Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean

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A Year in Reading: 2014 Wrap-Up

After 74 entries, hundreds of books, and more additions to our reading list than we can count, sunset has come for our latest Year in Reading. The series was, if we can dispense with humility for a moment, a huge success, featuring more great essays written by more great authors than we’ll ever know what to do with. It also reminds us, as always, how thankful we are for our readers.

As for our contributors, this year’s roster was an eclectic bunch, including one Pulitzer Prize winner, two frontmen for popular bands, and all five National Book Award finalists, including this year’s winner. It included one novelist, Eimear McBride, whose debut earned high praise from James Wood just a couple of months ago. It also included our staff, which delivered, among other things, an awards ceremony in miniature and a poignant meditation on college life. It blew us away, in other words, and we’re just glad we can run something this wonderful, year in and year out.

Per a tradition started by our own Nick Moran (and partly inspired by our own Janet Potter), we’ll cap things off by handing out our own bespoke awards. If past years are any indication, these awards will immediately become very coveted, so if you happen to see one of the winners on the street, be sure to congratulate them profusely, or perhaps gaze upon them with a mixture of fear and awe.

First up: high accolades are due for those books which our entrants consistently named among the best things they read this year. Top honors go to Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, which got shout-outs from Eimear McBride, Jess Walter, Hannah Gersen, Rachel Fershleiser and Scott Cheshire. Leslie Jamison agreed with Scott Cheshire and Molly Antopol, respectively, in her choice of Marilynne Robinson’s Lila and Charles d’Ambrosio’s Loitering. Our own Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven was popular, as well — Julia Fierro, Mark O’Connell and Bill Morris all named it one of their favorites. Each book will receive a Millions Year in Reading Circle Award.

In the nonfiction category, The Favored Comrade Award for Interest in Russian History goes to Stephen Dodson, who delved into his enjoyment of Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science with a detailed aside about the motherland. In a long, comprehensive paragraph, he namechecked Peter the Great, Joseph Stalin, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, at one point describing how odd it is that Pavlov never received punishment for his criticism of Stalin’s regime. It’s a great introduction to the book’s topic, as is Nick Moran’s piece on Last Train to Paradise, which goes home (again) with a Golden Jetski for All Things Floridian. Maureen Corrigan, for her choice of a history of Dutch New York, wins the Van Wyck Award for Interest in Nieuw Amsterdam.

The Gutenberg Award for Time-Saving Technology goes to audiobooks, which allowed two entrants, Michelle Huneven and Julia Fierro, to read more than their schedules might have otherwise allowed. After reading an essay on Jane Austen, Huneven listened to the audiobooks of Mansfield Park and Jane Eyre, while Fierro used audiobooks to get some reading done while knitting. We salute them for their productivity, and resolve to take more advantage of the format in the future.

Speaking of new formats, The Franz Kafka Award for Not Just Thinking Outside the Box But Actually Setting It On Fire goes to Blake Butler, who devoted his remarkable entry to a book that appears only in his dreams. The book, which his dreaming self discovered while locked in a cage, is thin, nearly endless, and bound in transparent leather. Each page contains a color, “full and flat,” which his dreaming self could read, and — ah, dang. It’s beyond our description. Go read it yourself.

Our final prize, the Steve Martin Award for Total Honesty About Parenting, goes jointly to Mark O’Connell and Lydia Kiesling, who both wrote about their reading lives in the wake of new parenthood. Lydia, writing four days before her due date, set out a great list that included John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, in spite of the palpable influence of “so-called nesting hormones.” Mark, after a year of reaching children’s books aloud, had some thoughts to share about new children’s classics: “Let me tell you, I read seven shades of shit out of Peck Peck Peck by Lucy Cousins.” We salute them both, and hereby grant them a night each of uninterrupted sleep.

And that’s it! Thanks go out again to our readers and contributors, and we hope you all have a fruitful end to the year. If you missed any part of the series, be sure to go back to our main entry for The Year in Reading 2014.

