M-I-C . . .You Elsewhere

By Michael Dirda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 16, 2001

Except for one unavoidable three-day vacation with my family in 1999, I have never visited what Orlando residents call "the attractions" -- Disney World, Universal Studios, Sea World. As one British aesthete said, when asked what it was like to be at the front during World War I, "My dear, the noise! And the people!" In Florida one can add, "And the heat and the humidity and the long lines and the cost and the all-around disappointment!"

But I like Orlando and what guidebooks call its environs. Sometimes derided as a wasteland of highways and strip malls, Central Florida actually offers plenty to amuse and divert even the most bookish or culturally demanding. I should know, having flown down here with some regularity over the past three years.

Start with, yes, the natural beauty. Serenely perfect sunsets. A blue heron on a still creek. Roiling thunderstorms of such awesome grandeur that even Wordsworth would be impressed. Then there is the smorgasbord of Orlando restaurants, from Fuji Sushi to Margarita Grill to Lee's Lakeside and Houston's, with its wooden Adirondack-style chairs on the back veranda and a view across one of Orlando's man-made lakes. I also like the Old Town Alexandria feel of downtown Winter Park, with its shops and boutiques and Morse Museum, famous for Tiffany glass.

There are even pockets of the city that resemble Adams Morgan. Near the Orlando Art Museum, one can visit Bread and Books Cafe & Bookshop and nibble on gourmet sandwiches before going out to prowl the secondhand jewelry boutiques nearby. On Route 17/92, the gourmet can buy fresh mung beans at Asian groceries -- or Krispy Kreme doughnuts hot from the oven. One can spend a Sunday afternoon at the funky Stardust Video and Coffee, reading Scott Joseph's restaurant reviews or Nancy Pate's book reviews (in the Orlando Sentinel) while sipping on a latte, then pick out an evening's entertainment from the shop's enormous collection of movie classics. At the Enzian Theater, a local landmark, movie lovers can eat dinner and sip beer while watching sexy art films.

Such pleasures are hardly unique to Orlando, yet they do make the city a pleasure to visit.

For book lovers, Orlando offers more than one might expect. First off, any trip to Florida encourages reading. Away from the highways or Mickey Mouse, the state feels like Lotos Land, and one quickly forgets the Yankee ethic of work and more work, coupled with stress, frustration and migraines. What could be more pleasant than to lounge by a pool or on the sand at Cocoa Beach or under a backyard palm, sip at a cold Mike's lemonade and lose oneself in, say, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's classic memoir, "Cross Creek" (its setting is a short drive from Orlando), or Wallace Stevens's poems, many of which reflect the Florida landscape (e.g., "The Idea of Order at Key West"), or the modern crime thrillers of Carl Hiaasen or Randy Wayne White? The hours slip by lazily and one soon feels as serene as a Zen Buddhist.

Orlando possesses a far more bookish culture than it is generally given credit for. A pamphlet lists 15 used-book stores in the city. My favorites are Leedy's in Casselberry Commons and Legible Leftovers on Route 17-92. Both are general shops, the first small and selective, the second large and supplemented with a stock of cat trinkets, videos, games and assorted tchotchkes.

On my first visit to Leedy's, I bought an attractive first English edition of P.G. Wodehouse's "Ice in the Bedroom" for $25 and a $7 ex-library copy of Evelyn Waugh's collected essays and reviews: two of my favorite books, by favorite authors. When I was there last, the shop had acquired an extensive collection of Pogo cartoon albums, which I resisted only because I didn't know which one to buy first and couldn't quite justify buying them all.

At Legible Leftovers, with its extensive stock of science fiction, fantasy and mysteries, I recently picked up extra copies of John Sladek's "Tik-Tok" and "Roderick: The Education of a Young Robot" (two masterpieces of black humor and social commentary) and a couple of paperbacks of early John D. MacDonald novels ("A Key to the Suite" and "Cape Fear"). On one visit I was particularly pleased to find Barbara Mertz's "Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs," a wonderfully entertaining account of ancient Egypt, and the first book by an author better known as Elizabeth Peters, chronicler of the Amelia Peabody adventures set in 19th-century Egypt.

But there's more than this to cultural Orlando. Did you know that George Garrett, the eminent Southern writer, was born and raised in Orlando? Or that Jack Kerouac spent many years here (see his correspondence with Joyce Johnson), and that his home is being transformed into a writer's residence? That the city hosts an annual Shakespeare Festival, the edgy Orlando Black Essential Theater and the Orlando Symphony? Or that Zora Neale Hurston grew up in nearby Eatonsville, which sponsors an annual celebration of her work?

In Winter Park, Rollins College regularly invites prominent writers (novelist Ann Beattie, poet Dana Gioia) and critics (Sven Birkerts) for public lectures. The University of Central Florida also hosts a steady stream of notables in the arts and sciences. Their Distinguished Authors Series has, over the past three years, brought in Margaret Atwood, Rita Dove and Grace Paley for two-day campus visits. Last year, Gen-X novelist Douglas Coupland spent an evening answering questions about his work. Poets as fine, and different, as Ann Lauterbach, Elton Glaser and Anthony Hecht have read and signed on campus recently.

Of course, I'm slightly partisan. In 1999, I spent a semester at the University of Central Florida as a visiting professor in the Honors College and during that time grew attached to the place. The burgeoning English department supports three literary magazines: the undergraduate Cypress Dome, the well-known Florida Review and the scholarly Faulkner Journal. The creators of "The Blair Witch Project" graduated from the UCF film school, now overseen by a co-founder of the Sundance Film Festival. Throughout the year the university sponsors concerts, readings, plays and other cultural events.

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