Sunday, October 29, 2017

"Origin: A Novel"

According to the Bidwell Mansion Association's website, "In 1841 at the age of 22, John Bidwell became one of the first pioneers to cross the Sierra Nevada to California." Bidwell knew the range because in 1776, the Franciscan missionary Pedro Font named it on a map. Font was born in Spain which has its own Sierra Nevada.

That is where "the former spiritual leader of the Palmarian Catholic Church" lives, according to El País. This "dubious offshoot" of the Roman Catholic Church venerates Francisco Franco and considers Adolph Hitler something of a saint. Wouldn't it be only natural for this ultra-conservative group to try to stop any science that questions faith?

My lame attempt at creepy connections is overshadowed by the master connectionist, Dan Brown. In "Origin" ($29.95 in hardcover from Doubleday; also for Amazon Kindle), Brown notes that all the facts are real. (After the depiction of the Palmarian Church, one of the characters says "you could look it up.") Finding stuff hidden in plain sight is a hallmark of Brown's work.

The thriller once again stars symbologist Robert Langdon and takes place mostly in Barcelona. I chose to listen to the seven-hour audio abridgement narrated by Paul Michael (who also reads the full novel, over eighteen hours' worth), a man of many voices.

Langdon is in Spain attending a mysterious presentation by the atheist billionaire and futurist Edmond Kirsch, his former student, at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Kirsch believes his work in computer modeling and Artificial Intelligence has finally answered the two most important questions: Where did we come from? Where are we going?

Before the big reveal Kirsch is assassinated by a Palmarian, and Langdon and the beautiful museum director, Ambra Vidal, fiancé of the soon-to-be King of Spain, flee for their lives. The entire book is a setup for the eventual revelation of Kirsch's recorded message, and the question is whether what he says puts a scientific arrow through the heart of religion. Spoiler alert: It doesn't; in fact, it's something like a TED Talk, though philosophically incoherent (as Brown seems to realize).

In the end, an interesting casing but not much meat. As for scariness, it's a hollow weenie.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

"The Wealth Of A Nation"

Who is Nathan Englander?

He's an attorney in the California city of Bakerton three quarters of a century in our future. He "was a first rate Rush running guard at UCLA," referring to a game that replaced football, basketball, and most other sports, which required genetic advantages in the players.

Ordinary folks, though, with appropriate golf-like handicaps, could play the highly regulated Rush. As Nathan tells Emerson McKernan, Bakerton's acting Art Museum Director, "the game, like those that it replaced, is a thinly veiled substitute for the battlefield, and the more physical the game, the more obvious it is. That is what fans pay to see."

Chico writer T.B. O'Neill ( creates a chilling dystopian society uncomfortably similar to our own world in "The Wealth Of A Nation" ($15.95 in paperback from CreateSpace; also for Amazon Kindle).

Rush events are provided by the state for the entertainment of the Citizens, who not only don't work but are forbidden to work. The Workers (and the smaller group called Entrepreneurs) "produce what the nation needs." To keep Workers going, the state pushes the addictive drug Reassert ("the dopamine and serotonin inducer that keeps you level and ready for the day" as the ad says).

As Nathan was taught, "it had taken five generations … to build the wealth of the nation to such abundance, such surplus, that only a minority of the brightest and most capable were asked to work and care for the others. And as a result, there was no more incessant, unrelenting, demeaning competition that kept everyone striving for unaccomplished prosperity."

Nathan's "mother and father were Workers, but his grandparents Citizens." To protect each group from the other, Bakerton sports a giant Wall separating Workers from Citizens. Englander finds himself defending Ari Howard, a Citizen who "defaces" the Wall with his extraordinary graffiti art (his talent is vouched for by Emerson, herself a work of art, who becomes Nathan's love interest).

But there are violent economic and political forces that cannot abide the status quo, and not for noble reasons. The complex and immersive thriller showcases O'Neill's world-building talents and provides an unsettling answer to the question: "What is freedom worth?"

Sunday, October 15, 2017

"The Mindful Vegan"

The heart of the book is as its subtitle indicates: "A 30-Day Plan For Finding Health, Balance, Peace, And Happiness." This is very different, Muelrath writes, than serial dieting. "Micromanaging and analyzing every bite and obsessing over body weight and size mask underlying stress, anxiety, and not-good-enough syndrome."

Those who endeavor to practice vegan living face their own ingrained habits (such as compulsive snacking) as well as pressures from family and the wider culture. These stressors often provoke unhealthy defensive reactions. Enter mindfulness, which "gets to the roots of your challenges around food--whether it's refurbishing old habits, employing self-regulation of emotions, or becoming more at ease and grounded in vegan living."

