Thursday, January 26, 2006

Now for something completely ridiculous


In the late 1950s, a writer named "Grendel Briarton" (who turned out to be writer Reginald Bretnor with the letters rearranged) began publishing a long series of shaggy dog stories in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction called "Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot." After lengthy buildup, each would end with an audacious pun.

Imagine the following example expanded into a 20-minute disquisition and you get the idea. Jacqueline Spear, the famous anthropologist, dressed in furs among tribal peoples until one day she discovered her duds had been abducted. For Feghoot, it was easy to see that "Dr. Jacqueline missed her hide."

But Feghoots are so 20th-century. That brings us to Bill Dutcher, who, we are told, "lives in Oklahoma with his wife, Terry" and their two daughters. (He should move to Arizona, where they really have a sense of Yuma.) He is self-described as "a seldom-published writer who would like to be rich and famous, but not for the same thing. He is working on the former as an independent oil and gas producer in Oklahoma City, and on the latter as the creator of 'Fictoids.'"

Fictoids? They are, writes Dutcher in "Fictoids: Short Fiction ... Very Short" ($12 in hardcover from Dutcher & Co. Inc.), "a bit of fictional history, making a statement or telling a story in one sentence. A typical fictoid tells who did what, when and where. A fictoid may even be partially true, but is never entirely true, or it would be a factoid. In fact, a fictoid is just a fictional factoid."

Dutcher's Web site ( explains that he got the idea in the late '90s watching CNN and its fascination with factoids. Dutcher may not know it, but his invention is the new Feghoot for the attention-deficit new century. No more wading through a long story to get to the stupid ending. The stupid ending is contained in the first sentence!

The invention of fictoids is also the story of a self-publisher. As Dutcher writes on his site, "In 2003, encouraged by family and friends, I decided to put my favorites into a self-published book. This led to a long period of negotiating with myself over which fictoids should be in the book. By this time, I had written hundreds of fictoids, but my inner-editor felt some of the fictoids were too easy, too abstract or just not funny enough to justify being in the book. There was also the issue of how many fictoids should be in the book. Once it was decided that the book should be around 200 pages, the editing continued, but each time I would write a new fictoid I would delete an old one." Dutcher goes on to say how he picked the illustrator, New Yorker cartoonist Jack Ziegler. Turns out you can go on the New Yorker Web site and pretty much hire their cartoonists. So he did.

The day I'm writing this column Amazon ranked the book No. 52,126 (up from No. 81,767 the previous day -- Dutcher must have sold a couple of copies). Readers who dream of their own self-publishing bonanza may want to follow Dutcher's story. He appears on the verge of breaking into the coveted No. 36,152 spot on Amazon but we'll see.

In the meantime, to the fictoids. The ones I liked the best are reminiscent of the old Feghoots, only without the length, setting up the pun or other wordplay and then getting out of the way (fast). "The Minnesota Endangered Species Act of 1974 stipulated that the mink shall inherit the earth, but if they don't go for it, they could leave it to beaver." "Egyptian Pharaoh Amir Ziplok invented self storage in 850 BC, then marketed his invention through a clever pyramid scheme."

More? "In 1928, Fannie Footloose, a highfalutin flip flapper who loved to shimmy and Charleston, shocked Newport's high society when she suddenly fled the social scene and sailed off for Paris with foppish fashion photographer F. Stop Fitzgerald."

Even more? "When the Ammonite people were driven out of Egypt in 1220 BC, their luggage was carried by the Samsonites."

Enough? "Since 1994, commuters entering Manhattan in car pools have been required to use bridges instead of tunnels, due to rising health concerns over car pool tunnel syndrome."

All I can say is, if you have to have your head examined for liking fictoids, bill Dutcher!

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The 1968 siege of Khe Sanh -- A Chico visitor's Vietnam memoir


Michael Archer, who lives in Reno with his wife and three children, signed up for the Marines in 1967.

He and his best friend, Tom Mahoney, enlisted not for patriotic reasons but, for Tom, to get out of Oakland, and, for Michael, to live the adventure and "to prove myself." By 1970, with the Corps downsizing, Michael was released to civilian duty after a tour of Vietnam and months spent in Khe Sanh during its siege by soldiers from North Vietnam. Tom would never return.

Archer had long wanted to write his story, but earlier attempts brought too much emotion. Now, drawing on his own records and the published accounts of others, "A Patch of Ground: Khe Sanh Remembered" ($15.95 in paperback from Hellgate Press) takes the reader into the heart of the U.S. war in Vietnam told in very human terms. Archer's prose is vivid and detailed, the account of his actions "in country" both humble and humbling, and the incidents he relates sometimes darkly humorous and sometimes intensely frightening. There are more than two dozen black-and-white photographs with several maps to help orient the reader.

A radio operator out of the Khe Sanh Combat Base, located not far from Laos and the Demilitarized Zone that separated North and South Vietnam, the author is surrounded by unforgettable characters: Tiddy, Pig, Old Woman (known for his constant high-pitched complaining), Savage, Captain Mirzah "Harry" Baig and many more. Archer's deft style draws the reader into the story so that it becomes more than ancient history.

