Thursday, August 29, 2019

"Stutterer Interrupted: The Comedian Who Almost Didn't Happen"

The author's name is "Nina G.," her moniker in the Bay Area comedy circuit. Recently she presented her story to Butte College faculty and staff during the new semester convocation. Nina and husband Ethan live in Oakland; she works at a community college as a counselor for students with disabilities but is also part of a comedy troupe called The Comedians with Disabilities Act.

Though her talk at Butte College was rated PG, the story she tells in her new book is far edgier (she is no stranger to F-bombs). But it's also a poignant journey of a childhood that "took all the negative social cues and internalized them, like a box of baking soda absorbing every rotten odor in the fridge."

"Stutterer Interrupted: The Comedian Who Almost Didn't Happen" ($16.95 in paperback from She Writes Press; also for Amazon Kindle) is half autobiography, half reflection about embracing the person she is, stuttering included. But for supportive parents and counselors, Nina may have remained that "weird kid."

At sixteen she volunteered for the National Stuttering Project in San Francisco. "I was surrounded by well-adjusted adults who could speak without fluency and still lead normal lives." She resolved not to "hide behind the 'weird kid' persona. I spoke in my natural voice and started making peace with my repetitions and blocks."

Later she earned her doctorate in psychology and became "a frustrated dyslexic-stuttering academic" who found real joy in venues like the bar in San Bruno "where a fight breaks out and I have to resort to my dirtiest jokes to distract from the screaming man being dragged out in handcuffs. What other job lets you have all those experiences? To be a comedian, you have to love what you do. And I do love what I do."

There are practical chapters on how well-meaning folks who hear a report on NPR suddenly become experts on stuttering. How Howard Stern helped her find self-acceptance. How she "stopped denying myself a voice out of fear of inconveniencing others. I became upfront about my dysfluency...."

Her dream? To make "the world a more stutter-friendly and loving place." One life at a time.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

"A Gentleman In Moscow"

June 21, 1922. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, born in St. Petersburg in 1889, a man of leisure living in the Hotel Metropol in Moscow, is deemed a subversive by the Emergency Committee of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs. 

He is sentenced to spend the rest of his days in the Metropol; "make no mistake," he is told, "should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot."

What unfolds is the story of the Count's confinement over three decades in a novel so piquant and mesmerizing one doesn't want it to end. "A Gentleman In Moscow" ($17 in paperback from Penguin) is by Stanford-educated, Manhattan-based Amor Towles ( 

In the Metropol (an actual grand hotel near the Kremlin) the Count witnesses the development (and devolution) of Party ideals and finds he must take up residence not in his spacious suite but in an attic. And there is Nina.

"But for the virtuous who have lost their way, the Fates often provide a guide. On the island of Crete, Theseus had his Ariadne and her magical ball of thread to lead him safely from the lair of the Minotaur. Through those caverns where ghostly shadows dwell, Odysseus had his Tiresias just as Dante had his Virgil. And in the Metropol Hotel, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov had a nine-year-old girl by the name of Nina Kulikova."

Years later Nina returns to the Metropol, a married woman with a daughter, Sofia. She asks the Count to look after her as she leaves to try to find her husband, who has been arrested. Nina never returns, and the childless Count becomes an adoptive father.

The story is poignant, wry, and wise. The Count's life has ushered him into the "Confederacy of the Humbled," "a close-knit brotherhood whose members travel with no outward markings, but who know each other at a glance. For having fallen suddenly from grace, those in the Confederacy share a certain perspective. Knowing beauty, influence, fame, and privilege to be borrowed rather than bestowed, they are not easily impressed."

Does the Count escape? Suffice it to say the reader will be up at night turning pages to find out.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

"A Fire Story"

In simple drawings, artist Brian Fies ( tries to make sense of the "mind-numbing disaster" he and his wife faced not so long ago. "Karen and I evacuated our home north of Santa Rosa ... at around 1:30 a.m. on Monday, October 9, 2017. Based on when our neighbors began getting text messages from their home security systems, we think our neighborhood burned around 2:30 a.m."

The couple was taken in by their twin daughters, and the next day, using "a pad of low-quality pulp paper, one permanent marker, a fine-point felt-tip pen, and four colored highlighters," he began telling the tale in word and image. Soon KQED aired a short animated version of Fies' work, and recently the PBS News Hour reported on what has now been published as a full-length "graphic memoir."

"A Fire Story" ($24.99 in hardcover from Harry N. Abrams; also for Amazon Kindle) is not just about escaping the flames, but what happened afterward, from disorientation to the eventual decision to rebuild. Readers who survived the Camp Fire may find an uncanny emotional resonance with Fies' narrative (the scope is different, of course, but the similarities are stunning), so much so that they may be moved to tears. At least, a certain book columnist I know had that reaction.

