Monthly Archives: October 2011

Two local writers offer sharable wisdom

“Cat and Crow: An Amazing Friendship,” by Lisa Fleming. Collage Books. 48 pages, illustrated. $14.95.

“The 4-1-1 on Life Skills,” by Michele Sfakianos. Open Pages Publishing. 142 pages. $14.95.

Two Naples area writers have recently published books that are as different as they can be and yet have something in common: the desire to help and instruct “younger” people. One, “Cat and Crow” by Lisa Fleming is definitely what we’d call a “children’s book,” the kind that parents will enjoy reading to their kids and discussing with them. It shows how a powerful friendship can emerge between individuals more likely to be enemies.

“The 4-1-1 on Life Skills” by Michele Sfakianos is a different kind of parenting book. It’s aimed at young adults going out on their own who need advice on coping with the responsibilities and challenges of their independence. It’s filled with how-to guidelines that are too often neglected during the transition from nest-safe adolescence to out-in-the world adulthood.

Lisa Fleming

 Ms. Fleming’s book, beautifully illustrated by Anne Marie Dominik-Harris, retells the well-known story of the unusual relationship that developed between two natural enemies – an untamed cat that was taken in by Ann and Wally Collito in North Attleboro, Massachusetts and a crow that lived right outside their home. This couple took the time to document these unusual happenings through photos and videos. Most often, the crow is the protector and provider, sheltering the cat with its wing or bringing it food. Moses the crow and Cassie the cat regularly play together, and the amazed Collitos watch it all on a daily basis over a long period of time. 

One day, they see the crow swoop down to stop the cat from stepping in front of a car. On another occasion, Cassie is the protector, scaring a tomcat away from threatening Moses.

Lisa Fleming relates the true-life fable with an elegant simplicity. She also provides newspaper clippings and Collito photos to accompany the narrative, as well as an assortment of interesting facts about these two creatures. “Cat and Crow” is a wonderful entertainment that encourages tolerance and questions cliché thinking about what’s possible in the realm of getting along in spite of differences.

“The 4-1-1 on Life Skills” provides clear and concise tips for young adults going out on their own. Ms. Sfakianos, a registered nurse and life skills expert, knows that the business of health care, home care, cleaning, food preparation, car care, personal financial management, and similar life skills can overwhelm young people. Her book is a starter kit in personal responsibility. It’s down to earth, accessible, and friendly.

Michele Sfakianos

Does that child who has left your nest empty know how to prevent pests and bugs? Does he or she have a clue about dealing with the first baby? Can that seemingly grown up person who has depended on you make even the simplest home repairs? What about appropriate behavior in social situations? Michele Sfakianos has practical answers to questions almost too embarrassing to ask.

“The 4-1-1” is a great gift book for the newly independent. It contains great tips for inexperienced parents. In fact, it is valuable for those adults of any age who need a handy resource when they are floundering with life’s everyday problems. Going beyond the everyday, this compendium of common sense provides guidance on being ready for the unexpected in its substantial chapter on disaster preparedness.

If your children (or grandchildren) are very young or very young adults, Lisa Fleming and Michele Sfakianos have sharable wisdom to offer you and them.

Meet Michele Sfakianos in Fort Myers at the Colonial Country Club Fall Festival on Saturday, November 5, from 8:30am-12:30pm.

This review, with a much better title, appears in the October 12, 2011 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and in the October 13 issue of the Naples edition. See Florida Weekly – Fleming & Sfakianos or pp. 78-79 of the “flip” edition:


Filed under Authors and Books, Florida Authors

Retrieving the Sweater

This recently revised piece recaptures a slice of my life in the early 1960s. I”m not sure what to call it: personal essay, memoir, fictionalized memoir, or short story. Take your pick.

Cassie and I had been eyeballing each other for several weeks, ever since we stepped into the same New School class (on Albert Camus) along with a handful of other recent Greenwich Village immigrants. We quickly became a group, Cassie the only woman (though we’d have said “girl” then). Except for Jeff, who came from Brooklyn, we had each called home some bastion of comfort in an Eastern Seaboard suburb. Palling around in a group of four or five, we’d pace up and down 8th Street looking for some cheap mischief or a friendly bartender. We’d huddle together in the Bleeker Street cinema or just sit out on the benches in Washington Square, admiring the pigeons.

We’d talk about Anais Nin, who was having one of her several breakthrough moments and whose new editions were prominently displayed at the trendy bookshops. Once, as we walked past the Bobst Library of NYU, we spotted her, caped and coiffed in her delightfully mysterious fashion. Her novels and stories (not at all like the bold unexpurgated diaries to be published decades later) were filled with poeticized longing and gauze-cloaked sensuality.

