Saturday, December 14, 2002

‘Aisling of Eire’ by Dorothy Keddington

Book cover: Aisling of Eire by Dorothy Keddington
Remember that scene in the 1983 film “Eddie and the Cruisers,” when Eddie Wilson tells Frank “Wordman” Ridgeway that they need each other like “words and music” need each other? “Words and music, man,” Eddie says. “Words and music.”

I couldn’t help recalling that phrase when reading Dorothy Keddington’s romantic novel, Aisling of Eire (Granite, 2002). You see, the book is packaged with an accompanying CD by Golden Bough and Men of Worth -- two groups specializing in the traditional music of Ireland and Scotland.

Saturday, November 9, 2002

Book review: ‘Censored 2003’ by Project Censored

Book cover: "Censored 2003 -- The Top 25 Censored Stories"
It’s been several years since I finished my schooling -- for the time being, anyway -- but I find that I’m still devoting considerable time to what I call my “homework.”

The only difference is that the required reading I’ve assigned to myself has more of a career focus, rather than an academic one. Hence, the subscription to “American Journalism Review.” And likewise, the purchase of Censored 2003: The Top 25 Censored Stories by Peter Phillips and Project Censored (Seven Stories Press, 2002).

Project Censored is an investigative sociology and media analysis project that is managed through SSU’s Department of Sociology in its School of Social Sciences. Each year, Project Censored compiles 25 important stories that were under-reported in the mainstream news media during the preceding year. It’s a long process, that involves the screening of several thousand stories by Project Censored students and staff.

About 700 stories are selected for evaluation, and the whittling-down process involves input, in stages, by about 150 people -- students, staff, faculty/community advisors and self-selected national judges.

As a newspaper writer, I consider it essential to be as informed as possible about the world around me -- particularly in areas that don’t always get as much attention as they should. And so, for the past the past three or four years I’ve faithfully obtained each volume as soon as it was available. (Note to the similarly faithful: There is no Censored 2002. Censored 2003 covers 18 months of under-reported news, including an analysis of various stories related to Sept. 11, 2001.)

This series of books is invaluable for the attention they bring to important news stories, the journals that cover them and the news outlets that don’t. Among this year’s line-up, two of the stories originally appeared in “Mother Jones” -- which is quite possibly one of the best magazines in existence. Its continued appearance in Project Censored’s pages was one of the influencing factors in my decision to purchase a subscription.

Also of value is the analysis this series offers concerning grassroots and independent movements within the area of information gathering and dissemination. Each volume provides a glossary of independent publications and activist organizations for people who want to get a more complete picture of the world around them.

In a way, these books serve as snapshots into the alternative media’s continued evolution. And sometimes, re-reading earlier volumes, the sense of history astonishes me. In Censored 1999, for example, Project Censored profiled Free Radio Berkeley -- a forerunner in the campaign to bring low-power radio into local communities. What was civil disobedience then is now duly licensed, and Lake County’s own KPFZ-LP 104.5 FM is a beneficiary of those pioneering efforts.

Published Nov. 9, 2002 in the Lake County Record-Bee

Saturday, October 19, 2002

Local celebration promotes ‘The Grapes of Wrath’

Book cover: Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Lake County Library system is participating in a statewide program encouraging Californians to read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

A local celebration and discussion of the book takes place from 9 a.m. to about 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19 at Redbud Library, 14785 Burns Valley Road in Clearlake. Organized by Lake County Library Advisory Board member Harold Riley, the program is divided into two parts.

The morning session begins with a showcase of Woody Guthrie songs. At 10:30 a.m., participants will view a video of John Ford’s 1940 film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. Following a break for lunch, a discussion of the book will convene at about 12:30 p.m.

The Lake County Library is one of more than 140 libraries participating in the California Council for Humanities’ “California Stories: Reading ‘The Grapes of Wrath’” program. “While there have been several one city, one book programs, nothing of this scale or ambition has been attempted before,” said council Executive Director Jim Quay. “This program is the first ever to be statewide, to involve a book specifically relevant to California and to encourage participants to share their own stories.”

