Hello voracious readers! Long time lurker, first time blogger here. I’m really excited to e-meet you all. To start off our conversations together, I thought I would introduce you to me through my favorite books about my home state: Florida! You may find my suggestions leaning toward the surprising, the disturbing and the tragic.
However, to me, none of the books are really far–fetched at all.
They’re just very Florida.
1. Swamplandia!, by Karen Russel
Only Karen Russell could write a novel with such a surreal premise – a young girl trying to save her family and their alligator-wrestling park from ghosts, grief, and poverty – that is so authentically Florida that you totally believe her. Only a superbly written book like this one can be bizarre and heartbreaking in the same passage.
Like her short stories [add links], this book is certainly a peculiar tale and not as lighthearted as the premise and exclamation mark make it seem to be (ask Whitney). However, if you enjoy the believably eccentric books of John Irving and his (remarkable / terrible) obsession with bears or other books with the light touch of magical realism, you’ll love Russell’s tale of the BigTree family and their travails while gator wraslin’, theme park cleaning, and ghost hunting. To me, the exclamation in Swamplandia!’s title is certainly warranted.
2. Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen
3. Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen
4. Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen
Even prolific and well-know Florida-chronicler Carl Hiassen still has difficulty capturing the state’s unique spirit. In fact, he cautions readers that “the Florida in my novels is not as seedy as the real Florida. “It’s hard to stay ahead of the curve,” he adds. “Every time I write a scene that I think is the sickest thing I have ever dreamed up, it is surpassed by something that happens in real life.”
I think Hiassan is too tough on himself.
A failed murder attempt by an illegally polluting agribusinessman (Skinny Dip).
An Everglades tour guide plots to give a scheming, immoral telemarketing scam artist his comeuppance (Nature Girl).
A fired-cop-turned-restaurant-inspector tries to solve a wealthy Medicare fraudsters murder to get back on the squad (Bad Monkey).
All are still deliciously seedy and wacky. And, thus, very Florida. Naysayers will say that his books are formulaic. I say, f* that – his books are excellent beach reads. And, thus doubly great Florida books. And now, where to start? I started with Skinny Dip and then read Nature Girl and his most recent novel, Bad Monkey. No regrets on having Hiassan take up three spots on the top 10; it was very tough not to give him more!
5. Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King
Thank goodness that Gilbert King wrote “Devil in the Grove” and then won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. Otherwise, I, a history major and an inadvertent Floridian, wouldn’t know anything about the significant and tragic Groveland case. The book is incredibly suspenseful and keeps a fast narrative pace without sacrificing any historical detail. King weaves two relatively unknown true stories: 1) the story of the Groveland aka “Little Scottsboro” trial in 1949 where four young black men wrongfully were accused of rape and repeatedly abused during the investigation; 2) the remarkable story of Thurgood Marshall (Supreme Court Justice and lawyer of Brown v. Board of Education) and his professional rise within the NAACP and his home life in Harlem.
One warning (but please still read it!): King’s descriptions of Southern violence haunted me, literally. While I was reading it, instead of having the typical anxiety dreams of my teeth falling out, my nightmares were all of lynchings.
6. The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
Novel fans, don’t let all the non-fiction in my post scare you away. This book taught me more than Seminole County School District about the history and place of the Seminole Native American tribe and the original Florida real estate scam (Gulf American Land Corporation then / the Amish now). But more importantly, it was fun. Like Carl Hiassen, Orlean truly embraces the unique brand of crazy permeates the Florida air stronger than humidity. While the fandom and obsession is not as nearly as unusual to hear about in popular culture as it was when this book became a New York Times Bestseller (see Austyn’s review of the Janeites), The Orchid Thief is still an enticing window into the world of flower fanatics and the state of Florida. Her embrace of Florida’s perpetual ability to surprise, her mastery of the apt description, and her journalistic narration throughout the book makes the book as lively and engaging to read as a novel, even when she delves into the depths of horticultural history.
7. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Like many Floridians, I first read Their Eyes Were Watching God in high school. Even as a Southerner, the dialect was challenging initially. And, as an avid and speedy reader, this book is vivid in my memory as one of the first books that was not an “easy” read. However, as I persisted, I realized the story of Janie and her journey of self-discovery as a young, black women in early 20th century Florida could not be told without the dialect. Together with her poetic prose, the beauty of Zora Neale Hurston’s voice as a writer taught me about the value of a writer’s authentic voice and deepened my appreciation how continued immersion into an unfamiliar world can be a powerful reward. Set during roughly the same time period as Devil in the Grove, but during the founding of the real-life all-black town of Etonville, these two books pair quite well.
8. Birds of Paradise by Diana Abu-Jaber
Set during property boom in Miami, Florida and its suburbs, Diana Abu-Jaber’s Birds of Paradise could be described as suburban family drama, but that does it a disservice. This is a novel that you read more for the writing than the plot. The pace here is slow, but that’s all the better to appreciate her prose. While Miami is a vastly different city than Orlando, her vivid description ring true to me, particularly the cruel, stifling, and occasionally beautiful society of tropical suburbia and their painful and hopeful striving for the nouveau riche Floridian McMansion lifestyle. Also, the way she writes about food is drop-dead gorgeous, specifically the pastries. She creates complex and believable characters — who are not always “likeable — but still you’re relieved when the bad things they’re running toward at breakneck speed don’t hit them.
9. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
This might be a bit generous to say that this is a “Florida” book simply because one of main characters grew up in Florida — but this is one of my favorite books that I have read in the past year. Its popularity and enthusiastic reviews are well deserved. Fates and Furies has gorgeous, intricate, and unexpected prose. Each sentence and paragraph is a joy and a surprise to read. Obviously, the Janus-face of unreliable narrators (first the husband’s tale of their relationship and then the wife’s account) lends itself well to big twists that deserve big, bold spoiler alert warnings. There’s certainly one of those — and it took me by surprise — but to me, I mostly found myself sucked into the novel like an undertow. I didn’t even realized how absorbed I was until I was in so thoroughly deep that finishing the book in one sitting was inevitable.
10. Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach
Rocket scientists also live in Florida and need their books, too. Thank god for Mary Roach. In terms of narrative structure and her well-developed and wry sense of humor, Roach and her books are like the Sarah Vowell of the present. Packing for Mars is a breezy and well-researched book on the research and efforts that go into putting and keeping people in space. If you are the least bit curious about space travel, this is a fun way to learn. Like the best kind of nonfiction, Packing for Mars causes you to battle two powerful and sometimes contradictory urges while reading. You first want to continue to devour the book in one sitting like it’s intellectual oxygen. It’s as addicting as falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, but it’s better because you have Roach the engaging narrator as your tour guide, interpreter, and teacher. Then, you want to run and grab the person closest to you and tell them all the unbelievable things you’ve just learned. You just need to watch someone look as amazed as you feel inside.