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 miaminewtimes.com.
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.
Price starts with that fateful foul ball on a Sunday night in Little Rock and unspools the tape of both men's lives—one that began in Binghamton, New York, the other in Puerto Rico. The tales show life in the minor leagues is bitter, mean, and unfair.
"Fans look at baseball as this sort of Field of Dreams environment of magic and romanticism," says Price. "Baseball players really don't. Everybody's got an 'I got screwed' story. I wanted to write an adult book about baseball that told the truth about this very tough existence."
Comedian Andy Borowitz describes his work this way: "Two hundred and fifty words is the far reaches of my genre. Once I hit the 250th word, then it's like I'm writing Anna Karenina."
Borowitz's website, BorowitzReport.com, parodies topical political idiocies in concise fashion. It typically entertains around half a million people a day. Perhaps Leo Tolstoy should be taking notes.
The Bard of Shaker Heights is also a stand-up comedian and frequent contributor to The New Yorker, where he penned the classic "Emily Dickinson: Jerk of Amherst." He also created that touchstone of early '90s television: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
This will be Borowitz's third Miami Book Fair appearance, though he also admits to having once come down for Super Bowl weekend, but not for the actual Super Bowl. "The less said about that the better," he explains. One might assume Borowitz would read from the recently reissued "Bernie Madoff Edition" of his Who Moved My Soap? The CEO's Guide to Surviving in Prison (Simon & Schuster, $9.95). Instead he's doing a duet with fellow comedian Susie Essman, best known as Susie Greene on Curb Your Enthusiasm. (If we have to explain who that is...let's just say we shouldn't have to.) "We're going to interview each other," he explains. "There are sure to be many intrusive, inappropriate questions asked."
Ben Greenman was age 20 and fresh out of Yale when he started work for Miami New Times in 1990. The Palmetto Senior High alum joined a rabble-rousing crew including Greg Baker, Jim DeFede, Sean Rowe, and Steve Almond. They laid the foundation for our muckraking ways. "It was the Wild Wild West in those days," Greenman notes. "The paper gave us a lot of license to do creative work."
In "Cracking Up," he chronicled an experiment in which he followed the late mad scientist John Detrick around downtown Miami on a very hot summer day to see if eggs really would fry on sidewalks. In 1991, when violent criminals were targeting lost tourists in their rental cars, Greenman concocted the "New Times Rental Car Conversion Kit," a handy package of mail-order accessories tourists could use to give their rented vehicles a local look. "To be a journalist in Miami at the time, you always knew something crazy would come up," he says. "The paper was fun in a very intense way."
Greenman has gone on to edit the calendar section of the The New Yorker and in his free time, he writes quirky, clever fiction. His latest literary work, Please Step Back (Melville, $16.95), chronicles the life of Rock Foxx, a fictional musician who makes the transition from soul to rock during the heady Sixties.
You're dying to dig into Tao Lin's new novella, Shoplifting From American Apparel (Melville, $13), chronicling sex and theft among Generation Y's hipster-nerd contingent, but you can't solve that Internet-age ethical conundrum of whether to "file share" or pay actual money for your entertainment materials. Well, don't worry about it, the pressure's off. "If you care about my financial situation, I encourage you to buy it. If you don't care about my financial situation, I encourage you to steal it," Lin says. "I'm OK with either choice."
This is typical of Tao Lin. Born in Orlando, but now based out of Brooklyn, the 26-year-old author doesn't mind that the web is destroying the publishing industry and replacing it with complex networks of artists and friends who communicate (and disseminate their work) almost exclusively by blog, cell, email, text, and Gmail chat.
This is the cultural moment that Lin playfully confronts in Shoplifting From American Apparel as well as his previous published work: two books of poetry, a short story collection, and a novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee. He may be best known for self-promotional stunts, like the online sale offering $2,000 shares in a future Tao Lin work.
As for his appearance in Miami: "I plan to seem witty and charismatic yet shy and nervous, in a manner that people will blog about."
Back in the 1990s, Ann Louise Bardach made herself infamous in Miami by scoring a huge interview with Fidel Castro for Vanity Fair. Later, she nailed American hypocrisy toward terrorists when talking with Magic City mad bomber, Luis Posada Carriles. That work was published in the New York Times.
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In her new book, Without Fidel, Bardach tells more about Castro's present maladies (she calls him the "convalescent-in-chief" ) and his complicated family tree than has ever been divulged before. Suffice it to say, he has been as wily at avoiding death as he was in getting the drop on the CIA's exploding cigars.
Bardach predicts Fidel's ashes will be spread over a mountaintop and "there won't be a monument for anyone to deface." Then she adds: "There are no small Cuban stories. Drama is the key to all."
By P. Scott Cunningham, Tim Elfrink, Raina McLeod, Gus Garcia-Roberts, Lee Klein, Frank Alvarado, S. Pajot, and Chuck Strouse.