Thursday, January 31, 2008

Chico writer, no friend of the President, says “W” is the worst


Once a Republican candidate for the US Congress, Francis X. Callahan, Chico State University professor emeritus in the Department of Finance and Marketing, retired from full-time lecturing as a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore. Fed up with the present U.S. Administration, he has published a blistering indictment of the current President. And he calls Vice President Cheney “devious and duplicitous.” It’s clear George W. Bush will receive no Valentine this year from Frank Callahan.

“Does W Stand for Worst? The Record of G. W. Bush” ($14.95 in paperback from or 1-866-712-8883) argues that though “corruption and incompetence” have tarnished many presidencies, “until Bush, no administration was linked to torture. No other presidency was marked by secret prisons. No previous administration stood for the abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.”

Other presidents have made bad judgments (Lyndon Johnson with Vietnam, Nixon with Watergate, Clinton with sex, and the list goes on). But, Callahan says, “though there are historical arguments that can be made to defend Bush,” the President has taken “malfeasance,” “mismanagement” and “sheer obstinacy” to unprecedented heights (or depths). Callahan charges that Bush 43 has deprived Americans “of the benefits of scientific inquiry” (with the restrictions on stem cell research) and propagated lies “leading to the absolutely needless deaths and maiming of so many of our young men and women . . . (and) of the absolute disregard for the Constitution.”

Cheney is not the only name Callahan excoriates. Others include Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Alberto Gonzales, and infamous FEMA Director Michael Brown. “Many Americans voted for Bush in 2000 (though not as many who voted for Al Gore) and did so again in 2004, even though he was a draft dodger and shirked his National Guard duties in Texas while running against true American heroes, McCain in 2000 and Kerry in 2004.” Bush was “appointed” in 2000 by the “Gang of Five” on the Supreme Court, led by Antonin Scalia.

Callahan concludes that “no presidency has been so inept” in Bush’s “mishandling of the treasury, taxes, the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the disrespect for the US that he has engendered for his go-it-alone stubbornness and, truly, a frat boy so out of his depth as to cause anguish in hundreds of thousands of families.” (Callahan’s own solution to the “civil war” in Iraq is to create states, like “Sunnistan, Kurdistan and Shiastan,” like the United States, each responsible for its own security.)

Readers, of course, must judge for themselves the cogency of Callahan’s case.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Chico writer-photographer’s delicious new children’s book features old Beijing


Time was when Chico’s Doug Keister loped around the country photographing buildings for his books on Victorian or Storybook styles. But in recent years, as he has honed his writerly voice (his blog is at, his photographic subjects have become impressively eclectic—from classic travel trailers to cemetery symbolism and now to the hutongs, the older neighborhoods of Beijing.

“To Grandmother’s House: A Visit To Old-Town Beijing” ($15.95 in hardcover from Gibbs Smith, Publisher) is a simple documentary told in both Mandarin and English. Featuring Keister’s full-color photographs, the story begins with Zhang Yue: “Today my cousin Han Li and I are going to visit my grandmother and learn something special. In Beijing, the grandmother on our mother’s side is called Laolao.”

The author is scheduled to sign copies of his book at Lyon Books in Chico on Thursday, February 7 (the start of the Chinese New Year, the “Year of the Rat”) from 4:00 – 6:00 PM. Children and other people are invited.

Keister also includes a pronunciation guide for key words. Zhang Yue is pronounced “zang whee”; Laolao “rhymes with cow-cow.”

Grandmother lives in one of the hutongs (“hoo-tong”), “some of the oldest neighborhoods in Beijing. Some houses are more than three hundred years old.” Zhang Yue and her cousin take a pedicab and along the way stop at various shops, some featuring intricate paper cutouts, others selling candies. They visit a drum tower, “more than seven hundred and fifty years old. In the old days, drums were beaten at certain times in the day so people knew what time it was.” The ritual practice continues today.

When Zhang Yue and Han Li arrive at Laolao’s house, they find “she is going to make us special dumplings we call jiaozi (“jee-oh-zee”). . . . Laolao tells me she has another surprise for me. She says we are going to make the dumplings together.”

There are pictures of rolling the dough, adding the filling, pinching the ends. At the end there’s a detailed recipe for the dumplings, as well as dipping sauce, and an invitation from Zhang Yue for readers to visit Beijing and explore the hutongs.

In an author’s note for teachers, Keister notes that “Beijing is a city with a long, rich, complex history. There is a special texture to Beijing. It’s an intoxicating blend of old traditions, beautiful scenery, and stunning architecture.” Though modernization has cost a number of hutongs, others are being preserved. They reveal a different Beijing, one well worth visiting. “And have some dumplings when you’re there!”

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Literary controversy swirls around the late Ray Carver, one of Chico’s own

In 1958 Raymond Carver moved from Yakima to Paradise. Enrolling at Chico State College, he was guided by John Gardner, who was also on his way to fame as a writer. But it was not until he met editor Gordon Lish, in 1967, that Carver’s skill began to be refined. Two years later Lish became the fiction editor of Esquire where he published Carver’s stories over the next decade.

Before his death in 1988 Carver was a star in the literary firmament. The critic Frank Kermode wrote that “Carver’s fiction is so spare in manner that it takes a time before one realizes how completely a whole culture and a whole moral condition is represented by even the most seemingly slight sketch.” His first collection, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” (1976) as well as “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (1981) heralded the advent of a master of minimalism.

