Thursday, December 29, 2005

Summing up the year in book reviews


Of the 51 books I reviewed in 2005, all but four had some north state connection, coming either from area writers or visiting guests.

Seven works by local novelists caught my attention: "Fatal Embrace" by Aris Whittier of Oroville; "Memoirs of the Messiah: A 98% True Story" by Chico's own DNA; "The Angel in Wax: A Love Story" by retired Chico State professor David Downes; "On the Bumpy Road to Heaven With the Devil in Hot Pursuit" by Michael Ramon, another retired professor, writing as "Robert Marlowe"; "SASP," children's adventure tales by Orland resident Jonathan Perez; and two from Redding writer and columnist Steve Brewer: "Bank Job" (about bank robbers) and "Boost" (about car thieves).

The interest in local history was given a boost by a long list of publications. The column paid tribute to issues of "Wagon Wheels" and "Diggin's." Chico State historian Michael J. Gillis produced a detailed account of "The Soper-Wheeler Company: A Century of Growing Trees." Durham's Adriana Farley published "Durham's World War II Honor Roll: A History of Service." Jane B. Schuldberg told the story of "Kennett" (now buried under Shasta Lake). Bob Colby and the late Lois McDonald took the reader from "Magalia to Stirling City."

In addition, Chico State historian Stephen E. Lewis published "The Ambivalent Revolution: Forging State and Nation in Chiapas, 1910-1945" and Butte College historian Dan Ostrander came out with a Chinese edition of "'Read My Lips: No New Taxes.'"

In biography and memoir, I reviewed "Spiritual Business: The Amazing and True Story of Magical Blend Magazine" by its Chico-based founder, Michael Peter Langevin; "Beyond the Public Eye: One Teacher's Journey" by longtime Las Plumas High School history teacher James Dale Shelby; "A Fish Flew Through the Porthole: A Sailing Adventure Narrated By a Very Reluctant Sailor" by Gerri Miller; "Fools Rush In: A True Story of Love, War, and Redemption" by former Chicoan Bill Carter (about U2 and the siege of Sarajevo in the mid-1990s); "Ishi in His Second World: The Untold Story of Ishi in Oroville" by Feather River College anthropologist Richard Burrill; "Bonhoeffer As Martyr: Social Responsibility and Modern Christian Commitment" by Simpson University theology professor Craig J. Slane; "Jones At War: A Sailor's Story, 1935-1956" by Los Molinos resident Roy Lee Jones; and "As I Remember: A Collection of Newspaper Columns" and "Still Remembering," both by Willows resident Shari Edwards.

For the outdoors: "Wildflowers of Table Mountain" by Samantha Mackey and Albin Bills of Butte College; "Geology Trails of Northern California" by Robin C. Johnson and Dot Lofstrom; "Reading the Trail: Exploring the Literature and Natural History of the California Crest" by University of Nevada, Reno, environmental literature instructor Corey Lee Lewis; and the sumptuous "Creative Fly Tying" by Mike Mercer of Redding.

A variety of religious perspectives: "Deceived On Purpose: The New Age Implications of the Purpose-Driven Church" by former Paradise resident Warren Smith; "Relax, You're Already Home: Everyday Taoist Habits for a Richer Life" by retired Chico State biologist Raymond Barnett (no relation); "Lucid Living: by Timothy Freke (which I found far from lucid); and "The Problem of Pain" by C. S. Lewis (the writer of the Narnia tales).

Poetry: "Confessions of the Hare and Other Old Tales" by Skyway poet Joy Harold Helsing" and "Skunk Talk" by Albert Garcia (who grew up south of Red Bluff).

Next, two Hollywood guidebooks from former Chicoan Kristin Burke: "Going Hollywood: How to Get Started, Keep Going and Not Turn Into a Sleaze" and "Costuming For Film: The Art and the Craft" by Burke and Holly Cole.

In the category of true crime: "Justice Waits: The UC Davis Sweetheart Murders" by Davis resident Joel Davis.

Humor: "Good Spousekeeping: A His and Hers Guide to Couplehood" by Dave Meurer, a field representative for Republican Congressman Wally Herger.

Computers? "The Culturally Customized Web Site: Customizing Web Sites for the Global Marketplace" by Nitish Sing (Chico State Associate Professor of Marketing) and Arun Pereira.

Photography? "Third Views, Second Sights: A Rephotographic Survey of the American West)" with contributions by Byron Wolfe, Associate Professor of Photography and Digital Imaging at Chico State.

Food? "Some Like it Hot: Dining In and Out of Chico" by "Henri Bourride."

Finally, two collections: "Under the Big Top," essays, reminiscences and poetry written by members of Hannie Voyles' senior writing class; and "Best Christian Writing 2006" by former Paradise resident John Wilson.

Read on!

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Former Paradise resident publishes new edition of 'Best Christian Writing'


It's been more than 10 years now since John Wilson began editing the bimonthly "Books and Culture: A Christian Review," published by Christianity Today, Inc. out of Chicago. The answer to the secularist New York Review of Books, Books and Culture is far less predictable in the books it reviews and the reviewers selected.

The November-December 2005 issue, for example, boasts an appreciation of Jan Karon's "Mitford" novels, an examination of Hebraic purity laws, reviews of the latest Harry Potter tome and books about polio, and an essay on mythologizing Einstein. Reviewers come from Calvin College, Yale University, Duke Divinity School, and the Christian Vegetarian Association.

Wilson's picture shows up in the 1965 "Argo," the Paradise High School yearbook. He's a junior; I was a sophomore. He went on to become, in the words of an article a few years ago in The Atlantic, a "polymath"; I went on to become someone who had to look up the word "polymath." But God's ways are past finding out and over the last few years I've been graced by being in John's company.

"The Best Christian Writing 2006" ($17.95 in paperback from Jossey-Bass), edited by Wilson, with an introduction by Wheaton College historian Mark Noll, is another grace. The 20 pieces here assembled offer spiritual reportage from the trenches, but by "spiritual" I don't mean a nebulous new-agey focus on the ethereal. I mean instead the attempt by Christians of many stripes -- Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant -- to come to grips with the call of God on their lives.

An interview with Eugene Peterson (author of "The Message" Bible paraphrase) makes this clear. Peterson tells Mark Galli, managing editor of Christianity Today, that "spirituality" defined as "becoming emotionally intimate with God" is "a naive view of spirituality. What we're talking about is the Christian life. It's following Jesus. Spirituality is no different from what we've been doing for two thousand years just by going to church and receiving the sacraments, being baptized, learning to pray, and reading Scriptures rightly. It's just ordinary stuff.

"This promise of intimacy is both right and wrong. There is an intimacy with God, but it's like any other intimacy; it's part of the fabric of your life. In marriage you don't feel intimate most of the time. Nor with a friend. Intimacy isn't primarily a mystical emotion. It's a way of life, a life of openness, honesty, a certain transparency."

Arranged by the authors' last names, the book juxtaposes the "Confessions of a Traveling Calvinist" (by Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw) with "The Persistence of the Catholic Moment" (by First Things editor Richard John Neuhaus, a former Lutheran). Canadian Gideon Strauss writes of "My Africa Problem ... and Ours" (about the contemplation of action) which abuts American Daniel Taylor's meditation on a visit to the former monastery on Skellig Michael, "a seven-hundred-foot-high pinnacle of water-and-wind-worn rock that rises like Excalibur out of the Atlantic waves off the southwest coast of Ireland" (about the action of contemplation).

The authors of the selections try to think "christianly" about their world -- about Islam; about what children are for; about those with mental illness.

Two articles confront Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." Frederica Mathewes-Green, from an Orthodox perspective, sees the bloody crucifixion in the film as a focus foreign to the New Testament Gospels. Gregory Wolfe, publisher and editor of Image: A Journal of the Arts & Religion, has a different take. "However individual and controversial and subject to criticism his rendition may be, Mel Gibson's message is nourished and shaped by his respect for an ancient tradition. And at the heart of that tradition is the belief in the unimaginable depth of God's passion for us."

This is echoed in "Brother John" by August Turak, the winner of the John Templeton Foundation's "Power of Purpose" international essay competition. The author reflects on his frequent visits to Mepkin Abbey near Charleston, S.C., and specifically on Brother John, a monk who one evening offers an umbrella to the visitor who has forgotten his own. The essay quotes a line from Pascal, as if God is speaking, and looks to the great gift that is celebrated this, and every, Christmastide:

"You would not seek Me if you had not already found Me, and you would not have found Me if I had not first found you."

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

In Chinese edition, Butte College instructor defends Bush 41's political pragmatism


In 1999 Butte College history instructor Dan Ostrander published "'Read My Lips: No New Taxes.'" The book, reviewed in this column, defended George H. W. Bush's signing of the "budget deal of 1990" which, writes the former president in his foreward, "included budget cuts and a tax increase of almost $500 billion (over five years). ... Along the way, I lost the support of many people in my own party, and also had to break my pledge of 'no new taxes' from the 1988 campaign."

Rather than see this as a failure of leadership, Ostrander celebrates the budget deal as the triumph of political pragmatism in which a leader rises above partisan commitments to do what is best for the country -- at great political risk to himself.

It was this pragmatism that earlier led Bush to become ambassador to China in the mid-1970s, living in Beijing and endeavoring to widen the opening made by Richard Nixon in his controversial trip to China in 1972.

Last month both Bush and Ostrander attended a conference in China in which the bilingual edition of Ostrander's book was unveiled. The handsome hard-bound features photographs of Bush meeting with various Chinese leaders, including Chairman Mao, Deng Xiaoping and President Hu Jintao.

