Thursday, March 29, 2007

Chicoan muses on "old hurts, softened by the caring"


A friend of the author sent me a little book of poems by longtime Chico resident Archie Dan Murphy. "Poem Pudding" ($12.95 in paperback from PublishAmerica) distills a lifetime of experience into simple words, words that speak of mysteries that can never be put into words.

He writes in "Sundown Blues":

Ever hear the silence.
Roaring in your ears;
Bringing tumbledown
happiness, and tears?

"Born into poverty in California," a note about the author says, "Archie Dan Murphy, an Irish Cherokee, worked many jobs before finding his passion in surgery as an operating room aide. Many children, lovers, pets and friends and experiences have been his inspiration. He currently tends his garden and reflects on life's mysteries."

Murphy's poems have been printed exactly as he submitted them to the publisher, with his own spelling and syntax intact. Friends encouraged him to get them into print, especially after a house fire some years ago destroyed much of his work. On the page the simple, almost innocent words convey between the lines a life of tumult and desire.

Sometimes Murphy is philosophical, as in "Within Each of Us":

We have within us great joy,
and great sadness.
To reconcile the two is,
the spark of life itself.
To embrace life, and become a
part of the
greater whole, justifies our existence.
In doing this, we ease
the pain of old wounds,
and it gives us the means to salvation.

But the poet is not always meditative. The very next poem is called "Drinkin' Whiskey and Eatin' Licorice."

Murphy is making sense of life by means of his art. He recognizes there is something greater than his lone existence. In "Forgiveness" he writes:

Though our lives are not perfect, can we
not count our blessings?
we not give the fates, what they have given us? Forgiveness.
One of the last
words from the cross."
Elsewhere, in "AKA Murphey," a kind of epitaph, the
poet says:
"We are gathered here,
to remember a man named
actually Murphey, Archie Dan,
born 2-17-36.
He had a
great need to do what the
Buddhists say, 'Right Work.'
Now it is
your destiny to be torch bearers. So
take heart, and persevere and
for he will be there, somewhere.
In "The Dance," the poet admits:

Beer and roses don't go together
it's true, but Miss Bartender,
they do
seem right, when I look at you.
I don't want to go home,
I'd rather be
I guess the lonely night,
is what I fear.
There were other loves, and deeper, and a simple reflection, in "Due To":

Lust, Greed and
long ago dreams, unrealized;
ponder, ponder, ponder.
It is the sole poem on the page.

But that's not the end. In "Yester-Dance" the poet says:

I put on my dancing shoes,
once each year.
I may not go dancing,
but I
put them on.
The poet has come to terms with solitude yet recognizes that through his words he is not alone. In "A Gentle Addiction" he writes:

So far, at this sundown age,
all these musings help me
fill a page. There
meaning is given life
by you, Dear Reader.
Easing pain, puzzlement and

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2007 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.
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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Butte College administrator is a friend of hard-boiled novelist John Shannon


Ken Meier, on the job for less than a year as Butte College's vice president of learning, introduced this naive book review columnist to the gritty work of Los Angeles writer John Shannon.

In a series of nine novels featuring Jack Liffey (who recovers missing children), Shannon plumbs the cultural diversity of the south land. The fourth Jack Liffey novel, "The Orange Curtain," puts the detective in Little Saigon in Orange County, looking for the missing daughter of a Vietnamese bookseller. I haven't read this one, published in 2001, but I do know it's dedicated to Ken Meier.

Shannon's Web site explains the book's epigraph: Meier, he says, has been "my political mentor for almost 30 years, though he tried to abandon me almost as soon as we met by moving to rural Arizona to teach in a community college, a calling which he fiercely believes in. A working class lad himself, who could have become a first-rate professor of the history of ideas at any Ivy university, he has dedicated himself instead to making our community colleges fulfill their forgotten promise to the children of the working class." Now, of course, after serving a stint in Bakersfield, Meier finds himself at Butte College.

National book critics have found John Shannon. In late February, the New York Times Book Review published a note by Marilyn Stasio about the ninth (and newest) Jack Liffey novel: "Long a champion of teenagers in trouble, especially kids from L.A.'s culturally torn-up ethnic neighborhoods, this hard-boiled sleuth is on familiar turf in 'The Dark Streets' (Pegasus, $25), searching for a Korean film student named Soon-Lin Kim who went missing. But the landscape shifts when Liffey discovers that a paramilitary group of Asian-Americans has taken an interest in Soon-Lin Kim's student project. Although racial tensions always run high in Liffey's world, the violent turn they take here causes him to question his faith in 'the innate goodness of man.' And another old friend loses his way in the dark."

