Monthly Archives: June 2011

Belleville’s ode to Florida’s threatened wilderness

“Salvaging the Real Florida: Lost and Found in the State of Dreams,” by Bill Belleville. University Press of Florida. 240 pages. $24.95.

People who spend their lives marching in the parade of what we call progress need passionate artists like Bill Belleville to help us see – or see again – the natural world. Not just see it, but feel and respect it. Not just that, but blend into it, merge our souls into a wilderness landscape and match our heartbeats to the rhythms of flowing waters, birdcalls, and swaying branches. 

Mr. Belleville is a cautiously hopeful elegist and a word wizard. In his earlier books and in the 47 brief essays – most of them meditative narratives – that comprise “Salvaging,” he presents himself as a committed seeker of whatever he can learn about his own place in the world of living things, and the place of each in the whole. Most often, the whole is the microcosm known as Florida, or a region of Florida. It can just as well be a nature preserve, a fishing camp, a cave through which spring waters burst, or his semi-wild back yard in Sanford, Florida.

One theme is loss: how mismanagement, ignorance, and abuse of the land and its creatures threaten our humanity on several levels.  Bill Belleville’s elegy is rich in reminders of how immense the value is of what we allow to be destroyed.

Because we don’t really know what we are losing, Bill Belleville takes the time to educate us. However, his exposition is not primarily technical, but rather a blend of science and poetry. He respects myth, and he conveys it. He teases us into caring about the apple snail and the sand dollar. For Mr. Belleville, ecology is spiritual as well as material. To read him best, read your favorite passages aloud so that your lips join in prayers of praise for the created world and prayers for the wisdom and fortitude to love it actively.

Bill Belleville

Mr. Belleville writes, “We’ve compromised the river’s watershed with hard surfaces, and by doing so, have kept rainfall from soaking into the ground – and being absorbed by natural wetlands. Then, when things go terribly wrong, we blame nature, since blaming ourselves for our lack of wisdom is simply not an option.” Can we reverse flood-causing processes like this one?

To enjoy the full text of this review as it appears in the June 16, 2011 Naples Florida Weekly and the Fort Myers edition for June 15, click here: Florida Weekly – Bill Belleville pdf

See also the third item in this 3-part review essay:

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Little book packs big message about appearances

“I Am Brilliant,” by Jennifer Craig. Insight Strategist. 32 pages. $10.

Jennifer Craig

Child and family therapist Jennifer Craig has penned a delightful book for children (or their parents) that strives to offset the media blitz of debilitating messages about beauty. We’ve all seen the impossibly gorgeous, slender models with the perfect skin and hair used by advertisers of cosmetic products to sell their wares. We’ve all seen the attractive younger models donned in outfits for the ideally-proportioned teen or tween. So have young girls who will never attain the outward appearance that consciously or otherwise registers as their worth indicator – the key to acceptance and popularity. 

Ms. Craig, a licensed mental health practitioner, is out to redirect young people’s understanding of the keys to self-esteem. “I Am Brilliant,” subtitled “Steps to Finding Your Brilliance,” encourages youngsters (primarily girls, though the problem exists for boys as well) to focus on individuality and inner beauty. The young reader might find herself truly being herself – and enjoying being herself – rather than chasing after the accoutrements of fashion and developing unhealthy eating habits in an attempt to copy an impossible and misleading standard.

As well, these readers are likely to better understand how to value others – by looking for the inner beauty and brilliance of those whom they meet.

“I Am Brilliant” is a tiny book with an enormous message. In it, we meet a dog named Sugar who notices that the dogs on television are all smaller than she is, and those very dogs are flattered with attention and opportunity. Sugar thinks she has to shrink to find happiness. Of course, this cannot be. . . .

To read this review in its entirety as it appears in the June 8, 2011 issue of Fort Myers Florida Weekly and June 9 issue of the Naples edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Jennifer Craig pdf

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Classic seaside lifestyle comes alive in “Dream Houses”

“Dream Houses: Historic Beach Homes and Cottages of Naples,” text by Joie Wilson and photographs by Penny Taylor. University Press of Florida. 224 pages. $45.00.

Interior design professional Joie Wilson did not set out to write a book, but rather to alert public officials and private citizens about the lifestyle treasure that existed in seaside Old Naples and how economic factors and notions of progress were jeopardizing its future. In the end, sharing her passionate insights through a book seemed to be the best way to make her case about what was important and appealing – and so much worth saving – about this community.  Partnering with Naples photographer Penny Taylor (who served for a decade on the Naples City Council), Ms. Wilson plunged in. Her informed enthusiasm, along with Ms. Taylor’s fine photographs, has resulted in a gem of a publication.