P.S. Thanks also go out to The Millions staff, foremost among them C. Max Magee, our singular founder and editor, as well as Adam Boretz, whose work on the editorial side made A Year in Reading possible. We also need to thank Kaulie Lewis for her work on social media, and, of course, all of our staff writers for their contributions to our year-end series and the whole year leading up to it.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

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A Year in Reading: Nick Moran

“I would’ve been a rich man if it hadn’t been for Florida.” — Henry Flagler

Congratulations! You’ve founded the most successful company in the history of industry, and you’re rich beyond imagination. What do you do now? Do you do something traditional, like your partner, John D. Rockefeller, and reinvest your capital to secure an empire for your family? Or do you do something bold, something creative? How about developing a new hotel? Sounds great! Even better: you could build two of them, among the finest ever been built — the Ponce de León in St. Augustine, and the Royal Poinciana in Palm Beach. You can call your friend Thomas Edison, who’s recently harnessed residential electricity, and have him install light fixtures so new and so foreign to your guests that they refuse to flip the switches themselves because they’re terrified of being electrocuted. Marvelous! Splendid! But now you find that even this doesn’t do it. No, not quite. Your ambition is insatiable. You direct your attention to the state at large, to its pristine Eastern coastline, stretching 350 miles from Jacksonville to the end of the mainland, where an unnamed town exists as just a speck on a map — a place populated by fewer than 500 people. This place is great, you think. Why not share its splendor with the masses? Why not make it so that anyone with the money can traverse the sunny coast by rail? This could be the next great American frontier! This could be the country’s greatest tourist attraction! New Yorkers and Ohioans (like yourself) could come down in the winter months to rest their heels in the sand, to fish in the daytime and wait out the snow. And as a businessman — or at least that’s what you call yourself — you think of the return on investment. You think of pineapples shipped north from the perpetual warm weather. You think of oranges and sugar. Perfect! You form another company, the Florida East Coast Railway. You do what you set out to do. By 1896, a train leaving Jackonsville in the morning can arrive at the foot of Biscayne Bay that night. The town starts booming, so much so that its grateful settlers offer to name it after you. “Flagler,” you think, has a nice ring to it, but you’re a modest man — or so you tell yourself — and so you ask that they keep the place’s Native title of “Mayaimi,” or “Big Water,” inspired by the state’s great inland sea, Lake Okeechobee, located 80 miles to the north. It’s all falling into place now. It’s gelling together, except again you’re bored. You need excitement. Come on, now! You’re the second wealthiest man on the planet. You are quickly becoming the most significant person to ever set foot in Florida: four years ago, you persuaded the state’s legislature to alter their constitution, to make “incurable insanity” into acceptable grounds for divorce. You did this because, at 61 years old, you’ve fallen in love with a 23 year old and you need to get out of your second marriage. (The law is repealed immediately after you go through with it.) So you get back to scheming and again your gaze turns southward. This time, you notice the state’s busiest and most populous city, which also happens to be its southernmost: Key West. This, you think, is your chance to leave a real legacy, to reshape not only the state you’ve adopted as your own, but also the nation itself. By extending your railway 128 miles south from its current terminus in Miami, you’ll be able to harness the potential of the nation’s 13th-busiest shipping port. A couple problems, is all. One, how the Hell do you build a railroad over the ocean? The islands between Key West and Miami are faintly islands at all; they’re limestone and coral-encrusted speed bumps for waves. Their highest point is 16 feet above sea level, but the majority sits between three and four. Miles of open water span between each one, so you’re going to have to hopscotch your way down to the Conch Republic. Two, the proposed route will cost more than the 742-mile California installment of the Union Pacific Railroad. Three, it’s hurricane season. Four, you’re getting pretty old. No matter, you think. We’ve done it before; we’ll do it again. But how, exactly? For that, you’ll need to read Les Standiford’s Last Train to Paradise, the best book I’ve read all year.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Recommended Reading for Transient Lives

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A recent Millions essay by Michelle Huneven got us thinking: much hay has been made of how various print and digital platforms affect reading practices, but what about setting? Where you do your reading, and how much unbroken time you can give to it, will arguably shape your experience far more than does the difference between screen and page. And as cable and the web colonize our homes, it seems to us that the best reading is increasingly done in transit – for better and for worse. We’ve read pieces of War and Peace on the DC Metro (tough) and half of Anna Karenina in a single gulp on a night train through Tuscany (sublime).

By way of starting a conversation about the ideal marriage of text and transportation, we’ve asked our contributors and our Facebook group to make recommendations for three modes of transportation: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. “Planes” should be self-explanatory; “Trains” comprises commuter rail (and buses) as well as longer distance trips; and “Automobiles,” perforce, centers on audiobooks, podcasts, and works read out loud by those not behind the wheel. Contributor responses appear first, followed by selections from the Facebook response. We invite you to add your own in the comments section or via twitter (using the hashtag #roadbooks). Bon voyage!

Planes
Sonya: While traveling far from home, I like to give myself over fully to a changed perspective, leaving my customary myopia behind as much as possible; The Economist is my preferred reading. The robust  “World” and “Business” sections in particular knock me off my precious literary perch, which can be awfully refreshing.

