Thursday, April 30, 2009

Captivating "Black Bart" novel humanizes northstate stagecoach robber


Paradise author Lou Legerton, retired from Wells Fargo, is fascinated with the mysterious figure dubbed "Black Bart" by the press. He spent a dozen years researching the stagecoach bandit, the bane of Wells, Fargo & Company in the 1870s and 1880s, collecting documents and letters, visiting Civil War battlefields where he fought, even visiting his family's hometown of Plessis, New York.

But why did Charles E. Boles (a.k.a. Bowles or Bolton), a married man with three daughters, forsake his family and take to robbing stages in Northern California? He eluded capture for years, leaving doggerel as his calling card, served four-and-a-half years in San Quentin, was paroled in 1888, and then disappeared.

Legerton, together with award-winning writer Gail Jenner, a Chico State University graduate now living in Etna, California, have transformed the historical record into a novel, suitable for young adult readers, that attempts to take the "full measure" of the man. "Black Bart: The Poet Bandit" ($14.95 in paperback from Infinity Publishing), by Gail L. Jenner and Lou Legerton, is illustrated with line drawings by Glen "Lawrence" Harrington, and it's compulsively readable.

In the epilogue the authors quote from "the last known letter" to his wife, Mary Elizabeth, who had not heard from him in 15 years. "My Dear Family," Charles wrote, "how little you know of the terrible ordeal I have passed through, and how few of what the World calls good men are worth the Giant Powder it would take to blow them into eternity. . . ."

Boles is a man stung by financial hardship, a jobless veteran lured by the false promise of California riches, a rascal with good intentions. He relishes his dual existence as "gentleman" and "robber." "On July 25, 1878, he robbed the Quincy to Oroville stage, and unloaded more than $600 worth of valuables. He'd liked to have made more on the deal." And he left some verse, admired in the novel by Mary Vollmer, his mistress (though the record is unclear): "Here I lay me down to sleep, to wait the coming morrow. Perhaps success, perhaps defeat, and everlasting sorrow. Let come what will, I'll try it on, my condition can't be worse, but if there's money in the box, it's munny in my purse."

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Russ Woody invents a world


Not satisfied with putting words into the mouths of Murphy Brown and Jeff Foxworthy, Hollywood writer/producer Russ Woody has birthed a world and populated it with a slew of two-foot-tall grumps.

Woody, a recent guest at Chico State University, his alma mater, envisions a world at the center of our own that is in some way responsible for keeping earth rotating. The upside-down tale--complete with exploding heads, quivering mucus and other gross-out elements designed to appeal especially to pre-teens--has a logic all its own. Call it "circular logic."

The story is told in "The Wheel of Nuldoid" ($15.95 in paperback from Pointless Ink) which includes marvelously quirky drawings and maps by Norman Felchle. Readers can taste the book ahead of time at and if they start to get cramps the story is having its intended effect.

It begins in the 2060s. Old Grampa Worst tells his grandchildren the bizarre story of his son, Warren, back in the late 1980s, after the earth's rotation had begun to slow. People became more sluggish as gravity pressed in, so, writes Woody, ratings for such shows as "Murphy Brown" shot through the roof. And a couple of sinister beer-loving Nuldoids, Kyle and Morton, who never ceased to argue and swear ("murk fuddle!" "Ya stinkin' drobbs horkels!"), journey to the surface in search of the Crystal somehow connected to the fate of Hoidenall (earth).

Mind-blowing adventures soon begin for Warren and Leo, "a student in Warren's social studies class, a scruffy-looking kid of eleven," and Warren's friend Lily. The humans, "Crustoids" or just "Toids," must travel to Nuldoid via the region of the Oidenoids, the "wandering conformists" who think their interpretation of the sacred "Book of Lloyd" is the only correct one.

