In his introduction to “Florida!” poet and fifth-generation Floridian Tyler Gillespie writes about being on Clearwater Beach one night, sweeping his hand in the water and seeing stars. “This must be magic, I thought, slightly drunk at the time, or maybe it’s toxic. This is Florida.” Turns out it was bioluminescent plankton, but it’s all Florida.
So is this sunny, quirky book, fully titled “Florida! A Hyper-local Guide to the Flora, Fauna, and Fantasy of the Most Far-out State in America.” It delivers on that subtitle’s promise with 574 colorful pages packed with everything Florida — well, the fun parts, anyway.
The book was edited by Times staff writer Gabrielle Calise, who describes her day job as writing about “local history and shenanigans for her hometown paper.” Clearly that qualified her for this project, which is rife with history, shenanigans and more.
Written by a number of contributors and organized geographically, from the Panhandle to the Keys, the book includes some of what you might find in other tourist guides to the state, such as features on events like the Interstate Mullet Toss, Gasparilla and the Hemingway Look-alike Contest. But this book has bonuses: how to toss that mullet, how much your pirate costume might cost ($1,236.28) and why you’ll need to learn to use something called a Cuban yo-yo to win the Hemingway contest.
And don’t miss the collection of one-star Everglades reviews: “Too wet and there were to many plants and an alligator ate my dog.”
The book covers many of the multitude of communities that call Florida home, from the psychics of Cassadaga and the Mennonites of Pinecraft to the nudists of Pasco County and the drag queens of Orlando. There are mermaids and worm grunters, people who wrestle gators and people who put on bikinis and wrestle in vats of coleslaw.
You’ll find histories of and recipes for favorite Florida foods, which are often surrounded by controversy, like the Cuban sandwich and key lime pie. (When we’re not fighting gators, we fight each other over what’s on the menu.)
There are pages on little-known Florida history, like the Jim Crow-era Paradise Park, a mile down the road from Silver Springs and owned by the same people. The only difference? Black people could go to Paradise Park but were not allowed in Silver Springs.
The book includes essays and poems from a range of Florida writers, some of them salutes to favorite hallmarks of the state, like Nick D’Allessandro’s “Dear Publix, I Love You” and Calise’s own very funny story about hurricane parties, “Leave the Umbrella, Take the Cannoli.”
“Florida!” is jam-packed with photos and bursting with psychedelic illustrations by Gabriel Alcala that borrow their colors from flamingos, tropical foliage and the waters around the Seven Mile Bridge.
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I’m leaving out a lot, obviously. Cruise around in this book’s 500-plus pages and you’ll keep finding surprises — another pretty good description of Florida.
Florida! A Hyper-local Guide to the Flora, Fauna, and Fantasy of the Most Far-out State in America
Edited by Gabrielle Calise
A24, 574 pages, $50