HAROLD STEPHENS, A TRIBUTE

January 22, 2021

I learned today of the death of Harold Stephens, a business partner and a good and generous friend. Steve, as we all called him, died at his home in Bangkok in the company of his wife Michelle. Steve was a skilled and disciplined writer who lived the most adventurous life of anyone I ever met. And, amazingly, given his charisma, he was not a drunk, a blow-hard or an arrogant jerk, though at first, I will admit, I feared he might be all of those.

He came into my law office one day in the early 90’s, though why he came, I cannot remember. We hit it off and talked for an hour or more. He told me he and his wife Michelle, had recently moved to Miranda from Bangkok so their three sons Paul, John and Tom could attend South Fork high school. Why Humboldt? Steve knew the area because his son from his first marriage, Peter, was already living in Humboldt, and still does.

At that time, Steve would have been well into his sixties. He was stunningly handsome and unwilling to reveal his age, though he did drop a clue: he had lied about his age, he told me, to get into the Marines near the end of WWII. He had seen combat in Asia and was stationed on Okinawa preparing to invade Japan when the atom bomb brought the war to an end. He said that he had met Hemingway in a bar somewhere; in Tahiti he knew Marlin Brando and had appeared as his double in a few scenes in Mutiny on the Bounty. He claimed to have traveled alone through the Soviet Union in a Jeep. He said that he and Albert Podell had driven around the world in a Toyota Land Cruiser; they had written a book about it called Who Needs a Road? The book was out of print, but in the late sixties, when it first came out, he and Podell had appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight show. As an undergraduate at Georgetown, he claimed to have met Jackie before she became a Kennedy. “A rather plain-looking girl,” he told me. As if that were not enough, he swore he had worked out with Kirk Douglas in LA, and had spent enough time in Bangkok with the writer Gore Vidal to be certain that he was an arrogant jerk.

Seated behind my desk that day, I thought: this guy is so full of crap I’m surprised it’s not oozing out his ears.

The next time he came by, Steve claimed he was the travel editor for the Bangkok Post. I had never heard of the paper, but he said it was the most widely circulated English-language newspaper in Asia. He also claimed to be the travel correspondent for Thai Airways International. He wrote for their in-flight magazine and he could fly for free wherever he wanted. He told me he had personally built and still owned a fifty-seven-foot schooner called Third Sea. He said that he had sailed it all over the south Pacific and that it was presently at anchor somewhere off Kuai.

Seated behind my desk, I thought—well, I’m not sure what I thought at that point.

The next time he came by, Steve brought me two books he had written: At Home in Asia and Return to Adventure Southeast Asia. They had been published in Thailand but he believed he was being screwed by publishers there. Knowing that I was a lawyer, and sort of a writer, he proposed that he and I along with his nephew Robert Stedman, a photographer and designer living in the Singapore, start a publishing company. Steve had a novel he wanted to publish, and so did I. A passionate reader as well as a writer, he spoke enthusiastically about Conrad, Somerset Maugham and James Michener. The problem was that I knew nothing about running a publishing company, and neither did he or Robert. Steve was not deterred. The company would focus on books about Asia, he said. The books could be printed in Asia at minimal expense, and would mostly be sold there. Robert wanted to call the publishing company Wolfenden because the name sounded English, and although people in Asia hated the English, Robert thought they had an inherent respect for anything that sounded English.

Well, I thought, why not?

The first book we published was Mario Machi’s Under the Rising Sun. Mario had written a version of his memoir about the Bataan death march and his life as a Japanese prisoner of war, but Steve thought it could be made better. We met with Mario, got hold of his diary, did some research, assembled some photographs, and helped Mario create a new and, I believe, better book. We eventually sold every printed copy of Under the Rising Sun but it is still available as an e-book and readers continue to enjoy it.

After much labor we eventually acquired the rights to Who Needs a Road? the story of Steve’s and Al Podell’s motor journey around the world that had been out of print for several decades. Our publication with an introduction by Al went through several printings. Used copies can still be found and it is also still available as an e-book.

Between 1994 and 2019, Wolfenden published more than fifteen titles, the majority of them written by Steve including The Voyages of Schooner Third Sea, which tells of the adventures he had on his sailing vessel. The schooner, unfortunately, was destroyed in a hurricane off Hawaii a short time after we met.

Harold Stephens and I were not talented publishers. Stories and the writing of them were our passion, publishing books and promoting them were more burdensome. Robert Stedman stepped out of the company shortly after it began, though he has designed the covers and layouts of all the books, and has often overseen their printing. Most were printed in Asia, as Steve had suggested. To save money and hassles with customs, Steve would haul them to Garberville as luggage on his flights, sometimes hundreds of pounds at a time. I would arrive at my office and find boxes of books that had not been there when I left the night before; and I would know that Steve would soon be by to share a story or two.