With the English text on the left and the Chinese translation on the right, the book, which sells for 48 Yuan (about $6), includes a new foreward "to the Chinese people" from the former president, a foreward to the Chinese edition from economist Li Yining of Peking University, a new foreward by Ostrander, a commentary on China-United States relations by translator Su Shijun of the Beijing Institute of Graphic Communication and Ostrander's recounting of the development of political pragmatism in the Chinese government. As far as I know, the book (ISBN 7-300-06919-3) is not distributed in the United States, but, for those who read Chinese, it is listed at

President Bush writes in his new foreward that "successful world leaders throughout history have learned through experience that they often have to make pragmatic, and often unpopular, decisions that will benefit their country in the long-term."

Ostrander writes that "during my (first) visit to China in 1979 I was impressed by how well the Chinese government and its leaders had provided adequate food and clothing for almost 1 billion people. ... Certainly this was an improvement over what most of the Chinese people had experienced before Mao. What all of this meant to me was that there is not one system or one way of thinking that will meet the needs of both countries and it is a mistake to judge the choices of one country by the standards of the other. The choices of a country's leader should not be judged by ideology but by their impact upon the quality of life their leadership provides for their people as well as the impact it has upon humankind."

For Ostrander the 1990 budget agreement represents visionary leadership and flexible attitude. "China's leaders too have demonstrated pragmatic leadership. ... China's annual per capita income has risen ... from over $1,000 in 1990 to $5,806 in 2004. As China's leaders have tried to reach their 'greater goal' things have not always been easy and will not always go well as this economic transition continues. A basic principle of leadership is for the leaders to have the courage of their convictions. China's leaders need to have faith in their vision and the direction in which they are moving the country."

If there is a hero in the evolution of Chinese communism it is Deng Xiaoping, who famous said, "it doesn't matter if it is a black cat or a white cat. As long as it can catch mice, it's a good cat." Ostrander writes that "Deng's pragmatism led to China's new economic policy of a 'socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics.' ... Deng in his December 1978 speech urged the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) to focus on development and modernization and let facts, not ideology, guide the country's development." Ostrander says that "Deng's pragmatic leadership and reform policies, 1979-1994, have brought about the biggest single improvement in human welfare in history."

In his book's introductory materials Ostrander offers an intriguing glimpse into geopolitical reality, into a world in which the "American century" may well give way to the "Chinese century."

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

A first novel introduces three young sisters and their adventures in Orland


Jonathan Perez is a writer worth watching. According to an author's note, he lives in Orland with his three daughters, Suede, Alex, and Sara, and has just published a book about the fictional Piper family. James is a divorced father of three girls named, curiously enough, Suede, Alex and Sara. Together they live in a small and rather rundown house in the Orland countryside, right near the Robbins Deli and down the road a bit from the Shady Oaks trailer park, where young Nitsy Blu lives with her divorced mom.

Nitsy is something of a rival who calls Suede, Alex and Sara Piper "SASP" for short. "SASP" ($13.95 in paperback from Stansbury Publishing in Chico), illustrated by Steve Ferchaud and appropriate for pre-teens, tells two tales, "The Yellow Road" and "Honey Jar."

"Suede was 10, the oldest of the three," Perez writes. "Besides her sisters, she had two very special friends: a tattered beige bear named Colby, given to her by her mother, and a little wooden sword, given to her by Grandma Cookie (who, we are told "could do just about anything except bake cookies"). Suede was tall and thin with milky white skin and her eyes were two different shades of brown.

"Alex was 8. Being the middle child was at times difficult for her. She was too young to have the same privileges that Suede had and too old to get away with the things that Sara got away with. Her chocolate eyes matched her wavy chestnut-colored curls and dark skin. Unlike Suede and Sara, Alex referred to her dad by his first name. James didn't seem to mind.

"Sara was 6, the youngest of the three and quite the jester. To get a quick laugh, she would stick her spaghetti strand hair in the corners of her almond shaped mouth, then put two fingers under her upper lip and stretch her bottom eyelids down with the other hand. If this didn't work, she'd flare her freckled button nose and cross her eyes."

The first tale has the sisters, egged on by Nitsy, sneaking out of the house early one morning after a heavy rain to look for the legendary "yellow road," allegedly guarded by the white droll, near Stony Creek on the outskirts of Orland.

A droll? Why, part deer and part troll, of course.

The children were not growing up privileged. James made an honest living at one of the two tire shops in Orland. The roof leaked on the family's house and Suede had holes in her socks.

Nitsy fared no better. "She was wearing an old torn jacket that had a broken zipper," Perez writes. "She was using safety pins to keep the flaps of her jacket closed, but as she moved around, they would separate, letting in the coolness of the morning. Her jeans had holes in the knees and her beanie looked more like an old sock that was stretched to fit just the top of her head."

As the reader might guess, all does not go well in the quest for the yellow road, the "trail of gold." There are hijinks aplenty and the author has opportunity to talk about the various stages of fear as the children seem to encounter the stuff of legend.

The second and longer tale takes place in springtime, and Perez revels in description: "Like melting snow, the shadows of early morning dripped away with the light of a new day. In an open field, just outside of Orland, wild daisies, daffodils and orange poppies were awakening. They stretched, opened and reached for the sun's warmth with their oblique petals. Opposite the field was an almond orchard in full bloom. Like specks of pepper, droning honeybees slowly appeared on the bouquets of white and pinkish blossoms."

It's a story of "two of Fairview Elementary School's meanest bullies," Billy Jones and Mickey Stalls (whose parents refuse to believe their children could do anything wrong). Most of the action takes place at Mr. Robbins' store and in the end the sisters find they have more things in common with Nitsy Blu than they thought. Everyone learns a honey of a lesson -- even James, who comes to understand the importance of listening to his daughters.

"SASP" is an engaging escapade; I look forward to more of the Piper family adventures.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Former Chicoan's poems offer quiet and captivating glimpses of small-town life


Bear Star Press, founded in 1996 and based in Cohasset, has as its mission the publication of "the best poetry it can attract" from Western and Pacific states.

The other day, publisher Beth Spencer wrote me about Albert Garcia, who "was born in Chico and grew up on a walnut orchard just south of Red Bluff." She has just published his new book, "Skunk Talk" ($14 in paperback from which collects many of his poems previously published in anthologies and literary magazines.

Garcia, Spencer wrote, "fell in love with poetry while attending Chico State University (he was a student of Gary Thompson) and later obtained a master's degree from the University of Mon-tana. After teaching for many years at Sacramento City College, he is now dean of its Language and Literature Divi-sion. He lives with his wife, artist Terry Steinbach-Garcia (who provided the cover painting), and their three children in the small farming community of Wilton, where he tends fruit trees and a garden."

Garcia will appear at 7 p.m. Friday at Lyon Books in Chico to read from "Skunk Talk." The public is invited. If you think you don't like poetry because it's too difficult to understand, Garcia will change your mind. His conversational poetry is accessible but never trite; the words seem to flow effortlessly onto the page as they celebrate nature (figs and ficus and especially melons) and humanity (wives and children, gardeners and grandfathers).

One poem in particular, "August Morning," has pride of place in the book and, says Spencer, will be featured this coming spring by Ted Kooser, the nation's current poet laureate, in his syndicated column "American Life in Poetry."

The poem begins with sweetness.

It's ripe, the melon

by our sink. Yellow,

bee-bitten, soft, it perfumes

the house too sweetly.

It's early morning, and he poet has awakened: "What is happening in the silence / of this house?"

I wander from room to room

like a man in a museum:

wife, children, books, flowers,

melon. Such still air. Soon

the mid-morning breeze will

float in

like tepid water, then hot.

And then the poet asks, amid the smell of sweetness: "How do I start this day. ... ?"

And, one might ask, how does one continue the day? What new relationships will be established, what relationships broken? The poem that follows, "I Watch You Paint," is my favorite.

The poet watches as the artist paints a man and a woman.

I see now

the man's hand

is on her shoulder. There

is wind. Her white dress

blows tight against her body.

I want to ask you

what is happening

but it seems

the wind is in you.

And then the poet realizes the man

... has the very expression

I sometimes get when I'm


You hate that look,

but there it is

in the man's eyes, ...

I haven't spoken

for hours.

The man clearly

is losing the woman.

You've washed

a darker gray

into the sky.

Finally, you sit back

and look across the room.

Then you glance at me,

and it seems

I haven't seen you in years.

I say the painting is sad.

You say

it's not finished.

In another poem, the poet has some fun at his own expense. The title is also the first line.

The Day I Was Born

the shad were running.

On a slow green stretch of river

a man hoisted three pounds

of flapping, mouth-gaping silver

onto hot smooth rocks

the way God, I imagine, lifted

me from nothingness

and plopped me gasping

into Enloe Hospital, Chico, California. ...

I want to say something extraordinary occurred --

a cure for a disease,

the discovery of a new species.

But I've researched the date: nothing happened.

I've even made up the part

about the shad fisherman.

Sometimes one's lazy banter can carry on a bit too long.

"We're talking skunks. I say / I like the smell--not / the overbearing fog / left on a dog's snout, / but the gentle scent / they carry everywhere. // She says I'm nuts. They stink / plain and simple. She / wants more wine. ... // She won't look at me / and hums softly to herself."

