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Books Set in Florida

I’m holidaying in and off Florida later this year, and when turning my mind to literature which I’d read with a Floridian setting, I could come up with very little.  I thought, therefore, that I would make a list of ten books of interest to me, and hopefully then motivate myself to read a large chunk of them before and during my holiday.  I can’t promise that I’ll get to all of these, but I’m going to try!

1. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell 8584686
The Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty is in decline–think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades–and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, is swiftly being encroached upon by a sophisticated competitor known as the “World of Darkness.”  Ava, a resourceful but terrified twelve-year-old, must manage seventy gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief. Her mother, Swamplandia!’s legendary headliner, has just died; her sister is having an affair with a ghost called the Dredgeman; her brother has secretly defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their sinking family afloat; and her father, Chief Bigtree, is AWOL. To save her family, Ava must journey on her own to a perilous part of the swamp called the “Underworld,” a harrowing odyssey from which she emerges a true heroine.

 

2. Tangerine by Edward Bloor
89755Paul Fisher sees the world from behind glasses so thick he looks like a bug-eyed alien. But he’s not so blind that he can’t see there are some very unusual things about his family’s new home in Tangerine County, Florida. Where else does a sinkhole swallow the local school, fire burn underground for years, and lightning strike at the same time every day?The chaos is compounded by constant harassment from his football–star brother, and adjusting to life in Tangerine isn’t easy for Paul—until he joins the soccer team at his middle school. With the help of his new teammates, Paul begins to discover what lies beneath the surface of his strange new hometown. And he also gains the courage to face up to some secrets his family has been keeping from him for far too long. In Tangerine, it seems, anything is possible.;

 

3. The Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
When Fat Charlie’s dad named something, it stuck. Like calling Fat Charlie “Fat Charlie.” 373951Even now, twenty years later, Charlie Nancy can’t shake that name, one of the many embarrassing “gifts” his father bestowed — before he dropped dead on a karaoke stage and ruined Fat Charlie’s life.  Mr. Nancy left Fat Charlie things. Things like the tall, good-looking stranger who appears on Charlie’s doorstep, who appears to be the brother he never knew. A brother as different from Charlie as night is from day, a brother who’s going to show Charlie how to lighten up and have a little fun … just like Dear Old Dad. And all of a sudden, life starts getting very interesting for Fat Charlie.  Because, you see, Charlie’s dad wasn’t just any dad. He was Anansi, a trickster god, the spider-god. Anansi is the spirit of rebellion, able to overturn the social order, create wealth out of thin air, and baffle the devil. Some said he could cheat even Death himself.’

 

4. Turtle Moon by Alice Hoffman
40806Turtle Moon transports the listener to Verity, Florida, a place where anything can happen during the month of May, when migrating sea turtles come to town, mistaking the glow of the streetlights for the moon.  A young single mother is murdered in her apartment and her baby is gone. Keith, a 12-year-old boy in the same apartment building—the self-styled “meanest boy” in town—also disappears. In pursuit of the baby, the boy and the killer, are Keith’s divorced mother and a cop who himself was once considered the meanest boy in town. Their search leads them down the humid byways of a Florida populated almost exclusively by people from somewhere else; emotional refugees seeking sanctuary along the swampy coast.

 

5. To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway 913744
To Have and Have Not is the dramatic story of Harry Morgan, an honest man who is forced into running contraband between Cuba and Key West as a means of keeping his crumbling family financially afloat. His adventures lead him into the world of the wealthy and dissipated yachtsmen who throng the region, and involve him in a strange and unlikely love affair.  Harshly realistic, yet with one of the most subtle and moving relationships in the Hemingway oeuvre, To Have and Have Not is literary high adventure at its finest.

 

85911076. The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin
Mara Dyer doesn’t think life can get any stranger than waking up in a hospital with no memory of how she got there.  It can.  She believes there must be more to the accident she can’t remember that killed her friends and left her mysteriously unharmed.  There is.  She doesn’t believe that after everything she’s been through, she can fall in love.
She’s wrong.

 

7. The Everglades: A River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas 2083005
Before 1947, when Marjory Stoneman Douglas named the Everglades a “river of grass,” most people considered the area worthless. She brought the world’s attention to the need to preserve the Everglades. In the Afterword, Michael Grunwald tells us what has happened to them since then. Grunwald points out that in 1947 the government was in the midst of establishing the Everglades National Park and turning loose the Army Corps of Engineers to control floods–both of which seemed like saviors for the Glades. But neither turned out to be the answer. Working from the research he did for his book, The Swamp, Grunwald offers an account of what went wrong and the many attempts to fix it, beginning with Save Our Everglades, which Douglas declared was “not nearly enough.” Grunwald then lays out the intricacies (and inanities) of the more recent and ongoing CERP, the hugely expensive Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

 

8. The Aguero Sisters by Cristina Garcia
376004Reina and Constancia Agüero are Cuban sisters who have been estranged for thirty years. Reina–tall, darkly beautiful, and magnetically sexual–still lives in her homeland. Once a devoted daughter of la revolución, she now basks in the glow of her many admiring suitors, believing only in what she can grasp with her five senses. The pale and very petite Constancia lives in the United States, a beauty expert who sees miracles and portents wherever she looks. After she and her husband retire to Miami, she becomes haunted by the memory of her parents and the unexplained death of her beloved mother so long ago.  Told in the stirring voices of their parents, their daughters, and themselves, The Agüero Sisters tells a mesmerizing story about the power of myth to mask, transform, and finally, reveal the truth–as two women move toward an uncertain, long awaited reunion.

