Monday, November 12, 2018

Fire update

Hey folks, I thought I'd post a little update in case you're interested.  The fire is still spreading, and it's jumped the river at a spot I think everybody was hoping would stay contained, so that's not good.  It's also heading towards more small communities.  But it has, at least, slowed for the moment.

Regular citizens are not yet allowed up to Paradise -- there are downed trees and power lines all over the place -- but we are getting some news about what has and has not been preserved.  We were happy to hear today that the public library up there is still intact, which is good news as it can serve people in many ways during whatever rebuilding will happen.  Otherwise, the news is mostly bad -- you can see videos all over Facebook, and they're devastating.  I know a lot of people who have confirmed that their houses have gone, and one who knows it's still there.  Others just don't know yet.  And we have over 40 confirmed dead; that number will continue to rise.

Housing is going to be a serious problem.  They're saying that 15% of the housing in our county is gone.  Even with squishing, and some people simply not coming back, we can't house everybody.  I hear they're bringing in temporary housing.  Right now a lot of people are still at large shelters, some are camping in parks (or the Walmart parking lot, which now has an RV town), or staying with host families.  You have to understand, Paradise was a pretty low-income town and had a large number of elderly residents as well.  A lot of people won't be able to afford rentals in Chico, or to rebuild.  And of course many of them have lost their jobs too.

Here's a photo of me and the kids today as we went out and ran some errands.  Wearing a properly-rated face mask is super-important; the air is full of gunk.

A buddy is calling this #CaliStyle
I've mentioned before that I work at a community college, and it so happens that the campus was placed in the middle of nowhere, pretty well equidistant from all three of the main towns in the county.  It's currently being used as a staging area for the firefighters, and it nearly burned too.  So the power is off, there's damage to the water and sewer lines, there's ash everywhere...they're going to aim at two weeks to get everything up and running again, but it's hard to say.  Worse, well over 100 faculty and staff are now homeless, and goodness knows how many students.  So they're still figuring out how to make things work -- as are all the schools, even if the campuses weren't in physical danger.

 There is plenty to do related to the fire, but nothing else.  Tomorrow, our high school is hosting a get-together for teens -- there will be 'shopping,' gift cards, and the band is hoping to have Paradise band kids come to a party.  I'll also be sorting books for shelters instead of for the book sale, especially kids' books.  My quilt guild has scheduled some marathon sewing sessions and has probably made a goal to give everybody a quilt.  My church is acting as a one-stop everything shop, offering help with paperwork, professional counseling, free food and clothes, and coordinating host families.  Every organization in town is doing anything anybody can think of.

If by any chance you'd like to help, it's money that is needed.  BUT you have to be careful; GoFundMes are proliferating, but they aren't all legitimate.  Scammers have been using real victims' names to start fundraisers.  So, it's important to verify the authenticity of any fundraiser, and I'd advise using the large, official ones if you don't actually know the people involved.  For example, this Camp Fire Fund between a local bank and the TV stations.  Or this fund for the many students at my college who are now homeless, started by the college president.

Well, that is a long and depressing post, but it seems like some folks might be interested.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Life intervenes

I was all ready to post about some great books I've been reading, especially this one non-fiction title, but right now blogging about books is the last thing on my mind, so I thought I'd post something to let you all know what's going on.  We are just fine, but nobody else around here is...

Thursday morning a small wildfire sparked up on the ridge -- I live in a valley, but tucked up near the start of the mountains -- and it spread so fast.  This fire just exploded, and it turned out to be the Big One we all worried would come some day.  The winter rains haven't started yet, and everything is extremely dry.  Our lovely little neighbor town of Paradise was pretty well destroyed, while people escaped as fast as they could.  By evening, the fire was reaching the edges of our town too, but it's much easier to fight a fire on the valley floor, so although many people were evacuated, nearly all of them were able to go home the next day. 

