Thursday, April 27, 2006

Shover illuminates 19th-century Chico


It was a birthday present from her husband, George Lillibridge. Over the years, Michele Shover, emeritus professor of political science at Chico State University, had published articles and given speeches about Chico in the 19th century (and a few other subjects as well, such as how women were portrayed in World War I propaganda). But they had never been collected -- until now.

In an e-mail to me, Shover wrote: "He had the book assembled and at the proof stage when he told me what he was doing. What a lovely surprise! I was 'allowed' to edit the proof! It was a wonderful present, of course. ... Needless to say, I am fortunate in his thoughtfulness. After almost 30 years of pouring over this subject in such minute detail, the book gives me confidence that the information I discovered and 'the stories' will enter Chico's conscious sense of its past which is really pretty remarkable for such a small 19th-century town."

"Exploring Chico's Past ... And Other Essays" ($22.99 in paperback from Xlibris Corporation) is available in Chico at Lyon Books, Barnes and Noble, the university's A.S. Bookstore, Made in Chico and Bird in Hand.

The author will sign copies at Barnes and Noble (2031 Whitman Ave.) at 1 p.m. Saturday and the public is invited.

Though trained as a political scientist, Shover became interested in local history when she purchased the Little Chapman Mansion in 1976. It is perhaps the oldest house in Chico and its history is recounted in the first essay in the book, followed by a guide to "Searching Your Old House's History." Other essays include "Chico Women: Nemesis of a Rural Town's Anti-Chinese Campaign 1876-1888"; "The Black Experience in Chico, 1860-1899: Climbing the Slippery Slope"; and "Women at Work in 19th Century Chico." It's clear, as Lillibridge writes in the foreword, that Shover has an abiding "interest in and concern for the neglected and ignored in society as well as in historical studies."

Shover digs for detail. In a short piece on "Chico's Mystery Tunnels," the author tries to reconcile seemingly conflicting accounts of whether there were tunnels under "New Chinatown" in Chico on Cherry Street. (It was well known that Old Chinatown did indeed have "connected basements beneath the buildings that lined the east side of Flume between Seventh and Eighth streets.") It's likely, she concludes, for security reasons: "At recurring intervals over the 19th century, Chinese in Chico were at mortal risk to eruptions of anti-Chinese violence. Sometimes -- as in 1877, 1887, and 1894 -- these threats arose in the form of vigilante raids on their quarters."

The book also includes an account of the trial of Chico prostitute Molly White in 1883. She had been befriended by the First Methodist Church, North, but then came word "that popular teamster Riley Strahl had died at 1:30 a.m. -- of strychnine, people were saying -- while keeping company with Molly White."

Another short essay situates Chico's founder, John Bidwell, as a liberal; in her note to me, Shover explains: "It doesn't mean liberal as modern wing of the Democratic Party, but Liberal as in classical Lockean Liberal -- i.e., economically focused, individualistic and understanding government as a proper ally of business."

She's at pains to clear away certain myths about Bidwell, and Chico itself, so that Chicoans can "absorb a more sophisticated -- indeed a more interesting -- view of their collective past."

"Exploring Chico's Past" is an invaluable contribution toward that end.

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, April 20, 2006

A quiet journey into nature from an Orland area writer


Quite a few years ago, Daniel Thomas and his wife, Marilyn, moved from Sonoma County to a 10-acre parcel of land near Orland and staked their future.

Raised in Willows, Daniel Thomas returned to the Sacramento Valley after a series of heart ailments eventually forced his retirement from the public school system in the Bay Area. "The Ten," as the couple called it, was to become a refuge for creatures of every variety, from birds to black widows, from raccoons to opossums, and many cats.

But it took a lot of work. "When we first saw this piece of land," he writes in "Essays From the Ten" ($8.95 in paperback from Stansbury Publishing in Chico), "it was almost treeless. The house itself was in awful condition and a nearby shed was jammed with broken bottles, old tires, discarded tiles, slabs of concrete, rusty cans and rotting lumber. ... The property was littered with mounds of garbage. ... Its most endearing quality at the time was a seasonal creek which sliced through the northern edge of the property. In every other way the property was a disaster. It was love at first sight."

