Sunday, September 27, 2015

“Write Back Soon!: Adventures In Letter Writing”

Tucked inside the book, a handwritten note. “As a resident of Chico from 1984-1988,” Karen Benke writes, “I have fond memories of that sweet and artistic town.” The book is “Write Back Soon!: Adventures In Letter Writing” ($16.95 in paperback from Roost Books), part of Benke’s series on creative writing, including “Rip The Page!” and “Leap Write In!”

The new book, just published, aims to restore the art of physical letter writing. “E-mails may have instant impact,” she says, “but letters have lasting impact.” The book is a series of prompts drawn from Benke’s own life transitions or the work of some of her favorite writers. Poet Sam Hamill passes along a note that “writing by hand is a far more contemplative act than writing on a keyboard. I love shaping each letter of the alphabet …”

The startling work of handwriting can come with a simple postcard. “In my neighborhood,” Benke says, “there’s a man who I’ve never seen crack a smile and who frequently yells at his dog. After attending a benefit for the Tibetan Society at which His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke about kindness, I arrived home and decided to make a mental adjustment” and reach out to “Mr. Grouch.”

So: “Pen a sentence or two that contains a compliment for someone who could probably really use it. The grouchiest person in your neighborhood, say, or an elderly person who may not get out much. Leave your note under their porch mat, secured to the windshield wiper of their car,” wherever is appropriate.

There are over a hundred whimsically thoughtful ideas, such as sending a note to a teacher (“Dear Ms. Gambetta, Because of you, I love traveling to Ashland for the Shakespearean Festival”), writing a postcard to your younger self, listing what you miss (“how my nana smelled of lemons and roses”), overhearing a conversation “you can retell, expand on paper, and share with a friend later.”

And don’t forget the list of stuff you can actually send through the mail, like a coconut, a hat, a plastic bottle (“put a message inside”). The message from the author: Write soon! (And she includes her address.)

Sunday, September 20, 2015

“Just Mercy: A Story Of Justice And Redemption”

In the early 1980s Bryan Stevenson was studying at Harvard Law School and working on a graduate degree at the Kennedy School of Government. He was not the child of privilege; he “grew up in a poor, rural, racially segregated settlement” in Delaware, and the prestigious schools he was attending seemed disconnected from his deep interest in “America’s history of racial inequality and the struggle to be equitable and fair with one another.”

Then he met Steve Bright, director of the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee, who told him: “Capital punishment means ‘them without the capital get the punishment.” Something connected. Later, “I was in my late twenties and about to start my fourth year at the SPDC when I met Walter McMillian. … Even though he had lived in Monroe County his whole life, Walter McMillian had never heard of Harper Lee or To Kill a Mockingbird.” Walter was on death row in Alabama, convicted of murder. And he was innocent.

Stevenson’s efforts on Walter’s behalf stretched over years, and form the backbone of his riveting account of “Just Mercy: A Story Of Justice And Redemption” ($16 in paperback from Spiegel and Grau; also for Amazon Kindle). It has been selected as this year’s Book In Common.

Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama and his honors include a MacArthur “genius” grant.

The story he tells is bleak. In America, he writes, “incarceration became the answer to everything—health care problems like drug addiction, poverty that had led someone to write a bad check, child behavioral disorders, managing the mentally disabled poor. ….”

But there is hope through “just mercy.” “Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion.”

The Book In Common community kickoff event is Thursday, September 24, from 6:00 – 7:30 p.m. at Chico City Plaza. Chico State University ( and Butte College ( are holding campus activities throughout the academic year as well.

The author is scheduled to speak at the BMU Auditorium on the university campus April 19, 2016.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

“UnFettering Orion”

The news came last week that a fossil jawbone (from a species related to humans, dubbed “Homo naledi”) may rewrite our understanding of what makes us human. What if researchers made another find, this time one so extraordinary it seemed to validate the ancient extra-biblical book of Enoch, with its vision of mysterious Watchers?

Such is the question addressed in a fast-paced thriller from Stirling City novelist Mary James. “UnFettering Orion” ($6.99 for Amazon Kindle, from Double Dragon eBooks) begins with a graveside service for Sean Archer, an anthropologist working in Lebanon, killed in a horrendous commercial air crash. Ellie Savelle, an expert in Sumerian language, had begun dating Sean when they met each other at the University of Minnesota. Now he was gone.

But then a man named Anthony Graves enters her life. He’s the director of the Archeological Museum of Beirut, Sean’s last employer, and now he offers Ellie a job as well. Sean had been tracing the black market in ancient artifacts when his life was cut short, and he had told Ellie that he thought Graves knew more about this than he admitted. Was he friend or foe?

Ellie takes the job and finds herself in Lebanon. In one of the digs she discovers a metal screw, buried in soil “deep and compacted with no other sign of having been dug.” The question asked by her fellow researcher is one that drives the tale: “How then? How did the screw get buried in a dig that should be from at least 3000 B.C.E.?”

Ellie and her partners in the dig, Helen and Verrill, speculate about a race of giants mentioned in Genesis 6:4 and in Sumerian and Babylonian texts. “One supreme god sent down what appeared to be lesser gods to the Earth, and they had relations with human women that resulted in the giants of those days. Ellie was surprised at how all the stories seemed so similar, but what was the truth?”

What follows is a topsy-turvy adventure, with Ellie at the center, in a place where no one is to be trusted. Surprises abound, and the satisfying outcome leaves the door open just a bit for a sequel.