Thursday, October 10, 2019

"Burn Scar: A Contemporary Disaster Thriller"



T. J. Tao is the pen name of Michael J. Orr (wordsmithmojo.com). Now based in southern Idaho, he and his family survived the Camp Fire, and though he wanted to publish a factual account, "the truth was that our story had no ending, yet." Conspiracy theories hung in the air.

So he "settled on fiction, weaving the story with more than twenty very real survivor stories (including my own) and some of the conspiracy theory storylines: gold, corruption, government land grabs, etc."

Then he "found a ridge in west-central Idaho that had much the same shape and many of the same features as the ridge that Paradise sits on." The novel's focus is on the town of Genna (Maltese, he says, for "Paradise") with a fire that started in Bear County near Bonneville Road and so was dubbed the Bonn Fire."

The result is a riveting story of a corrupt town manager, a scheme to secure mineral rights along the eastern ridge by any means necessary, murderous henchmen, a dedicated sheriff, and the heroism of first responders and local citizens in the midst of the worst fire in Idaho's history. 

"Burn Scar: A Contemporary Disaster Thriller" ($16.99 in paperback from WordsmithMojo Publishing; also for Amazon Kindle), by T.J. Tao, also fictionally imports the "firenado" (from the Carr Fire) to plague Genna's Rite Aid.

Three weeks before the fire, "Mayor Joana Moody was in the midst of an unexpectedly difficult bid for re-election to the Town Council of Genna. ... In most towns and cities, the Town Manager worked for and at the pleasure of the Council. Not in Genna, here Jillian Dupree ran the show. ... She needed Mayor Moody" pretty much as a pawn as Jillian maneuvered the idea of bolting a sewer system onto the eastern cliffside into a fortune for herself.

The novelist is not pleased with Council doings or with "Idaho Electric Power." (Locations and identities of some key players are thinly veiled.) Despite some editing infelicities the story is a page turner in its own right, with a satisfying conclusion. 

There's comeuppance that lends an air of finality to something that never really will be finished.


Thursday, October 03, 2019

"Love Revolution: Rediscovering The Lost Command Of Jesus (Revised Edition)"



In 2001, with almost three decades in the pastorate, Chicoan Gaylord Enns experienced debilitating burnout. Months later he faced cancer surgery. Granted time away from his congregation to regain his strength, he began studying the Bible and, on May 1, 2002, found the answer to a simple question that profoundly changed his life.

The story is told in "Love Revolution: Rediscovering The Lost Command Of Jesus (Revised Edition)" ($15.99 in paperback from Love Revolution Press, loverevolutionnow.org; also for Amazon Kindle). 

In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus tells his followers to make disciples, "baptizing them ... and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." For Enns, baptism referred to faith in Jesus Christ--but what exactly had Jesus commanded?

Enns writes that Jesus taught many things, but only commanded one thing, as in John 15:12: "Love each other as I have loved you." As Enns observes, "I had started ... with a question: What all did Jesus command His disciples to obey? ... It was the New Commandment--His Command."

This contrasts with the Old Covenant commands, the first, to "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" and the second, to "love your neighbor as yourself." How can one ever fulfill the first? Doesn't the second interfere with it? As Enns writes, "I struggled with a nagging sense that I wasn't really living up to what God expected of me. My responsibilities as a husband, father, son, friend and pastor kept me from being as devoted to God as I felt I should be."

Jesus' command broke through all this. "Rather than shouting 'I love You, God!' into the sky for hours, I began to realize that maybe I should give just a couple of shouts and then go back into the kitchen and help my wife clean up the pots and pans after dinner. ... In the New Covenant, loving God and loving our neighbor are expressed as we put our faith in Jesus Christ and love one another."

Enns is a winsome writer and a gentle guide. Readers will find much food for thought.


Thursday, September 26, 2019

"People, Places & Pieces Of Paradise: The Inferno, Aftermath & Recovery From The Most Destructive Wildfire In California History"



Chico writer-photographer Doug Keister showed up for his morning softball game on November 8, 2018, knowing something was amiss but not knowing the extent of the conflagration that was to come. Several of the players would lose their homes in the Camp Fire.

"In the weeks and months that followed," he writes in an extraordinary new book, "I journeyed to the fire zone of Paradise and nearby smaller communities of Concow and Magalia several times each week, doing my best to document the effects of the fire, on the land and on the people. I also made note of the residents of Butte County who had escaped the ravages of the fire. The generosity they gave--and continue to give--to the community and survivors, still inspires."

Keister has created stunning images that capture the soul of Paradise, from the burning to the aftermath, with stories of survivors telling of the human cost but also of the indomitable spirt of hope that is, indeed, part of the soul of the town. 

"People, Places & Pieces Of Paradise: The Inferno, Aftermath & Recovery From The Most Destructive Wildfire In California History" ($29.95 in hardcover, self-published, from paradisebook.org; also available locally at Made in Chico and the Gold Nugget Depot Museum) contains almost 200 color images and 20,000 words. 

Sections include "Ignition," "Aftermath," "Recovery," "The Murals" (a comprehensive guide to Shane Grammer's Paradise art), "Portraits From Paradise" (three dozen stories of individuals and families who survived), with a closing memorial dedicated to those who did not.

