Thursday, December 27, 2018

"What Some Would Call Lies"

Rob Davidson ( teaches American literature and creative writing at Chico State University. His latest book comprises two novellas that brilliantly explore the tricks of memory in coming to terms with the past. 

"What Some Would Call Lies" ($16.99 in paperback from Five Oaks/Formal Feeling; also for Amazon Kindle) begins with the tale of one Monica Evans, entitled "Shoplifting, or How Dialectical Materialism Can Change Your Life."

Monica, 27, her husband Jeff, and their toddler son Jacob move to Chico, "a little hamlet of progressive thought surrounded by a wasteland of backwater conservatism," as she tells her mother, Claudia, her bête noir. Claudia encourages her to write, but not about Saundra, Monica's late sister. Yet Monica, who raises Jacob pretty much alone because of Jeff's long work hours, is obsessed with her.

Saundra died from a fatal combination of booze and sleeping pills. "That's what torments me," she tells her therapist. "Whatever was going on in my sister's head. Nobody really knows." Was it an accident? Suicide? Monica has to know, so she attempts to duplicate Saundra's feelings, like the time she was caught shoplifting (when Monica did the same, "it felt wrong andexciting, perverted andglorious"). She writes Saundra's autobiography, calling on memories that never existed, ghosts wearing Saundra's favorite yellow dress.

In the second novella, an older Jackie Rose looks back on his childhood in Duluth, Minnesota (Davidson's own birthplace). On the verge of becoming a teenager, he is naive about his world of 1980 until his substitute sixth grade teacher, Ms. Poindexter, introduces the class to the underbelly of American history, definitely not standard textbook issue. "There is always a history other than the history you receive," she says, "other ways of telling the story."

Jackie's parents fight more and more; his mom wants to go to college, his dad (who sells kitchenware) drinks too much and, as his son discovers, is stepping out and lying about it. Jackie meets an older girl whose affections stoke his nascent sexuality. And then she disappears, leaving only the wisps of memory. 

If these memories are lies, these stories poignantly suggest, perhaps they are some of the truest things about us.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

"Slugger: A Legal Thriller"

"Simon Schuster walked out of his chambers like Zeus upon a cloud, white hair flowing and black robe swishing as he climbed the secular altar. ... His judicial bench was raised, like in every courtroom built for the American high priests of justice. The man was in his mid-sixties, Rod guessed, and as impressive in intellectual firepower as he was in girth."

Rod is Rod Cavanaugh, "for the defense." A young star in Oregon's legal firmament, Cavanaugh, in the midst of a painful divorce from Julianne, who has mostly succeeded in turning his two teenage daughters against him, is as skilled as they come in the courtroom. Exhibit A: He gets low bail for his client, Rudy Randal, charged with "setting a disabled man's car ablaze before beating him nearly to death."

Here, in the opening chapters of "Slugger: A Legal Thriller" ($18.95 in paperback from CreateSpace; also for Amazon Kindle), Chicoan T. B. O'Neill ( unfolds the intricate tale of a man whose legal and personal lives become hopelessly intertwined after a series of surprising revelations. Real justice, the story implies, is not only messy but challenges faith in the legal system itself.

"Slugger" refers to a book with the same title published on Amazon by his young assistant, Brooke McCarthy, based on Cavanaugh's confidential case notes. But Brooke too thinly disguises the characters and there is a threat of a libel suit against Rod in the portrayal of Ritchie Cinquini, the man allegedly beaten by Rudy Randal. Cinquini manages Spanky's, an Oregon strip club, which in turn is owned by a mysterious not-to-be-messed-with company called CIPMANCO (Chicago Investors Property Management Company). 

Along the way there are beatings, and murders, and a blow-your-socks-off ending.

O'Neill practiced law for three decades, his website says, and now he's turned to writing, populating his novels with composite types of those he has jousted with on the legal field of battle. The courtroom scenes have the ring of authenticity. The characters are fleshed out in all their human frailty. This is masterful writing (and plotting), a legal page turner that would not be out of place on an Amazon best seller list. "Slugger" bats a thousand.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

"The First Testament"

Verses from Isaiah 11, often read during Advent and seen in the New Testament as fulfilled in the genealogy of Jesus Christ, are startlingly fresh in a new translation by scholar John Goldingay.

"But a shoot will go out from Yishay's [Jesse's] stump, a branch will fruit from his roots./ Yahweh's breath will alight on him, a breath with smartness and understanding,/ A breath with counsel and strength, a breath with acknowledgment and awe for Yahweh; his scent will be awe for Yahweh. ... He will exercise authority with faithfulness for the poor, and reprove with uprightness for the humble people in the country." (1-3a, 4)

Because the group of books later called the Old Testament is "hugely significant for Christian faith," as Goldingay writes, he has chosen to call his literal rendering "The First Testament: A New Translation" ($60 in hardcover from IVP Academic; also for Amazon Kindle).

Goldingay is emeritus professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. He and his wife Kathleen now reside in Oxford, UK, where he continues to write (see His revised translation of the Old Testament, which first appeared in his seventeen volume "Old Testament For Everyone" series, aims to supplement more familiar translations using common English words in an accessible format including maps, glossary, and introductions to each book. "It uses the name for God that God invited Israel to use, the name Yahweh."