At least for Daniel. But the prospects of solitude worked their way into Marilyn's heart, too, and the couple began to transform The Ten.

In almost two dozen short chapters, Daniel reflects on his experiences. His writing is clear, engaging, humble. In the early days at The Ten he dug pond after pond, but then the work began to take its toll and pond digging stopped. It took years for the rhythm of the natural order to get into his bones.

"There was a time, for example, when I felt the need to count, name and record every bird I'd observe on the property. ... Now I make pleasant note of the egrets that visit my pond, or pause to admire the flitting about of a ruby-crowned kinglet, but I feel no need to jot down my sightings. Have I gotten lazy, or just content to enjoy the moment? A little of both I suppose."

Life on The Ten has meant coming to terms with the competition and violence of the natural world. Beavers return to Jewell Creek and proceed to fell Daniel's carefully planted poplars. Shielding the trees and putting out special Havahart traps are to no avail.

Daniel takes out a deprivation permit and the former hunter takes up the gun again. "The irony was only too clear. I had wanted to create an environment hospitable to a wide range of wildlife. And I had succeeded. Now I was about to violate one of my most sacred principles: on The Ten all life is sacred."

But then there's the story of Lucy and Anna, among 128 pigs from a farm in southwestern New York suffering from neglect and frostbite. An organization called Farm Sanctuary requested new homes for the animals, and the Orland chapter helped place Lucy and Anna on The Ten. They prospered.

"The other day we watched in amazement as the pigs trotted, cantered and then broke into a full trot across the field. Again I thought of Lucy's big chunk of missing ear. Surely, on their best days these pigs could not have dreamed of the splendid life they now enjoy. My wife and I touched hands, shared a loving glance ... and cantered all the way home."

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, April 13, 2006

Three-volume Easter journey with St. Augustine finds riches in 'Confessions'


The 13 chapters (or books) of Augustine's "Confessions," written in 397-400, continue to enthrall and challenge readers. Augustine had just become Bishop of Hippo (a name that means "seaport") in North Africa, but the document he produced is no dry ecclesiastical pronouncement. Instead, in the intimate language, he pours his heart out to God and to his readers and confesses that even as a man of faith he still seeks understanding.

As Christians celebrate Jesus' resurrection, it is well to remember that Augustine's story of his own Easter faith is full of surprises. Augustine is convinced that God was at work in his life even, when as a young man, he turned away from the family faith to pursue a career as a teacher of rhetoric and to satisfy his own sexual desires. His mother Monica's fervent prayers were eventually answered.

There are many translations of the "Confessions"; one recent and clear one is from Henry Chadwick ($7.95 in paperback from Oxford World's Classics). But while the first nine books recount Augustine's experience in becoming a believer, the 10th book, on memory, turns to Augustine's present philosophical concerns. The last three books deal with questions of time and eternity, creation and redemption, and how the earthly world connects with the heavenly realms. For many readers it is not easy going.

Those wishing a careful and scholarly guide through the "Confessions" will be delighted with the three-volume work of Carl G. Vaught, distinguished professor of philosophy at Baylor University. He writes that the books of the "Confessions" show a carefully structured thematic unity, which is portrayed in the titles of Vaught's trilogy, all published by the State University of New York Press: "The Journey Toward God in Augustine's Confessions (Books I-VI)" ($17.95 in paperback); "Encounters With God in Augustine's Confessions (Books VII-IX)" ($35 in hardcover); and "Access To God in Augustine's Confessions (Books X-XIII)" ($65 in hardcover). These books form a section-by-section commentary on Augustine's great work.

Vaught begins, as Augustine does, by asking lots of questions: "How shall we respond to a book as rich and complex as this? What approach should we take?" Vaught writes that though "Augustine speaks as a psychologist, a rhetorician, a philosopher and a theologian ... he speaks most fundamentally from the heart."