In the book, Keister writes about the power of the image. "Imagine returning after the fire, turning onto the street where your home once was and seeing…nothing. You feel your heart sinking and your eyes welling with tears. You are struck by the utter silence. No birds chirping. No chattering squirrels. No dogs barking. No squeals of children playing. Nothing is anywhere close to normal. Photographs will tell these stories, if you let them."

Those images are deeply moving (my first school, Paradise Elementary, has disappeared into memory). 

The book itself is a treasure.


Thursday, September 19, 2019

"As Many Nows As I Can Get"



Imagine a little Colorado town named Graceville ("Western slope, two hours out of Denver"). It's the last summer fling for graduating high school seniors Scarlett Oliveira, best friend Hannah, Cody Martinez (Scarlett's first love), and David Warren (her second love). 

"Scar," a physics major, turns down an offer from MIT and instead will head to Colwyn College in Watertown, Maine. David will head to Stanford. They are Graceville's finest. All the planets seem aligned.

But in physics, gravitational and other forces can set things to wobbling, a perfect metaphor for how Scarlett's orderly life is upended when she jumps with David off the Mine Gulf Bridge into the waters below. "I want to feel everything," David says. "What it's like to be that heron, or those clouds, and to jump off that bridge." After Scar's impulsive choice she and David are in each other's orbit--but orbits decay.

What follows is Scar's account of lives upended by love and death, an emotionally resonant debut YA novel by Paradise native Shana Youngdahl. Now living in Maine, she teaches writing at the University of Maine at Farmington.

"As Many Nows As I Can Get" ($17.99 in hardcover from Dial Books; also for Amazon Kindle) flits in short chapters from Scar's present (a road trip with her Colwyn College roommate Mina) to moments in the previous two years when David's magnetism was irresistible, when Cody moved on to someone else, when the past was a "now." 

"The past is not gone," Scarlett writes, "it's just not being witnessed. One flip and I'm headed out on the road with David ten months ago, another flip and I'm in this car with Mina today, another, it's eight months ago, and I'm sweating through college orientation. All these nows happening at once. And if all our nows happen at once, then death--it's just a scavenger hunt through time."

Brilliant student Scar makes life-changing mistakes, David makes a fatal one, and the story, with its electric repartee among friends and spot-on grasp of the lives of these teens, presents Scarlett with the question: Who am I in this now? The answer is not to be missed.


Thursday, September 12, 2019

"The Sound Of The Snow Geese: A True Story Of Surviving California's Deadliest Wildfire"



Dax Meredith, the pen name of a Chico State and Butte College instructor, was caught in the Camp Fire as she and one of her young sons fled towarrd Paradise from Magalia. Her harrowing story, including the aftermath with its own trauma, is told in "The Sound Of The Snow Geese: A True Story Of Surviving California's Deadliest Wildfire" ($15.99 in paperback, self-published; also for Amazon Kindle).

"I’m relatively young," she writes, "to have survived the things I’ve made it through so far. To date, these include near death from a virus and secondary infections, extensive nerve damage, long term illness, near death by wildfire, loss of home to fire, relocation, and the post fire list goes on and on." She's also a single mom, bringing up two boys called in the narrative Andy (age eleven) and Tommy (who's nine). 

On that fire morning, the author is home with a feverish Andy; Tommy is driven to school in Chico by his grandmother. A little after 8:30 her mom calls, the phone voice crackling. "Huge plume of smoke. Ugly. Maybe plan to evacuate."

Meredith walks outside. "I know immediately that something is different, something is wrong. The skies are an unnatural glow of greens and oranges, and ash is collecting like deathly snowfall on the deck, on the cars, like an ominous dusting of the destruction that has begun."

With Andy and their puppy Harley, she begins driving toward Paradise. Then traffic stops at the turnoff to Pentz.

Soon, "sparks, ash, debris, and huge demonic flames are right there behind us. They don't dance or flicker. They eat everything. ... I can't wrap my brain around it." There will come sheltering in place near the Optimo, then eventual escape. 

She is filled with emotion and yet also a confidence in God. Hardships continue afterward, but there are new starts.

Trained as a counselor, the author discusses coping techniques in the last chapter, including identifying triggers, prayer, visualization, music, and more. 

The book is a superb and heart-stopping account of the unimaginable, full of honest faith and true grit. When you are ready--read it.


Thursday, September 05, 2019

"In Search Of The Canary Tree: The Story Of A Scientist, A Cypress, And A Changing World"



"Some people call it the Alaska cedar," writes Lauren E. Oakes, who teaches Earth System Science at Stanford. "Others call it the yellow cypress. ... Alaskans use the name yellow-cedar." In remote parts of Alaska groves of yellow-cedar are on the decline. Just what is going on had not been documented until Oakes, in 2010, began a years-long research project for her doctorate. 

The book that emerged is a nuanced and poignant exploration of the impact of the dying trees. "What I didn't know then," she writes, "was that these dead trees would eventually ... give me a sense of conviction about our ability to cope with climate change. They'd motivate me to do my part. They'd move me from pessimism about the outlook of our world to optimism about all we still can do."