Goldingay kindly responded to an email asking about his use of the word "smartness," in Isaiah and especially in Proverbs. He pointed to a definition that Google provides: "having or showing a quick-witted intelligence."

He says on his blog that "The depth and the wonder of the words I have been reading have come home to me more and more. I’ve sat there marveling that I’m privileged to let this sacred text soak into me. I’ve felt more and more that I have been on hallowed ground. Yes, they are holy scriptures. Of course it’s because they’re all about God. So simply reading them for hours every day has made me wonder at the God whose activity lies behind them and who is the most prominent character in them."

Thursday, December 06, 2018

"Ten Miles Of Roadside Archaeology Along The Old Humboldt Wagon Road"

In late August 2016 a fire began off Highway 32 at Santos Ranch Road, south of Forest Ranch, which eventually burned 88 acres, including the south rim of Upper Bidwell Park. According to former Chico State University professor Gregory White, co-owner of Sub Terra Consulting: Archaeology and Paleontology, several public trails sustained damage.

White identifies four "cultural resources" that are "eligible for the California Register of Historical Resources," including portions of the Humboldt Wagon Road (built by John Bidwell). White's project report, aimed at the rehabilitation of the area, provides detailed documentation of artefacts, including wagon tire ruts and even "a distinctive Coors 7-ounce can with a double church key opening, one of the very first aluminum beer cans made, dating to 1958-1959."

As those affected by the Camp Fire wrestle with the enormity of the destruction, we must not forget the past. As a model of how it might be documented, White's project is given a lively and accessible historical context in "Ten Miles Of Roadside Archaeology Along The Old Humboldt Wagon Road" ($19.95 in paperback from the Association for Northern California Historical Research, 

The book, with hundreds of images, features contributions from ANCHR writers Nancy Leek (on Bidwell's vision for the Chico and Humboldt Wagon Road, "open for business in 1863" as a toll road), David M. Brown (on the lure of mines; and a stage ride to Quincy), Ron Womack (on the "Hooligans and Heroes" of Ten-Mile House; and Wakefield's Station, "a long day's horseback ride from Chico"). 

Josie Reifschneider-Smith, Publications Editor, writes on those who built the roadway and on Frank Bidwell Durkee, who, starting in 1919, pushed for improvements to the Humboldt Wagon Road.

Key to the book is public awareness of the destruction by inattention and vandalism of the rock fences, writes Reifschneider-Smith, "and the ruts carved into the tough volcanic bedrock by the iron-rimmed wheels of thousands of wagons and stagecoaches." A group called Respect The Walls ( is raising funds to preserve what has come before. 

When tears are dry, and Paradise rises, let us applaud local historians and archaeologists as they preserve our own collective memories.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Uncontrolling Love: Essays Exploring The Love Of God"

Immense tragedies, such as the Camp Fire, may for some call into question the traditional idea of God as both all good and all powerful. How is one to make sense of how a loving God acts in a world so full of suffering?

Recently, Thomas Jay Oord, who teaches theology and philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho, has proposed a reformulation of the attributes of God, suggesting that "love comes logically first in God's nature" and that this love "cannot override, withdraw, or fail to provide the power of freedom, agency, or existence to creation. Consequently," says Oord in the introduction to a collection of short essays on his ideas, "God cannot control creatures or creation."

For Oord, "the God who must love and cannot control others is not morally responsible for failing to prevent evil. ... God doesn't even 'allow' suffering, because God can't stop it acting alone. Therefore, God is not culpable for the genuine evil in our lives."

Implications of Oord's theological position are presented in "Uncontrolling Love: Essays Exploring The Love Of God" ($16.95 in paperback from SacraSage Press; also for Amazon Kindle), edited by Chris Baker and others.

The dozens of accessible essays consider "who God is," "how God acts," and "how creatures respond." One of the contributions is from Butte College and Chico State University philosophy instructor Olav Bryant Smith. In "Contributing To God's Growing Perfection," Smith writes that when we say that certain special events in our lives are "perfect" (like "a first kiss") we also recognize they are fleeting, our circumstances ever-changing.

Could it be the same for God? Rather than ascribe total power and knowledge to God, Smith writes, perhaps God grows in "perfection" "in response to the expressions of a universe of creatures striving to participate in establishing their own myriad beautiful creations.... Much of the Bible suggests a God waiting to see what we'll decide and then responding accordingly."

Readers will have to decide whether Oord and Smith resolve the problem of evil satisfactorily. In emphasizing human free will that can't be overridden by God the book offers a sometimes startling rethinking of traditional theology.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

"The Year Of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism In An Age Of Crisis"

How do we rebuild a community after horrific devastation? How do we pursue the common good to mitigate future disasters? Do religious traditions have a part to play in teaching us how to bear our griefs and to express thanksgiving in the midst of suffering?

Such questions arise in a new book by Alan Jacobs. Jacobs is an academic (Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University) writing with clarity and verve for a wider audience. Former Paradise resident John Wilson, who edited the now-defunct Books and Culture literary journal, published numerous articles by his friend Jacobs.