Throughout the summer, California residents have been encouraged to read The Grapes of Wrath, a story about the Joad family, tenant farmers in Oklahoma who migrate to California after losing their farm. The novel grew out of an assignment given to Steinbeck in 1936 by the editors of the San Francisco News, to write a series of articles on the condition of migrant farmers. In 1940, the same year that Ford directed the book’s film adaptation, Steinbeck received a Pulitzer Prize.

The statewide project culminates in October with a variety of observances designed to encourage people to explore the book and its relevance to contemporary California life. According to the California Council for Humanities, many of the book’s issues -- migration, poverty and the pursuit of the American dream -- are still of concern today.

Riley said that organizing a local celebration represented the closing of a circle for him. “I grew up as a migrant child in the San Joaquin Valley,” he explained. “I read the book when I was 17 or 18 years old, and it saved my life. Now I’m completing the circle, and at long last I can repay the compliment by introducing someone else to the book.”

“California Stories: Reading ‘The Grapes of Wrath’” coincides with the 100th anniversary of Steinbeck’s birth, on Feb. 27, 1902 in Salinas. It kicks off a three-year program to discover community and individual stories that will collectively tell the story of today’s California.

“The Golden State is uniquely diverse,” Quay said. “Half of us were born elsewhere, and that hasn’t changed in 150 years. Each Californian has a story to tell, but we have few opportunities to come together and find out about each other. This program gives Californians from every walk of life a chance to read and discuss the book together, consider the place of their own story in the story of California and discover the book’s relevance to current California issues.”

More information about “California Stories: Reading ‘The Grapes of Wrath’” can be found at the California Council for Humanities’ web site, For more information about the local observance, contact your local branch of the Lake County Library or call 995-3905.

Originally published in the Lake County Record-Bee.

Saturday, August 31, 2002

Book review: ‘The Colors of Nature’

Book: "Colors of Nature"
A diverse group of authors explore the intimate connection between the environment and the many races of people who inhabit the earth in The Colors of Nature: Essays on Culture, Identity and the Natural World, (Milkweed Editions, September, 2002).

The book was compiled to address a “lack” of published nature writing by people of color — which its editors, Alison H. Deming and Lauret E. Savoy, feel reflects the limited perspective of the publishing community and its target audience, rather than an absence of interest on the part of the writers.

According to Deming and Savoy, these essays include “themes of historical legacy, of dispossession, displacement and return, of relational identity and relationship to place. The book speaks across the lines of cultural identity — those defined from within and those imposed from without — to consider our place on earth and connections with each other.” That’s a pretty tall order, and the book’s contributors pull it off admirably and eloquently.

Nature writing as a distinct literary tradition originated in the late 18th Century, but don’t expect these writers to limit themselves to Romanticism, with its idealization of “nature” as something separate from man. The men and women in this anthology draw upon their own cultural traditions, as well as personal experience, in exploring their connections with the world around them.

Sandra Jackson-Opoku (“Writing the Diaspora: One Black Writer’s Journey from Cultural Isolation to Multicultural Inclusion”) can still recall the moment that she first realized there was a world of black experience beyond her limited vision. It was 35 years ago, in fourth grade, during an assembly that featured a performance by Haitian dancers.

“The Haitian dancers didn’t just dance and sing,” she recounts. “They burst onstage in a syncopated fury of drums and limbs and voices. Athletic brown limbs bent and swayed. Gaily colored prints unfurled like tropical flags. Even their slip-ups seemed stylish.”

Melissa Nelson (“Becoming Métis”), has had to reconcile the land management practices of her Native American ancestors with the environmental views of her European ones. “Many deep ecologists adhere to a myth of pristine wilderness and consider Indians anti-environmental because they want to ‘use’ the ‘untouched’ wildlands,” she writes. “Yet more and more people are finally realizing that the precontact North American landscape was well cared for and highly managed by its original inhabitants.”

Several writers, Robert D. Bullard among them (“Confronting Environmental Racism in the 21st Century”), tackle the controversial subject of environmental racism: “In 1996, the 54-mile stretch along U.S. Highway 80 was designated the ‘Selma to Montgomery Historic Trail,’” he states. “The trail is also designated an ‘All-American Road’ under the Federal Highway Administration’s National Scenic Byways Program.”