Kevin: My criteria for a plane book are two: I want it to be fast-paced, and I want to be able to finish it, if not by the time I touch down, then at least during the return flight home.  I’ve never had a better plane reading experience than Boston to Los Angeles, 1994, The Hunt for Red October.

Edan: When flying, I always want something short enough to read cover-to-cover (in addition to a novel, a fashion magazine or gossip rag, and a book of jumbles, crosswords, or soduku). On my last few flights, I’ve brought a volume from Melville House’s Art of the Novella series. I’ve written about Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra here. I can also recommend Customer Service by Benoît Duteutre, about a man with cell phone issues who just wants help from a goddamned human being. It’s an appropriate read for when you’re flying through the air in a magical bullet, and you’ve just been forced to pay for a bag of peanut m&ms (a.k.a., dinner) with your credit card because cash is no longer accepted. 

Garth: Last summer, en route to Hawaii, I read most of Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife. If I say that I wasn’t even tempted to look at The Real Housewives of New Jersey (on a continuous loop on my back-of-seat TV), it’s not to slight Jacqueline or Dina, but to indicate how engrossing and provocative I found Talese’s exploration of sex in America.

Anne: For the nervous flyer (like myself), who wants to forget they’re in a fuselage for the duration of the flight, Lucy Grealy’s memoir Autobiography of a Face offers a gripping and unsentimental account of her childhood bone cancer and living with the consequent facial disfiguration. The book can captivate for the time it takes to cross an ocean – even, in my case, the Pacific.

Emily W: My fear of flying makes reading when skybound a rare pleasure. For me, it’s usually the iPod, cocktails, and a Vogue or a Harper’s Bazaar. The one book that managed to suppress my fear of death in the sky for five hours was J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, which I read from cover-to-cover on a red-eye from San Francisco to DC. 

Max: Plane rides are perfect for magazines, especially the New Yorker. The freedom to work through an entire issue in one sitting feels like a luxury, even if the leg room is lacking.

Amir Hother Yishay: I read my first Murakami on a transatlantic flight, Kafka on the Shore; a magical experience. Also, White Teeth by Zadie Smith.

Becky Donahue: On one flight to Germany, I could not put down The Devil in the White City… wonderful. Another great plane book was the biography of John Adams by David McCullough.

Trains
Anne: Amy Hempel’s Collected Stories offer enchantments brief enough for daily a commute, but the collection provides a cornucopia of word play and eclectic tales to occupy a longer haul. Plus, Hempel’s story, “To Those of You Who Missed Your Connecting Flights Out of O’Hare,” is a sure endorsement of the soothing lull of a long train ride.

Sonya: I like the Russians for train travel. When you’re watching the natural landscape – the largely uninhabited regions – of a country fly by in flashes, it just feels right to be reading stories that take place over the great land mass of Mother Russia. For a long trip, Dr. Zhivago; for, say, the DC-New York Metroliner, Chekhov’s “The Steppe” – in both cases, the land journey is also the journey of the soul.

Garth: The subway is feast or famine for me. The right book, and I’ll miss my stop; the wrong one, and I’ll read for half an hour without registering a single word. When I don’t have a New Yorker handy, Joan Didion – say, Play it as it Lays or Salvador – is perfect subway reading: lucid enough to let me in quickly; sophisticated enough to hold my attention; and discretely structured, for ease of exit.

Kevin: Typically before boarding at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, I stop at a news kiosk and pick up the NYT and the WSJ.  I enjoy having the time to read each front to back, and I like being able to change from news to business to sports and then back again.  There’s also no doubt that I like the romance of a newspaper on the train: the economy fold, the crinkle of the pages mixed with the sound of the clattering tracks.

Emily W: On trains, I’m usually one for gazing out the window or striking up a conversation with a stranger, but this winter on the Northeast Direct from DC to Boston, I found Poets and Writers’ January/February 2010 issue quite absorbing, particularly their “Literary Life” essays.  I’m a bit of skeptic when it comes to writing about writing but P&W convinced me otherwise.

Edan: I never travel by train, but the next time – or, really, the first time – I get the opportunity to ride one across the country, or even state lines, I plan to bring along my copy of Selected Stories by Alice Munro.  I will flip immediately to “Wild Swans,” a startling, discomfiting, and accurate account of an encounter with a stranger on a train. Munro writes: “Victim and accomplice she was borne past Glasco’s jams and Marmalades, past the big pulsating pipes of oil refineries.”  I’d like to read that sentence as another landscape glides by my own train car window.

