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redpulseSomething woke me around 5 this morning. I thought it was the cats, and as I shooed them out the room, I heard the thump-thump-thump of helicopters overhead. As a friend and neighbor noted earlier on Facebook, we hear helicopters all the time this close to downtown and the hospital. But then I got a message from another friend: “When did Orlando become the capital of crazy?” And I turned on the TV.

Hours later, the TV is still on, the helicopters still whirring, and I’m still struggling to get my head around this act of terrorism and hate. Fifty dead, fifty three injured. The worst mass shooting in U.S. history. The City Beautiful is in mourning, but it is also standing together. People are lined up to donate blood, while others donate water and food to those in line, as well as first responders and volunteers. We are praying, for those whose lives were lost and those who have lost family members and friends.

Obviously, this isn’t the blog post I had planned to write. My thoughts on Emma Cline’s The Girls can wait a few days. But I did follow through on one plan this Sunday: I went to the matinee performance of Avenue Q at Mad Cow Theatre in downtown Orlando. As one of the actors said at a talkback afterwards, “The show goes on for a reason.” He and other cast members said they wanted — had to — perform, especially this musical, with its LGBT  and racial concerns, its light heart and its serious themes. Love and accept yourself and others. Have purpose. Be mindful. When you help others, you help yourself. Be happy. Live in peace.

It was a wonderful show, and the cast and audience thanked each other for being there.

Avenue Q was a Tony Award winner in 2004, and I understand that tonight’s Tonys will be dedicated to Orlando. I will be watching, because I love theater and how it transforms lives and reminds us of truths, of how it brings us both comfort and escape. Mad Cow quoted George Bernard Shaw on its Facebook page: “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.”

The helicopters have stopped. It’s dark and it’s raining. The TV says there are still people in Pulse, which is less than a mile from here. Unbelievable. You think it can’t happen here and then it does. Sadly, it can happen anywhere, and anywhere is too close to home.

Love and peace to all.

 

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place1962. It was Frosted Flakes, the Texaco star, Andy and Opie Taylor, Gunsmoke and Lawrence Welk. But it was also the Cold War, duck-and-cover drills, fallout shelters, the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Susan Carol McCarthy’s new novel A Place We Knew Well (Bantam, digital galley), set in Central Florida in the fall of  1962, is a curious mix of documentary and daytime soap, American Experience meets Search for Tomorrow.

McCarthy is very good at specifying the details of the era, from B-52 bombers lumbering overhead to U-2 spy planes, looking like “a cluster of fantastic dragonflies,” parked at McCoy Air Force Base. Orlando gas station owner and World War II vet Wes Avery and his teenage daughter Charlotte are viewing the planes through binoculars when an MP asks them to return to their car and move away from the restricted area.

The Averys — Wes, Charlotte and mom Sarah — are the major players in McCarthy’s story as the nation is gripped by the thought of long-range Russian missiles parked off Florida’s front porch. Cuba is just 90 miles from Key West, and missiles could reach Central Florida in eight to 10 minutes. Wes, who saw the aftermath of Hiroshima from the air, has no patience with local “Bombworshippers,” and is dismayed when a local insurance company salesman gives him dogtags for Charlotte as preparation for “a worst-case scenario.” Charlotte, meanwhile, is a typical teen worried that the crisis might disrupt homecoming at Edgewater High and her first date with Emilio, a teenage “Pedro Pan,”  sent to the U.S. by his aristocratic parents after the Cuban revolution.

Meanwhile, Sarah, depressed after a recent hysterectomy, is coming apart at the seams, popping uppers and downers as she works with the local women’s civil defense league, overseeing the stocking of public bomb shelters. She totally disapproves of Charlotte’s date with Emilio, even though the handsome teen works for her husband. As tensions mount about possible nuclear war, an estranged family member turns up and long-held secrets are exposed. The subsequent fallout changes the Averys’ lives forever.

A Place We Knew Well begins slowly but eventually builds some suspense. Still, the ending can’t help but be anticlimactic, and a final letter to McCarthy from a character strikes a false note. Overall, the book doesn’t have the dramatic impact of McCarthy’s first novel, Lay That Trumpet In Our Hands, another family story inspired by real events in Central Florida. But it is set a decade earlier, in 1951, when the KKK terrorized the black community. McCarthy deserves credit for her research and her reimagining of an historical turning point, but her fictional characters just aren’t as interesting as the times or the place in which they lived.

 

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localgirls“August came to Florida every year, but it felt like the end of the world every time because of how empty the streets and sidewalks became — everyone stayed inside. It got so bad that you started to blame the heat on other things — the palm trees and the beach and the sunsets and the sand — because heat that unpleasant had to be blamed on something. It surely wasn’t benign.”

