Skip to main content

Review: Hot Damn! by James W. Hall

When I tell people I went to college in Florida, I'm just as surprised as they are - still, nearly eight years after graduating. "You're SO Northeast," is the usual reply, or something along the lines of how I seem Ivy league, preppy or some other such silliness that really means: Why would someone who went to and performed well at an upper class public high school (my parents paid for tuition for me to go there) head south to a small private college with virtually no reputation north of the Carolinas? The answer is simple: Money.

I wanted to go to Boston University with all the passion and fervor my 17 year old body could muster. I got in, too. But BU is expensive. My parents were divorcing, so money was tight, and BU didn't offer any financial help.

The University of Tampa did. They were in the middle of a huge recruiting drive and kept throwing money at me. "It's not a matter of whether you get in," an admissions counselor told me when I made my on campus visit. "It's a matter of how much money we give you." The eventual answer was almost the full amount. By the time I became editor of the student newspaper, I was covered since my pay for that job was a stipend applied toward my tuition - and the first steps toward what would become my eventual career.

But I didn't stick around after graduation. I barely stuck around during my four undergraduate years - I left every summer and, one semester, for England. I didn't think the UT was terribly challenging, so I tacked on experiences that made it so (internship in a Washington, DC newsroom, semester studying Shakespeare at Oxford, editing the student newspaper).

Another reason I fled? I don't like Florida.

Sure, it's a great place to visit, especially when it's 20 degrees and snowing in New Jersey. While my family and friends dealt with snow and ice last weekend, I was lying by a pool in my bikini reading James W. Hall's Hot Damn!: Alligators in the Casino, Nude Women in the Grass, How Seashells Changed the Course of History, and Other Dispatches from Paradise. It's a love letter to the state written by Hall, a mystery writer and Kansas native. He writes about those things that kept me from staying in Tampa after graduate: The heat and humidity that gloms to your skin nine months a year, the recurring fear of hurricanes, the vagabond culture (no one is really from Florida). His recount about Florida summers shot me back to the Ford sedan I rented in 2003 to drive from Tampa to Gainesville for a job interview near the University of Florida. The front of the white car was nearly black at the end of the trip with all the bugs I killed. I thought I saw an alligator on my way over.

Even though I was offered the job, I turned it down. It might get hot here in the summer, but it's a different hot, no matter if the temperatures in New Jersey and Florida sometimes come out the same. Florida heat will suck you down into a deep abyss. New Jersey heat passes you over.

Hall didn't leave - obviously. He moved his life to Florida and bristles that he can never put a Florida native bumper sticker on his car. Even if we feel different about the state, I enjoyed his essays. It was perfect reading to go along with my explorations of Florida's west coast. While, yes, I did spend a lot of time by the pool, I also visited those sites I couldn't get to in college because I didn't have a car - the Salvador Dali Museum, Fort DeSoto, the Ringling Estate. And for a moment, while wandering the grounds of the gulf-side estate in the soft humid pre-storm winter Florida air, I thought "maybe I could do this." Then I remembered what it was like to run in that humidity, and that it was already sticky in January, and called my mom back home.

I picked up Hot Damn! from Inkwood Books, a fantastic independent bookstore in Tampa. I wanted some sort of Florida reading to go along with my St. Pete Beach vacation, and what better to read than stories about the strange place that is Florida? I might not embrace the state like Hall does, and I may cross my heart and pledge loyalty to the northeast, but I can still appreciate the odd corners of the vagabond state, and writers who show their love for it in a fun, zippy book of touching essays. And how could I not love a book with the opening line of "Essays are about as sexy as donkeys?"

Comments

james hall said…
Thanks for the nice review, Jen. I'm a runner too, slower and shorter distances than you, I'm sure. As I've gotten older, I've wimped out on Florida summers. I get out of Florida from May to November partly so I can run. In the mountains of Carolina, it's both cool and beautiful with great views, and I see deer and other wildlife on my mountain runs.

Glad you plugged Inkwood. A great store run by two wonderful ladies.

Enjoyed your blog.

James Hall
Larry said…
Hey Jenn,

Okay, you talked me into buying the book. I need some recreational reading right about now. And there's something about Florida authors, like Carl Hiaasen, that makes them a fun read.
Hey, if you get the chance to extend your visit, do so. They're predicting snow up this way, about 12 inches, maybe more in South Jersey.
Jen A. Miller said…
James - Thanks for writing! I can see the beauty in heading to the hills. I keep saying I'm going to spend August in Maine (it's all relative I guess). And I do love Inkwood, and all indie bookstores. I never would have found out about your book otherwise.

Larry - Already home! The dog and I are preparing for a big storm.
Carlin Reagan said…
This made me miss Tampa, specifically, and FL, generally.

If you do even spend August in ME, let me know. I'd make the drive to share come coffee and a chat.

Popular posts from this blog

Book 23 of 52: Because of Miss Bridgerton by Julia Quinn

More romance? Of course! The world is on fire, and I can't ingest all the fires all the time. Sometimes I want to turn to genre fiction as an escape, even if an escape is into a patriarchal society where it's SCANDAL that a woman sometimes, when riding a horse, wears pants. Because of Miss Bridgerton is the first book in Julia Quinn's Rokesbys Series , which are prequels to her enormously popular  Bridgerton Series  (and now a  Netflix show ). These books are similar, of course, but instead being set in the Recency era of the 1810s, these books take place at the same time as the American Revolution (though still in England).  Here we meet Sybilla "Bille" Bridergton, who is stuck on the roof of a building because she chased a cat up there. She climbed up herself (scandalous woman!) but also twisted her ankle in the process, which is why she needs help to get down.  That help comes from George Rokesby. Their families are neighbors, and they've known each other

Book 26 of 52: The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor — the Truth and the Turmoil by Tina Brown

I'm not going to write a long review of Tina Brown's The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor — the Truth and the Turmoil  for two reasons. First, it's been hashed to death already, as anything about the royals is, by people who are far more invested in this whole thing than I am. And second, I'm in the frantic "do I really need a jean jacket AND a windbreaker" level of packing before a long trip. I can say that I didn't mind listening to this nearly 18 hour audiobook while the rest of the world is on fire, although of course they are not insulated. We can pretend that the Royal Family lives in a bubble, but they are enormously influential; touched by the same issues of race, class and gender; and Queen Elizabeth II is one of most influential politicians of modern times — and she is a politician, no matter what anyone says. Her death will be a global, cultural moment. Same thing with the Pope, on both fronts. I listened to Brown's  The Diana Chro

Book 12 of 52: Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi is an author and graphic novelist who grew up in Iran and, as a tween and teen, lived in the country through  the Iranian Revolution before her parents sent her to Europe for school, and for her safety.  As an adult, she wrote Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood ,  a nonfiction graphic novel, originally in French. I read the English translation, which was published in 2003, three years after the original. It was a critical success, won a slew of awards, and became a movie . I haven't read the sequel, Persepolis 2 , but I hope to (you can also  buy them in a set . I found Persepolis  in a Little Free Library, or I'd have bought them combined).  In the tradition of Art Spiegelman's  Maus , which is about the author's father talking to him about the Holocaust,  Persepolis  is a memoir of trauma told through a mix of images and words that when combined, combust into powerful, beautiful and soul cracking art.  For example, Satrapi portrays the 1978 Cinema R