Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country by Craig Pittman
(St. Martin’s Press, Hardcover, 320 pp., $26.99)
Reviewed by Bob Morison
We all know that Florida is a weird place. But is the weirdness contagious? Craig Pittman thinks so and makes the case in Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country.
Many things spawned in the Sunshine State have indeed caught on, and they’re a mixed bag: open records and public defenders, Indian casinos and wildlife refuges, USA Today and National Enquirer, NASCAR and space flight, Jeff Bezos and Bob’s Barricades.
Pittman should know. He’s a long-time reporter and columnist for the Tampa Bay Times and a compulsive collector of Florida history and lore, fun facts, and outlandish anecdotes. As a native, he has a trained eye for the offbeat. FBR features extensive coverage of Florida strangeness, but this book is the mother lode.
Oh, Florida! is organized thematically, but Pittman is free with his juxtapositions, and you never know what comic surprise (or serious discussion) will pop up on the next page:
That’s his lead-in to thoughtful coverage of the Trevon Martin case. He also gets serious about the Terri Schiavo case, Anita Bryant’s campaign against gay rights, and St. Augustine’s holdout against civil rights.
Tales of the blatant political corruption, Ponzi schemes (yes, he moved operations here after getting busted in Boston), and mafia doings of yesteryear seem comical in retrospect. More recent political doings fall in the tragic-comic category, and Pittman relentlessly skewers Scott, Bush, Rubio, Harris, Crist, and their kin.
The central theme is Florida’s long tradition of pretense and hucksterism, starting with all that swampland for sale. “You might wonder why people keep on moving here. The answer is simple, really. It’s because we lie to them.”
For starters, we’re not the sunshine state. We get more rain than Seattle, and the whole southwest gets more sun than we do. But our citizens do run the highest risk of loss from natural hazards— hurricanes, lightning, shark bites, and sinkholes. Other standing misrepresentations range from fountain-of-youth medical treatments to the sad fact that the owner of Bob’s Barricades isn’t even named Bob. (It’s Happy.)
Did I mention that sex and sin, televangelism and religious hypocrisy, theme parks and Florida drivers all receive their due coverage? And that 2013 police blotter archives reveal fourteen different ways a machete was employed in committing a crime? As I said, this book is the mother lode. Dig in anywhere, and you’ll be surprised and bemused and sometimes rightly concerned.
Is all the weirdness contagious? It might be better for the country if we kept more of it close to home. Then again, everyone stops by for a sample.
Bob Morison is co-author of Workforce Crisis and Analytics at Work. He lives in Miami. More info at his website.
Bad Guys, Bullets, and Boat Chases: True Stores of Florida Game Wardens by Bob H. Lee
(University Press of Florida, Hardcover, 255 pp., $24.95)
Reviewed by Bob Morison
Who knew that game wardens had such exploits and adventures? You did, if you read Bob H. Lee’s first book about his own experiences, Backcountry Lawman: True Stories from a Florida Game Warden. In this sequel, he tells the tales and sings the praises of his colleagues. As he points out early, the job involves a lot more than checking fishing licenses.
Each of 17 chapters relates an episode and profiles the wardens involved. Some incidents are tragic. The book opens with wardens locating and assisting surviving passengers after the crash of Eastern Flight 401 in the Everglades a few days after Christmas in 1972. A later incident is a tense clock-is-ticking hunt for a gator and the body of the toddler it had killed and dragged away.
There are the promised boat chases (both conventional and airboat) and bullets (an on-board shootout with a murderer, and a recreational bomb maker using a warden for target practice). The highest stakes chase involves a poacher’s small plane versus the warden’s helicopter. There’s also forensic science (out-of-season bullet wounds in a deer) and courtroom drama (the first poaching conviction in memory in Dixie “live and let live” County).
Lee takes us to places both remote and just around the corner:
If one were to fly 15 miles northwest of Orlando and then drop a giant lawn dart, it would hit smack dab in the middle of Florida’s most polluted water body, Lake Apopka. Contaminated decades ago from agricultural back-pumping and sewage runoff, the once trophy largemouth bass fishery and home to twenty-one thriving fish camps now struggles to survive. Understandably, the lake’s toxic waters also have been designated ‘off-limits’ for the legal harvesting of alligators.
The book is meticulously researched, mainly through interviews. Lee provides background on the history and workings of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), and extra notes at the ends of chapters to tie up any loose ends.
So what do wardens do besides check fishing licenses? They spend a lot of time on stake outs and paperwork, with occasional furious action in between. They have to know their territory and be ready for the unexpected. They have to know how to defuse confrontations, especially when the bad guys are dangerous and deranged. And they have to like the out-of-doors by day and by night, on land and on water, and regardless of the mosquito intensity.
The wardens are uniformly profiled as smart, capable, fit, and manly (all are men). “The young warden stood an even six feet, and his trim, lean frame fit FWC’s green and tan uniform as if it had been precision stamped from a mold. He was a minimalist--shaved head, no facial hair. The only jewelry-like adornment he allowed himself to wear was a waterproof diver’s watch, and that was more for job functionality than convenience.”
We learn what prepared wardens for the job--often rural roots, outdoors avocations, education, and military or law enforcement experience--and how they breezed through or in some cases outwitted the FWC hiring process.
