Florida takes its hits, from late-night TV jokes to, now, even a ranking as the worst state in the nation for a “staggeringly impressive” “awfulness resume,” according to the website Thrillist.
But for all the Flori-duh jokes (that we make, too, but we live here so it’s OK), this is an astonishingly large, diverse, beautiful, interesting and yeah, sometimes staggeringly awful place — and it has produced some remarkable works of literature.
We asked three writers who really know from Florida for their favorite Florida reads. Share yours with us or tell us what you’re reading — even if you’re not in Florida! — by tweeting us @WLRN.
Jeff Klinkenberg, retired Tampa Bay Times journalist, author of “Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators”
About a decade ago, I put together a list of about a dozen books I thought all Floridians should have on their shelves. I took that list on the road to about a dozen cities on behalf of the Florida Humanities Council.
After I shared my list, I always asked audience members about their own favorite Florida books. One kept coming up. “The Lion’s Paw,” written for young people by Robb White in 1946. I had never heard of it. Someone lent me a copy. It was a wonderful story about East Florida orphans who ran away because they thought they might be separated. They meet a slightly older boy who had kidnapped his uncle’s sailboat, “The Lion’s Paw,’’ because his uncle has threatened to sell it. Anyway, these three young protagonists have themselves quite an adventure, eventually sailing across the Okeechobee waterway and ending up at Sanibel.
After I read the borrowed copy, and wiped away the tears, I went looking for my own copy. It was out of print, but available on used-book sites for hundreds of dollars that I couldn’t afford. About a year later, it came back into print and I wrote a column about it for my newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times.
“The Lion’s Paw,’’ it turned out, was loved by generations of readers. Gray-haired people remembered their teachers reading them this book in elementary school. Some of those kids ended up as teachers themselves and read the book to their pupils. It continues to be read today. Anyway, it’s a wonderful read, and I recommend it for not only young people but adults.
The column I wrote about “The Lion’s Paw” will be in my upcoming collection of essays, “Son of Real Florida,’’ out in April 2018.
Craig Pittman, Tampa Bay Times journalist, author of “Oh, Florida!”
"Condominium" by John D. MacDonald
This classic from a master storyteller peels back the glittering surface of modern Florida to show all the cupidity and stupidity that goes into building where we shouldn't build — and the consequences that can follow.
"Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston
A tender love story and a tale of female empowerment that also features the scariest hurricane scene ever written.
"Up for Grabs: A Trip Through Space and Time in the Sunshine State" by John Rothchild
This was the first nonfiction book I ever read that explores how Florida is constantly subverting our expectations. Plus it's a lot of fun.
"LaBrava" by Elmore Leonard
Leonard began visiting Florida on a regular basis in the 1950s, even buying his mom a Deerfield Beach motel, so he got to know the place well. This quirky crime novel takes in the sweep of Florida history and how illusion is a constant theme in both love and life.
"Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S." by Cynthia Barnett
There is no more important topic in Florida than water, and no Florida writer has written a more compelling book on the topic than Cynthia Barnett.
Diane Roberts, Florida State University creative writing professor, author of “Dream State”
I have a lot of favorite Florida books and could not possibly choose just one, but here are my top picks — in no particular order!
"Team Rodent" by Carl Hiaasen. Yes, his novels are hilarious and perfectly accurate representations of Florida's terminal messed-upness. But this look at how Disney colonized Central Florida — and on the cheap, too — will make you boycott the Mouse and all his evil plastic works. Happiest place on earth, my ass.
"Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston.
Beautiful novel about a woman surviving bad men, bad hurricanes and the legacy of slavery to preach her own life. Hurston is one of Florida's greatest writers —and America's, too.
"The Other Florida" by Gloria Jahoda. Y'all think Florida is "new;" y'all think Florida is not part of the South? Hah. Check out this account (by a Northern lady who found herself in Tallahassee) of root doctors, May Queens, descendants of Thomas Jefferson and civil rights activists in the town most Floridians associate only with our dysfunctional government.
"Annihilation" by Jeff VanderMeer. This is a brilliant novel (first of a trilogy), sharp, inventive and scary as hell. A group of four scientists journeys to the mysterious Area X, (corresponding roughly to the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge on the northern Gulf coast) to discover the fate of all the expeditions that never returned. An animal moans every night in the woods near them; they see strange lights; they find enigmatic documents in an old lighthouse and discover an underground tower with a strange, unfinished message written in organic material. Nature is angry. Very, very angry.
"Oh, Florida!" by Craig Pittman. An astute Tampa Bay Times reporter and Florida native explores how and why the state is so damn weird.