In order to best understand the "Confessions," Vaught writes, readers need to be aware of the time, space and eternal dimensions of the story. Regarding time, Augustine recounts his theft of pears when he was 16, his interest in philosophical wisdom and his being led astray by the Manichees (a sect that believed good and evil were locked in eternal battle). Spatially, Augustine's story deals not only with his outside world (the African church, the temptations of Italy) but the inside world of his own soul, the place he encounters God (though God is much greater than the soul and is its creator). The eternal dimension is about how God manifests himself in the created order, through memory and time and the sacraments, enabling Augustine to encounter the one who "made us for yourself"; and Augustine adds: "Our heart is restless until it rests in you."

Vaught's books provide the reader with an understanding of that rest.

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, April 06, 2006

Columnist goes positively eupeptic over new kind of thesaurus


Back in the day, say 1852, Peter Mark Roget, finding no thesaurus on the shelf, decided to write one himself, grouping words by related ideas and earning for himself a place in lexicographical history.

Subsequent thesauruses, rivals to Roget, dispensed with the grouping principle and simply listed words alphabetically. Not all of the synonyms were direct substitutes for the word synonymized. The assumption was (and is) that we readers know the nuances and simply need our mind jogged a bit. If we wanted a synonym for "steal" we might come across embezzle -- but we'd have to know that embezzling is a particular kind of stealing. (You can't embezzle a candy bar from the grocery store, but you can steal one. But you really shouldn't.)

Most of the synonyms in these word books were also likely as common as the original word -- ho-hum! Frankly, if we are looking for a sparkling alternative to quotidian diction, the thesaurus is a dinosaurus.

Of course, we might well turn to the many books that alphabetize unusual or obsolete words, but we can't have archaic and eat it, too, since how would we know that "natterjack" was just the word we wanted for a Western European toad that runs rather than hops?

Enter Philadelphia attorney Peter E. Meltzer who, after a decade of sedulous work on his avocation, has published "The Thinker's Thesaurus: Sophisticated Alternatives to Common Words" ($16.95 in paperback from Marion Street Press). Attempting to write the wrongs of thesauruses past (which he does in a marvelous 50-page introduction), Meltzer goes on to deliver the goods, thousands of ordinary words coupled with one or more less common synonyms. But he doesn't stop there. Some 75 percent of the entries contain "clarifiers" helping us understand the particular synonym's "spin." So wrongdoing "in public office" is malversation. And an occupation "requiring little work but paying an income" is a sinecure.

Meltzer writes that he has avoided the use of obsolete words (Shakespeare used a lot of them, but they weren't obsolete then, don't you know). To show their currency, the "thinker's synonyms" get illustrative quotations drawn from magazines, newspapers, and even books published in the last decade. The author quotes from a story in the Sydney Morning Herald from 2000 about the newest in adult education courses -- stripping. The quote comes in the entry for "bravado" and its synonym "fanfaronade": "Fanfaronade," says the story, "will take you through the steps necessary to become a confident exotic dancer. Each participant is expected to have partially completed a semester each of Tassel Making, Cracking Walnuts with Your Own Buttocks on Stage and Booking the Light Entertainment Circuit." Just so you know, there's also a good word for "having a nicely proportioned rear end": callipygian. Time magazine used it of Jennifer Lopez.

Some words cry out to be used in this day and age. Under "superficial (knowledge of a subject while pretending to be learned)" we find "sciolism" and a quote from a Montreal newspaper referring to talk show hosts. Oh, Canada: You, too?

What has me eupeptic (cheerful but, you know, in a scholarly way) is that "The Thinker's Thesaurus" is not a book for impressing friends with a lot of fanfaronade. It's a book that helps us think a little more clearly as we search for just the right word -- especially those who yearn to be philosophers and not mere philophasters.

This book may, however, make you a philosopher faster!

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.