Michael Archer will be coming to Chico for public appearances and a luncheon for Khe Sanh veterans. He will be signing books at 6 p.m. Friday at Lyon Books in Chico and at 3 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble. In a letter Archer writes, "January 21st has special significance to the survivors of the 1968 siege of Khe Sanh because it is the anniversary of the day that momentous battle, the most protracted, costly and consequential of the Vietnam War, commenced."

The statistics, as recounted in "A Patch of Ground," are hard to grasp. "Over 1,000 Americans died fighting for Khe Sanh in 1968, and another 4,500 were wounded. ... South Vietnamese military losses were in the range of 750 dead and 500 wounded. The North Vietnamese Army suffered nearly 12,000 dead with probably twice that many wounded."

The book's central chapter, "Overrun," is the most harrowing. Archer is on radio duty at Khe Sanh Village. Early the morning of Jan. 21, 1968, word comes from the combat base "putting all forces in the area on red alert." Minutes later, "gunfire ... encircled the compound and, mixed with our outgoing fire, created an unbelievable racket. The deafening roar in the center of a pitched battle nearly defies description: a seamless earsplitting blend of chattering bursts of semi-automatic rifles, the oscillating knock of machine guns, teeth-jarring detonations of rocket-propelled grenades, and the deep, reverberating thump of exploding mortar shells. ... Alone in the bunker, fear cramped my neck muscles and tremors shook my head like a seizure. Tears filled my eyes and I started to repeat the same question aloud, 'What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do?'" The reader cannot turn away.

When Archer returned home to the Oakland-Berkeley area at the height of anti-war sentiment, his "anger and frustration were sometimes overwhelming." No one seemed to understand "the unconscionable brutality of North Vietnam's terror apparatus." Willard Park in Berkeley became "Ho Chi Minh Park" and mailboxes were painted to resemble Viet Cong flags. Archer blamed the hippies for their romanticism, the politicians for wavering, the military for dishonest assessments and admits to decades-long bitterness which "eventually, mercifully, sputtered out." Then he could write.

The war, he realized, was a kind of noble futility. He would think of the tens of thousands who lost their lives and remember "the insolent young faces of my buddies, the fine red dust of Khe Sanh etched into their every pore (and) the ease, humor and courage with which they endured such relentless peril."

"In those moments," he writes, "it did not matter how I felt about the war, the nation that wished to forget, or myself. It mattered only that I was proud to have stood with them and defended a little patch of ground."

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. used by permission.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Chico novelist's love story unfolds against an international diplomatic background


Chico resident Helga Ruge, a German native, is no stranger to international diplomacy.

An author's note says Ruge "came to America as the bride of Foreign Service Officer Neil Ruge in 1950," though the couple, and later their two children, "lived abroad for most of their 20 years in the diplomatic service." Neil retired in 1969 and "the family settled in Chico, where Neil taught business law and Helga taught German" at Chico State University. Neil died in 2000, and Helga's memoir, "Flashbacks of a Diplomat's Wife," is a tribute to her late husband.

Now Helga has entered the world of fiction, drawing on her experiences to create a love story, set in 1960 and 1961, involving 23-year-old Octavia Angelini, a beautiful and spirited Sicilian who immigrates to America to find her fortune, and Jeff Carpenter, Vice Consul of the United States, whom she first meets on a beach in Palermo, Italy. "Whither the Promised Land" ($11.95 in paperback from Clay & Marshall Publishing Company out of Chico, chronicles Octavia's rise from maid, to hatcheck girl, to a mesmerizing presence on the international diplomatic front. America's "promised land" status is fully vindicated, though of course there are twists and turns in the torrid (though decidedly not sordid) love affair between Jeff and Octavia.

Ruge writes about the "exhilarating experience" of creating her characters. "I felt immensely powerful as I created life, formed human shapes and personalities with all their strengths and weaknesses."

Octavia is larger than life. Searching for work in her newly adopted country, she lands a job in New York as a maid for an Italian diplomat and his wife who need help with their two children. She is absolutely gorgeous and has brains to spare.

"I studied English, French and some German at the university," she tells Count Geminiano, "and because my father insisted I learn something practical as well, I took a course in typing and also one in modeling."

Jeff is no slouch, either. Octavia tells her Aunt Laura that "Jeff's parents were fairly well off but not rich. They helped him some when he went to Harvard, but mostly he had to rely on scholarships." Jeff double majored in history and political science.

Why did Octavia leave her family in Palermo? "I've always had a desire to immigrate to America for reasons I wasn't quite sure of," she tells her aunt. "I had even applied before I met Jeff -- but after he was gone, I was determined to come over here. I knew it was hard to leave behind my parents and ... everyone and everything dear to me for an insecure future, yet an inner voice urged me to go to the Promised Land, and I followed it."

