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?"


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 5 of 52: Stormy Weather by Carl Hiaasen

I don't always try to match my reading to what I'm doing, but when I go to Florida, I try to pack at least one Florida weird book. There was no better novel to bring with me to read on a ferry from Key West to Dry Tortugas National Park , than Carl Hiaasen's Stormy Weather . Hiaasen was writing about #floridaman before #floridaman was a thing (and when this - # - was the pound sign).  Stormy Weather is set in 1992 in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, which is still the most destructive hurricane to have ever hit Florida, and only one of four hurricanes to make landfall in the U.S. still at Category 5 strength. According to the Miami Herald , Hurricane Andrew destroyed 63,000 homes and damaged another 101,241. Such disasters bring out the best in humanity but also the worst. F raud flowed into South Florida in Andrew's wake . That's where  Stormy Weather comes in. From an advertising executive who yanks his new wife away from their Walt Disney World honeymoon to r

Book 11 of 52: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

In my travels, I've accumulated photos in what I call the "Plants Where They Shouldn't Be" series. They're of weeds, flowers and trees growing in places that look uncomfortable: poking out of lava that's OK to walk on but warm enough to generate steam, growing around a mile marker on the road, sprouting on the back of a parking sign - that kind of thing. On the cheesy side, they're reminders that we can flourish in the most unlikely circumstances. On a more realistic end, they show that humans are constantly battling back nature, and that someday we'll probably lose the fight. I thought about those photos when I read  book 8 of 52 Station Eleven  (and watched  the HBO Max adaptation ), which show a world without 99.99 percent of our current human population. The story focuses on people, of course, but set them in a world where the things humans have created - electricity, internet, buildings, bridges, roads - are being taken back by nature. A Jersey Sh

Welcome Back to Book a Week with Jen!

Hello hello! Yes, the rumors (that I started) are true. On New Year's Day, I fired up the old Book a Week with Jen blog, gave it a new domain, and I'm going to be writing about my reading habits once again. If you don't know me, my name is Jen A. Miller , and I'm a freelance writer and author. I've been freelancing now for 17 years, and in that time, have written hundreds of articles, three books ( two about the Jersey Shore and one about running ), and two ebooks ( both about freelance writing ). If you're not new around here, wow a lot has changed. I wrote a memoir , picked up a regular running column for the New York Times , and put that back down again. I ran a lot of marathons, and got into ultra marathoning, which lead me to run my first 24 hour race on New Year's Eve/New Year's Day 2020/2021 . My first dog, Emily, died in 2017 . I sold my first home, lived out of my car for a year traveling the country , scooped up a scruffy cattle dog mix in Ida