Category Archives: Key West

Summer reading recs: English court intrigue, Papal court intrigue, dragons meet Napoleon in Russia and literary noir close to home

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Four novels, all set to be published this summer. All four are probably not to most people’s reading taste but they all were to mine.

Queen’s Gambit is the story of Katherine Parr, the final and surviving wife of Henry VIII. She’s got an interesting story and it’s told well both from her perspective and that of a servant, Dot, whom she brings from her own household to serve her when Katherine (reluctantly) becomes Queen. Even if you think you’ve read or watched everything you need to about the Tudors, this is worth a read, especially since it covers a relatively unexamined person and part of the story. Its perspective on Elizabeth is especially interesting, both from Katherine’s view and from Dot’s. As everyone who knows anything about Elizabeth knows, she and her final stepmother were close — until Katherine caught her last husband, the ambitious, vain Thomas Seymour, playing some sort of naughty bed game with the young adolescent Elizabeth. While Katherine was pregnant with his child. I was dreading that part of the story even though I knew it was coming — but Fremantle handles it with an interesting approach. A debut novel by Elizabeth Fremantle, who appears to be a worthy addition to the Tudor-writing historical fiction ranks. The book is scheduled for release on Aug. 6.

Blood & Beauty is about the Borgias, another telegenic Renaissance-era family (also the subject of a pay-cable drama from the same folks who brought us The Tudors). Sarah Dunant sets her books in medieval and Renaissance Italy and the Borgias offer incredible scope. I knew little about them, beyond their historical reputation as a bunch of depraved poisoners — this book provided a much better rounded portrait especially of Lucrezia, daughter of the ambitious Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI). Even her ruthless brother Cesare is understandable, if not necessarily sympathetic. I enjoyed it thoroughly and look forward to the next installment — though it led me to some confusion over the dramatic choices in the Showtime series. But hey, I knew from watching the Tudors that the guy behind those shows is not all that concerned with historical accuracy so I’m going to assume Sarah Dunant’s sticking closer to the record until I learn otherwise. Dunant is probably best known for In the Company of the Courtesan; she may go stratospheric (into Philippa Gregory-like sales levels) with this one. Blood & Beauty publishes July 16.

Blood of Tyrants is speculative/alternative/fantastic historical fiction — the latest and apparently penultimate volume in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. I’ve blogged about this series before — the previous entry, Crucible of Gold was one of my favorite books from last year — and this is a worthy successor. As it opens, our hero Will Laurence has been shipwrecked on the shores of Japan and has amnesia. So even though most of his shipmates and fellow aviators think he’s dead and “his” dragon, Temeraire, desperately wants to find him, Laurence thinks he’s still an officer in the British Navy and has no memory of the last eight years, ie. the time he’s spent with Temeraire and learned a hell of a lot about dragons (and encountered Napoleon personally, and been court-martialed, and been made a prince in China and nearly died in both Africa and Australia and …  well these are adventure books, OK?). The series is often described as Patrick O’Brian with dragons and that works — it’s set in the British military during the Napoleonic wars. And it is cool to imagine military aviation coming into play a few centuries before it actually did, and how that might have altered things and worked in the culture of the time (few know it outside of the aviation corps, but there are a number of female officers because one particularly valuable breed of dragon, the poison-fanged Longwings, will only abide women as their captains). But the true appeal of the series, for me, is the way it fulfills an animal lover’s fantasy of bonding with intelligent, emotional beings who can, in this world, speak and express their opinons, sometimes irrational as they may seem (all dragons covet treasure and want to see their humans kitted covered in the Regency-era equivalent of bling whenever possible). I found myself, when reading this book, thinking of the relationship I’ve had with dogs and horses and how it often feels like you are holding conversations with them — and how you feel a responsibility for their care and happiness that goes far beyond mere ownership. It will be interesting to see how Novik winds up the series — this book ends with Napoleon on the march in Russia but she has previously shown no problem with materially altering history (Napoleon is currently married to an Incan princess) and kudos to her for the last line, which I won’t spoil here but which has to be a nod to that other dragon-loving fantasy writer, George R.R. Martin. Blood of Tyrants publishes on Aug. 13 — if you haven’t read the previous seven entries in the series, that would make an excellent –and fun! — summer reading project. I will be sorry to see this series end but will try to view it as I do my favorite TV shows when they go away after a few seasons — better to go out with quality than trail on forever just because someone is willing to pay you to do so.

