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.

To be appreciated

I am so negligent a book blogger that I hadn't even realized it was Book Blogger Appreciation Week -- but it is! At least for another day. The website has links to lots of interesting blogs, almost all of which are new to me. But I thought I'd use the occasion to point out some links to some blogs that I particularly appreciate. They're all in my blogroll on the right, but these few are the ones I find myself turning to most often. In no particular order, they are: Citizen Reader -- Written by a librarian and avid reader of (mostly) nonfiction, I appreciate how it is always smart and both sincere and snarky, when appropriate.

Philobiblos -- Written by a librarian with a historical bent; I particularly appreciate the reviews and the links to stories about manuscript and rare book shenanigans.

Smart Bitches Trashy Books -- I appreciate Sarah Wendell bringing romance out of the closet and celebrating (or ridiculing) its many and varied forms. I particularly enjoy the HaBO (for Help A Bitch Out) feature, in which readers describe in hilarious terms some romance they read long ago and the commenters invariably figure out which book it is.

Between the Covers -- Written by Miami Herald Books Editor Connie Ogle, I appreciate the reviews, the South Florida literary news and, most of all, Connie's and the Herald's perseverance in providing book coverage in a time when newspaper journalism is in dire straits indeed.

Book Slut Blog -- I appreciate its relentless literariness and its links to interesting literary journalism, especially when I don't have keep up with Arts & Letters Daily -- which I don't know if that qualifies as a book blog but it's definitely worth checking when you have time.

And all of these, along with the nominees and winners from Book Blogger Appreciation Week, I appreciate for supporting my belief that the Internet is not, in fact, the Grim Reaper of Reading and in many ways serves to connect, facilitate and otherwise celebrate people who live for the written word.

We become the Bone Island BBC Blog

I've been an Anglo-phile for a long time, and the BBC is largely responsible. As a kid, we had PBS on a lot, so I got a lot of exposure to costume dramas, via Masterpiece Theater, and Monty Python. In college, I spent a summer in England. I already had the Tudor thing. And it got worse when a good friend married a Brit and moved there, becoming a reason to visit and a resource on the excellent current programming the BBC continues to produce (as well as the continuing steady stream of costume dramas). So I am of course concerned when I hear references to the Beeb under attack from the new Conservative government -- which is closely tied to the Murdoch empire, and if you think this is a bit paranoid, read this investigative takeout from the New York Times. And when I saw a reference to this video on Neil Gaiman's Twitter feed I immediately checked it out -- and was charmed. I just love goofy dorks. I've had this song stuck in my head for a week now -- and I'm still not sick of it.

Even more amazingly, they posted it, at my suggestion, on the Smart Bitches Trashy Books blog. Woo hoo! Long live the BBC! The comments section is pretty fun, too.


Lots of Americans, of course, know about Monty Python, the costume dramas and newer offerings on BBC America, like the rebooted Dr. Who and Top Gear. But this song lists -- and everyone should consider a region-free DVD player so you can watch -- a lot of other great shows, including The Thick of It (if you liked the movie In The Loop, this series is its genesis and continuing sequel), Steve Coogan's brilliant Alan Partridge shows, and Shameless, Paul Abbott's great series set in a Manchester housing project, with David Threlfall as drunken, useless but endlessly entertaining patriarch Frank Gallagher. This series also helped launch James McAvoy and Anne-Marie Duff, among others. Another Abbott production is State of Play, a six-hour miniseries that is available on U.S. DVD format (we even have it at the Key West Library). McAvoy's in that one, too, but the real treat is Bill Nighy as the crusading editor and Kelly Macdonald's Scottish accent (you haven't heard someone pronounce "It's muhrr-duhrr" until you've heard her).