Thursday morning
This fire is still raging -- it's up to 100,000 acres now, which means it has slowed considerably, but it's still only 20% contained at the moment.  They think it will take all month to get it completely controlled.  We have something like 40 or 50 thousand people displaced, many of whom have lost everything.  Many just don't know if their homes are still standing -- chances are slim, but on the other hand, structures we thought were lost have turned out to have survived.  The high school and the hospital are both surprisingly still standing, though it's a question whether Paradise can even be rebuilt. 

So many of our friends have lost their homes. Lots of folks are leaving town to stay with relatives -- if not because they're actually homeless, in order to escape the smoke.  The rest work at evacuation shelters.  School is cancelled for at least the next two weeks.  Suddenly there is nothing to do but watch the news and work at shelters or host people...find things to donate, that sort of thing.  Everybody is much too jittery to do much else.

So although I have plenty of free time now that I can't work and there's no school, I'm not sure I'll be able to blog either.  I guess I could put the 15yo on a Great Books reading program for a couple of weeks -- I'm a homeschooler again!

Man, California living is much more exciting than it ought to be.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Nonfiction November: Week 2

This is the week where we pair up books!  The theme is fiction/non-fiction book pairings, and it's hosted at Sarah's Book Shelves:
It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

Lots of people love this question, but I have a really hard time with it.  It may be that I'm not very imaginative.  I was looking at my shelves, and it seems to me that a lot of the time, my tastes in fiction vs. non-fiction really don't overlap very much.  I don't really care for historical fiction, though I love to read history.   But Brona saved me, by pairing up books from her TBR shelf, and so I went and looked at my shelf and came up with a couple of things...

When the World Spoke French, by Marc Fumaroli, and Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo.  I'm scared of French literature, but I do want to read both of these!

In the French vein, I did read two great books a while back: The Black Count, by Tom Reiss, and The Man in the Iron Mask, by Alexandre Dumas.  Even better would be The Count of Monte Cristo, since it was inspired by Dumas' father's life.

Thames: the Biography, by Peter Ackroyd, and Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens.  Peter Ackroyd is just as long-winded and discursive as Dickens, and what's a Dickens novel without the Thames as a major character?  From what I hear, Our Mutual Friend is a very Thamesy novel.

And it finally did occur to me that I read a nice pair just earlier this year.  I've already wittered about Danubia, by Simon Winder, but it also inspired me to read a Polish epic poem, Pan Tadeusz, by Adam Mickiewicz.  That was an excellent pair.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Nonfiction November: Week 1

Guess what, it's Nonfiction November!  This one snuck up on me.  Nonfiction November is a month-long event that talks about everything non-fiction.  There's a different prompt and host every week.  This week's host is Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness, and she asks:
Week 1: (Oct. 29 to Nov. 2) – Your Year in Nonfiction (Kim @ Sophisticated Dorkiness): Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

Favorite non-fiction read of the year: Boy, that's a tough one.  Looking back on what I've read, I see that I have read more non-fiction than I thought I did, and a lot of it was great.  I can't pick just one, so here is a top five:

5.  The Coddling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
4.  Craeft, by Alexander Langlands
3. Jim Henson, the biography by Brian Jay Jones
2. Danubia, by Simon Winder
1. Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, by Christopher de Hamel

And for worst non-fiction read of the year, I'd like to nominate Justinian's Flea.

Plus, I've still got one to write about that was pretty fantastic!  Watch this space!

Any particular topics of focus:  I didn't read as much history as I would like to.  I really jumped around all over the place and can't find a focus; there's a good deal of history, some practical information, and some just plain fun (check out Never Use Futura!).  Mostly I wished I had time for more: more medieval history, more recent history, more weird nooks and crannies of the world.

Nonfiction book I've recommended the most:  Funny, I think it must be Danubia.  I enjoyed Winder's writing so much, and I really do think the book contains lessons for us in our current political climate (such as: the fabric of civil society is not as strong as we think, and tribalism can be fun but also very dangerous indeed).

What I'm hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November:  Some good recommendations for more books to read!  And I always like to meet more fellow non-fiction readers. 

The Coddling of the American Mind

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

First off, don't think this is a "kids today, get off my lawn" kind of book.  It's not.  Plus, they hated the title and wanted it to be called Disempowered.  Check out the video below (which was a bit of tongue-in-cheek Halloween fun) for some explanation!