In 1943 it was apparent that the Allies would triumph in World War II. A number of writers, working separately but united by a Christian worldview, agonized about rebuilding. What kind of education would be needed to avoid the temptation toward authoritarianism or, alternatively, acquiescence in the idea that all values are merely socially constructed with the highest good "getting along"?

Jacobs considers the responses of five important literary and philosophical figures in "The Year Of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism In An Age Of Crisis" ($29.95 in hardcover from Oxford University Press; also for Amazon Kindle). In weaving together the central themes of these Christian intellectuals--Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, W. H. Auden, and Simone Weil--Jacobs raises questions for our own times, and our own rebuilding.

For him, these writers "share the conviction that this restoration will not be accomplished only, or even primarily, through theology as such, but also and more effectively through philosophy, literature, and the arts. It is through these practices,which I believe are best called 'humanistic,' that the renewal--or if necessary the revolutionary upheaval--of Western civilization will be achieved. That was the project that these figures, in the various ways and with their sometimes fierce disagreements, shared."

The final chapter is devoted to French Reformed writer Jacques Ellul, whose seminal studies on the rise of technology and propaganda show there are no simplistic answers on the road ahead to rebuilding an enduring community. But we didn't expect there to be.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

"Reflections And Dark Truths"

"The rain falls silently in the middle of the night," writes Paradise resident J.R. Henson in his recently published book. "Old oak trees are like a canopy in my backyard. Some drops of rain read the wrinkles in the old oak trees as a blind person reads braille from a book. If the rain keeps up through the night and into the morning, it will mean a hearty breakfast for the trees." The piece is entitled "Paradise," and the rain takes the author back in memory to his days as a ten-year-old playing in the sprinklers on a hot summer's day.

Much has been lost in Paradise, and the book, featuring almost three dozen short essay-stories, explores personal loss in a way that resonates deeply just now.

The book is called "Reflections And Dark Truths" ($10 in paperback from Valley View Press, Paradise) and as the title suggests it's divided into two sections. The reflections hearken back to the narrator's childhood, his "emotional journey growing up." Then the "dark truths" consider aging grandparents, the "crumbling" of his own hopes and dreams, estrangement from loved ones, having to face the tremors of the real world, and almost yearning "to be cradled once again back in the mental hospital."

There is yearning, too, for redemption. In "Can You Hear What I Hear?", the narrator senses a connection with something joyful, something divine. "I pray for my brokenness. I pray for forgiveness. Moreover, I ask God to enter my heart." But that doesn't make the reality of loss go away. There are losses of the natural environment, losses of love.

The biggest loss is of Smokey. "The smooth curly dark-haired dog that slept in my arms and rested his head in my right hand just yesterday is now gone. Gone from this world, and my heart aches for his return."

Henson writes in an email that he and his family members escaped the Camp Fire just before a planned book release party that had been set for Paradise Library. Signings are still scheduled at the Chico Library for Sunday, November 18 from 4:30-5:30 p.m. and at the Oroville Library on Saturday, December 1 from 4:00-5:00 p.m.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

"The Doolittle Raiders: What Heroes Do After The War"

"As a grammar school kid in Willows … in the late 1940s," George Nolta writes, he met a man named Jimmy who was on a hunting trip with a group that included Nolta's uncles Floyd and Dale. "Jimmy" turned out to be Jimmy Doolittle, the man who commanded "sixteen B-25s that took off from the deck of the USS Hornet on April 18, 1942. Each carried a crew of five: pilot, copilot, navigator, bombardier, and flight engineer/gunner."

The mission, America's response to Pearl Harbor, was "the first bombing raid on Japan during World War II." Ted Lawson, pilot of the seventh crew, told the story in "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," written with newspaper columnist Robert "Bob" Considine. It was turned into a movie starring Spencer Tracy as Doolittle, Van Johnson as Lawson, and Phyllis Thaxter as Ellen, Ted's wife.

The Lawsons eventually settled in Chico. Ted died in 1992 "and is buried in the Chico Cemetery." After Nolta, who now lives in Citrus Heights, published a piece on Ellen for the Colusi County Historical Society, the two became friends. Ellen asked Nolta if he would use her research on the crewmembers to create a book documenting their lives, not only pre-raid but post-raid.

The book is called "The Doolittle Raiders: What Heroes Do After The War" ($16.99 in paperback from Schiffer Publishing); its vivid and clearly written narratives trace the accomplishments, and the heartbreak, of the eighty Raiders. Sixty-four survived; the remaining were lost in a crash landing, drowned, or tortured and executed by the Japanese.

In an email Nolta notes that "some of the Raiders flew up to the Willows Airport to do some last-minute short takeoff practice after their planes had been serviced at McClellan Field in Sacramento. …" 

Doolittle received the Medal of Honor and late in his life told a writer that "I believe every person has been put on this earth for just one purpose: to serve his fellow man. … If he does, his life will have been worthwhile." He was ninety-six when he died in 1993. Richard Cole, his copilot, the only surviving Raider, celebrated his 103rd birthday in September 2018.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

"Murder At The Columbarium"

The novels of Chico writer Emily Gallo ( trace the interconnected lives of some unlikely friends. Her new tale focuses on San Francisco's famous Columbarium, a real place on Lorraine Court "with the walls containing thousands of niches holding urns of every variety."