One of these books is not like the others, as the old Sesame Street ditty goes. Men in Miami Hotels is a contemporary noir, set in Key West but it’s a wholly different creature from the usual subtropical mystery/detective novel — it has more in common with the work of Thomas McGuane than Carl Hiaasen or James Hall. Cot Sims is a journeyman gangster for a Miami crime lord. He returns to his hometown of Key West to help his mother, who has been kicked out of her hurricane-damaged home by code enforcers and is camped out underneath. It is recognizably Key West in a lot of keenly observed ways, though a smaller less transient — and more violent — island than the real one (it appears to be a Key West inhabited entirely by Conchs and visiting Miami gangsters). Sims quickly gets himself into serious trouble by stealing a bunch of emeralds from his Miami crime boss and is basically on the lam from then on, throughout Key West, mainland South Florida and eventually Havana. I particularly liked the action in the cemetery, where Cot spends some time hiding out in a friend’s family crypt. I’ll admit that I admired this book but didn’t find it captivating the way some crime fiction that is considered genre can captivate me (most recently, Lyndsay Faye’s Gods of Gotham). But for those who prefer their crime with a more literary approach, or who read in order to admire language, this is a great read and I hope it finds its audience. It deserves to. Men in Miami Hotels will be released July 2.

Leave a comment

Filed under book reviews, crime, fiction, Key West, recommended reading

Summer in the subtropics

My fourth Letter from Key West ran today on WLRN’s Under the Sun program. Special thanks to Trina Sargalski and especially to Alicia Zuckerman for her always deft editing — and for contributing, in the studio while we were about to record, what turned out to be my favorite line in the whole piece (In summer, there’s more light and more time.) Alicia gets special extra triple credit, along with Dan Grech, for creating Under the Sun and helping South Florida realize its radio potential. It’s been a real pleasure to listen and to take part.

Besides Alicia’s line, my favorite part of the piece might be that photo — because it really does say summer to me, which is why I shot it with my iPhone a couple weeks ago and posted it to Facebook — all while walking the dog. The other photo illustrating the piece, of some mangoes on a table at The Studios of Key West, also came from my iPhone. Both of them were total punts because last week, when I should have been collecting photos to illustrate summer in Key West, was a washout from what would become Tropical Storm Debby. But I think it worked out.

Leave a comment

Filed under Key West, On the air

The train has left the station

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

One Island One Book, the Key West Library’s program now in its third year, is well underway. This year we’re reading “Last Train to Paradise,” Les Standiford’s book chronicling the construction of the Over-Sea Railroad, completed 100 years ago. The book also covers the railroad’s destruction in the harrowing Labor Day hurricane of 1935.

We’re in the final week of the online readalong on the One Island One Book blog– but you’re welcome to jump in at any point; the beauty of this is it can stay up there forever for anyone reading the book and we can continue the conversation as long as we want.

Next week things really pick up when the author himself, Les Standiford, arrives in town. He’ll be signing books at Key West Island Books, 513 Fleming St., at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 26.

Then at 3 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27, he’ll be at the Key West Library, 700 Fleming St., to talk about Last Train to Paradise. Later that day, at 6 p.m., he’ll be speaking at the Friends of the Library Lecture Series at The Studios of Key West, 600 White St. Both those events are free and open to all.

