Ah, Florida. What a luxury this year that, for a change, we can think of "Florida" and "electoral votes" together with books, not chads, in mind. But whatever map we're talking about, Florida is a big state, and I'm very glad we were able to bring in a local expert to make our initial delegate selections for us. If you've been reading book blogs for any amount of time, you know Maud Newton. Along with Jessa Crispin and Mark Sarvas and George Murray and Edward Champion and many others, she was one of the pioneers and remains one of the presiding spirits of the books blogosphere--I first came across Maud Newton.com what seems like decades but must only have been a few years ago, and even though she has sensibly slowed her posting down to a few times a week now, it's still one of the addresses I visit most often. She has great reading taste and superbly sharp opinions and manages the trick of opening up her blog to other voices while keeping its strong personal character.
And she's from Florida. She grew up in Miami and then went up to Gainesville for that familiar two-fer: a writing and a law degree. The writing won out: she's now a former tax attorney, living, editing, and writing (like everyone) in Brooklyn. And I hope before long I'll be able to link to a book of hers on Amazon--I'm told there's a novel-in-progress, with an excerpt coming out in Narrative this winter. She was gracious enough to take on one of the largest states in the land (for which I am very thankful--I'm no dummy: Texas and California are coming up too in the next week and I've marshaled some expert help there too), and here are her 27 nominees for our Sunshine State shelf:
- The Hoke Moseley novels by Charles Willeford. Before the restoration of South Beach, before Carl Hiassen became a household name, before my hometown was even particularly notorious for violent crime, Charles Willeford published Miami Blues, a book with all the urgency and dark humor you'd expect from an author who refused to take a leak in the morning until he'd written a page. A sociopath fresh out of prison disembarks from his plane at Miami International and breaks a proselytizing Hare Krishna's finger, causing the man to go into shock and die. The down-and-out cop assigned to the case is Hoke Moseley, whose investigations--and tribulations--fill three more novels and set of Miami crime fiction. "Miami was the perfect place for Charles to live," Willeford's third wife said in 2000, twelve years after his death. "When I see a headline like 'DEAD BODIES IN CAR CAUSE RUBBERNECKING DELAY,' I really miss him." If this first Moseley book whets your appetite, you're in luck--the others have all been reissued in the last few years, and are worth picking up: New Hope for the Dead, Sideswipe, and The Way We Die Now.
- Their Eyes Were Watching God and Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Huston. Criticized by Richard Wright and other male civil rights leaders of Hurston's day as a cartoon of black culture designed to amuse and aggrandize white readers, the classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is narrated by a thrice-married woman who becomes the subject of malicious speculation when she returns alone to Eatonville, Florida, the all-black town where she met and married her last, much-younger husband. Historians and literary critics alike now acknowledge that the book captures the speech of small-town southern African Americans of Hurston's day with a precision only a trained folklorist like herself could achieve. In Dust Tracks on a Road--a memoir--Hurston knocks ten years off her age and relocates her place of birth from Notasulga, Alabama, to Eatonville, the Florida town she moved to as a child and later fictionalized. Yet her life, unlike those of so many disgraced memoirists now, is so remarkable that knowing a little rewriting of history occurred doesn't make the book or the author any less fascinating.
- Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas. Prosecuted and imprisoned as a homosexual counterrevolutionary by the Castro regime for which he had once fought, gay activist and writer Reinaldo Arenas escaped Cuba for Miami in the Mariel Boatlift. The unapologetically fey and promiscuous author, although glad to be free, found the transition to South Florida difficult because of the machismo that he said pervaded the Cuban community. "If Cuba is Hell, Miami is Purgatory," he took to saying. This harrowing memoir recalls his journey from an impoverished rural childhood to New York City, where, suffering with AIDS, he committed suicide in 1990.
- Brother I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat. Danticat's memoir focuses on her father and his brother, pastor Joseph Dantica, the latter of whom fled violence in Haiti for the safety of Miami, only to die in Homeland Security custody after his tourist visa was disregarded and his medication seized. The loss is incredibly wrenching for Danticat, who lived with her uncle for eight years of her childhood -- after her parents moved to the U.S. but before she joined them -- and considered him a second father. But this very personal story resonates beyond Danticat's own experience, providing a counterpoint to the stories of Cuban refugees like Arenas, who typically are allowed to stay in the U.S. if intercepted on American soil, while Haitian refugees tend to be detained and shipped back.
- The Knockout Artist, A Feast of Snakes, and A Childhood: The Biography of a Place by Harry Crews. Finally inducted into the Florida Hall of Fame this year, Harry Crews has spent much of his life evoking the rural south in his writing. While often accused of trading in grotesques and caricatures, the Georgia-born author portrays the travails and prejudices of the poor white Southerners of decades past with a singular passion, momentum, and candor. As Flannery O'Connor once observed, "[A]nything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic." In The Knockout Artist, a would-be boxing champ is dropped by his agent when he loses a fight due to a weak chin. After a working handful of odd jobs, he makes money by putting on a very specialized freak show: he knocks himself out in front of crowds. A Feast of Snakes is a violent, deeply disturbing, and often darkly funny novel set in a Georgia town on the eve of the only exciting thing that ever happens there, the annual Rattlesnake Roundup. But Crew's best book is probably his autobiography, A Childhood, which editor Gerald Howard has called "one of the great American books. Is there a scene in our literature more poignant than when young Harry heads into the outhouse to take care of his business and gazes in wonder upon the Sears Catalog, which featured pictures of people who, unlike his neighbors in Georgia's red clay country, were all intact, neither heavily scarred nor missing any body parts?" (I took Crews' undergraduate fiction writing class at the University of Florida. For some vintage Crews, see his 1992 appearance on Dennis Miller.)
