Monthly Archives: January 2013

Paul Arsenault: An Artist’s Journey

Paul Arsenault, Paul Arsenault: My Journey as a Painter. Banyan Arts Social and Pleasure Club.  156 pages. $65.00.

To suggest that artist Paul Arsenault has led an improvised life may risk implying that his path has had no direction. That’s not it at all. Mr. Arsenault’s life has themes, goals, and – though perhaps less than some of our lives – plans. Still, he has been open to chance, and that openness has paid him and all of us back in astounding measure.  Travel being a defining necessity throughout his career, this curious wanderer has traveled from one place to another, always ready to seize an unexpected opportunity, ready to improvise the next step when connections bog down or money runs low.  He has bartered instant (or nearly so) paintings for a room at the inn. PaulArsenaultMuralPortrait

What for some is “playing it by ear” is for Paul Arsenault playing it by eye and by intuition. Like the speaker in Theodore Roethke’s great American poem “The Waking,” this determined artist might say, “I learn by going where I have to go.” Some call it living in the moment.

The impression on the beholder of Mr. Arsenault’s paintings is of viewing vistas caught in the moment. Often enough, and with deliberateness, his paintings capture seaside villages, quiet but colorful neighborhoods, and architectural specimens on the edge of change. There are no contemporary cityscapes. No portraits. There is the interweaving of nature and culture. Mostly, Mr. Arsenault’s canvases hold “nature methodized,” as Alexander Pope wrote, the tamed nature of human habitation. The garden more often than the wilderness. In his paintings, Paul Arsenault is a conservator of what might be gone tomorrow.


Because he has made his home base in Naples, Florida since the mid-1970s (with plenty of roving around the world), Mr. Arsenault’s paintings of Naples and Florida in general are well known in his community. What his entrancing new book offers, both for him and for us, is an opportunity to absorb and measure the broader achievement: New England (with homage to Gloucester and Nantucket), many other North American locations, the Caribbean (his stories of Dominica are marvelous), the Pacific islands, Central and South America, Europe, Asia and Indonesia. More recently, he has done his work of preservation through art in Hawaii, where he and his wife Eileen have another home.

What the book has done for its author, I believe, is to reacquaint him with parts of his own story, elements of his legacy, with which even he had partly lost touch. He is excited about what the long journey has added up to so far, and that excitement has energized the future. In allowing his story-telling to frame the paintings, the painter-author has reengaged with them and rebalanced his identity as a creator. . . .

To read this feature article in its entirety, along with an excerpt from Mr. Arsenault’s book and a sampling of his paintings, see the January 24, 2013 Naples Florida WeeklyFlorida Weekly – Arsenault 1 and Florida Weekly – Arsenault 2. It also appears in the Bonita Springs edition, but without the illustrations.

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Seeking to reconcile Judaism and Feminism through art

Whatever is Contained Must Be Released, by Helène Aylon. The Feminist Press. 287 pages. Trade paperback (oversized). $29.95.

Helène Aylon’s astonishing book balances the two dimensions of her life that are expressed in its subtitle: “My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist.” It’s a magical book, not nearly as egocentric or “in your face” as one might expect at first glance. Thoughtful, properly proud, and modestly grateful for the distance she has traveled on her unusual journey, Aylon mixes facts, feelings, and meditation. Over and over, she adjusts the tension between these two identities, identities which paradoxically poison and nourish one another. Aylon Cover

Young Helène loved her traditional household in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn. Even when she was feeling stifled or misperceived, which was often, she knew that her parents loved her deeply and had her best interests at heart. While her mother lacked the worldliness that this young girl craved and eventually attained, there was no doubt about her mother’s essential goodness and the depth of her passionate caring.

This particular Orthodox community invested significant resources in the education of its young females. Helène absorbed an abundance of Jewish learning; however, there was little – as a female – that she could do with it. And she had plenty of questions that would not be truly heard or respectfully answered. Before she knew what feminism was, she was asking feminist questions. At bottom, the question is: how can a woman belong to a religion that disrespects (or seems to disrespect) women in its sacred writings and in its traditions?

