Thursday, June 30, 2005

Redding novelist's crime caper -- Car thieves and drug runners


Steve Brewer and his family moved to Redding after spending 20 years in New Mexico, when "my wife's career took us to Northern California in 2003." According to interview materials supplied by his publisher, Brewer syndicates a regular humor column through The Albuquerque Tribune and has published a number of well-received mysteries, such as "Bullets," which, says Tony Hillerman, "gives crime fiction fans all the unforgettable characters and fast, fierce action we crave, plus a flavorful overlay of the wry Brewer humor we've come to love."

The author also writes the Bubba Mabry series and his new novel, "Bank Job," to be published in October by Intrigue Press, is set in Northern California.

"Boost" ($24 in hardcover from Speck Press) is the 11th novel Brewer has published, and it's less a mystery than a rollicking and rambunctious adventure tale of almost-heart-of-gold car thieves pitted against Phil Ortiz, a dastardly businessman whose insatiable greed for acquiring and showing off classic cars has driven him to a lucrative drug-running sideshow. All the main characters are pretty much adrenaline junkies.

The word "boost," of course, is a slang expression for stealing a car, and that's exactly what 37-year-old Sam Hill does. He's in cahoots with the lovely Robin Mitchell, who continues to run Mitch's Auto Salvage the way her late father did. Old Mitch would hire Sam to deliver just the right car to special clients -- though Robin, with a computer science degree from the University of New Mexico, was making more money selling legitimately-obtained car parts over the Internet.

This is how it used to be: "Some customer would tell Mitch he wanted a '71 Mustang fastback like the one he drove in high school. Sam would steal such a car and deliver it to Mitch, who'd lovingly restore and repaint it, give it a new identity, and sell it to the nostalgic client for thirty grand. Sam and Mitch make money, the client gets his car, insurance pays off the stiff who lost the Mustang. And if the poor victim wants a car like the one he lost, well, he should come see Mitch."

But this is now. "Boost" is a story of a boost gone awry, about "a hot 1965 Thunderbird with a gold metal-flake paint job" with a stiff in the trunk. And no ordinary stiff -- the man was a drug informant. Someone had specifically asked for Sam to appropriate the car, and tipped off the police, and Sam is hopping mad. He is a car thief, after all, and not a murderer. Who would have it out for Sam Hill?

Our hero is determined to find out. What follows is a page-turning exposition of scheme and counter-scheme (Sam gets the stuffing beaten out of him on more than one occasion) as he tracks down the perp. But Sam has more than revenge on his mind. When Robin visits him in the hospital as he is recuperating from one of his encounters, she brings Sam flowers in a "howling coyote vase. The Trickster," Sam thinks. "She had him pegged. All his life, Sam had a fetish for practical jokes. To see others flustered and confused by some trick he'd arranged was the sweetest little thrill." Ortiz had met his match. Or had he?

When one is facing some pretty bad dudes, one needs some muscle of one's own. That's where Waymon Wayne Henderson comes in. A nightclub bouncer, Way-Way was "six-foot-seven, 290 pounds, maybe 5 percent body fat" -- a rather impressive character. Way-Way, Sam, Robin, and Billy Suggs -- an orphan Sam had befriended and saved from a life of crime by teaching him the boosting business -- pit brains and brawn and sarcasm against the real bad guys.

This is the kind of story that has you rootin' for the car thieves (who, of course, will all go straight after just one more trick). Brewer's dialogue is snappy and his descriptions wonderful. Lorena Alvarado, Sam's hard-bitten bulldog of an attorney, "dug around in her leather handbag, came up with a thin brown cigarette. She clamped it between her teeth and torched the end of it with a Bic lighter, then pulled her overcoat tighter around her bulging body. A sharp wind riffled her short black hair . . . smoke trailing out her snout."

"Boost" is a sweet little thrill.

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, June 23, 2005

Former Chicoan is Hollywood costume designer, writer


OK, I sighed to myself, it's time to review that book with the rather garish cover -- "Going Hollywood: How to Get Started, Keep Going and Not Turn Into a Sleaze" ($16.95 in paperback) by Kristin M. Burke. I'll bet it's one of those tomes on how to make it big as an actor probably written by someone who once had a bit part in a Lifetime Channel disease-of-the-month movie starring Meredith Baxter Birney (they all star Meredith Baxter Birney).

How wrong I was.

The book is not for aspiring actors. It's for folks who want to be behind the camera, to work in the L.A. entertainment biz as key grips or directors or line producers or costume designers. Burke is herself a successful costume designer; the Internet Movie Database lists some 35 screen credits since 1993, including "Walker," now in production, starring Bruce Dern, Jason Patrik and Sam Shepard. Her book is sane, sensible, well-researched, and very frank.

Chico is Burke's hometown; educated at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., she moved to Los Angeles in 1991. A note about the author says that "she has also designed costumes for music videos, commercials and two television series."

