Sunday, July 31, 2016

“How Was China?: Views And Vignettes From A Chinese Women’s College”

“Starry-eyed Victoria, the sentimental girl who had given me the Tang dynasty poem, had already shown signs of decline when I encountered her as a third-year student in 2003. … ‘Victoria! What happened to you?’ I inquired after I witnessed her sitting listlessly, day after day, in the back of the class. ‘Oh, teacher,’ she wailed, ‘I have lost my passionate!’”

Victoria, speaking in halting English, was one of Dodie Johnston’s students at Hwa Nan College for Women in China, “in a mid-sized city on the east coast, facing Taiwan.” Students at the trade school came to learn English, and each took on an English name (English instructors, who had come from abroad, found Chinese pronunciation difficult.)

Johnston traveled from her home in Grass Valley to Hwa Nan beginning in 2000 (she would return for five teaching semesters over the next decade). “Like Victoria,” she writes in her affecting memoir of Hwa Nan, “I had ‘lost my passionate.’ I needed to walk a different path as I entered my sixth decade. … Teaching English as a Foreign Language at Hwa Nan College was a tonic for my deflating self-esteem and lost sense of direction.”

In response to many who asked, “How Was China?: Views And Vignettes From A Chinese Women’s College” ($14 in paperback from CreateSpace) provides a nuanced answer that combines the history of the school, the lives of its students, and Johnston’s own experiences in the local neighborhoods into a work of “creative nonfiction.”

Johnston’s is a strong authorial voice, guiding readers into traditional Chinese culture, the impact of Mao’s reign (which shut down the school established by missionaries) and the re-emergence of Hwa Nan as a secular college.

Consider: There was no indoor plumbing in 2000, so squatting over holes was the order of the day; “toilet paper was not provided in most public toilets so we all carried our own.” Rural life in the area was crumbling; “when I told my 2000-20001 students I was from a small rural town in the foothills of northern California, they cringed with sympathy and condolence.”

Readers will be captivated by Johnston’s homage to Hwa Nan.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

“The Book Of Strange New Things”

Scottish writer Michel Faber tells an interviewer for the Church Times that though he is an atheist, “I don’t see that as any credit to me…. I’m very sad that I lost my faith, and I’m very sad that it’s not there to sustain me in the sorrows that I’ve had to deal with in my life, particularly the loss of my wife.”

That makes Faber’s novel, “The Book Of Strange New Things” ($17 in paperback from Hogarth; also for Amazon Kindle) especially poignant. It’s the story of a young British married couple, Peter and Beatrice Leigh, he a pastor of a small church, she a nurse, who apply to a shadowy multinational organization called USIC in answer to the company’s call for Christian missionaries.

Only Peter is selected; they will be separated. In the world of the book, “separation” means Peter boards a spacecraft and “jumps” to Oasis, a planet unimaginable light years distant. His only way of communicating with Bea is through a kind of email system (no pictures).

USIC has established a base. Natives provide food called whiteflower in return for pharmaceuticals, but are balking without a pastor who can speak to them from the Bible, what they call “The Book of Strange New Things.”

An Oasan is a short, bipedal being; “their spindly arms and webbed feet merged in a tangle of translucent flesh that might contain—in some form unrecognizable to him—a mouth, nose, eyes.”

Peter grows distant from Bea, who writes increasingly panicked messages about a world collapsing around her. Peter can sermonize, but he is no novelist, failing repeatedly to convey to Bea his inner life.

The book is a quiet meditation on separation and the limits of (Peter’s) faith. “The holy book he’d spent so much of his life preaching from had one cruel flaw: it was not very good at offering encouragement or hope to those who weren’t religious.” Peter is torn between building the Oasan church and going home (in light of the horrific words of his wife’s final email).

Set against a science-fictional background, the book sensitively explores the meaning of faith and meaning where there is no faith.

Sunday, July 17, 2016


Chicoan and Butte College student Christin Lee writes me that her new young adult romance/urban fantasy novel blends her love of karate and passion for animals. The story begins in Texas but what is revealed later on is enough to shake the ground beneath one’s feet.

“Supremacy (Supremacy Series Book 1)” ($2.99 from Amazon Kindle; the author’s Facebook page is at introduces almost-eighteen Kate Parker, a high school student “blessed to live on five acres and have parents who supported her love of animals. She smiled to herself. Support maybe wasn’t the right word—tolerate would be a better description.” As a vegetarian, “she couldn’t bring herself to eat her friends.”

Kate is whip smart, a green-eyed beauty who can remember everything all the way back to her earliest childhood. Kate’s father, Larry, is a renowned psychotherapist very possessive of his daughter. If Kate starts dating she must first bring the guy to meet with her parents. Kate can only imagine how fun that interview would be.

