Tag Archives: Florida

The Lola Quartet – Emily St. John Mandel

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The Lola Quartet is woven, like those sit-upons you made from folded newspaper in Girl Scouts, out of the front pages of New York City tabloids and Florida dailies. Emily St. John Mandel strings it all together in a convincing story that is dismally depressing and wholly believable. Gavin has his dream job at a New York newspaper, the second most important paper in the city. Only it’s not so dreamy. The newspaper business is in freefall and lay-offs are a weekly bloodbath. Senior reporters scooped up all the good assignments in the days before the papers farmed coverage out to the wire services and freelancers. Gavin feels as if he’d missed the great era and he knows his out-of-town assignment to his childhood home in Florida is a kindness from an editor who likes him.

He hates Florida. His whole life he’s suffered from extreme heat exhaustion and he is in real physical distress in a subtropical climate. But he diligently plods around interviewing Everglades rangers and homeowners along canal banks where deadly giant pythons have been turning up. Florida is becoming a perilous place to live as exotic wild beasts multiply and grow to enormous size–and threaten to devour a few toddlers in their own backyards. Gavin gets the story but he gets something he hadn’t counted on, a reminder of a painful moment of his past that he discovers isn’t over.

In his confusion, he forgets to write down the name of the person who gave him the quote he needs to make his story. And when he gets back to the Big Apple and the deadline, he makes up a name and “helps” the quote a little farther along toward juicy. Where have we seen that fatal mistake before?  He’s slightly sick about it but soon he does it again, and again. His concentration is gone, his friends are gone from the paper, he’s probably next and the news from Florida has taken over his mind.

What Gavin sees is a photograph of a 10-year-old girl who is a ringer for his only sister. The child could be his high school girlfriend’s. She vanished on the eve of graduation without a goodbye or an explanation. So Gavin went off to college and his big career, got engaged, got unengaged and, when the truth about his journalistic embroidery comes out, gets fired. Pretty soon he gets evicted, too. Homeless, he heads back to Florida where his sister has offered him a job helping her to foreclose and re-sell houses, and a place to stay. In Florida he confronts the remnants of the Lola Quartet.

The quartet was a group of high school jazz enthusiasts who played fairly well, entertained their peers and scored a few gigs around town. They haven’t kept in touch but that’s about to change. Contemporary events color this story throughout. There’s a Bernie Madoff-like scandal, Gavin’s own malfeasance and public firing, the demise of the communications industry, drowned newspaper journalists washing up on the shore of online content production gigs, unwed mothers raising kids in adequate and in abusive conditions, gambling addictions and the proliferation of scratch-off lottery games, drug dealers, thieves on the lam, crooked cops who wish they weren’t–not too much that’s admirable about our present culture is left out.

Anna, the mother of the girl who looks like Gavin’s sister, happens to have walked off with more than $100,000 from a drug dealer who gave her a place to stay when she had the baby. Chloe, the child, is a beacon for all kinds of hopes but the lives around her are too broken for much good to come of anything.  Duplicity haunts half the characters and literally drives them to murder. Things rapidly slide from bad to worse to really terrible. 

I found the book depressing, if only because the events were so spot-on. What happens in The Lola Quartet is the real deal, thinly disguised as fiction. Very well done, too. Sad. You can see the train wrecks coming a mile away but they plow on into disaster anyway. I didn’t need to escape this messed-up reality into an even messier one just like it, so I can’t say I enjoyed this book. I can say that Emily St. John Mandel can tell a good story and she threads together a ton of recognizable raw material into a coherent plot. The Lola Quartet works–and if your life is gleaming and perfect and you want to tone it down a bit, this could be a terrific choice to while away a few hours.    

The Lola Quartet   Emily St. John Mandel | Unbridled Books   2012

Blue Asylum – Kathy Hepinstall

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Blue Asylum has the clarity of perfectly clean water, pale blue and clear to the sandy bottom, so empty that you can see the markings on the shells there. The water off Florida’s Sanibel Island in the Gulf of Mexico, setting for the lunatic asylum that swallows Iris Dunleavy just after the Civil War, used to be that blue and translucent. The beaches were thick with prized shells and sea turtles covered the sand above the tideline with their nests each summer and their hatchlings in the height of hurricane season. I don’t know if there was ever a mental hospital on the island, back in the late 1800s, but Blue Asylum is a credible approximation of what one would have been.

Iris is delivered to the private human warehouse by cattle boat after her plantation owner husband has her declared insane and committed. Her crime is to have been too dreamy a girl, marrying a brute who considered his slaves to be disposable property, refusing to celebrate the bloody whippings for minor, or imagined, infractions, plotting a disastrous escape and insisting on her own autonomy, integrity and sanity in a sadistic patriarchal society.

