Thursday, March 25, 2010

Longtime Butte College math instructor becomes novelist


Though there are a few math brain teasers scattered throughout, the theme of the first novel by longtime Butte College math instructor Gary Oakes is not how things add up but how, inevitably, they don't. "The World Is At Your Feet" ($14.95 in paperback from Long Shot Books) by G. Donovan Oakes ( takes place during the summer of 1959, a time of growing racial tensions.

The New York City Chamber of Commerce has set up a remediation program for black high school kids in Harlem. Four young grad students have volunteered to teach them English and math. Two of the first-time teachers are caucasian, Jim Sage of New York and Sam Maguire from Chicago. Hikoji ("Hi") Okamoto, from Sacramento, has parents who spent time in relocation and internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II. Then there's Harlem-based G, suspicious of the newcomers, convinced they know nothing of the rage and despair of their surroundings.

There's prejudice on every hand. Jim realizes that in his class discussion of "Lord of the Flies," "the pig's head represents something evil. The author doesn't explicitly say this. He said how black the teeth are, how black the flies are. . . . He equates black and evil. . . . I'm staring at twenty-five black faces staring back at me. . . . They always told us in school," Jim tells Sam and Hi, "that words have power, but this is the first time that my language has . . . deceived me, misdirected that power."

Jim's blue collar parents don't understand what Jim is doing, and Jim is angered by his father's racist language. "Your mother and I experienced a lot of change," Robert tells his son, "but we had very few choices. Life overpowered us. It just carried us along. We did the best we could."

Jim has "the world at his feet," but his choices do not come in a vacuum. As the author comments at the end, "ideals by themselves don't render a realistic, coherent guide to action in the world. They must be woven through the fabric of our lives, . . . clashing until a viable reconciliation is achieved. Then each day we must live with the consequences." You do the math.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Chico's "Professor of Pun-ology" goes MAD


As millions of movie-goers have donned funny glasses to see what some have said is a Depplorable remake of Alice in Wonderland, interest in the original has also been rekindled. Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass," though full of linguistic antics and absurd characters, also hold up a mirror to human folly in our own world.

In a bit of pre-planned serendipity, a new collection of essays uses the Alice books as a springboard to take up such issues as feminism, procrastination, logic, appearance and reality, memory and identity. There's nothing stodgy here, though. The writing is breezy and full of references to the likes of Abbott and Costello and Plato; Keith Richards and Richard Rorty; Kant and Kafka.

"Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy: Curiouser and Curiouser" ($17.95 in paperback from Wiley), edited by Richard Brian Davis, is part of the extensive "Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series." The book is not connected to Carroll or to the film, but it's a fitting companion to both.

Chief among the essays is "Nuclear Strategists in Wonderland" by Ron Hirschbein, semi-retired from Chico State University's philosophy department, dubbed by one writer (me) as the "Professor of Pun-ology." This is vintage Hirschbein at his most playful as he deconstructs the Cold War policy of "Mutual Assured Destruction" (MAD) that has governed the nuclear age. (One gets the impression that some of the participants were a bit into the vintage themselves, if you know what I mean.)

Hirschbein takes the reader into the world of nuclear strategists. "They call their make-believe stories 'scenarios'--it gives them gravitas. Lewis Carroll wrote a similar genre of literary nonsense--but he realized what he was doing." Here is a world of "Nuclear Jabberwocky" in which "the United States didn't drop atomic bombs on Japan; it used two devices--Fat Man and Little Boy--to end the war. (These names sound like hamburger combos at Big Boy; not weapons of mass destruction.)" It is a world in which civilian deaths are "collateral damage" and missiles are called "Peacekeepers."

Though Hirschbein is far from neutral, his railing against obfuscation can be appreciated by most readers. When the railing gives way, it's then we're most likely to fall down the rabbit hole.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Author of “The Soloist” Coming to Chico March 23, 2010


The 2009-2010 Community Book-In-Common project is featuring an appearance by the author of “The Soloist” ($15 paperback from Berkley Books), Steve Lopez.

The presentation is scheduled for Tuesday, March 23 at 7:30 p.m. at Chico State University’s Laxson Auditorium. Premium tickets are $20; adults/seniors are $15; students and children are $10. Tickets are available online at or by calling (530) 898-6333.

Books will be available for purchase the night of the lecture, and the author will be signing them as well.

Lopez is a columnist with the L.A. Times. “The Soloist” recounts his growing friendship over a two year period with a paranoid schizophrenic street musician, Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, who had played classical bass at Julliard thirty years before. (A film of the same name stars Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.)

Much has been made of the themes of homelessness and mental illness that pervade the book, but readers should know that it is also about self discovery. As Lopez says, "one reason I write a column is for the privilege of vicariously sampling other worlds, dropping in with my passport, my notebook and my curiosity." Fair enough, but the musician gets under his skin: "Nathaniel turns my gaze inward. He has me examining what I do for a living and how I relate to the world as a journalist and as a citizen."