He continues, “Despite these federal government designations, and strong sentiment among black people, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) in 1998 approved a 200-acre landfill permit on the trail that many consider ‘sacred ground.’ This action makes real the extent to which environmental racism is allowed to operate. It is highly unlikely that a garbage dump would be proposed next to the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial.”

Not everyone will have an easy time with this book. It brings up a lot of painful history — people bought and sold as property, indigenous populations exterminated in the name of progress — that some people might prefer not to face.

Likewise, for a writer to suggest that, despite our best efforts, racism is still entrenched in our society, may not be palatable to someone who doesn’t see a problem with the way things are.

If, however, you’re strong enough to face another point of view — that European-Americans committed atrocities in the name of progress, and that real, living, breathing people suffered for it; and that our actions have a direct impact on the lives that share our Earth — then go ahead and read this book. Nature writing as a genre is richer for these authors’ inclusion in it.

Published Aug. 31, 2002 in the Lake County Record-Bee

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Filling in again at Observer American

I’m working at the Clear Lake Observer American again, for the remainder of this week, filling in for managing editor Dirk Damon. Today I started scanning columns, building pages and writing a guest column for Saturday’s paper. My topic is waste diversion, and the need to hold manufacturers accountable for the wasteful packaging they create in the first place.

Saturday, August 17, 2002

Book review: ‘Nickel and Dimed’ by Barbara Ehrenreich

Book cover: "Nickel and Dimed -- On (Not) Getting By in America" by Barbara Ehrenreich
Can a woman with every advantage in life -- affluent, healthy, well-educated, unencumbered by children -- really put herself in the shoes of someone less fortunate, someone who, unlike her, does not have the option of calling it quits if the experiment doesn’t work out?

It is to Harper’s magazine contributor Barbara Ehrenreich’s credit that she decided to have a go at it. From the late spring of 1998 to the summer of 2000, she presented herself to employers as an unskilled homemaker returning to the work force and worked at a series of low-income jobs: waitress, hotel maid and retail sales clerk.

The result of Ehrenreich’s first-hand investigation is Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Metropolitan Books, 2001; Owl Books, 2002). The book is a revealing look at the difficulties low-income wage earners face when trying to keep a roof over their heads and put food in their bellies.

Nickel and Dimed is endorsed by no less of an authority than Rep. Lynn Woolsey, the first former welfare mother to be elected to U.S. Congress. But therein lies a subtle distinction, which has to be acknowledged if Ehrenreich’s book is to be accepted for what it is intended to be, which is an in-depth look at life in society’s lower economic sectors.

Unlike Woolsey, who actually lived through it, “warts ’n’ all,” as Molly Ivins would say, Ehrenreich is an investigative journalist who was able to establish ground rules ahead of time and provide herself with financial resources to draw upon if necessary.

No matter how harrowing it became for Ehrenreich to make ends meet -- and at times it became pretty harrowing indeed, to the point that working for a national retail chain was costing her money -- Ehrenreich always had an escape hatch leading back to her comfortable, upper-middle class existence as one of society’s opinion-shapers.

Fortunately, Ehrenreich was smart enough to realize from the onset of her investigation that -- short of her customary lifestyle disappearing -- there is no way that she will ever, truly, have to (not) get by in America.

But her temporary co-workers did not have her advantages. They faced educational, geographical, economic, political and psychological barriers that prevented them from bettering themselves, and Ehrenreich writes about their struggles with compassion and more than a little outrage.

“The ‘working poor,’ as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society,” Ehrenreich tells us. “They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes can be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor to everyone else.”

Don’t look for detached objectivity in Nickel and Dimed. Ehrenreich became fully involved in her co-workers’ plight to such an extent that, when working for a national retail chain in Minnesota, she actively encouraged them to organize for better wages.

The experience also took its toll on Ehrenreich in ways that she had not expected. After a spiteful exchange with a co-worker, Ehrenreich reflects that “‘Barb,’ the name on my ID tag, is not exactly the same person as Barbara. ‘Barb’ is what I was called as a child, and still am by my siblings, and I sense that at some level I’m regressing. Take away the career and the higher education, and maybe what you’re left with is this original Barb ... So it’s interesting, and more than a little disturbing to see how Barb turned out -- that she’s meaner and slyer than I am, more cherishing of grudges, and not quite as smart as I’d hoped.”