That’s from Caroline Zancan’s first novel Local Girls (Riverhead, purchased hardcover), in which she not only nails the August hothouse that is Central Florida, but also the restlessness of teenage girls, the intensity of female friendships and our culture’s obsession with celebrity. Maggie, Nina and Lindsay grew up together in a working-class town stranded between Orlando and the beach. At 19, they’ve put high school behind them, and college isn’t on the agenda. After a day working dead-end jobs at the local mall, they head for their favorite dive bar, the Shamrock, where owner Sal turns a blind eye to their underage drinking and their ongoing feud with the country club college girls across the room.

Maggie, who suspects she’s pregnant, tells the story, beginning with the August night the trio spots movie star Sam Decker alone at the Shamrock drinking away what turns out to be the last night of his life. She seamlessly splices scenes of Sam buying drinks for the girls with those from their shared past, back when Lila Tucker was part of their group before her dad struck it rich and moved the family to a classier subdivision. Nina was their leader back then, as she is now. The conversations among Sam and the girls, who test their knowledge gleaned from celebrity magazines against the real thing, provide enough material for a good stand-alone story. But thehgradual revelations of the girls’ backstories — the sleepovers, the meet-ups at abandoned real estate projects, the escalating “prank wars” involving smart prepster pal Max — turn it into something more moving and rewarding. The girls may be local, but Zancan invests them with recognizably universal emotions of loss and longing. Orlando in August — hard to tell the sweat from the tears.

KitchensMy other favorite first novel this summer is J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest (Viking Penguin, digital galley), which is not a cookbook, although it does include a few recipes. But it is the kind of book you devour, or at least I did, even as I wanted to savor every last word.

The novel is about young chef Eva Thorvald, and “about” is the operative word. Each chapter reads like a short story told from the perspective of someone linked to Eva, beginning with her chef father Lars who introduces her to the taste of a Moonglow heirloom tomato as a baby.  Poor Lars. His waitress wife Cindy leaves him and Eva, and then he collapses while lugging the hated lutefisk up the stairs for Christmas dinner.

Eva grows up in Minnesota and Iowa with her aunt and uncle, the kind of smart kid who writes her vocabulary sentences in iambic pentameter to make homework interesting. By age 11, she’s raising hydroponic chile plants in her closet, supplying local restaurants with her exotic peppers and also using them to exact revenge on the classmates who bully her because of her awkward height. Her college cousin Braque takes her in when she runs away, and the two scam chili-eating contestants at local bars. Then there’s the high school guy who falls hard for Eva, introducing her to the wonders of grilled walleye. She’s goes from restaurant intern to sous chef, arousing jealousy in a supper club member who can’t deny that Eva’s succotash is superior.

A later chapter finds Eva as a successful pop-up chef and judge at a gourmet baking contest, where county fair winner Pat Prager and her peanut butter bars are snubbed by foodies. But not by Eva, who compliments her on her bars and looks “at Pat in a strange but warm way, as if Pat were a letter from home with money inside.”

The peanut butter bars reappear in the last chapter, as do other ingredients and people from Eva’s life. It’s a satisfying ending to a delicious tale. Yum.

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“Wow.” Prosecutor Jeff Ashton mouthed the word of disbelief as the jury handed down its verdict in the Casey Anthony case last summer. He wasn’t alone at being stunned at hearing “not guilty” on the three felony counts.

I know I was among the many Orlando residents who had followed the case for three years who were left shaking their heads. Maybe Casey Anthony wasn’t guilty of first-degree murder of her toddler daughter Caylee, but surely she was responsible for Caylee’s death? But the jury didn’t connect the dots the way we had. Did we just think we knew more?

I’m still asking myself that after reading Ashton’s new book, Imperfect Justice: Prosecuting Casey Anthony, written with Lisa Pulitzer. It’s a detailed account of the case against Casey from the insider’s point of view, and Ashton’s preaching to the choir as far as I’m concerned. Reading it all together  in black-and-white — the initial 911 calls and conversations with law enforcement, the transcripts of jail house meetings and calls, the depositions, the expert testimony —  reinforces what I had heard previously.

What was new are Ashton’s opinions, although he telegraphed his distaste for defense attorney Jose Baez throughout the trial. So, it’s not surprising to see Baez described as “smarmy” and compared to a character in My Fair Lady, “oozing charm from every pore / he oiled his way across the floor.”  Casey’s mother Cindy Anthony comes across as the queen of denial in “a lethally toxic codependent relationship” with her daughter. Father George, whom Casey accused of sexually molesting her and of drowning Caylee in the family pool, appears to be a decent enough guy bewildered by tragedy.