We’ve already had a couple great events — a presentation about how the old bridges went from rail to trail (many of them are now part of the Overseas Heritage Trail) and a guided tour of the Speedway to Sunshine exhibit at the Custom House. There’s another tour planned for 2 p.m. this Friday, Feb. 24 — the tour is free but you need to sign up; just stop by the library or call 305-292-3595.  And if that weren’t enough, the Art & Historical Society has generously offered free admission to the Custom House to anyone with a Monroe County Library card, until March 15.

Lots to do — and still plenty of time to read the book. They have them on sale at Key West Island Books and we have many, many copies in the library collection (still a couple available on the special exhibit shelf last time I checked). So please stop by, in person or online, and help make this really One Island One Book.

Most of the action, thus far, as taken place online in our first online readalong but the live events have started, wtih a presentation on how the original railroad bridges went from rail to trail (many of them are now part of a state park called the Overseas Heritage Trail) and a special guided tour of the Speedway to Sunshine exhibit at the Custom House (there’s another this Friday — you can still sign up by coming into the library or calling there at 305-292-3595).

About those images: One of the most fun parts of this year’s One Island One Book program, for me, has been spending time with our fabulous online archive of photographs. These are scanned, identified and uploaded by Monroe County Historian Tom Hambright and his team of dedicated volunteers. There are more than 11,000 images in the whole collection and 700 just related to the railroad. The slideshow above is a small sample of my favorites but I recommend checking this site out to anyone interested in Keys history. Another favorite from the same era I can’t resist revisiting: the waterfront passes that were required of workers in that area during World War I. The photographs are haunting and beautiful and the information provides a time capsule of Key West life in that era.

Leave a comment

Filed under book groups, Key West, Key West Library, nonfiction, recommended reading

The Over-Sea Railroad: You can no longer ridealong but you can still readalong

Exactly 100 years ago, Key West was in a tizzy, getting ready for the arrival of the First Train. On Jan. 22, 2012, the train would arrive bearing oil tycoon-turned-railroad magnate Henry Flagler and marking the completion of the Over-Sea Railroad.

These days, we’re in a bit of a tizzy ourselves, getting ready to commemorate the Centennial of that event — a major one by the standards of any small town and, you could argue, in the history of Florida and the nation. It was certainly a remarkable achievement, crossing mangrove swamps and open water. Crews endured hurricanes, mosquitos and the relentless humidity of the subtropics — without the modern comforts we take for granted now.

Lots of events are planned to mark the Centennial — more information is available at the official Centennial committee’s website. At the Key West Library, we’re celebrating with our One Island One Book program. This year we’re reading Last Train to Paradise by Les Standiford, which tells the story of the construction of the Over-Sea Railroad — and its destruction, barely two decades later, when the Upper Keys were hit by one of the strongest hurricanes ever to strike the continental U.S.

Most of our One Island One Book events don’t start until mid-February — Standiford will be speaking at the Library on Monday, Feb. 27. But one event is starting in the next few days: our first every online readalong. What does that mean? It means  you read about 50 pages a week of the book (there’s a reading schedule on the blog), and comment about it at the blog. We’ll start things out with some comments and questions but this isn’t a class and our posts are not a syllabus — everyone is welcome to chime in on whatever aspect they like, from wherever they are. So if you’re curious about the railroad and feel like learning some more — and interacting with others who are doing the same, please join in.

Some of you, especially those familiar with the Keys, may have noticed that the image above does not show Key West. It’s Pigeon Key, the island in the bend of the Old Seven Mile Bridge (and one the best places these days to get a feel for how things were back in the railroad days). Even though it’s not Key West, this is one of my favorite images of the railroad, probably because of the human element introduced by the kids waving below. And it comes from the library’s spectacular collection of historic images that have been scanned and placed online for open public access — including a collection of 700 images about the Over-Sea Railroad. Many of the library’s images, incidentally, were used for a beautiful new Centennial edition of Last Train to Paradise, published by Books & Books and the Flagler Museum.

