Tuesday, March 28, 2023

"Intercept: The U.S. Navy's Intelligence-Gathering Ships ('Cold War Spy Fleet') 1961-1969, 1985-1989"

In the early 1960s an "obscure entity" called the National Security Agency wanted to broaden its collection of signals intelligence (SIGINT). In addition to using land-based cryptologists, it worked with higher ups in the Navy to take some of the old World War II ships out of mothballs and convert them into "floating collection sites."

The work of the spy ships, with the first of eleven, the USS Oxford, commissioned in 1961, would end in 1969 after violent and deadly encounters (with the exception of the USS Sphinx monitoring Sandinista government communications off Nicaragua in the late 1980s). 

The ships were virtually defenseless. In 1967, during the Six-Day War, "Israeli forces surprisingly attacked the USS Liberty off the Sinai Peninsula … killing 34 Americans and wounding 171 others." In 1968, the USS Pueblo "was forcibly captured by North Korean forces … in international waters. Eighty-two officers and men were taken as prisoners. The crew was tortured and beaten … and spent eleven months in captivity until finally released on 23 December 1968."

The stories of all the spy ships are told with care and precision by Chico writer Cdr. David Bruhn, U.S. Navy (Retired), using publicly available sources. 

"Intercept: The U.S. Navy's Intelligence-Gathering Ships ('Cold War Spy Fleet') 1961-1969, 1985-1989" ($30 in paperback from Heritage Books, heritagebooks.com), with a foreword by former Acting Under Secretary of Defense Charles L. Cragin, and a cover painting by Richard DeRosset depicting the Korean attack on the Pueblo, also contains 138 historical photographs (including one of John Wayne) along with maps and diagrams.

The Israeli attack on the USS Liberty remains controversial to this day. The evidence points to deadly misidentification, misinformation and miscommunication. The Israelis apparently believed the vessel was a warship; when aircraft attacked "tragically they either shot away the American flag or the halyards burned. The flag was gone by the second and third passes…." The USS Liberty had just four .50 caliber machine guns and some small arms, no match for the air attack and subsequent torpedoes.

Bruhn celebrates the heroism of those who served aboard the spy ships, and "Intercept" is a fitting memorial.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

"Breaking Night: A Memoir Of Forgiveness, Survival, And My Journey From Homeless To Harvard"

Breaking Night
"I envision my mother," Liz Murray writes. "The symmetry of our lives has become clearer to me lately. She was homeless at sixteen too. Ma also dropped out of school. Like me, Ma made daily decisions between hallway or park, subway or rooftop. The Bronx, for Ma, also meant wandering through dangerous streets, through neighborhoods with lampposts littered with flyers of police sketches and sirens blaring at all hours of the night."

Born in 1980 to drug addicted parents, Murray found herself on the streets after her mother died of AIDS and her father, HIV positive, moved to a men's shelter. Her harrowing childhood, the subject of a Lifetime movie, is told in the chilling and challenging "Breaking Night: A Memoir Of Forgiveness, Survival, And My Journey From Homeless To Harvard" ($26 in hardcover from Hyperion; also in paperback and ebook editions).

Murray was the scheduled keynote speaker for the Jesus Center's spring luncheon at the California Park Lakeside Pavilion, on Saturday, March 25.

As a homeless teen she bounced from friend to friend. "Sometimes we would stay out until the dark sky grew light again—what we in the Bronx called 'breaking night.'" Drugs and booze were plentiful, though, she writes, "I was repulsed by drugs and alcohol and didn't go near either of them." She remembers something her mother said as she was coming down after shooting up: "Lizzy, don't ever get high, baby. It ruined by life. You'd break my heart if you ever got high."

Something inside made her imagine other possibilities; she completed alternative high school, received a New York Times scholarship, got into Harvard after being waitlisted, and graduated in 2009. 

She realized that just as her "homeless friends were once certain that there was simply 'no way out' … homeless person or business person, doctor or teacher, whatever your background may be, the same holds true for each of us: life takes on the meaning you give it … the only time to embrace life fully is now."

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

"The Wisdom Of Hobbits: Unearthing Our Humanity At 3 Bagshot Row"

The Wisdom of Hobbits
"What is needed in life is balance," writes Chico author Matthew Distefano, "between an adventure and a home, between a quest to The Lonely Mountain or even Mordor, and a cozy hole in the ground at the end of Bagshot Row; a home where we can tend to our flower and vegetable gardens, smoke our pipe-weed, tell our tales over pints of ale, and enjoy the company of the very fine and extraordinary Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves, Men, and wizards we have in our own lives."