Helène married young (a successful arranged marriage), had children young, but was already drifting toward the educational opportunities that would stimulate her self-creation as an artist. This self-creation involved selecting her own last name. When her husband, a rabbi, died in his thirties, the young mother could not continue to wear her partly hypocritical mask of Orthodoxy. She admitted to, and began to act out her “post-Orthodoxy” self, moving more and more into the world of art and artists.

She liberated herself socially and intellectually, while never forgetting the warm enclosure of her childhood home and community. Fighting with Jewish attitudes toward women, especially their place (or lack thereof) in ritual life and in scriptural modeling, she found a second religion in Feminism – and in time she became a strong force in this arena. Her artworks, primarily multi-media installations, expressed this theme, as well as those of environmentalism and anti-war activism.

A major part of her journey as an artist took place in California, where she encountered many kindred spirits and forged mutually supportive relationships. However, Boro Park remained in her thoughts, as did her love-hate relationship with Jewish wisdom and – as she felt it – Jewish misogyny.

In what is roughly the second half of the book, Aylon’s discussion of her artistic experimentation and growth is bolstered by a generous array of photographs that give readers some idea of the power of her installation art. Over and over again, her particular post-Orthodox feminism combines with her other themes in highly original, powerful, and daring visual compositions, works that are challenges both to her and to those who behold them. Some are inspired by Kabbalah, the mainstream of Jewish mysticism. Others involve technologies and materials that allow the installations to undergo change over time. Still others enact curative processes, such as redeeming the earth (in Jewish tradition, Tikkun Olam).


Many of these projects, — like the sequences that assemble sacs of sand, stone, and earth – required not only visionary insight and purpose, but also physical exertion and potential confrontation. Her Earth Ambulance project, carried out near nuclear power facilities and military sites, expressed and connected anti-war and conservationist perspectives. For Aylon, such battles are truly women’s work: housekeeping, nurturing, and healing on a grand scale.

More and more, her achievement was recognized with well-received gallery exhibitions and exhibitions in public spaces. However, finding display venues for installation art is often far more difficult than finding space on a gallery wall. Often, Aylon means to be shocking – shocking enough to wake people out of their slumbers and force them to confront major issues.

The ongoing, mutating story of Helène Aylon’s relationship with her mother and her Orthodox heritage binds together the passages of this attractive, uplifting, and powerful memoir.

This review appears in the February 2013 issues of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota / Manatee).

Reprinted with a new title in February 21, 2013 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly: Florida Weekly – Aylon


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Death looms large at Florida Panhandle religious retreat

Blood Sacrifice, by Michael Lister. Pulpwood Press. 296 pages. $26.99 hardcover, $16.99 trade paper. $2.99 Kindle ebook.

This latest entry in Michael Lister’s John Jordan mystery series takes Jordan away from his usual territory as chaplain at a large correctional institution and into the world of exorcism and murder at an otherwise serene spiritual retreat in Florida’s Panhandle. Jordan comes to St. Ann’s Abbey concerned about his mental and spiritual health. His marriage had recently died for the second time. Moreover, the attempt to balance two conflicting callings – chaplaincy and homicide investigation – has brought him to despair. Counseled by Sister Abigail to cure his addiction to investigative opportunities, ex-cop Jordan finds himself right in the middle of one – right there at St. Ann’s.  ListerCover

As if to test him, the peaceful beauty of St. Ann’s is stained by the discovery of a man apparently drowned. Was it an accident, a suicide, or a homicide? John Jordan knows he should stay out of it, but he can’t let go. Worse yet, he must subdue his hostile feelings toward Steve Taylor, the local chief of police.

Soon, other violent incidents pile up, and it’s not clear if they are connected. Is there a common motive? Is there one perpetrator, or more than one? Most importantly for the themes and tone of the novel, how does one account for the death of young, beautiful Tammy Taylor, a sexual wild-woman who is also Steve Taylor’s cousin. Was it death by exorcism?