The poems are wise and luscious, evoking what Garcia calls "days of ordinary wonders." Feast.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Talking turkey about podcasts -- what, where and doing one's own


Last June my wife and I headed to Grass Valley to begin a multi-state vacation. She was anticipating the impending family wedding in Idaho and so was I. Then the thought struck me, out of the blue, as we were making the long climb up from Marysville. My school needs a podcast!

As the miles flew by I realized that with a few simple pieces of equipment the dream could become a reality. Not long afterward my first campus interview was online and listed in Apple Computer's popular iTunes, the free jukebox software. Faster than you can list all the cliches I've used in these first two paragraphs, my free little podcast was ready for the world!

"Little" is the operative word here. My podcast boasts a few dozen listeners while others, like the immensely popular "This Week in Technology" (TWiT) with Leo Laporte, claim hundreds of thousands of listeners. But never mind that. Podcasting is not about reaching a large audience; it's about reaching the right audience. There's one podcast that features avant garde music from Scotland and another, called "Baking with the Bard," that is hosted by a 16-year-old chef. We're talking niche market here. But that's the beauty of podcasting. It's like radio for peculiar people. And we're all peculiar.

If the world of podcasting is fairly new to you, one of the best places to turn is to a new book from Bart G. Farkas, "Secrets of Podcasting: Audio Blogging for the Masses" ($19.99 in paperback from Peachpit Press). "In a nutshell," Farkas writes, "podcasting is a World Wide Web-based form of broadcasting that allows anyone with a computer and/or a digital media device to download and listen to content. Formed by the combination of the words iPod and broadcasting, podcasting involves the creation of 'radio' shows that are not intended to be broadcast over Marconi's invention. Indeed, these podcasts can be downloaded and enjoyed only through access to the World Wide Web." (Farkas does note later on that a few radio stations have now begun airing podcasts.)

Do you have to have an Apple iPod to listen to a podcast? Certainly not. As Farkas points out, the podcasting name is an homage to the leading MP3 player, but you don't really have to have a special music player to listen to a podcast. A computer will do. You can visit Web sites and download podcasts for later playback on your computer.

Farkas notes that podcasting really gained impetus with the development of what is called RSS, or "really simple syndication," a bit of behind-the-scenes code that enables content to be sent out on the Internet for anyone to download. The other big development is iTunes 4.9, released at the end of June, which was the first version of the software to feature a podcast directory. Way back then (five months ago) there were about 4,000 podcasts in the directory. Now there are many times that. Mac or PC users with iTunes can simply click on a podcast to subscribe, and presto! Every time a new show is released, it's automatically downloaded to the subscriber's computer. Free.

You don't even need iTunes. Farkas reviews 15 other podcast "aggregators," some free, some inexpensive, which can be quickly downloaded and installed on a computer to give the user access to the vast podcast universe. There are now dozens of podcast search directories (such as Podcast Alley), and Farkas looks at them, too. He includes interviews with various podcasters, a resource guide, and a simple glossary.

"Secrets of Podcasting" is divided into four chapters: podcasting basics, jumping in (finding podcasts and podcast players), creating a podcast (from script to finished product), and distributing the podcast (with a look at free or low-cost Web site packagers). The book's text is clearly and cleanly presented, and jargon is kept to a minimum -- though you will have to know about "Ogg Vorbis," a type of audio compression format that might one day replace the good old MP3 format. You need to learn this terminology because one day someone will ask a difficult question and you'll need to change the subject.

I should try that in my classroom. When my students ask me a toughy, I can just ask them, "But what about Ogg Vorbis?" My luck, one day I'll have a room full of podcasters. And they'll know!

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

True crime: Local connections to the 1980 UC Davis 'sweetheart murders'


Longtime Paradise resident and retired school teacher Anna Davis told me recently her nephew had just published a book reporting recent developments in the 1980 murders of UC Davis sweethearts John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves. Joel Davis grew up in Davis and is a now a Sacramento-based journalist and editor.

"Justice Waits: The UC Davis Sweetheart Murders" ($24.95 in hardcover from Callister Press) is gripping and gutsy reportage about the crimes and the subsequent missteps in the investigation and how Davis himself has become part of the story.

"A mostly forgotten mess," Davis writes. "That was the status of the Riggins-Gonsalves case when I started looking at it in the summer of 2000. Boxes upon boxes of case files gathered dust in Sonoma and Yolo courthouse basements known derisively as 'tombs' or 'dungeons'." Though David and Suellen Hunt, husband and wife, and crime partner Richard Thompson, had all been charged in the case in 1989, the lack of any DNA match led to charges against them being dropped in 1993. (Hunt, the half-brother of serial killer Gerald Gallego, had been arrested in Chico in 1981 for helping Thompson escape San Quentin.)

The parents of the murdered couple faced the prospect of never learning the identity of the killer or killers.

Davis never met Sabrina Gonsalves, and, though he had gone to junior high and high school with Riggins, did not know him well. But Davis was shocked, as were many in the area, when the two 18-year-olds, on a foggy December in 1980, were abducted and murdered. Their bodies, thrown into a ravine in a wooded area between Folsom Boulevard and Highway 50, were discovered after the Riggins family van was spotted nearby, empty of any passengers, on Dec. 22.

In 2000 Davis decided to write the story of the open case and interviewed family members and investigators. He planned to take a year, but the project stretched into five, and in the midst Davis was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

"The Davis of Dec. 20, 1980," he writes, "had a population of 36,640 and was more of an intellectual Mayberry than the hectic, more vibrant, even impersonal, university city of 65,000-plus it has become."

Riggins and Gonsalves were good kids. John's shock of red hair was well known in the community. Sabrina "was the girl you wanted to baby-sit your kids, the girl any boy would be proud to bring home to Mom. ... With her smooth Anglo-Portuguese features, trim athletic build, candy kiss brown eyes and flowing dark brown hair, Sabrina was a looker."

Riggins and Gonsalves that fateful night finished their ushering job for a children's 'Nutcracker' production and then left in Riggins' van to attend a surprise party for one of Gonsalves' sisters. They never arrived.

Gonsalves' body "suffered two deep, savage cuts that severed her jugular, and she died instantly. ... John had been beaten with five blows to the head, and his throat cut, but the knife avoided major arteries. It likely took hours to die in that soggy ravine."

But the case against Hunt and his associates could not be sustained. Astoundingly, a blanket found in Riggins' empty van -- likely a gift for the surprise party -- was never thoroughly examined until 1992 when several "obvious" semen stains were found but there was no match to members of the Hunt group. Pushed by Davis to re-examine the blanket with improved DNA testing, in 2002, "like a delayed sonic boom that took more than 21 years to strike, a DNA 'cold hit' was made on the blanket semen sample after the semen DNA was retyped and compared to DNA from a national database."

The match led to convicted child molester Richard Joseph Hirschfield. He and his brother, Joe, had grown up in Colusa County and lived in Arbuckle after the killings. Richard was arrested on Sept. 25, 2004, and, says Davis, justice waits again in the discovery process (updates are available at

The book is frankly critical of some of the investigators and Davis acknowledges that he has made more than a few people angry with his pursuit of the case. But Davis is convinced that Riggins and Gonsalves, all these years later, deserve the justice that has so far eluded them. The story he tells is harrowing, and the end is not yet in sight.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Former Chicoan produces comprehensive, practical guide to costume design for film


Imagine: "It is 7:30 a.m. on an already hot summer day. I've just pulled into the parking lot of a red brick church, in the San Fernando Valley. ... Today is the big day on the set of 'The Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human.' The costume designer is Kristin Burke. That's me. This is the day we shoot the Wedding Scene. ...

"Every principal actor and day player to hit celluloid on this shoot is going to be in this wedding scene, and everyone needs to look great. The greatest-looking of all, though, needs to be Carmen Electra, our leading lady. In the wedding scene, Carmen's character, Jenny Smith, is supposed to be nine months pregnant. Reading the script, I remember thinking, How charming, until the reality of the words 'Maternity Wedding Gown' sunk in. Who makes maternity wedding gowns? I knew that, in the interest of time, money and aesthetics, we would be building this gown."

The whole story is detailed in "Costuming for Film: The Art and the Craft" ($49.95 in oversized paperback from Silman-James Press) by Holly Cole and Kristin Burke. Cole teaches costume design at Ohio University and has worked as a costumer with the Muppets and the Metropolitan Opera. Burke, who spent some growing-up time in Chico, and who now lives in West Los Angeles, has worked as costume designer on dozens of TV shows, music videos and independent film projects, including "The Cooler," starring William H. Macy and Alec Baldwin.

Divided into 11 parts, "Costuming for Film" moves from basic principles of costume design to how costuming integrates into the sometimes heady, sometimes frustrating work of producing a movie: design development; breakdowns (where the costume designer uses the script to create lists of costume elements); prep (getting costumes made in the time allotted and within budget); shooting (including nude scenes and handling conflict); and final wrap (including wardrobe sales and re-shoots).

Two final parts deal with getting one's first job and tips for working in Los Angeles and New York. Appendices provide sample resumes, union guidelines and more, and the book is enhanced with interviews of working designers, dozens of photographs from film productions and a special color section illustrating creative design.

Why put up with this high pressure job? The authors have a ready answer: "It's a gas and a half. ... You cope with all the pressures of this field by getting into the Zen of the work. Most of all, you have to have passion. When faced with the fact that you have to style several hundred extras in short order, you embrace improvisational styling, creating characters in a matter of minutes, out of a stock of costume goodies."

And the money? "Union costume design salary minimums of $1,404 to $2,500 a week, even the lowly costume department production assistant rate, starting at $13.56 an hour, may seem enticing. But it can be startling ... how underpaid you can feel when you're working in this high risk business."

