

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 (, 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 ( 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, 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; one day admission is $35, a two-day pass is $50, with free admission for all students.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

"Peter Lassen: The True Story Of A Danish Pioneer In California"

Retired librarian Nancy Leek of Chico continues her series of Golden State Biographies for children with the story of one of John Bidwell's compatriots. Illustrated by the inimitable Steve Ferchaud, the book is called "Peter Lassen: The True Story Of A Danish Pioneer In California" ($15.95 in paperback from Goldfields Books, 

It's available locally at Bidwell Mansion, ABC Books, Made in Chico, and at, the site of the Association for Northern California Historical Research.

His influence? Think of "Lassen County, Lassen Peak, Lassen National Volcanic Park, Lassen National Forest, Lassen College," Lassen Trail, and more.

Leek evokes a man always on the move. "Born in Denmark in 1800," she writes, Lassen "was thirty years old when he decided to travel to America. ... He didn’t speak English. He didn’t know where he would go or what he would do. But an independent spirit and a love of adventure took him ... to a land of beauty and opportunity called California." 

He first landed in Boston, but the crowds were too much. He wouldn't settle in Missouri, either, because the frontier called out. Eventually, with Mexico's permission, he plied his blacksmith trade at Sutter's Fort, where he met Bidwell. But he wanted his own ranch, so he "chose a piece of land along Deer Creek."

"Many of the Indians living in northeastern California were Paiutes. Peter had usually gotten along well with Indians. Numaga (also known as Young Winnemucca) was the chief of a Paiute band. He and Peter became friends. They trusted each other. Peter was successful in settling disputes between the Indians and the settlers."

Wanting to invite others from Missouri to join him, he found a new route to California. In the meantime gold fever was in full swing and when he returned most of the workers had left. By 1850 he had left, too, wandering the mountains.

Lassen then set out for Nevada in 1859 with two other men in search of silver. Peter and one of his companions were shot and killed under still-mysterious circumstances. 

Stubborn but good-hearted "Old Pete" was gone. But, as Leek's book attests, his legacy remains.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

"In The Shadow Of The Hanging Tree"

For Portola novelist Michael McLellan ( it started in Chico. "In 2010," he emails, "I bought the house my grandparents had purchased new in 1962 (a stone's throw from lower Bidwell Park) from my grandmother's estate. I wrote a fair portion of my first novel on a picnic table" near the creek. 

McLellan has produced in his third novel a searing tale of the 1860s, intertwining Southern slavery with massacres of Native Americans as white settlers expanded Westward. It is not for the squeamish.

"In The Shadow Of The Hanging Tree" ($15 in paperback from Sweet Candy Press; also for Amazon Kindle) begins in 1861 in Missouri, charting the horrific life of twenty-year-old Henry, a newly freed slave, attempting to escape the roaming militias intent on killing runaways.

Caught by Emmet Dawson and his band, Henry and his companion Eliza face almost certain death. They are taken to a big tree by the road. "There were six people hanging from the tree limb. Even with the blood from his cut face blinding one of his eyes, Henry saw more than he could bear: five men and one small boy, all slaves."

There is a parallel story. In 1865 John Elliot is expelled from West Point at the behest of influential East Coast businessman Jonathon Hanfield. He is shipped off to Fort Laramie in the Dakota Territory to assist Colonel Frank Picton "with the Indian situation." John, in love with Hanfield's daughter Clara, is also the son of Hanfield's rival.

Henry survives, recuperates with the Cheyenne, and becomes a military guide at Fort Laramie. When it becomes clear that Picton has formed a militia intent on fomenting an all-out race war against the indigenous peoples, Henry and John (now reunited with Clara) face stark choices. There is graphic violence (with the N-word used fifty times) in this deeply affecting, gut-punch of a novel.

"The white man only knows desire," Standing Elk tells Henry. "He knows nothing of contentment. ... The white soldiers murder without regard, but themselves are spiritless and go screaming into their own deaths as they were born into life. ... There can be no peace with such men."