Leave a comment

Filed under book groups, Key West, Key West Library, nonfiction, recommended reading, the internets

Change is in the air

If you’re in Key West, you know that we just experienced The Change — that marvelous moment each late October when the humidity suddenly drops considerably and you think, oh yeah — that’s why we live here. To me, this means reading weather — more on the back deck than in summer (which is also reading weather, because it’s too freaking hot to do anything active, only then it’s inside in the air conditioning). Which means, yes, it’s always reading weather.

But the change of seasons and a couple of upcoming literary events have me thinking about changing up my reading list. And there are some good titles on the way if you want to take part:

1) The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss — historical fiction set after the Revolutionary War, as the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians duke it out for the future direction of the young country and regular folks are collateral damage to some of the duking. It’s the title for the November Book Bites Book Club at the Key West Library so we have lots of copies. The group meets Nov. 10 at the Library.

2) Last Train to Paradise by Les Standiford — it’s going to be our One Island One Book choice for 2012, timed to the Centennial of the Overseas Railway reaching Key West. Les will be coming to talk about the book and we’ll have other programs around that time — there will be lots more information in the future at our One Island One Book blog. Bookmark it!

3) Any or all of the writers coming to the Key West Literary Seminar in January 2012 – it’s an amazing bunch especially if you’re into the speculative fiction — superstars like Margaret Atwood and William Gibson, Pulitzer Prizewinners like Jennifer Egan and Michael Cunningham, new voices like Dexter Palmer and Charles Yu, guys with hot new zombie titles like Colson Whitehead. It’s going to be extraordinary. It’s sold out, I’m afraid, but there will be free sessions on Sunday afternoon, as always. And the Seminar will post the audio from as many sessions as we can on our ever-expanding archives.

So read, dammit!

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction, Key West, Key West Library, Literary seminar, nonfiction, recommended reading

It was better when … wait, it’s still pretty damn cool

My review of Mile Marker Zero: The Moveable Feast of Key West ran in the Miami Herald today . The book chronicles a very interesting moment in the cultural history of the island and, to some extent, the nation. For another, longer and in some ways more positive review, check out this one from The Wall Street Journal.

The book made me think a lot about some of my longtime obsessions — in ways that weren’t really down to the merits of the book so I didn’t address them in the review. That’s why I have a blog, right? First, there’s the nostalgia thing, specifically the baby boomer nostalgia thing. If you’re a Gen X-er, as I am, you grew up with — and are still dealing with — the overwhelming, overbearing weight of the giant generation before you that set the cultural norms and insists, to this day, that their music/writers/political opinions/lifestyle choices are superior to yours and should continue their culturally dominant positions for … well, apparently forever. My college newspaper had a reunion in the early 1990s, drawing people who had been staffers from throughout the paper’s recent history — someone brilliant made up coffee mugs with the slogan “It was better when we were there.” Exactly. I am not arguing that the 1970s in Key West were not a remarkable moment for many reasons, not least the cultural convergence that saw Thomas McGuane, Jim Harrison and I guess Jimmy Buffett drawn to the same small island at the same time. But it’s the notion that this was some paradise that has been lost, that there was a golden age when everything was better — and the conclusion that everything happening now just sucks that irritates me.

