Sunday, May 29, 2016

“Vista Del Mar: A Memoir Of The Ordinary”

Magalia resident Neal Snidow, who teaches English at Butte College, grew up in the Redondo Beach area of Southern California. He was an only child, and “well acquainted,” he writes, “with tropes of loneliness—the compulsive blank gaze at walls, window boxes, sea light, and the desert pleasure of empty sights and sounds.”

In 1996, in throes of mutual grief after his wife’s miscarriage, he took a tripod-mounted camera and black-and-white film and began photographing his old hometown, the commonplace “surfaces that, like the suburbs themselves, seemed ‘blank’ at first glance but on which could be seen a subtle patina of history as well, a trace of lost time within which some sort of answer to the present might wait.”

Thus begins an exploration of his family’s history and in mesmerizing words, by turns sublime, funny, and wise, mingled with dozens of images, the story is told in “Vista Del Mar: A Memoir Of The Ordinary” ($18.95 in paperback from Counterpoint; also for Amazon Kindle; for more visit

Time in the book is never tame, swirling and jumping as Snidow pieces together a life of meaning. Family stories “gave me associations that lit the intertwining of memory and space until something called ‘history’ seemed to occur.”

“Somewhere in my mid-thirties,” Snidow writes, “in the 1980s, I began to get lost. … I drank too much, didn’t sleep well, and started to have blood pressure spikes….” But time “now looped on, doubled back, left the impression of its meander. ... For a period it was the fall of 1996 and we were beginning the adoption process. …”

The end of the book loops back to the start, only this time it is heady with an extraordinary coincidence surrounding the birth mother and a man who one lonely day decided to take black-and-white pictures of home.

A launch party and book signing will be held Thursday from 7:00-9:00 p.m. at 1078 Gallery, 820 Broadway in Chico. The event is free. In Southern California he will be interviewed on the art of memoir by his editor, Jack Shoemaker, at Café Society in Point Richmond on Friday, June 24 from 7:00-9:00 p.m.

Sunday, May 22, 2016


With the sounds of college and university graduation in the air, it seems fitting to notice a new edition of an extraordinary novel of academic life first published in 1965. Author John Williams tells the story of a nondescript assistant professor of English in the first decades of the twentieth century at a fictionalized University of Missouri.

“Stoner” ($14.95 in paperback from New York Review Books Classics; also for Amazon Kindle with a superb audio narration by Robin Field) presents the life of one William Stoner who taught at the university from 1918 until his death in 1956.

“Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now.” Yet, through the course of the novel, Williams draws out Stoner’s inner life and surrounds him with vivid personalities, like his mercurial wife Edith, their pensive daughter Grace, and Hollis Lomax, his arch nemesis in the English department. Then there is Katherine Driscoll, a younger teacher who becomes his lover.

In many ways Stoner lives a pedestrian existence, sometimes passive in his home life and university politics, sometimes passionate in the classroom when the subject turns to Medieval and Renaissance literature.

“He had come to that moment in his age,” Williams writes, after a showdown with Lomax that does not go well, “when there occurred to him, with increasing intensity, a question of such overwhelming simplicity that he had no means to face it. He found himself wondering if his life were worth the living; if it had ever been. … He took a grim and ironic pleasure … that in the long run all things, even the learning that let him know this, were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness they did not alter.”

And yet this is a story about love. “In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”

Stoner’s life a failure? Well, yes and no, the novel answers. What did you expect?

Sunday, May 15, 2016

“Hearing From The Father: Finding True Hope And Joy In A Broken World”

What should we know about an author? Native Chicoan Mike Mercer put it this way in an email: “Mike graduated from Rosedale, Chico Junior, Chico High, and finally went down in educational flames at eighteen - a victim of his own fly fishing passion - fleeing his Butte College schooling for a dream job at The Fly Shop in Redding,” his home. Then he adds: “Raised in a family that pursued God, Mike spent his first 40 years with no use of a Savior...until he did...”

“God reached down,” he writes, “and saved me from myself.” Later, he found himself in intimate conversation with God, who prompted him, directed him, admonished him in writing stories about living the authentic Christian life.

It's like knowing the person next to you is in agony and needs prayer, Mercer says. “Have you felt that immediate and incredibly urgent prodding to pray with them … not over lunch, not later that day, but right now? That is perhaps the best way I can describe how He shares these with me, as (often) urgent prayers; as reflections of His heart that He very much wants me to grasp….”

