Thursday, May 25, 2006

Chico State University historian on Russia's vodka culture


"Russians have an almost mystical relationship to drink in general and vodka in particular," writes Kate Transchel, associate professor of history at Chico State University. "Legend has it that a thousand years ago, when Grand Prince Vladimir ... pondered over which faith to adopt, he rejected Islam because it imposed restrictions on the consumption of hard liquor." So, in 986, Vladimir made Christianity the official religion of Russia. Transchel quotes a commentator as saying that "God, bread, water and vodka were the mainstays of Russia."

She writes that "the word 'vodka' historically referred to all common drinks based on spirits. In 19th-century Russian usage, the word 'vino' was more common than 'vodka' but still meant grain alcohol."

Just how ingrained (pardon the pun) vodka consumption is in Russia is the subject of Transchel's new book, "Under the Influence: Working-Class Drinking, Temperance, and Cultural Revolution in Russia, 1895-1932" ($35 in hardcover from University of Pittsburgh Press). Transchel's study is an engaging and accessible look at the culture of vodka in Russia and how even the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, in its forceful effort at building the "new worker," was no match against the "liquid assets" of the working class.

"Under the Influence" is a model of clear writing. Though it is a scholarly work -- the author traveled to Russia to study the archives of the industrial cities Moscow, Kharkov, Saratov and Tomsk -- the book presents telling details of the real life of the industrial worker.

The new Soviet state in the first decade-and-a-half after the Revolution tried "to craft a new society and a new type of citizen" by controlling education, getting rid of "bourgeois culture" and putting an end to "illiteracy, prostitution, religion and drunkenness." But in the 1920s "the Bolsheviks came face to face with their number one quandary: Workers did not act right. The proletariat was the new ruling class, but still it was stamped with the attributes of an oppressed class. Further, the behavior of the new working class, especially those fresh from the village, did not meet Bolshevik expectations: They came late to work, if at all; they broke their machines; they ignored the authority of bosses; and above all, they drank themselves into oblivion."

An attempt at imposing prohibition from 1914-1925 proved disastrous. Transchel reports that "urban workers resorted to drinking anything containing alcohol, including denatured spirits, cologne, lacquer and varnish. For example, in 1915 production of lacquer rose by 600 percent and varnish by 1,575 percent in Moscow. ... One can assume that in the absence of a concurrent surge in wood sales, the Russian populace had not turned to furniture refinishing for solace: A significant amount of these alcohol-based substances was being consumed."

The Bolsheviks were working not only against 500-year old Russian vodka culture but against the traditional state liquor monopoly (which Lenin reinstituted in 1925) and the use of grain for illegal samogon (home brew). Eventually alcoholism was redefined from a social disease "resulting from poor living and working conditions" to an "individual mental illness" (stemming from "believing in God or not learning to read") and official talk of workers' drunkenness ceased.

Stalin declared victory in 1933, urging workers "to reward themselves for a job well done with a 'little glass of champagne'." Just after World War II alcohol sales rebounded ("comprising approximately 29 percent of all state revenues") and a popular poster in the Khrushchev era said: "Delicious, cheap and nutritious -- drink vodka. Absolutely!"

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, May 18, 2006

Chico's Doug Keister pays tribute to America's colorful RV history


"RVers are some of the friendliest people on earth," writes Doug Keister in his new pop culture history, "Mobile Mansions: Taking 'Home Sweet Home' On the Road" ($24.95 in large size paperback from Gibbs Smith, Publisher). "Unlike the rest of us who are permanently or temporarily moored in our bolted-down communities, they take the bumps in the road of life a little more serenely." And none are friendlier than those who own vintage and classic RVs, the mobile conveyances celebrated in Keister's book.

Replete with 200 color photographs, most taken by Keister himself on location, the book explores not only the history of the recreational vehicle but allows the reader to see inside courtesy of the author's crisp, clear interior shots. From Camp Dearborn, Mich., to Quartzsite, Ariz. (with a quick stop in Chico), Keister documents the development of what used to be called "autocamping."