Ultimately, Nickel and Dimed is an uncomfortable book to read, but it is also a necessary book to read. Necessary, if for no other reason than to expose just how heavily our society depends on the toil of its poorest members -- and how little it gives them in return.

Saturday, July 6, 2002

Book review: ‘At the Crossroads’ by Frankie Schelly

Book cover: "At the Crossroads" by Frankie Schelly
 In my review of The Compassionate Rebel — Energized by Anger, Motivated by Love, I mentioned Vincent Rush, a Catholic priest who, in 1968, advocated to his parishioners the supremacy of conscience over Church prohibitions against the use of birth control.

The dichotomy between individual conscience and religious doctrine is at the crux of At the Crossroads (FireSign Exclusives, 2001), a novel by Frankie Schelly.

The novel concerns four nuns — Vivian Tiamet, Mary Ruth, Kimberly and Sister Dominic — who are members of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and operate a Catholic school and convent in Sleeder, Ill. All of them, during the course of the novel, face difficult choices between obedience and personal belief.

The book is positioned as a story of conflict between Church teachings and feminist values, but I think this is unnecessarily limiting. The issue of acting according to one’s free will transcends any one particular social movement or ideology. Likewise, Schelly’s book has much to offer to people outside of the target readership that is suggested by its promotional focus.

Schelly told me that her book has been made even more pertinent in view of the priestly power abuse scandal. Certainly, each day seems to bring new revelations of financial mismanagement or ongoing sexual transgressions by priests with the collusion of superiors through reassignment from parish to parish.

Fallout from these acts has had a ripple effect that transcended immediate victims to encompass entire communities — of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

I never expected to see a former mentor of mine brought to trial and convicted for sexually molesting minors. I didn’t expect the number of professed victims that spoke up during the trial. I didn’t expect to hear Father Don Kimball say, on national television no less, that he hadn’t taken his oath of celibacy seriously. And I didn’t expect the doubts that would arise about Father Don’s past behavior to me, given what emerged during trial testimony about his ”grooming” of victims.

Repercussions in the Santa Rosa Diocese didn’t just affect me, however. In 1999, the diocese’ assorted financial troubles forced the closing of the Holy Family Catholic School in Lakeport. But I rather think that its loss was a “fortunate fall,” as Milton of “Paradise Lost” fame put it. As the “Good Shepherd Ecumenical Academy,” the school now has the resources and energies of several Christian denominations behind it.

Certainly, these experiences made it easy for me to relate to the drama presented in Schelly’s book.

If there is one flaw in this novel, it is that Schelly — who attended women’s Catholic high school and college — occasionally makes references to events and doctrines in the Catholic tradition that may not be readily understood by a larger readership.

For instance, “Vatican II” is the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, which opened in 1962 under Pope John XXIII and was closed by Pope Paul VI in 1965. Its task was to determine ways in which the Church could present itself to modern-day society.

Likewise, when Kimberly tells her friend Brenda that the pope has a “loophole” through which he can reverse the Church’s ban on birth control, I could only guess, after researching the subject, that she was referring to the findings of the Birth Control Commission, which was established by Pope John XXIII and met from 1963 to 1966.

I realize that for Schelly to have provided a lengthy explanation for every reference to Catholic tradition would have weakened and burdened the narrative structure of her story. Still, unless I didn’t read the book carefully enough, I found my lack of familiarity with these events to interfere with my ability to fully comprehend Schelly’s references to them.

Altogether, At the Crossroads presents an intimate look at four women’s struggles to reconcile free will with Church teaching. Their individual journeys lead them in startling and unexpected directions that present for compelling and thought-provoking reading.

Published June 6, 2002 in the Lake County Record-Bee

Saturday, May 18, 2002

‘The Archer King’ by Reyna Thera Lorele

Book cover: "The Archer King" by Reyna Thera Lorele
Before Queen Amidala, Princess Leia or Xena, Warrior Princess, there was Maid Marion. And Maid Marion rocked.

