Best Florida books—How many have you read recently?

By Victoria Parsons

As you settle in for a cold winter weekend and wonder about something new to read, reconsider “new” and check out this list of favorite Florida books from Jeff Klinkenberg, one of my favorite Florida writers.

“I didn’t want an ‘English professor’ list,” says Klinkenberg, who took early retirement from the Tampa Bay Times last year and has published five books featuring his favorite columns.

“It started out with about 10 to 12 books. I took them on the road with me and talked to people about them.”

Some were easy selections, like the classic River of Grass, but others found their place on his list with help from his readers. Lion’s Paw, for instance, was once one of the most expensive children’s books in the world until it came back into print.

“People kept telling me what a wonderful book it was and then someone finally lent me a copy,” Klinkenberg recalled.

Written in 1946 by Robb White, it’s the story of an orphaned brother and sister who “borrow” a sailboat with a friend and set off in search of a rare shell — the lion’s paw — that promises to bring them good luck. “It’s a terrific adventure story,” Klinkenberg said.

It’s also been reprinted and is available online at http://www.thelionspaw.org/ or Amazon.

The original list didn’t include Patrick Smith’s A Land Remembered either. “It’s less literary than some of the other books, but people kept telling me how much it meant to them and that I needed to give it another chance. I do think it gives people a real sense of place.”

The only author who has two books on Klinkenberg’s list is John D. MacDonald, the prolific writer who created the iconic Travis McGee series and wrote Condominium, the terrifying tale of a hurricane striking a fictional barrier island on the gulf coast. Randy Wayne White — “MacDonald’s true successor” — is a current fictional favorite along with novelist and Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen.

Some of the books I read in high school or college, and it was fascinating to go back and re-read them. It’s difficult to tell that the MacDonald books (reprinted at least twice since they were originally published in the 1960s) or Tom McGuane’s 1972 novel Ninety-Two in the Shade were written decades ago.

Others, including William Bartram’s Travels (1791) and the WPA Guide to Florida (1939) are clearly historical. Harriet Beecher Stowe, best-known as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, moved to Mandarin after the Civil War and her published columns were compiled into Palmetto Leaves in 1873. Still, her advice to visitors rings true 150 years later:

“Meanwhile, we caution everybody coming to Florida, Don’t hope for too much. Because you hear that roses and callas blossom in the open air all winter, and flowers abound in the woods, don’t expect to find an eternal summer. Prepare yourself to see a great deal that looks rough and desolate and coarse; prepare yourself for some chilly days and nights; and, whatever else you neglect to bring with you, bring the resolution, strong and solid, always to make the best of things.”

I haven’t finished reading the entire list but I’m looking forward to a chilly weekend curled up inside with Shadow Country (2008) by Peter Matthiessen, a semi-fictional account of a sugar cane grower who was killed in the Ten Thousand Islands. I somehow missed retired history professor Gary Mormino’s Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams when it was published in 2005.

And searching online I even discovered one of Klinkenberg’s books I didn’t already own. Real Florida: Key Lime Pies, Worm Fiddlers, a Man Called Frog and Other Endangered Species (1993) is in my car now where I can look forward to reading it while waiting for doctors, auto repairmen and other slow-moving services. Sometimes I even resent them actually finishing quickly and interrupting my chance to sit quietly and read.

Jeff’s favorite Florida books

  • Travels, William Bartram, 1791
  • Palmetto-Leaves, Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1873
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston, 1937
  • The Yearling, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, 1938
  • The WPA Guide to Florida, edited (among others) by Stetson Kennedy 1939
  • Everglades: River of Grass, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, 1947
  • The Deep Blue Goodbye, John D. MacDonald, 1964
  • Oranges, John McPhee, 1966
  • Ninety-Two in the Shade, Thomas McGuane, 1972
  • Condominium, John D. MacDonald, 1977
  • A Land Remembered, Patrick D. Smith, 1984
  • Tourist Season, Carl Hiaasen, 1987
  • The Man Who Invented Florida, Randy Wayne White, 1993
  • Florida: a Short History, Michael Gannon, 1993
  • A Naturalist in Florida, Archie Carr, 1994
  • Anna in the Tropics, Nilo Cruz, 2002
  • Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams, Gary Mormino, 2005
  • Shadow Country, Peter Matthiessen, 2008

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