Women play smaller parts--the forensic technologist working on her first deer, a disoriented and lost woman who was rescued, the informant Betty-Sue with her eyes peeled for poachers, and the wives/girlfriends/accomplices of the bad guys. The exception is flight attendant Beverly Raposa, who heroically assembled and helped save passengers on Flight 401.
No surprise that the bad guys are a colorful lot. In addition to your everyday deer and turkey poachers, there are specialists in illegal gill-netting, gathering gator hatchlings, and good old-fashioned gator wrestling. Some of the bad guys are ingenious, like the one spotting prey via airplane, but others are none-too-bright, like the one who left a trail dragging his poached deer carcass directly to the door of his trailer.
Memorable villains include a Santa look-alike, Bad Bill the gill netter, Bobby-Ray the critter catcher, a career poacher who started early with a 400 lb cow at age 16, and the loveable Bubba who saw the light (with counseling by a warden-minister) and put his poaching days behind him. After prolonged games of cat-and-mouse, wardens and bad guys often know each other well and have an odd sort of rapport. Many bad guys were interviewed for the book.
Bad Guys, Bullets, and Boat Chases taught me a lot from a safe distance. Turns out that much of Florida is still outback and to be avoided. I’ll gladly leave it to the wardens and their prey.
Bob Morison is co-author of Workforce Crisis and Analytics at Work. He lives in Miami. More info at his website.
The Bird Market of Paris: A Memoir by Nikki Moustaki
(Henry Holt & Co., Paperback, 244 pp, $26.00)
Reviewed by Erica Kenick
Known as the author of dozens of pet-care books and founder of pet rescue organizations such as the Pet Postcard Project, Nikki Moustaki takes us back to where her affinity for animals—especially birds—began and shows the role they played in rescuing her in her coming-of-age memoir The Bird Market of Paris.
The two great loves of Moustaki’s young life are instantly endearing—her doting grandfather Poppy, a well-known Miami fashion designer who emigrated from Egypt in the 1950s, and, of course, the birds. Each birthday, Poppy gave young Nikki a dove to release to the heavens, and each year she asked where the dove went. “[She] becomes a star to watch over you when I cannot be there myself,” Poppy always replied.
Moustaki depicts the 1980s Miami of her childhood and adolescence as a city constantly in flux, where her Ferrari-selling, marijuana-growing parents sometimes lived lavishly by association with their wealthy clientele. By the age of thirteen, Moustaki had blacked out after sneaking too much champagne at a holiday party, but she found stability in the love of bird breeding she shared with her grandfather.
Moustaki skillfully weaves the practical and scientific aspects of breeding lovebirds with her own maternal feelings toward her flock. By day, Moustaki took literature classes at Florida International University, and by night she doodled Punnet Squares, breeding diagrams, to discover crosses that might yield a uniquely colored batch of birds, birds she named affectionately: “Bonk,” “Baby,” and “Little Miss Mango.”
When each clutch of new eggs hatched, Moustaki was up for feedings every couple of hours. Any parent or caretaker of a beloved human, fur ball, or feathered friend will understand when Moustaki explains “[Bonk the lovebird] was a bird of my making, a creation of my love and attention, rarer than opals.”
In 1992, Hurricane Andrew wreaked havoc on South Florida communities including Moustaki’s:
The neighborhood was so destroyed, so changed, that I became lost on the way to my own house. Not one landmark or street sign remained. Some of the mountains of wreckage were ten feet high, and by the time I approached my block I was dirty and sweaty, scratched on my arms and legs like I’d fought with a cat, and I was bitten all over by giant red ants that had taken over the piles of organic debris. I had little hope that my cats and birds were alive.
The destruction of her family home and treasured flock brought by the storm marked the beginning of a downward spiral in Moustaki’s life as alcoholism began to take over. Poppy’s love and the joy of caring for the birds were no longer enough to keep Moustaki grounded. She spent her days and nights at a nearby beach club and began to second-guess her ability to properly raise her parrots.
Though she won prestigious awards, enrolled in NYU’s MFA program for poetry, and wrote and edited for well-known pet magazines, her disease progressed. Moustaki recounts a time when she passed out drunk in her New York apartment and woke convinced she had been raped:
Still drunk, sweating slicks of alcohol, I dressed myself in jeans and hoodie and walked to St. Clare’s Hospital emergency room. . . . “Something bad happened to me last night,” I confided in a whisper. “I was raped.” I wanted to say something else, a phrase he wouldn’t have understood: I have no more birds.
Poppy's death and her own misery drive Moustaki to get help. Distraught but determined to earn redemption, Moustaki attends AA meetings with a friend and fellow bird-lover and hatches a plan to visit the Bird Market of Paris, a place Poppy often spoke of as magical, filled with every bird song and feather color one could imagine.
Although her time in Paris is riddled with failed expectations and relapses, Moustaki manages to pull herself together and honor the memory of Poppy. There, her connections to birds help her to heal and she is able to give herself a sense of redemption and hope for the future.
Nikki Moustaki’s honesty and conversational writing style make The Bird Market of Paris a charming read, while her story shows the power of unconditional love to heal and renew—no matter the species.
Erica Kenick is a Miamian, bird-lover, and MFA student whose poetry has appeared most recently in Swamp Lily Review, Night Owl Literary Journal, and Dark Matter Literary Journal. Once she graduates, she hopes to teach English and adopt a cockatoo.