Those stories had been edited by Gordon Lish. In the New Yorker for December 24 & 31, 2007 ( the editor lays out the controversy. Just before “What We Talk About” was to go to print, Caver frantically wrote to Lish asking him to suspend publication. “Carver had been up all night reviewing Lish’s severe editorial cuts—two stories had been slashed by nearly seventy per cent, many by almost half; many descriptions and digressions were gone; endings had been truncated or rewritten—and he was unnerved to the point of desperation.” Carver “feared exposure before his friends, who had read many of the stories in their earlier versions.”

The magazine prints a series of Carver’s letters to Lish and the original text of the story (then called “Beginners”) that became “What We Talk About” (giving the title to the collection).

Did Lish “create” Ray Carver’s voice? The Lish-edited story is static; the characters (two married couples) remain around the table as the sun sets. It’s a bleak story that fades to black.

The longer version feels embellished, more sentimental, more spelled out. The characters move around. At the end the narrator stares out the window, making contact with the outside world. Near the end Carver had written: “Herb finished his drink. Then he got slowly up from the table and said, ‘Excuse me. I’ll go shower.’ He left the kitchen and walked slowly down the hall to the bathroom. He shut the door behind him.” As Lish edited it: “Herb finished his drink. ‘Gin’s gone,’ Herb said.” No getting up. No shower.

So who is “Ray Carver”?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Paradise poet on the hard realities of life—and death


The poetry of Paradise author Elizabeth A. Bernstein is not exactly sweetness and light. Words from just two pages of her newest collection include “cursed,” “famine,” “bitter.” Somber words that match somber times. The winds of chaos engulfing the world (only a slight exaggeration) need those who can imagine something better to push against the force. But it requires great fortitude.

“Walk Into the Wind” is a little paperback from Pine Cone Ridge Press. (For information on price please write the publisher at P.O. Box 94, Paradise, CA 95967-0094.) The first selection gives the book its title and even a kind of hope:

Walk into the wind

Conquer fear

as it flees the storm’s mouth

drowns the deep ocean’s roar.

Watch light

drink its last breath

as the mind’s eye goes dark.

Heed the star

that illuminates wisdom

stirring the far reach of thought. . . .

There is much that requires our fortitude. In “Suicide Bomber” the poet writes: “I bequeath you, O world, a spiraling / rage that spreads like cancer // From violated space / fueling pain and more pain. . . .” In “Baghdad,” the focus is on the “city of a thousand gardens”: “Falsehood batters down your doors, / forked tongues deny rumors of greed, // Rivers flee firestorms of iniquity, / palm trees tremble even as they sleep. . . .” Yet the city will “triumph over destiny” as “The Faithful reach out their hands, / welcome you to the banquet of tomorrow.”

No one in this panoply of misery is spared, yet even in the midst of “demons dancing frenzied killing fields” (in “Tibet – A Tribute”) there is something “Beyond the melted edge of memory - / healing the wounds of blasted innocence - / your prayer wheels turn on singing silences. / You breathe again the deep, blue Infinite / where your spirit soars another sky.” In “Volcano,” “A spirit issues / from the throes of death // Becomes life.” In “On Eating Flesh,” there is “One cell / Countless galaxies / One Great Spirit.”

The poet remembers the songs from the old country (“Melodies carried in suitcases”), even (in “Time Passing”) in “The splintered hours / and the cries that fall from them.”

And now, at the end, the wind is a friend. In “Last Request,” “Let me / Cling to the last sense / That leaves us as we leave // Hearing - / Hearing the wind / That oldest keening // Hearing / Sibelius / Finlandia . . . // Hearing eternity.”

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Nick Ellena’s travel columns now in colorful coffee table book


If St. Nick had to do a lot of traveling this holiday season, the Enterprise-Record’s own Nick Ellena is not far behind in frequent flyer miles. Retired after 44 years with the paper, Ellena’s “Flashbacks” column has been a popular weekly feature; now, some 63 of them have been collected between hard covers and profusely illustrated with Ellena’s color photography.

“Flashbacks From Here and There . . . : Pages From the Journal of An Adventure Traveler” ($32.95 in hardcover from takes the reader from the Vietnam War to the carvers of Kenya; from a Bolivian yo-yo craze to “Whymper’s Ghost.” As Tonya R. B. Dale says in her introduction, “Nick’s stories capture a place and time—as well as a thinking person’s perspective on what he’s seen.”

On the same page with these words is a photograph of Ellena “at base camp for Mount Everest.” Though Ellena has been pretty much everywhere, it’s clear from his accounts that mountains are his “peak” experience, reflected in his glorious photographs of Mt. Tocllarahu in Peru; Mt. Kolahoi in Kashmir; Lassen and Shasta; and many more. But he didn’t just look at mountains; he climbed them. Since his marriage to Gina, the couple has traipsed the world (and Gina herself contributes several chapters).

The columns are not arranged in chronological order, and several pieces of connected stories are scattered throughout the book. After several articles about South America early on, the reader learns later in the book that “in 1972 Mike Ramsey, then a cub reporter for the Oroville Mercury and now our acclaimed district attorney, hitchhiked, boated, trained and bused with me through Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil. We parted ways in Sao Paolo when Ramsey preferred to show a young lady the lights of Rio than visit Iguazu Falls on the border of Argentina with me.” Go figure.

Three years later Ellena was in Udaipur, India writing that “for some weird reason that may merit psychological analysis, I’d been enthralled by ancient arms and deeds of derring-do. In travels to places where they figure prominently in local history, it was fun to prowl the bazaars and dusty shops where an old piece of cutlery might be lurking at a bargain price.”

In June 1990 he filed a report from Gilgit, Pakistan covering, of all things, practice matches for a polo tournament between two local military units “in the thin air of Shandur Pass at an altitude of 12,238 feet.”

“Flashbacks” chronicles an amazing life of travel and the author’s sheer delight in people.