Being in the same class bonded us unexpectedly. We had already developed other friendships, and Cassie, who had been in the Village for six months, occasionally talked about a boy friend, an older guy, whom we never saw. I think, perhaps, he was married and Cassie was his big adventure on the side, though she seemed to take him seriously. In spite of the ways in which our lives did not otherwise link, we kept feeling this tight tugging, something sashing us into a privileged, knowing circle.

I couldn’t take my eyes off Cassie, yet meeting her gaze was a problem, too. She was very cool, worldly, bold in her look and stride and language. Sleek and tormentingly sexy, she said I dare you with every flounce of her long, straight, light-brown hair. Her look said are you up to it? whenever she caught me staring.

I didn’t know.

We were all busy writing poems. Well, maybe “busy” is too strong in terms of how much writing we got done – let alone rewriting. However, we were certainly busy enough reading and talking about poetry. None one of us had any discipline, just a borrowed sense of style and the dreamy, late adolescent angst that Nin’s work captured perfectly. Certainly we wanted to impress one another, and in particular the guys wanted to impress Cassie. We’d meet to share our work, and at some point Cassie and Jeff and someone outside of the immediate group started a little magazine. When Cassie became the chief editor (because her father’s money floated this little operation and because we couldn’t deny her anything), whatever I wrote seemed like a trial answer to one of her silent I dare you smiles. I loved to watch her push away her hair and rub one of her gold loop earrings as she concentrated on a manuscript. Could she tell, from a poem, if I was up to it? I’d have to find out.

By now we were well into the spring semester, which of course is a misnomer. It was the dead of winter and we were getting one of those ugly, windy city blizzards that was covering over the ubiquitous Kennedy and Nixon bumper stickers.  Though we no longer were taking a class together, the “gang” still hung out. Cassie’s poetry magazine, and her edgy, earthy magnetism, kept us in the same tight orbit. Actually, I had become more comfortable as her friend now. I’d heard a lot about her parents and her interest in Asian art. And, since I hadn’t made a move, I had given up thinking of her invisible “Frank” as a rival. Having fought down the attraction, I could look her in the eye.

It was four or five in the afternoon, the storm hastening darkness, when lights began flickering in the New School cafeteria where we sat looking over line drawings and woodcuts for the magazine. Jeff had a poem about a little boy who sat on a golden stone in a golden circle – something heavily symbolic that sounded good when he read it aloud – and we were choosing some illustrations to go along with it. The intensity of the storm increased, and we decided to split up and go back to our living quarters. Jeff left for the subway to Brooklyn, and something possessed me to become Cassie’s escort to her Hudson Street studio apartment. Had she asked me? Dared me? I can’t remember.

We half-ran, half-walked across the few blocks, crossing Sheridan Square, eyes blinded by the wind-whipped snow that quickly melted and soaked our thin jackets. We splashed through gutters and the heavy slush climbed up our jeans right to the knees. Cassie leaned against me and grasped my hand as we endured the last block, turned onto Hudson, and found the shelter of the tiny lobby. I stamped and shook off the worst of it while she checked her mailbox. Just then, as she pulled out her key ring, I wished I had sent her my best poem. But I hadn’t been able to bring myself to send any. As I warmed a bit, the absent weight of her hip against mine and the echo of her fingers in my hand suddenly registered. Was I up to it? Then we climbed the three floors to her apartment.

Ohmygod how splendidly unselfconscious Cassie appeared as she stripped out of her wet clothing down to her bra and panties. Her look told me I was really stupid not to be doing the same thing. Did I want to catch my death? She hung my wet jacket on a nail and threw my sweater, which was mostly dry, onto the corner of her platform bed. I was spellbound, trying to be all businesslike and nonchalant as I kicked off my loafers and pulled off those soggy denims. I shot a glance at the three-quarter view of Cassie’s back as she raised her arms to dry her hair in a thick towel. Her breasts, now unfettered, perfectly framed in a hallway mirror, followed her movements. My shirt came off.

Cassie put on a recording of someone reading translations of Garcia Lorca’s poetry and then we were under the down comforter, warming each other, finding out where everything was, and yet there was no love-talk, only talk about the usual stuff. I wondered why I had left my wet socks on, but then tried hard to focus on the possibility of meeting Cassie’s dare. After a while, we were getting lost in our caresses and excitations. Cassie was making movie-moans and I was wondering if she was expecting me to have prophylactics. It was about that time. Then, as a key began to turn the tumblers in the lock, my heart knew disappointment and also, strangely, relief.

Cassie sprang up, then composed herself and slipped into my sweater as her roommate pulled open the door and dripped into the apartment. By the time she was in far enough to see us, I was half into my still-damp jeans and Cassie, legs tucked under her, sat with the bottom of my sweater pulled down under her knees. “Sorry,” Maggie exclaimed sarcastically, then turned to put some things away in the Pullman kitchen.

Now I had to put on my best nonchalant act. Was I up to it? A blur of small talk about Nin’s new Seduction of the Minotaur, which Maggie had just read. Leave soon, but not too soon. At the time, it seemed best to leave the sweater behind.