Avoiding academic jargon, Joie Wilson clearly sets forth the architectural features and history of each home, from its initial owners through the renovations reflecting the needs and aspirations of successive owners. Many of these renovations are adaptations to changing uses of the buildings, changing times, and especially changing technologies. However, what is amazing in Ms. Wilson’s discussion of these splendid specimens of the 34102 zip code is their stylistic integrity to the idea of Naples as a simple, yet comfortable, beachside community. In the processes of renovation and adaptation,  original structural elements have been maintained or duplicated. Original building materials have been salvaged for reuse.

Readers will learn a lot about the functional significance of the roof overhangs, the pitch of ceilings, and the size and placement of windows.

 Many of the people who built or purchased these houses were affluent enough to live anywhere they chose. They were capable of owning huge mansions in any design or style, but they chose these relatively modest examples of a Florida vernacular architecture because they admired its practical elegance. 2,000 square feet well designed for the subtropical climate, fashioned of readily available materials, and balanced against one another into a gently planned community suited their tastes.

 Though these buildings share architectural features and a Crayola palette that announces a community of recognizable stylistic character, each maintains its independence and originality. Each expresses, in ornamentation, decoration, and tasteful adaptations of a formative vision, the personalities who have flourished and who continue to flourish there. “Colorful personalities,” remarks Ms. Wilson, “tend to gravitate to colorful houses.”

Joie Wilson

 The author makes it clear that these houses are first of all homes. This book is not a mausoleum or shrine, but a representation of places with lives going on inside of them and around them. Most of the homes are from half a century to a full century old. The hold and continue to inspire personal experiences and personal stories that Joie Wilson retells with fervor, economy, and grace.

 Progress and economic stresses have so far not demolished this community, though it has been severely wounded. Similar houses have been leveled or remodeled beyond recognition.

To see this review in its entirety, as it appears in the June 1, 2011 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the June 2 issue of the Naples edition (with additional photos), click here: Florida Weekly – Dream Houses pdf

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A delightful inventory of the Gulf Coast’s natural delights

“The Living Gulf Coast: A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida,” by Charles Sobczak. Indigo Press. 512 pages. $26.95.

People who live in and visit Southwest Florida are drawn by its natural beauty. In spite of many decades of development, the region still has a remarkable diversity of life forms and relatively unspoiled habitats in which they thrive. Furthermore, public and private efforts have done much to insure the future of these natural treasures. “The Living Gulf Coast” is a generous, lavishly produced, and inspiring guide to this distinctive paradise. 

Charles Sobczak

Mr. Sobczak’s encyclopedic effort is divided into two major sections of approximately equal size. The first section is the field guide itself. Defining the region as including Sarasota, Charlotte, Lee, Collier, Glades, and Hendry counties, the author provides detailed information on the birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians to be found here. He employs an efficient set of symbols and abbreviations to map basic facts of size (for birds, length, wingspan, and weight), degree of endangerment, where found, the various names applied to the species, and so forth. Mr. Sobczak also provides vivid descriptions of each creature’s appearance, behavior, habitat, and diet.

Blending information and entertainment, Charles Sobczak entices his readers to move beyond the passive engagement of entering a book. He urges them to engage directly and actively with their fellow creatures. Whether introducing the Green Iguana, the Everglades Mink, the Pileated Woodpecker, the Florida Banded Water Snake, or the lowly Nutria, the author gives each critter its due. Often, his discussions are leavened by humor and wit.

Where to engage? That’s what the second half of the book is all about.

Nature lovers will revel in Mr. Sobczak’s survey of “managed lands” available for public exploration and enjoyment in this six-county region. Over 2,000 of the region’s 6,000 square miles are under federal, state, or local public or private management, providing countless opportunities for birding, hiking, kayaking, camping, and just plain meditation. The author provides information about 162 destinations, 61 in elaborate detail and the others in a more compact overview.

This latter half of the book is arranged by county, with a north-to-south plan within each chapter. With Charles Sobczak as our guide, we can travel from Sarasota’s Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium to Punta Gorda’s Peace River Wildlife Center to Boca Grande’s Gasparilla Island State Park to the Naples Botanical Garden and to various eco-destinations out east in Hendry and Glades counties.  Many of these destinations are well-known, while many others are relatively obscure. The author locates each entry not only by address, but also by GPS coordinates. You won’t get lost.