The key is that mindfulness "expands that moment between stimulus and reactivity. You gain new access to the choice of where to place your attention, rather than having your attention taken hostage by reactive thoughts and emotions. Once you open the door to the possibilities of choice, you can more freely choose your responses."

Muelrath notes that mindfulness (with roots in Vipassana or Insight Meditation) is non-sectarian. In the 30-day plan she introduces the awareness techniques gently (a one-minute meditation on the first day, two minutes on the second, and so on, with free audio versions on the book's website). The author also provides a dozen recipes (including "Berry Good Ice Cream") and additional resources.

Once a practice of meditation is established, Muelrath brings in the vegan perspective (emphasizing personal health and environmental care) and, in honest yet encouraging discussions, takes up "wandering minds," "moods and foods," "cravings," "addictions," and more.

With these new practices, one just might forget, as Muelrath did, about that chocolate stash in the cupboard. That, she says, is real freedom.

Lani Muelrath is scheduled to be interviewed by Nancy Wiegman on Nancy's Bookshelf, Friday, November 3 on (KCHO 91.7 FM) at 10:00 a.m.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

"London Spirits: Short Stories"

Rob Burton, Professor of English at Chico State University, was born near London and grew up in England. In his latest book he revisits familiar haunts by means of unconventional narrators, women and men from the afterlife who played a part in London's history.

"London Spirits: Short Stories" ($10.95 in paperback from Stansbury Publishing; also for Amazon Kindle) is a series of fourteen enchanting tales (grouped into "Now," "Then," and "Now And Then") wherein sung and unsung voices are heard again.

In "Die Into Life," there is Fran in the present day who receives a call asking her to meet an old friend from her wild University of London days. "She put the phone down and looked around the kitchen at the symbols of a twenty-year marriage: pots hanging obediently on their hooks, cheery family snapshots on the refrigerator door, …." If she goes, will she return?

Yet even in the "now" there are words from the past that strike Fran deeply, and Burton's craft suggests that rather than history being a settled affair, it still has the power to surprise us, like art. "That's how art happens sometimes," a burping man named Puggy tells Mark in "The Knowledge. "You don't intend it to be a certain way but it assumes its own identity and takes its own course. It's quite magical, eh?"

In "The Purest Ecstasy," Virginia Woolf recalls "the daily practice of writing. Mysterious voices, bidden and unbidden, called to me." Sherlock Holmes solves "The Curious Case of Miss Irene Adler," and plumbers Phillip Clark and Tom Crapper, flushed with success, explain the "Westminster shudder" of the seventeenth-century.

The Celtic warrior-queen Boadicea speaks in the final story which gives its name to the book. She led a revolt against the Roman invaders in AD 60 or so for love of Londinium, and now her spirit says: "O fog-shrouded city, drizzle-dazzled town, metropolis of mud and thick materialism, what can I, your guiding spirit, say that has not already been said about these two thousand years of history? … What is the shape of your historical narrative?"

The funny-piercing answer throws a little shade on those who would forget what came before.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

"A Deadly Wandering"

A terrifying highway accident in Utah in September eleven years ago left two rocket scientists dead. It was caused by nineteen-year-old Reggie Shaw veering into the wrong lane; Shaw survived, physically unscathed, but the answer to the central question--was he texting at the time?--would not come easily.

Matt Richtel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter, based in San Francisco, traces the ripple effects of the accident in a deeply reported, and deeply affecting, book, "A Deadly Wandering" ($15.99 in paperback from William Morrow; also for Amazon Kindle). It's subtitled "A Mystery, A Landmark Investigation, And The Astonishing Science Of Attention In The Digital Age." The reader comes to know family members, those in the judicial system, lawmakers, and attention researchers in a story so emotionally compelling one cannot look away.

"A Deadly Wandering" is the Book In Common for Chico State University ( and Butte College (, and the larger community. Author Matt Richtel will be speaking at Chico State's Laxson Auditorium Tuesday, October 24 at 7:30 p.m. Adults $20, Seniors $18, youth and students are free. Tickets can be obtained through Chico Performances (

There is much for the heart in this story, but also for the mind. "There is a tension going on inside the brain," Richtel writes. "It is a tug-of-war between two different aspects of the attention system. … Top-down attention is what we use to direct our focus, say, on a work project … or when driving on the road. … Bottom-up attention is … what allows our attention to be captured instantly, without our control, say, by the sound of our name … or the ring of the phone. Bottom-up attention operates unconsciously, automatically, driven by sensory stimulus and contextual cues."

You can have your hands on the wheel and be looking straight ahead at the road, but your mind may be focused on texting. Research indicates it may take ten or fifteen seconds for your mind to regain focus on the road--far longer than anyone had thought previously.

It's not easy to keep the right focus. As Richtel suggests, our cell phones have become akin to slot machines and users to compulsive gamblers.