He and Michelle returned to Bangkok soon after the boys graduated from high school, though they continued to make regular visits to Humboldt. Our house is sprinkled with gifts Steve and Michelle brought us from Asia. During the course of our long friendship, he showed great grace and generosity toward our family. My daughter Kate visited Steve and Michelle in Bangkok and Steve took her by train through Thailand and Malaysia to Singapore. When our son Ahry seemed to have disappeared the first time he went to Asia—a trip inspired, no doubt from his knowing Steve and reading his books—I emailed Steve and he and his sons soon had people all over Asia looking for the young man. It turned out Ahry was having too much fun diving off some remote island of Indonesia to post anything to his parents.

So, gains and losses, coming and goings. And rich memories today of Harold Stephens. Sail on, Steve. I wish you calm waters and a favoring wind. And thanks for the stories.

Doug Ingold

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THE DINERS, a novel by Stephen Fox

The Diners, Stephen Fox’s latest novel, takes us to a Christmas dinner where nine long-time friends gather in an unnamed community in northern California. This is the seventh year the clan has met at the home of Betty Crown, a widow, and a teacher of philosophy. At the beginning, Tom Whelan, a history teacher, is not enthusiastic about yet another Christmas dinner at Betty’s. But he and his wife Sarah, another philosophy teacher, pack up their shrimp dish, grab their bottle of wine and set off. In addition to the Whelans and Betty Crown, there are two other couples and two additional women at the dinner. All the characters are in their seventies or older, and other than a retired medical doctor and his artist wife, the guests are, or were, university teachers. Though they share race, age and education, the diners come from interesting and diverse backgrounds that are revealed as we proceed through the story.

There is an element of jokey tension, particularly among the three men, but basically the novel details the conversation that takes place during the course of the evening. As one might suspect, the banter involves subjects related both to the characters’ professions and their advanced years. One subject, for example, is dementia. We learn that Betty’s late husband, an attorney, suffered from it though no one in the group apparently realized it, and we get an “academic” discussion of the types and causes of the mental decline we call dementia.

Fox employs an interesting approach to fiction. He blends the typical techniques of scene description, action, character development and conversation with factual, historical and political exposition.  Subjects other than dementia, include teaching, baseball history, the environment, racism, service in, and opposition to, the Vietnam war. Before the evening is over, the historian Tom Whelan prophecies a dystopian future for the United States, and in the poignant final chapter we learn how in the year following the dinner, age and circumstance bring great changes to the lives of each of the nine characters. I very much enjoyed the novel, perhaps because I so closely share the age and history of the characters. Anyone who remembers Sal “The Barber” Maglie and the ship Calypso, will enjoy being a guest at Betty Crown’s Christmas party.

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THERE CAME A CONTAGION

Inspired by events that took place near Trier, Germany late in the sixteenth century, THERE CAME A CONTAGION tells the story of the Helgen family, three brothers respected in their village as skilled and resourceful farmers. With their widowed mother, their wives and children, they build a stable if difficult life together raising rye, barley and swine. But when the weather turns erratic and harvests begin to fail, a scapegoat is sought. Jews are banished from the territory as are the followers of Luther and Calvin. The Archbishop then discovers a pestilence of witches: people believed to have forsaken God and sworn allegiance to the Devil. Elsebett Helgen, a midwife and herbal healer, is twenty when the Archbishop’s men arrive in the village.

Stephen Fox, novelist and historian:

“Doug Ingold’s novels are masterpieces of time, place and sensibility. The saga of the Helgen family, their friends, relatives and village, their joys and sorrows, is written with the intimacy of someone who you could easily imagine as having lived in 16th century rural Germany. It is a rich, deeply felt immersion.”

Gabrielle Gopinath, writer and critic:

“This is an engrossing book that touches on very contemporary themes, even as it transports readers to a remote historical past.”

From John Derek’s 5-star review on NetGalley:

There Came a Contagion is an excellent historical work of fiction. The author has done a remarkable job of painting a vivid picture of the life and times of the period… You can feel the anxiety, stress, pain and heartache as the Helgen family goes through its trials and tribulations.

Read the entire review by following this link: https://www.netgalley.com/widget/345014/redeem/c279b194633197986a11bfac8e03c4b430bd62cdfc41b2d5fafe1390c0356f3c

THERE CAME A CONTAGION will be published on July 1, 2021 both in print format and as an ebook. The ebook will be available wherever ebooks are sold. Any bookstore may order the print edition through Ingram.

 

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Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness

Alexandra Fuller has written three memoirs about herself and her family: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness and Leaving Before the Rains Come. Cocktail Hour is the first I have read, though I have also enjoyed her novel, Quiet Until the Thaw.

Cocktail Hour focuses on the author’s extraordinary mother Nicola Fuller, a white woman of Scottish heritage, who grew up in Africa and has lived most all of her life there. Her childhood was in Kenya where she became a skilled, perhaps reckless, horsewoman. At twenty she married Tim Fuller and a series of events led the young family to leave Kenya for a farm in White-ruled Rhodesia. There, the war of independence eventually forced them to again abandon their home. As the memoir comes to its conclusion, the parents, now in their sixties, operate a “fish and banana” farm in Zambia. At one level this is the story of a family swimming resolutely against the tide of history.

