Van Peebles, Borowitz, S.L. Price at the Book Fair

For much of the year, Miami-Dade, like the rest of the country, has trouble thinking. Instead, it beeps its horn, shouts, sells land, writes legal briefs, builds baseball stadiums, raises children, kills pythons, overeats, breaks water mains, picks up people at the airport, and drops off people at the airport.

That all changes in November when Miami Dade College's Wolfson campus becomes an open classroom with the best visiting faculty in the world — otherwise known as the Miami Book Fair International. And for the three intense days of the final weekend, Miami sits down and does some serious thinking.

What follows is a little something about the authors we like this weekend. For more on each one of them, click on the Riptide blog at

Melvin Van Peebles
Melvin Van Peebles
Michael Lionstar

Back in the 1970s, while working on George McGovern's doomed presidential bid in Texas, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Taylor Branch shared a room with two driven young Yalies named Bill and Hillary Clinton. When the man from Hope won the White House in '92, Clinton invited Branch — in secret, even from his top advisors — to record interviews with him.

Eight years of furtive taping led to this year's 700-page The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History With the President (Simon & Schuster, $35). The book sketches a behind-the-scenes portrait of the most powerful man on Earth. "This is a unique book because it's not meant to be a historical evaluation. I was just too close to Bill for that," Branch says.

Instead, The Clinton Tapes fills in the blanks behind the biggest moments of Clinton's presidency as they happened. For instance, after Castro shot down Cuban-American pilots during the Brothers to the Rescue crisis in 1994, Branch writes, Clinton threatened Fidel Castro with military retaliation. "He was really starting to dip his toes in the water on loosening the embargo before that, but Fidel put him in a spot where he had no choice but to back out," Branch says today.

When Havana and Miami battled over the fate of little Elian Gonzalez, Clinton mostly stood aside and let Janet Reno and Al Gore handle the crisis. "Even in normal times, Clinton didn't feel he had much control over the Justice Department," Branch says.

For decades, Melvin Van Peebles has consistently flouted convention; he was the first black man to sit on the New York Stock Exchange. His Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is one of the most innovative examples of guerrilla filmmaking ever. Oh yeah, he's also an award-winning writer, director, playwright, composer, auteur, and now graphic novelist.

With his surprising foray into the graphic novel genre — Confessions of an Ex-Doofus Itchyfooted Mutha (Akashic, $17.95) — Van Peebles tells the story of a protagonist named Doofus. A near-death experience in a river results in a rebirth that leaves him dripping with the amniotic fluids of the big city. From there he begins an adventure that takes him overseas, to love, and finally, to self-awareness.

"As far as I was concerned, it's a dream to draw the things that you had in mind," Van Peebles says. "I really like the idea of a graphic novel. It's not very complicated, but I find it a wonderful way of telling what you're thinking."

Marie Ponsot's first book, True Minds, was published in 1957 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Pocket Poets Series, but it took until 1981 and some nudging by her friend Marilyn Hacker to put out her second volume, Admit Impediment. Why? Because while her male contemporaries were jockeying for awards and professorships, Ponsot, now age 88, was raising seven children, 16 grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren. She wrote poems because she loved doing it.

"When things were very intense, I had a rule that I had to write for at least ten minutes before bed every night," she says.

Her 1998 book The Bird Catcher won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and she's teaching a new generation of students at the 92nd Street Y and the New School in Manhattan. Her newest volume, Easy (Knopf, $26), got its name from the section of tightly rhymed songs that are in contrast to her more weighty musings. "When I told a friend I'd finished a new manuscript, he said, 'Terrific, but I hope it's not full of those long, philosophical poems you write,'" she explains. "I said, 'No, this one's easy.' And I realized right away, that was the name of the book."

But there are several long meditations on death and even short poems, like "Bliss and Grief," pack Ponsot's deep wisdom into a few spare words: "No one / is here / right now."

Former Miami Herald scribe and current Sports Illustrated senior writer S.L. Price makes his living where sports and culture intersect. His 2000 book Pitching Around Fidel was an exploration of the crumbling Cuban sports machine. His newest nonfiction tome, Heart of the Game (Ecco, $24.99), describes a similarly closed and arbitrarily ruled fiefdom: minor league baseball.

In a July 2007 contest between two bush-league ball clubs, a first base coach named Mike Coolbaugh was killed almost instantly when a batted ball hit him in the neck. It had been hit by a player named Tino Sanchez. Both were minor league lifers. The tragic accident was national news for a moment, but the sports media quickly moved on.

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