Tag Archives: environment

Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye

The Big Finish, by James W. Hall. Minotaur Books. 304 pages. Hardcover $25.99.

The cover flap announces that this book is the series finale, but I can’t believe it. It’s hard to say goodbye to an old friend. James W. Hall’s Thorn novels have long been such a central, exemplary, and yet distinctive part of the Florida mystery tradition that many readers will be going through separation anxiety. Mr. Hall, please say it isn’t so.  BigFinish,The

The current of ecological concerns that has gained strength over the series reaches flood stage in “The Big Finish,” the title perhaps a spoof on expectations in life and art. Thorn’s son, Flynn Moss, whom he and the readers have only recently met, is in trouble. Flynn – or someone – has reached out to Thorn about criminal practices in the North Carolina pig farming industry.

Thorn’s son, a member of the underground environmental activist organization known as ELF, has been working to expose and destroy a major player in this industry. At least four kinds of evil are running wild in this remote town. One is the exploitation of workers through intimidation. Another is the cruelty to the piglets crowded together and pumped up for sale to slaughterhouses. Yet another is incredible pollution from mismanagement of the toxic waste from the pigs.

Finally, there is the secretive nurturing of a plant with “downward hanging trumpet-shaped blooms” from which a dangerous drug is produced.  Some of Dobbins’ workers “had tragically succumbed to an overdose of the trumpet flower’s pollen. Losing a well-trained man was always a setback, but it was the unlucky cost of doing the kind of business he was engaged in.” Such is the moral code of Webb Dobbins. This drug business is supporting the hog farm, which is staggering under enormous debts.

Thorn sets out with a plan to partner with his old detective buddy Sugarman, but from the beginning the mission is compromised by a scheming, unstable former FBI agent, Madeline Cruz. This woman has her own plans and motives and is manipulating Thorn, understanding his need to rescue his son at all costs. She is suspicious of Sugarman’s new girlfriend, Tina, who is along on the ride to North Carolina. Cruz suspects Tina of criminal activity.

James W. Hall

James W. Hall

So, Thorn’s mission has grown far more complicated and desperate. He perceives the trouble signs, but feels he has to play this game out in order to find Flynn. Cruz admits (or perhaps lies once more) that the plan is to use Thorn as bait to draw out suspects in a big government operation.

Other characters provide further complications.

X-88 is a rock of a man who served at Railford in the same cell block with Manny Obrero, a drug dealer who had been Madeline Cruz’s husband. Manny has connected X-88 to Madeline, so X is now part of her enterprise and enjoying the company of her daughter, Pixie. Am I going too fast? Here’s more: X-88 murders Sugarman’s deceitful girlfriend Tina by forcing three hamburger patties down her throat to suffocate her.

Murder by force feeding. Something like how they fatten pigs. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the January 21, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the January 22 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Big Finish

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Invite the essential Florida into your life before it’s gone

“Bitten: My Unexpected Love Affair with Florida,” by Andrew Furman. University Press of Florida. 192 pages. $24.95.

Florida is blessed with writers devoted to its natural splendors and to exploring the relationship between human endeavor, the environment all creatures share, and the severely threatened nonhuman creatures. I’ve had the privilege over the years to read and write about such passionate and skilled guides as Bill Belleville, Doug Alderson, and Jeff Klinkenberg. Andrew Furman, a professor of literature and creative writing at Florida Atlantic University, joins this company with his totally engaging collection of short essays about his seventeen year journey towards a deep understanding of the place he has chosen to make his home.  Bitten_cover

This place is not the Boca Raton with which most of us are familiar.

Prof. Furman’s quest was a search for understanding and belonging. He sought to remove the distance between the patterns of his daily life – the routines of suburbia and academe – and the coexistent but largely unnoticed patterns of wildlife and plant life. Over the course of many years, the accumulation of observations and knowledge took on, more and more, a spiritual dimension.

With the exception of an extended meditation on squirrels, the essays mostly concern fish, birds, and trees. The author’s amateur “field work” is accompanied by a great deal of reading and by interaction with those who share his developing passion. He finds that it takes determination – even hard work – to  make the time and effort. Energy and hours need be stolen from set responsibilities and ingrained habits. That’s where family comes in.

One of the several charms of this inspiring book is how Andrew Furman and his wife, Wendy, involve their children in this experiment. Child-rearing is enhanced by the ways in which the author shapes his children’s informal education through shared experiences of nature. A redirected use of family time deepens relationships.



The essays reveal Prof. Furman’s keen descriptive skills. He can pin down not only what we need to know, but also what we need to see in order to value the importance – the essential distinction and dignity – of the live oak, the Geiger tree, and the coontie plant. Each essay includes the author in the act of seeking and discovering. Exposition, description, and narration interact with grace and power.

This slim book includes beautifully fashioned fishing essays; gardening essays; detailed appreciations of burrowing owls, painted bunting, the ivory-billed woodpecker, the snail kite; and many essays of moral import.

