David CasasNear the end of our recent interview, I ask David Casas a question that, I think, most people would want to ask a professional magician who spends much of his time making doves appear and disappear: "Has anything really awful ever happened during your act?"

He smiles and replies: "The only thing that's really happened was at one of my first shows. Every time I used to produce a bird, I would always hold them close to me. So I was doing that at one show, and people started laughing, but I didn't know what they were laughing at. So I just kept going with my act, and they kept laughing, and I think I went to grab a silk or something ... . And then I see this big line of bird poop running down my coat.

"And I was like, 'Oh-h-h-h ... now I get it,'" says Casas. "I just shook my head and said, 'That'll happen with birds,' and kept going, you know? And I learned that when I produce the bird, I need to hold it out."

In the opening chapter of Robin Oliveira's My Name Is Mary Sutter, the midwife of the title shows up at the door of a doctor struggling with a childbirth. It is the dawn of the Civil War, and Sutter expertly takes over, changing the baby's position in the womb and delivering him without complication.

There has been some confusion, however. The surgeon had summoned her, but Mary was unaware of that. She had come on her own, having been denied an interview at the Albany Medical College, and she had a request of the doctor.

"Miss Sutter," the physician asks after the baby has been safely delivered, "what was it you wanted from me this afternoon?"

Her reply propels Oliveira's debut novel: "I want to become a doctor." And her tenacity - at the doctor's office and at a Sutter family dinner that night - shows that she won't accept "no" for an answer.

The doctor wants to be a field surgeon in the war effort, and Mary presses him during the meat course: "You want to see what can happen to the human body. You want to see inside it. You want to solve its mysteries. Not that you should be ashamed. It is no less than I would wish to do. Given the opportunity."

Without forcing the parallel, there's a lot of Mary Sutter in Robin Oliveira, who will be discussing her 2010 book at three area libraries April 22 and 23 as part of the All Iowa Reads program. And in both Sutter's and Oliveira's stories are important lessons about the power of persistence.

When Iowa's motor-fuel tax increased by 10 cents a gallon on March 1, it represented a road that was both brave and opportunistic.

It was also stupid, for two key reasons: Raising the gas tax doesn't fully address the funding need for critical road improvements, and over time it will provide less and less money while road-construction costs continue to increase.

Despite that, the hike was still brave, because raising taxes is never popular among voters - especially when they feel the pain every time they visit the gas pump. The Des Moines Register has polled Iowans about a gas-tax hike for the past five years. While the amount of the hike in the question has varied over the years, opposition to an increase was 70 percent in 2011. Opposition has eroded since then, but it was still 58 percent in February 2014.

Which leads us to opportunistic. Mirroring national trends, from July 2014 to early 2015 gas prices dropped from more than $3.50 per gallon in the Quad Cities and Des Moines to under $2, according to GasBuddy.com.

Prices have risen since then but are still more than a dollar cheaper than in mid-2014, so legislators saw a window of opportunity. The February 2015 Des Moines Register poll found 48 percent support for a 10-cent gas-tax hike and only 50 percent opposition - and the cost of fuel was certainly a factor in that shift.

The timing was great in political terms, too, just after a statewide-election cycle. The problem of deteriorating roads and bridges - and the choice for a solution - had been on the table since late 2011, but there's nothing like the longest period of time before an election to spur legislators into unpopular action.

On February 26, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will be voting on rules that would reclassify broadband Internet as a public utility. The stated goal is to give the commission the authority to enforce what's called "net neutrality."

Unless you're a rare breed, I've already frightened (or bored) you with a topic you're certain is arcane, technical, obscure, and confusing. You might also think it's irrelevant.

So to goose your interest, I'll note that John Oliver - the host of HBO's Last Week Tonight series - recommended replacing the dull "net neutrality" with "Preventing Cable Company F---ery."

Because cable companies are so loathed, calling net neutrality by Oliver's term gives us an easy target. Complaining about one's cable company is a time-honored pastime. And those operators control more than half of the U.S. broadband-Internet market.

"People want the villain, and the good guy," said Phyllis Peters, a regional communications director for Mediacom. "And because everybody loves what they can get on Netflix, they're the good guy. And ... Big Cable, it's the bad guy."

As with most easy villains, the situation is more complicated, and getting past the heated rhetoric - Oliver's included - takes work. So what follows is an imagined Q&A about ... Preventing Cable Company F---ery! (I've got to keep your interest somehow.)

My goal is to present a simplified (and in some cases over-simplified) explanation of net neutrality as a public-policy issue, specifically in the context of the FCC's impending vote. The proposed rules won't be made public before that meeting, but FCC Chair Tom Wheeler has sketched out the broad strokes - no blocking, no throttling, no paid prioritization.

Amaney A. Jamal

Since 2005, the Arab Barometer project that Amaney A. Jamal co-founded has interviewed ordinary people in the Arab world about their views on (according to ArabBarometer.org) "governance, political life, and political, social, and cultural values."