If he doesn't lose the way, perhaps the author might one day turn up in Chico for a reading and book signing.

"The Dark Streets" was my first foray into Jack Liffey's world. He is 60 now; his daughter, Maeve, who was shot in a previous installment, is now 17 and hot for the guy next door, a gang leader named Beto. Jack's girlfriend, Gloria, "a half-blood Paiute ... raised by Indian-hating fosters," is a cop and breast cancer survivor. Maeve's mother divorced Jack years before after he lost his aerospace job and turned to drugs and booze. His new job has not come cheap. Jack "had a metal plate in his head, titanium pins in his legs, a bullet scar on his shoulder and a weakened lung."

Kim's project is about the so-called "comfort women," Koreans forced into prostitution during World War II. Japan has not apologized, and an international hearing on the matter generated headlines in our own world just in the last few days. Liffey also gets caught (who knew?) on the wrong side of the Patriot Act.

The book is a verbal analogue to "24," keeping multiple storylines in the air at once, quick cutting from one to another. Yet "Streets" is not as dark as I expected and by the end it's clear there is at least some rough justice in the world. And Maeve, Jack realizes, pregnant Maeve, is still a sign of grace.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2007 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.
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Friday, March 16, 2007

Discovering Our Importance TO Nature


As part of the "On the Creek Lecture Series," noted author Dan Dagget recently spoke at Chico State University.

Dagget's first book, "Beyond the Rangeland Conflict, Toward a West That Works," was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His latest work, "Gardeners of Eden: Rediscovering Our Importance To Nature" ($24.95 in large-size paperback from The Thatcher Charitable Trust and EcoResults!) expands on his alternative view to the "leave it alone" philosophy that has governed much thinking about the environment in the last few decades. According to a press release, EcoResults!, of which Dagget is CEO, is "a nonprofit foundation that finds funding for land managers seeking to turn their operations into a means to restore and sustain environmental values."

Just what that means is the subject of "Gardeners of Eden," a lively and personal exploration of how a new kind of environmentalism is being born among those who see themselves, and their skills, as part of the ecosystem, part of nature.

The huge mistake we modern humans have made, Dagget insists, is in thinking that "the only way we can really heal the land is to protect it from impacts created by humans: to 'leave it alone.' This widely held assumption is why, when we talk of healing the land, we invariably talk of protecting it, of preserving it. ... That's why articles that deal with land issues treat the word 'protecting' as having the same meaning as 'healing' or 'restoring.' It is why those articles never explain how protecting the land will heal it."

The assumption that healthy land is land humans leave alone is based, he writes, on another assumption: "that all environmental problems are caused by humans. ... We don't think of butterflies or deer or wolves as creating environmental problems."

But, says Dagget, there is a group of what he fondly calls "Lost Tribe gardeners" whose actions have benefited the land, have made it "outperform the Leave-It-Alone approach." To these people, such as Tony and Jerrie Tipton, who solved an "eco disaster" in the Nevada desert, the word "protection" is another name for "abandonment."

A Nevada mining operation had left a 300-foot pile of crushed rock "polluted with cyanide and covered with salt." The Tiptons "dragged a length of railroad rail over the part of the pile they intended to treat, breaking up the salt crust. ... Then they scattered the seed, spread the hay and straw, and released the cattle. The cows ate most of the hay and a little of the straw, and what they didn't eat, they trampled into the rocks along with the seeds and the microbe-rich organic fertilizer they provided from their guts." Years later native plants are still growing there, in an area with less an inch of rain.

Early in Dagget's career he demonstrated for Earth First! and in 1992 was named to a list of top grass-roots activists by the Sierra Club. But since then Dagget has come to realize that an environmentalism that insisted on defining healthy land as that least touched by human hands -- even if those land tracts were devoid of life -- simply made no sense. His book cites many examples of human intervention helping ecosystems thrive by their being used to grow food or raise cattle.

Careful management is needed, but that's the point of gardening.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2007 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.
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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Twenty Years of Learning


This column began March 4, 1987, and has continued as a weekly feature of this newspaper for some 20 years. I'm fairly astonished at that. When it started I was a spry young man in his mid-30s with boundless energy; now, about a thousand columns later, the energy is still there — but it takes twice as long to do anything. Make that three times as long.

Though much of my life is spent using computers these days, I remain a bookish short, enthralled and entranced at some of the things I've read, appalled at others. But I'm not going to name names.

The growth of desktop publishing has meant just about anyone could become a published author. It's easy to get a friend to write a review and post it on, but it remains difficult for local authors to achieve some of the recognition they deserve. Perhaps this column has helped in that regard. One of my great joys is learning that someone bought a book I've reviewed and enjoyed it. One of the great joys of authors is that someone bought the book.