The asylum is full of rich characters—the woman who believes her adored husband of forty years is still alive and dances with her on the beach, the seemingly sane woman who swallows things that are not meant to be swallowed, the Confederate soldier who slips into a screaming frenzy at any trigger for the nightmares that grip his memory and his mind. The psychiatrist is as obstinate and obtuse as the sentencing judge—Iris must be mad, else why would she be in his establishment? The matron is a malicious beast who sets Iris up for the horrifying water cure, a torture the doctor has developed to treat resistant cases.

Wendell, the shrink’s thirteen-year-old son, is going mad himself, isolated on the mosquito- and alligator-infested barrier island. He harbors terrible guilt and crushing grief for the suicide of a girl he befriended before Iris arrived. Wendell is a great character—the most empathetic and evolved person in the story. He worries about Iris as she falls in love with a dangerous patient.

What happens when truth is corrosive enough to eat through the lies wrecks the comfortable assumptions that order this mad world. The personal horrors that the main players harbor are revealed slowly but evidence of them is there from the first. Terrific book but hard to read because it made me so furious at the way human connection and the intrinsic worth of women, children, slaves and the spiritually wounded were casually and relentlessly discounted.

Confronting reality comes at a cost. People do change in the course of the novel and some are lost. That kid Wendell is a prize. Good read, if at times blood-pressure-raising. Blue Asylum is a story well-told.

Blue Asylum   Kathy Hepinstall | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt   2012

Chomp – Carl Hiaasen

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Hooray for Carl Hiaasen and Chomp, the latest in his Florida wilderness adventures for intrepid kids. Chomp, as you might deduce, deals with a very large and toothy alligator but the comic romp (sorry, irresistible rhyming compulsion) ranges all over the exotic flora and fauna of the Everglades and the reckless foibles of the flawed human species as well. It’s wild, in every sense of the word. And it’s fun, because Hiaasen’s children’s books are educational and hilarious and this one is no exception.

Wahoo Cray plans to change his name to something normal as soon as he hits eighteen and can do so legally. For the time being, he helps his father wrangle the menagerie of critters that live on their property at the edge of the Glades, tossing nuked whole chickens to Alice the gator, who accidentally crunched off his thumb once, and feeding pythons, monkeys, turtles and whatever else wanders into their “zoo”. Wahoo’s mom is a language teacher who flies off to China as the book opens to make some cash from tin-eared executives so the family can catch up on the mortgage and avoid foreclosure. Not much money has been coming in since dad was conked on the head by a frozen giant iguana that tumbled out of a palm tree during a cold snap.

By the time a reader digests all this madness, the arrival of a reality TV crew and a fake made-for-television survivalist and adventurer seems almost tame. Alice nearly chomps the back end off the TV star when he ignores the Cray duo’s warning about provoking her. The show then hires the two of them to guide the production into the real Everglades to encounter actual wild creatures for the star to wrestle into submission and probably roast over a counterfeit campfire. While collecting supplies for the expedition, they rescue a girl named Tuna with a major shiner in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart where she lives with her drunk, abusive father in a trailer. And then things really get interesting.

Throughout the violence–staged and real–with chopper shots, stunt doubles, razor-toothed wildlife, crashed air boats and loaded guns, Hiaasen delivers a boatload of information about indigenous and invasive species, the destructive incursion of people into a pristine wilderness, the idiocy of same species, and the wonders to be glimpsed when you venture off the beaten trails. There are good old boys—and bad old boys—greedy media types, plucky kids, deluded and well-meaning grown-ups, fortuitous and disastrous accidents and nonstop action. He even manages to sneak in a subplot about vampires, capitalizing on the current craze for the paranormal without sacrificing the fine intelligence and irony that give every incident a delicious twist.  

Hiaasen has delivered another knock-out punch. Hoot, Flush and Scat are his previous books for kids and the discriminating adults I know who have sampled them are as enamored of the formula as younger readers. May he never run out of environmental crusades to wage so we can look forward to many more one-syllable escapades in Florida’s endangered and endlessly entertaining ecosystems. Chomp is excellent. Devour it at your earliest opportunity.

Chomp    Carl Hiaasen | Alfred A. Knopf   2012

Swamplandia! – Karen Russell

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Swamplandia! How to sum it up? I honestly can’t. Karen Russell’s debut novel has had some terrific press, great reviews, inclusion in end-of-year “best” lists and super-hyper blurbs. It is ambitious. It has a lot of vocabulary. It evokes a part-real, part-imagined rural Florida world stuck in the 50s. It has a plucky young heroine on the cusp of adolescence who is a first-person narrator. Ava will remind you of other plucky young girls like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. But she isn’t Scout; this isn’t To Kill a Mockingbird and, after a few pages, the contrived vocabulary forms its own kind of mire.