As for Casey herself, she is an accomplished, habitual, fluent liar. She was constantly, boldly reinventing her story as circumstances forced her hand, one lie leading to another and another. Every now and then she would reach “the end of the hall” — as she did when she took investigators to her nonexistent workplace at Universal Studios — and was forced to admit something wasn’t true, but more lies would inevitably follow.

The jury found reasonable doubt with the prosecution’s case. The duct tape didn’t work for them as the smoking gun.

Ashton writes: “Part of interpreting a crime scene is eliminating things that don’t make sense. You hope to convince jurors to use their common sense as well. So is there any reason someone would put duct tape over the nose and mouth of a dead child? … People don’t make accidents look like murder unless they are covering something up.”

Still, he didn’t buy duct tape on Caylee’s nose and mouth as some sort of cover-up. The only reason that made sense to him was that it was placed there to keep her from breathing — “premeditation, plain and simple.”

But very little is plain and simple about the Casey Anthony case except that a beautiful little girl died in unknown circumstances. We may speculate that it was murder or an accident, but we’ll never know. Casey Anthony is a convicted liar, and any scenario she outlines and/or details will always be suspect.

Open Book: I’m still conflicted that I watched the Casey Anthony trial, the biggest reality show in town. Maybe because it was local, because I knew many of the print and broadcast reporters covering the trial, because the judge shops at my Publix, because George Anthony was a security guard at the Sentinel when I worked there. Maybe it’s because I’m still a newsie. The publisher sent me a copy of Imperfect Justice by Jeff Ashton (William Morrow). Now I don’t want to hear or read anymore about this sad story. I think.

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Man Martin’s Paradise Dogs  shouts “retro’’ with its neon title riding in the sky above an aqua car, roadside diner and pink (!) alligator. Indeed, we’re boarding the wayback machine to Central Florida in the 1960s B.D. (Before Disney).

“Interstate 4 had come through,’’ Martin writes early in the book, “but the region still fairly trembled in anticipation of the next big thing, the thing that would lift it from being a largely rural cracker town into  something like modern glory as had happened in Palm Springs and Miami.’’

Adam Newman, 47, is a homely real estate agent/dreamer with lots of charm, great expectations, and a talent for reinventing himself at any given moment. As he gases up his car at the Sinclair on Eola, he ponders his sort-of plan to win back his ex-wife Evelyn, with whom he once ran a restaurant serving only hot dogs. A pocketful of loose diamonds should help his cause, but what of his clingy young fiancé, Lily?

To say complications ensue as Adam tries to return to the Eden of yesteryear proves to be an understatement. Martin’s allegorically-named characters get up to all sorts of mischief, and the resulting comedy of errors borders on high farce and tomfoolery.  A major plot point, which includes mysterious land purchases, will come as no surprise to Central Floridians, but Martin – who grew up in Florida and now lives in Georgia – has a deft hand with local color and shows true affection for his goofy hero.

Paradise Dogs may not be what old-timers call an “E-ticket,’’ yet it’s still an agreeable ride back to an orange-blossom-scented past not yet paved with theme parks.  Easy “A.’’

Open Book: Paradise Dogs by Man Martin (St. Martin’s Press) is a SIBA summer “Okra” pick from Southern booksellers. I bought the e-book edition for my nook, although I wish I had a larger picture of the cool cover.

Date Book: Man Martin will be signing copies of Paradise Dogs at 7 p.m. Wednesday July 6 at the Orlando Barnes & Noble on E. Colonial Drive. Maybe I’ll see you there.

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One of my friends calls it “the best reality show going on.” Another says, “There’s too much sadness in the world already.” Both are talking about the trial of Casey Anthony for the murder of her two-year-old daughter Caylee Anthony three years ago this month.

The Orange County Courthouse in downtown Orlando has become a tourist destination and media circus. The police broke up a brawl before dawn yesterday among those waiting in line — some overnight — for the 50 courtroom seats designated for the public.

I have avoided downtown the last few weeks, but there’s no escape. Local television stations are providing gavel-to-gavel coverage and instant analysis on air and on their web sites; reporters tweet from the courtroom while cable anchors offer updates at least every 30 minutes. NBC’s “Dateline” aired special coverage last night, and ABC’s “The View” weighs in next week. You can’t go shopping or to the post office or out to lunch without hearing ordinary folks debating the fine points of forensics or the day’s testimony. And everybody, it seems, has an opinion about “tot mom” Casey Anthony’s guilt or innocence, all of course, in the interest of “justice for Caylee.”

It’s appalling and fascinating and mind-numbing all at the same time. And I was feeling cynical about the whole lurid mess until I read a beautiful and haunting first novel about a missing persons case in North Carolina, You Believers by Jane Bradley.