Autocamping was popularized by Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone (of tire fame), along with an unlikely companion, a naturalist named John Burroughs. After about 1915 the group called themselves "the Vagabonds," attracting newspaper attention everywhere they went. The group was not exactly rustic -- Firestone brought his butler along to help him better appreciate "roughing it."

Later on, the "Tin Can Tourists" organization was established in 1919; they "took their name from the tin can provisions that they subsisted on and, some say, also from the Tin Lizzies many of them drove."

The Great Depression and better roadways put Americans on the road. It was the golden age of the travel trailer. Subsequent decades saw the development of house cars, refined camp cars, family buses, truck campers, vans and motor homes (which had their start with the Frank Motor Home in 1958 which morphed into the Travco Motor Home in 1965.) There are other storied names in the book: Volkswagen, Winnebago, Newell, Barth, Flexible.

Keister devotes a chapter to each kind of "mobile mansion" with a focus on "personal visions" in the last chapter. Pride of place here goes to "Draco," a four-wheel-drive motorhome created by Shahn Torontow of Victoria, British Columbia, who constructed it so his photographer wife, disabled by Lyme disease, "could still go on backcountry photographic expeditions. The bones of Draco are an Oshkosh M-1000 Aircraft Rescue Fire Truck." There's also a wheelchair lift, 14-inch wide tires, a winch and "a 335-horsepower Caterpillar 3406A diesel-pusher engine." The contraption was photographed in Chico. Dishes have magnets glued to their bottoms so they "stick" on steel plate walls and a "macerator-type toilet liquifies waste ... (which) can be pumped into the exhaust system where it is vaporized at over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit."

Pop culture connections abound. Converted Greyhound Scenicruisers (last made in the mid-1950s) help bands reach their next gigs; Charles Kuralt (the CBS "On the Road" guy) used an FMC ("Food Machinery Corporation") motor home; Barbie's "Disco motor home" came from Mattel; Mae West owned "a 1931 22-foot house car build on a Chevrolet truck chassis" -- it slept four and sported a rear balcony where West could address her fans; Ozzie and Harriet used an Alaskan Camper; John Steinbeck traveled with his poodle Charley in 1960 in a GMC pickup truck and Wolverine camper; the Partridge Family's hippie bus was a '57 Chevy school bus; and Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters drove a converted bus, too.

Sprightly fun, Keister's homage to mobile living costs less than 10 gallons of gas -- and lasts a lot longer!

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, May 11, 2006

Dick Cory's memories of growing up in small-town Nebraska playing 6-man football


"I've ... seen the full blown effects of tornadoes up close and personal," writes former Bidwell Junior High science teacher Dick Cory. "Working for a farmer while in high school, I had the unenviable job of untangling barbed wire fencing and returning it to concrete posts -- all uprooted and entangled by a twister."

Weather played a part in his growing up, of course, but so did six-man football (there were not enough kids at his school for a regulation team), pranks (snipe-hunting), learning to drive a farm tractor, pranks (stealing watermelons), watching a pig being butchered, pranks (something about used tires) and hanging out at Cory's store in Alexandria, Neb. The town, located "in the southeastern corner of the state about 15 miles from Kansas," had a population of about 200. Cory, born in 1936, spent the 1940s and 1950s in Alexandria before beginning a 36-year classroom career, most of it at Bidwell Junior High in Chico.

His memories of quieter times are compiled in 74 short chapters self-published as "Six Boys and a Bag of Dirt" ($20 in paperback from the author at A couple of dozen black and white photographs enhance the tales, which are mostly reminiscences of boyhood chums and the big world beyond Alexandria. Cory lost track of most of the town's denizens but began to write about his experiences in preparation for his 50-year high school reunion in 2004.

The town that year still had pretty much the same population, but had "slumped." "When we left in 1954, there were two grocery stores, two filling stations, a hardware store, two barbershops, ... a pool hall, a post office, a television repair shop, a bank and a 12-grade school. Now all that remains is a hardware store and a grocery/general store plus the post office." What keeps people around? "Not much, unless it is the cheap and slow pace of living. Welfare recipients and retirees find Alexandria comfortable if not too stimulating. Have we been too 'stimulated' by the lifestyles that we enjoy to ever live again in 'Big A'?"