The Bigtree family lives on an island off the southwest Florida coast in an area known as the Ten Thousand Islands. It is a real place—I’ve spent time there—and most of the “islands” are little more than clumps of mangrove reaching out into the Gulf of Mexico. The family members are not really Bigtrees. Their name was made-up by a father who found it convenient to leave a rather checkered past behind and reinvent himself as a pseudo-Seminole Indian. The mother, Hilola, is the star of an alligator show for tourists in a shabby gator theme-park called Swamplandia with daily alligator wrestling, daredevil swimming in a pool of alligators and other quintessentially old Florida tacky tourist trap entertainment. The kids sell snacks, tickets and help out. Chief Bigtree, AKA Dad, presides over all. Then mom gets cancer and dies.

Things fall apart just before they really disintegrate. Without mom—no show. No more tourists–no money. An even cheesier theme park opens on the mainland and siphons off the dwindling revenue.  Big sister Osceola wanders off into mental illness, Kiwi, the brother runs off to find a mainland job, get a real education and rescue his family, dad heads for the mainland for some unspecified activity called “finding investors.” Ava is left to salvage the lot. She’s barely thirteen. She seems to be the world’s last remaining naïve innocent. Her vocabulary is wholly inconsistent with a naïf, raised without education, in an economically-marginalized, not-even-blue-collar family. No one has her back and, instead of salvage, she finds damage. Big time. The kid is savaged.

The story goes nowhere for long stretches and then it bogs down in the swamp. Nothing good at all happens to these people. They are on the losing side of life and they remain stuck there. Life wasn’t too great for openers and then it got worse. Sometimes the language was so inventive I had no idea what it meant. Clever prose that won’t quit can be a roadblock that interrupts a story’s flow.

Swamplandia! mixes elements of magical realism with an account of a doomed family and some accurate depictions of backwoods, makeshift tourism, all delivered via the viewpoint of an idiosyncratic girl punctuated by first-person narration from her desperate-to-be-conventional brother, Kiwi. Karen Russell can play with words and she may have some spectacular books in her. But I found it a tough slog through a mucky swamp and I’m not sure this is one of them.

Swamplandia! (Vintage Contemporaries)   Karen Russell | Alfred A. Knopf   2011

Oranges – John McPhee

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It’s the season for vitamin C so I read John McPhee’s wonderful book about Oranges. McPhee digs deep into his subjects and hands up plenty of quirky info-bits that you never knew about the most mundane things. Oranges, ubiquitous in juice at the breakfast table, sliced and served chilled, chocolate-dipped or grated into muffins and scones, are not so mundane and their peculiarities and history make for interesting reading.

Oranges breathe like we do. They breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Unlike trees. Are we in competition for our polluted air? Oranges come from China—what doesn’t? Columbus brought the first oranges to the Americas, along with a few other less fortuitous imports from Europe. And, when you see oranges in those lush paintings of the Last Supper, remember that they are an anachronous addition of the Renaissance painters who dropped in a bit of color—even though Christ probably never saw an orange in his life as there were none in the Middle East back then.

Once upon a time, when you crossed the state line from Georgia into Florida with your station wagon full of restless kids and a long haul to Miami in front of you, you would stop at the Welcome Station. There you could get maps and such but the real reason for the stop, aside from the clean bathrooms, was the free, fresh-squeezed orange juice they handed you. Fresh-squeezed is nothing like what you get at the grocery store. It is nectar of the gods, golden, sweet, a tiny bit tart and fabulous. I can’t remember if they allowed you seconds.

The color of an orange does not reveal its ripeness, sweetness or the color of its juice. A green orange might be fully ripened when you cut it open. Cold is what causes the outer skin to turn orange so, in tropical climates where the weather never actually gets cold, the citrus fruit you eat and squeeze into bright orange juice is green. And, just to add to the confusion, fruit that turns orange in a chill, before it is truly ripe inside, can revert to green as the weather warms and it finishes ripening.

Cold can wreck a grove as well as turn it a lovely, marketable color. A prolonged freeze can split a tree trunk and destroy the fruit so Florida’s grove owners try various tactics, from overhead sprinklers that coat the trees with a slick of ice that protects the fruit until morning, to burning tires and smudge pots or oil heaters between the rows, to wind machines that mix cold ground air with warmer upper air to raise the temperature. But a real freeze will do serious damage no matter what strategies are in place and significant portions of annual crops have been lost to freezes.

Plant an orange seed and you might not get an orange tree. I found that hard to believe but McPhee says an orange seed could just as easily produce a grapefruit tree. Orange groves are made from planted root stock on which the buds of the type of orange desired are grafted. The tree is pruned so the graft takes over and produces pre-selected oranges on demand.

McPhee recounts historical mentions of oranges, the early European fascination with the blossoms and the decorative swirl of the peel rather than the edible fruit, the way oranges have been diverted into frozen juices, flavoring crystals, concentrate. There is so much more to oranges than breakfast and a slash of golden sun in gloomy winter. Track down a copy of Oranges and read it on some dark day. It will make you thirsty.

Oranges  John McPhee | Farrar, Straus and Giroux   2000