The book's 12 chapters each include a brief interview -- of producers, assistant directors, writers, executives, agents -- and some sage advice on everything from how to pronounce L.A. street names (Wilshire is "WILL'-shurr") to money and dating tips ("Never, EVER, date a co-worker while you are still working together").

Burke begins with a reality check: "In preparing for your life in Los Angeles, you should make sure to have the following: a cell phone ..., a minimum of 15 copies of your resume, a minimum of $5,000 in accessible funds, and a reliable motorcycle or automobile." The money mostly goes for getting an apartment, paying first and last month's rent and a security deposit, and a month's living expenses. Forget public transportation: "We have a bus system that runs city-wide, but you will need 8 million schedules, 65 bus route maps and a master's degree in engineering to figure it out."

Burke advises registering with a temp agency, and she lists several. (Later in the book, in a chapter on bad choices, she is not shy: "Do not participate in the production of porn, soft-core or adult entertainment.' Say no to these job offers, even if you are flat broke. There is nothing wrong with temping.") She also offers a two-page listing of the best places to do deals -- spas, malls and restaurants, from Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles to Spago.

The author analyzes three fictitious resumes and provides "the rules" for those beginning their first jobs: always arrive early, cut out the gossip, be honest, get enough sleep, and "grow a rhino hide": "Your assignment, from day one, will be to cultivate a skin so thick, not even the acrylic nails of ego, greed and jealousy can pierce it." Develop hobbies, too. Burke lists gyms, yoga studios, tennis courts, museums, charitable organizations and book groups.

"Love can make you crazy," she observes in the chapter on dating. It's easy to think one really knows someone else well when you spend long hours together on a film project. She warns about the dangers of "dating up" ("you could go broke paying for expensive dates with someone in a different financial league"), "dating down" ("you may be accused of favoritism"); and dating celebrities (think paparazzi, stalkers, living in a fishbowl). And be on the lookout, she warns, for the "helpless opportunist" and the "essence sucker" ("this is the charismatic alley-cat, the three-week-maximum relationship" of the player).

But things don't have to be grim. Half the book is devoted to getting a good agent, finding wise financial advice and even how to learn to rejoice when your friends succeed ("It may be hard to celebrate when you are silently suppressing a jealous rage that would wipe out half the city. If you are really freaked out, and can not bring yourself to be happy for your friend, excuse yourself for a day or two. ... Adjust your attitude.")

So I adjusted my attitude. I can recommend "Going Hollywood" as a practical and eyes-wide-open guide. Hollywood is for you if you have "courage, gall, cheekiness, bravery, flamboyance, shock value, brilliance, tempered arrogance, daring, pluck, nerve, guts." Seize the day, my friends!

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, June 16, 2005

Simpson University professor: Was Bonhoeffer a martyr?


Craig J. Slane, associate professor of systematic theology at Simpson University in Redding, also serves on the board of directors for the International Bonhoeffer Society.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran pastor and theologian, was deeply opposed to Hitler's regime; the "Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church" puts it simply: "He was arrested in 1943 and after imprisonment in Buchenwald he was hanged by the Gestapo at Flossenbrg in 1945."

Bonhoeffer is best known for such works as "The Cost of Discipleship," "Life Together" and "Letters and Papers From Prison," in which he articulates a Christianity lived in solidarity with the oppressed, a Christianity that takes Jesus' Sermon on the Mount seriously. But Bonhoeffer was arrested and executed not for his profession of Christ but for his complicity in a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler. It is that fact, Slane says, that makes Bonhoeffer so controversial.

In "Bonhoeffer As Martyr: Social Responsibility and Modern Christian Commitment" ($22.99 in paperback from Brazos Press), Slane acknowledges that "Bonhoeffer never attempted to justify his conspiratorial activities" and certainly "did not excuse himself from guilt." Nevertheless, Slane argues, this man deserves to be called a true Christian martyr. Yet for such an argument to make sense, Slane must overcome the stereotype of a first-century martyr:

"Images of brave Christians standing heroically before the worldly powers giving unequivocal, lucid confession of their faith before being consigned to beasts, burnings, and boilings are forever etched in popular memory. The pointed encounter between persecutor and persecuted ... makes absolutely clear why these persons went to their deaths: They confessed Christ! Yet given the ... Roman context, it is more likely that these conspicuous encounters derive from the vicissitudes of history than from the essence of martyrdom. Confessing Christ is surely the obligation of every Christian generation, but confession may assume a variety of forms, dependent on the rich texture of God's creative Spirit and human response."