 

9. Under a Dark Summer Sky by Vanessa Lafaye 23615823
Huron Key is already weighed down with secrets when a random act of violence and a rush to judgment viscerally tear the town apart. As the little island burns under the sun and the weight of past decisions, a devastating storm based on the third-strongest Atlantic Hurricane on record approaches, matching the anger of men with the full fury of the skies. Beautifully written and seductive, Under a Dark Summer Sky is at once a glorious love story, a fascinating slice of social history, and a mesmerizing account of what it’s like to be in the eye of a hurricane.

 

10. 90 Miles to Havana by Enrique Flores-Galbis
13722320When Julian’s parents make the heartbreaking decision to send him and his two brothers away from Cuba to Miami via the Pedro Pan operation, the boys are thrust into a new world where bullies run rampant and it’s not always clear how best to protect themselves

 

Are there any other books which you feel should be on my list?  Which are your favourite tomes set in and around Florida?

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‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ by Karen Russell ***

Vampires in the Lemon Grove is the second collection of short stories by Karen Russell, and follows her highly acclaimed debut novel, Swamplandia!. All of the tales have been previously published in various magazines and anthologies. Her newest release is hailed as a ‘wickedly funny and brilliantly dark’ collection of ‘dystopian tales’, which ‘confirms her place as a master of the short story form, and one of the most imaginative young writers at work today’. High claims indeed, but does Vampires in the Lemon Grove really live up to all the hype surrounding it?

9780099578963Russell’s collection contains eight short stories in all, the majority of which have rather intriguing titles – ‘The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis’ and ‘The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979’. (We must forget in this case that there is actually no such thing as a ‘seagull’, but no matter – the story is still a relatively intriguing one.) The title story takes pride of place at the beginning of the collection. The narrator of this tale – a vampire, who has moved to a lemon grove in ‘the blue boot’ of Italy with his equally undead ‘wife’ in the hope that the fruit there will suppress their appetites for blood – tells us that ‘most people mistake me for a small, kindly Italian grandfather, a nonno. I have an old nonno‘s coloring, the dark walnut stain peculiar to southern Italians, a tan that won’t fade until I die (which I never will)’. He features in a vampiric love story of sorts, though one which has thankfully not succumbed to the over-commercialised feel of the Stephenie Meyer brand.

The tales are often quirky and rather original, although these accolades can be applied more freely on some stories than others. The first two stories in the collection – the aforementioned ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ and ‘Reeling for the Empire’ – are wonderful. The latter takes place in a factory within Japan, in an undisclosed place and period. Dozens of women have been plucked from their homes and have been given draughts of tea which causes their insides to weave luxurious silk: ‘Yards and yards of thin color would soon be extracted from me by the Machine’. Here, Russell’s imagination sparkles. The first person narrator feels realistic, and the beginning, middle and end of the tale are strong and rather scarily believable.

There are flashes of this imagination which can be found in the tales which follow ‘Reeling for the Empire’ – for example, three past American Presidents who find themselves transformed into a barn in a state which they believe to be Kentucky. Several of the stories are engrossing and rich in detail, but others feel flat in comparison and meander towards their conclusion, which does not really satisfy. This is a statement which can be applied to the majority of short story collections, however, and is an almost inevitable consequence of the form.

Russell’s descriptions are well thought out, and she heightens all of the senses, often bringing taste, touch, sight and smell into her stories. Her similes too work well. When describing creatures who roam in the night, she says, ‘They have wrinkled black faces, these bats, tiny, like gargoyles or angry grandfathers’. The sense of place – and there are many different settings contained within these stories, ranging from Japan to the United States – is evoked in the most successful way through her descriptions: ‘The sky is a deep blue vacuum’. Two differing narrative perspectives have been used, as well as a small handful of narrative techniques – the use of headings in a couple of the stories which break up the story, for example.

To conclude, the first two stories in the collection are simply marvellous. The tales which follow sadly do not quite live up to their imagination or the wonder which they impart, but they are all so diverse that there is sure to be something here which will appeal to every reader.