Thursday, February 21, 2019

"All They Will Call You"

For writer and performer Tim Hernandez, Woody Guthrie's poem "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)," with music by Martin Hoffman, "was the beacon." Popularized in concerts by Pete Seeger, the song was a biting commentary on the crash of a Douglas DC-3 in Los Gatos Canyon on January 28, 1948. 

According to a news report back then, "broken and charred bodies and an indiscernible heap of debris were all that were left of a government chartered flight from Oakland, which would have taken 28 Mexican Nationals to their homeland...." 

The song puts it this way: "The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting/ The oranges are piled in their creosote dumps/ They're flying you back to the Mexico border/ To pay all your money to wade back again. ... You won't have a name when you ride the big airplane/ And all they will call you will be deportees."

Who died that day in Los Gatos Canyon? In a gripping retrieval of history, Hernandez has crafted a page-turning account of passengers and crew and their hopes for a better life. "All They Will Call You" ($16.95 in paperback from The University of Arizona Press; also for Amazon Kindle) by Tim Z. Hernandez ( is the 2018-2019 Book in Common for Chico State University, Butte College, and a host of area organizations.

Hernandez will speak at Chico State's Laxson Auditorium on Wednesday, March 13 at 7:30 p.m., part of the President's Distinguished Lecture Series. Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors, free for youth and Chico State students. Tickets for the performance are available at the University Box Office ( or call (530) 898-6333. 

The book chronicles the grisly crash, the witnesses, and the lives of the crew and some of the passengers, including Luis Miranda Cuevas who heard, in 1946, "that even though the war was over, trains leaving Guadalajara for los Estados Unidos could still be found, and braceros were still needed." Once in the U.S., workers engaged in a strange dance with the needs of agriculture and the long reach of "la migra," the immigration authorities. 

It is a harrowing account, told with compassion, lyricism, and hope.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

"From Profits ... To Prosperity"

Retired electrical engineer Darwen Cook of Chico wondered some years ago what would happen if economics was viewed from an engineering perspective. "Economics," he writes, "had no cohesive guiding principles like the other sciences that I studied and used for engineering." Worse, he says, economists focus on profits rather than prosperity. What would happen if all that changed?

His answer is detailed in a comprehensive set of recommendations that is at the same time a manifesto for an Economic Humanist Party movement. Cook calls his idea "economic engineering," an approach "based on axiomatic principles and human rights intended to achieve maximum economic prosperity for the vast majority of all humanity sustained indefinitely."

"From Profits ... To Prosperity: Blueprint For A Democratic Humanistic Economy" ($19.95 in paperback, independently published; also for Amazon Kindle) is written in the form of proposed legislation Cook dubs the Humanist Economic Reform Act (HERA). 

It's informed by the Economic Bill of Rights, which Cook says is implied in the U.S. Constitution. Key rights include "the right to equal valued pay for equal valued work," "the freedom from the oppression of an economic privileged class," and "the right to a living wage sufficient to achieve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

"I have reformulated Capitalism," Cook writes, "as a democratic, axiomatic, mathematical system. I call this reformulation 'Humanism.'" The axioms act like a kind of Euclidean geometry for economics. They are not the product ofeconomics but rather introduced from the outside (by an engineer) to guideeconomics. 

The first, for example, maintains that "the fundamental reason our economy exists is to serve humanity in facilitating the worker/consumer duality by achieving maximum prosperity for the vast majority of mankind." It recognizes that humans shouldn't be treated as commodities "such as zinc or soybeans .... This axiom ends the possibility of economic slavery once and for all!"

His proposal involves expanding the Federal Reserve into a fourth branch of government, called the independent Economic Control Authority, and the replacement of Social Security with a "National Fund payroll deduction plan" to increase retirement benefits. 

