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.

Mostly local

Key West writers are in the news, folks. First of all, there's James Gleick, the esteemed science writer who has recently published his book about information called The Information. And so far it's getting boffo reviews, in Big Important Publications like The New York Times and the New York Review of Books and coverage on NPR's All Things Considered. I only hope future generations of library and information science students get to read this book instead of the ... stuff I'm having to read for my current course. But the less side about that on a public forum the better. Another interesting read is Gleick's blog, Bits in the Ether. I'm told he'll be doing a reading and signing at Voltaire Books some time this month; I'll update here when I learn more. The other item of local interest which I cannot resist posting is this video of our own Meg Cabot, promoting her forthcoming young adult novel Abandon, a modern take on the myth of Hades and Persephone. I like this because it's shot in one of my favorite places in our tiny town, the Cemetery -- which, by the way, is now open to access at the Frances Street gate again. Thank you, City Commission!


Finally, on the subject of local authors, please keep in mind that this week is the final week of One Island One Book, which will wrap up on Thursday morning with the library's Cafe Con Libros program -- featuring a talk by Alison Lurie herself about her novel set in Key West, The Last Resort.

One Island One Book, Volume 2

Last year at the Key West Library we held our first One Island One Book program -- and if I do say so, as a member of the staff, it was a great success. We chose Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not, a novel set in Key West in the 1930s, and had lots of rousing discussions, presentations, a screening of the film (even though its plot bore almost no resemblance to that of the novel) and, as a capper, the designation of the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum in Key West as a National Literary Landmark. This year, we've decided to do it all over again -- with a different book, of course. We've chosen another novel set in Key West, this one more contemporary and with an author who is still alive, still in Key West -- and who will appear at the Library for our Cafe Con Libros group to discuss the novel as the progam's finale. Our choice is The Last Resort by Alison Lurie.

Lurie is a longtime Key Wester and this is actually her second novel set here -- the first was The Truth About Lorin Jones and when people ask me for a Key West novel, that's always the first one I recommend. The Last Resort is more recent and tells the story of a woman married to a much older, successful man who has basically made serving him her life's work. Until he gets depressed and withdrawn one winter, and she suggests they repair to Key West and ... well, you should read the book to find out what happens.

To find out more about Lurie, check her website -- which, I was extremely touched to see, suggests finding her books at your local library, even before it suggests purchase, which is an extremely generous and civic-minded gesture on the part of a writer.

We have lots of copies of The Last Resort in the Library's collection -- as of this writing most if not all are checked out but it's a quick read so if you request a copy, you shouldn't have to wait long. I have it on good authority, too, that they have a good supply of them at a good price at Key West Island Books, so that's another option.

The program starts March 9 with a discussion of the book by Cynthia Crossen, who writes the Dear Book Lover column for the Wall Street Journal, lives in Key West and is vice president of our own Friends of the Library. We are blessed indeed with our literary community on this little island. For more information on events, keep an eye on the Library website's Key West page or check the One Island One Book blog. You do not need to have a Monroe County Library card to attend events at the Library.

The girl who finally got around to reading Stieg Larsson

It's taken me years to get around to reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the international bestseller by the late Stieg Larsson. There are a few reasons for this. For one, it's a pretty big book. For another, it was reputed to be an addictive page-turner and I'm wary of taking those on without a good chunk of free time ahead of me. Third, I'm always wary of massively hyped bestselling books, especially genre thrillers. I'm still getting over having read Angels & Demons and I still want those four hours of my life back. And finally, I knew the tragic backstory -- that Larsson died of a heart attack, at 50, before the books were published -- and without a will, leading to a so-far-unresolved conflict between his father and brother, who inherited his unexpectedly valuable estate, and his longtime partner, with whom he lived for decades. Ugh. BUT. I do like Swedish crime novels -- my favorite so far is Kjell Eriksson's "Princess of Burundi" -- and these had gotten well reviewed enough that I thought it was safe to give them a try. Plus, Larsson is the subject of our Book Bites book club at the library this month. And I had a couple days of post-Fantasy Fest downtime. So I figured now was the time.

I actually had started this book once or twice before. It was one of the first that I bought when my husband got me a Kindle. But I had bounced off the beginning section and figured it wasn't the right time. This time, I stuck it out and by 30 pages in (a guesstimate, actually, since the Kindle doesn't give you a page number) I was hooked. The writing is nothing spectacular and I suspect the translation was clumsy at times -- either too literal or veering between British and American English -- but the plot and characters are so strong that it didn't matter.

Several friends have said they had trouble with the Swedish names, both for people or places. I don't speak or read Swedish but I am of Swedish descent, on both sides of my family including two grandparents who were raised there, and the names didn't faze me at all, except sometimes making me feel inadequate when I wasn't 100 percent sure on pronunciation. Oddly, since I have never been to Sweden, I had strong visual images of the island and guest cottage where a lot of the book's action takes place -- I guess I've seen enough photographs of the place, plus watched the BBC's excellent adaptations of Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander novels. And the characters, especially the hero, journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and heroine, hacker/investigator Lisbeth Salander, were very strong. And the coffee! They're always drinking coffee. At all hours, at every meal and meeting. I was craving it even more than usual. That, and a liverwurst sandwich on rye.

And I appreciated Larsson's prescient and sensible attitude toward the financial industry, both the much-hyped billionaires who make their fortunes off what are, essentially, shell games instead of old fashioned industries where they made stuff -- and the financial journalists who hype them. Larsson goes out of his way several times to unfavorably compare financial reporting to the more skeptical treatment given other kinds of crime stories or political figures. And he's absolutely right.

There was yet another reason I had put off reading Larsson -- I had heard the books were incredibly violent, specifically violent towards women. The original title of this novel, in Swedish, was Men Who Hate Women. And it definitely featured some sadistic psychopaths who have it in for women but ... I didn't feel like Larsson was celebrating the violence or getting off on it in the way you sometimes do with thrillers. He, like his hero, was a lefty investigative journalist and is decidedly on the side of the underdog -- specifically Salander, who is both a victim of violence and adept at fighting back and protecting herself. And I appreciated that he provided plausible reasons that she would not seek help from the authorities, thus liberating her from the situation of the Too Stupid To Live romance novel heroine who is always getting herself into idiotic trouble for no good reason.

So I definitely plan on reading the rest of the trilogy -- even though several reliable sources have already told me the first is the strongest of the three. I just don't want to start the next one ... until I have another free day or two ahead of me.