The State Department recalls Jeff to Washington, D.C. and sends him to Moscow to help deal with an impending crisis. It was May 1960. "The temperature of the Cold War had risen perceptibly. Headlines everywhere focused on the U-2 incident, which Khrushchev exploited to the maximum, politically speaking. For months, Francis Gray Powers had eluded the Soviets in his highly sophisticated, unarmed reconnaissance plane, taking pictures of sensitive defense installations. No Soviet missiles had reached Powers until that fateful first day in May when his plane suffered a direct hit. Now in a Moscow jail, Powers had time to reflect on his extraordinary capture while American diplomats negotiated to get him freed and back to the U.S."

But the driving force of the novel is the lovers' passion for each other and the question of whether Jeff can marry a non-citizen (and a Sicilian -- did she have Mafia connections?) and still keep his job, his life's calling.

There are plenty of emotional ups and downs, and neither Jeff nor Octavia are exactly virginal, but it's clear that they are made for each other. Descriptions of their lovemaking are discreet, but the reader gets the idea: "Words were superfluous at this deliberate hour of love's triumph. Only the rising passion between the two lovers spoke of immense joy and heartrending pain as their souls and bodies were fused through the eternal rhythm of life, so revealingly new and all-encompassing and yet oh so temporary, so fleeting."

It's clear Ruge had immense fun with this confection and readers can look forward to future work as she blossoms as a novelist.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Crossing into 2006 with Skyway Poet's words


Chico poet Audrey C. Small is part of a small coterie of writers, the Skyway Poets, who meet monthly, alternating between Chico and Paradise, to listen to and critique each other's work.

Small's first chapbook, "Crossings" ($6 in paper from PWJ Publishing,, out of Tehama), collects more than two dozen poems, about half previously published, and illustrates them with three of the author's carefully drawn string figures.

According to a note on the author, Small often uses these figures -- cat's cradles -- when she presents her poetry or short stories. "Her mother, Paula Collinson, originally taught her some string figures and encouraged her to use written sources to expand her interest in this ancient art form. Audrey has taught and shared this interest in the San Francisco Bay Area and Butte County, as well as in travels with her husband overseas." The book lists several sources on constructing string figures, among them Caroline Furness Jayne's "String Figures and How To Make Them: A Study of Cat's Cradle in Many Lands" (Dover Publications) and Camilla Gryski's "Cat's Cradle, Owl's Eyes: A Book of String Games" (William Morrow and Company).

The poems in "Crossings" don't tell a single story but rather stories of multiple crossings that weave themselves into a pattern, as string weaves in and out to produce "Caribou in the Willows," or "Many Stars" or "the Salmon River with the Last Peak on the Plain" (shown on the cover), each lending its title to a poem. "String Figures" reminds us there was a World Wide Web long before the Internet:

Figures one by one
enact in fact or memory
an endless line of circle oval pentacle.
Lizard / bird / marsupial
may move away
but come back
another way
to dance or play
caught in the web
of infinite variety.

Here are deep forces at work, suggests the poet in "Forces":

In spring
when we were young
we planted gnarled sweeds
in our gravelly yard
and the sun-warmed earth
of summer brought yellow
and orange bursts
of nasturtium.

There is another force too, between human and human, evoked not only by this poem but by "Countless":

Some things in numbers
lend a beauty
single objects lose:
the clustered grape
and heather.
Days spent together.

There are crossings of oceans, from "Martin Mere, Lancashire" and "Ullet Road Church, Liverpool," "over the sleeping Aegean" to Greece ("The moon grows round as a chariot wheel, / turns to bronze, then a silver shield / fielding spears of stars."). In "Sibling" there were

Welsh pebbles shifting,
slipping with delicious friction
beneath our dashing feet ...
Life carried us seaward.
Gone now the Irish Sea
of childhood, sounds of the shingle beach ...
Today a golden sun
washes my pebble paths --
boundaries of my wedded home
by Contra Costa's echoing shore.
There are memories that cross our minds and shape our years.

January 4th is "My Father's Birthday":

As rain falls on snow
large white patches
that were pasture
stand out across the canyon,
but trees, ever darker,
guard winding paths
out and away.
Ridge pines remain erect
while these housebound shrubs
bent beneath snow-load need help
some probing, some shaking.
Facing the wrong direction
they harbor both cold
and heavy burden. ...
The snow is heavy and the wind fierce,
but what is left at twilight
stays: dark trees,
new green of lawn
and those smooth, faraway fields.

In "Siberian House," the "name of a Chukchee Indian string figure," the poet writes:

Have you ever played cat's cradle?
My mother and I did.
She would insert her hands
in the closed loop of string
and, drawing it taut,
start us with the "Cradle."
Best was to watch her make,
in slow motion, a Navajo "Butterfly"
and feel her delight in its fluttering.
But of all the string figures --
not the easiest she taught me -- I come back to "Siberian House."
I feel in my hands
the building of the house
the throwing loose of the loop
the collapse of the roof
and the running away of two figures.
Yet it wasn't like that.
Yes, the slates fell in,
walls and floor were smashed
by the bomb's blast,
but the figures had already left.
In the end war and separation never happened:
the string always came out whole.

In 2006, may we be spared as well.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.