While Distefano doesn't supply pipe-weed or pints of ale, he does provide "The Wisdom Of Hobbits: Unearthing Our Humanity At 3 Bagshot Row" ($19.99 in paperback from Chico publisher Quoir, quoir.com; also for Amazon Kindle). It's a deep dive into J.R.R. Tolkien's legendarium with an emphasis on the halflings--who prove to be far more nuanced than portrayed in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies.

The book fleshes out life in the Shire (and other Hobbit habitats) and the nurturing of Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam who find themselves unlikely heroes. (Helpful footnotes orient readers; appendices display the author's sketches of the Shire, maps, a listing of three dozen plants grown or farmed in the Shire, and historical Hobbits.) 

"Western culture," Distefano notes, "has, by and large, fallen out of love with the simple life." The foreword, from best friend and writing collaborator Michael Machuga, puts it this way: "It seems more correct to say we work in order to make our relaxation rewarding, than to say we relax to be more productive at work."

Hobbits are tillers of the soil and spinners of tales and though they are not perfect (they are wary of strangers and even of other Hobbits), they can teach Big Folk much about the value of friendship—especially when an "adventure" awaits and, with trembling resolve, they embark on the Road. Distefano opens to readers philosophical/theological questions about free will and providence, sacrifice and loss, and living in the now.

The book is a fitting homage to Tolkien, "the greatest mythologist," and, like a Hobbit, a friendly companion for the daily messiness of life. 

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

"Help! What Is My Purpose?: Understanding Life Purpose And How To Discover Yours"

Help! What Is My Purpose?
A chance encounter with an author in Chico led a reporter to pass along news of a book about finding one's purpose. Writer Ada Anisiobi, with a pharmacology degree, found herself taking a good job that didn't match her passions. "I was a pharmacist working in the telecoms industry," well paid but bored.

Then the breakthrough. "It was only when I stood up as an instructor, training my colleagues, that I experienced some joy. I knew then, without any doubt, that I was created to impart knowledge." And that knowledge is focused on helping others find their purpose. On social media, "I heard young people crying for help, guidance and direction. One girl wrote, 'Please help me, I don't know what to do with my life.'"

"Help! What Is My Purpose?: Understanding Life Purpose And How To Discover Yours" ($13.99 in paperback from 50dot7; also for Amazon Kindle) is Anisiobi's answer. Geared for teens, the book defines life purpose and then helps readers discern their own.

For Anisiobi, "life purpose can be defined as the reason for the existence of an individual human being … the result you're expected to produce during your life." It's "pre-determined, so you don't choose it; rather, you discover what it is." Fulfilling one's purpose is "your contribution to justify the free oxygen the Earth gives you. Purpose is that chore, task, or assignment you were created to fulfill."

Work is crucial. "You ought to pursue a career that's connected to your purpose. You should select one that stirs your passion … and fills your heart with joy." Too much emphasis on prestige careers stifles one's purpose. "Within the Nigerian context," for example, "this pattern is quite common. Many parents expect their children to choose professions for financial and status reasons. They ignore their children's potential…."

Identifying one's purpose means answering a series of probing questions about what one loves or hates, one's strengths and temperament (sanguine, choleric, melancholy, phlegmatic), one's uniqueness. Education is key, and so is hard work.

In the end, she writes, "How about you discovering your purpose and letting the world pay you for it?"

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

"Heart-Land: Growing Up In The Middle Of Everything (Expanded Edition)"

Chico writer/photographer Doug Keister chronicled his kid years growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, "the middle kid, born in the middle of the country, in the middle of the century" (1948), in a fittingly titled book called "Heart-Land: Growing Up In The Middle Of Everything." 

That book came out in 2013 but there is more to tell, and so Keister's forty-sixth book is born with the all-new title of "Heart-Land: Growing Up In The Middle Of Everything (Expanded Edition)" ($12.99 in paperback, independently published; also for Amazon Kindle).

The new book brings in the chapters from the earlier tome, adds a few to round out the kid years, and then takes Keister into an emerging adulthood with little interest in academics but very great interest in dark rooms; well, photography darkrooms. What develops is funny, wry, poignant.

That section concludes with his "death-defying road trip" to California in 1968, but the book itself ends with ten short pieces: "addendums, anecdotes and associated aggrievements." 