That seems to be the case, an exorcism gone awry. The guilty party may be Father Thomas, who performed the exorcism that led to Tammy’s death – or was it the devil, as Father Thomas insists? The physical evidence all points to Father Thomas, but his reputation for kindness and piety weakens the power of that evidence. So does his frail physical condition.

Michael Lister

Michael Lister

In “Blood Sacrifice,” Michael Lister gets readers to take the notion of demonic possession seriously:  to suspend, at least for a while, their disbelief. Just as John Jordan has learned to accept the limits of human understanding, and thereby his own limits, readers are masterfully maneuvered into entertaining possibilities that they would normally dismiss as occult nonsense. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the January 17, 2013 Naples and Bonita Springs editions of Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Lister

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Tallahassee Writers Conference

TWA Conference


“Discovering Florida Authors”

In honor of the 500th anniversary of Florida’s discovery

 For more information:

 Early Bird registration

opens on 2/1/2013 and offers discounted registration prices for TWA members.

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“A Land More Kind Than Home,” by Wiley Cash

Set in rural Madison County, North Carolina in the mid-1980s, this quietly gorgeous novel is most remarkable for its exquisitely rendered sense of place. Mr. Cash not only gives us every kind of sensory news about the community in which he locates his story, but he also paints the cultural environment – the atmospherics – in memorable, thematically enhancing brushstrokes. The major theme is the interaction of religiosity and cruel, cunning evil. Though the flavor of its manifestation is penetratingly Southern, Wiley Cash’s novel leaps beyond its place and time to a profound universality. WileyCashCover

The author builds his novel by employing three narrators; that is, three perspectives and three distinct voices processing events that bring their lives into contact. Adelaide (“Addie”) Lyle is a woman well into her eighties who knows the community inside out. As the town midwife, she has had a professional intimacy with almost every family, and she has already outlived many people whom she helped bring into the world. Though she no longer spends time in church, she has taken on the task of giving the church families’ children their religious education. In fact, she has insisted on it and prevailed: in her view, children should not be exposed to what goes on in that church.

Wiley Cash

Wiley Cash

The second narrator is nine year old Jess Hall. Wise beyond his years and curious about what goes on around him, Jess is not adverse to risk or responsibility. In fact, he is more or less responsible for his older brother Christopher (nicknamed Stump), a mute who is challenged developmentally. What these boys see, individually and together (they to spy into things that no one is meant to discover), includes the doings in and out of church of the man who ten years earlier took over the church, formerly in the county seat of Marshall, and brought to this more isolated community. . . .

To see the entire review of this highly acclaimed novel, as it appears in Southern Literary Review, click here: January Read of the Month: “A Land More Kind Than Home,” by Wiley Cash

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Kuzneski’s new thriller offers suspense, sparkle, and smiles

The Death Relic, by Chris Kuzneski. Putnam. 464 pages. $26.95.

Mr. Kuzneski once again puts together his special blend of humor and suspense in this new archeological thriller featuring the investigatory team of Jonathan Payne and David Jones. These men, former Special Forces operatives who maintain key connections in the world of secret government agencies, are summoned by gorgeous, rising star archeologist Maria Pelati, with whom Jones had enjoyed an aborted romance. The Italian woman had been persuaded to come to the assistance of American archeologist Terrence Hamilton, who claims that he needs her special expertise in Christian history to further his research into a unique treasure of Mayan relics.  CoverArt-THEDEATHRELIC

Soon after she meets him in Cancun, Hamilton disappears. Not only is she perplexed, but she also feels threatened by some strange goings-on about which she has no clue. The dynamic duo of Payne and Jones arrive on the scene, all three having trust issues that need resolution before they can work together effectively.

Maria seems to have fallen into a tangled knot of crime and greed centered on a revenge plot against a kingpin in the world of high-profit kidnapping. Someone has turned the tables on Hector Garcia, taking his children as hostages and demanding an antique medallion as ransom. After his children, Garcia’s hoard of artifacts is his passion, and this medallion is the most treasured.

