Monthly Archives: June 2010

Kris Radish’s Celebration of Women

“Hearts on a String,” by Kris Radish. Bantam Books. 336 pages. $15.00.

What happens if you mix together five women, strangers to one another, in a Tampa airport restroom as killer storms shut down air travel across the country? If you read Kris Radish’s latest novel, you will find out. You will also enjoy an interesting blend of personalities, the semi-claustrophobic heightening provided by the circumscribed setting, and Ms. Radish’s sassy, edgy brand of sentimentality.

An aging lounge singer, a high-strung businesswoman, a super-mom, an overly self-conscious young hairdresser, and a sleep-around babe get tossed together once they decide to wait out the storm (and the cancelled air transport) in a beachside resort hotel. How did they get together? Well, one of them dropped her cell phone in the toilet, where it got stuck, and the others decided to help her rescue it. The unexpected team effort (a success) and their mutual plight of needing somewhere to stay until they could resume their travel plans led them to share a suite at the hotel.

For several days, we watch their interaction. At least half of the time, they get on each others’ nerves. They are, after all, contrasting types with very different agendas. Given the procession of fierce storms and their need to stay near the airport, they strive to make the best of the situation. At first, each is a reluctant listener to her suite-mates’ surface concerns; then, slowly they come to reveal more and more to one another, finding a common thread that allows them to open up, to listen, and ultimately to bond.

  To read this review in its entirety, as it appeared in the June 16-22, 2010 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 8-14 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly,  click here: Florida Weekly – Kris Radish

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Carlton Country Means Loving the Land

Note: I have reproduced the full version of this review, which has been shortened and edited (introducing error) in its appearances in the June 23-29, 2010 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the June 24-30 issue of the Charlotte Florida Weekly. See Florida Weekly – Barbara Carlton (Charlotte edition), but read the version below.

“This Nearly Was Mine: A Journey through Carlton Country,” by Dr. Barbara Castleberry Carlton with Barbara Oehlbeck. Great Outdoors Publishing. 392 pages. $34.95.

In this delightful, passionate book, Dr. Barbara Carlton assembles the story of one of Florida’s premier families, sharing their multi-generational contribution to the economy and to the responsible stewardship of Florida’s agricultural heartland.  The book’s folksy flavor derives from the inclusion of recollections by other family members, by friends, and by those who worked for and along side of the major players in the Carlton dynasty. 

While the Carlton family is traced back to late 18th-century North Carolina, its Florida adventures begin in mid-19th century. The man who inspired the habit of achievement was the Albert Carlton (there are several so-named) who was born in 1845, building two homes in the Wauchula area that became historical landmarks. “Grandfather Albert” was an active cattleman and early financier in the Peace River Valley, founding Hardee County’s first bank. His ten children include Carl, who with his first wife, Daisy, lived in the Little White House, also known as the Carlton Home Place, built in 1905. Another of his nine sons, Doyle, was Florida’s governor from 1929-33.

Carl Carlton was not only a cattle rancher and banker, but also a citrus grower who enhanced the Carlton tradition of community service. Carl had two daughters by his first wife, who died young. The child of his second marriage, William Albert Carlton (known as Albert), born in 1927, is the central figure in this fascinating chronicle fashioned by his wife, Barbara. Carl died in an accident, and Albert’s mother Emma committed suicide shortly thereafter, leaving the 6-year old in the care of his half-sister, Matred, and her husband. When he came of age, Albert took charge of his significant inheritance, using it wisely and well.

After military service and college, sociable and well-liked Albert dug into developing his properties. In time, he met Dr. Barbara Castleberry, who was practicing at the Wauchula Infirmary (known as Dr. Collier’s hospital). After their marriage in 1959, these Carltons supercharged the ranching and citrus-growing interests of the family, added extensive acreage to their own holdings, and led the way toward efficient, conservation-minded productivity. Sitting on various boards and commissions, they helped shape policies that brought major benefits to the region and the state.

The value of this heavily-illustrated volume lies in its workaday details and in the authentic voices of its many contributors. Readers get a close look at a way of life, both material and cultural, over the generations. We see what it takes to hold a family together through hardships, to maintain the pioneer spirit, to care for the land, to strengthen community bonds, and, ultimately, to find ways of returning much of the acquired land to public use.

A must for Florida history buffs, “This Nearly Was Mine” is available from major online booksellers. For autographed copies, contact Joyce Hunter at 863-494-5294.

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Doug Alderson: A Prophet in Nature’s Temple

“Encounters with Florida’s Endangered Wildlife,” by Doug Alderson. University Press of Florida. 192 pages. $24.95.

Doug Alderson’s fourteen brief chapters are attractively crafted personal essays that introduce readers to the intricate world of wild Florida, particularly as it exists in the panhandle part of the state. We learn about the creatures who live there, whether native or immigrant, large as a bear or manatee, or small as a salamander or mussel. We also learn that most of these animals are threatened, and that more often than not it is human activity that poses the threat. 

Mr. Alderson mixes awe, affection, and education in these remarkably well-turned essays, which often blossom into a powerful lyricism. Many passages from his book could be excerpted and presented as prose poems. We can only hope that these passages are not elegies.