The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood by Richard Blanco
(Ecco, Hardcover, 272 pp., $25.99)
Reviewed by Julio Machado
In The Prince of los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood, Richard Blanco relates his experiences growing up as a Cuban-American in a youthful, inchoate Miami. This is Blanco’s first prose memoir, though his three full-length poetry collections explore many of these same experiences and themes. In 2013, he was chosen as the fifth U.S. Inaugural Poet—the youngest, the first immigrant, first Latino, and first openly gay poet to be so honored.
For much of Prince of los Cocuyos, Blanco is very much not the hero of his own life. Instead, these pages are filled with the projects, obsessions, compulsions, and longings of Blanco’s immediately family—his parents and grandparents—along with an array of personalities in his community, his neighborhood, and especially El Cocuyito, a local grocery store where Blanco works part-time.
We meet the owner of El Cocuyito, Don Gustavo, who “with the patience of a sculptor, [shaves] the fuzzy nap off each yuca and malanga root,” and who carries with him a handful of dirt from the Cuban farm he left behind. Or Felipe, who collects used cardboard boxes and has recreated in his home a detailed scale model of La Habana Vieja, the colonial section of Havana. Or Raquel, a widow living with her two sisters in a cramped duplex, who longs continually for the wealth and luxury she left behind in Cuba. To an American reader, these characters may seem possessed of an outlandish, hyperbolic exoticism—not terribly dissimilar from the characters in the work of Sandra Cisneros or Junot Diaz.
Except there is no cynicism in The Prince of los Cocuyos. The memories recounted in the book are sterling and often unambiguous, told through the narrative voice of a young Blanco. That young voice is incapable of scorn or judgment, pressing gamely though the events of Blanco’s life with equal parts confusion and credence. Blanco is the perfect foil to his family’s boisterous, pointed exuberance. He is earnest and understanding; he is loving, even when the human beings he describes are acting despicably.
Through that lens, the human landscape of the memoir seems stylized and at times bewildering. Blanco presents his family members—particularly his parents and grandparents—with characteristic sympathy and open-armed acceptance. They do not suffer in his retelling; instead, their individual world-views are made comprehensible, their prejudices and fears presented with the unblinking sincerity of the very young. Blanco serves as their ambassador, allowing us to perceive them as complex and human. Even his grandmother, whose suspicion of Blanco’s homosexuality leads her to continually and at times cruelly correct any behavior that seems unmanly, is revealed with affection and forgiveness. Again and again she admonishes, “It’s better to be it and not look like it, than to look like it even if you’re not it.” And yet, though young Blanco is terrified of her aggressive normativity, he takes great care to reveal her fears and kindnesses—her terror of all things American and foreign, her unexpected generosity in paying for a family Disney World trip.
This is Blanco’s great gift as a writer and poet: he infuses his characterizations with empathy, elevating his subject matter far above its occasional sordidness and cruelty. In this way, The Prince of los Cocuyos bears a powerful resemblance to Blanco’s early work, particularly City of a Hundred Fires. The language is frank and lucid, brimming over at times with lyricism—but even then, it feels slightly reluctant, an oversized poeticism in the midst of so many hard-nosed, pragmatic human beings.
In the book’s closing pages, which depict Blanco’s final days as a teenager, the text sends its gaze forward, relating in broad sweeps the life waiting for our hapless young protagonist. At this moment, Blanco’s poetic voice is at its most poignant and potent, and I can’t help but wonder what this memoir would have been if Blanco had allowed that wise, wistful, observer’s voice to relate more of the narrative. It would have been a different book, surely: not quite as innocent or accepting, but perhaps more piercing.
Julio Machado is a graduate of the MFA program at Florida International University. He teaches and writes in Miami, FL.
Leaving Little Havana, a Memoir of Miami's Cuban Ghetto by Cecilia Fernandez
(Beating Windward Press, Paperback, 253 pp., $19.85)
Reviewed by Jennifer Maritza McCauley
Cecilia Fernandez's memoir Leaving Little Havana chronicles the writer’s childhood and teenage years in “Miami's Cuban Ghetto.” Fernandez's book is just as much about her experiences in Little Havana, as it is about her leaving the low-income neighborhood. Much of the work is driven by Fernandez's acts of leaving things behind: her attachment to her schizophrenic mother and philandering father, her memories of Cuba and her failed relationships. Told with lushly written prose and loving attention to detail, Leaving Little Havana wraps itself around readers like a much-needed embrace.
The memoir begins with Fernandez’s birth in Cuba, “a fertile, mountainous, tropical island encircled by loops of sandy beaches the color and texture of fine sawdust.” The five major sections of the book follow her family’s displacement to Miami, their “ruthless assimilation process into America,” her parents’ divorce, and Fernandez’s development into a plucky, whip-smart young woman. Throughout the book, Fernandez captures the fears and frustrations of Cuban exiles in the 1960s. Fernandez writes, “. . . the talk of Cuba conjured images of death . . . [We wondered] were we safe here in the United States?” Fernandez also explores the plights of her own family. Fernandez’s father marries his mistress and leaves Florida, in hopes of gaining wealth and stature. All the while Cecilia’s mother slips into quiet madness, and Cecilia struggles to find her own dreams. Cecilia thinks, “. . . the transition my father had dreamed of was now real . . . I had to create an even stronger dream—a dream of my own so I could survive in Little Havana . . .”