I've been a Lukianoff fan for some years now -- as the president of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, he's been working on First Amendment rights at colleges for years, and that's how I got to hear of him.  (Back in 2014, I took a kid to see him speak on a panel at the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley.  The event was extremely Berkeley;  I laughed all the way up Bancroft Ave. afterwards, but I'm pretty sure poor Lukianoff wanted to scream.  On the strength of that, I cadged a Facebook acquaintance.)

I know a bit less about psychologist Jonathan Haidt, but I've been following him too since he started Heterodox Academy, an association of university professors hoping to influence academia in the direction of more ideological diversity.  When everybody thinks the same, knowledge suffers.  Haidt has also written a couple of interesting books.

A few years ago, Lukianoff and Haidt got together and wrote an article for the Atlantic that made something of a splash.  You see, Lukianoff felt that his life had been greatly improved by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy strategies that teach people to analyze their own thinking and change cognitive habits to better reflect reality (he gets searingly honest about his own mental health struggles).  And as he studied trends on campus, he wondered if students weren't being taught to do the opposite -- to embrace cognitive habits that would actually harm them.  The article was the result of their collaboration, and then as further evidence became available, it turned into a book.

If you're a parent of teens/new young adults, you may have noticed the epidemic levels of depression and anxiety that seem to be prevalent.  (A couple of years ago, I told my oldest, "I don't know what we did, but I'm sorry!" -- not as a personal apology, but as a generational one.)  We're all trying to figure out what's going on and why things are so difficult for our kids.  I think this book may have identified some of what's going on.  Haidt and Lukianoff pick out six strands of modern life and break them down in their effort to identify what's causing problems and how we can make it better.

It's well worth reading, has lots to think about, and if you're a parent of young kids, it will inspire you to resist damaging trends in modern parenting.  Plus, you can photocopy the handy list of cognitive distortions, stick it on the fridge, and work on your mental habits!

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Sister Emily's Lightship

Sister Emily's Lightship, by Jane Yolen

Happy Halloween! I can't exactly call this an RIP read, but it has elements and so I'm going to round off the event by squeaking it in here, and incidentally segue into Witch Week!  Jane Yolen is one of the grand dames of SF/F writing, I think we can all agree (RIGHT?  *ominous glare*), and this collection of short pieces that were published all over the place is well worth tracking down.

Many of these stories are twists on classic fairy tales -- "Snow in Summer," for example, is a version of Snow White set in Appalachia, or in a really genius bit, "Granny Rumple" is a realistic tale that could have been the seed for an anti-Semitic Rumplestiltskin.  "Godmother Death" is a wonderful version of a story found across cultures, in which a man outwits Death...but only for so long.

There's a nice little series of stories about fey, where the characters are related or appear in various tales.  The youngest, clumsy daughter who stayed home with a cold winds up being Sleeping Beauty's wicked fairy, and Uncle Finn is accidentally corked into a wine bottle for decades.  Brother Dusty has a (very short) crush on a ghostly Juliet, who is solely focused on her Romeo.

Other stories were straight-up fantastic tales, and several of these were my favorites, such as "Blood Sister" and "Become a Warrior."  And the title story, "Sister Emily's Lightship," features Emily Dickinson. 

I was sometimes reminded of Angela Carter's stories, which I read a couple of years ago, but I much prefer these.  There are several similar themes, but I do feel that Yolen handles her material more intelligently, more subtly....just better overall. 

This collection fits perfectly into this year's Witch Week theme, too, so check that out over at Chris' and Lizzie Ross' blogs.  Besides, look at this beautiful image they made!  It features Burd Ellen cutting her hair, and I had to go look up her story in my Child's English and Scottish Ballads

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

RIP XIII #8: The Great God Pan

The Great God Pan, by Arthur Machen

Arthur Machen wrote some early fantasy horror, and I always like to see what Victorians invented back when there were fewer scripts for how a fantasy story should go.  This one is fairly weird, but it isn't a novel; it's a collection of four short stories, though "The Great God Pan" is the longest and almost qualifies as a novella.  I have a paperback Penguin English Library copy, which appears to be unavailable in the US except as an import, but Penguin just published a fancier hardback with more stories in it than I have.