Something changed after that. Something became my fault that hadn’t quite been anyone’s fault. My expectation that a romance was brewing was quickly exposed as utter nonsense. I could not find the words or gestures to resume that intimacy, if that’s what it was, on any level. The gang went through wooden motions of having fun and being committed artists, but all that earnestness about comradeship and transcendence got to be painful, like a stiff neck. Cassie, the lodestone and center, frowned a lot, looked uncharacteristically perplexed, and after a while drifted onto the periphery of our lives.

For all my disappointment and sorrow, for all my worry over just how much embarrassment was proper, my principal focus was on that darn sweater. I wasn’t sure if it was a legitimate forfeit – a part of me forever gone with my self-esteem and silly romantic notions – or just a sweater that I liked and needed and should get back.  Sometimes, I imagined that Cassie was intending to call me and arrange to return it. She would give me back my self, and perhaps even more. Other times, I felt that she was holding onto it as a kind of inverse and perverse trophy. Then again, it was just as likely she simply didn’t care. Or maybe it was another dare. Come and get it. Was I up to it?

Did I even want that garment that had spent more time wrapped around her precious body than I had? Did I want it with her smell . . . the inevitable strands of her hair? Did I want this talisman of an unfulfilled desire? Did I want to turn back the clock, reclaim the moment? What had she taken from me, really?

What happens next?

I cannot tell you truthfully what happened next, because if I did I’d be telling a different kind of story.  But I can tell you this: it’s over fifty years later and I have an eleven year old granddaughter, and I’ve published a shelf of criticism on Anais Nin and quite a few poems. But it is as if the outcome is still in doubt. Even today, every poem I write, even this morning’s poem, is awaiting sanction in Cassie’s magazine. And will you believe me if I tell you that on a day like today I feel as if I’m still in the process of either retrieving the sweater – or not?

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Palestine: a fictional vision of the near-future

The following review appears in the October 2011 issues of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County) and L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte County).

Palestine, by Jonathan Bloomfield. Silver Lane Publishing. 472 pages. $14.95.

This military-political thriller confronts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict head on, mixing fact, fiction, and persuasive speculation in an engaging, and downright frightening narrative. What if the forces arrayed against Israel have conceived their ultimate plan for the annihilation of the Jewish State? What if they have operatives in Israel with whom Gaza-based and other Arab forces could quickly connect? What if these forces have nuclear weapons? What if Israel’s chief of security has knowledge of the plan and yet can’t convince the prime minister to take action? What if he stages a coup? What if Hammas has been infiltrated by an Israeli agent who has gained a major position and is feeding information to Israeli forces?

All of these things happen in Palestine, and much more. Bloomfield establishes several points of focus in the Palestinian and Israeli camps; then he alternates episodes and vantage points so that we see the war that has broken out not only from both sides but also from various factions and perspectives on each side. Bloomfield offers us characters at different points in the chains of command with the corresponding contrasts of rank and responsibility. He offers us Muslims who can see around the corners of the Islamic extremists’ rewriting of regional history. He offers us the courage of blind hatred and the courage of facing harsh, unavoidable truths. He offers insights into the traditional and contemporary cultures of the people whose communities and lives are at stake. 

Jonathan Bloomfield also provides a battlefield scenario that details meticulous planning and execution. He provides a blueprint that might very well become a reality. For all the carnage in the short run, he offers hope for a regional future in which peace, cooperation, and mutual benefit can arise.

He even offers some romance.

One of the challenges Bloomfield faced was integrating quite of a bit of education into a page-turning, high stakes adventure. Most of the time, he solves this problem well enough with plausible dialogue that addresses the historical facts that underpin his vision of the Middle East’s past and future. Only on a few occasions does the dialogue lose spontaneity and sound like a classroom lecture.

Recognizing that too much exposition and fact-rehearsal will interrupt the fast-paced action that readers will expect, Bloomfield relegates a portion of his fact-based arguments to an Epilogue and a series of Appendices that follow the novel’s main action. These add-ons, which comprise 120 pages of the book, are without doubt useful for information and contemplation. Readers will differ about whether or not they undermine the esthetic impact of the narrative.

Is Palestine merely Zionist propaganda dressed up as thriller fiction? Some will say so. However, the arguments made both in the fictional narrative and the appendices are compelling, containing as they do a mountain of hard historical facts.

Bloomfield imagines a future in which an Israeli educational system detoxifies the generations of thought control that has left millions of actual and alleged Palestinians living lives of more and more noisy and violent desperation. Deprogramming decades of Islamic extremist brainwashing would be an enormous task, even given the opportunity to try. But Bloomfield rather convincingly makes the point that some such process is absolutely necessary.

Whether read for entertainment, insight, or both, Palestine is worth your time.

Note: We can provide no photo of the author because as a result of this novel and related activities, Mr. Bloomfield finds his life in jeopardy.

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