Jed Gibbons, "a tall, sinewy African-American in his early sixties," and a survivor of the Jonestown massacre in Guyana, has become the caretaker. His wife, Monica, is a social worker at Glide Church and HIV positive. One morning, as Jed opens the gate in front of the columbarium, he finds the body of a woman strangled to death with her own hijab. And more: A baby, alive, lying next to her.

"Murder At The Columbarium" ($13.95 in paperback from CreateSpace; also for Amazon Kindle) is by turns an engaging mystery (Jed plays detective and comes under suspicion himself) and a family drama (Jed wants to adopt the child but Monica is not so sure given their age and her condition). At least they can provide foster care for little Aja (the name they choose), but it's clear Jed is smitten, even as he tries to find the child's relatives and (perhaps) relinquish Aja.

San Francisco police and the FBI get involved, and some strange doings go down at the columbarium, from vandalism to a neo-Nazi, tattooed with "1488," who buys a niche and installs an urn in the shape of a KKK hood. A couple of mobster-types visit the columbarium as well, and other unsavory characters seem to come and go. The solution to the case has international implications.

Eventually Jed is led to Garberville and a pot farm run by an old musician named Dutch Bogart. Jed's friends help care for Aja, including Tony, who takes over as caretaker for a while, and Malcolm and Savali (a "third-gender" Samoan).

The novel's inclusivity is never preachy but rather a kind of gentle force against those who would take another's life.

Gallo will be signing copies of her books during "Mystery At Monca" (the Museum of Northern California Art at 900 Esplanade in Chico) on Thursday, November 8 from 6:00-8:00 p.m. There will be mystery games, refreshments, and admission is free.

Thursday, October 25, 2018


Garry Cooper, Chico State University grad and Durham resident, plunges into the sometimes shocking world of small-town life with his first novel. Using the name of a development in the Marysville area, his "fictionalized" community harbors, as the subtitle puts it, "Deep Love, Savage Betrayal, Tragic Loss, And Overwhelming Pain."

The tears on the cover suggest immediately that all is not well with at least some of the residents of "Edgewater" ($16.95 in paperback, self-published; also for Amazon Kindle). The page-turning melodrama never abates as Cooper traces the intertwined lives of high school friends who find life after the high can be low indeed.

Though Edgewater is a particular "small river delta town … it is every town, big or small," Cooper writes in the prologue. "After all, a big city, besides the traffic, is really made up of groups of people. The people interact the same. Some are pure, some aren't. Some love deeply, some won't--some can't. … It's okay to cry--both happy tears and the sad ones. You will laugh, you will feel anger and hate. You will feel true goodness and love. You will feel aroused." (The sex is explicit.)

Abel, abused as a kid, is unsteady as a friend in his teen years and beyond. His friend, Seth, drinks overmuch but finds compassion in Mylee (with whom he is secretly in love), while Mylee is swept off her feet in high school by Tony (who captains the football team). 

Tony seems the consummate lover; the two seem headed for a blissful life together--at least in Mylee's dreams. But Tony carries on affairs with nearly every woman he meets and "nearly all in Edgewater knew of his trysts, but none were ever willing to violate the small town's social code of silence and tell Mylee." Mylee will be rocked to her core when she finds out (and you know she'll find out). Then comes her diagnosis.

Layla waits for Ian to return from war, and their love is made more powerful when he doesn't return whole. Achingly, in the midst of a joyful outing, tragedy strikes. 

Samantha faces revenge from a corrupt police captain. 

And so it goes in Edgewater.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

"Alone In Harmony"

Raised in Paradise, Anna Quimpo Maguire published "Searching For The City Of Love" in 2016, when she was eighteen. Since then she has established Three States of Mind (, "an inclusive poetry press," with presentations scheduled in Los Angeles and beyond.

Her new book features nearly sixty short poems "about personal struggles and finding self-love through it all. … This book is intended to help others find peace in being alone."

"Alone In Harmony" ($12.99 in paperback from Three States of Mind Press) is borne out of the poet's realization that strength comes, perhaps can only come, from wrestling with those things that appear good at first but that turn and bite us.

The opening poem, "Gone," sets a somber mood.

"I have lost myself these days/," the poet writes. "It all comes out to play/ I have killed the life inside/ Or is it trying to hide/ I have taken in too many lines/ that are going to kill me over time/ I do not know where I stand/ I do not know who I am."

Drugs bite back. But "lines" has a larger reference, to all the come-ons we are prone to fall for. Even the well-meaning are not especially helpful. In "What I Have Dealt With," the poet says, "You think you know me/ When I do not even know me/ … You think you met me/ When I do not even get me…."

In response, the poet moves inward, toward "Self-Love," which contrasts with others' social expectations. 

"I cannot love myself/ When I have to give it to everyone else/ I have been too selfless/ It is time to be selfish." In "Giving Up, the poet asserts, "I am the creator of my own fate/ In my hands is a clean slate." 

But life is not so easy. In "Darkness," "I am searching for a high/ Dying a little every time/ All I need is love/ I pray, looking above/ This is hurting far too much/ Living day to day and such/ Let me find the light/ Let me get things right."