In "The Great God Pan," a doctor finds a way to do brain surgery that will allow the patient to see other dimensions; what he calls "seeing the great god Pan."  The victim of this surgery at first appears to have completely lost her reason, but further chapters, set in later years, reveal bits and pieces of a much worse story.  A girl, and then a woman, appears at intervals and befriends people, but then leads them into nameless horrific crimes.

"Novel of the White Powder" is more straightforward.  A young man overworks himself, and his sister persuades him to go to the doctor, but the pick-me-up tonic he's prescribed is made up from chemicals that have been sitting around too long.  The young man first hits the town, and then becomes a recluse in his room.  The hideous conclusion is explained by the doctor's amazing understanding of the mystery tonic.

In "The Red Hand," two friends try to solve a mysterious murder, theorizing that the criminal is no ordinary modern Londoner, but a survival from prehistoric cavemen, "ravening like wolves at heart and boiling with the foul passions of the swamp and the black cave."  An odd take on Darwin's descent of man, but...sure.

"The White People" is the strangest story, being a copy of a girl's diary in which she recounts traveling around a dream landscape.

The stories are typically Victorian in their hints and roundabout descriptions, but they're interesting to read and I'll probably pick them up again someday.  A good choice for RIP.

Monday, October 29, 2018

RIP XIII #7: City of the Shrieking Tomb

City of the Shrieking Tomb, by Patrick Rogers

Earlier in the year, I reviewed The Green Unknown, a memoir of hiking around the northeastern Indian state of Meghalaya.  Then Patrick Rogers contacted me again about his new book, a novel this time, also set in India and with an irresistible title.  As my friend April used to say, twist my rubber arm -- I had a lot of fun reading this ghostly tale.

Rick is a photographer traveling around for a project on old Islamic architecture, and he's trying to get a bus to Bidar without going far out of his way to Hyderabad for it.  A friendly doctor, Awaz, gets him on a bus, which then breaks down at Awaz' hometown of Humayunpur -- but Awaz doesn't want Rick to stay.  Outsiders are not welcome in Humayunpur.  But since there's no alternative, Awaz reluctantly invites Rick to stay overnight, as long as he's leaving first thing in the morning.

The bus is still broken in the morning, though, and Awaz softens a bit, inviting Rick to see some of the local sights.  No photography allowed!  Awaz and the local imam take their visitor to the old mosque, which turns out to be an incredible work of art, totally unknown to the outside world.  Rick is desperate to take photos -- it's the find of the decade!  He'll be on the cover of National Geographic! -- but Awaz and the imam are adamant, coming up with excuse after excuse as to why visitors can never come to Humayunpur.  (What if somebody bonks their head?)  Rick is exasperated by their flimsy reasoning, and they're sick of his persistence, so they tell him the real reason: there's a demon.

Rick immediately rolls his eyes at this, which is of course why they didn't want to tell him about it.  He challenges the imam: doesn't Islam frown on this kind of superstition?  Well, yes, the men concede, but since this particular demon is totally real and ate the last smarty-pants imam who disapproved of superstition, what are you going to do?

Rick doesn't buy any of it.  Not when a sophisticated, mysterious young woman explains some of Humayunpur's history, and not when he explores the town and meets obvious resentment.  He's going to get to the bottom of this -- and so he does.

This was a really fun read.  The reader can see what's going on a bit more easily than Rick can (poor Rick doesn't know he's in a ghost story, and we have all known guys just like him), and it's a nice spooky puzzle to work out.  Just a few bucks on Kindle, it would be a good pick for some Halloween shivers.

I received a free digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

A little bit of fall news

Every day, I plan to write on my blog, and every day, it gets crowded out!  The pile of books on my desk is not getting smaller, and I miss writing.  So I've got one scheduled for tomorrow, and here's a quick post on some other things.

