Thursday, July 30, 2009

Novelist Barbara Kingsolver's family tackles "living locally"


A few years ago Barbara Kingsolver, her husband, Steven Hopp, and their two daughters, Camille and Lily, moved from their home in Tucson, Arizona, to a farm in southern Appalachia. One of the reasons for the relocation was, as Kingsolver puts it, a desire "to live in a place that could feed us: where rain falls, crops grow, and drinking water bubbles right up out of the ground."

For a year the family endeavored to grow what food they could, shop at local farmers' markets, and in general eat only what had been raised no more than, say, an hour or so away. There were exceptions: Steven had to have coffee and Barbara needed tumeric, cinnamon, and cloves, so they used fair trade channels. The result is chronicled in "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life" ($14.95 in paperback from Harper Perennial) by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver. (Lily, Barbara notes, was too young to sign a book contract.)

Enloe Medical Center is sponsoring a brown bag lunch and discussion of the book on Monday, August 10th, from noon until 1:00 p.m. at the Enloe Health Learning Center, 1465 Esplanade at 5th Avenue in Chico. The public is invited.

Barbara writes that "we made every attempt to feed ourselves animals and vegetables whose provenance we really knew. We tried to wring most of the petroleum out of our food chain, even if that meant giving up some things. Our highest shopping goal was to get our food from so close to home, we'd know the person who grew it. Often that turned out to be us, as we learned to produce more of what we needed, starting with dirt, seeds, and enough knowledge to muddle through. Or starting with baby animals and enough sense to refrain from naming them."

Barbara writes the main narrative, while Steven provides sidebars dealing with social and political considerations, such as issues surrounding factory farms (which he calls "concentrated animal feeding operations") or becoming a "locavore." Camille adds a teenager's take on eating spuds or free-range animals (and Barbara makes a case against the vegan movement). There are many recipes, with more resources at

All in all, for the family, and readers, a growing experience.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A pictorial history of the Chinese experience in California


Historian Hannah Clayborn, based in Walnut Creek, writes that "Word of the 1848 gold discovery in California first spread on ships, and the people of Guangdong Province, burdened at home with political corruption, war, and floods, were some of the first to hear of it." By 1852 some 25,000 Chinese were listed on the California census. "Their countrymen called them Gam Saan Haak (guests of Gold Mountain). . . . The typical Chinese argonaut was young, single, and uneducated. He intended to return to China with his fortune made."

Clayborn tells the story of a century of immigrant experience in "Historic Photos of The Chinese in California" ($39.95 in hardcover from Turner Publishing). It features nearly 200 images drawn from such collections as the Oroville Chinese Temple and Museum, UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library, and the Library of Congress.

"Despite violence and discrimination," the author writes, "the Chinese clung tenaciously to Gold Mountain, taking jobs on road crews, reclaiming marshlands in the Sacramento Delta and Central Valley, digging reservoirs and wells in new towns, and piling stones for property line fences." And they worked on the railroad, "doing the most hazardous tasks involved in laying track over the Sierra Nevada."

One photograph shows a procession of some sort down Montgomery Street in Oroville ("City of Gold") around 1890. Clayborn notes the town "was once the center for a population of Chinese miners, railroad workers, and agricultural laborers reportedly numbering above 10,000."

Another image, from 1895, shows Chun Kong You, "the most prosperous Chinese businessman in Oroville." He owned the "Fong Lee (Big Profit) store, which sold herbs and was a licensed gold purchasing agency. His descendants . . . helped preserve the Oroville Chinese Temple."

With the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, the city's "old Chinatown, home to an estimated 14,000 people" became "a muddy mash of crusted pottery, ash, twisted metal, and an untold number of charred bodies." But in a twist of historical fate, the destruction of the birth records meant that "Chinese men could now claim citizenship and therefore the right to bring their families from China." A new Chinatown was built, families began to arrive--and so did the tourists. The story doesn't end there, and Clayborn's book repays repeated visits.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Chico novelist ponders how the Bible speaks


Retired Chico State University English Professor David Downes has written a series of novels reflecting on the meaning of life and love. His latest story takes up the matters of death and God, but there is no easy piety here. "The Mysterious Furies of the God In a Tent" ($19.99 in paperback from Xlibris), written under the name David Anton, presents the reader with an aging Aaron Steinmetz, brilliant brain scientist and secular Jew.

Steinmetz has been diagnosed with cancer and his son,David, also an agnostic, thinks his father might benefit in his last days from connecting with his Jewish heritage. It's arranged that Rabbi Calev Soloch will visit Aaron and together the two will read the Hebrew Bible. Aaron, who studies how brain neurons might produce consciousness, can hardly abide what he considers stories of a mercurial and vindictive God.

Aaron tells his son: "I have been reading the Hebrew Bible about how God chose us as His people. It was a calamity for Jews from the beginning, David, to be so chosen. The Bible is full of this racial grief and now we read it with a piety that belies its deepest meaning--punishing alienation. We were chosen to be God's sacrificial lambs to be burned in hatred ever since. We accepted God's wish and so it has been until this day."

David, meantime, has developed a deep friendship, love even, for his lab assistant, Hannah Richter, a Catholic with a German heritage. The novel is a series of dialogues as David tries to understand Jesus and why most Jews reject him as the Messiah, and Aaron and Calev wrestle with "the Jewish God" whose biography, Aaron says, "ends as a closed book . . . as if God has left his tent or is asleep in it, has finished his active adventures with the descendants of Abram." For Aaron, God is silent.