What Slane means is that genuine Christian martyrdom has always included political action, but it was masked in the first century. To confess that "Jesus Christ is Lord" in the context of the Roman Empire is to confess that Caesar is not. In modern times, however, verbal confession excites little attention; it is the development of a Christian community in which servanthood is paramount, and works of justice part of one's daily life, that is the real threat to the powers and authorities. Bonhoeffer, Slane maintains, confessed Christ in working to save a small group of Jews from the Nazis and in building "life together" at the Finkenwalde preacher's seminary in the years prior to his arrest.

Slane takes pains to argue that even though Bonhoeffer, as a man of his times, was not immune from the rabid anti-Semitism of the so-called "Confessing Church" in Germany, he nevertheless identified "with the Jews of the Holocaust" and died "in solidarity with the Jews." This is a crucial (though controversial) claim in Slane's understanding of Bonhoeffer as martyr.

The essence of being a Christian martyr, says Slane, lies in living a life in which the knowledge of one's death, one's finitude, suffuses one's life in a way that the person comes to participate by baptism in the death of Christ. "The cunning of God resides in the fact that my temporal limit is simultaneously a message and a means of grace. By establishing the limit God, ever the respecter of my freedom, encourages me in the strongest way possible to come to terms with that limit, remember him and resolutely present this earthen vessel back to him. I must not complain when death comes," Slane continues, "because wrapped within the sobriety of my sin and guilt before God is also a summons to my final and most important episode of faith. For the Christ-ian, death is the final act of faith wherein one casts one's whole self into the hands of God."

That, says Slane, is what is means to "die a Christian death." Thus, he says, did Bonhoeffer.

"Bonhoeffer As Martyr" is not an easy book. It's a scholarly philosophical exploration of the meaning of Christian martyrdom and how Bonhoeffer's life can be understood in light of it. Bonhoeffer did not seek martyrdom (for such is not the goal of the Christian life) but freely accepted it when it came. That's Slane's claim, and it is worthy of 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, June 09, 2005

A humorous look at marriage from a Redding writer


Dave Meurer is a field representative for Republican Congressman Wally Herger. Last time I looked, Meurer and his wife, Dale, and their two sons, Brad and Mark, lived in Redding, peacefully going about their business. Well, almost. Seems that in the last few years Dave has been bitten by the writing bug and has published five books on family matters. These are not thick, technical, holier-than-thou tomes. These are books with such titles as "Daze of Our Wives -- A Semi-Helpful Guide to Marital Bliss" and "You Can Childproof Your Home, But They'll Still Get In."

His latest is "Good Spousekeeping: A His and Hers Guide to Couplehood" ($12.99 in paper from Life Journey). Meurer is a Christian Dave Barry who uses the 35 short chapters in the book to raise some important issues for all marriages (there is a discussion guide at the back of the book). He recommends C. S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity" and Lee Strobel's "The Case for Christ" for those who want to further explore the Christian faith; in "Spousekeeping" he's content to paint a picture of a marriage under construction, even after almost a quarter century.

Early on Meurer anticipates the kind of mail he will get about his title and offers to write the letter himself: "Dear Male-Chauvinist-Swine Author of the So-Called Book' Titled Good Spousekeeping': We hate your new book, which implies that a spouse is to be kept' by her domineering, possessive male partner. It is repressive, belching, idiot cavemen like you who are perpetuating the patriarchal, condescending, oppressive culture that enlightened persons have been working to improve. ... We haven't read the book, because the tile says it all, you fathead. Sincerely, the Entire Faculty of the Women's Issues Department, The University of Sensitivity, New York."

In his defense Meurer explains that "the title of this book does not indicate that only one gender is keeping' the other. ... I simply mean to convey that both partners are called by God to be good' to each other and to keep' their vows, thereby keeping' their marriage. Good Spousekeeping' is fundamentally about encouraging husbands and wives to understand each other, work together, and protect their marriages--and laugh more. Also, I needed a clever title, and the good ones like Gone with the Wind' and Jaws' were already taken."

Meurer admits he has anger problems sometimes but is working on it. He praises his wife for helping him become more responsible and in turn he sees that he has helped Dale become more spontaneous.

But differences remain. In "What's in a Name?" Meurer talks about his fascination with fancy sports cars with nicknames like "Fang." "Regrettably," he writes, "none of my ... cars were British convertibles. At one point, I owned an AMC Pacer, which was voted Ugliest Car of the Year' by a major automotive magazine. The Pacer looked like an enormous metal toad, and it handled with the precision and speed of a diseased buffalo. It was not the kind of car you could even name Molar,' much less Fang'." (Empathy from reviewer: I once bought a Gremlin.)

Dave's idea of naming the family's present car "Thunder Lizard" doesn't go over big with Dale, Brad or Mark. " That is the lamest thing you have ever said,' replied Brad. Why can't you act like a normal father?' asked Mark. Dave, it is a white Chrysler sedan--a recliner with a steering wheel,' Dale commented. But "Fang" was already taken,' I pointed out. Dale got that involuntary twitch in her left eye and stood up to take a nap."