Fernandez’s failures and triumphs as she pursues this “stronger dream” give the book emotional weight. Among the memoir’s greatest strengths are Fernandez’s depictions of herself. The “Cecilia” in the book is honestly rendered and consistently likeable. The writer is open about her shortcomings—she admits to getting a black girl unfairly suspended from school and to breaking her best friend’s heart, for example—but she is appropriately remorseful. (After the incident with the African-American child, Fernandez says, “I remember [the girl] vividly today. Thoughts of racial prejudice reenacted that day in the principal’s office still bring forth shame and regret in my heart.”) Fernandez also shows the different sides of her personality: her fierce loyalty to her mother, her desire to experience “anything but boredom” and her breeziness with friends. After seeing her mother in shambles, Fernandez struggles with her community’s traditional view of marriage. Fernandez says:
As thousands of America’s youth in the 1960s turned their backs on middle class parents to live on the street…those of us in Little Havana did just the opposite. We clung to our parents, chasing elusive love from a distant father, a psychotic mother…or [got] married with a stranger. Marriage, in our tightly knit Cuban community, symbolized the end of a struggle. It solidified identities, staved off loneliness, sanctioned sex; it validated everything.
While Fernandez spends much of her teenage years finding quick validation in men and parties, she finds true validation in education. Fernandez realizes, “If I wanted something, I needed to get it myself.” Leaving Little Havana deftly captures Fernandez’s personal development and the Cuban exile experience.
Fernandez describes her book as a “tale…created from memories, artifacts, photographs, letters, history books and street maps…” Indeed, Leaving Little Havana feels like a narrative scrapbook of a bright, sensitive woman’s life. The memoir moves along at a meditative pace, forcing readers to slow down and observe Fernandez’s beautifully crafted world. The self-contained chapters straddle the line between poetry and prose and ordinary occurrences take on symbolic meaning. For example, midway through the book, the young Fernandez looks at her old things from La Habana. She writes:
Battered boxes bulging with the remnants of our life in La Habana littered the yard and leaned against each other on the porch . . . Here, stood stacks of old English china carefully wrapped in newspapers. There, under a pile of white linen bed sheets, peaked the fancy highball glasses . . . All had survived a ninety mile journey from the island . . . Now the china and glasses sit prominently on my own kitchen selves, symbols of a tenacious nostalgia for a life whose memories refuse to dissipate.
In this passage, and many others from the book, Fernandez uses elegant language and symbolism to capture the “tenacity of nostalgia” and the tension between the writer’s past life in Cuba and her new life in the United States. In the opening chapter of the memoir, Fernandez quotes Rene Crevel as saying “Memory is the tattooing by which the weak, the betrayed, the exiled believe they have armed themselves.” In Leaving Little Havana, Fernandez shows readers the precious memories tattooed on her heart.
Cecilia Fernandez’s Leaving Little Havana handles difficult material without cynicism, and epiphanies without overt sentimentality. This is a memoir to be savored, admired and re-read.
Jennifer Maritza McCauley was raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and is graduate student in fiction at Florida International University.
Fringe Florida by Lynn Waddell
(University Press of Florida, Hardcover, 266 pp., $24.95)
Reviewed by Bob Morison
The subtitle of Fringe Florida, "Travels among Mud Boggers, Furries, Ufologists, Nudists, and Other Lovers of Unconventional Lifestyles," tells much but by no means all of the story.
There are also the exotic pet owners, the strip joint impresario, the carnival sideshow impresario (those two chapters should have been adjacent), the biker chicks, the spiritualists, and your everyday swingers.
For the record, mud boggers are rednecks who plow their souped-up and pimped-out swamp buggies around "mud parks" in search of "titties and beer." Furries dress as animals, some have trainers, and some serve as pets. The Ufologists are the remaining guard in Gulf Breeze, the former UFO capital of the world. And the several sub-species of nudists include nude biker chicks.
Strangest of all may be the spiritualists. Their "camp" in Cassadaga is more like a ghost town. Must be hard to sustain an economy on psychic readings, seances, and nighttime hunts for tiny glow-in-the-dark fairies. That, or everyone's down the road in Orlando at the Holy Land Experience theme park.
In many of these specialties, California (naturally) leads in total practitioners. But Florida leads in practitioners per capita. The random person you meet down here may be very random. And speaking of geography, the UFOers are up in the Panhandle, and the swingers happened to be conventioning in Miami, but most of these fringe activities seem to take place in the middle of the state. And here I thought South Florida was multi-cultural.
In this travel narrative, we see the author coming to terms with her subjects and sometimes feeling the urge to participate as well as observe. On the more parlous adventures—boggers, swingers, nudists, spiritualists—she is accompanied by her faithful companion (and husband), who lends moral support, a sense of protection, and his own inhibitions. Until the last chapter when the couple take a plunge.
Waddell has the reporter's eye for odd detail (even amid an abundance of oddity) and the reporter's knack for getting people with underground stories to tell them anyway. Her background research rounds out the sub-culture portraits, and the notes and sources at the end of the book enable the interested reader to venture farther to the fringe.
Fringe Florida is a fun tour, smoothly written. An adult content warning goes without saying. If you gravitate toward the fringe, the book is a sampler. If like many folks you sometimes think you may be a bit odd, take heart. Read this book. You're as normal as blueberry pie.