Having set a few plot engines in motion, Chris Kuzneski brings red-headed Tiffany Duffy onto the stage. She is in Mexico City on some kind of assignment, and her tourist education in Mexican history becomes the readers as well. Slowly but surely, the clouds obscuring Duffy’s relevance to the Death Relic quest, Maria’s obscure mission, and the threat against Hector Garcia’s children begin to disperse. What is revealed is astonishing and frightening.



A novel like “The Death Relic” requires mountains of exposition. Explorations of Mayan and Aztec history, the Spanish suppression of these Central American civilizations, and the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the settling and unsettling of the New World are all linked to the present-day situation.  Dialogue handles much of this task with a seeming naturalness – not small feat for the burden placed upon it. Beyond the tool of dialogue, Mr. Kuzneski uses his third-person narrator to bring readers other portions of the staggering fact-load. Here, the story-telling sometimes loses shape and pace.

Fortunately, there is always enough action just around the corner to rev up the momentum, and this author is a master of action scenes. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the January 10, 2013 Naples and Bonita Springs editions of Florida Weekly, and also the January 16 Fort Myers edition and the January 24 Palm Beach Gardens / Jupiter edition, click here Florida Weekly – Kuzneski 1 and here Florida Weekly – Kuzneski 2

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A hauntingly beautiful, courageous, yet painful composition

“Skipping Stones,” by Penny Lauer. CreateSpace. 384 pages. $15.00 trade paper, Kindle ebook $8.99

This is a painful book: painful because it is sensitive and courageous. In dealing with a young boy’s multiple crises –  the loss of his mother, the tormenting tenuousness of his long-absent father’s overtures, and the horrifying abusiveness of Uncle Steve, in whose care Josh has been placed – Penny Lauer has not spared the reader her main character’s pain. Nor has she glanced away from the pain suffered by Steve’s wife and children. And yet there is something hauntingly beautiful about this prose composition that fully engages our sympathy.  LauerFrontCover

We meet Josh shortly after he has lost his mother, Becky, who died in a bicycle accident for which Josh feels responsible. A troubled soul, Becky had determined years back that it would be best for Josh and for her if she divorced her husband, Sam. It’s not clear at first what made their relationship such a mismatch. Readers discover that Becky suffered from severe depression, and that coping with it sometimes took all of her strength. However, she was a courageous fighter and fully devoted to Josh. In fact, the bicycle mishap stemmed from her determination to overcome her fears and frailty.

Having anticipated the need to prepare for Josh’s future without her, Becky had documented her wish that Josh become part of her sister Jess’s family in the case of her death or incapacity. Little did she know the twisted home life that Jess and her children led under Steve’s reign of terror. Pride and fear mixed to keep Jess chained to a life of virtual slavery, of constant insults, and of harsh beatings. Her children had some understanding of what was happening, but no way to help her. Mother and children, in fact, had developed a conspiracy of silence. They lived a lie.

A flashback chapter summarizes the courtship and early years of marriage between Jess and Steve, revealing the step by step process by which the naïve and overwhelmed Jess became first an appendage to Steve’s egocentric manipulations and eventually a victim, her individuality submerged under the weight of his sadistic expectations.


Josh walks into this domestic nightmare, unprepared and defenseless. But not altogether so. The quality of love he had received from his mother, the spirit of freedom that she had instilled in him, and her therapeutic reverence for nature that he had internalized gave Josh resilience and fortitude. Still, he is only a boy.

As Steve becomes more and more erratic and cruel, Sam becomes more and more committed to rebuilding his relationship with Josh. However, Steve’s overpowering jealousy cuts off communication between father and son.  Ultimately, Sam’s questioning of Jess about “what’s wrong” and Steve’s creation of a police state within the home (he cancels Jess’s credit cards and takes away her car keys) drive Jess closer and closer to taking a stand and tearing down the web of lies she has spun to hide the truth about how she and her children live under Steve’s tyranny. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the January 2, 2013 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the Naples edition for January 3, and the Palm Beach Gardens / Jupiter edition for January 17, click here Florida Weekly – Lauer 1 and here Florida Weekly – Lauer 2

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An impassioned debut novel about the Nazi campaign against “degenerate art”

Fugitive Colors, by Lisa Barr. GIRLilla Warfare Press. 398 pages. $12.95 trade paperback.