There is painful self-discovery along the way, but, in the end, a ray of hope, a way forward.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

"The Underground Railroad"

Colson Whitehead won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for his searing novel, "The Underground Railroad" ($16.95 in paperback from Anchor/Doubleday; also for Amazon Kindle). He is scheduled to speak at the Shasta College Theatre in Redding on Tuesday, October 16 at 7:00 p.m. as part of the school's Community Speaker Series. The event is free and open to the public; details at

The story begins with Cora, a young slave on a Georgia cotton plantation before the Civil War. The stunning audio version is voiced by Bahni Turpin who, as Publishers Weekly put it in a starred review, "takes great pains to handle the nuances of dialect without resorting to caricature." Caesar, another of the slaves on the Randall plantation, surreptitiously invites Cora to join him in his departure through the "underground railroad."

Whitehead imagines an actual railroad, hidden in a series of massive tunnels under the South, maintained by abolitionists. Cora can hardly believe what she sees. "The tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables--this was a marvel to be proud of. She wondered if those who had built this thing had received their proper reward." 

Lumbly, the station agent, replies: "Every state is different. … Each one a state of possibility, with its own customs and way of doing things. Moving through them, you'll see the breadth of the country before you reach your final stop." 

Cora will take the name "Bessie" in South Carolina, becoming a nanny to the Anderson children. Her treatment is a far cry from the unspeakable horrors the Randall brothers inflicted on their slaves (Big Anthony is tortured for days; then, "visitors sipped spiced rum as Big Anthony was doused with oil and roasted"). But it becomes clear the state is no haven for runaways.

More escapes. There will be journeys on the underground railroad to North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana. Throughout, the slave catcher Ridgeway haunts Cora's path; the final bloody confrontation speaks volumes. 

Possibilities? Maybe. But even at times when Cora experiences relative freedom, she realizes that "whether in the fields or underground or in an attic room, America remained her warden."

Thursday, October 04, 2018

"The Gospel Of Trees: A Memoir"

Apricot Anderson Irving ( describes herself as "a recovering missionary's daughter"; when she was six, in 1981, she and her "parents moved to the north of Haiti to be missionaries--not far from where Columbus sank the Santa María."

Later she pieced together their complicated relationship with Haiti. It's told in "The Gospel Of Trees: A Memoir" ($26 in hardcover from Simon & Schuster and available at the Chico Library; also for Amazon Kindle). Irving's exquisite prose focuses on her parents, and especially her dad, Lee Anderson.

"My father, a missionary agronomist," she writes, "is a man of the earth, his fingernails perpetually stained with berries and dirt. His first language is trees. …" Her mother, Flip Divine, "a skateboard city girl with curls that bounced against her backpack, waltzed into his life without a permit (or so he claimed)."

The book details the missionary service in Haiti as the family expanded to include little sisters Laura Meadow and Rose Ember. Apricot's mother experienced misgivings about the privileges she as a white missionary, a blan, received. "'What am I doing here in Haiti?' she asked the family journal. 'Has God brought me to Haiti to enjoy the luxurious lifestyle? I don't think so.'"

Apricot's relationship with her father is fraught (both are strong-willed), and her memoir is unstinting in its honesty. As a kid she loved the lizards; as a teenager she felt imprisoned; as a daughter she observed her parents' fragile marriage. 

Years later she returned to Haiti to cover the horrendous earthquake of 2010 for This American Life. Earlier she had realized that "beauty, it seemed, had been here all along: a wild summons, a name for God that did not stick in my throat. It felt suddenly absurd that as missionaries we had come to teach Haitians about God. God was already here. Maybe our only job was to bear witness to the beauty--and the sorrow. Without denying either one." 

Irving is scheduled to appear at the Chico Library on Thursday, October 11 at 6:30 p.m. for a reading and signing. The event, sponsored by Chico Friends of the Library, is free and open to the public.

Thursday, September 27, 2018


Chico area novelist H.J. Bennett, "heavily inspired by pop culture, comics, video games, the horror genre, and classic literature," has created an alternative realty in what publicity materials call an R-rated story full of "drugs, violence, sex, language, and unsettling themes." There are enough f-bombs in the first chapter alone to populate a wheelbarrow full of more conventional modern novels. Yet, strangely enough, the larger story is one of resilience, self-discovery, and the true meaning of friendship.

Imagine a music group composed of a guitar-playing monkey, a pregnant young woman called Denver, a hulking monster stitched together from body parts, and a fading but gorgeous 1980s pop star who has died many times (literally). "Franken-Fatale" ($19.99 in paperback from Blurb; also for Amazon Kindle) is the name of the band and the name of the novel. (The cover is by Wamberto Nicomedes.)

Best known locally as a mixed-media artist ("primarily acrylic, but I am known for using strange media as well such as eyeshadow, wine, tea, hair dye, and coffee"), Bennett has created a world with bits and pieces of our own (including a narrator, that pop star named Rita Venus, obsessed with celebrity) but that is definitely not our own.

It's a world in which reanimation is common so death is no deterrent. Body parts are bought and sold. Those with the bucks (like Rita Venus) can afford to be reanimated in style; others have to make do with standard reanimation chambers. Marilyn Monroe still lives, as provocative as ever, but those who have died once and are reanimated are no longer quite human. It's not exactly blood that courses through their veins, but a blackish substance, and no one has to eat. 