The general pattern of the essays is one of Mr. Alderson taking us on a journey into the Florida wilderness, sometimes alone and sometimes with a companion. There is usually a destination and specific focus for the journey, such as seeking the elusive, if not extinct, ivory-bill woodpecker, or searching for black bear dens. Such sections have a strong narrative dimension and even a bit of suspense.

Other sections are more expository and fact-based, and yet others are simply in the service of joyous beholding and belonging. Doug Alderson captures so well the healing expressiveness of nature’s beauty and wonder. Often, the tone of his prose is uplifting, reverent, and worshipful.

To view the entire review, as it appears in the June 9-15, 2010 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and in the June 24-June 30 Naples Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Doug Alderson.

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The Jewish Immigrant Who Helped Build California

This review made its first appearance in the June 2010 issue of the (Jewish Federation of Collier County) Federation Star.

Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, by Frances Dinkelspiel . St. Martin’s Griffin. 376 pages. $16.99 (pprbk)

In the middle of the 19th century, the German confederation of 36 independent states was in chaos. Many hundreds of thousands fled Bavaria and neighboring entities. Among those seeking new lives were members of the sizeable Jewish community, whose rights had been seriously curtailed. In a 30-year period, 20,000 Bavarian Jews migrated to other parts of Europe and to the United States. Isaias Hellmann (hereafter Hellman) and his brother Herman were teenagers when they made their way to California, following the lure – along with thousands of other adventurers – of the Gold Rush.   

In 1859, the brothers arrived in Los Angeles, then a small frontier town dwarfed in importance by the burgeoning city that San Francisco had become. In 1865, Isaias Hellman bought his own store, a general purpose dry goods establishment that benefitted from Hellman’s networking with other Jewish merchants already flourishing in California.

Steadily, Hellman’s business grew, as did his wealth and reputation. In 1868, he opened the second official bank in Los Angeles – Hellman, Temple & Company. Soon after, Hellman was involved not only in making loans but in land development and in planning how to “market the idea of southern California.” By the time he was 28, Isaias Hellman had achieved a net worth equal to 1 million dollars today.

These are only the first steps in the carefully researched biography prepared by Frances Dinkelspiel, Hellman’s great-great granddaughter and an award-winning journalist, who was astounded when, in 1999, she came upon the enormous collection of Hellman material at the California Historical Society in downtown San Francisco. She had known from bits and pieces of family stories that the Hellmans had been an important family, but now she discovered that Isaias was a catalytic force in the making of California – a visionary builder, financier and power broker who went far beyond his youthful banking experience in Los Angeles to build three major western financial institutions: the Farmers and Merchants Bank (in Los Angeles), the Nevada Bank (in San Francisco) and the eventually continental banking giant Wells Fargo. Isaias was also a leader in several other key industries outside of banking.

Dinkelspiel’s narration is thoroughly engaging and largely convincing. Though it would be hard to exaggerate her forebear’s importance, she probably does. Still, Isaias Hellman’s place at the center of California’s transition from a frontier society to a modern, forward-looking state is undeniable. The author traces that slice of California history with style and assurance.

 Hellman kept in touch with his Jewish roots and identity. He was instrumental in the founding of several important Jewish synagogues. He generously supported other Jewish institutions, including the (then) newly formed American Jewish Committee when, during the pre-WWI pogroms in Russia, the organization sought assistance for Russian Jews.

When Isaias Hellman died in 1920 at the age of 77, the Pacific Coast that had given him opportunity lost a powerhouse who had transformed it. He left a fortune that would be reckoned at 2 billion or more today. But that’s only a drop in the ocean of what he helped to build.

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Connie May Fowler’s Novel of Empowerment

“How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly,” by Connie May Fowler. Grand Central Publishing. 278 pages. $23.99

Readers of acclaimed, best-selling author Connie May Fowler will be thoroughly satisfied with her latest novel. The protagonist, Clarissa Burden, meets June 21, 2006 with frustration and trepidation. On the longest and hottest day of the year, she is trapped in loveless marriage in what was once her dream house in panhandle Florida. Not only does her husband demean her by neglect, withering remarks, and compulsive attention to his transparent “business” of making artistic renderings of naked young women, but also Clarissa demeans herself. 

Childless in her mid-thirties, Clarissa is suffering writers’ block after some early successes as a novelist. Her barrenness on various levels marks this highly perceptive and imaginative woman as, paradoxically, convention-bound. Dependent on the opinions and actions of others, she yearns for the independence that requires risk-taking. That is, she needs to learn how to fly.

The 24 hours of Clarissa’s transition are narrated in a style that is exquisitely detailed, at once realistic, fantastic, and ultimately fabulous in all the various meanings of the word. The creatures who share Clarissa’s space in the natural world seem responsive to her moods and actions. Her guardedness and fearfulness are reflected in the warnings of “Ovarian shadow women.” The fauna and the shadow women serve as choric voices, aspects of Clarissa’s own submerged wisdom sounding alarms. 

Clarissa’s imagination – or is it some other force? – puts her in touch with a one-armed compromised angel named Larry Dibble, a carnival of dwarfs, a ghost fly, and a magic tree. Her old house is haunted by the ghosts of a long dead and self-assured Spanish woman, her black husband (a free man when Florida was under Spanish rule), and their young child. Clarissa’s encounters, whether actual or imaginative projections, challenge her as they guide her toward self-realization and self-assertion.

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the May 27-June 2, 2010 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly and the June 2-8 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Connie May Fowler

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