Thursday, October 25, 2007

Poet, activist Brenda Hillman speaking tonight in Chico


As part of the On the Creek Lectures series, writers Brenda Hillman and Forrest Gander will speak tonight at 7:30 at the Rowland-Taylor Recital Hall/PAC 132 on the Chico State University campus. Sponsored by Chico Performances and the Institute of Sustainable Development, the presentation is free to the public but tickets are required. They're available at University Box Office or by calling 898-6333.

Hillman's latest work, "Pieces of Air in the Epic" ($13.95 in paperback from Wesleyan), is the second of a poetic tetralogy focusing on the primal constituents of the world: earth, air, fire, water. Her poetry is experimental, bending and chopping meanings, pulling apart lines as if to let the air in (or out), using symbols and repeated letters and coining words in Hopkins-like fashion, sometimes drawing the reader's attention to how the words sit on the page, sometimes pushing images together that don't make sense, but do.

The book is difficult, in part because its author inhabits a kind of gnostic world only a few can enter. Those who know her work well have written short essays on individual poems in "Pieces of Air," available online at and they are immensely helpful as an entrance into a dizzying world that insists, despite war and more war, that the song (the quintessential breath) will go on.

Air is part of the natural world; it is life, spirit, wind, invisible. The epic is something human made, telling of fighting, violence, conquest (think of Homer's "Iliad" or Virgil's "Aeneid"). What happens when the two come together? In "Nine Untitled Epyllions" (an epyllion is a short epic, usually with a romantic theme) the first line reads: "Something about breathing / The air inside a war." This group of poems is "dedicated to all who have suffered & died as a result of the war in Iraq."

"Embedded with Bechtel McDonald's" the words read, "With Daddy War — or Starbucks' floating voice / Over e-e-e-each / Exploded body into third forever / News briefs with short particulars." But "In the malls ... The war is forget forgot forgotten. ... The mall is a square with bumps like a small epic. / Through vents, winds swirl: / 1) a sort of sweet lite rock 2) faded popcorn / 3) infinity 4) a breezy o in the word world."

There is more, from oddnesses in libraries (the wind stirs the dust motes) to Altamont Pass ("the breeze turns and turns"). Not warfare; airfare.

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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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Chico novelist takes a wry look at the Vietnam War


An author's note for Chicoan Michael M. Peters says he was a sergeant during the Vietnam War, "working on F-105s, F-111s and C-130s."

His novel, "Lawrence of Vietnam" ($14.95 in paper from Stansbury Publishing, "is a teenager's view of the war."

The story is told by a young man named Broadleaf, stationed somewhere in Vietnam. At one point he's asked how he got his name. "I was born in the South." "How'd you wind up here?" "I'm in Vietnam avoiding the draft." So why did he really join? To forget a girlfriend? "I dunno," Broadleaf replies. "Maybe I'm a mercenary. Maybe I joined up for the 25 bucks a week."

Broadleaf and his compatriots, Turnly, Dortmunder and Weirdo, share plenty of beer and leaf. Broadleaf becomes a sergeant, is sent home to the states, encounters a war protest at the local university, meets a coed named Cyndi and impresses her with his talk of "secret missions," and is shipped back to Vietnam. Broadleaf is associated with all kinds of planes and helicopters, but it's unclear just exactly what he does. He's always being asked that question and doesn't have much of a reply.

There's the mission "to fly a cargo plane into a besieged airbase and rescue everybody there that was on our side." At one point Broadleaf is left on the airstrip while he waits for rescue himself. "I walk to the side of the runway and lean up against a wooden shack. ... I sit down on the ground to make a smaller target and light up a joint." When he's picked up the crew chief notices that Broadleaf "had all kinds of fun shooting your rifle. We watched you from the plane. You like it out here. You're Lawrence of Vietnam."

Broadleaf survives and returns to college but can't stand the profs who think they know all about the war. "I disagreed with them, trying to explain that we left South Vietnam in 1972 and three years after we left, the South Vietnamese lost, not us. This upset their way of thinking and made them confused and rather than admit they were wrong and that their lives were useless, they flunked me."

As for Broadleaf, he's still trying to figure out his own life. The book ends with some of his poetry, most better left unpublished, though there is this line: "His wives were of such variety / He had no time for piety." Not much piety in the book, either. Cynicism will have to do.