In fact, there are few "warmbloods" populating the earth, and Denver's quest to find an island of non-dead humans animates Bennett's story. In an author's introduction, Bennett writes that while humans are ego-driven, the "desire for belonging and social validation … drives us to behave in more charitable ways." Along the way the self-absorbed Rita is murdered multiple times, finds help in a floating brothel, and confronts a Victor Frankenstein figure that would make Boris Karloff shudder.

Then the story gets weird.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

"The Function Of Evil Across Disciplinary Contexts"

In 2014 Chico State University grad Brian Johnson, now Assistant Professor of Humanities at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio, helped convene a most unusual conference. "Evil Incarnate" brought together presenters from many academic specialties, from Shakespeare to South African crime fiction, and the papers have now been published in book form. 

"The Function Of Evil Across Disciplinary Contexts" ($95 in hardcover from Lexington Books; also for Amazon Kindle) is edited by Johnson and Malcah Effron, a lecturer in the Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communications program at MIT. It's a scholarly treatment, from a variety of perspectives, of how evil is to be defined in a secular age.

As the introduction says, "evil was, at one time, a supernatural force … well-defined by theology"; but as "the supernatural has dropped away" the "narrative of evil" has been fragmented. In fact, the editors suggest, evil "as a palpable force is … a metaphor for … social scorn…." 

An example is given by Johnson's chapter, entitled "Ghosts of the Old South: The Evils of Slavery and the Haunted House in Royal Street." The house, in New Orleans' French Quarter, was set on fire in 1834, allegedly by the house cook, one of a group of slaves kept in the building and repeatedly tortured by one Madame Delphine LaLaurie, "a twice-widowed French Creole woman." 

A crowd gathered at the fire. "Seeking justice, the citizens of New Orleans threatened to turn violent against Madame LaLaurie for her crimes." She escaped, but the crowd pressed in, "destroying what remained." Stories arose that the property was haunted by the ghosts of those slaves; the story was featured in 2013 as part of the third season of American Horror Story. To this day it is "considered one of the most haunted places in America."

Ghosts, real or not, Johnson says, "act as evidence of a white supremacist vision of the history of New Orleans." The ghosts "return from the grave because their treatment was beyond divine justice," as if what LaLaurie did was an isolated social evil policed by upstanding slave owners, thereby minimizing the evil of slavery itself.

Johnson calls us to see through those ghosts.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

"Free Speech On Campus"

How can public colleges and universities encourage the free expression of ideas yet also protect individuals from being harmed? It's no small task, write Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman in "Free Speech On Campus" ($26 in hardcover from Yale University Press and also for Amazon Kindle; a paperback version, just published, contains a new preface). 

Gillman is Chancellor at UC Irvine; Chemerinsky is Dean of UC Berkeley's School of Law. They lay out a vision for public higher education: "Campuses cannot and should not accommodate the language of safe spaces when the focus is protecting members of the campus fromthe expression of ideas, rather than creating a safe environment forthe expression of ideas."

The authors note that "this generation has a strong and persistent urge to protect others against hateful, discriminatory, or intolerant speech, especially in education settings." What they don't understand is the "historic link between free speech and the protection of dissenters and vulnerable groups."

Tracing the history of free speech in the US, the book argues that "social progress has come about not as a result of silencing certain speakers, but by ensuring that previously silenced or marginalized groups are empowered to find their voice and have their say."

But no voice can be heard in chaos, so the second half lists practical ways campus communities can respond to unpopular speech (as opposed to harmful actions), including hate speech. Speech should be regulated in "a professional zone" (like a classroom) "which protects the expression of ideas but imposes an obligation of responsible discourse…." 

But there should also be a "free speech zone" where "members of the campus community may say things … that they would not be allowed to say in the core educational and research environment." 

Tomorrow's leaders, the book concludes, must understand that if society is "to remain free, diverse, and democratic … free speech matters."

Author Erwin Chemerinsky is scheduled to present "Free Speech On Campus," the Constitution Day Lecture, at Chico State University's Laxson Auditorium on Thursday, September 27 at 6:00 p.m. Tickets are available through Chico Performances (; $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, free for youth, Chico State staff, faculty, and students.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

"Bigfoot Nation: The History Of Sasquatch In North America"

According to Wikipedia, author David Hatcher Childress refers to himself as a "rogue archaeologist"; his newest book also identifies him as a "cryptozoology researcher" who has compiled accounts from all over the United States, and beyond, of a mysterious human-like creature.

Filled with photographs, some in color, "Bigfoot Nation: The History Of Sasquatch In North America" ($22 in paperback from; also for Amazon Kindle) traces the first mentions back to the early 1800s in the Canadian Rockies, with reports of a "wild man of the woods."

Much later, in Bluff Creek, California, in 1958, a construction worker "noticed a very clear footprint in the mud along the side of the road." He called the maker of the print "bigfoot," and the name stuck.

For Childress, "bigfoot" is not a proper name, but a type, like "bear, cougar or unicorn," and the term is both singular and plural.

In 1969 there was an encounter in Oroville "where Ed Saville and Eldon Butler reported to the local newspaper that they had seen an 8-foot-tall bigfoot with greenish eyes that came to investigate their rabbit call one night."