Bob Morison is co-author of Workforce Crisis and Analytics at Work. He lives in Miami. Learn more at his website.
On this page:
◇ Oh, Florida! by Craig Pittman, reviewed by Bob Morison
◇ That Woman from Mississippi by Norma Watkins, reviewed by Pamela Akins
◇ Bad Guys, Bullets, and Boat Chases, reviewed by Bob Morison
◇ Badass: Lip Service True Stories The Double Album edited by Andrea Askowitz, reviewed by Bonnie Losak
◇ The Bird Market of Paris: A Memoir by Nikki Moustaki, reviewed by Erica Kenick
◇ And Give Up Showbiz by Josh Young, reviewed by Bob Morison
◇ The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood by Richard Blanco, reviewed by Julio Machado
◇ Space, a Memoir by Jesse Lee Kercheval, a reconsideration by Madeleine Blais
◇ Leaving Little Havana by Cecilia Fernandez, reviewed by Jennifer Maritza McCauley
◇ Finding Florida by Lynn Waddell, reviewed by Bob Morison
◇ Dance of the Reptiles by Carl Hiaasen, reviewed by Ed Irvin
For earlier FBR nonfiction reviews, our nonfiction archive is under construction and will be coming soon.
That Woman from Mississippi, by Norma Watkins
(Nautilus Publishing, Paperback, 270 pp., $17.95)
Reviewed by Pamela Akins
I’ll bet Norma Watkins’ second memoir, That Woman from Mississippi, feels very familiar to a lot of Southern baby boomer women—it certainly did to me. Like Watkins, I was one of those Southern girls who tried to kiss my elbow. Why? “If you succeeded, superstition held, you turned into a boy. . . Boys possessed the single quality I longed for most—freedom.” We all wanted the power of that freedom: to be in charge of our lives, to make our own choices, to find our own destinies. Like many of us, Watkins asked “ . . . what was wrong with wanting it all—love and good work and children? Men got to have those things.”
When “the pill” became widely available to women in the 1960s, we were no longer bound to our biology; having children became a choice. But for those feminist trailblazers already locked into biology-determined roles, choosing freedom had tremendous costs. Watkins’ story of her life from 1966 to 1976 chronicles not only the excitement of stepping outside the traditional roles of wife and mother, but also the steep price she paid for that choice.
Daughter of Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett’s personal lawyer, Norma had a front row seat on the segregationist side of Mississippi politics. As a college sophomore, she married Fred Craig at nineteen and by twenty-seven “had given birth to four children without experiencing a single orgasm.”
At a dinner party in the spring of 1965, Watkins met Bruce Rogow, a dashing Jewish civil rights lawyer. “Seeing him felt like a recognition: he stood on the far side of the room dark-haired and smiling, fierce nose, broad shoulders, the person I was meant to be with, ten years and four children too late . . . With a voice like warm caramel, he talked his way under my skin.” Within days they were meeting for picnics and more: “We had endless talk and exciting, sinful sex. Being in love with him was like tumbling off a cliff and discovering I could fly.”
By the following summer, Bruce’s voting rights work in Mississippi was done and he asked her to come with him to Miami, where he’d provide legal services to migrant workers. Intoxicated by his liberal activism and her own romantic images of running away, she was caught between lust and reason. In June 1966, as James Meredith, Martin Luther King, and 15,000 others marched into Jackson for the March Against Fear, she agreed to go with him.
Watkins knew she was doing a terrible thing: “I was leaving a state I hated and headed to freedom with the man I adored. The tarnished side of that shiny coin were the children I had left behind. I convinced myself running was the only way, but there is always a choice. I was thirty, and any noble reasons I gave myself for desertion were inextricably mixed with lust . . . Looking back, I am astonished at how the itch for sexual fulfillment and a desire to escape can blind you to consequences.” And those consequences were great: Fred’s punishing hatred, the tawdry divorce, being shunned in her hometown and omitted from her mother’s will, and, worst of all, Fred’s ever-present threat to deny her access to her children.
But the disappointments weren’t all back in Mississippi. Bruce berated her bourgeois attitudes (she wouldn’t swim nude with his Legal Services boss) and belittled her accomplishments (while congratulating himself for his own successes). Their relationship, although passionate and sexually fulfilling, was a business transaction in which he tallied every cost. Even their eventual marriage was so Watkins could get medical coverage for a badly-needed operation. “The truth was, I wanted to be married, or—to be accurate—I wanted Bruce to want to marry me. I spouted modern views about loving freely outside the shackles of the law, but I was a Southern girl. If a man really loved you, he married you. I kept this entirely to myself.”
Divided into sections labeled “Before,” “During,” “After,” and “After That,” the memoir shows Watkins, warts and all: her foolhardiness, naiveté and guile, but also her down-to-earth humor, exultant sexual awakening, and growing professional aspirations. Watkins’ journey to Miami led to a Ph.D. and professorship—and eventually her awarding-winning first memoir, The Last Resort: Taking the Mississippi Cure.
Like many women of that era, her first step toward freedom was to leave one man for another, only to learn that “being with another man wasn’t the same as being free.” This memoir is a confession and celebration at the same time—a full disclosure of how she went from the restricted life of belonging to one man to the heady exhilaration of belonging to herself.