There is more: "I experienced the simple joy of investing in someone’s life, and the many frustrations have made the experience all the more rewarding and meaningful. I might not have always made the right choices in trying to help, but I came by each one honestly. I worked through the arguments for and against commitment. I wrestled with definitions of freedom and happiness, and wondered at times who was crazier—the man in the tunnel who paid no bills and played the music of the gods, or the wrung-out columnist who raced past him on the way home from sweaty deadlines to melt away the stress with a bottle of wine."

A haunting question, and not just for columnists.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Magalia resident co-authors science-fiction thriller


Author Kathy Terstegen writes that a decade ago she met her co-author online and they decided to write a science-fiction/horror novel "that lays out reasons for sightings of gray aliens and the purpose for alien abductions." The result is a chilling yarn called "Gene Pool" ($2.99 in e-book format from the Kindle Store at by Steve Maass (of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin) and Katherine Terstegen.

Designed for reading on Amazon's Kindle e-book reader, "Gene Pool" can also be read on the iPhone, iPod Touch, Blackberry, and PC's using the free Kindle apps from Amazon. (A Mac version is billed as "coming soon.") Since March 7-13 is "Read An E-Book Week" (, it seems appropriate to feature a digital-only book from a local author.

The novel begins with a scenario reminiscent of the X-Files. Matt Greerson, 35 years old, is "chief investigative scientist of the Air Force's Extraterrestrial Task Force." He combines forces with Janice Whitfield, in her early thirties, who teaches astronomy in a California university. They investigate the growing number of abduction stories from solid citizens who swear to have seen gray aliens in flying saucers. But that's not the half of it.

Earth has become a battleground for two alien species, the gray aliens with the almond eyes and another race, stranger yet. The gray aliens have some kind of green gel that reduces human flesh to a brown stain; the other aliens do their killing the old fashioned way, by ripping throats.

The main action with Matt and Janice (including their growing interest in each other) is intercut with stories of secondary characters who encounter the extraordinary. "Standing over the dead man was a monster the likes of which Gordon had never seen even in his worst hallucinations. A hulking nightmare with a shark-like head and widely-spaced black eyes, the creature dripped blood from its clawed hand."

To add to the menace, the shark-faces can seemingly take the shape of humans, or animals, or just about anything. Their ships "resembled a giant spider with legs cradling a glowing egg." (Readers should know that descriptions of violence are restrained and there's not a swear word to be found.)

Why are humans being abducted and killed? The mystery slowly unravels to an unsettling and cautionary conclusion.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Digital photography: Expert advice from a local high school grad


For Tom Dempsey, who graduated from Pleasant Valley High School in 1975, the lightweight digital camera, like the 19-ounce Canon PowerShot G5, his first, revolutionized the profession. "In the years that I used 35mm film (1978-2002)," he writes, "my passion for photography demanded bulky gear." The camera itself was big, and the delay between taking a shot and developing it was excruciating.

For digital camera buffs, there's no comparison. "After 2004," Dempsey says, "I never used film again." But getting "pixel perfect" results takes knowledge and skill, and Dempsey's new book aims to help novice and intermediate photographers make the most of their equipment. "Light Travel: Photography On the Go" ($40 in paperback from Photoseek Publishing, is a coffee-table book full of sound guidance and jaw-droppingly gorgeous full-color photographs.

The Seattle-based Dempsey has traveled the world with his wife, Carol, and his work has appeared in travel publications from National Geographic, Moon Travel Guides, Rough Guides, and more. He loves panoramas, and the images of mountain landscapes included in the book are spectacular. Yet he will often focus on small things, like water droplets on a skunk cabbage leaf in Washington or a closeup of an iridescent hummingbird, the White-Necked Jacobin, photographed near Quito, Ecuador.

The first part of the book, "How to Enliven Images," presents chapters on composition, focus, and picking the best camera. (The best camera, he says, is the one you have with you.) There are practice exercises and a detailed, illustrated glossary that explains all the technical terms. (Under "megapixel" the author notes that "in compact cameras, increasing the number of megapixels beyond about 8 mp is a marketing device that consumes more memory card space but doesn't help image quality.")

For Dempsey, a successful photograph should evoke an emotion. "You don't need a big or expensive camera to capture a touching or striking picture. . . . When composing images, enter a state of emotional sensitivity, even vulnerability, while simultaneously applying technical and critical judgment. Trust your eyes, not the camera."

The second part, "Where To Seek the Light," offers a gallery of Dempsey's work, weaving technical details with short travelogs. He inspires the amateur photographer to see, not just look. And he takes your breath away.