Fies intersperses stories of his neighbors and friends. Neighbor Mari and her husband lost everything, including two cats. "I feel like someone forced me into the witness protection program," she tells Brian. "I have no history." 

"Well-meaning people say 'It's just stuff,'" Brian writes. "But it was ourstuff. Stuff we created. Stuff we treasured. Stuff from our ancestors we wanted our descendants to have. Stuff is a marker of time and memory. It's roots. I am uprooted."

Then, "a day in the new life." Karen is reading the newspaper, and Brian says, "I think I'll make a pitcher of iced tea." "Sounds good," she says. Pause. Pause. "No pitcher," he says. "Put it on the list," she says.

Finally, "within a few weeks of the fire, green reappeared amid the black and gray. ... Flowers and trees can come back, changed and scarred but still beautiful. So can we."

Thursday, August 08, 2019

"The Fabric Of Character: A Wise Giver's Guide To Supporting Social And Moral Renewal"

D.C.-based writer Anne Snyder (, the new editor of Comment Magazine (dedicated to "public theology for the common good"), attended a meeting recently of the Chico Triad discussion group which focused on altruism. Her interest is in how strategic giving can foster community renewal through character formation; she spent a week in Butte County interviewing those who are leading the restoration projects in Paradise and surrounding areas.

Character, she writes, "is a set of dispositions to be and do good, engraved on a person in multiple ways," including by the cultivation of habits of self-control; "by religious instruction on honest, courageous, and compassionate living; through institutions that establish standards for good conduct," by mentors and "through experiences of struggle, positions of responsibility, and the blessings and demands of enduring commitments."

Such qualities strengthen a community over the long haul. Snyder wants to provide philanthropists not only encouragement to support "initiatives that attempt to form character and transform lives," but guidelines for evaluating them. "The Fabric Of Character: A Wise Giver's Guide To Supporting Social And Moral Renewal ($15 in paperback from The Philanthropy Roundtable) provides moving examples of how organizations across the country are building character.

That includes The Other Side Movers out of Salt Lake City, Utah, a number-one-rated moving company with members from The Other Side Academy, "a life-training school for people with long criminal or addiction histories." There's Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (with an "emphasis on cultivating the whole person") and The Positivity Project, giving grade schoolers "new ways of understanding their emotions."

Snyder identifies 16 "interwoven" aspects of an organization that help it succeed in building character, in its own members and in those it serves. These include Telos (a sense of purpose); Liturgies and Rituals ("communal rhythms, routines"); Struggle and Growth (are struggles "given meaning and direction?"); Joy and Transformation (is the whole person changing?); and Generativity (do those who leave carry on the ideals?).

Snyder's clear and engaging writing shows the significance of character formation in community renewal, even as she now explores what it means for Paradise nine months after the horrendous fire.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

"Tales Of The Paradise Ridge"

"January 1960 saw the beginning of a new adult night class in Butte County History, taught by Ruby Swartzlow." As Sherrie Gobin Rosen writes, "It did not take long before this large class decided there was a lot of history in and around Paradise, but not much of it was written down anywhere. The group decided they really needed to remedy that, thus the first issue of Tales of the Paradise Ridge was born in June 1960." Sherrie's dad, Ted Gobin, was deeply involved in exploring local history. He was also my bus driver during my grade school days in Paradise.

So it is with a sense of sheer delight that key articles from Tales, selected from its entire run through 2018, have been published by the Association for Northern California Historical Research (ANCHR) in cooperation with the Paradise Gold Nugget Museum (temporarily located at the Depot Museum, 5570 Black Olive Drive). 

"Tales Of The Paradise Ridge" ($19.95 in paperback from, available at ABC Books in Chico and a host of other locations listed on the ANCHR website) brings together three dozen articles, including images, exactly as they appeared in the original issues of Tales.

Though the Gold Nugget Museum burned in the Camp Fire, Don Criswell, Board President, writes that "the beauty of Paradise is in its people, people of good will who are connected with each other and with this place. We will rebuild Paradise and the Gold Nugget Museum." 

To that end, ANCHR Publications Editor Josie Reifschneider-Smith has compiled this volume specifically focused on the Paradise area, and the place of the Museum in Ridge life, as a Museum fundraiser.

There are nuggets aplenty in the book. Swartzlow writes about the development of the Skyway (which opened July 1950); Lois McDonald on the Paradise census of 1880 (spoiler alert: 301 persons "on the Ridge"); Connie Rogers on the Depot Museum; Rosen on Paradise in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties; Criswell on Yellowstone Kelly (and the Heritage Trail); Tonya Dale on the Paradise sign.

There's also a picture of the front of Barnett's Market in the midst of the 1964 Gold Nugget Parade. My dad would have been proud.