So Jamal had extraordinary insight into the Arab Spring that began in 2010, and its aftermath. In a phone interview last week, she said she had seen the seeds of change but didn't know if or when they would blossom. "It was very clear and obvious in our public-opinion polls that the status quo was not sustainable," she said. "That the levels of frustration, the levels of mass discontent with the status quo were there. What was not clear was whether ... there was going to be some sort of trigger to bring it all down."

Jamal will present "The Arab Spring: Did All Go Wrong?" - St. Ambrose University's Folwell Lecture in Political Science & Pre-Law - on February 9, and the answer to that question should be obvious enough to anybody who pays attention to international news.

Nacho Radio's Dave Levora (left) and Darren Pitra

On his morning show on January 14, Darren Pitra asked with mock exasperation: "Haven't we learned enough?"

Just a year ago, the answer to that question would have been simple: Absolutely.

Pitra and Dave Levora have been on-air morning-show partners for nearly 11 years - as "Dave & Darren in the Morning" - so it's no surprise that these old radio pros have an easy rapport, or that they breezed through the show of comedy and conversation without a lull.

There was a bit about a beer brewed with smoked whale testicles, a recurring motif of the perils - sometimes self-inflicted - of being a bus driver, and evidence of both men having way too much familiarity with the live-action Flintstones movies. They roped me in as a guest - sorry, listeners! - and asked off-the-cuff questions that were thoughtful and insightful without ever getting too serious. Their routine is smooth and comfortable - a warm welcome to the day for listeners tuned in to their favorite radio station.

Except that the show wasn't on the radio at all, instead a podcast on Dave & Darren's NachoRadio.com - which was launched in October after Pitra and Levora lost their jobs at Rock 104-9.

So the learning must continue.

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro's Promise Land seems to invite preconceptions.

First, there's the white kitty hanging perilously from a rope on the book cover, cheekily recalling the famous "Hang in There" inspirational poster.

Then there's the subtitle: My Journey Through America's Self-Help Culture.

Flip to the first page of prologue. The book opens: "Ten years ago, I tagged along with my father to a weekend conference on how to write self-help books." Yes, it really was a self-help retreat for self-help-guru wannabes.

From those elements, you might expect an arch, cynical take-down of a movement and the industry that feeds it (or feeds off it).

Lamb-Shapiro will be the January 27 guest in the River Readings at Augustana series, and you're hereby advised to not judge this book by its cover or its opening sentence. It's so much richer than that.

Drew Starenko in his downtown-Davenport studio.

The realization, Drew Starenko said, came while building a home addition by himself in the early 1990s.

He was in his early 30s, he said, and "I was lugging these sheets of plywood up to this roof, and I just kind of stepped back after that and ... said, 'When I'm 50, 55, I don't think I'm going to be able to do this sort of thing.'"

The construction work was never his intended career path, although he'd been doing carpentry since the age of 16.

But if carpentry wasn't a viable long-term occupation, what could he do?

Starenko knew he wanted to work with his hands. He had pre-med and art degrees from Augustana College, and a master of fine arts from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

He had been lured back to the Quad Cities because of some teaching work, but local institutions of higher education weren't hiring full-time art faculty. He had a young family and didn't want to uproot it in pursuit of teaching jobs. And he wanted to stay in the Midwest - which provided much of the inspiration for his art.

So he decided to put his pre-med degree to work - and chose to become a nurse instead of a physician's assistant because it was a quicker path to a job. "I had a daughter and a family," he said.

And nursing, he figured, would also give him time to focus on painting.

From that fundamentally practical choice, a remarkable career began. Starenko is a Certified Registered Nurse First Assistant rather than a surgeon, and he didn't design the equipment or perfect the technique that together make recovery from heart-bypass surgery much easier for patients these days. But he is a local medical pioneer who has directly or indirectly improved hundreds of lives across the globe.

Sheryl WuDunnThe 2009 book Half the Sky is filled with stories that are heartbreaking and inspiring - and often both. The Pulitzer Prize-winning husband-and-wife team of Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn gives you precisely what you'd expect from a book subtitled Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. There are lots of anecdotes supporting the idea that women across the globe face horrific violence, discrimination, and marginalization. That's countered by personal stories that provide hope for change. And both are supported by statistics and academic studies.

"We think that one of the greatest moral challenges of our time is the gender inequality and the brutality that many women and girls face around the world because of their gender," said WuDunn - who will present a lecture version of the book on October 21 at St. Ambrose University - in a recent phone interview. "We also think one of the most effective ways to address a lot of the inequality is through educating girls and bringing them into the formal labor force ... . And we talk about a lot of these issues by telling stories of women who have been facing these challenges, and of other women and men who have come up with solutions."

But the book is also surprising - in ways that are both very small and very big.

Our challenged-books-themed "I'm with the Banned!" short-fiction contest drew 52 entries, and we're pleased to present 22 of our favorite stories here. Authors were required to include one of 20 prompts from frequently banned or challenged books (the full list is at RCReader.com/y/fiction) and were limited to 250 words beyond that.

We'll be hosting a reading of winning and favorite entries at 7 p.m. on Thursday, September 25, at the Bettendorf Public Library (2950 Learning Campus Drive). We hope to see you there to help celebrate Banned Books Week!

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