Sunday, July 31, 2011

A lesson for kids from a Chico writer


First introduced in "Crowlyle Finds His Caw," a tale about the importance of honesty, Crowlyle the crow is back with a bouncy story that shows the power of volunteering. "Crowlyle's Plan To Save the Zoo" ($12.95 in paperback from North State Children's Books) by Vic Sbarbaro and Marcia Pezzella is graced with delightful full-page, full-color illustrations by Ashe Lewis. The book is available locally at the Chico State University Associated Students Bookstore and Lyon Books in Chico.

Sbarbaro is a Certified Health Education Specialist who teaches at both Chico State University and Butte College. According to an author's note, he also "specializes in ... multicultural education issues, emergency care and aquatic safety." Pezzella, his sister, "was born and raised in Weed," had careers in the entertainment field and special education for disabled children, and now in retirement helps her husband in the restaurant business.

Lewis is "majoring in Communication Design and Applied Computer Graphics" at the university, where she was lead illustrator for the Orion. Her whimsical art invites the reader into Crowlyle's world, which is always on the move. Eli Elephant "walks the ropes," Tia tiger approaches the ring of fire, Hop Hippo belts out a tune, as all the animals put on a talent show to raise funds for the beleaguered local zoo. "When you do a good deed / Surely you can earn respect / Helping those in need / For a worthy zoo project."

Everyone will have to hurry. No time for Crowlyle to sleep in. "The children are full of sorrow / And are feeling very blue / The zoo will close tomorrow / They don't know what to do."

Crowlyle "has a plan / The idea is so cool / His friends take a stand / Then go to the school." He enlists volunteers to set up a "veggie shack" to raise funds, and his animal friends strut their stuff.

Together the animals save the day. "Crowlyle thanked everyone / With pride in his heart / Be very proud for what is done / Since you all did your part." The lesson for readers? "Take some time from your day / Giving thanks for all you do / Watch animals as they play / And support your public zoo."

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Paradise author tells the adventures of a street mutt


At the age of 78, J.T. Brown of Paradise has become an author. She writes me that her story--suitable for middle grades and up--is based on real life experiences but told from a dog's perspective. "My desire," Brown says, is "that young and old will be made aware of the heartache when one is abandoned whether as a puppy or a child."

"Torno" ($15.99 in paperback from Xlibris; also available in Amazon Kindle e-book for $7.69 and Barnes and Noble Nook book format for $7.99; available from is short for "tornado," a fast little pooch but not the handsomest of canines.

"Could someone out there like me?" he wonders. "Lookin' at the other mutts, I saw they were pretty good lookin'. I looked down at my reflection in my water bowl and took inventory. My feet looked too big. My legs were long and skinny. My white hair was more scraggly than ever. I had a black spot on my tongue, plus one ear stood up and the other hung down. I couldn't see much of my tail, but there was no doubt it was funny lookin'. Who would want a mutt like me for their very own?"

Torno is impounded and on the verge of being put down. No one seems to want an ugly dog and he wonders about his life's purpose. He pours his heart out to his "superior being" and is convinced he is watched over, cared for.

Then Tom arrives and Torno has a new master. An airline pilot, Tom takes the dog home to his family, but Torno soon realizes all is not well. Tom's marriage is crumbling and the children face an uncertain future. Torno tries to bring happiness to the household--he has a great personality--but soon Tom's wife leaves and it feels like love has left, too.

Eventually Tom moves on with his life, and one day, returning from a trip, finds a new neighbor has moved in. Tom decides to introduce himself, and Torno tags along: "The door opened and a lady stood there beside the most beautiful German shepherd I'd ever seen.... I was in love."

The conclusion is poignant, mingling love and loss. So it is with life.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Robots behaving badly


Daniel H. Wilson has a Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University. He lives with his wife and daughter in Portland, but two or three weeks ago found himself near Colusa. He was, he writes me, "in an RV with eight guys on a bachelor party, on my way to a wedding in Calistoga. Incredibly beautiful place! I ended up getting on NPR Science Friday, and so a black towncar picked me up from a dusty RV park over in Meridian where we stopped for the night. Took me down to SF and then back up. Pretty hilarious."

He was receiving the VIP treatment because of his new, best-selling can't-put-down "Robopocalypse" ($25 in hardcover from Doubleday; $12.99 in Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook e-book). Word is that Steven Spielberg will direct the movie version.

In the future, humanoid robots are deployed as housekeepers and cars have smart chips in them so they can talk with other cars. People in offices depend on smart copy machines and kids play with smart dolls.

A researcher in northwest Washington pushes the limits of computer intelligence and succeeds a bit too much. His creation, "Archos," is quick to put things straight: "I am not your child," Archos tells the scientist. "I am your god." It's not long before Archos brings other robots under its sway and soon an apocalyptic conflict breaks out between humans and robots. It's intense and pretty gruesome.