Nuldoid is a place "where north was south and great was mediocre, where conflict and dissent and bickering were good and welcome things and where spit was greasy." It's "Hib nobb del noid" (literally 'Within dat circular circle, circles all dat is to be moved in dat circle"), referring to the "belief that everything exists in a circle. Therefore happiness is next to unhappiness, evil is next to good, fat to thin." Argument produces essential movement.

In Woody's fast-paced upside down story there are, indeed, wheels within wheels.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Award-winning Oregon novelist to make Chico appearance


"In those days," writes Portland-based novelist Molly Gloss, "plenty of men thought nothing of being rough with horses. A horse had to have a his spirit entirely broken was what a lot of men thought, had to be beaten into abject submission." This was the "winter of 1917 and 1918" when 19-year-old Martha Lessen, horse whisperer and broncobuster, rides into rural Elwha County in eastern Oregon looking for work.

So begins a quiet tale of Martha's "gentling" horses ("I can gentle most anything that has four feet and a tail," she says) and in turn being "gentled" into community life, especially by George and Louise Bliss, with whom she signs on. This is the time when young men are going off to war and ranchers are short of help.

"The Hearts of Horses" ($13.95 in paperback from Mariner Books) is an engrossing story, full of poignant reminders of our contemporary world (in those days, sauerkraut was called "freedom cabbage") and expressing a feminist sensibility in the strength and dignity of its female characters, even as women's suffrage would become a reality not many years hence.

Gloss will be signing copies Wednesday, April 22 at 7:00 p.m. at Lyon Books in Chico. Her work has won the James Tiptree Award, appeared in the New York Times' "Notable Book" list, and was chosen a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Martha is a loner, dressed as if ready for a rodeo (one observer thinks she looks like Calamity Jane), tall, "big boned," with a wide smile and air of innocence. Her childhood dream is of freedom, galloping "bareback across fenceless prairies through grass as high as the horse's belly," a life of independence, "intimate with animals, intimate with the earth."

As winter surrenders to spring, the reader is drawn slowly, slowly into what happens to the dream, into the sometimes tragic lives of Martha's far-flung neighbors, into the human and animal cost of war, the scourges of cancer, ptomaine poisoning and influenza, and "the hard truth that loving someone meant living every moment with the knowledge he might die--die in a horrible way--and leave you alone."

Yet in the midst of pain this is a story of hope, one of "taming" the heart--but not domesticating it.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

"Funny signs" travel author coming to Chico State University


Doug Lansky has backpacked in more than a hundred countries, and besides collecting travel smarts he's also collected photographs of funny signs, often in fractured English, presented in a series of full-color books. The latest is "Signspotting 2: More Absurd & Amusing Signs From Around the World" ($9.99 in paperback from Lonely Planet).

Lansky and freelance contributors to have found hilarious examples (some of them unintentionally naughty) and the author adds an explanatory caption for those who may not get the joke. Some of the signs are not exactly helpful. In Monroeville, Pennsylvania, there's a sign that says "Entrance Only - Do Not Enter." In Boulders Beach, South Africa, a prominent sign says: "Table Mountain National Park - Warning - Please look under your vehicles for penguins." In Darwin, Australia, there's an official sign pointing to "Lost City." ("Pssst," Lansky adds, "don't tell anyone.")

Lansky is scheduled to appear at Chico State University's Laxson Auditorium this coming Tuesday, April 14, at 7:30 p.m. His "Get Lost" presentation, billed as stand up comedy, only about travel, is free to the public as part of the "On the Creek Lecture Series." Though the presentation is free, a ticket is required from Chico Performances ( by calling (530) 898-6333.

The author uses humor to get at something deeper, an appreciation of travel that doesn't depend on seeing all the tourist attractions and taking pictures of friends standing in front of them. One can tread lightly on the earth and make travel a very personal project. Collecting funny signs is not about laughing at those whose English is poor (Lansky points out that English speakers would also be prone to gaffes putting their words into different languages). It is about connecting with a memory and enjoying the silliness.

