Category Archives: nonfiction

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.

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

Future Perfect Continuous

From left, Jim Gleick, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood and China Mieville mix it up in the first panel of Yet Another World. Photo by Nick Doll.

It’s all over but the workshops. Yet Another World materialized in the San Carlos for one night and three exhilarating days, and then it was over. What’s left is the post-Seminar letdown … and a massive new reading list.

I promised further explanation of this year’s theme. Can’t say I can, other than to reiterate that it isn’t really dystopia — though there was a good bit of that — nor scifi, or speculative fiction as high-end scifi is frequently styled these days. The subtitle was “Literature of the Future” and the guiding texts were 1984 and Brave New World, if that helps. In his introduction in the Seminar’s program, Program Chair James Gleick writes this, referring to the writers gathered for the Seminar: “What they do share — what their work reveals — is a deepening awareness of past and future, which also means an awareness that our world is not the only one possible.”

I won’t even try to come up with a coherent report about what the Seminar covered or explicating further on the theme — keep an eye on the Seminar’s always-expanding Audio Archives for recordings of individual sessions. Here, instead, is an episodic report of stuff I heard that I thought was interesting (and short) enough to jot down in my notebook.

Interesting information new to me

In his opening introduction, Gleick told us about a religion newly officially acknowledged as such in Sweden: Kopimism, or copyism, it is a religion dedicated to file sharing. Ctrl-C and Ctlr-V are sacred symbols. “That is not speculative fiction,” Gleick said. “That is Wikipedia. And it wasn’t there yesterday.”

Sharks save swimmers, according to Jonathan Lethem. How? Because after a shark attack, the number of drowning deaths decreases for a few years.

Year of the Flood, according to Margaret Atwood, is not a sequel or prequel to Oryx & Crake but a simultaneal.

Colson Whitehead’s first piece of professional writing, for the Village Voice, was a think piece about the series finales of Who’s The Boss and Growing Pains.

After finishing a novel, Cory Doctorow buys a steampunk bondage mask from some specialty shop in Bulgaria. According to William Gibson.

After Chronic City was published, Wikipedia had to lock down the Marlon Brando page because fans of the book were trying to revive him in keeping with the book’s plot.

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Filed under fiction, Literary seminar, nonfiction, recommended reading

Besties forever

I am unable to resist best book lists of almost any form so I’ve been keeping an eye on the usual end of the year productions. I’m not as into it as some others, like the blogger Largehearted Boy, who amasses a giant list of best lists, or the librarian/bloggers at the Williamsburg Public Library, who take all those lists and turn them into one mega-list (though that list is broken into different categories, mostly for fiction).

Mostly, I keep an eye out for the lists compiled by the sources I rely on most for book reviews — The New York Times and Salon (which has separate lists for fiction and nonfiction). But I have to admit this year my favorite list came from Lev Grossman at Time magazine (which also had separate fiction and nonfiction lists). Perhaps it’s Grossman’s unapologetic appreciation of genre fiction — which was an awful lot of my fiction reading this year. Or, in a related angle, it’s his noticing books that are not the usual suspects — two graphic novels (The Death-Ray and Hark! A Vagrant!) became Christmas gifts in my house this year after I saw them on the list.

My best list consists of books I read this year, whenever they were published — though a large number were indeed new this year (one of the many benefits of working at a library is access to advanced review copies and awareness of newly published works). I chose my favorites with flat-out enjoyment as my only criterion, realizing that many factors go into that.

Fiction: A Song of Ice & Fire, books 1-3, George R.R. Martin (That’s A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords)

Nonfiction: Rin Tin Tin, Susan Orlean.

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

Teaser Tuesdays: In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood

It’s that time. Time when the approaching Key West Literary Seminar starts to morph from concept to reality. And what a reality this one will be, especially if you are a fan of speculative fiction — or, in some cases, what people call scifi. High-quality scifi to be sure. We’ve got your William Gibson, we’ve got your Douglas Coupland and yeah, we have your Margaret Atwood. Along with a couple other people like Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem, Gary Shteyngart and … well, just check out the link above.

The bad news, by the way, is that the Seminar is totally, completely, utterly and without hope sold out. There are something like 400 people on the waiting list. So there’s no buying a ticket at this point. But there is the Sunday afternoon session, free and open to the public. I imagine the line for this one might start forming on New Year’s Day.

Margaret Atwood, conveniently, has just written a book that is one of my absolute favorite kind of books — literary criticism, or analysis, or description for the non-academic. Rescuing the examination of literature from the academy! God bless her! So anyway, In Other Worlds is my Tuesday Teaser this week, just under the wire since I started reading it on my lunch hour. The rules, as always, are to take two sentences from anywhere, then post the link in the comments section on the Should Be Reading blog.

“My field of specialization was the nineteenth century, and I was busying myself with Victorian quasi-goddesses; and no one could accuse [Rider] Haggard of not being Victorian. Like his age, which practically invented archaeology, he was an amatuer of vanished civilizations; also like his age, he was fascinated by the exploration of unmapped territories and encourters with ‘undiscovered’ native peoples.” — p. 109


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Teaser Tuesdays: The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

Nonfiction a-go-go continues: Now into The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt, about the Renaissance rediscovery of Lucretius’ poem “On the Nature of Things.” I had requested it from the library even before it won the National Book Award for nonfiction. I’m only 50 pages in and I haven’t hit real traction but that’s not the book’s fault — it’s more readable than I had thought, even.

So here’s the teaser (the rule is two sentences from a random page, post the link in the comments section of the Should Be Reading blog. Or if you don’t have a blog, you can just post your teaser in the comments):

“Despite the vigorous efforts that Thomas More made, during his time as chancellor, to establish one, England had no Inquisition. Though it was still quite possible to get into serious trouble for unguarded speech, Bruno may have felt more at liberty to speak his mind, or, in this case, to indulge in raucous, wildly subversive laughter.” (p. 236)

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Teaser Tuesdays: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

I am definitely on a nonfiction jag these days — punctuated by bouts of mostly trashy fiction — and the current one is Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard. I’m a little over halfway through and it’s great so far — I’m fond of 19th century American history, especially about lesser known figures, and of historical true crime. This fits both categories. What I’ve learned so far is fascinating though heartbreaking: James Garfield, assassinated a few months into his unlikely presidency, was a good man who would have been a real asset to the nation in the middle of its Gilded Age excesses. And Charles Guiteau, the assassin, was even more of a wackjob than I realized after reading Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation.

Anyway here’s the teaser:

To submit your own teaser, post two sentences (spoiler free, please!) and submit your blog post in the comments section of Should Be Reading. Don’t have a blog? Then post the teaser itself in the comments.


“To Americans in 1881, the principal danger their presidents faced was not physical attack but political corruption. With a determination that shocked even the most senior politicans, they turned their wrath on the spoils system, the political practice that had made Garfield the target of the delusional ambitions of a man like Guiteau.” — p. 249

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Teaser Tuesdays: Contested Will by James Shapiro

Still prepping for arguments about Anonymous — which still hasn’t made it to Key West — by reading up on the Shakespeare authorship issue. My current title is Contested Will by James Shapiro, acquired via Interlibrary Loan (thanks, Alachua County!). Here’s my teaser:

“This was no parlor game for Twain, nor was his interest in Shakespeare and the authorship question a passing fancy. Quite the contrary; no writer of his day had wrestled longer with both.” – p. 131

Want to play along? Check out all the Teasers in the Comments section of the Should Be Reading blog — post your own link or, if you don’t have a blog, just post your teaser in the comment. Happy reading!


Filed under biography, nonfiction, Teaser Tuesday