Ah, but growing up in "The Big A" -- that was wonderful. "At my parents' store, there were plenty of distinctive odors. ... My favorite location on open nights was around the meat counter. There was always a coffee pot with saltine crackers, Pream and of course fresh strings of wieners, salami and liverwurst. A sip from the vinegar barrel in the cellar was also quite satisfying. ... Between snacks, I was supposed to wait on customers, slice lunch meat or grind hamburger. These activities kept me going until eleven o'clock, when the farmers returned from the pool hall to pick up their wives, kids and egg cases that now were filled with groceries. If business was really slow, I could go to the middle storeroom and sleep on the stacks of overalls -- which also had a distinctive aroma. ... Life was good in the Midwest."

A lot of water has gone over Big Sandy Creek since then. But the irrepressible author was not above a prank or two in later life. Like the discovery of the skull of the rare Ubangarang "found in a pile of driftwood on a northern California beach in 1972" when Cory "was teaching backpacking with a Chico Unified summer class called Outdoor Living."

Soon the Ubangarang Preservation Society had been formed. Can life as a talking head on CNN be far behind?

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.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Chico author's kids book - A wildlife gathering at the edge of the Zambezi


"Here's a hippopotamus, chubby top to bottomus, who nibbles the lilies and daffy-down-dillies that grow in the rivers that flow through the African jungle." Imagine the water lily-munching hippo with a "just what are you looking at?" attitude staring out at the reader from the deep greens, browns, oranges and reds of a full-color watercolor by Paradise artist Steve Ferchaud.

You've imagined yourself into Chicoan Phyl Manning's "Here Is the African Jungle" ($15 in large-sized soft cover from Chico's Wizard Graphics, Inc.), her new children's book that takes us to Southern Africa, "to the trees and water of beautiful Zimbabwe." An author's note continues: "Here are the largest and wisest, tallest, fiercest, cleverest, loudest, hungriest, blindest, the most clever -- surely among the most magnificent of the world's glorious wildlife ... gathered by water at the edge of the mysterious Kalahari Desert."

Manning will be signing copies of "Jungle" at Lyon Books in Chico starting at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and the public is invited. The book is available locally at Lyon, Bird in Hand, African Connection and directly from the author at Part of the book's profits go to help Durham's Barry R. Kirshner Wildlife Foundation.

A note says Manning "worked as an educator while living overseas much of her adult life -- the West Pacific, Southeast Asia, Europe -- and has traveled to a large extent along 'paths not often taken.' Africa is a favored destination and the wildlife in Southern Africa a long time passion. 'Here is the African Jungle' is based on a sunset scene at a tributary to the Zambezi River, with animals in the book doing what they normally do '... except of course they don't speak English!'"

The book is full color throughout and the text is witty and bouncy and calls to be read aloud. The story line is simple: as the animals come to drink and bathe in the water, a smug crocodile makes an appearance. "Feel the rough tile of the long crocodile, whose one end is swish and the other is smile. She makes a quick turn and a whole lot of fuss to avoid the huge jaws of Hippopotamus."

One by one more beasts gather. A lion roars, baboons scream, the croc eyes everyone. "Baboon has climbed high to a perch in the sky. Zebras flash in the sun, but they're ready to run. Rhino faces the cat, can smell just where he's at. Giraffe weighs a ton; he's not likely to run. Head and neck are his weapons -- 'though fighting's no fun. Croc's in a bog, where she looks like a log." There's uneasiness here until the greatest beast of all lumbers in. Wise mother elephant explains that there's plenty for everyone in the jungle -- "there's room enough here for fur, scale, hide and fleece -- so isn't life better together in peace?"

Everyone gets something (the croc settles for fish), and so another day passes.

A chart at the end provides interesting information about each of the eight animals featured in the story. Rhinos can weigh four tons; giraffes do indeed protect themselves using their heads as weapons; elephants "purr, squeak, rumble, shriek, cough, roar, plus sounds inaudible to human ear communicate for miles"; and "anticipating food, croc eyes tear (as mammal mouths salivate); so fake sorrow among humans is called 'shedding crocodile tears.'"

The words and illustrations grabbed my attention and made me smile. And that's no croc!

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.