Burke and Cole add that "Film costuming -- whether you are interested in designing, supervising, shopping, working on set or building costumes -- is essentially a freelance job, and as such, getting work is all about who you know

"Still interested? To get into the costume groove, first check your ego at the door. If you want to work in this field, you must be really hungry to do it. The unions are tough to break into and job sources are often a jealously guarded secret. ... To be brutally honest, unless you have film contacts who will vouch for you, the film professionals doing the hiring care more about your stamina than your fabulous portfolio. Even with an MFA or two years of Broadway or fashion-industry experience, on a film, you can still find yourself ironing shirts and sorting dirty socks." An interview with Burke herself toward the end of the book shows her tenacity in getting work on a (horrors!) Roger Corman film; she ended up on nine of them.

For Burke, the costume is more than just window-dressing; it's about creating a character. "My job is to move people," she says. "If I can do that by creating characters visually, then I have done my job."

"Costuming for Film" is a captivating technical guide to reel life. Burke and Cole have done their jobs well.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Legendary Redding fly tier shows his artistry step-by-step in living color


I've caught a cold, but never a trout. That separates me big time from master fly tier and angler Mike Mercer of Redding.

The son of Wes and Sandy Mercer of Chico, Mike has been associated with the Fly Shop in Redding for decades, and today, in addition to fly tying, he arranges international fishing expeditions. I bumped into a fly fisherman the other evening and he used the word "legendary" to describe Mercer's flies. That seemed to confirm the sense I was getting reading Mercer's new book, "Creative Fly Tying" ($39.95 in hardback, spiral bound, from Wild River Press). Mercer writes with humility (he learns most about his flies when the fish don't bite) but his careful work at the vise is evident on every colorful page. The book will open flat for those who want to follow along and try some of Mercer's techniques.

Fly tying is a world unto itself, and a good many fly tiers don't actually fish much. Mercer does, though, and the beautiful step-by-step close-up photographs of how to tie a dozen flies are surrounded by fishing tales of Hat Creek and beyond. The publisher calls Mercer's book one of a series of "technical fly-fishing books written by today's cutting-edge experts," and that description is apt indeed.

The first chapter details the tying of a poxyback green drake mymph, and Mercer acknowledges that he has the reputation as the guy who uses epoxy -- Devcon 5-Minute Epoxy, to be exact -- in part to mimic the shiny features of the nymph. A list of materials is prominently displayed for each fly; for the green drake nymph Mercer uses pheasant tail fibers, copper wire, a turkey tail feather and a gold metal bead.

One key to Mercer's fly tying success is his belief "that fish often respond more specifically to the contrast of varying colors on a fly than they do to the colors themselves"; his color dubbing technique reflects this insight.

Mercer's focus is on how the fish sees the fly; in fact, he includes an introductory section on reading the fish -- and the water. He's convinced that presentation is more important than the choice of fly (a poor fly with just the right wiggles can catch a fish) but more important yet, he says, is "reading the water" -- figuring out where the fish are likely to be.

"Case in point: Probing the deep jade runs and riffle drops of California's McCloud River one crisp autumn day, I was surprised by a lack of bigger fish. This time of year, the resident rainbows always feed aggressively, putting on the feed bag before the cold weather sets in. In addition, huge, lake-run browns have left Shasta Lake and are scattered everywhere, ascending to their natal spawning grounds. Wading to my thighs, I had fished all of my favorite slots, using nymphal imitations of the giant orange caddisflies that were helicoptering clumsily around me. All I caught were a bunch of small fish, though, and I was beginning to lose confidence."

After lunch Mercer tries again, wading out and casually dropping his nymph "into the shallows between the bank and me. Trying to pick (it) up again, I discovered I'd hung the bottom. Berating myself for this annoying lapse of diligence, I waded up to the shallows where it was hung and commenced yanking the rod in different directions. The water explosion was so violent and unexpected it actually frightened me." The "snag" turned out to be a large rainbow trout. But why the shallows? That's where the caddisflies were "as they migrated there to emerge. A classic case of finding the fish by finding the food, despite a total lack of traditional deeper holding water."

Eventually, says Mercer, one's eye becomes trained to "register the slight nuances of hydraulics and streambed -- you unerringly see where the fish will lie. No longer do you search out only those specific water types you understand -- now you see nearly all water as holding promise. You fish with confidence and a delicious sense of anticipation."

Mercer celebrates God's grandeur with every fishing foray, even if his breakfast is "cold Pop-Tarts and Gatorade," and with each of his carefully wrought creations. "Creative Fly Tying" is the work of a master, full of expertise and good humor, from a man in love with his art.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

History of Magalia, Stirling City, Ridge ghost towns fitting tribute to Lois McDonald


Bob Colby is editor of Tales of the Paradise Ridge and co-author, with Lois McDonald, of the just-published "Magalia To Stirling City" ($19.99 in paperback from Arcadia Publishing).

In a telephone interview he expressed his admiration for McDonald, the premiere Ridge historian and former longtime editor of Tales, and his sadness at her passing.

McDonald died earlier this month at the age of 85, just as the book was being released. Her legacy includes "This Paradise We Call Home" and "Annie Bidwell: An Intimate History," a wonderful biography which deserved all the acclaim (and there was much) that came to its author.

In publicity materials for "Magalia To Stirling City," Colby says this "history through photographs" (gathered from back issues of Tales and from private collections, some never before published) is the ideal book to give to someone who wants to know the story of the upper Ridge.

With more than 200 black and white photographs - beautifully reproduced - the book (as Colby puts it) "pulls together ... information on the Butte County Railroad, the Gold Rush town of Magalia (Dogtown), Diamond Match logging operations, the mill town, Stirling City, and Ridge ghost towns."

The book is part of Arcadia Publishing's "Images of America" series. According to a news release, "Arcadia - founded in 1993 - become the largest publisher of regional history books in North America."

Each of the seven chapters of "Magalia To Stirling City" begins with a brief narrative and is followed by historic photographs (mostly from the first half of the 20th century), with detailed captions that add to the reader's appreciation. For example, the chapter on the Diamond Match Co. notes that it bought "over 69,000 acres of timber in Butte, Plumas and Tehama counties" (containing over two billion board feet) in 1901 and completed a sawmill in Stirling City (named after the Stirling Consolidated steam boilers that powered the plant) two years later. Logging began on nearby Bald Mountain in 1904 and a rare photograph shows "four Big Wheel log haulers, called 'Katydids'" pulled by horses. Diamond set up camps using "bunkhouses on skids" which were loaded onto railroad flatcars and a picture, from 1915, says that "logging camp buildings were moved this way ... well into the 1930s."

There's a 1906 picture "taken at the intersection of Laurel and Granite streets" in Stirling City, complete with a wagon drawn by four horses. In the background a sign advertises Simmens and Suggett's Clothing Store and their line of Can't Bust 'Em work clothes.

In Magalia it was mining. "The first gold seekers came in 1849 up the canyon of the west branch of the Feather River, or they followed Butte Creek and its several branches. Climbing up from the canyons, they came together in a small saddle between the streams. Here a tented trading post was erected by one man as an easier way to make money - taking it from the hungry, ill-clad miners rather than from the cold wet streams. Flour, sugar, coffee, and tobacco were hauled by mules and wagons from Marysville or farther. A sawmill or two followed. Saloons appeared, and so did more stores. ... Few women came in the early 1850s, but one miner's wife, who had insisted on coming herself and bringing a dog or two on the trip across the plains from Iowa, did not miss the glint of joy in the eye of every lonesome miner who spotted her mongrel puppies cavorting among the tent houses. Sales were brisk for Susan Bassett. As the reputation of the town grew, the name Dogtown naturally came to the miners' lips, and the name of the town was set."

No doubt Bassett was hounded. You just can't make up stories like this.

For me, the emotional center of the book was the chapter on "ghost towns and memories." Here are Nimshew, Hupp (a mill there "supplied the lumber from which the first houses in Chico were built"), Coutolenc-Lovelock, Toadtown (originally called "Towtown," say the authors, for a family's blond-headed children), Powellton, Inskip, Philbrook, and the landmark Chaparral House (constructed in 1857 "as a hotel and way station on the Oroville-Susanville Road" just up the road from Inskip).

"Magalia To Stirling City" is an evocative journey and an indispensable guide to local history.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Award-winning science-fiction author to speak in Chico on global warming


Kim Stanley Robinson has written a series of novels of the near future, meshing hard science with ecological speculation, and has won a shelf full of Hugo and Nebula awards for his efforts.

His Mars trilogy is a multi-generational saga of the colonizing -- and terraforming -- of the red planet; "Antarctica" is an exploration of the political and environmental future of the South Pole.

Now, with "Forty Signs of Rain" ($7.99 in paperback from Bantam), Robinson begins a new trilogy in which political inaction and scientific cowardice reap the whirlwind. Washington, D.C., is flooded and then (in the second volume, "Fifty Degrees Below," to be published next month) frozen. With descriptions eerily reminiscent of the inundation of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities, "Forty Signs of Rain" reads more like recent history than science fiction.

Robinson will discuss his work, and his views on global warming, in a free presentation at Chico State University's Laxson Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Sponsored by Chico State Office of the Provost, Robinson's lecture is open to the public but a ticket is required from the University Box Office, located on the corner of Second and Normal streets.

The driving force of "Forty Signs" is the claim that there is an ecological "tipping point" in which cumulative changes in the oceans and the atmosphere can alter the earth's climate -- in as little as three years.

