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.