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Short Story Series: Part One

I adore reading short stories, and don’t see many reviews of collections on blogs in comparison to novels and the like.  I thought that I would make a weekly series to showcase short stories, and point interested readers in the direction of some of my favourite collections.  Rather than ramble in adoration for every single book, I have decided to copy their official blurb.  I have linked my blog reviews where appropriate.

1. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams by Sylvia Plath
‘This collection of short stories, essays, and diary excerpts highlights her fierce concentration on craft, the vitality of her intelligence, and the yearnings of her imagination. Featuring an introduction by Plath’s husband, the late British poet Ted Hughes, these writings also reflect themes and images she would fully realize in her poetry. “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams” truly showcases the talent and genius of Sylvia Plath.’

2. Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
‘An awkward teen with a terrible haircut has a reversal of fortune when he finds artefacts from the future lining a seagulls’ nest. In a godforsaken barn, Presidents Eisenhower, John Adams and Rutherford B. Hayes are bemused to find themselves reincarnated as horses. Clyde and Magreb – he a traditional capes-and-coffins vampire, she the more progressive variety – settle in an Italian lemon grove in the hope that its ripe fruit will keep their thirst for blood at bay.’

3. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters by J.D. Salinger
‘First published in “The New Yorker” in the 1950s, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction” are two novellas narrated by Buddy Glass, a character often said to be a portrait of Salinger himself. In the first, Buddy has taken leave from the army during World War II to attend the wedding of the eldest Glass brother, Seymour, and an atmosphere of portentous suspense sets the scene for the tragedy that will follow. In the second, Buddy reminisces about Seymour and the novella unfolds into a deep and far-reaching exploration of a complex and sad character which displays all the tenderness and subtlety which distinguish the best of Salinger’s writing.’

4. Collected Stories by Carol Shields
‘In the Collected Stories we bring together Carol Shields’ original short-story volumes, Various Miracles, The Orange Fish and Dressing Up for the Carnival, as well as many stories not previously published in the UK, including ‘Segue’, her last work. In these stories the author combines the dazzling virtuosity and wise maturity that won so many readers to her prize-winning novels such as The Stone Diaries and Unless.’

5. The Whole Story and Other Stories by Ali Smith
‘This is a brilliant new collection of stories from a much loved and highly praised author. It presents stories for people who’ve grown up being told time is running out and don’t want it to. How do you ever know the whole story? How do you ever know even part of the story? How do you find meaning when chance and coincidence could, after all, just be chance and coincidence? In a celebration of connections and missed connections, an inquiry into everything from flies and trees and books to sex, art, drunkenness and love, Smith rewrites the year’s cycle into a very modern calendar.’

6. Belated by Elisabeth Russell Taylor
‘From award-winning writer Elisabeth Russell Taylor comes a dazzling new collection of short stories. Whether examining the unspoken deals brokered in every marriage, the inherent menace of daily exchanges or the secret lives of the unattached, each of these sixteen stories sparkles with Russell Taylor’s extraordinary talent. ‘The Contract’ brilliantly reimagines Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin; ‘Supporting Roles’ reverses the client-therapist relationship; ‘Charlotte’ looks at the life of a Jewish immigrant in postwar London; ‘Les Amants’ is a lyrical paean to love and loss in rural France; ‘Take Care’ sees the visitors getting too comfortable in a house that’s not theirs; ‘The Inquest’ is a whimsical feat of magical realism; while ‘Who She?’ and ‘Carter’ explore the mysteries and complications of identity. Here is a writer unafraid to probe the dark corners of character, who sharpens her teeth on the casual cruelties, subtle ironies and alarming contradictions of everyday life.’

My review can be found here.

7. New York Stories, edited by Diana Secker Tesdell
‘An irresistible anthology of classic tales of New York in the tradition of “Christmas Stories, Love Stories, “and “Stories of the Sea. ” Writers have always been enthralled and inspired by New York City, and their vibrant and varied stories provide a kaleidoscopic vision of the city’s high life, low life, nightlife, and everything in between. From the wisecracking Broadway guys and dolls of Damon Runyon to the glittering ballrooms of Edith Wharton, from the jazz- soaked nightspots of Jack Kerouac and James Baldwin to the starry- eyed tourists in John Cheever and Shirley Jackson to the ambitious immigrants conjured by Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz– this is New York in all its grittiness and glamour. Here is the hectic, dazzling chaos of Times Square and the elegant calm of galleries in the Met; we meet Yiddish matchmakers in the Bronx, Haitian nannies in Central Park, starving artists, and hedonistic yuppies–a host of vivid characters nursing their dreams in the tiny apartments, the lonely cafes, and the bustling streets of the city that never sleeps.’

8. The Doll’s House and Other Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner
‘Recently discovered in the New York Public Library archives, these four short stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner are as sharply insightful and observant as all her writing. They are published for the first time exclusively in ebook format alongside the new editions of her celebrated novels The Corner that Held Them and Lolly Willowes, which have brand new introductions by Philip Hensher and Sarah Waters.’

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