Robinson's novel is purposely prosaic, with long stretches recounting the happy home life of National Science Foundation statistician Anna Quibler (an appropriate name for someone in her line of work) and her husband Charlie, an environmental advisor to Democratic Senator Phil Chase. Charlie is a telecommuter who cares for young sons Nick and Joe while Anna works at NSF headquarters in Arlington, Va., vetting grant applications from researchers.

Her co-worker, Frank Vanderwal, single, on loan from UC San Diego, had helped found a biotech startup in that city. Frank's interest in Torrey Pines Generique was now in a blind trust, but there are hints that a hotshot biomathematician employed by Torrey Pines has developed a statistical way to increase the likelihood that bioengineered proteins might be more readily accepted by the body. Frank realizes that a patent on such a method might mean a windfall for the company, and part of the novel deals with Frank's efforts to deny NSF funding for the mathematician's proposal (which would have meant public access to his findings).

For the longest time I couldn't figure out how the medical research conducted by Torrey Pines connected with global warming, but there are hints in the book (maybe this is a spoiler) that the technique might be applied to plant materials to enable them to better absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thus lessening the impact of greenhouse gasses.

All of this is more than theoretical. The story focuses on the political fortunes of a group of pizza-loving Buddhists representing the small island nation Khembalung, which is flooded more and more often. Befriended by Anna and Charlie, they attempt to persuade Senator Chase to push harder on environmental legislation.

Frank, the cynical worshiper of reason, is changed by the Buddhist emphasis on compassion (as well as by an encounter with a mysterious and desirable woman in a stuck elevator). "The truth is," he tells his colleagues near the end of the first volume, "we have enough data already. The world's climate has already changed. The Arctic Ocean ice pack breakup has flooded the surface of the North Atlantic with fresh water, and the most recent data indicate that that has stopped the surface water from sinking, and stalled the circulation of the big Atlantic current. ... Scientists should take a stand and become part of the political decision-making process."

That may not happen; the Republican president's science adviser is, thinks Charlie, "a pompous ex-academic of the worst kind, hauled out of the depths of a second-rate conservative think tank when the administration's first science advisor had been sent packing for saying that global warming might be real and not only that, amenable to human mitigations. ... Easier to destroy the world than to change capitalism even one little bit."

Then it rains, with flooding, rescue boats, hints of looters. D.C. survives. But, says Robinson, the tide has most definitely turned.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Redding novelist serves up tale of bank robbery, stupid crooks and cagey seniors


Vince Doman was a serial bank robber. Eventually caught, he did his time in Soledad but couldn't stand his parole officer. So he disappeared with his wife, Maria, a prison nurse he had met while in the stir. Vince, now 72, settles down to a life of retirement near Old Shasta, not far from Redding.

He promised Maria he would go straight. And, writes Redding novelist Steve Brewer in "Bank Job" ($24 in hardcover from Intrigue Press), "he'd stuck to his word for more than 5 years now. Never so much as a parking ticket. But the system never forgot. ... Vince Doman had violated his parole, which meant he was supposed to go back to prison for the rest of his original sentence. Fifteen more years, which would be a life sentence for a man his age. Vince would do anything to prevent that."

Enter a trio of ne'er-do-wells, Leon Daggett and his brother Junior, and Roy Wade, a violent time-bomb of a man who, we're told, "was terminally stupid, but he projected absolute certainty about absolutely everything." They were on a crime spree, "roaring around rural California in Leon's sleek black car, knocking over gas stations and convenience stories for small change. Swilling Buds and smoking Marlboros and whistling at passing women." As Junior observes, "it was like a typical redneck Saturday night in Bakersfield."

Zooming north in his Trans Am to unfamiliar territory, Leon and company decide to make a beer run at Shasta Liquors. And why pay when you can send in Junior, the shaky-legged amateur, for some easy pickin's? But Junior didn't figure on the owners, the Bingham sisters, who brain Junior with a fifth of whiskey when he bobbles his stick-up announcement in a hilarious but unprintable spoonerism.

Managing to escape, Junior and the other two hightail it up the road between Old Shasta and Redding, and, as luck would have it, pull into a certain driveway and take the old couple there hostage. Maria volunteers (at gunpoint) to pick the glass out of Junior's head and bandage him up. Vince, meantime, sizes up the intruders, Roy especially. "The sides and back of his head were shaved and tanned. The dark strip of hair on top was short and slicked straight back. The hairstyle was like a billboard saying, 'Moron.' But Vince recognized something in the hard glitter of the man's eyes and amended the assessment: 'Dangerous moron'."

Hoping to get some traction, Vince brags about his past, laying it on pretty thick. The trio's little brains begin to formulate a plan for the big time -- meaning banks instead of liquor stores. And guess who, under threat Maria's death, gets to do the dirty work? And guess who still has his bank robbing equipment stowed away?

Meantime, Shasta County Sheriff's Deputy Debra Kemp tends to Shasta Liquors. She finds the Bingham sisters a handful (they play the tape of Junior over and over and talk of stardom) and dreams of how she can make a name for herself and get promoted to detective. She tries to track down the getaway vehicle and, relying on instinct and a few clues (like blood all over the walkway from Junior's wound), rolls into Vince and Maria's driveway. Oh, oh: What's a reformed bank robber who is about to do it again to do? Kemp gets a cock-and-bull story from the kindly couple and Kemp leaves almost satisfied. But not quite.

Brewer puts the plot into motion and 50 short chapters and a truckload of expletives later the book comes to a satisfying conclusion. "Bank Job" (it might have been called "Nose Job" given what happens to the trio) is a made-for-TV shoot-'em-up with the north state an integral backdrop. As Kemp wonders where the injured liquor store crook might have landed, she muses: "No place to hide in the village of Shasta. More a tourist stop for history buffs than a real town, it was called 'Old Shasta' by the locals to distinguish it from all the other Shastas in the area -- Lake Shasta, Shasta Dam, Shasta County, Shasta College, Shasta Lake City, the village of Mount Shasta and the daddy of 'em all, Mount Shasta itself, a snow-covered, 14,000-foot peak, which on clear days floated above the northern mountains like an iceberg."

Buy the book. You'll enjoy the withdrawal pains.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Book signing scheduled for Willows columnist


In 1996 Willows resident Shari Edwards, after a 40-year absence, returned to her hometown to care for her ailing father. Her column of reminiscences began a year later, running in the Tri-County Newspapers until budget cutbacks ended it in 2001. Those columns were collected as "As I Remember" ($22.95 in paperback from iUniverse), which I reviewed favorably last July.

Heartbroken at being a writer without a home, Edwards found a new champion in the form of Sacramento Valley Mirror publisher Tim Crews, who allowed her to continue "As I Remember" until August 27, 2003, when "my column abruptly disappeared from the pages of yet another newspaper because of economics, cutting short my column writing life. I was saddened that I had not been able to write a farewell to all my wonderful readers."

That has now been rectified with the publication of a second collection, "Still Remembering ..." ($16.95 in paper, also from iUniverse). In it, Edwards is able to publish not only all the columns from her days with the Mirror, but to add four more, tributes to her husband, Ted, who died of cancer in December 2002, and to her father, Alan Fisk, who died a month later. "My father," she writes, "was born in a small cabin in a little area above Redding, now known as Lamoine. It was 1908. He was the first child of a Wintu woman and a train engineer."

In her evocative reflection on her late husband, Edwards writes that "now, it has been two years since my sweet Ted passed on to a more comfortable place, leaving me to find my way out of the wilderness. The road has been long, dark and full of detours. For a time, I wrote furiously believing that words would lead me to safety and comfort. They did not! I roamed empty rooms only to find the ghosts of residence past, all assuring me that being alone would be O.K. It was not! ... It had taken two years for those grief monsters to climb from the depth of the prison I banished them to ... and still I thought, I'll cry tomorrow. It has taken a family and many friends to put this humpty-dumpty girl back together again. ... Now I have to learn how to reach for the hand of God."

And then this: "My vision of Ted is starting to fade. Sometimes he stands only in shadow. Sometimes I cannot see him at all. I'm losing him. He appears to me far away, tall and mysterious as the first time I saw him across that room long ago." During that time, Shari was given a Cabbage Patch doll by her daughter and granddaughter, one with Ted's birthday. "When that doll was placed in my arms, my heart suddenly burst into flames. An uncontrollable wildfire raged. Only a huge flood of tears could put it out."

Edwards will be doing several book signings in Willows this weekend during the Willows school reunion of the 10 classes from 1950-1959. Books will be available Friday night at the Elks Lodge, 150 S. Shasta in Willows, and at a dinner Saturday night at St. Monica's Parish Hall, 1129 Wood Street. The "official" signing event will take place from 10 a.m.-noon Saturday at the Willows Christian Church Fellowship Hall, 200 S. Plumas Street, featuring a '50s "Jeopardy" game which comes complete, she says, with "set and all."

Among the dozens of columns included in "Still Remembering..." are pieces about local schools and businesses as well as remembrances of the Red Hat Society and a Fourth of July celebration in Orland. Edwards interviews locals but also ties the oral history together with diligent library research. There's the story of the old Beacon Cafe, where Shirley Shumin explains that "when her grandfather, Les Sims, arrived in Willows in 1946" he purchased the little restaurant that "served breakfast, lunch and dinner and coffee was a dime. Shirley mentioned it was later raised to a quarter with all the refills you wanted. She laughed when she said, 'We never made any money on coffee'."

