What to Read When You’re Thinking about Florida

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Hurricane season has our eyes turned southward toward that strange state of Florida, where the effects of climate change are being played out as ocean temperatures soar higher and higher and each new storm is unprecedented in size and scale.

We hope our Floridian friends and family are keeping their heads above water and have made it through Hurricane Irma unscathed, and in celebration of them, we’ve compiled a list of great books that take place in, engage with, or otherwise demonstrate the realities and complexities of the “Sunshine state.”

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Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard
Gerard uses her experiences growing up along Florida’s gulf coast to illuminate the struggles of modern human survival—physical, emotional, environmental—through a collection of essays exploring intimacy, addiction, obsession, religion, homelessness, and incarceration. Sunshine State offers a unique look at Florida, a state whose economically and environmentally imperiled culture serves as a lens through which we can examine some of the most pressing issues haunting our nation.

 

Felt in the Jaw by Kristen Arnett
In her darkly humorous debut collection, Arnett explores the lives of queer women and their families in the light of the bleak Florida sun. A young dancer suddenly loses language while her family struggles to understand their new roles. A mother endures a horrifying spider bite while camping with her daughters in the backyard. A family reunion goes sour when a group of cousins are left to their own devices. In these ten stories, outward strength is always betrayed by deep vulnerability: these are characters so desperate for family and connection that they often isolate themselves—and sometimes, it’s the world isolating them.

 

Miami by Joan Didion
As Didion follows Miami’s drift into a Third World capital, she also locates its position in the secret history of the Cold War, from the Bay of Pigs to the Reagan doctrine and from the Kennedy assassination to the Watergate break-in. Miami is not just a portrait of a city, but a masterly study of immigration and exile, passion, hypocrisy, and political violence.

 

how small, confronting morning by Lola Haskins
In Haskins’s fourteenth collection, she focuses on the natural world of inland Florida, writing poems “close to plein air” experiences. The winner of two NEA Fellowships, as well as four Florida Cultural Affairs fellowships, W.S. Merwin has said that Haskins “writes with the startling freedom and grace of a kite flying, and with the variety and assurance of invention that reveal, in image after image, the dream behind the waking world.”

 

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Russell’s debut novel takes us to the swamps of the Florida Everglades, and introduces us to Ava Bigtree, an unforgettable young heroine whose family home is a gator-wrestling theme park. But the Bigtree alligator-wrestling dynasty is in decline, and their island home is swiftly being encroached upon by a fearsome and sophisticated competitor called the World of Darkness. Against a backdrop of hauntingly fecund plant life animated by ancient lizards and lawless hungers, this is an utterly singular novel about a family’s struggle to stay afloat in a world that is inexorably sinking.

 

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
A mesmerizing true story of beauty and obsession. Orlean follows renegade plant dealer John Laroche through swamps and into the eccentric world of Florida’s orchid collectors, a subculture of aristocrats, fanatics, and smugglers whose obsession with plants is all-consuming. Along the way, we learn the history of orchid collecting, discover an odd pattern of plant crimes in Florida, and spend time with Laroche’s partners, a tribe of Seminole Indians who are still at war with the United States.

 

Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski
The land was theirs, but so were its hardships. Strawberries—big, ripe, and juicy. Ten-year-old Birdie Boyer can hardly wait to start picking them. But her family has just moved to the Florida backwoods, and they haven′t even begun their planting. “Don′t count your biddies ′fore they′re hatched, gal young un!” her father tells her. Making the new farm prosper is not easy. There is heat to suffer through, and droughts, and cold snaps. And, perhaps most worrisome of all for the Boyers, there are rowdy neighbors, just itching to start a feud.

 

Tampa by Alissa Nutting
Eighth-grade teacher Celeste Price has chosen and lured the charmingly modest fourteen-year-old student Jack Patrick into her web. Jack is enthralled and in awe of Celeste, and, most importantly, willing to accept Celeste’s terms for a secret relationship—car rides after dark, rendezvous at Jack’s house while his single father works the late shift, and body-slamming erotic encounters in Celeste’s empty classroom. In slaking her sexual thirst, Celeste Price is remorseless and deviously free of hesitation, a monster of pure motivation. She deceives everyone, is close to no one, and cares little for anything but her pleasure. Tampa is a grand, seriocomic examination of want, and a scorching debut novel.

 

The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg
This collection explores the lives of women who are mired in secrecy and deception. Ranging from the inscrutability of a marriage to private eyes working a baffling case in South Florida to a teenager who assists her magician mother and steals from the audience, these stories are linked by mystery and by women who are at once vulnerable and dangerous, bighearted, and ruthless—who will do what it takes to survive.

 

Looking for the Gulf Motel by Richard Blanco
Family continues to be a wellspring of inspiration and learning for Blanco. His third collection is a genealogy of the heart, exploring how his family’s emotional legacy has shaped—and continues shaping—his perspectives. The collection is presented in three movements, each one chronicling his understanding of a facet of life from childhood into adulthood. Looking for the Gulf Motel is looking for the beauty of that which we cannot hold onto, be it country, family, or love.

 

Caprice: Collected, Uncollected, & New Collaborations by Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton
This book is the quirky love child of Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton, award-winning poets who teamed up over twenty-five years ago to practice their collaborative skills on every topic they could joyfully exploit—feminism, gender, sex, witches, religion, the canon, movies, and Olive Oyl, to name just a few. From the erotic to the comedic, the political to the poignant, Caprice presents a fresh look at life from the unpredictable minds of two celebrated Floridian writers in their prime.

 

Tropicalia by Emma Trelles
Tropicalia is a melodic union between the green insistence of the subtropics and the city ensconced within. Trelles’s language is detailed and startling, her poems infused with color and light, and the secret beauty of back alleys and parking lots is seamed to sorrow, hope, and land. Rock bands play among odes to Lorca and Chagall, and the hard news of protest and war lives among the simple pleasures of words and sky.

 

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
One of the most important and enduring books of the twentieth century, Their Eyes Were Watching God brings to life a Southern love story set in central and southern Florida in the early 20th century with the wit and pathos found only in the writing of Zora Neale Hurston. Out of print for almost thirty years—due largely to initial audiences’ rejection of its strong black female protagonist—Hurston’s classic has since its 1978 reissue become perhaps the most widely read and highly acclaimed novel in the canon of African-American literature.

 

Adios, Happy Homeland! by Ana Menéndez
Adios, Happy Homeland! is a wildly innovative collection of interlinked tales that challenge our preconceptions of storytelling. This critical look at the life of the Cuban writer pulls apart and reassembles the myths that have come to define her culture, blending illusion with reality and exploring themes of art, family, language, superstition, and the overwhelming need to escape—from the island, from memory, from stereotype, and, ultimately, from the self.

 

Continental Drift by Russell Banks
Set in the early 1980s, Continental Drift follows two plots, through which Banks explores the relationship between apparently distant people drawn together in the world under globalization, which Banks compares to the geologic phenomena of continental drift. The first plot features Bob DuBois, a working class New Englander who heads to Florida in the hopes of striking it rich; the second plot traces the journey of Vanise Dorsinville from Haiti to Florida. A masterful novel of hope lost and gained, and a gripping, indelible story of fragile lives uprooted and transformed by injustice, disappointment, and the seductions and realities of the American dream.