The pieces are collected in “Hearing From The Father: Finding True Hope And Joy In A Broken World” ($15.99 in paperback from Xulon Press; also for Amazon Kindle).

The chapters are thoughtfully and beautifully written; some blend fictional and real life experiences; others are reflections on the difficulty of living in a world in which devilish evil is very real.

In “Accept His Love For You,” an abused woman named Hope says, “We go through a scary time in our life and we are afraid; we worry, what if He doesn’t show up? Listen to me—if you are really living your life for Him, He doesn’t have to ‘show up’ … He never left!”

The final story is about a 40-year-old man who loses his job but gains a different kind of employment, a new purpose. Years later, “his life is defined by gratitude, and joy, and never once does he regret this choice, made all those long years ago.”

Sunday, May 08, 2016

“The Long Goodbye: Khe Sanh Revisited”

In a book published more than a decade ago, “A Patch Of Ground: Khe Sanh Remembered,” Michael Archer told the harrowing story of his part in “the most protracted, costly and consequential” battle of the U.S. war in Vietnam.

It is also the story of his best friend, Tom Mahoney. They both enlisted in the Marines in 1967, and on July 6, 1968, under strange circumstances, Mahoney was killed by the enemy after he apparently walked outside the perimeter of an outpost established on a hill near Khe Sanh. The area was being evacuated and his body was not recovered.

“The place had been wrested fifteen months earlier from an entrenched North Vietnamese battalion in a bloody four-day battle that resulted in scores of dead and wounded, and was held at great additional cost of life as the linchpin to Khe Sanh’s survival. As the rhythmic popping of the helicopter blades receded into that July night, the agony of Hill 881 South finally came to an end.”

But Archer’s own agony did not end. He had to know if Tom’s final resting place could be located and perhaps his remains repatriated. His book helped him make connections, both here and in Vietnam, and the quest was on. The story is told in “The Long Goodbye: Khe Sanh Revisited” ($21.95 in paperback from Hellgate Press; also for Amazon Kindle).

Archer ( lives in Reno; his brother, Brian, is a Chico State University grad and managed Madison Bear Garden for a time; and one of the central persons in the new book is Chico native Steve Busby, who signed up for the Marines in 1967 only to witness Tom’s death the next year.

Part battlefield account and part detective story, the book chronicles frustrations with official government efforts, connections with Mahoney’s family, work with a Vietnamese psychic who claimed to be in touch with Mahoney’s “wandering soul,” and meetings with former enemies who wanted to honor Archer’s friend. The riveting story is brilliantly told.

Tom’s fate is prised out of the fog of war and there comes for Archer “something that had been missing for the last forty years,” a measure of peace.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

“Before We Visit The Goddess”

“Spent two beautiful days in Chico,” writes American Book Award winner Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni on her Facebook page, “speaking/teaching at the WordSpring Writers conference at Butte College. … Drove through Yuba City, one of the oldest Indian American settlements in America. … Ate the most amazing locally grown strawberries!”

The WordSpring creative writing conference, held a week ago, coincided with the publication date of Divakaruni’s new book, “Before We Visit The Goddess” ($25 in hardcover from Simon and Schuster; also for Amazon Kindle). Born in Kolkata, India, she received a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley and now lives with her family in Houston, Texas. (There’s more at

Her new book is a series of intertwined stories of three generations of mothers and daughters. Sabitri makes something of herself in Kolkata, opening Durga Sweets, a shop named after her mother who had told her “go through life with your head held high.”

But family life is complicated, to say the least, and Sabitri’s daughter, Bela, turns her back on her mother and joins her boyfriend, who must escape India because of his politics, to marry him in the United States. Bela’s daughter, Tara, stung when her parents divorce, descends into drink and drugs.

The story begins in 1995 with Sabitri, now sixty-seven, writing to Tara, urging her to finish college. It ends, after many twists and turns in the chronology, in 2020, with Tara, about to take her mother to Sunny Hills and who, in cleaning her house, finds the photo albums. “The books are jumbled and in no chronological order.” The novel sorts its stories not by date but by theme.

“Do you want to know why I steal?” Tara asks her mother. “I take things that I should have had but didn’t get. … I steal them because there’s a big hole in the middle of my chest and stealing fills it up for a moment.” There are “big holes” everywhere in the lives of the three women, but family tragedy is tempered by the kindness of strangers and the true meaning of being a “fortunate lamp,” achieving something on one’s own.

Readers will savor the words, sweet and tart comingled.