Andrew Furman and his family are fighting against time, indifference, poor resource management decisions, and the seemingly inevitable consequences of paving paradise. People still don’t get it: remove a grove of trees and you remove the birds that nest only in that particular kind of tree. Every action we take in our shared environment has expected and unexpected consequences. Endangered species? What isn’t? . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the July 10, 2014 Naples Florida Weekly, the Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte edition, and the July 16 Fort Myers edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Furman

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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: https://philjason.wordpress.com/2007/04/25/book-beat-41-three-best-bets/

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BOOK BEAT 41 – Three Best Bets

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   April 25-May 1, 2007

by Philip K. Jason

What does a book columnist do for pleasure? Why, read books of course. Over the last several months I’ve had the good fortune to enjoy several top-notch books on a variety of subjects. Below, in no particular order, are three “Best Bets” for your enjoyment and illumination.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million (Harper Collins) is a widely acclaimed narrative about the author’s quest to discover the fate of six relatives from the small Ukranian town where his maternal grandfather’s family had flourished for generations. There had been mostly silence in the author’s youth about his uncle, Shmiel Jaeger (the grandfather’s brother), whom he was said to resemble. And there was a great mystery about exactly how Shmeil, his wife, and four daughters died. Daniel Mendelsohn became committed to finding the answers and telling the story. His journey takes him not only to the town (called Bolechow by its Polish-Jewish residents) and its neighboring communities, but also to Israel, Sweden, and Australia. In these far-flung places, Bolechow exiles, survivors of the Holocaust, hold the bits and pieces of information that Mendelsohn seeks.

The narrative is effective in combining factual and emotional detective work. Mendelsohn’s style is majestic, especially when meditating on the meaning of discovered fragments of fact and when describing the places that he visits. What he has to describe is not very pleasant: the unspeakable horrors that the Jews of this small town had to face, the complicity of neighbors who were thought to be friends, the tortured memories of those from whom the sought information is – sooner or later – revealed. Another aspect of Mendelsohn’s style, self-consciously developed, involves a shuttling back and forth in time and often moving by association rather than chronology. In this way, he reproduces how the searching mind operates in the process of discovery.

A unique aspect of this book is Mendelsohn’s interlaced series of meditations on the famous stories in the book of Genesis. Sometimes interesting in themselves, these sections do not illuminate the moral dimensions of the Holocaust material, as Mendelsohn no doubt intends. But on the whole, this is a powerful achievement, its focus and particularity still allowing it to serve as a microcosm of the larger Holocaust catastrophe. The urgency of Mendelsohn’s quest cannot be missed. There are fewer and fewer people left to answer the questions of life and death during the Holocaust and to breathe life back into vanished communities.


When I saw the title of Robert Stone’s new book, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties (Ecco), I knew I had to read it. Why? First of all, Stone is one of my favorite writers. Of his seven novels, four rank high on my contemporary American fiction list. These are Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise, Outerbridge Reach, and Damascus Gate. The other reason is that I’ve become a sixties junky awaiting the energy flow that will bring forth my own memoir of that exciting decade. Maybe reading Stone’s book will help.

Indeed, the maps of our lives during those years had some places in common, Greenwich Village and environs being the most important. Also, we were both aspiring writers, though Stone – about five years my senior – had turned the aspiration to solid reality by the decade’s end.

Like Mendelsohn’s, Stone’s descriptions of places are superb. Not only are locales rendered with sensory power, but perhaps more importantly, Stone captures the nuances of the kaleidoscopic cultural environment. We visit New Orleans, Mexico, California, New York, Vietnam, and London – following Stone in his pursuit of his craft and his themes. Too often, unfortunately, we must tolerate the drug culture that he recalls with dangerous authenticity. This is the downside of the creative stew simmering through those years, somehow making the creative volcano possible.

We follow Stone’s relationships with individuals like Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady, already cultural icons when Stone entered their orbit. We see Stone take on Grub Street jobs to make a subsistence living as a writer while pushing his first novel, Hall of Mirrors, along. We encounter him as a young husband and parent, balancing the needs and responsibilities of art and life. We re-enter the maelstrom of attitudes that swirled around the Vietnam War.

In the end, the book leaves a taste of betrayal and disillusionment. Stone writes, “Life had given Americans so much by the mid-sixties that we were all a little drunk on possibility. Things were speeding out of control before we could define them. Those of us who cared most deeply about the changes, those who gave their lives to them, were, I think, the most deceived.” The rest of this paragraph (on p. 161 of the book) stands as a marvelous encapsulation and assessment of the times.


Bill Belleville’s Losing It All to Sprawl: How Progress Ate My Cracker Landscape (University Press of Florida) is also a book most notable for its author’s descriptive power. This searingly beautiful work, at once plea and elegy, confronts what we have sacrificed for residential-commercial development and short-term convenience. It is at once a teaching text in which we learn about the ecosystem that we have so thoughtlessly and rapaciously undermined and a personal story of one individual’s confrontation with loss.

Belleville is unabashedly emotional, as well as logical, in his response to the sprawl that threatens to turn Florida into a desert. His sojourns in the remaining protected areas in and around Seminole County are pilgrimages to holy places. They are also journeys back in time to a unique and glorious landscape and a spontaneous unfolding process of renewal and adaptation. Belleville literally worships unspoiled nature, and he shares his reading of what it reveals much like a priest exploring scripture.

Bill Belleville teaches us to appreciate the integrity with which Cracker architecture raised domiciles whose design did not attack the hot and swampy environment, but rather took advantage of it by working with it. He patiently explains the price of progress, how the paving over of our state not only creates unmanageable runoff of poisons but also undermines the delicate balance of rain, natural water storage, and natural water flow that allows this peninsula to exist. Dry wells, sinkholes, and impoverished flora and fauna are consequences of greed and irresponsibility. And much worse is to come.

In the final stages of the book, Belleville describes the damage wrought by hurricanes to the Sanford area he has come to love. But such natural forces are nowhere near as destructive, both spiritually and materially, as the proliferation of asphalt and the countless temples to vapid consumerism that violate a once-glorious wilderness.

Losing It All to Sprawl is a mighty and moving achievement, a telling antidote to the pro-growth boosterism that shapes the decisions of all too many private and public leaders.

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