A born and bred Texan, Pamela Akins now lives in Sarasota, FL and New London, CT. Her creative work has appeared in literary journals such as A Letter Among Friends, Sabal, and the Emerald Coast Review. She recently completed the 100-year history of the New London, Connecticut Rotary Club.
Badass: Lip Service: True Stories The Double Album, edited by Andrea Askowitz
(Lominy Books, Paperback, 171 pp. , $16.00)
Reviewed by Bonnie Losak
Badass: Lip Service: True Stories The Double Album, is an engaging collection of sixteen stories that editor Andrea Askowitz has culled from Lip Service, the Miami-based true-story reading series she created. The subtitle alludes to the format: At the conclusion of the first eight stories, the reader flips over the book to read stories nine through sixteen. Askowitz (author of the memoir, My Miserable, Lonely, Lesbian Pregnancy) provides two introductions, one at the beginning of what she refers to as the “A-side” of the book, and the other on “the second A-side.” Her remarks serve to introduce the reader not only to Lip Service and the making of Badass, but also to Askowitz’s own fresh, unabashed style of humor.
The pieces themselves are short: Each story read at Lip Service is eight minutes long, which translates to about five printed pages. They’re accompanied by short, irreverent interviews with each of the authors/story-tellers and with the editor.
The stories in Badass are effective, evocative, and accessible. They cover a wide array of subjects, ranging from an attempt to use Santeria to affect the outcome of a criminal trial in Miami to the rape of a heroin addict in New York City.
In one of the most moving pieces, “Obsessed,” Sarah Klein manages to look on the lighter side of her father’s disquieting obsessions. One month, the narrator tells us, her father is fixated on beekeepers’ hats, the next month, cats. For as long as the obsession lasts, the family’s life is altered to accommodate the fixation. Thus, just as the narrator is getting accustomed to the cat obsession, her father decides that the family must buy a menorah. The narrator responds with disbelief:
“A what?” I asked.
Another piece that works particularly well is “Cycle: A Story in Four Parts about Bipolar Disorder” by M. J. Fievre. The story begins, “I’m looking at the teacher’s carefully manicured hands as she clutches the Expo marker to write on the board. She’s wearing a green suit—she tells her seventh-grade students that green is one of her favorite colors. Green and brown.” The narrator says, “I want to relate to that woman in the green suit—but I feel so distant from her. All I can do is watch.” At the end of the first page we learn narrator and teacher are one and that the narrator’s bipolar disorder causes her to see herself through the eyes of an observer. Through this approach, the reader is pulled in to view the narrator’s suffering from a closer perspective.
When I started reading this collection, I was concerned that the stories could lose some of their emotional impact when translated from spoken word to written. However, of those I have heard aloud (about half of them), I only felt this loss in “Still Here,” by Inessa Freylekhman. And that’s just because when the single, thirty-something narrator is plagued by the voice of her mother, advising her on how not to lose a man, chiding, “What wrong with you? Why you say this word: Vagina! So vulgar! Man don’t like woman who speak like this. Stop talk so much,” the author’s imitation of her mother added such flavor to the performance.
Each of the poignant and often painful stories in this collection evinces its own truths, about the narrator, about survival, about suffering. Some, like “We are More Than These Shells” by Aaron Curtis, are hard to read and must have been even harder to write. Others, like the title story, “Badass” by Nicholas Garnett, are fun, even though, according to the author, the embarrassing parts of the story were “hard to write” because they were “hard to admit.”
The admissions, though, the lives lived and revealed, make the Badass anthology work. Askowitz says that after thirty-seven Lip Service shows, she could have made thirty-seven anthologies that she’d “be proud of.” Perhaps thirty-seven books would be too many, but after reading Badass, I’m hoping for at least one more.
Bonnie Losak is an attorney practicing in Miami, Florida, and an MFA candidate at FIU. She lives and writes in Miami Beach.
And Give Up SHOWBIZ? by Josh Young
(BenBella Books, Hardcover, 236 pp., $24.95)
Reviewed by Bob Morison
The first chapter of Josh Young's biography captures Fred Levin in a nutshell. "Payback, Levin Style" recounts how Levin, when enlisted to help find a naming donor for the University of Florida Law School, instead spent $10M of his own money (earned as legal fees in Florida's landmark settlement with Big Tobacco) to put his own name on the school. Thereby thumbing his nose at the UF-dominated Bar Association and legal establishment that thrice tried to disbar him. That's pure Fred Levin—an inextricable mix of generosity, self-promotion, and take-no-prisoners approach to the establishment.
Young is familiar with colorful characters (his earlier subjects or coauthors include Bob Newhart and Howie Mandel), and he weaves the many threads of the Fred Levin story into a well-paced narrative.
The subtitle of And Give Up SHOWBIZ? lists several of the featured threads: How Fred Levin Beat Big Tobacco, Avoided Two Murder Prosecutions, Became a Chief of Ghana, Earned Boxing Manager of the Year, and Transformed American Law.
Levin was an early organizer of the large legal team that won the first giant settlement from tobacco companies. Working with his friend Florida Senate President W.D. Childers and Governor Lawton Chiles (you can read my review of Walkin' Lawton here), Levin drafted a small change in Florida law that opened the door for the tobacco suit. About 25% of Florida's $13B settlement went to the legal team, some $200M eventually to Levin. As a bonus outcome of working the case, he broke his multiple-pack-a-day habit.