The school year is going nicely, with me at work, one new college student taking anatomy, and a high-school sophomore loving marching band.  Friday night was the local Big Game between the two high schools, and the marching band put on a complicated, ambitious half-time show that they've been working on for weeks.  Afterwards, they get on the field with the other school's band and have a 'battle of the bands,' playing songs for and with each other, that is really fun.  I missed out on the whole thing, sadly, because...

Friday night was also the annual Trivia Bee fundraiser for the county Literacy Services.  It went really well and was a lot of fun, and our team won bronze.  If I had remembered calcium carbonate, we would have won the gold, so calcium carbonate is haunting my dreams.  Next year!

I've also been scrambling to complete a quilt project for my quilt guild's 2018 Challenge (there is a challenge every other year, and this is the first one I've participated in, since I've only been a member for about 2 years; I joined right as the last one was ending).  This year, it's a small quilt (24" square max) and must include an animal, and it's due this week.  I can't show you mine, since there will be judging next month and it's all anonymous until after that, but I'll hint that it has a connection with this very blog!  Small as it is, this project was very difficult for me since the whole thing was improvised without any pattern or anything, and I'm not used to making things up as I go.  If I win a prize, it will probably be for Oddest Quilt, or maybe Brightest.

Oh, and I sewed up a Toothless sweatshirt, too!  Since it's black on black, it's not much use trying to show you the wings and spine on the back.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Unlikely Disciple

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University, by Kevin Roose

I was happy to see this book come across the donation table, because it's been on my wishlist of "books to get around to checking out of the library" for a while.  And it was a really interesting book to read; I liked Roose and his project.

Kevin Roose was a perfectly average freshman at Brown University in Rhode Island.  Evidently he also had a job doing assistance to A. J. Jacobs, the guy who makes a living by doing a project for a year and then writing a book about it -- living according to ancient Jewish law, reading the Encyclopedia Britannica, and so on.  When Roose, in the course of his job, visited an evangelical church and met some students from Liberty University, he decided to do his own project.  Lots of his friends did study abroad trips to Europe to learn about other cultures, but here was a much more alien culture right on his own doorstep.  Why not spend a semester 'studying abroad' at Liberty?

In order to do so, Roose had to go undercover.  He'd grown up a Quaker in very liberal Oberlin, and he'd have to pass as, at least, a fairly convervative Evangelical.  I liked how Roose wrestled with the realities of living a double life.

Roose also had to work out just what his project was.  To his credit, he vowed not to use his semester to take cheap shots at fundamentalists; he wanted to get to know this world from the inside and understand the culture, the beliefs, and the human beings.  He was imagining some pretty stereotyped stuff, and of course when he got there, he found that Liberty students were just people.

I also liked how hard Roose tried to really participate in this new-to-him society.  He joined a church choir.  He went to activities, and he tried to live like the other students, with dedicated Bible study and prayer time, and I think he tried to be honest about the effects that had on him.  At the same time, he was constantly trying to figure out how to navigate this world, that had a lot of elements he couldn't agree with or that were distressing to him.  At the same time as that, he was seeing some things that were really neat, like the close friendships in his dorm that seemed to go deeper than what he was used to, and people sharing more of their difficulties and supporting each other.

So the whole thing is pretty fascinating.  I couldn't help mentally comparing it with what it might be like to do such a thing at an LDS university -- what would that book be like? -- but I also realized right away that it wouldn't be the same project.  A writer wouldn't be able to go undercover in that way, but at the same time, I'm not sure he'd need to.

One of my favorite bits, from near the beginning (trimmed for length):
Last week, I was walking to the gym with Zipper, my ultra-happy next-door neighbor.  Zipper told me about his most recent prayer walk, and the thoughts is had inspired...
While Zipper was talking, I was trying to figure out why he was  giving me this spiritual soliloquy.  Was it because he didn't think I was saved?  What was he playing at here?

In the last few days, though, I've learned that at Liberty, it's perfectly socially acceptable to pour your soul out to everyone withing earshot.  There's no such thing as TMI.