The Robin Hood legend has appealed to me for a long time, and Marion is its chief attraction. What teen-age girl wouldn’t want to be Marion? Fleeing an arranged marriage to some loutish nobleman, she donned Lincoln green and took up the bow in Sherwood Forest. If Robin Hood was the Prince of Thieves, Marion was his Princess and his equal.

The Robin Hood legend seems to resonate with a lot of people, judging by the large body of novels and screenplays it has inspired. I never fail to marvel at the various interpretations that people come up with in retelling this time-honored legend.

A recent addition to the body of Robin Hood literature is Reyna Thera Lorele’s The Archer King: Robin of the Wood and the Maid Maerin (Blue Arrow Books, 2000).

Comparisons to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon seem inevitable when reading The Archer King. Like Bradley did with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Lorele has superimposed conflicts between Paganism and Christianity — the Old and New Religions — over the familiar trappings of the Robin Hood legend. The result is a fast-paced and entertaining novel that reads like a tale from an old broadside ballad.

In Lorele’s novel, the familiar figure of Robin Hood is a Druid, having been initiated into the Old Religion after returning, disillusioned, from the Crusades.

Mind you, this interpretation of Robin isn’t original to Lorele. A more apt comparison for her book might be with “Robin of Sherwood,” a TV show that aired in Britain from 1983 to 1985. In it, Robert of Loxley (Michael Praed in the first two seasons) and, later, Robert of Huntington (Jason Connery in the third and final season) was anointed as the God Herne’s chosen Son. The series developed a considerable cult following stateside, as well as on the Continent, judging by the number of Web sites called up by an Internet search.

As for Lorele’s story, it is set, traditionally enough, in England during the Crusades. All the characters you would expect to find are here — King Richard the Lion Heart, neglecting his country while he battles “infidels” in Jerusalem; the ineffectual Prince John, setting himself up to rule in his brother’s prolonged absence; and the ruthless Sheriff of Nottingham, subjugating the local peasants and attempting to seize a portion of his ward’s dowry by marrying her to the aforementioned loutish nobleman, Augustin de Coucy. Of course, any “nobility” Coucy possesses is entirely an accident of birth — the man has no redeeming moral fiber.

Maid Marion (Lorele spells it “Maerin”) has dedicated her life to serving what she believes to have been a manifestation of the Virgin Mary that appeared to her in her childhood. I had my suspicions early in the book, however, that this supernatural figure was really the Great Goddess of the Old Religion.

In presenting the conflicts between Christians and non-Christians, Lorele’s sympathies are a little obvious at times. Most of the Christian priests in this book are greedy, self-serving hypocrites who pervert their religion’s teachings to accumulate wealth (some of that wealth even finds its way into the coffers of the Church). The secular men of power who uphold the ChurchÕs doctrines are just as bad.

Taken as a whole, Lorele’s book poses interesting theories about the man or spirit that is known today as “Robin Hood.” Aficionados of the Robin Hood legend, especially fans of “Robin of Sherwood,” should find much that is entertaining, thought-provoking and, perhaps, even enlightening in The Archer King.

Published May 18, 2002 in the Lake County Record-Bee

Friday, May 17, 2002

Book reviews published in newspaper

Last night I searched the Internet for information about book reviewers’ associations. I’ve had two book reviews published in the Lake County Record-Bee, and am now working on a third.

Saturday, April 6, 2002

Some people shouldn’t have dogs

With the sun rising earlier and setting later each day, my husband and I have more time to walk our dog, Frankie. We’ve noticed that in the four-and-a-half years that we’ve lived in Lake County, a lot more families with dogs have moved into our neighborhood.

Thursday, April 4, 2002

Smooth going during week at Observer American

Things have been going smoothly during my week at the south Lake County office of the Clear Lake Observer American. I put out Wednesday’s paper with the help of staff writers Veronica Morgan and Denise Rockenstein and the composing department at the Lakeport newspaper plant.

Sunday, March 10, 2002

Shadowing editor of the Observer American

I’ll be working at the Clear Lake Observer American for a couple of days this week — shadowing with the editor, Dirk Damon, in preparation for when he goes on vacation in April.