In Bangkok, Thailand, the sign says "Milk Chocolate Covered Crocodile" ("Hold the whipped cream," says Lansky); in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, the club sign says "Members and Non Members Only" and in New Brunswick, Canada you'll find the "Ha Ha Cemetery." In Kenya don't forget the "Joyride Driving School." And when you visit Colton, California, be sure to see the sign on the side of the building that says "Colton High School - Commited To High Standards."

Sign me up!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Sacramento poet celebrates his newborn daughter


Brad Buchanan's new collection of poems, "Swimming the Mirror" ($12 in paperback from Roan Press, is a small jewel of a book that illuminates the dad perspective. He teaches English at California State University, Sacramento, and these accessible poems, almost sixty of them, are by turns poignant, funny, and thoughtful.

Inside the womb, with "the white noise of corpuscles seething," "the kidneys' minuet," and the "bladder's pulse," "The unborn child conducts her own / orchestral suite, until she is born / and the roar of the universe withdraws. / The silence hurts so much she cries // for the whispers of the breast, the lost / percussion of love, The Planets by Holst, / and the tiny chorus of kicks from within / that strikes the triumphal march up once again." Such is "The Music of the Spheres."

Now she is here. There is "Quiet Alert": "Not sad, but crying, / the baby is signaling / her newfound needs-- / the world's in a holding / pattern, and knows it. / We work the angles / of blankets and breastfeeding, / tilt at the windmills / of burping, navigate / the pink circumference / under a diaper, / discover the truth behind / rumors of new uprisings / from the south, / decode the morsels / that drop from her mouth, / and then relax all the way / back to delight / seeing her eyes open, / quiet, alert."

A newborn, though, can take its toll on parents. Sometimes tempers become short, accusations fly, there's "Spilled Milk." ". . . An unfair response / becomes a negotiating position-- / and then, at last, as talks break down / and we are reminded of why we were lovers / before we were mother and father to one / helpless human being, now sleeping again, / we find spilled milk well worth crying over, / since nothing else matters at 2 A.M."

Later, "Her Fall": "She tumbled, / but the tears didn't come / until we found her / lying on her belly, / and picked her up to see / what happened, / why she couldn't fly."

In "Activity Report," "Somebody found an open box of cookies and was very happy." The reader will be, too.



The "Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Valley Regions" ($18.95 in paperback from University of California Press) identifies 130 species. Arthur Shapiro, Professor of Evolution and Ecology at UC Davis, covers the lives of butterflies and which garden plants attract them. The bulk of the guide is devoted to detailed species descriptions with full-color illustrations by Timothy Manolis. Tidbits abound: "The Anise Swallowtail is one of the very rare cases where a single species will feed both on herbs (carrot family) and trees (cultivated citrus in southern California and in Butte County). . . ."


Sacramento native Albert Hurtado, an historian at the University of Oklahoma, has produced a definitive scholarly biography of a California pioneer (who attended John Bidwell's wedding in 1868). "John Sutter: A Life on the North American Frontier" ($24.95 in paperback from University of Oklahoma Press) is a detailed warts-and-all account. "Sutter's financial management was not helped by his well-known addiction to drink. His friend Bidwell, a lifelong temperance man, worried about him and arranged for . . . a celebrated temperance lecturer" to visit Sutter. "It did no good. 'I told her, that she could not convert me,' Sutter explained."


In "The Purple and the Orange: A Tale of Defoliation" ($23 in paperback from Dorrance Publishing), Fair Oaks author Denis De Luchi has written a massive novel (569 pages) about an Air Force pilot named Tony Gyro (pronounced "hero") who volunteers to spray Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Though married, Major Hero has a number of sexual liaisons, and throughout the sardonic story searches for the war's meaning. He concludes: "We have it all wrong." An author's note says that De Luchi "is a retired Air Force pilot and college physics professor. For Lent, 1952, he gave up church."