By turns moving, wistful and humorous, Edwards' columns invite the reader to pour their own cup of coffee and set a spell. The conversation is not to be missed.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

"Book in Common" author to visit Chico State


Mark Salzman, author of "Lying Awake," one of my favorite recent novels, will speak at Laxson Auditorium on the Chico State University campus at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 11.

The talk, which is free and open to the public, will center around his work of non-fiction titled "True Notebooks" ($24 in hardcover from Knopf), selected as this year's "Book in Common" at the university.

A free ticket is required for admission and can be picked up at the University Box Office, located on the corner of Second and Normal streets.

According to a news release, "The Book in Common at Chico State is the book required to have been read by all entering freshman students. ... The common freshman reading is designed to engage each student in considering and thinking about cultural diversity, immigration, (and) social service institutions."

Salzman began teaching a writing class at Central Juvenile Hall in East Los Angeles after visiting a similar class there in the summer of 1997. At the time, Salzman writes, he was stuck in his writing of "Lying Awake." He wanted to include a juvenile delinquent in the story and hadn't a clue how to do it.

So a friend of his, Duane Noriyuki, a Los Angeles Times writer, invited Salzman to sit in on his course at Central, "in a unit reserved for HROs, or high-risk offenders -- they were, as one law enforcement official put it, 'the cream of the crud.' Most of the HROs at Central were charged with murder, rape or armed robbery, and were declared unfit to be tried as juveniles, meaning that their cases had been shifted to adult court. No Youth Author-ity camps or guaranteed release at age 25 for members of this group; if convicted, they received adult-length sentences and went straight to prison."

Salzman was reluctant to visit but then he met Sister Janet Harris. The nun "was nearly 70 years old but looked two or three decades younger. ... Sister Janet explained that she'd been Catholic chaplain at the hall for years, but the increasingly punitive trend in the juvenile justice system made her feel that ministry was not enough"; she helped form the new "Inside Out Writers" program which, said Sister Janet, gives "these young people a chance to express themselves, and feel that someone is listening."

Soon Salzman has started his own writing class in the K/L Wing. Meeting twice a week for an hour, at first the group is small: Kevin, Patrick, Jimmy and Francisco. Salzman would quietly suggest topics and the group would write for half an hour and then read their essays aloud. One student asks Salzman whether cuss words were OK in class; indeed they were, and "True Notebooks" pulls no punches in reconstructing the conversations in the class and presenting the students' actual writing. Over the months more boys arrived. Some left for prison, never to be seen again.

"My students were violent criminals," Salzman writes, "but I no longer thought of them as bad people. In fact, I felt almost no curiosity at all about what they had done to get arrested; all I cared about was what they wrote and what happened during our meetings. Was that healthy? Was it fair?" Much later he writes that "my primary goal with the boys at K/L had never been to save them or improve them or even to get them to take responsibility for their crimes. I was there because they responded to encouragement and they wrote honestly; surely that sort of interaction between teacher and student has value, even if it does not lead to success beyond the classroom."

The student writing is heartbreaking.

Verbally inarticulate, Dale wrote: "Deep down inside, this angry person awakens. Another day facing perpetual incarceration behind no mercy walls, as we are inmates."

Duc wrote: "Because of my friends, my parents are suffering. Because of my friends, I joined a gang. Because of my friends, I shot someone. Because of my friends, I was sentenced to 20 years. ... I write this poem to apologize to my parents. I write this poem to apologize to the victim. I write this poem to criticize my friends. I write this poem to ask for fairness." It was titled, "This is My Life."

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Noted scholar of emotions to visit Chico State


Martha Nussbaum begins with her mother's death in 1992.

In Ireland to deliver a series of lectures on emotions, Nussbaum learned a routine operation her mother had undergone had had life-threatening complications. "This news," she writes in "Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions" ($27.99 in paper from Cambridge University Press), "felt like a nail suddenly driven into my stomach."

A transatlantic flight took her to Philadelphia, where hospital staff told her she had arrived 20 minutes too late. "In the weeks that followed," she says, "I had periods of agonized weeping; whole days of crushing fatigue; nightmares in which I felt altogether unprotected and alone. ... I felt, again, anger -- at the doctors for letting a routine operation lead to catastrophe, although I had no reason to suspect malpractice; at people who phoned on business as if everything were normal, even though I knew they had no way of knowing otherwise. ... Above all, I felt anger at myself for not being with her on account of my busy career. ..."

Is the intense emotion of grief merely something that comes over us, like a storm surge, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, only to diminish with the passing of time as the emotional waters drain from us? Or can emotions be in some sense "reasonable," are they in fact in some way connected with our very reasoning process itself?

Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, will discuss the nature of emotions, and specifically political emotions, in a free public lecture at Chico State University tonight at 7:30 at Ayers 106. The presentation, sponsored by the university's School of the Arts, is one in a series of lectures by distinguished presidential scholars. Nussbaum will speak on "Radical Evil in the Lockean State: The Neglect of Political Emotions" which will address, according to a news release, "possible solutions to the problem of intolerance, religious or otherwise, in democratic liberal societies."

Nussbaum will also appear at 9 p.m. Saturday in PAC 134 on campus, to give the keynote address for the Society for Women in Philosophy conference.

Nussbaum is the author of a dozen substantial books including "Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame and the Law" and "The Fragility of Goodness." When Simon Blackburn reviewed the book in The New Republic, he said Nussbaum "is among America's most prolific and prominent public intellectuals. ... She has worked extensively on education, on development in the Third World, on law, on homosexuality, and above all on the injustices of gender ... she is a dedicated opponent of all that is glitzy and trashy in modern culture."

Emotions are, says Nussbaum, distinct from appetites like hunger or thirst and from feelings of being down or being irritated, which she calls "objectless moods." Emotions, by contrast, do have objects -- her grief was about her mother, her anger about the doctors. But more than just "about" -- emotions express the way we see things and even involve beliefs about those objects, beliefs that characterize their objects with some kind of value or significance.

Nussbaum has taken lessons on emotions from Aristotle (who taught that emotions could be proper or fitting in a given situation) and, most notably, from the ancient Greek Stoics, who believed emotions did indeed express a kind of thinking but who then condemned all emotions as excessive. The author rejects the Stoic condemnation of emotions but keeps the idea that emotions do express value judgments. (I am angry at the various seemingly feeble early governmental responses to the poorest victims of Hurricane Katrina; my anger is a judgment that something is morally amiss.)

Throughout the book, the intellectual adversary is a philosophical tradition that characterizes emotions as purely irrational. Nussbaum is convinced emotions not only can be reasonable but can in fact be true or false. Societies can properly use education to train emotions since emotions are amenable to reason. She finds compassion a good thing (capable of extending beyond one's familiar circle), while disgust (at sexual or religious orientations not our own; or at criminal behavior) is not so helpful.

"Upheavals of Thought," though technical in places, offers a grand opportunity for the interested reader to see how the music of Mahler and the writing of Augustine, Proust, Joyce and Walt Whitman all illuminate Nusbaum's thesis. Though I have profound disagreements with some of what Nussbaum has to say, her book is indispensable in opening up emotions to thoughtful consideration.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Chico State historian on the Chiapas legacy


Stephen E. Lewis, a member of the Chico State University history faculty, will speak Friday afternoon about his new book on the Mexican state of Chiapas, beset by poverty and ethnic unrest and, since 1994 (when Mexico became part of the North American Free Trade Agreement) the Zapatista rebellion.

Lewis' talk is scheduled for 3 p.m. in Trinity Hall on the university campus.

Lewis' book is "The Ambivalent Revolution: Forging State and Nation in Chiapas, 1910-1945" ($24.95 in paperback from the University of New Mexico Press), and it attempts to answer a question few historians have explored: "Why did Mexico's most significant rebellion in decades take root and grow in indigenous Chiapas?" The answer, he affirms, lies in the little-explored history of Chiapas in postrevolutionary Mexico (from 1910 onward). Chiapan archives have been neglected, he writes, but once the story is pieced together what emerges is a vastly complex interaction between Chiapas and Mexico, and, within Chiapas, among the ladino (non-Indian) population and their attempts to exploit the highland Indians -- the Tzotzil and Tzeltal Maya.

In order to make sense of the story, Lewis focuses his research on the ever-changing role of "the federal government's most important state- and nation-building institution ... the Ministry of Public Education (SEP), created in 1921." As the author reports, "The SEP and its teachers tried to modernize and 'nationalize' Chiapas and introduce important federal reforms against a backdrop of grinding rural poverty, inadequate infrastructure, a fiercely independent rancher and planter class, and an ethnically diverse population that vacillated between indifference and open hostility."

Though at times influential, the SEP's "radical pedagogy" ultimately remained powerless to transform Chiapas into an extension of whatever Mexican government happened to be in place at the time. Advocates of centralized government, Mexican presidents tended to have little lasting influence there.

SEP-sponsored nationalism, Lewis writes, tried to use the Emiliano Zapata legacy to its own ends. He appeared in SEP texts in the 1930s "stripped of his drinking, his gambling, his womanizing" and was portrayed, as one historian put it, as "an immaculate symbol of the emancipation of the rural masses." Years later, however, the government itself would be challenged by those claiming loyalty to that very vision.

Lewis writes that "the SEP's nation-building campaign in the 1930s involved an ambitious, quixotic attempt to forge the hearts, minds and bodies of the new Mexican. It first attacked the foundations of Mexico's 'traditional' culture based on Catholicism and rural paternalism. In its place the SEP fought to create a modern, secular, sober culture that emphasized civil and national duty. Teachers and the school were to replace the priest and the church, and an interventionist federal government was to replace the patron (boss)." There were mixed results in Chiapas, though Lewis notes that this "cultural nationalism" did help those in rural areas imagine what it might be like to be part of the larger Mexican state.