Levin got into boxing when Roy Jones Sr. came looking for someone shrewd and outside the boxing establishment to manage his son and match wits with the likes of Don King. Boxing's Manager of the Year award came for his role in Joy Jones Jr.'s championship career. He was made a chief of Ghana for his managing of national hero Ike Quartey.
Fred Levin as a murder suspect sounds like an exciting twist but is pretty far-fetched. When friends died under suspicious circumstances, the rumor mill fed by Fred's enemies tried to implicate him. That's just the most dramatic example of how people who disliked Levin's methods and envied his success—he consistently won multi-million-dollar damage awards for his clients—tried to bring him down.
Fred Levin was a bit of an outsider from the start. The Levins were one of the few Jewish families in the Pensacola area. As a UF undergrad, Levin hit the fraternity more than the books and developed affinities for drinking and gambling. A summer school session brought his grades up to the then-low threshold to enter UF Law School. There he befriended and supported George Starke, the first African American to enroll. And there he found his calling.
After graduating he joined his brothers' law firm in Pensacola, where another young lawyer was governor-to-be Reubin Askew. Levin avoided trial work until his first personal injury case forced him to overcome his fear of speaking in public. Some would say that he hasn't stopped talking since (he even started his own cable TV channel).
At the height of his career, Levin had a penthouse condo used exclusively for entertaining, and he never missed a photo op. The book includes photos of Levin with assorted politicians (Bill Clinton, Jack Kemp) and celebrities (Muhammad Ali, Bob Hope). He almost went on that boat ride with Gary Hart.
This is a highly authorized biography—author and subject book- toured together. But it's a warts-and-all treatment. Levin's vices (since subdued) are on display, and his worst performance was admittedly as a family man. He was thoroughly absorbed in his life elsewhere. The book jacket quotes Levin's son calling him "a philanthropist and a cockroach."
The most riveting sections of the book were about Levin's legal cases: how he always out-prepared the opposition, his inventiveness in finding angles of attack, and how he would tell a story that the jury could embrace, even against the odds.
Did Levin transform American law? He certainly helped bring personal injury law out of the shadows and onto the headlines and billboards. The legal fees in personal injury cases seem exorbitant, but what better device do people have when they are victims of corporations that shortchange safety or operate unfairly? Levin understood the game, shaped its practices, and played it superbly.
Levin, now 77, goes to the office every day and still handles single-event injury cases. The book's title is Levin's response when Young asked him why he didn't retire.
Bob Morison is co-author of Workforce Crisis and Analytics at Work. He lives in Miami. More info at his website.
Space, a Memoir by Jesse Lee Kercheval
(Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press, Paperback, 325 pp., $24.95)
A Reconsideration by Madeleine Blais
Jesse Kercheval’s Space can be described as a memoir masquerading as cultural anthropology or cultural anthropology masquerading as memoir, but either way, it is a compelling read, especially for readers who enjoy venturing to a quieter part of the state away from the pulsating sounds and noisy dramas of Miami. Originally published in 1998, the book won the Alex Award from the American Library Association. It has now been reissued by the U. of Wisconsin for a new generation of readers.
The book begins with a geographical leap when at age nine the author relocates with her mother and father and her eleven-year old sister to central Florida from Maryland when the space program was at is peak.
“First there was a swamp, then there were spaceships,” she writes. “Cocoa in 1966 was a place where history meant remembering which of the practically new houses in our subdivision had been built first.”
Space provides not just the title of this work, but also its central metaphor.
The family’s new house is smaller than their previous one, but the opportunities to retreat to the outdoors make it seem more expansive, especially when the author and her friends play a game they call Space, rolling down a sand hill, pretending to dodge meteors. Kercheval’s father repairs to his own orbit every day, at the community college where he is an administrator. Her sister Carol lives in the public eye, a success at school and a role model at home. Their mother retreats into a private galaxy governed by imaginary illnesses and fueled by drinking.
With a kind of feverish glee, the author as a young girl embraces everything about her new state: her first taste of red snapper (with the head still attached), the chance to learn how to swim (and experience the weightlessness of her heroes, the astronauts) and a stint at Turtle Lake Girl Scout Camp in the middle of Ocala National Forest (in the aquatics unit, doing water ballet to the theme from Love Story.) At camp the girls discuss the wild rumor that Disney is building a new theme park nearby and it is so big that visitors will have to take special trams just to get to the ticket windows.
Above all the Kercheval is besotted with the outer space and the government’s efforts to explore it. This is a girl who lives for countdowns and for the unimaginably loud roar of a rocket taking off, its “red and gold trail” streaking the sky. Convinced that every day will bring a new launch, she implores everyone, including weary waitresses at diners, to tell her when the next one will be.
Her biggest disappointment is that her school appears to have no interest in a field trip to Cape Canaveral:
“In Maryland, with the nation’s capital next door, every grade in school has its own special field trip. First grade was the National Zoo, second the Museum of Natural History, third the National Gallery of Art, fourth the Mint, fifth the White House, and in sixth you go to go on an overnight trip to Colonial Williamsburg.”
Ever-resourceful, the author leans on a classmate’s mom to take her to the Holy Land: “We followed the signs for the visitors’ center, passing a few low cement-block buildings that weren’t nearly as nice or a new as the ones at my father’s junior college. In front of one, in the middle of a sandy lawn, stood a flagpole and a couple of very tiny, barely more than flagpole-size, rockets, Still, they were rockets. It was amazing to think there were men inside those drab tan buildings planning a trip to the moon.”