Nicola Fuller is revealed as a beautiful, charismatic, courageous woman who aspires to live a very romantic life. She and her husband share a strong attachment to each other, to their children, to the light and the soil of the Africa they know and love. They also share a great fondness for dogs and horses, for alcohol and adventure. As they endure hardships and a series of profound tragedies, including the deaths of three children, Nicola verges at times on the edge of madness and Tim struggles to hold their lives and family together.

Every page of this memoir is a pleasure to read. There are beautiful descriptions, considerable humor, heart-wrenching turns of fate. Most remarkable is the tone Ms. Fuller brings to her story. She obviously loves and admires her parents and appreciates the upbringing they gave her, but she insists on portraying them with a clear-eyed precision that is never maudlin, sugar-coated or romanticized. She leads us through turmoil and loss and delivers us to the farm in Zambia where at book’s end we find her parents at home and at peace.

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I LIKE BILL

I like Bill. Bill McKinley, that is, the guy who’s been hanging out in the Arcata Plaza since 1906. People who want him removed try to associate him with various crimes to which he is not connected. He should be removed, they tell us, because in the 1860s indigenous people were being sold in the Arcata Plaza. But in the 1860s young Bill was not selling slaves in Arcata. He was thousands of miles away, fighting to free slaves in the south. A staunch abolitionist, Bill joined the war as a private at the age of eighteen and ended it a major.

George Zehndner, they go on to tell us, the man who paid for the statue actually indentured a seven-year-old native girl himself in 1860. I know nothing about George Zehndner, but I have taken a good look at the statue pedestal and I can confirm that the statue is of our man Bill, not George Zehndner.

Others argue that Bill does not belong in the Plaza because he had nothing to do with Humboldt County. I would point out that Alexander von Humboldt had nothing to do with Humboldt County either, but we have made him our own. Like von Humboldt, Bill has become one of us. At this year’s Oyster Festival, I spotted him cleverly disguised as Poseidon, god of the sea, complete with a flowing beard and trident. A couple of weeks later at the Fairies Festival he carried a magic wand in his right hand. As Bill McKinley did in real life, his statue is always willing to help out. Our Bill has become a part of Arcata, as natural to the Plaza as the two beautiful—and not-at-all native—palm trees that tower so majestically behind him. I’m voting yes on Measure M.

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Kim Thúy’s novel Mãn, a Review

Kim Thúy is a Vietnamese-born Canadian novelist who writes in French but whose work is available in English translation. The title of the novel, Mãn, is also the name of the story’s female narrator. The name means “perfect fulfillment” and one could interpret the novel as Mãn’s journey to achieve the potential promised by her name. On the opening page we learn that one woman gave her birth, a second found her in a vegetable patch and a third, Maman—”my Maman”—raised her. This happened in Vietnam during the long years of war, and the ferocity and brutality of that war, while never emphasized or dwelled on, informs the story and shapes the features of every Vietnamese character who appears in it.

When Mãn is a young woman, Maman arranges a marriage for her to a Vietnamese man who has a restaurant in Montreal. Mãn’s husband, whose name we never learn, is a decent, hard-working fellow but stiffened by his own experiences in their home country is incapable of genuine affection. Of their marriage, the narrator tells us: “It was enough for him to be happy for all of us to be.”

While working at the restaurant Mãn meets a number of people who enter the story, perform their small roles, and then disappear. Most important of these is Julie, a French-Canadian who with her husband has adopted a Vietnamese child. Julie and Mãn are perfect for each other. Mãn becomes Julie’s daughter’s “Vietnamese mother” while Julie with her resources, her knowledge and energy helps Mãn escape the confines her husband’s restaurant kitchen.

Mãn and Julie develop a catering business. They write a cookbook that becomes a best seller, one that transforms Mãn into a celebrity chef. The author, Kim Thúy has owned a restaurant in Montreal, and she provides us with many delectable descriptions of the preparation, the layout and the taste of Vietnamese cuisine. About halfway through the novel, Mãn is invited to Paris to promote the cookbook, and there she meets Luc, a handsome young French restauranteur who like Mãn is also married and the parent of small children. The poignant, bittersweet, wildly romantic descriptions of their transcontinental relationship take us through to the final page.

While the above paragraphs suggest a chronological narration, the story is not told that way. Set out in brief snatches—the novel contains roughly a hundred chapters and is only 139 pages long—the story proceeds not chronologically but by association. A chapter on how, in the Montreal restaurant, Mãn helps a young Vietnamese dishwasher pass an exam, leads to one about how years earlier Maman taught her to read. A chapter where she marvels at Julie’s ability to openly cry leads to one that begins with her description of how she hides her tears from her husband and then presents this lovely image: “At night when we used to share the same bed, the sound of Maman’s tears sometimes escaped the corners of her closed eyes. I would hold my breath then, because with no witness, sorrow might exist only as a ghost.”

Mãn is like a fine meal that is served to us in delicate bites while we enjoy the lyrical and lively conversation passing back and forth across the table, a conversation that tells us much about the Vietnamese people and their culture.

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