To read this review in its entirety as it appears in the May 25, 2011 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the May 26 Naples Florida Weekly, and the June 2 Port Charlotte/Punta Gorda Florida Weekly, click here: LivingGulfCoast pdf – 1 and then here: LivingGulfCoast pdf – 2

See also: Florida Weekly – Living Sanibel and

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After Katrina

Does Katrina mean pure as in pure hell

or is it the new nick-name for global warming?

Like Adolph, it will fall from favor

with expecting parents.

To me, it’s a bouncy-sounding name:

I see my Katrina dancing,

a farm girl from Belgium or Holland

caught up in a Brueghel painting,

in what Williams called “rollicking measures,”

her skirt twirling like a roulette wheel,

a discus thrown from Biloxi.

But under her skirt are the whirling floaters,

the human flotsam outstretched

like starfish and — spinning, spinning

into the Gulf of Mexico

and across the Atlantic waters.

Washed out of the prisons and nursing homes,

the working-class neighborhoods

(and the neighborhoods without work),

the dockside warehouses, the brothels.

the churches and schools, — and streaming now,

each a little whirlpool of abated life,

a mandala of grief.

I imagine Katrina’s energy,

her benign urge to fulfillment,

the twists and turns of her swerving hips,

and her inevitable dissolution,

and I find that energy returning now

as pinwheel corpses revolve past

the drilling platforms and steer themselves

eastward, bumping against Miami

and then out to the vast, jazzed-up sea.

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The Finkler Question: a powerful portrait of contemporary Jewish London

This review appears in the June 2011 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County, Florida) and L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties, Florida). It also appears in the July 2011 issue of The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson. Bloomsbury USA. 320 pages. $25 hardback, $15 paperback.

Winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize for fiction, the highest literary award for English publications in England, Ireland, and the Commonwealth of Nations.

This unusually controversial book has not only won a major literary prize, but it has also attracted a heap of scorn. Most of those who denigrate Jacobson’s achievement find it slow-moving and populated by unpleasant, unlikeable characters. It is possible, however, to say much the same thing about other English language masters; different as they are, Henry James and Philip Roth come to mind. 

This reader luxuriated in the pace. What’s the rush when an author is peeling the onion of personality with such precision, such insight, such humor, such honesty, and such an odd mixture of compassion and contempt?  Or is it three onions? Or four?

The Finkler Question is about many things. It is about coming to terms with old age and life’s limitations. It is about the mid-life crises of hypersensitive individuals. It is about the complex nature of male bonding. It is about the afterlife of failed relationships and the bottomless hope of new ones. As its title hints, it is about the early 21st century version of “The Jewish Question” as it exists in the Western World at large and in London in particular. A sprawling book, it does much of its journeying within the head of one or another of its major characters.

For Julian Treslove, his old school friend Sam Finkler represents everything Jewish: Jewish speech patterns, body language, manners, politics, taste, achievement, victimhood, and destiny. Jews seem to have power and vulnerability, bravado and guardedness.  A popular writer, media personality, and philosopher, Finkler seems to have it all. Whatever “it” is, Julian needs it.

Treslove’s other Jewish friend, Czech immigrant and former Hollywood commentator Libor Sevcik, became, after marriage to his beloved Malkie, the teacher of young Treslove and Finkler. He is now ninety, at least twice the age of his former students. The three men have kept in touch over the years and decades, and now they meet together in the wake of two losses: both Finkler’s wife and Sevcik’s have recently died. Treslove, who has never married but sired two sons whom he has failed as a father, joins his Jewish widower friends in a bout of mourning and remembering. Each is looking for the terms of understanding the past, accepting the present, and moving on with his life. 

As non-Jewish Treslove walks homeward from the engagement with his friends, he is assaulted by a woman who, as his shocked system understands it, has accused him of being a Jew. Is this a coronation or a damnation? A fulfillment or a challenge? The experience rocks Treslove to the core. His identity has been at once threatened and possibly reformulated. Is he a Finkler? Does he inhabit the Finkler question?

Howard Jacobson’s marvelous book is made up of supercharged and occasionally outrageous versions of familiar conversations: who and what defines Jewishness? What accounts for the tenacity of anti-Semitism? What is the proper relationship between the world Jewish community and the modern State of Israel? Is there an Israel that is separate from Zionism?

Through these issues, Jacobson engages readers with questions of longing and belonging, loneliness and relationship. He does so both within and outside of the confines of Jewish particularity. Slowly, haltingly, and with seeming inevitability, his characters transcend the fixed positions held when we meet them. They grow in complexity and self-knowledge. Do they finally emerge as likeable? Not really. Jacobson’s achievement is to make them utterly and magnificently human. At once angry and funny, piercing and perplexing, The Finkler Question is a towering achievement by a major talent.

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