Back in the summer of 1968 I decided to keep a list of every book I read. I was devouring a lot of science fiction in those days, so the first few handwritten pages are full of works such as "A Canticle For Leibowitz" by Walter M. Miller Jr. As the years passed my interests broadened to include Saul Bellow, C.S. Lewis, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Dickens. By the end of 1986, when the list ended, I had reached book number 1,016. Some six months later a new kind of list began, this one called the "Biblio File."

I'm missing the first few columns, but the others I do have suggest that back then I was a chatty soul, devoting column inches to local folks who had had letters published in the Wall Street Journal or who had written magazine articles on overcoming addiction. Actual books by local authors were relatively rare, so I took to trying to make a local connection to books from the wider world. "With winds clocked unofficially at more than 100 mph a few weeks ago at the Chico airport — and with the word 'drought' increasingly on our lips — weather is once again in the forefront." That was in March 1988, and I reviewed a couple of weather-related works, including "Rhymes to Predict the Weather" by someone named Don Haggerty.

A year earlier, in a column called "To Squash a Conspiracy," I noted the appearance at Chico State University of an animal rights advocate. Apparently I wandered in on his lecture and asked about, well, vegetable rights. "His face grew pale. A carrot doesn't have a biography, at least that I know of, he said." But later I came across a book that claimed that vegetables feel things in ways we can't understand. I concluded that there is then nothing left for humans to eat and ended that April 1, 1987, column with: "Never again will I trust an artichoke. Never."

As more local books have been published I've put away sophomoric humor. Well, no I haven't, but my focus has been on the books themselves. I hope in most reviews I can convey the main point and give you a feel for the writing. I've learned a lot, and read a lot, and am ready for more. If that potato would just stop eyeing me.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2007 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.
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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Four months on the road, 10,000 miles, to find California's best


Thanks to the Internet, it's easy these days to compile and publish lists of things, such as bed and breakfast getaways or suspension bridges or pet friendly parks, but rarer for authors actually to visit the venues they write about. That's what impressed me about "Best of California's Missions, Mansions and Museums" ($21.95 in paperback from Wilderness Press) by Ken and Dahlynn McKowen out of Sacramento.

The couple, along with Dahlynn's two children, 9-year-old Shawn and his sister, 14 year-old-Lahre, hit the road for four months, visited some 200 sites and racked up 10,000 miles on the odometer. The result, after some editing, are chatty descriptions of 135 family-friendly California missions, mansions and museums. This is a good guide to consult if one is planning a summer vacation in the Golden State.

The listings, write the authors, "provide a broad geographic and subject-matter selection of California's missions, mansions and museums, primarily as they relate to California's history and culture." Picking the "best" was difficult, subjective of course, and a lot of places were not included (such as most science and technology museums) that didn't meet the criteria of illuminating state history.

In the area of missions, "our final choice came down to 13 missions that we felt included not only wonderful museums, but retained much of their original or at least their early 20th century restored historic fabric. ... We chose our favorite mansions in much the same way as the missions, but we added accessibility -- how frequently they are open to the public for tours."

For museums, the authors concentrated on smaller collections. "We didn't choose them because of their size or the value or rarity of their collections, although we certainly considered those things. ... We considered their uniqueness, not only in the types of collections and the variety of artifacts, but also in how they relate to California's overall history or to their local community's history."

The book is divided geographically, from the North Coast, through the Great Valley and on to the South Coast and desert. Each section has a numbered locator map, trivia questions and introduction. Each two- or three-page entry features a "what's here" list, a "don't miss this" note, a description of the venue, usually a small black and white photograph and a box providing operating hours, cost, location and the Web site. The book also features an index and a list destinations by category.

The chapter devoted to the Great Valley includes entries for the Turtle Bay Exploration Park (including the Sundial Bridge) in Redding, and Chico's own Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park.

The authors note that the second floor of the mansion "features several of the home's 12 bedrooms. That was not a good location for bedrooms in a town where summer temperatures reach 100 degrees, and upstairs rooms become even hotter. Possibly, the plantation windows served as summer escapes to cooler sleeping arrangements on the outside balcony. The indoor toilets that Bidwell included were thought strange by his neighbors and visitors. Many believed that having to perform such bodily tasks inside a house, rather than in an outhouse, was unsanitary."

And there is some Great Valley trivia. "Where can you find the very first Pony Car (Mustang) manufactured by Ford?" It's at the Towe Auto Museum in Sacramento. The car is a white convertible, the first to roll off the assembly line back on April 9, 1964.

See you on the road!

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2007 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.
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