The story of the war, and what happens afterward, is told in many voices, from Tokyo to Oklahoma, transcribed by a single soldier, Cormac "Bright Boy" Wallace, using documents preserved by a robot hidden in Alaska. Here are the stories of Mr. Takeo Nomura, a Japanese bachelor, assaulted by his robot companion; Paul Blanton, an American soldier fighting in Afghanistan; and groups of human survivors who will one day mount an attack on the Archos intelligence. The action seldom lets up, but this is not a simplistic humans-against-robots yarn.

Wilson raises the question whether the triumph of Archos would actually liberate the robots. Maybe not. But, then, what is true robot freedom? Perhaps the war against Archos is a war for a new kind of liberation.

Just to be on the safe side, I read the printed version of the book.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Local author on sustainable living with native plants


An author's note says that Alicia Funk, who lives "off the grid with her husband and three children," "first learned plant based medicine in 1990 from an indigenous grandmother in Ecuador's rainforest." With her co-author, landscape architect and Nevada City resident Karin Kaufman, Funk has crafted a full-color reference, "Living Wild: Gardening, Cooking and Healing With Native Plants of the Sierra Nevada" ($29.95 in paperback from Flicker Press).

A recent visitor to Lyon Books in Chico, where the volume is available locally, Funk facilitates "living wild" workshops. According to the authors, "our modern-day American diet relies upon a mere 30 or so plant species, while 200 years ago an indigenous Californian's diet would have included about a thousand. We have lost the Native Californians' valuable 'user's manual' that could guide us to the plants we would enjoy eating and help us to learn the best ways to prepare them."

The largest part of the book is a color compendium of native species for the garden, from the White Alder to the evergreen shrub Yerba Santa (which is deer resistant). Each listing points (as appropriate) to the Foods, Medicine, and Cultural and Functional Arts sections. For the Manzanita, one can fix Manzanita Blossom Jelly for breakfast. Manzanita has been used to treat Poison Oak; its wood has been fashioned into kitchen utensils.

The section on making medicines (including teas, herbal syrups, salves and poultices) notes that the process "is a fun, relaxing experience that provides a way to personally engage in health and wellness." The authors carefully note that the uses listed often come from Native lore and haven't been tested scientifically; and in many cases the preparations shouldn't be used by those who are pregnant. Yerba Santa tea is considered a decongestant by "by Miwok, Pomo and Yuki tribes and by doctors who listed it as an official remedy in the US. Pharmacopoeia in 1894." The Maidu "used the dried and powdered inner bark (of the White Alder) as an astringent to clean wounds."

There are some 70 recipes in the food section. Elderberry wine, anyone? Oak Nut Gingerbread? (Oak nut flour is gluten-free.) It's a way to "enjoy nutrient-rich, carbon-free food from the plants growing around our home. ... We allow the wild in."

Sunday, July 03, 2011

New Mia King/Darien Gee novel has baked-in goodness


Independence Day celebrations evoke images of small-town America, so it's easy to imagine Avalon, a place that "isn’t more than what it seems to be—a small, simple river town in northern Illinois." In the midst of buzzing cell phones and economic downturns it is also a place of broken marriages and fractured relationships. And then one small act of kindness, its origin a mystery, turns the town upside down.

Best-selling author Mia King, writing under her real name, Darien Gee, weaves together the lives of several women in Avalon in "Friendship Bread: A Novel" ($25 in hardcover from Ballantine Books; $12.99 in Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook e-book format; and an audio book version narrated by Nancy Linari). Gee's husband, Darrin, has relatives in Chico. The couple lives on the Big Island of Hawaii with their three children.

It begins on Julia Evarts' front porch with a Ziploc bag full of starter for "Amish Friendship Bread," instructions, and a note that says: "I hope you enjoy it." But for Gracie, her five-year-old, Julia would have tossed the strange substance. Now she is prepping it for baking in ten days, thinking of her husband Mark's sweet tooth. But she is thinking, too, of Josh, their son, who died tragically at the age of ten in the care of her younger sister, Livvy. She doesn't talk to Livvy anymore, can't forgive her, or herself.

Hannah, a master cellist, has settled in Avalon with her husband, but the marriage is not going well. Madeline, an older woman, has opened a tea salon in Avalon, and when circumstances bring Julia and Hannah together, Madeline provides the emotional glue. All the time, loaves of Friendship Bread continue to multiply as new starters are passed from person to person.

The novel is about finding true freedom. As Julia realizes, "I want to be free. Only it wasn’t the freedom she had toyed with before, that singular independence that excluded Mark and Gracie. It was a freedom that included them. She wanted to be free to love them, to be with them."

Readers can download a free PDF booklet with more than 50 Amish friendship bread recipes from now until July 10, 2011. Visit The password is er.