- The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean. In Miami, you quickly become aware that the imposed order is precarious. Illegal schemes and hucksters abound. Violence breaks out in traffic. Even the Avon lady has an angle. The natural world, too, is tangled and chaotic, always threatening to encroach. Tree roots wreck buildings; storms transform roof tiles into terra cotta grenades; parking lots flood so rapidly that you can exit a movie and find your car submerged like a rhinoceros. In her book about the charismatic, lawbreaking, and monumentally self-absorbed orchid collector John Laroche, Susan Orlean captures the wildness and energy of the place and its people with the detachment of an outsider--which she is--but the heart of a local.
- Killing Mr. Watson, Lost Man's River, and Bone by Bone, and/or Shadow Country, by Peter Matthiessen. Matthiessen fictionalizes real-life 19th-century sugarcane farmer Edgar J. Watson, whose brutality is the stuff of legend in Southwest Florida. It's hard to know whether to recommend the gruesome and engrossing trilogy, or the equally engrossing but heavily revised Shadow Country, which distills all three novels into one much shorter book, as the author originally intended the story to be published. My first exposure was to the trilogy, which I loved, but Shadow Country is a tremendous achievement--the ultimate Florida Cracker novel. In the NYRB, Michael Dirda described the book as "altogether gripping, shocking, and brilliantly told, not just a tour de force in its stylistic range, but a great American novel, as powerful a reading experience as nearly any in our literature. This magnificent, sad masterpiece about race, history, and defeated dreams can easily stand comparison with Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men.... In every way, Shadow Country is a bravura performance, at once history, fiction, and myth–as well as the capstone to the career of one of the most admired and admirable writers of our time."
- Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia. This engaging, although fragmented and sometimes distractingly poetic, novel centers on three generations of women who have completely different perspectives on the revolution. Along with Oscar Hijuelos (The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love), Garcia has been a major influence on the younger generation of Cuban writers, including Ana Menendez. The book is set partly in Miami, where Garcia was briefly a journalist.
- Typical, Edisto, and A Woman Named Drown by Padgett Powell. Another former U.F. professor of mine, Powell is a virtuoso stylist and master of comic timing whose fiction has become more stripped-down, arguably even constricted, over the years, but originally had an emotional expansiveness that belied its economy. Edisto, the author's coming-of-age novel, was universally acclaimed, but his next, the equally fresh A Woman Named Drown--a horny and wayward college drop-out's wide-ranging "lab notes of life"--was universally but inexplicably dismissed as a failed sophomore effort. Typical is a strange and remarkable beast, a collection of short stories and vignettes that includes my favorite Powell offering, "The Winnowing of Mrs. Schuping," a short story about a semi-agoraphobic middle-aged woman who strikes up an affair with the local sheriff just as she might be losing it.
- A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler. Vietnam vet and former taxi driver, steel worker, and substitute teacher Robert Olen Butler won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1993 for this collection of stories narrated by Vietnamese immigrants living in Louisiana. He teaches at Florida State University alongside other notable writers like Janet Burroway (best known for her widely-used Writing Fiction), Elizabeth Stuckey-French (The First Paper Girl in Red Oak), Virgil Suarez (Iguana Dreams), and Julianna Baggott (Which Brings Me to You).
- Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris. The best known of the many talented young writers--including The New Yorker's Ben Greenman (Superworse) and Karen Russell (St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised By Wolves)--who have emerged from South Florida in recent years, Ferris published his perceptive and often hilarious first novel about the intricacies of office life and human interaction less than two years ago and already has a legion of fans eagerly awaiting the next book.
- A Better Angel, Chris Adrian. Chris Adrian, a former University of Florida classmate, realizes his immense potential in the best pieces in this collection. In one harrowing story (that would make a great movie), a man's son, Carl, is either possessed by a furious horde of demons or exacting revenge on his father for the events of September 11, 2001, and his mother's disappearance. The boy issues punishing indictments in a strange, multilayered voice, and returns to his angelic, boyish self only when the man slams his fingers in drawers. "What do you want?" the father asks. "You know it," the voices say from Carl's mouth. "Every day we tell you. Justice. Satisfaction. Vengeance." The penance required by the demons--or by Carl--only escalates.
- The Task of This Translator, Todd Hasak-Lowy. U.F. Hebrew literature professor Hasak-Lowy borrows the footnoting and narrative second-guessing from David Foster Wallace and Nicholson Baker but his work is steeped in a unique kind of empathy. In the standout story of this collection, "Will Power, Inc.," an alienated pothead journalist sets out to investigate a company that rents bodyguards to prevent wealthy clients from overeating, and ends up test-driving the services himself. I've yet to read the author's first novel, Captives, which was just published last month.
- Miami by Joan Didion. Hands-down the best book on 1980s Miami politics, Didion's Miami investigates el exilio, the powerful Cuban exile community, and traces its emergence from the Bay of Pigs, through Mariel and the Overtown riots, to the end of the Reagan era. With her usual candor, rolling sentences, and appreciation for the absurd, Didion captures the outrageousness of that time and place.
- Memoir by Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda. The oldest (written) Floridian story I know is also one of the strangest. In his brief 1575 memoir, Spaniard Hernando de Escalante Fonteneda tells of being shipwrecked on the Florida coast in his early teens. Native Americans rescued the crew and passengers and took them captive, ultimately killing all but Fonteneda for failing to respond to commands to dance and sing. Fonteneda's book popularized the notion that Florida explorer Ponce de León became obsessed with finding the fountain of youth.
- See all of our state posts
- Read our introduction to The Books of the States: 50 States, 538 Books
- Read our interview with State by State editors Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey