Hit Picks of Miami Lit

In which local authors and aficionados list their favorites

The rules were simple. An array of Miami's leading literati were asked to compile a list of their favorite writing this city has inspired -- either from its homegrown talent or from intrigued out-of-towners. As the results came in, there was the expected acclaim for deserving trailblazers like Reinaldo Arenas and Charles Willeford; latter-day standard-bearers like John Dufresne, Carl Hiaasen, and Ana Menéndez; and even props for a few full-on yanquis like Russell Banks and Peter Matthiessen, whose long-distance visions of Florida seem to have struck a chord.

But a more disquieting trend emerged regarding some of Miami's newer talent. Forget what you were told in school: Crime does pay, or at least writing about it does. In contrast, literary fiction, as our hard-boiled brethren would sneer, is a sucker's bet. Short-story writer Laura Valeri and poet Richard Blanco (both MFA grads from Florida International University) have produced award-winning books that are suffused with Miamiana -- yet both had to leave South Florida to continue working in the world of arts and letters.

"You can get $20,000 for a literary novel or you can get a $200,000 advance for a crime novel," observes FIU creative writing professor Campbell McGrath. And while McGrath's own poetry landed him a MacArthur Foundation $280,000 "genius" grant, he doesn't recommend that other aspiring poets rely on such rewards. Novelist and fellow FIU academic John Dufresne agrees with McGrath. "We literary people need a day job," he says. As for Blanco and Valeri's departure for chillier climes: "You have to go where the jobs are."

Carolina Garcia-Aguilera
Jonathan Postal
Carolina Garcia-Aguilera

Of course, a reverse snobbery can come into play as well, one that deems crime fiction as literature's backwoods cousin. Thanks to her gritty Lupe Solano detective series (don't be fooled by Lupe's Manolo Blahniks and Chanel purse -- she's packing a 9mm Beretta), South Beach's Carolina Garcia-Aguilera isn't exactly hurting for cash these days. She received a personal letter of thanks from her local Cadillac dealership after her daughter picked up her new Escalade; they'd never before sold a $52,000 SUV to a sixteen-year-old. And with her 2002 foray into romantic novels, One Hot Summer, in its fifth printing ("I had to figure out how to write scenes where two people were in bed together and both were still breathing"), Hollywood has been sending over some appreciative feelers as well.

Yet while Garcia-Aguilera has seen her work translated into Finnish, German, Japanese, Thai, and Czech ("I've got a fan club in Prague that sends me the minutes from their monthly meetings"), it wasn't until the release of her seventh book that a Spanish-language publisher was willing to take the plunge, despite the obvious selling points of a Cuban-American mystery franchise set in Miami.

"Some of the editors wouldn't even take a meeting," recalls Marla Norman, sales director of the Miami-based Grupo Planeta, the eventual Spanish imprint for Garcia-Aguilera's mysteries. "In Spain and Latin America the editors want books that are more depressing. They don't understand what pure entertainment is. They felt [Garcia-Aguilera's] books were beneath them."

For a combination of both those categories (call it depressing entertainment!) foreign editors could turn to Miami's nonfiction classics, where truth is still stranger than any fiction. Up For Grabs, John Rothchild's bitterly funny history of this area's founding hustlers, con men, and real estate speculators, is -- unfortunately -- as relevant to today's condo-clogged skyline as it was when first published in 1985. Joan Didion's 1987 Miami, with its murky tales of el exilio intrigue brushing up against the White House, also remains disturbingly familiar.

In fact, sixteen years on, Didion's rogues gallery still haunts the headlines: Ex-mayors Maurice Ferré and Xavier Suarez continue to circle city hall, anti-Castristas Guillermo Novo and Luis Posada are a bit grayer but once again on trial for allegedly toting around a suitcase full of plastic explosives in an assassination plot, and even Elliott Abrams -- convicted of deceiving Congress during the Iran-contra hearings -- has been presidentially pardoned and is back in the West Wing as the National Security Council senior director for Middle Eastern affairs. So, as Rothchild himself mused in his Up For Grabs closing, if this city is so corrupt, so gaudy, so shameless, so felonious, and so downright silly, what reason could any writer have to stay here? "It's got sunshine, close proximity to the airport, and Cuban coffee. And if you take the view that in 1000 years nobody will care about the problems, Miami is the greatest show on earth." In the meantime we have plenty to read.

Edwidge Danticat

Author of Krik? Krak! and Breath, Eyes, Memory

1. In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd by Ana Menéndez

This was my first exposure to Little Havana's Domino Park before I came to Miami. A beautiful collection of stories about Cuban Americans, and all of us really.

2. The Bonplezi Family by Maude Heurtelou

Heurtelou is a wonderful Haitian writer who deserves to be much better known. She writes about Haitians and Haitian Americans, and has the best ear for our speech patterns on this side of the border. Her book features the Bonplezis, who start out in the Haitian countryside and end up having a son in the Ivy League.

3. Miami by Joan Didion

Classic Joan Didion. Masterful. Wonderful.

4. Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights by Tananarive Due and Patricia Stephens Due

I'm a big fan of Ms. Due. It was a great treat to see the events and circumstances (and mother) that shaped and nurtured her. We should all have a mother like Patricia Stephens Due.

5. Cantos to Blood & Honey by Adrian Castro

If nothing else, read his poem "Some Guayaberas Spell Nostalgia," where you find this great line: "Cuba is on vacation in Miami, come back another day." Adrian is fabulous on the page, but if you get to see him read in person, oh boy!

Ivonne Lamazares

Author of The Sugar Island

1. Continental Drift by Russell Banks

2. The Sunset Maker by Donald Justice

3. Empirical Evidence by Steve Kronen

4. El Hombre, La Hembra y El Hambre by Daina Chaviano

5. Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas

Preston L. Allen

Author of Hoochie Mama and Churchboys and Other Sinners

1. The Sugar Island by Ivonne Lamazares

2. Miami Purity by Vicki Hendricks

3. The Kind of Things Saints Do by Laura Valeri

4. My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due

5. Hoochie Mama by yours truly

Raquel Roque

Owner of Downtown Book Center

1. Miami Blues by Charles Willeford

2. The Chin Kiss King by Ana Veciana-Suarez

3. The Perez Family by Christine Bell

4. Under Cover of Daylight by James W. Hall

5. Going To Miami by David Rieff

6. Miracle in Miami by Zoe Valdes

7. Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire

8. Miami First by Maurice Pitchon

Miami First is actually the worst example of local literature. But my little bookstore is mentioned and visited by the main character, so I love it.

John Rothchild

Author of Up For Grabs and A Fool and His Money

1. Miami by Joan Didion

2. The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

3. Swordfish by David McClintick

4. Tourist Season by Carl Hiaasen

5. Tres Tristes Tigres (Three Trapped Tigers) by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

Sure, Three Trapped Tigers is set in Havana, not Miami, but it captures the Miami flavor.

Jonathon King

Author of The Blue Edge of Midnight and A Visible Darkness

1. Miami Blues by Charles Willeford

2. Last Train to Paradise by Les Standiford

3. In the Heat of the Summer by John Katzenbach

4. Black Miami in the Twentieth Century by Marvin Dunn

5. The Deep Blue Good-by by John D. MacDonald

Joanne Hyppolite

Author of Ola Shakes It Up and Seth and Samona

1. The Between by Tananarive Due

Spine-tingling supernatural fiction by this former Herald columnist who was also raised in Miami -- and her in-depth knowledge of the city shows.

2. Black Miami in the Twentieth Century by Marvin Dunn Do you know how hard it is to find a book that addresses the history of African Americans in South Florida? They're few and far between, which makes this book a real gem. It's thorough, readable, and you can tell the author (an FIU psychology professor) loves his subject.

3. When Night Falls, Kric! Krac!: Haitian Folktales by Liliane Nerette Louis

This Miami-based Haitian storyteller has channeled her powerful storytelling skills into a captivating text on, of course, some of the fave Haitian folktales out there.

Michael Hettich

Author of Singing with My Father and Behind Our Memories

1. Remembering Heaven's Face by John Balaban

2. Locusts at the Edge of Summer by John Balaban

3. Continental Drift by Russell Banks

4. Boy Picked Up by the Wind by Robert Gregory

5. Love Warps the Mind a Little by John Dufresne

John Dufresne

Author of Deep in the Shade of Paradise and Louisiana Power & Light

1. Naked Came the Manatee by Brian Antoni, Dave Barry, Edna Buchanan, Tananarive Due, John Dufresne, James W. Hall, Vicki Hendricks, Carl Hiaasen, Carolina Hospital, Elmore Leonard, Paul Levine, Evelyn Mayerson, and Les Standiford

2. The Kind of Things Saints Do by Laura Valeri

3. Hurricane Center by Geoffrey Philp

4. Hoochie Mama by Preston L. Allen

5. Dreamers, Schemers, and Scalawags by Stuart B. McIver

Diana Abu-Jaber

Author of Crescent and Arabian Jazz

1. Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat

I'm always attracted to writers with a great "voice," a style with literary flair and emotional depth, and many Floridians seem to have this sort of vibrancy in their work. The landscape is so bold that it's almost inevitably a part of any writer's creative process. I've only moved here recently, but I already feel the way the light and texture of Miami infiltrates my own writing. Still, it might be more accurate to call many of my favorite Miami writers "Miamians-by-association." Danticat has lived in Miami and her Caribbean sensibility melds exquisitely with the tropical fluidity of this city. This book blends political pathos with lyrical grace for a stunning cultural portrayal.

2. All Over But the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg

Another Miami-sojourner who has a brilliant intensity that shines through both his journalism and this memoir, a delicate portrayal of the landscape of personal history and a complex emotional drama.

3. Monkey Hunting by Cristina Garcia

Garcia has close personal links with Miami and her most recent novel provides a unique, thrilling look at surprising intersections of immigrant history, ranging from China to Cuba to the New World.

4. Tourist Season by Carl Hiaasen

An irreverent novel which gives Florida back to the Floridians, capturing the intrinsic wildness of spirit, humor, and creativity that flavor this town.

5. Miami U.S.A. by Helen Muir

I don't generally read history books, but a friend gave us a copy of this as a housewarming present and it's become an invaluable guide, charting the inspiration and development of our "dream city."

Howard Kleinberg

Author of Miami: The Way We Were and Miami Beach: A History

1. Historical Sketches and Sidelights of Miami, Florida by Isidor Cohen

My favorite book about Miami is an oldie, a 1925 volume on the shelves of some local libraries and antiquarian bookstores (and at my house). For its time, it's quite anecdotal and humorous while still telling of our early history. An excerpt from when Cohen first arrived in Miami in February 1896 and tried to obtain some land from Julia Tuttle to open a dry-goods store: "Result very disappointing. Must wait until land is cleared and streets laid out, when lots will be put on sale. On declaring that I could not wait, owing to my destitute condition, I was told to take a job clearing land, whereupon I tried to impress this naive lady that the last labor of this character my race had performed was in the land of Egypt, and that it would be a violation of my religious convictions to resume that condition of servitude."

2. The Corpse Had a Familiar Face by Edna Buchanan

3. Miami: City of the Future by T.D. Allman

4. Miami: The Magic City by Arva Moore Parks

5. Miami Blues by Charles Willeford

Juan Manuel Salvat

Owner of Ediciones Universal press and bookstore

1. Cuba from Columbus to Castro and Beyond by Jaime Suchlicki

2. Cuban Art and Identity: The Vanguardia Painters 1927-1950 by Juan A. Martínez

3. Cuba for Kids: An Illustrated History Book by Ismael Roque-Velasco

4. Reflections on Cuba and Its Future by Luis Aguilar Len

5. The Cubans of Miami: Language and Society by Humberto Lpez Morales

Alejandro Rios

Miami Book Fair International co-organizer

1. Mírala Antes de Morir by Santiago Rodriguez

I chose some books that paint a picture of Miami's darker side. We recently learned from the newspapers about a police officer who was having sex with a minor in a little Eighth Street motel, and you can find a lot of that tone in Rodriguez's novels. In fact his most recent book begins with that very story.

2. La Vida en Pedazos by Santiago Rodriguez

3. Boarding Home by Guillermo Rosales

A micro-hell of exile and the Cuban dictatorship.

4. Vicio de Miami by Néstor Díaz de Villegas Brilliant renditions of outsiders in Miami.

5. Ciudad Mágica by Esteban Luis Cárdenas

He's had a terrible accident since arriving in Miami, yet still writes with as much love as despair.

6. Little Havana Memorial Park by Leandro Eduardo Campa

A homeless writer who's since disappeared, the characters in this book are simply unforgettable -- as is the author himself.

Dave Barry

Author of Boogers Are My Beat: More Lies, but Some Actual Journalism and Babies and Other Hazards of Sex: How

To Make a Tiny Person in Only Nine Months with Tools You

Probably Have Around the Home

1. Pretty much anything by John D. MacDonald

I know they're set mainly in Fort Lauderdale, but hey, they're great books.

2. Tourist Season by Carl Hiaasen

3. Pretty much anything by Elmore Leonard involving Miami

4. The Commodore's Story: The Early Days on Biscayne Bay by Ralph Middleton Munroe and Vincent Gilpin

James Grippando

Author of Last To Die and Beyond Suspicion

1. Killing Mister Watson by Peter Matthiessen

Another Matthiessen masterpiece, a lyrical and somewhat factual account of the ritualized murder of a real-life entrepreneur in the Florida Everglades a hundred years ago. Matthiessen captures the spirit of an era when the rule of law was: "Suspect everyone, trust no one." In Miami some things never change.

2. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

Many people don't realize that the man who wrote the mother of all serial-killer novels is a Miami resident. But hey, if you wrote what he wrote, would you want people knowing where you live?

3. Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard

You've seen the movie (it became Jackie Brown), now read the book. If you're an aspiring writer, Leonard is like a primer on great dialogue.

4. In the Heat of the Summer by John Katzenbach

It became The Mean Season, but the title was the only thing about the film that was better than the book.

5. The Deep Blue Good-by by John D. MacDonald

Everyone from Stephen King to Sue Grafton sings the praises of John D. MacDonald. The first in the classic Travis McGee series, and a good look at Miami in the 1960s.

6. The Paperboy by Pete Dexter

This complex tale involving a Miami reporter investigating a murder is a great way to discover this award-winning novelist. At the very least you'll know what to do with urine if ever you're stung by jellyfish.

7. Continental Drift by Russell Banks

Even if you have no idea what it's like to be Haitian in Miami, this is a powerful story of haves and have-nots.

8. Sideswipe by Charles Willeford

Classic Miami noir, a sequel to Miami Blues, and definitely the best of the Hoke Moseley series. You'll wonder why so many people have never heard of Willeford.

9. In the Fast Lane by Carol Cope

True crime about a wife accused of murdering her husband in Coconut Grove. Miami's version of In Cold Blood.

10. Louisiana Power & Light by John Dufresne

Not set in Miami, but Dufresne could be Miami's finest writer.

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