Can faith grow in Aaron, self-described as "a philosopher of neuroscience, an amateur historian, a reader of the newspaper"? Is there another kind of language, mysterious as human consciousness, through which one might come to terms with the "mysterious furies"? Anton does not give simple answers, but the hint is clear that we are more than solitary selves. The heart knows.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Memories of Hungary from a North State Voices columnist


"Hungary was not a happy country in 1956," writes Miklos Sajben. "People had had enough of being told what to do and say. They were tired of being forced to mouth party dogma. The Poles and the Czechs were stirring, and the fires of discontent spread like a forest blaze after a six-month drought. They reached Budapest and I watched the country burst into flames."

There are some eerie parallels between the recent events in Iran and the ferment in Hungary back then. The Russian occupiers "lowered the boom" by executing some members of the Hungarian cabinet and installed a new cabinet that "declared to the world that everything was under control." The revolts in the streets, Sajben writes, were at first "in the hands of students and intellectuals" but soon became disorganized. In just a few weeks, the revolution was all but crushed.

Sajben managed to escape and emigrate to the United States. His compelling story is told in "Dancing Boots and Pigs' Feet: Memoir of a Refugee from the Hungarian Revolution of 1956" ($14 in paperback from The book is available locally at Lyon Books in Chico.

Focusing on his growing-up years in Hungary, the author, who received a doctorate from MIT and who now lives in Chico, recalls the importance of family life. His working-class father obtained pigs, and pork became a staple. "Some parts of the feet," Sajben writes, "became the main ingredients of a dish called kocsonya. Pieces of the pig's feet were boiled in spiced broth for a long time and eventually allowed to solidify into a jelly-like substance. The dish was served cold, with paprika sprinkled on top." But what was "stupendously tasty": "Cubed kidney with brain sauce."

Sajben became a talented folk dancer in eighth grade with the encouragement of a new teacher, but turned away from the stage to pursue engineering. The book includes the author's drawings and family photographs and it's replete with Sajben's dry humor: One doesn't stand in line in Hungary to get precious goods; one forms a "circular queue" to get as close as one can using one's knees and elbows. In America it's hard to tell "when the movie stops and the commercial starts."

An amazing life, well told.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Honoring Durham's military service members


The stories of 318 men and women who served, or who are now serving, in the military, are told in "Durham Honor Roll (Volume II): Military Service From 1946 - 2009" (spiral bound, available through Durham Friends of the Library, P.O. Box 505, Durham, CA 95938). Compiled by Adriana ("Rian") Farley, the mini-biographies form a companion to her "Durham's World War II Honor Roll" published in 2005.

Published as an ongoing fundraiser for the Durham Library, the two books chronicle 522 service members with some connection to Durham High.

Many of the entries in Volume II are drawn from the ongoing "Now Serving" column, which began in 2005. "Some individuals and their families were very interested in the project," she writes, "others, less so. Some individuals wanted to reflect on their time in the military, others sought to forget those days." Each page is devoted to a single name (with photographs if available) and, where biographical information is sparse or non-existent, Farley has added research information from relevant Web sites.

There are sections on the Navy SEALs, the Marine Corps values, the U.S. Army in Vietnam and hundreds of other entries connecting the military experiences of those from Durham with the larger service community.

Walter "Mark" Bender, who served in the Marine Corps from 1974 through 1979, "has been an English teacher at Durham High School since 1997." Robert Allen Cooke, who served in the Army, "died in Vietnam War action during a Tuesday night patrol" in 1969; his name is on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, "The Wall." Katherine Draper's Army career spanned thirty years, beginning in 1965, and she writes that "it was a great life and I loved personnel work."

Also in the Army: Sean Farley, son of Rick and Rian Farley, who served in Iraq beginning in 2004. Greg Mortell served in the Navy from 1996 through 2001, and received the NATO medal for Kosovo operations. Chris Raabe began his career in the U.S. Air Force in 2002 and has logged more than 1500 hours "in prone position at the aft of" a refueling tanker; he calls it "the tube of pain."

The "Honor Roll" is an extraordinary tribute to those whose pain, and sacrifice, help ensure our freedom from one generation to the next.



John, called "the Man" by his followers, came to the valley to escape the world's chaos, which no philosopher had been able to fix. The valley is the Kalalau on the Na Pali Coast of Kauai, in Hawaii, and John's answer is to walk the treacherous valley trail, backwards, so that he will not forget this land of spirits. Peter McDonald, the atheist hired as the official photographer, has more in store than picture-taking in this novel of self-discovery from Chico author Stephen McMillin. The title? "The Man Who Walked Backward Down the Na Pali Coast" (paperback, available from


The California Coastal Commission has just published "Beaches and Parks in Southern California" ($24.95 in paperback from University of California Press). This full-color comprehensive guide covers Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties (a guide to the North Coast was published several years ago). Edited by Steve Scholl, the book lists more than 450 sites including "beaches, public access ways, parks, campground, nature preserves, world-class aquariums, and museums." Maps show biking and hiking trails and articles provide details such as "open hours, food and beverage services, wheelchair accessibility, rules about dogs," and more. An ideal guide for the getaway season.


It's World War II, and Serge, the product of an East Prussian family that had emigrated to America, "enlists in the U.S. Marine Corps and learns the rudiments of military undercover work." He becomes an aeronautical engineer and then, ready to practice some high-level military-industrial espionage, "becomes the darling of the German High Command." In "Codename: Beowulf" ($16.95 in paperback from Dorrance), Serge escapes from the Gestapo but must return to occupied Europe to save his great love, "trapped in a ghetto in Belgium." Reno, Nevada writer Paul Hewen bases his story on family history, though "names have been changed."