Then Kate is smitten almost from the first encounter with a mysterious young man from Spain, Lucas, whom she meets in the woods, fussing over a broken motorcycle as she goes looking for a stray dog.

Lucas is nineteen, an exchange student attending the local university. “He looked like a striking model out of a fashion magazine. His ragged jeans fit perfectly, hugging every curve on his long legs.” Throw in “beautiful brown eyes” and a kind of electricity between them and Kate is a goner.

But this is no conventional romance. Lucas has anger issues, especially when it comes to protecting Kate from every hurt, real or imagined. If he can’t find her he almost spirals out of control. It's as if he were trained to do harm, to protect at any cost.

He sports a strange tattoo behind one of his ears, showing a “tightly clenched fist.” Lucas won’t explain, but Kate finds something on the internet halfway through the novel that turns her world inside out. Kate is part of a cavernous plot with millions of lives at stake.

The book is great fun, a well-written page-turner drawing readers into a new world of danger.

Sunday, July 10, 2016


Though Chicoan Cathy Chase is retired from teaching English, she remains active by teaching a jobs readiness class at the Esplanade House and by writing a series of Young Adult novels about a world very like our own—with one big difference.

In the world of “Jump” ($8.99 in paperback from CreateSpace; also for Amazon Kindle), the first in a planned series, people have a habit of disappearing. That doesn’t mean they poof out of existence, but that they are electronically transported to another place, an authoritarian society designed to reshape the oddballs and ne’er-do-wells into compliant citizens.

Nona, the heroine, is fifteen. Her father died in a car accident; his passenger, Frank, was unable to save him, and now Frank is her step-father. Nona’s mother seems oblivious to the abuse Frank heaps on Nona; it’s clear that he wants Nona out of his life so he can have Nona’s mother all to himself.

Nona’s two friends, Spence and Jana, are inseparable, and when Jana’s Uncle John becomes one of the “disappeared,” the trio set out to find him. They have heard references to “jumping,” but no adult will talk to them about what it means.

Then Nona comes across an old notebook from her newspaper reporter father, and she learns that somehow jumping is connected with the mysterious Behavioral Science building in town, where Spence’s mom works. The trio manage to get into the building and there are the transporters.

Nona volunteers to go (“I’m the only one that no one wants” at home). Spence pushes the button. “I hear a loud windy sound near my head and lights swirl in my brain.”

What follows is a fast-paced adventure in a strange society, with plenty of cliff-hangers, as Nona tries to outsmart her minders, search for Uncle John (she finds more than she bargains for), escape those with terminator weapons (where you really do poof out of existence) and somehow get home. Often Nona is on the verge of giving up, but she learns courage with a little help from her friends. The message is clear: It’s not over until it’s really over.

There’s a satisfying conclusion, but loose ends remain for the next tale.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

“Beaks, Bones & Bird Songs”

Roger Lederer, Chico’s own birder extraordinaire, is a scientist-observer who knows “it’s not easy being a bird.” “Of the many hours I have spent in the field, watching birds flying, feeding, resting, and nesting, I was most affected by those moments when I saw birds searching for food in blowing snow, sitting on the surface of an ocean fighting threatening waves, and flying in serious winds. I wondered: how do birds make it from hatching to adulthood?”

His answer is a book which gracefully mingles his own experiences around the world with what is known about birds (and what still remains a mystery). “Beaks, Bones & Bird Songs” ($24.95 in hardcover from Timber Press; also for Amazon Kindle) is subtitled “How The Struggle For Survival Has Shaped Birds And Their Behavior” (more at Lederer’s

“Evolution,” he writes, “is a superb sculptor. Over hundreds of millions of years the machinery of natural selection has honed birds to pinnacles of near perfection, having discarded tens of thousands of species along the way that could not meet the challenges of the ever-changing earth.”

The ten thousand or so living bird species offer a welter of adaptive strategies. In seven chapters, Lederer considers foraging, bird sensory abilities, flight and feathers, migration, surviving in weather extremes, how and why birds flock together, and, finally, the influence of humans.

“Since the beginning of the industrial revolution the physical environment began to change at a much faster pace, leaving many birds behind. … Cities like Beijing and New Delhi are virtually devoid of avian life. …” Birdwatching, Lederer says, helps people “understand why birds need protection from human activities.”

Humans can help, even in small ways, such as installing windows “at an angle with the bottom of the glass further back than the top. This simultaneously minimizes the force of the impact as the bird doesn’t hit the glass straight on and the ledge formed at the bottom of the window provides a place for a stunned bird to recover.” 

Dozens of black and white photographs enhance the book, while every page offers insights into why birds do what they do, in their struggles and, yes, their nobility.