Mixing romance and horror, history and imagination, high art and double-dealing artifice, Lisa Barr has fashioned a dynamic page-turner of young artists caught up in the Nazis rise to power and their leaders attempted control over the definition, sanctioning, and purposes of art.

We first meet Yakov Klein as a young child, then as a rebellious teenager in an Orthodox Chicago family. Chaffing at the restraints that surround him, Yakov feels compelled to replace his traditional Judaism with the religion of art. Learning about art and becoming an artist drive him to abandon his roots and strike out on his own, first in New York, and later in Paris. FugitiveColors_FRONTCover

As Julian Klein, he sets aside his opportunity to attend a reputable Paris art school to team up with his new, adventurous friends and learn from their master teacher. The bonds between Felix, Rene, Julian grow powerful, as they spur each other on to finding their true styles and subjects. Their degree of mutual support is frequently compromised by their extreme competitiveness. And they compete not only for artistic supremacy but for the beautiful young women, fellow artist Adrienne and unscrupulous model Charlotte, who are part of their circle.

The competition is primarily between the enormously talented Rene and the ambitious but mediocre Felix. Rene’s success embitters Felix, though he keeps up the semblance of friendship. Julian tends to be the peacemaker, a satellite figure who needs more time to find his own direction.

Their personal stories, romances, and dizzying artistic enterprise become more and more folded into the story of Hitler’s rise and its effects on the world of European art. Just as Nazi policy will include an ethnic cleansing of non-Aryan populations, most notably Jews, it will also include a cultural cleansing of what it considers depraved art. Guess what? It considers all of the revolutionary schools of art developed in the early 20th century to be decadent and thus a threat to the Uber Race.  lisa_Barr-headshot

Julian, Rene, and other fight to save the art, the artists, and the gallery owners (Rene’s father prominent among them) who create or foster the iconoclastic modern and contemporary masters. Felix, by now, has returned to his German roots and taken on a major role in the Nazi project.

The Nazi plan is to steal or otherwise confiscate the decadent artworks and sell them at top prices to help fill the Nazi coffers. Julian becomes involved as a sort of spy, and both he and Rene end up severely beaten and imprisoned in Dachau for their attempts to thwart the Nazi plan. It seems almost incidental that Julian, Rene, and Adrienne are Jewish, for Ms. Barr’s emphasis suggests that the art issue is looming much larger than the ethnic issue at this time (early and mid 1930s).

Lisa Barr’s own literary brushstrokes carry all the colors of passion. As she builds her characters, sets her scenes, and considers the power of art and artistic genius, she paints a very rich canvas. Her descriptions of artworks and of artists at work are dazzling, evoking the longings, fears, manias, and even the hatreds released in the kaleidoscope of colors and shapes. There is a lushness of descriptive imagery that is intoxicating, though it is sometimes overdone.

Fugitive Colors is, in part, a celebration of youth, self-discovery, loyalty, and infatuation. Julian is over and over again acting against his best interest in his subordination to Rene’s needs, enthusiasm, and plans of action. As an intermediary between Rene and Felix, he walks a careful and dangerous line. His relationships with Adrienne and Charlotte are part of a complex puzzle of shifting erotic patterns.

It is ironic that a novel so concerned with celebrating the joy of art and artistic sensibility is also a novel that explores the murderous ends of ambition and jealousy, both on the individual and the collective scale. Extreme passion seems to obey no laws but its own.

Fugitive Colors has a cinematic feel. I can’t keep from trying to cast the parts for a blockbuster film based on this novel. Such qualities have already been recognized: the manuscript won first prize at the Hollywood Film Festival for “Best Unpublished Manuscript.” Read it and you’ll see what I mean.

This review appears in the January 2013 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier Count, FL), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

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