In 1994, east of Quincy, two friends say around midnight they saw a creature "covered in hair with a rounded human-like head and no snout." A man named Tim Ford told officials in 1998 that "he and six of his friends saw a 9-foot-tall, yellow-eyed, man-like creature close to their campsite" in Hayfork. In 2006 a retired herbalist said she saw bigfoot near the Hoopa Indian Reservation and tried to talk with it, but no response. In 2017 "Claudia Ackley claims she and her daughters witnessed a sasquatch while hiking near Lake Arrowhead."

Childress acknowledges bigfoot hoaxes down through time, and his writing doesn't take itself too seriously, but he does write that "somewhere, right now, a bigfoot is lurking in the shadows, keeping his eye on those who encroach on his territory, and any nearby dumpsters. He knows his place in Bigfoot Nation and it is a place in the shadows. For him it's no big deal, the struggle for national sovereignty is over--except for the yelling and the screaming."

Thursday, August 30, 2018

"The Adventures Of Nagel Of Ancient Babylonia"

Wilma R. Forester, raised in Chico, has a tale to tell. It's not about her own childhood, but about a fictional youngster who lived long ago, "a tall lean boy about eight years old but nobody ever celebrated his birthdays. When and where he came from was unknown…." 

"Once upon a time," the story begins, "a boy named Nagel came for his spin on the earth. God sent him to the land of ancient Babylonia. The time in history as we count time was about 1400 BC."

A slave boy who runs away from Master Armen, and then returns, Nagel will have much to learn, especially about a dream that haunts him, of "beautiful white feathers" turning the color of blood.

"The Adventures Of Nagel Of Ancient Babylonia" ($19.95 in paperback from ReadersMagnet LLC; also for Amazon Kindle) is dedicated to "the free-spirit of young boys and girls the world over." The narrator suggests lessons that might be learned along the way and even provides background music.

One day an old woman gives Nagel a "magic" whistle, telling him: "When you were born, you cried and others rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, others cry and you rejoice." Much later, Nagel joins Master Armen's desert lion-hunting party, along with his dog Scrappy and his big friend Nio, the eunuch, when they are all waylaid by nomads.

The nomads have donkeys but not horses and demand them from Master Armen. Nagel and Nio (who acts as translator) are held hostage until the animals can be delivered. Nagel meets a girl his own age named Sara but as the deadline for Armen to return runs out, with the fate of Nagel and Nio in the balance, the two plot their escape. The narrator adds: "Music full of suspense here please."

The story is about promise-keeping and its sacrifices. Nagel, Forester writes, "had learned real sorrow and how to cry. If we live long enough sorrow comes to ALL of us…Very heavy slow sad music here…" But there is joy as well when Nagel finds out his true identity and that there is steadfast love greater than he ever imagined.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

"Dennis My Menace: My Brother's Memoir"

The story Magalia resident Michael ("Mikee") Richards has to tell seems prosaic. In a news release he says it's about "two boys growing up in rural Idaho in the 1950s and 1960s who seek their father's approval and love. Much of this time was spent on a cattle ranch where there was lots of hard work. Always in search of their father's love by following his code regarding women and sex, the boys did things that got them in plenty of hot water."

But the boys are raised in a highly dysfunctional family, an absent mother (gone when Mike was eight) and a father who spends much of his time drinking. Mike is especially close to his younger brother, Dennis, who is "mentally challenged" ("later diagnosed as an adult with paranoid schizophrenia"). Mike becomes his protector (and, sometimes, the instigator).

Richards imagines reflections that Dennis might write, were he capable, and adds entries in his own name, especially as Dennis gets lost in the mental health system and is found again, still alive. 

"Dennis My Menace: My Brother's Memoir" ($14.95 in paperback, self-published; also for Amazon Kindle) is an unsparing and explicit portrait of a young man who wants to show affection (he's a hugger) but cannot understand the world.

"You will know that I live in my own head in ways that you cannot imagine," "Dennis" writes. Angry voices "would get me agitated and cause me to pace back and forth and talk to myself. … I guess some of those voices were of different people talking in my head. I was just answering them out loud. … I developed some very bad habits like uncleanliness, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. … I was put on medication when I was twenty years old in the mental institution."

The story is suffused with immense sadness as Richards, looking back, tries to make sense of his life with (and apart from) Dennis. He is "still living in Ogden in a group home. He doesn't have much of a life now because most of his mind is gone. … My hope now, Dennis, is that I will be with you until the end."

Thursday, August 16, 2018

"The Nazi Card"

Chico State University grad Brian Johnson is now Assistant Professor of Humanities at Cuyahoga Community College, in Cleveland, Ohio where he teaches American literature and popular culture. 

In a new book he examines with scholarly precision the roots of what has become commonplace in the internet age, reflected in "Godwin's Law," which asserts that any online discussion (about anything at all), if it goes on long enough, will inevitably usher in some comparison to Adolf Hitler.

Johnson argues that such comparisons have lost their original meaning. "Historically," he writes, "the Nazis were defeated in 1945, but rhetorically they continue on through analogy until today. Each incarnation of their reference has altered their definition subtly so that Nazis now can refer to totalitarian politics, a drive toward world domination, racism, … irresponsible science, … feminist excesses, warlike attitudes"--the list goes on. Yet "what is the nature of Nazi evil if it isn't the Holocaust?"

