Saturday, October 8, 2011


I enjoyed this little tome.  Author Wayne Wiegand spotlights four libraries in the rural mid-west, giving a brief history of each, from about the 1870s through the 1950s.  He then discusses the books which did or did not make it into the collections of these libraries.
The first section of the book can get a bit tedious at times, as it lists by name every founding board member and their political and religious affiliation.  In addition, each and every librarian is discussed.  However, in the later sections of the book, this information does become relevant as the driving forces behind collection choices are discussed.  Despite the rather dry subject litany, Mr. Wiegand portrays a marvelous picture of how libraries were founded and run in rural America in the late 19th and early 20th century, and in the end I enjoyed the section more often than not.
The role of the library as a place within the communities of rural America is also given a fair amount of ink.  Interestingly enough, many activities which still take place today in my local library system had their roots in these first fledgling, small town libraries. 
Collection building is given an interesting perusal.  Wayne Wiegand built a data base to cross reference the collections of the four libraries he profiles, plus one additional library of the era.  He then gives a prose comparison of all the libraries and compares their collections with publications such as Booklist, which were put out by national and state library organizations, to see how the libraries followed the collection building trends recommended by their professional organizations.
I would have happily read twice the given information pertaining to how each of the libraries dealt with the major social issues of their era.  This period in American history saw many pivotal issues, such as the rise of labor unions and socialism, women’s suffrage, and prohibition.  The efforts of various national and local groups to suppress certain specific works of literature and the ongoing battle against fiction in favor of non-fiction is discussed in interesting detail, with special emphasis given to how each of the profiled libraries handled the issues.  This section was definitely the strongest of the book.
There were may titles which I discovered for the first time as I learned about library holdings of this era and which I look forward to reading.  In addition, the book sparked a desire to learn more about Andrew Carnegie, who provided funding to erect the buildings in which three of the profiled libraries were housed.  At about 250 pages, this book is a quick look at a seldom discussed element of American history, which I, as a bibliophile and lover of small, local libraries, found well worth my while.

REMARKABLE CREATURES by Tracy Chevalier ✰✰✰✰✰

This wonderful work of historical fiction held me enthralled from beginning to end!  The novel presents at its center the factual personage of Mary Anning, who became, in the early 1800s, a fossil hunter of great repute.  Mary’s story, as the discoverer of the first ichthyosaur and plesiosaur fossils, among others, would be fascinating enough in its own right, but when you combine it with her station in life and the social issues that swirled through the scientific community of her day, the novel becomes a true tour de force.
It seems as if every factor was working to Mary’s detriment-she was poor, a member of the wrong faith, a member of a disrespected family, and more than anything else, she was a woman.  Men tried to take credit for her discoveries and denied her membership in scientific societies.  Yet when it came to the religious turmoil that her remarkable creatures excited, they were more than willing to let her bear the censure.
As a woman, I was drawn in by Ms. Chevalier’s warm and intelligent portrait of this most grounded of women.  Mary Anning never tried to be more than what she was, a beach comber of incredible instinct who could see in the stone things other people missed.  She wanted credit for her abilities and chafed at the attempts of those better educated and more renowned to claim her findings as their own or attempt to deny the veracity of her creatures.

In addition to Mary’s own story, a good deal of information regarding many famous men of the time, such as the geologist William Buckland, with whom she developed a special friendship, is shared.  Also prominently featured in the novel is Elizabeth Philpot, a local spinster who was frequently known to be in Mary’s company as she hunted along the coast of Lyme Regis, and was herself a competent hunter and collector.  The biographies of these people are solidly placed in the historical context of rapidly evolving scientific thought and discovery and the ensuing upheaval within the religious community as long-held doctrines began to be brought into question.
I listened to the audio, and while the audio was not at all bad, I really wish that I had read this one in print form, so as to fully experience the lovely descriptions of the English coastal area in which it is set.  Whether you choose the audio or the print version you will not be disappointed-this is sure to be one of my top fiction books of the year.


Using dual narrators, Peter Carey deftly portrays America, and to a lesser extent France and England, in the time frame following the French Revolution.
Our first narrator, is Olivier de Garmont, who by necessity engendered from his standing as a French aristocrat, must vacate France.  To avoid political censure and create a face-saving reason for running away, it is decided that he will travel to America and write a book, supposedly for the French government, on the prison system in the New World.  Olivier’s character is loosely based on Alexis de Tocqueville and his writing of Democracy in America.
Through various machinations of plot our other narrator, John “Parrot” Larrit, a poor Englishman of humble beginnings, finds himself thrown into the position of servant to Olivier and on his way to America as well.
By turns humorous, enlightening, touching, and gripping, Mr. Carey’s novel is an intricately complex page-turner of the very best sort.  A portrait of the social culture of the America of the age is gently unfolded as the pampered, old world aristocrat and the down-trodden servant begin to equalize in matters of intellect, patriotism, cunning, respect, love and friendship. 
The audio, put out by Blackstone and narrated by Humphrey Bower, will without a doubt be my number one audio for 2011.  Given that this year I have listened to far more books than I have read in print, that is quite high praise.  Mr. Bower so perfectly captures the accent and persona of both characters that I was surprised to realize that the book, which uses the format of alternating chapters being narrated from the viewpoint of each character in turn, did not use two different actors, one for each voice.
I absolutely loved this novel.  It has everything a reader could wish for in a good work of historical fiction in terms of research smoothly intertwined within the plot, compelling characters (both from history and Mr. Carey’s imagination), and vivid prose that drew me in whether the topic was of a personal or societal nature.  Whether you choose to listen to Humphrey Bower’s masterful performance or let Peter Carey’s words speak for themselves, this is an absolute must read.