Even the progressive Lazaro Cardenas, who instituted land reform in Chiapas in 1939 with the help of the federal teachers, who were engaged in agrarian reform and worker unionization, found that "the institutions of the Mexican revolution that preserved the social and political peace elsewhere in the country either did not have the opportunity to develop in Chiapas or were so thoroughly corrupted that they exacerbated problems instead of solving them. After 1940," Lewis writes, "the state that had been part of Guatemala until 1822 would follow a distinctly Central American pattern of political, economic, and social development, culminating in guerrilla insurgency."

The Zapatistas of the 1990s came about, Lewis concludes, because "the grievances that produced the insurrection" (especially issues of land control, not unique to Chiapas) could not be addressed by failing and corrupt local governmental institutions. "Schooling in the highlands remained ineffective and culturally insensitive"; settlers in other areas had none at all. But because the Mexican state had adopted "neoliberal economic policies" and abandoned "revolutionary nationalism," the rebels in Chiapas adopted the earlier socialist vision of the SEP schools and "not only upset the political order in Chiapas and Mexico and grabbed international headlines, but ... forced Mexican society to conceptualize a multiethnic nation."

But, Lewis adds, even the Zapatistas likely will be "unable to reverse centuries of marginalization, exploitation, institutionalized racism and scarcity in Chiapas."

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Los Molinos resident remembers time of war in the Pacific theater


"Jones At War: A Sailor's Story, 1935-1956" is about a man who seemed, Forrest Gump-like, coincidentally to be at some of the most important crossroads in 20th-century history. These are the reminiscences of Los Molinos resident Roy Lee Jones, now 88, lovingly edited by Roy Helsing of Magalia, whose wife, Joy Harold Helsing, is one of the "Skyway poets."

In an e-mail, Joy writes that "When my husband met Jones he was fascinated by the tales he told, from pulling bodies and survivors from the water at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 to the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa to the A-bomb tests at Bikini Atoll to the Inchon invasion in the Korean War. Not wanting these stories to be lost, my Roy conducted a series of taped interviews with Roy Jones, edited them slightly, and added historical information and photographs to put the tales in context."

The book is published by Jones' wife, Patricia, through her own PWJ Publishing. The large-size paperback is available, for $12, plus $3 shipping and handling, from

According to an editor's note from Roy Helsing, Jones wrote a memoir in 1997, entitled "The First Eighty Years," in which his "all too brief descriptions of his experiences in the Navy in World War II just begged to be expanded because they were based on 'being there'."

Jones was born in 1917 in Clayville, Chesterfield County, Va., and joined the Navy in 1935. Helsing, in the foreword, writes that Jones "was the prototypical sailor -- farm bred and raised -- with no knowledge of the bounding main. He joined the Navy during the Great Depression and rose from the lowest rank to become an officer (Lt. Jg.)."

Jones writes that he led a strike in his junior year at high school. Rather than close the school so everyone could attend the track meet with the school's biggest rival, the superintendent that year allowed only participants to leave class. Jones was miffed and helped stage a student walkout for a couple of hours. When the superintendent asked strike leaders to come to his office for a little talk, only Jones showed. The superintendent "thanked me for being man enough to admit my mistake. No disciplinary action was taken against me. ... In 35 years of supervisory and management jobs I used the same principle. If an employee made a mistake, acknowledged and took responsibility for it, I never took any further action."

Graduation from high school in the Depression era left Jones with no job and no money and, since "student loans and free junior colleges had not been invented then," he signed up with the Navy. Assigned to the submarine tender Canopus, which patrolled near Guam and the Philippines, Jones includes a memento of his transformation from "crawling, sniveling Pollywog" to "Shellback" by virtue of crossing the equator. It was important to pay respects to King Neptune and, says Jones, while the initiation is not "brutal," it "may be boisterous."

The heart of Jones' reminiscence comes in 1941. After reenlisting in August of that year, in October he "boarded the USS Oklahoma, a battleship, for transportation to Submarine Squadron Four at Pearl Harbor for eventual assignment to submarine USS Cuttlefish, which was en route from Connecticut. We arrived at the submarine base at Pearl 31 October 1941. The Oklahoma went on to take its place on 'Battleship Row'."

As Jones recounts, "I had weekend leave Saturday and Sunday, 6 and 7 December. There was a radio ... and we heard that the Japanese were attacking and all hell had broken loose. It must have taken me 25 seconds to get into my clothes and start down to the bus stop." Driven to Pearl by a Japanese civilian worker, Jones "took a temporary job on a tugboat, picking up people from the water -- survivors and bodies. We went past the USS Oklahoma twice. She was sunk. They later raised her and tried to tow her to the States, but she was lost at sea. I had friends on the Oklahoma. Some made it. Some didn't. That's the way it was."

The book includes almost two dozen black-and-white photographs, some from Jones' personal collection, and is a fitting tribute to a member of the "greatest generation" who saw so much and did so much, all in a day's work.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Chico novelist -- Intrigue and terrorism in France and beyond


Retired Chico State University Professor Michael Ramon, writing under the name of "Robert Marlowe," has produced a fast-paced political thriller with the ungainly title of "On the Bumpy Road to Heaven With the Devil in Hot Pursuit: A Novel of Love, Persecution, Fanatics, Good Samaritans, and Hope" ($17.95 in paper from Infinity Publishing at

It's the love story of beautiful Princess Yasmine Omar, half French and half Arab, "the favorite granddaughter of the King of Omar," and Joshua Wiesel, the stepson "of the next Prime Minister of Israel." Joshua works as a translator for the Israeli secret service but meets Yasmine in the school they are attending in Paris and falls madly in love. Though the couple just wants to be left alone, their attraction for one another causes an international crisis.

Joshua and Yasmine come under the sway of Professor Leon Carnot, Yasmine's world-renowned philosophy instructor. Carnot preaches "peace, understanding, and tolerance" and he is portrayed in the novel as a modern-day Socrates, accused by his Jewish, Christian and Muslim students of being an atheist. His teachings are deeply influential in the couple's lives, holding the pair together as both Arab and Jewish interests offer huge rewards for the capture of Yasmine and Joshua, the latter (falsely) accused of killing several of Yasmine's guards and kidnaping the princess.

At one point, sipping hot chocolate, Joshua tells Yasmine that "they have no right to tell us whom to love or to marry. That's strictly between us and God. ... We pass through this life only once, and we should do it our way, not theirs. I'll fight them until we're happily married. That I promise you on what I hold most sacred." For Joshua, it's all about being "free to create your own future," as Carnot had taught.

Later, asked how he might "stop the hatred and carnage in Palestine" Joshua responds idealistically: "By making both sides realize that if things stay as they are, hatred will lead to more war, misery and suffering, and that will lead to more hatred. ... I'm just a young liberal Jew who's proud of his ancestry and heritage, but who doesn't want to repeat the mistakes of the past. I know what thousands of years of oppression and the Nazis did to my people, and I refuse to do the same to the Palestinians. I want to live and let live."

Perhaps the most dangerous opponent the couple faces is Karim Kassim, a billionaire Arab businessman who is really the director of the Paris-based cell of al-Qaida. Later in the story, Chief Inspector Picard muses with reporter Rick Sorel (who is contributing pieces on the couple to the Paris Gazette) about the terrorists. "They've been radicalized by a group of Islamic demagogues who want to gain political power by using them as cannon fodder," Picard says. "If they were educated, they would interpret true Islam as a religion of love, forgiveness, and compassion, but they aren't. ... They're ignorant, superstitious and easily deceived."

That provokes a response in Sorel: "You know, we have the same problem in Christian America. Millions of fundamentalists have been brainwashed by TV evangelists into believing that if they support the violent policies of Jewish warmongers, they'll bring about Armageddon, the second coming of Christ and the kingdom of God!"

Marlowe's writing style was distracting for me. Characters talk in cliches and seem to be either very good or very evil and, most disturbingly, are little affected by the carnage around them, escaping near death one moment and worried about lunch the next. It's the same feeling I used to get watching "Murder, She Wrote."

The plot itself is what kept me turning the pages, and it gets very complicated. Joshua and Yasmine are befriended by Sorel and Andree de la Roche, a female reporter also working for the Gazette; Moses Bloom, an arms dealer with a good-as-gold heart whom Joshua calls "uncle"; and quite a few other characters including detectives and editors. The bodies of their friends begin to pile up, and Rick and Andree are almost strangled to death ("this isn't a romance novel, you know," he says), but in some sense Carnot's philosophy triumphs in the end amid a wealth of political deal making. Better that, Marlowe might say, than shooting at each other.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Revisiting C.S. Lewis -- If God is good and all powerful, why do we suffer?


Back in 1979, when I first read C.S. Lewis' "The Problem of Pain," the paperback was published by Macmillan and sold for just $1.25. Today there are a number of softcover editions; a popular one, sold by HarperSanFrancisco, is $10.95. Just recently I've reread the book (my old paperback has crinkled with age, but then so have I) and can heartily recommend it as a cogent -- and surprising -- defense of Christianity.

Lewis' specific focus is the so-called "problem of evil": If God is good and all powerful, why is there pain? Wouldn't such a God eliminate it? So if pain is real -- and it is -- maybe God is not.