What if the economy were engineered for human prosperity? Here, at least, is one man's answer.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

"Spillway Emergency"

Oroville Dam, February 7, 2017. "As water releases from the flood control spillway ramped up to 54,500 CFS (cubic feet per second) in anticipation of inflows expected from rainfall, DWR (Department of Water Resources) employees noticed an unusual flow pattern; the bottom of the spillway appeared to have suffered partial collapse." 

As William Sager and Wayne Wilson note in a chilling, book-length account of what happened next, "the initial discovery of the problem was almost by accident." Two DWR electricians, making a routine check, saw concrete "flying through the air on the spillway," a piece described as "'about the size of a Volkswagen minibus.'"

Five days later, with the main spillway crumbling and water overtopping the dam's emergency spillway for the first time in its history, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea ordered the evacuation of 180,000 downstream residents. 

The hour-by-hour story, what journalists call a "tick-tock," is told in "Spillway Emergency: The Story Of The Failure Of The Oroville Dam Spillway And The Evacuation Of Oroville" ($20 in paperback, independently published; also for Amazon Kindle). Sager and Wilson, both fire service retirees and Oroville residents, were among those evacuated. 

They conducted interviews and scoured documents and have produced a superb account, fair to all sides, covering "triumphs" as well as "missteps" (especially by DWR). 

The book doesn't assess causes of the main spillway failure; after a survey of flooding incidents in Oroville since 1849, it focuses on how CAL FIRE (which provided emergency response mentoring), DWR (led by Acting DWR Director Bill Croyle), and local law enforcement had to set egos aside and work as a unified team. It did not come easy, but it happened.

February 12. "At 2:00 p.m., the emergency spillway was already eroding at the rate of thirty feet per hour." Structured as a series of connected "monoliths," at 3:15 it appeared monolith 3 might collapse. "At 3:50 p.m., a DWR geologist briefed the unified incident commanders in the DWR boardroom. 'Imminent failure of weir due to head cutting, one hour to go before that happens.'"

One hour before the unthinkable.

In the forward, Honea says the book "chronicles one of the most tense, uncertain, and frightening experiences of my career." 

Thursday, January 31, 2019

"Widow Creek"

"It's a work of historical fiction about Mariah Hardwick Penngrove, a young woman who travels from Missouri to Northern California via wagon train in 1849." That's the straightforward description provided by Westwood writer Sarah Margolis Pearce for her novel "Widow Creek" ($12.99 in paperback from Lucky Bat Books; also for Amazon Kindle). Yet that barely scratches the surface; there are wonders here that transcend the genre.

Mariah keeps a journal, inspired by the writings of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Their own journal entries appear throughout the book as they, like Mariah, explore what is "beyond." 

Bamboozled by one Earl Penngrove into an ill-advised marriage and a long trip to California to collect a non-existent inheritance, Mariah becomes a widow during the journey but she is determined to carry on.

"I wondered about those thousands of miles Lewis and Clark explored," she writes. "What was out there in The Beyond? I did not dwell on the enormous space, the lonely miles, and the empty stretches that made your eyes sore from looking. Not then, at any rate. It was the not knowing what was next around the bend that captured my imagination."

She arrives in Remington River (readers will be reminded of Chester) which is on the path to Red Bluff, overlooked by Hasten Peak. A stage stop called Widow Creek Station plays an outsize role in Mariah's adventures, most notably with the notorious Californio Pajaro Mendonca, a Mexican born in California. 

There's a mutual attraction, though it is not long before Mariah is embroiled in a land dispute with a San Francisco tong leader who is also a prominent madam. Po Fong will stop at nothing to get what she wants—and she wants what Pajaro has hidden.

Mariah's writings are framed by a present-day historical investigation involving, among others, a Chico State University history major in prison for bank robbery. Somehow there's a connection between Mariah and three mysterious rocks discovered near Hasten Peak. Writings on them refer to her and Pajaro.

Pearce captures the joy of historical investigation in determining what's true. Is Pajaro really a bad guy? The answer is complicated--and so is this satisfying, beautifully crafted, and provocative novel.