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, October 11, 2007

Is Dawkins deluded with his denial?


Robert Bellah presented a public lecture at Chico State University in September, sponsored in part by the school's religious studies department.

He is the lead author of "Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life" ($18.95 in paper in a just-published third edition from University of California Press) and a sociologist who has focused on the place of religion in public life.

During his talk, Bellah, an Episcopalian, acknowledged that there are those, like evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who believe religious discourse has no place in the "public sphere." Bellah, with a twinkle in his eye, characterized Dawkins and his kin (such as Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett) as "Enlightenment fundamentalists."

In effect Bellah was saying that if religious fundamentalists can sometimes be intemperate and irrational, so can, well, atheists.

Dawkins' best-seller is "The God Delusion" ($27 in hardcover from Houghton Mifflin). Though I read parts of the book, I was put off by Dawkins' claim that if folks could just get their consciousness raised they'd drop the whole God business forthwith.

But that amounts to little more than saying "if more people saw things the way I see them, more people would be atheists." Well, duh!
Alister McGrath, who did research in molecular biophysics before becoming professor of historical theology at Oxford University, has more patience. Together with his wife, psychologist Joanna Collicutt McGrath, the two have written "The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine" ($16 in hardcover from IVP Books).

In their brief treatment, the McGraths conclude that "the total dogmatic conviction of correctness which pervades some sections of Western atheism today — wonderfully illustrated in 'The God Delusion' — immediately aligns it with a religious fundamentalism that refuses to allow its ideas to be examined or challenged."

The McGraths agree with Dawkins that the world has seen too much violence in the name of religion. But they note his refusal to consider counter-evidence to his claim that, as Alister McGrath writes, "the God Dawkins does not believe in is 'a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.' Come to think of it, I don't believe in a God like that either. In fact, I don't know anybody who does."

The McGraths discuss four questions: Is someone who believes in God deluded? Has science disproved God? What are the origins of religion? Is religion evil?

Their answers are a nuanced corrective to Dawkins' excesses and offer reasons to think that Bellah knew exactly what he was talking about.

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.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Former Paradise resident offers short-story collection


"Paradise Stories" ($15 in paperback from Small Desk Press, by Dustin Heron begins in 1994 with 10-year-old Billy, whose parents, Ant and Stan Wright, live in a trailer in Paradise.

One day their septic system backs up and floods the yard in front of the trailer and Billy is confronted by a giant pile of living, talking excrement that asks Billy if he wants to live forever. Then things really get interesting.

San Francisco-based Small Desk Press publishes talented new writers who push the literary envelope. Heron, who comes from Paradise, has crafted a series of 10 interconnected stories set in Paradise and Chico that takes the reader on a journey into the abject lives of the working poor. The stories are by turns revoltingly funny and sickeningly sad. The reader, like Billy, comes face-to-face with poop in all of its forms from the very first line in the book. Yet rather than fashion a grade-B comedy, Heron has done something quite extraordinary.

Even as this reader at least is reeling from the machine-gun assault of the S-word, Heron transforms the utterly incredible into a gimlet-eyed view of the human condition, and hope in the midst of excrement. Sucker-punched, I couldn't stop reading.

Old Roland Gary (Ant is his niece) is in front of St. Thomas More in Paradise, half drunk, cynical and sarcastic, about to attend his late wife's memorial service. He spies the Gold Nugget Parade on the Skyway. "Floats, designed by children and other half-wits, rumbled down the street affixed to rusty old Fords spewing clouds of black exhaust to a raucous soundtrack of fiddles and beer-addled shouting. Grubby-faced children, smeared from head to toe in cotton candy, tugged on the floral petticoats of their grandmothers for money to buy one of the pieces of low-quality garbage housed under those white tents on the hill. ..." There was "a proliferation of fool's gold ... necklaces and bracelets, figurines — any and everything glittering with the same false promise the whole town had been founded on."

Then Dan, the winner of the Donkey Derby, appeared. The Derby "simulated the founding of Paradise, wherein one lucky group of miners found a 50-pound gold nugget in the river & and lugged it up the hill on the back of a donkey and started the town of Paradise, where the hopeful swarmed, staked their claims, fought and loved and killed and began lives — only to discover that the Feather River contained exactly 50 pounds of gold, and it had already been spent."

There. You have been warned.

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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