Just before she leaves, she sees three men dressed in NASA white in a van arriving for work. “Gus Grissom,” she tells herself, nearly swooning, as if seeing the cutest boy band ever.
By the time she is sixteen the space program is being cut back. People are out of work; houses are being repossessed. Kercheval’s parents get a divorce. She implodes as well, leaving school at age sixteen, rushing into an ill-advised and short-lived marriage. We learn in an epilogue that her parents fall ill, remarry, and she nurses them in their new home, a double-wide, where her parents die within a year of each other. Afterwards Kercheval is left to navigate the vast frontier of her own undefined future.
Charming and well-observed, Kercheval’s book breathes fresh life into what could be a clichéd coming of age story by making Cape Canaveral and the space program allies in her self-discovery and reminding us of a time when many Americans were, like her, over the moon about going to the moon.
Madeleine Blais is the author of In These Girls, Hope is a Muscle and the memoir Uphill Walkers. She teaches memoir and journalism at the University of Massachusetts. Her essay about interviewing Tennessee Williams in Key West is a Florida Book Review feature.
Dance of the Reptiles by Carl Hiaasen
(Vintage, Paper, 400 pp., $15)
Reviewed by Ed Irvin
The title of Carl Hiaasen's newest collection of selected Miami Herald columns, Dance of the Reptiles, might lead you to assume that it focuses on the green and scaly inhabitants—both native and invasive—of Florida. You would be correct in that assumption. Partially.
Dance of the Reptiles does touch upon the issue of finger-biting iguanas, pool-dwelling alligators, and invasive, deer-eating pythons. But the focus of many of Hiaasen's scathing editorials are the two-legged reptiles occupying local, state, and federal government buldings: politicians.
But we'll get to that.
The pieces are organized thematically rather than chronologically. The first chapter, titled "Go Away," addresses tourism and Florida's seemingly endless population boom, kicking off with the column, "Haul the Rampaging Nitwits off to Tourist Court" (May 2001), in which Hiaasen facetiously proposes building special prisons for tourists. After all, "No one deserves to be locked in a cell with obnoxious, whiny, ill-clad tourists," which Hiaasen argues would be cruel and unusual punishment for Florida's native criminal element. Moving on to critters, in "Will Pythons Deter Visitors? Let's Hope So" (October 2005), he expresses optimism that the invasion of "killer pythons" could slow down Florida's growth rate. If "shark attacks, gator maulings, West Nile-oozing mosquitoes, flesh-eating bacteria," and "killer hurricanes every three or four weeks," don't scare people away, maybe a news story showing the X-ray of a 12-foot python that ate a Siamese cat named Frances could do the trick.
The chapter "Surrounded on Three Sides" focuses on the perils facing Florida's beaches and aquatic wildlife. Hiaasen addresses Big Oil and the impact of the Gulf oil spill on Florida's economy, and in "War has Been Declared on the Humble Sea Cow" (November 2001) he reveals how Tallahassee lobbyists pushed for the removal of manatees from the endangered species list, opening the door for the construction of more condominiums and boat docks. If you find that dumbfounding, wait til you read what the state allows developers to do to Gopher tortoises in exchange for a small contribution to a habitat fund.
What most of Hiaasen's assault on politics comes down to is something as green as the reptiles on the book's cover: money. Take the temptations sports offer. Money to build baseball parks. Money to pay for the renovation of a football stadium in order to make it baseball-friendly. Did you know that Wayne Huizenga, owner of Joe Robbie/Pro Player/Landshark/Sun Life/Dolphins Stadium, gets an annual rebate of two million dollars to pay for renovations allowing the Miami Marlins to play baseball in a football stadium? Never mind that the Marlins have their own stadium now; those rebates will continue to be paid for the next thirty years.
Those who think the criticism of government corruption that I've highlighted sounds like part of some liberal agenda needn't worry; Hiaasen is equally critical of both parties. In "A Sweet Setup at MIA" (October 2002), Hiaasen lauds (sarcasm) the appointment of Linda Forrest by Dade Aviation Consultants to oversee the construction project at Miami International Airport. Forrest collected a monthly salary of $50,000 for "essentially having a pulse." Forrest was hired as part of what Hiaasen jokingly calls a "minority set-aside program" in which South Florida companies "recruit minorities, put their names on the letterhead, then set them aside." This is done "to curry favor with the politicians who are awarding the contracts."
Fans whose only experience with Hiaasen is his fiction will recognize his socially satirical voice in Dance of the Reptiles. This collection of columns is equal parts funny, sad, and enraging. As a father of two, I felt my stomach turn at the articles on the children who slip through the cracks of Florida's over-burdened Department of Children and Families.
More recent columns selected for Dance of the Reptiles address Casey Anthony, George Zimmerman, face-eating zombies on bath salts, more corruption, and other topics that Floridians are tired of being mocked for, most notably election time screw-ups. Hiaasen's love for the Sunshine State comes through in the way he praises its beauty while decrying its seedy underbelly. If he really wants to deter the population boom, perhaps he should implore the state to make this required reading for anyone considering a move here. I'm sure someone in Tallahassee would be amenable to the idea. For a small fee.
Ed Irvin, a Florida Book Review Contributing Editor, lives and writes in Boynton Beach, FL.