That includes the incredible story of what happened when, in 1965, "I acquired close to three hundred 5"x7" glass negatives" from a friend, which turned out to have hundreds of images of Lincoln residents from the early twentieth century, mostly of the city's Black population. But who was the photographer? That took decades to determine, but in 2012, after an exhibition sponsored by Chico State, the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture took notice.

Keister calls himself a "word-miner," starting with teenage fascination about any "colorful word or phrase," including euphemisms, dagnabbit. Speaking of which, in the "Real Sex!!!" chapter he writes of his "first standard-issue embarrassing sex" at 21 in Berkeley. "Intoxicants were involved. In brief (and I can assure you that is precisely what it was) my experience was akin to shaking up a warm can of Coca-Cola for, let's say, about four years, and popping the top."

Now, even though he's technically a "senior citizen," "people often call me Dougie, and most days I wake up with a child-like sense of wonder…. I chalk it up to my great fortune of growing up in the middle of everything."

Tuesday, February 21, 2023


Yesika Salgado "is a Los Angeles based Salvadoran poet who writes about her family, her culture, her city, and her fat body. Salgado is a two-time National Poetry Slam finalist and the recipient of the 2020 International Latino Book Award in Poetry." 

In a presentation entitled "To The Bloom—An Evening of Poetry and Conversation," sponsored by the Butte College Diversity Committee, she will be reading from her work Thursday, February 23 from 7:00-9:00 pm at the Chico Women's Club. It's free and open to the public.

In "Hermosa" ($16.95 in paperback from Not a Cult; also for Amazon Kindle), Salgado completes a trilogy of transformational meditations begun in "Corazón" and "Tesoro." She uses free verse (with few capital letters) to chart the course, through many shoals, of becoming "hermosa" (gorgeous, with a kind of seductive flair).

In "The Trick" the poet confesses: "today I am not a writer. I am my halted Spanish and insecurities. I am fingers that know letters but not grammar. my only degree is my library card. I read someone else's words and shrink. turn into a speck of envy. … can't stop feeling like I am a cheap magician’s trick. if I move too quickly I’ll give myself away. you'll learn, I am only stacking these words together to pull myself out. I don't know how you got here. I wasn't trying to save you. all I have been doing is staying alive."

Staying alive is not always easy. In "The Almost Death," the poet writes: "did I tell you / about the time / I was dying? / about my uterus / that couldn't stop bleeding / the doctors blaming my fatness / and me agreeing / did I tell you / about the time / I couldn't get dressed / because I was more crime scene / than anything…."

There are childhood traumas and times when "love goes sour." Laments, yes, but also a self-discovery that is sometimes sexually explicit. 

In a word addressed to "my love" (the reader?), Salgado writes "I hope within these pages you are also able to find your own beauty, what calls you home, what sets you free. … in full bloom, Yesika."

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

"The Cat And The King"

The Cat and the King
Meghan Irene, co-host of the Writing On Air program on KZFR (kzfr.org) and a Camp Fire survivor living in Chico, posted on Facebook (poetmirene) about a story she wrote in 7th grade.

When the fire consumed it, she rewrote "The Cat And The King" ($22 in paperback, independently published) "with the intention of capturing the magic and meaning that I had when I was eleven years old." The story was "brought to life with original watercolor on tea-stained paper" by Steve Ferchaud, illustrator extraordinaire (who sneaked her beloved Mt. Shasta into the background).

"Long, long ago," we're told, "in the Kingdom of Starrybourne, lived a princess named Isabel Wilde. Isabel's father was the infamous King Henry Wilde III … a very greedy man. As a child, Henry longed for attention, friendship, and love. Yet, once Henry was given reign as King of Starrybourne, he cared not for empathy and goodwill."

Trees are chopped down to build castle walls, roads are cut through villages, and where "songbirds once chanted, now only the caw of a lonely raven could be heard."

Isabel, isolated in her castle, dreams of exploring "the emerald forests and cobblestone streets." Later, walking the hallways, she sees "a small cat with a tawny star on his forehead." She calls him Louie, because, why not? When Louie pounces on a strange, glowing emerald, something begins to change in her.

Louie gives her courage to venture outside the castle into the bleak countryside. "If only I could save this land," she tells Louie, "and give back to the people what my father has taken away." That's her desire, and suddenly Isabel remembers the story "about the magical wishstone of the Starrybourne forest … a mysterious gem that could make a single wish come true for whomever held the stone."

Her wish? "I wish you could be King, Louie. I know you would show me how to make this world a better place, and you would use your power to do something wonderful."

And just like that, Louie is King and the King is Louie. What happens next is the stuff of dreams, a valentine to the hope deep within each of us.