Lewis' defense is surprising because rather than arguing that God exists because of some supposed order of the universe, he acknowledges that the world of nature is decidedly ambiguous -- or even downright hostile -- to any such "proof." His book begins with a litany of misery: Pain in nature, pain in human relationships, the death of civilizations.

In his days as an atheist this was Lewis' own argument against a "wise and good Creator." Now, looking back, Lewis realizes that "the spectacle of the universe as revealed by experience can never have been the ground of religion: It must always have been something in spite of which religion, acquired from a different source, was held." In other words, no great religion has ever made, in its beginning, "an inference from the course of events in this world to the goodness and wisdom of the Creator."

That's a bit startling in our own time, especially with proponents of what is called Intelligent Design, such as William Dembski, maintaining that the natural world shows evidence of a Designer, and evolutionary biologists, such as Richard Dawkins, arguing that random changes over time mimic "design" and that therefore there is no Designer. Lewis would say both are off track.

Instead, Lewis traces the origin of religion to other factors: the numinous (the sense of awe at "something more" in the universe than just the material); morality; and, especially in Judaism, the revelation that the "something more" was also the guardian of morality, the "righteous Lord."

Finally, there is the historical Jesus, who "claimed to be, or to be the son of, or to be 'one with,' the Something which is at once the awful haunter of nature and the giver of the moral law. ... Only two views of this man are possible. Either he was a raving lunatic of an unusually abominable type, or else He was, and is, precisely what He said. There is no middle way. If the records make the first hypothesis unacceptable, you must submit to the second. And if you do that, all else that is claimed by Christians becomes credible -- that this Man, having been killed, was yet alive, and that His death, in some manner incomprehensible to human thought, has effected a real change in our relations to the 'awful' and 'righteous' Lord, and a change in our favour."

For Lewis the bottom line is this: "Christianity ... is not a system into which we have to fit the awkward fact of pain: It is itself one of the awkward facts which have to be fitted into any system we make. In a sense, it creates, rather than solves, the problem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving."

Lewis goes on to consider hell ("that fierce imprisonment in the self" in which the doors are "locked on the inside") and heaven. His vision of heaven -- "All that you are, sins apart, is destined, if you will let God have His good way, to utter satisfaction" -- is one of the most extraordinary descriptions I've ever read.

"The world," he writes, "is a dance in which good, descending from God, is disturbed by evil arising from the creatures, and the resulting conflict is resolved by God's own assumption of the suffering nature which evil produces." In Christ's own suffering lies our redemption. In his resurrection lies the certainty that "every tear shall be wiped away." And we shall be fully ourselves at last.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

A God-haunted novel from retired Chico State professor, David A. Downes


Just a few moments ago, as I write this, I pulled an aging binder from a bookshelf and gazed once again at notes I had taken for a memorable course in "Great Books" at Chico State University.

The year was 1978 and I, yet a whelp, sat under the tutelage of one David Anthony Downes, professor of English literature. Nothing had prepared me for his intense love of the works we studied that semester, from Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" to Eliot's "The Waste Land." Though he must have taught them often before, I remember his passion for each work, his evident joy in exposition. I wanted to be a teacher like that.

Downes is also an acknowledged expert on the great Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. From an Anglican family he became a Roman Catholic priest; his poetry never reached the wider world until after his death and he felt himself a failure. One of his sonnets begins: "To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life / Among strangers." Downes has published scholarly works on Hopkins and today Downes' papers, from 1951-1996, reside in the Gerard Manley Hopkins collection at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash.

Now retired, Downes has taken to writing novels under the name of "David Anton." His latest, "The Angel In Wax: A Love Story" ($30.99 in hardcover from Xlibris Corporation) is something of an epistolary work. The story begins with Brother Cletus, a member of the Trappist community of monks in the fictional Monastery of St. Bernard "nestled in the valley looking out to the Sierra." A visitor to the guest house for a private retreat, a man named Dennis Dominic Leroy, has died suddenly on the monastery grounds and Cletus, the keeper of the garden, is asked to clean out Leroy's room.

What Cletus finds is "an unbound book. ... He thumbed through the first pages. They appeared to be a book of printed e-mails from a Net chat room called 'The Spirit's Voice.' Only the first pages were e-mails. Most of the remaining pages were handwritten 'real' letters. The first e-mail was from a person named Leila. It read: 'Dear Anyone: I have been chosen. I need a Gabriel to hear of my dark dream. Please, some starlight over my bed'."

Dennis Dominic Leroy answered. "You are a case. I am a writer of bad fiction. Right now I am looking for a model for a female character. You may fill the bill. You may not. Here's the deal. You write me and tell me about yourself ... and I will respond to what I hear. I will not be your counselor, your amateur shrink. I do not want to invade your privacy or your intimacy, yet I do want to hear your soul talking. Is this a contradiction? I hope not."

Leila Skerjanic had become a nun but had left the convent in her mid-30s.

As Cletus makes his way through the letter book, he is disturbed, shaken by fears that he ought not to be reading someone else's letters. As a 10-year-old boy he had idly looked into his mother's diary, only to discover one of those family secrets that forever alter one's life.

"The Angel In Wax" is a story within a story. As the letters from Leroy and Leila become more soul-revealing (Leila wonders if she has turned away from God's grace by leaving her vocation; Dennis responds that Leila is "grace in action and if you keep open to yourself and your self-search, you will come into contact with the Being that is"), Cletus finds confused feelings in his transgression.

Then Leila meets Father Michael Dolan, who awakens her to the sensuality of opera. The two have endless chaste discussions about Jesus' Incarnation and fallen humanity, and what it means to love as a celibate priest. Just as Cletus must decide whether to continue reading the letter book, so Father Dolan is faced with a decision of his own. Who would be his first love?

At the end, the two stories meet. Downes brings together Dolan and Cletus in the aftermath of Leila's untimely death, each in the midst of "a confusing sin that is full of grace." In eavesdropping, the reader, as well, becomes part of this story of higher love and human forgiveness.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Skyway poets, Joy Harold Helsing, featured Saturday at Chico's Art, Etc.


Patricia Wellingham-Jones of Los Molinos is not only a published poet but owns a small publishing house herself. Saturday PWJ Publishing will host a special reading and book signing featuring the "Skyway Poets." The event is free and open to the public, and is scheduled from 7—9 p.m. at Art, Etc., 122 W. Third St. in downtown Chico.

Invited authors include Patricia Wellingham-Jones, Sally Allen McNall, Audrey Small, Lara Gularte and Sylvia Rosen, along with Kathleen McPartland and featured poet Joy Harold Helsing. PWJ Publishing has printed a number of chapbooks from several of these authors; Wellingham-Jones' own broadside, "Mill Race Cafe" ($4.50 from Rattlesnake Press) contains "Three Queens," about poetry, and begins slyly as follows:

They hunch over a table

scattered with papers,

scratch out phrases,

toss away adjectives, crush


get rid of i-n-g endings.

Helsing herself is both funny and sly, and her new book of poems, "Confessions of the Hare and Other Old Tales" ($15 in paperback, which includes shipping and handling, from brings new twists to Greek myths, Biblical stories, Shakespeare, nursery rhymes and Don Quixote.

According to an author's note, Helsing earned a doctorate in clinical psychology, "won two top awards for poetry in the Atlantic Monthly college writing contests," and, after life in the Bay Area, now joins the Skyway Poets.

The layout of the poems in "Confessions" is open and inviting, and for each thematic section Helsing includes a list of characters with brief descriptions so each reader can partake of the fun. In the poem that gives its title to the book, the hare laments that "I could have won that race / without a doubt." But the hare was "young and foolish" and his running ability caused only resentment: "First came boos and jeers, / then clods of earth, rotten fruit, / even stones. I stopped, / not to go to sleep / (that's all a lie), / but to mourn the loss of friends." Then:

I let him pass to win the cheers

that I would never get

even if I won.

Now I run fast


when no one's there.

Several of the five poems in the section called "Testaments" exchange the humor of the other sections for serious theological questioning. Eve rebels and as she looks back there is an edge to her remembrance:

I miss those days. But they are


And I no longer blame the

snake. We are

as we were made to be. It was

the serpent's nature

to seduce, ours to yield. If God

made us to seek

and question, was it such a sin

temptation overcame us?

Of Cain, Eve sighs, "He should not / have harmed his brother. I do not excuse him. / But he too did as he was formed to do. ... / Though I worship Him / as He requires, obey as He commands, / I will never till my final breath forgive / this God."

Then Noah, with a similar complaint:

Were they all so bad? We

knew our neighbors

sinned, but children, newborn


Did they have to be destroyed?

Enough, enough. I must not


His judgment. ...

In the first section Greek myths are retold. Cassandra, the prophetess of Troy, laments that "There is no limit to the cruelty of the gods" who "remain impassive on their Olympian peak."

At other times the grand forces of the world seem not to be impassive at all. The sirens, those deadly mermaids whose song lures sailors to certain death, are here as well.

As the ship draws near, they

start to sing,

first one, then another, and


a bell-tone chorus weaving

tendrils of promise and mystery

into a net of seduction.

Helsing's own simple verse has something of that mystery and seduction. But there are romps here as well as in "Soliloquy, Hamlet, First Draft." The first lines read: "To exist, or not to exist: That is the conundrum." Then: "To die, to sleep; / To sleep: perchance to dream: aye, there's the abrasion. ..."

Helsing's poetry seems effortless, yet there is craft here, and a writer not too timid to wrestle with the gods and, in "Them," to warn that

Grown-ups are coming

with well-meaning schemes

to rob you of wonder

and trample your dreams --

hide, children, hide!

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.