"In Search Of The Canary Tree: The Story Of A Scientist, A Cypress, And A Changing World" ($27 in hardcover from Basic Books; also for Amazon Kindle) has been chosen as the 2019-2020 "Book In Common" for Chico State University (csuchico.edu/bic), Butte College (butte.edu/bic), and the larger community. (Oakes is scheduled to speak at Chico State in April.)

In addition to teaching, Oakes works for the Wildlife Conservation Society. Her book presents the scientific questions she set out to answer in Alaska, such as how to distinguish the normal growth and decay cycles of a healthy forest from the threat to the yellow-cedar species itself. 

On some Alaskan archipelagos there is significant yellow-cedar dieback, but that has made room for spruce to flourish. There is grief at the loss, especially among the native Tlingit community, but that leads to questions of how the relationship with the forests will change. 

Oakes comes to realize, through dozens of interviews, that the many perspectives she finds (economic, ecological, spiritual) present a complex pattern of how those affected face the loss.

The yellow-cedar is the canary, the early warning that profound change is upon us. The species teaches "that there's simply no imaginable tomorrow ... that could ever possibly nullify the need for unwavering care and thoughtful action today."


Thursday, August 29, 2019

"Stutterer Interrupted: The Comedian Who Almost Didn't Happen"



The author's name is "Nina G.," her moniker in the Bay Area comedy circuit. Recently she presented her story to Butte College faculty and staff during the new semester convocation. Nina and husband Ethan live in Oakland; she works at a community college as a counselor for students with disabilities but is also part of a comedy troupe called The Comedians with Disabilities Act.

Though her talk at Butte College was rated PG, the story she tells in her new book is far edgier (she is no stranger to F-bombs). But it's also a poignant journey of a childhood that "took all the negative social cues and internalized them, like a box of baking soda absorbing every rotten odor in the fridge."

"Stutterer Interrupted: The Comedian Who Almost Didn't Happen" ($16.95 in paperback from She Writes Press; also for Amazon Kindle) is half autobiography, half reflection about embracing the person she is, stuttering included. But for supportive parents and counselors, Nina may have remained that "weird kid."

At sixteen she volunteered for the National Stuttering Project in San Francisco. "I was surrounded by well-adjusted adults who could speak without fluency and still lead normal lives." She resolved not to "hide behind the 'weird kid' persona. I spoke in my natural voice and started making peace with my repetitions and blocks."

Later she earned her doctorate in psychology and became "a frustrated dyslexic-stuttering academic" who found real joy in venues like the bar in San Bruno "where a fight breaks out and I have to resort to my dirtiest jokes to distract from the screaming man being dragged out in handcuffs. What other job lets you have all those experiences? To be a comedian, you have to love what you do. And I do love what I do."

There are practical chapters on how well-meaning folks who hear a report on NPR suddenly become experts on stuttering. How Howard Stern helped her find self-acceptance. How she "stopped denying myself a voice out of fear of inconveniencing others. I became upfront about my dysfluency...."

Her dream? To make "the world a more stutter-friendly and loving place." One life at a time.


Thursday, August 22, 2019

"A Gentleman In Moscow"



June 21, 1922. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, born in St. Petersburg in 1889, a man of leisure living in the Hotel Metropol in Moscow, is deemed a subversive by the Emergency Committee of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs. 

He is sentenced to spend the rest of his days in the Metropol; "make no mistake," he is told, "should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot."

What unfolds is the story of the Count's confinement over three decades in a novel so piquant and mesmerizing one doesn't want it to end. "A Gentleman In Moscow" ($17 in paperback from Penguin) is by Stanford-educated, Manhattan-based Amor Towles (amortowles.com). 

In the Metropol (an actual grand hotel near the Kremlin) the Count witnesses the development (and devolution) of Party ideals and finds he must take up residence not in his spacious suite but in an attic. And there is Nina.

"But for the virtuous who have lost their way, the Fates often provide a guide. On the island of Crete, Theseus had his Ariadne and her magical ball of thread to lead him safely from the lair of the Minotaur. Through those caverns where ghostly shadows dwell, Odysseus had his Tiresias just as Dante had his Virgil. And in the Metropol Hotel, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov had a nine-year-old girl by the name of Nina Kulikova."

Years later Nina returns to the Metropol, a married woman with a daughter, Sofia. She asks the Count to look after her as she leaves to try to find her husband, who has been arrested. Nina never returns, and the childless Count becomes an adoptive father.

The story is poignant, wry, and wise. The Count's life has ushered him into the "Confederacy of the Humbled," "a close-knit brotherhood whose members travel with no outward markings, but who know each other at a glance. For having fallen suddenly from grace, those in the Confederacy share a certain perspective. Knowing beauty, influence, fame, and privilege to be borrowed rather than bestowed, they are not easily impressed."

Does the Count escape? Suffice it to say the reader will be up at night turning pages to find out.


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 bĂȘte noire ("male-dominated Christian culture" has created a "delusional world view") and the reader must decide whether this judgment is consistent with the reality the author describes.


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.