Related to which is the question of Key West’s authenticity, something with which anyone who chooses to live here longterm must wrestle. In Mile Marker Zero, McKeen describes present-day Key West  as having been “embalmed as an alcoholic theme park” and his main character, Tom Corcoran, finds that “the quaintness and weirdness that Corcoran found when he stepped off the plane in 1968 had largely been institutionalized.” I can see why you’d think that. Key West can appear as a theme park with a strong alcoholic bent, as a hippie version of an Amish community, as a tacky cruise ship stop. But that’s only if you see the place at its most superficial, namely Lower Duval Street. Key West has tons of authenticity and it’s not that hard to find — it’s at Sandy’s Cafe and Five Brothers. It’s at the bocce courts and the high school baseball field and and Lucky Street Gallery and the Green Parrot. It’s at the library and the Holiday Parade and the Porch and the MARC Christmas tree sale and Bad Boy Burrito and the Burlesque. True, it has a high tolerance for alcohol and other behaviors that get people into trouble — but that stems from a culture that is remarkably nonjudgmental and open to new things and unconventional lifestyles. People are constantly coming and going. Lots of them are short-timers, some of them are scammers, some have ridiculously unrealistic ideas of what they can do here. But a few stay on and add interesting new layers to the place. If you’re from here, you can draw on a tightknit community of surviving natives who have learned to adapt to the constant changes and know things about the island that we newcomers will never figure out, no matter how long we’re here. If you’re from elsewhere, you get to reinvent yourself as you choose, as an adult. Despite what McKeen says, it is not “millionaires and the homeless and hardly anyone in between” — most of the interesting stuff is in between and there’s plenty of it. And despite what Mrs. Buffett and Mrs. McGuane and Tom Corcoran may think/have thought, it is a fine place to raise children. Some of the coolest people I know grew up here — and kids regularly go off the rails in affluent suburbs, wholesome rural communities and elite private schools. People sometimes ask me if I plan to stay in Key West forever (I don’t plan that long-term but have no plans to leave at the moment) or why I’ve stayed. My answer is always the same: It’s a small town that’s never boring. I’m sure this exists elsewhere and I imagine it might be nice to live somewhere with a lower level of drunken idiocy. I might find another community with as many smart, funny, interesting people where I can ride my bike to my job, the movies, my friends’ homes and any number of interesting restaurants. But I kind of doubt it.

1 Comment

Filed under Key West, nonfiction, reviews

RIP, belatedly

Recently I learned that two writers I admire – very different from each other – had died. Embarrassingly, it seems they died months ago but I somehow missed the news in both cases. Despite the fact that I try to keep an eye on literary news in all kinds of media. In my defense I can only say that I had good reasons to be a little distracted and disconnected early this winter.

The first I heard about was Diana Norman – a writer better known in recent years and on this side of the Atlantic as Ariana Franklin. She wrote a series of historical mysteries generally known by the title of the first book in the series: Mistress of the Art of Death. And as I learned from this obituary in The Guardian, she had a long and interesting writing career, both as a journalist and a writer of historical fiction, before that series. The Mistress of the Art of Death books helped get me started on what has become a three-year (so far) jag of historical mysteries; set in the 12th century, they follow a female physician who winds up in Henry II’s England. I have no basis on which to judge their historical authenticity but they are enjoyable reads. Now I’m going to have to track down her earlier novels, several of which are set in Revolutionary America.

The other, who actually died a few weeks before Norman, was Wilfrid Sheed. I came across the news while browsing through Slate’s cultural coverage a couple days ago; here’s Timothy Noah’s appreciation and here’s the New York Times obituary. Sheed spent quite a bit of time in Key West in the ’90s; I may have met him once or twice but I certainly didn’t know him. But I did really enjoy his writing, coming across his book Essays in Disguise when I was living in Miami right after college and my entire life, outside of work, consisted of buying books at Books & Books and reading. Sheed’s essays, as the title indicates, were exactly the kind of literary journalism I like most — intelligent, clear, appreciative, and written for readers, not the academy.

I am grateful to both of them for writing books that enriched my reading life. We have all four of the Mistress of Art of Death series in the library collection; unfortunately, we only have one of Sheed’s books, his most recent, The House that George Built, about American popular music in the 20th century (the titular George is George Gershwin). For people who like literary essays I highly recommend Essays in Disguise and The Good Word. And for people curious about Sheed’s Key West experiences, here’s a Key West Diary he kept for Slate in 2001. It’s a little name-droppy, to be sure, but not all the names are famous literary ones and it’s definitely a picture of one slice of island life.

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction, Key West, Key West Library, nonfiction, recommended reading