Don't worry I'm not writing about ebooks

I'm sick to death of reading about ebooks and digital publishing because it all seems to come from the poles -- either we're looking at the Glorious Future or the Terrible End of literature. Plus there's so much being written and published, both online and in print, by self-obsessed media types, that you couldn't possibly follow it all. Plus as a wise person once said about Hollywood, nobody knows anything. So why kill myself trying to figure it out when really smart people who are paid to do so obviously can't? I chose this image because I recently completed two online book club reads -- in both cases, ahead of the official schedule. The first was Neil Gaiman's American Gods for the inaugural One Book One Twitter. The second was Justin Cronin's Passage for the inaugural Salon Book Club.

I liked both books a lot -- each gets four stars -- but in terms of communal reading experience I have to give the edge to Salon -- even though they're only midway through and even though I have spent a lot less time with the online component than I did with the Twitter side and I don't plan to contribute to the Salon discussion, as I did to the Twitter talk. It might be because I'm more comfortable with someone in charge -- and I fully understand that the brilliance of Twitter is that no one is in charge -- but if I have a chance of sitting in on a book discussion guided by the brilliant Laura Miller, I'm taking it. The Twitter conversation was necessarily stutterstep and repetitive and without nuance. Salon's is far more limited in terms of the number of people taking part -- but the contributions seem more thoughtful and considered. In other words, more like reading a book.

This is not an anti-Twitter jeremiad. I was mildly Twitterphobic and am now glad to have gotten over that. It's fun to use it as a kind of personalized wire service; I follow mostly book-related feeds but also a few news feeds and a couple celebrity feeds (Jason Bateman and Will Arnett, OK?). I also follow a couple cycling feeds (Lance Armstrong and Johann Bruyneel).

As for the books -- American Gods was good but I really need to re-read it because limiting myself to the 1B1T reading schedule was just too frustrating and too scattered. There's a lot going on in that  novel, with a lot of characters and side stories thrown in, and too much time between reading sessions meant I forgot too much. The Passage is one of this summer's hot books -- it's, inevitably, about vampires but this ain't no Twilight/True Blood dreamy vampire. These are bad vampires, initially created by a government experiment run amok and they manage, in short order, to destroy America as we know it. It's been compared quite a bit to The Stand by Stephen King, which I haven't read. I don't even read in that genre. But I found it an engrossing, well written tale that credibly created a world and included characters whose fates mattered to me. Isn't that what a good summer book is supposed to do?

Catching up

You know what's really cool about finding a series you like after it's started? You can gobble the books up ... none of this waiting around for a year or two for the author to produce the next installment (maybe that's why people like James Patterson and Stuart Woods so much -- you only have to wait around for a month or two!). But I digress. This week, I unfortunately caught up to C.J. Sansom with the fourth installment of his Matthew Shardlake series, Revelation. Fortunately I don't have to wait that long -- the fifth title, Heartstone, is due out this fall. This situation is especially frustrating because this series just keeps getting better, in my estimation. Maybe I'm just getting fonder of the characters or more familiar with the milieu but Sansom is doing a great job keeping up the intrigue and filling in the setting of London late in the reign of Henry VIII. This time, Shardlake is called in to help investigate a serial killer (a couple centuries before that term existed) -- mostly the debate between the characters is whether the killer is mad or possessed by the devil. Either way it's a scary chase involving Shardlake's friends, household and of course himself. I'm going to give this one -- the only in the series you can get from the Monroe County Library collection (we have it in print and audio) -- an A, or 4 stars out of 5. But I recommend starting from the beginning of the series, with Dissolution, the first in the series -- you can buy the earlier titles or do like I did, and order them from interlibrary loan.

A couple other quick links while I have your attention. Keys residents should check out our newly redesigned library website -- and a darn sight prettier it is, too! It also includes some book recommendations from staff throughout the Keys -- you look under "books and more" and then "staff favorites." Also I've done some revising to the links on this site -- new additions include Citizen Reader, a kickass book blog from a librarian who appears to read even more than I do and Flashlightworthy Books, a cool site of book lists. I find this especially handy for book recommendations in genres about which I know next to nothing, such as slipstream and steampunk.

Happy reading!