Eventually Dave relents and realizes he needs to put childish things behind. But: "I am still working on convincing (Dale) to call me by my preferred nickname. I don't want to be known merely as an author'; I prefer the more noble title of Awe-Thor,' which combines reverent fear ('awe') with the name of the mythical Viking god of thunder ('Thor')." Dave, not a chance.

Other chapters take up spontaneous gift giving, Brad's medical emergency, sex ("sex within marriage is sublime ... and it even burns up extra calories! A mean God would have made sex fattening. God is nice!"), handling money, taking risks, spiritual coldness, and putting in a new sprinkler system before reading the instructions.

I laughed out loud.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books (no manuscripts please), or to make comments, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Feather River College anthropologist: Ishi in Oroville


Thursday, June 02, 2005 -

Almost a century has gone by since Ishi was discovered at the Charles Ward Slaughterhouse in Oroville the night of Aug. 28, 1911.

Alfred Kroeber, head of the University of California's new anthropology department which housed Ishi at its San Francisco museum until his death from tuberculosis in 1916 believed the Indian to be a kind of time traveler. Ishi could reveal a world unspoiled by "progress" if only he could be removed from Oroville to more scientific surroundings.

Kroeber's wife, Theodora, wrote "Ishi in Two Worlds" when she was 60; first published in 1961, the book became the standard reference but it has not lacked critics. In 2003 Alfred and Theodora's sons, Karl and Clifton, edited an anthology, "Ishi In Three Centuries," which is a kind of apologia for their father's treatment of Ishi as an anthropological wonder and not as a man. The repatriation issue was the focus of "Ishi's Brain: In Search of America's Last Wild' Indian" by Orin Starn, also published in 2003.

Dozens of articles on Ishi have also appeared, including work by Steve Schoonover, city editor at the Enterprise-Record.

Feather River College anthropology instructor Richard Burrill published "Ishi Rediscovered" in 2001 and now "Ishi In His Second World: The Untold Story of Ishi in Oroville" ($21.95 in paperback from The Anthro Co. out of Chester; write for information).

Replete with many black and white photographs of Ishi and his surroundings in Oroville, the book is an attempt to pull together newspaper accounts and oral histories of the "eight days and seven nights" Ishi spent in town. The first part of the book is structured around speeches given in the 1960s and 70s by Adolph (Ad) Kessler, "one of the four butchers working at the slaughterhouse when Ishi was surrounded, handcuffed, and taken by sheriff's buggy to the Butte County Jail"; Kessler was 19 years old at the time. He later said, "I remember it pretty well because it was so unusual at the time, and also because ever since then people will ask, . . . tell us how you found Ishi."

Kessler, who served as Oroville's police chief for 18 years, said Oroville Sheriff "John" B. Webber, who had put Ishi in a padded cell to protect him from other prisoners causing rumors that Ishi was "wild" kept hearing "who is he?", "what is he?" from the inmates. "The sheriff just shortened it to Ishe' and," says Kessler, "told everyone his name was Ishe."

The book also takes up the story of UC Berkeley anthropologist Thomas T. Waterman, who, under the auspices of Alfred Kroeber, arrived in Oroville Sept. 1 in an effort to communicate with Ishi; three days later Waterman and translator "Indian Sam" Batwee brought Ishi to San Francisco.

The author takes issue with a number of statements made in the popular press and in Theodora Kroeber's book. For example: Ishi may have been hungry the night he was captured, he writes, but he was not "emaciated to starvation" as Kroeber claimed.

The photograph on the cover, taken Sept. 4 by Florence Danforth Boyle with a Kodak "box" camera, shows Ishi and Bill Collett, the pipe-smoking owner of Collett's Express baggage delivery service. (Boyle's memory is that Waterman called him "Ici," "man.")

"Ishi In His Second World" reprints many contemporary newspaper stories in which, Burrill says, "Ishi was promoted ... as a curiosity, not a fellow human being. Ethnocentric thinking and racism were common. Few of the nation's leaders believed that the Indians (non-whites) had a right or a title to the land that they had inhabited for so many eons."

Burrill adds that "Ishi, little by little, recovered his spirit and the last years of his life" were mostly serene. "On the whole, Ishi took very kindly to civilization... (He) lived without self-pity even though all had been taken from him."

The book includes a plea for an Ishi stamp to be issued by the Post Office Aug. 28, 2011, to commemorate Ishi's appearance in Oroville.

* * *

A Fish Flew Through the Porthole: A Sailing Adventure Narrated bya Very Reluctant Sailor by Gerri Miller ($19.95 paperback) has just been reprinted. It is available in Chico at Lyon Books and Galleria Books as well as from Stansbury Publishing and online. My enthusiastic review appeared earlier in The Buzz. Think summertime reading!

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books (no manuscripts please), or to make comments, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.