I hadn’t planned on reading it because I figured it would be a downer, and I’m in a summer brain-candy mood most days. But I was immediately pulled in by the voice of Shelby Walters, a Tennessee mountain native relocated to Wilmington, N.C., where she runs a volunteer rescue service.

“I’d say my calling is saving lives, lives of the missing and the lives of those who get left behind,” Shelby tells readers. “I’ve led those gatherings of searchers through fields, armed against the snakes that wait in weeds, the alligators lurking in marshes, where somewhere in miles of fields and woods and rivers and lakes a body can be found.”

I’d have been happy to hear Shelby, so passionate and persistent, narrate the entire book, but Bradley artfully intersperses her version of the search for pretty bartender Katy with chapters told from the perspective of others involved. There’s Katy’s mother, Livy, who leaves her Lookout Mountain home and puts her life on hold to look for her daughter; Billy, Katy’s fiance who knows he is Katy’s “safe” choice; and even Katy herself, near book’s beginning, at the shopping center in her blue pick-up. Two young men also play pivotal roles: hapless Mike, a born follower who wishes he was the boy his granny believed he was “instead of the man he’d come to be,” and cruel charmer Jesse, who sometimes feels as if he has hell pent up inside him. “They told him love could save him, but they had lied.”

Love, lies, grief, fear, guilt, grace. Shelby muses on the sorrowful trails she follows, wondering if there is evil in the shadows, or is it just random violence? And how then do you make peace with a world that can lose a Katy? Or any living soul? She’ll keep searching for answers — and the missing.

Open Book: I downloaded the e-book version of Jane Bradley’s You Believers (Unbridled Press) to my nook. I’ve been following the Caylee Anthony story for three years, and I know several print and TV reporters covering the trial. I also remember George Anthony, Casey’s father, from when he worked as a security guard at the Orlando Sentinel some years ago.

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I haven’t read much the last few days because I’ve been ranting to my friends about Florida Gov. Rick Scott using “emergency powers” to make immediate deep cuts to programs that serve tens of thousands of developmentally disabled residents. The story hit the headlines across the state on Friday, but this was no  April Fool’s joke.  If you don’t already know the dastardly details, look up Kate Santich’s stories on orlandosentinel.com http://tinyurl.com/4ytas2z

Before I go any further, I’m not objective about this. I know social workers whose clients’ quality of life and care are going to be seriously affected because of the budget cuts. Scott is going after the most vulnerable among us — people with Down’s Syndrome, severe autism, cerebral palsy and other ailments, largely impoverished and many without family.

I did not vote for Scott, but this is not sour grapes because my candidate lost by an oh-so-slim margin. No, let’s call it grapes of wrath. Based on what Scott says and does, I think he’s a heartless hypocrite, who, as columnist and novelist Carl Hiaasen has said, “seems to redefine crazy at least once a week.”

Carl will be the featured speaker Wednesday night in Orlando for the Adult Literacy League’s fundraiser, “Between the Wines.” The event is almost sold out, but you can still call the league office at 407-422-1540 to get tickets and last minute-info about the event.  

Sentinel TV critic Hal Boedeker had a good Q&A with Carl last week, http://tinyurl.com/3r47vyj Here’s what Carl said about Scott: “Nobody knows that much about Scott right now, except that he’s a rigid ideologue. Obviously he’s a bit hazy on how the process of government works, and also on the concept of separation of powers. If he gets even half of what he wants in his budget cuts, many Floridians are going to be stunned by what happens to their daily lives in regard to schools, medical treatment, public parks, local police and fire services. Try calling the Tea Party if your house goes up in flames.”

I’ve interviewed Carl numerous times over the years about his gonzo satirical novels. Although he notes that there is immediate satisfaction in writing his Miami Herald column on politicians’ shenanigans, he says there’s fun to be had in fiction because you can make sure the bad guys get what they deserve. His villains come to notoriously bad ends.

At the moment, Scott reminds me of  two infamous characters preying on the weak — the professional wheelchair thief in Strip Tease and the guy who stole fentanyl patches from bedridden cancer patients in Skinny Dip. This being Florida, Carl based both on real people who got caught.

In my post last summer on Carl’s most recent novel, Star Island, I suggested that some readers might write in the name of their favorite recurring character on their fall gubernatorial ballots. That would be Skink  — the crazy ex-governor who comes out of the swamps to dispense vigilante justice on those who would despoil his beloved Sunshine State. Right now I would really like to see Skink invoke his emergency powers and go after Gov. Stink. Seriously.

Open Book:  That’s a picture of Carl Hiaasen. I could have used a photo of Gov. Rick Scott, but I didn’t want to frighten the horses and small children.

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