Thursday, January 24, 2019


Chicoan Jesse Lawson works in Information Systems at Butte College; a U.S. Marine, he's served as an intelligence analyst. He's a singer-songwriter; host of the "Coping with Creativity" podcast; and the author of "Evolved" (self-published for Amazon Kindle; visit for details), a sci-fi thriller that begins quietly at Chico State University.

That's where Dr. Lexa Rogers, a lecturer in archaeology, is on the cusp of getting a full-time position when, out of the blue, government agents from the Department of Homeland Security whisk her away, supposedly for a weekend, on a super-secret mission.

At Chico Municipal Airport the agents drive right up into the belly of a cargo plane for the long flight to San Felice Circeo, home of one of the most important Neanderthal fossil finds. Lexa is a former Marine but the secrecy makes no sense. "The real question now," she tells the agents, "is why some hundred-thousand-year-old bones in Italy are a matter of national security."

It turns out that buried in one of the ancient skulls is a tooth; removed for study, the handlers had accidentally chipped it, as Lexa sees in a photograph. But there's a second picture of the tooth without a chip. Okay. Except that the second picture was taken afterthe first. The tooth has healed itself. The genetic value to humanity? Incalculable.

There's more. Lexa meets Donna Morrow, project director in the Carson Habitat, "three hundred feet below the surface of the Tyrrhenian Sea and fifteen miles south of the Italian coast," where the focus is on Olive, a giant octopus who has learned rudimentary sign language. 

More importantly, cephalopods like Olive can quickly adapt their skin color to their surroundings, rendering them almost invisible. If that ability could be duplicated in the laboratory, soldiers would hold tremendous advantage against enemy troops.

Who wouldn't want such a genetic technology? So there are plots and counterplots afoot--and a grisly attack by a mysterious creature that makes getting at the truth a matter of life or death, even as the horror mounts.

This is the first book in the Special Projects and Intelligence Division Emergency Response (SPIDER) series and readers will eagerly await Lexa's next page-turning adventure.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

"Life And The Fields"

Chico poet George Keithley has released a marvelous volume entitled "Life And The Fields: New And Selected Poems" ($24 in paperback from Turning Point, Drawing on publications from "The Donner Party" (1972) down to the present day, with nine new poems, Keithley has created a paean to the natural world that also recognizes its fraught relationship with human purposes.

The book begins with "Voices, Stillness": "We listen to/ the rhythmic lapping// of the water. We/ hear its current,// almost the sound of voices singing// on the far shore/ until they drift off...." In the poem only the "skeletal pilings" remain of a pier washed away by a flood; now there is only "deepening stillness." But it is the stillness that draws the poet to a connection with the world that can hardly be articulated. 

In the last poem in the collection, "Enjoy the Land," the poet is alone by Deer Creek, "Water cascading/ over rocks, rushing beneath the aspen/ and oak that shelter the foothills...." And a question comes as the poet struggles with parental regret: "... why does a man seek the solitude/ that troubles him?" He adds, "Always/ we long for those we've loved in the silence/ of what was whispered, wept, or left unsaid."

There are poems here of human love but also folly and miscalculation. "There is a land logic which we lost..." says the tragic voice of George Donner. Later in the collection, at "The Red Bluff Rodeo," "The last man on a saddle bronc/ provokes a rough ride/ to impress the judges./ Jabbing flesh,/ his spurs urge/ the bronc to kick/ three ways at once--// He flies from his mount/ in mid-air, tossed/ free. Falls/ like a sack of meal in the dust./ The throng disapproves and boos./ On hands and knees he crawls away from the hooves."

The rider flies, and falls. Now consider "Geese Going North": "They fight to be free of our earth,/ legs dangling, drawn up in the driving air,/ wings stroking the wind, beating its current beneath the keel/ of the breastbone as they're borne/ toward that loud height/ where we find them this morning in full flight."

Keithley soars.

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 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


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 ( or call 530-898-6333) are $60 Premium, $50 Adult, $48 Senior, $40 Youth and $15 Chico State Students.

Now isn't that awesome?