"The Nazi Card" ($85 in hardcover from Lexington Books) traces "Nazi comparisons at the beginning of the Cold War," as the subtitle says, ranging not only through the age of the anti-Communist "Red Scare," and the Black Power and the Civil Rights movements, but also developments in the twenty-first century. 

Focusing primarily on Nazi analogies in American film (such as Charlie Chaplin's rendition of "Adenoid Hynkel" in "The Great Dictator" of 1940 and Peter Sellers as "Dr. Strangelove" in 1964), the book finds that even after the horror of the death camps entered public consciousness,  the Nazi analogy, representing absolute evil, has been over time sundered from the actual "egregious crimes" of the Hitler regime.

Applications of the Nazi analogy grow more and more arbitrary in popular culture, Johnson maintains, even when better analogies are available. "Why aren't Communists, better armed and a more imminent threat, a better description of a present menace than the Nazis, who were long ago defeated?" And, at times, "analogies to Nazism were employed to justify, not condemn, harassment of Jewish-Americans."

The bottom line for Johnson is that the misuse of Nazi analogies impedes careful moral reasoning. There is danger that the abundance of arbitrary Nazi comparisons may tempt us to forget what really happened.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

"Positive Thoughts Will Change Your Life: A Handbook For Personal Transformation"

"I grew up in Corning," writes Tony Palermo. "Everyone there, including my own family, are good, hardworking loving people." But after "a very tough break-up" at 19 he was plunged into sadness and depression and didn't ask his family for help. Perhaps, he thought, they wouldn't understand. 

He studied business at Butte College and moved up the ladder to a managerial position with Media News Group (the parent of this newspaper) but lasting happiness proved elusive. By age 36 it seemed clear that nothing would stop the emotional roller coaster. "As far as I was concerned, all my energy for the last 16 years had been expended in a continual effort to keep the darkness at bay."

Things began to change when he "decided to work with a life coach." Palermo learned "how to productively manage my negative thoughts … learning how to turn my negative thoughts into positive thoughts." The affirmations of self-love he practiced began to have an effect. 

Palermo himself became a life coach ( and what he teaches is embodied in "Positive Thoughts Will Change Your Life: A Handbook For Personal Transformation"($9.99 in paperback from CreateSpace; also for Amazon Kindle).

Central chapters focus on changing negative thoughts to positive ones. "One of the most commonly-used healing methodologies of this New Age are affirmations … something you say to yourself repeatedly." The affirmation "validates the precise role that thoughts and emotions play in creating our lives." 

The idea is to avoid negative affirmations ("I hate school") and embrace positive ones ("I'm a good student"). "If we focus on positive thoughts," Palermo writes, "the universe rallies round us, ushering in our deepest dreams."

In line with New Age teaching, affirmations are seen as a creative force. They require one to "consciously do what aligns with and supports the manifestation of your affirmations" knowing that "the universe will support me in every way." Separate chapters are devoted to forgiveness, relationships, and health.

Those who do not subscribe to New Age metaphysics can nevertheless affirm with Palermo the importance of cultivating appropriate habits of life and, as he has learned, to let others help. 

"The heart is built for sharing."

Thursday, August 02, 2018

"Heart Of The Poppy: From War To Amor"

When the Evangelical Free Church of Chico partnered with Amor ministries ( to build homes in Mexico, Amor's founders, Scott and Gayla Congdon, little knew of a historical connection with World War I. 

Now, after seven years of research, church member Dan Irving tells the story in vivid detail. "Heart Of The Poppy: From War To Amor" ($10 in paperback, self-published, available at ABC Books in Chico; also for Amazon Kindle) begins with "The War to End All Wars" and a Christian hospitality ministry that arose near Ypres, in Belgium, during the height of the conflict.

Trench warfare is unimaginable. "Your senses are numb, you are surrounded by death. Its lifeless stare bores right through you…. The stench of death is everywhere, and it will never leave you. Never! You cannot escape death’s objective: to hunt you down and destroy you, anyway possible. You would prefer a merciless bullet to the brain. … For now, this is your home, where the mud and blood flow together in the trenches on the Western Front."

In 1915, a man named Philip Thomas Byard Clayton, ordained by the Anglican Church, was sent to the Western Front, to Poperinge, Belgium, in West Flanders, a small town near Ypres. "He was short and pudgy," Irving notes, and his nickname, "Tubby," stuck with him.

Tubby performed services on the front lines and saw the need for respite. He turned a damaged mansion in Poperinge into "Talbot House," named for one of the war dead, a place of hospitality known by its initials, Toc H (the "toc" sound a way for Army Signal Code to distinguish t from p).

The Toc H movement grew worldwide, later including a ministry in Mexico building homes, which influenced the Congdons and, years later, led to the formation of Amor. 

It is an extraordinary history, involving 800,000 dead at the Third Battle of Ypres ("for the Allies it represented a gain of two inches for every dead soldier"), and, astonishingly, a field of dark red poppies "sprouting up in life" in Flanders fields, a memorial to death--yet one day, a hundred years hence, yielding life and hope for Mexico.