Max: There’s something about taking a longer train ride that puts one in the mood for adventure. When I was younger, I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on a train ride from Washington D.C. to New York and emerged from Penn Station feeling pleasantly addled and ready for a night on the town.

Amir Hother Yishay: I finished the last 200 hundred pages of A Storm of Swords, by George R.R. Martin, on a subway ride

Jane Weichert: Nothing Like It in the World by Stephen Ambrose is an very readable story of the building of the first transcontinental railroad. It was built by the immigrant Chinese and Irish and gives an understanding of the brutal conditions under which they worked. Last Train to Paradise by Les Standiford is a spell-binding tale of the last of the privately financed infrastructure projects undertaken by larger-than-life 19th century businessmen. Here Henry Flagler races against his own mortality to complete a railroad from Jacksonville to Key West, with the final run south from Miami requiring herculean engineering, management, and financial resources.

Becky Donahue: Short stories are wonderful…just finished reading Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro. Podcasts…Slate does a great job and lots of content to choose from. My new favorites are Spilled Milk and The Moth.

Automobiles
Sonya: Once weekly, I drive two hours each way – prime audiobook time. “As read by the author” is often a great way to go when choosing nonfiction in particular.  I recommend Elizabeth Gilbert reading Eat, Pray, Love; Anne Lamott reading any of her memoirs; Helene Cooper reading The House at Sugar Beach; and, my favorite among these, Dreams From My Father. The author was allowed much more range of expression back in 2005 when he recorded it, and it’s a rare experience hearing a future president do Kenyan accents and urban “Negro dialect” (ahem) and using the f- and n-words. [Ed.’s note: for the latter, we also recommend the Lyndon Johnson tapes.]

Anne: It’s rare that I travel by car these days, and even rarer that I find myself behind the wheel, but when I do, I like to listen to In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry. Listening to poems, like songs, lets me internalize their rhythms and cadences. This collection features a wide range of twentieth-century poets reciting their own poems, from Sylvia Plath’s contemptuous “Daddy” to Gertrude Stein’s playfully repetitive “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso.”

Emily W: With audiobooks, it’s all about the reader; audio samples are essential to choosing a good recording. On recent car trips, my husband and I have found Huckleberry Finn and The Da Vinci Code particularly entertaining (in the latter case, guffaw-inducing) because the readers were so excellent at accents, genders, and dialects. And I have extremely fond memories of listening to Larry McMurtry’s Anything for Billy with my parents and sisters on a childhood drive from Virginia to Massachusetts. 

Kevin: Audiobooks are not foolproof.  A couple years ago I tried to listen to Cold Mountain on a road trip; between changing lanes, counting out toll money, and generally trying to stay alert, I found Charles Frazier’s slow, somnolent reading impossible to follow.  These days my voices of choice are David Sedaris (yes, please, Santaland Diaries one more time) and Garrison Keillor, or anyone else working in short-form comedy.

Garth: Though my wife and I like to read aloud to each other on long trips, The Lannan Literary Foundation podcasts are a recent discovery I’m pretty enthusiastic about: lengthy readings by writers like Deborah Eisenberg and Samuel R. Delany, followed by intelligent discussion with peers like Ben Marcus and Junot Díaz. We parcel them out like rest stops.

Max: A good travel audiobook can make even a drive from Chicago to New York seem something more than just endless fields and turnpikes. Most memorable was Paul Theroux’s account of his train trip from Cairo to Johannesburg, Dark Star Safari. The library is great for these.

Amir Hother Yishay: I always read on car rides, never having been a fan of audio books myself. One of my greatest car reading experiences would probably be reading One Hundred Years of Solitude over a two week trip from Toronto to St. Johns.

Miriam Parker: One of my most enjoyable long car rides included listening to Born Standing Up by Steve Martin. He reads it and is fantastic. I actually had to stop the car once to write down something brilliant he had said or else I would have caused a huge accident on I-40.

Becky Donahue: Firstly I love audio books. I re-read (or listened to) Lovely Bones. Bel Canto (Ann Patchett) is a good audio book. And anything from Neil Gaiman…brilliant.

Christine Magee: Commuting in and out of the city on a regular basis last year was made palatable by listening to Carson McCullers, The Heart is a lonely Hunter. The fact that the narrative transported me to a different place and time made it the perfect choice. It got to the point where I was looking forward to sitting in traffic so I could hear more! This wonderful book full of tension and struggle made my daily commute seem like a breeze!

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