Nancy Pearl Turns Back The Pages With Picks From The Past

Dec 27, 2013
Originally published on December 27, 2013 10:32 am

There has been no shortage of noteworthy new books this year. In fact, the prospect of choosing just a few of them to recommend to NPR's Steve Inskeep "kind of overwhelmed" librarian Nancy Pearl. So, "out of a sense of desperation," she says, Pearl combed through her own personal library stacks for some of her favorite titles from years past that readers might have missed the first time around.

"All the books on my bookshelves are books that I loved. Those are the only books I keep," says Pearl. "I think all of these books ... create this world that you can spend time with and in. And that changes your life."

Still want more? We ran out of time before we could talk about all of Pearl's recommendations, but here are a few more titles she thinks you might like:

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Librarian Nancy Pearl joins us once again. Nancy comes by periodically to talk with Steve Inskeep and recommend reading. She's been combing her personal library to come up with recommendations for books you may have missed when they were published years ago.


So you went fishing.

NANCY PEARL, BYLINE: I did, out of a sense of desperation, kind of overwhelmed with all the new books that are around. All the books on my bookshelves are books that I love. Those are the only books I keep. So it was pretty easy to pick out a nice stack of older titles that are still in print so new readers can discover them.

INSKEEP: Let's dive in.


INSKEEP: There's a book here called "The Cold, Cold Ground, Book One, the Troubles Trilogy by Adrian McKinty. What is it?

PEARL: Oh, this is the best crime novel mystery that I've read in a long time. And when I read a mystery, I'm always looking for something more than the plot. I need it to give me something else, and it's hard to define what that something else is, but this book does it so well.

This is set in 1981 at the height of the struggle between the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, and the main character, Sean Duffy, is a detective inspector with the Belfast Police Department. And he is the lone Catholic in a very Protestant police force.

INSKEEP: You know, I've just flipped this open and this is one of my favorite opening paragraphs I've seen in a while. May I read a couple of sentences here?

PEARL: Please.

INSKEEP: (Reading) The riot had taken on a beauty of its own now. Arcs of gasoline fire under the crescent moon, helicopters everywhere, their spotlights finding one another like lovers in the afterlife. Wow.

PEARL: Yeah. He's a great writer. This is the first of a trilogy. The second one is already out, it's called "I Hear the Sirens Singing." And the third one will come out this spring.

INSKEEP: Now, what about this novel here, Jane Gardam, "A Long Way from Verona"?

PEARL: Oh, "A Long Way from Verona" was one of Jane Gardam's earliest books, and I have to think, on no knowledge, that it's highly autobiographical. Set during World War II in the English countryside, and the main character, the person who's telling the story, is a young woman named Jessica Vye. And it's the story of living in England during that time of the blitz bombing, the deprivation, the fear, the cold, all of that was going on.

But in the midst of that, it's how Jessica Vye becomes a writer. And the way the book is set into motion is that a famous writer that Jessica Vye, at age 8, had never heard of comes to her school and talks to the class. And when he gets done talking, Jessica leaves school and runs home and gets all the writing that she's ever done in her eight years, and bundles it up and catches this author before he gets on the train to go back to London and gives him all these papers.

And months and months later, a note comes for her from the writer, and the writer has said, all in capital letters: JESSICA VYE, YOU ARE A WRITER BEYOND ALL POSSIBLE DOUBT.


PEARL: I just love that. And then there's just wonderful parts in this book about growing up.

INSKEEP: Now, what about this novel here? Ross Thomas, "Briarpatch."

PEARL: Well, this is a novel that I think you might like, Steve. The trouble with talking about mysteries is that it's my feeling that you don't want to give anything away. And the best way to describe "Briarpatch," which is one of the many novels written by Ross Thomas, is to say that Ross Thomas is a cynic who wishes he were able to be a romantic.

So this is a look at corruption. It begins with the death of a red-haired detective. The detective's brother comes to Oklahoma City, where the detective was on the police force, both to pack up the final stuff that the detective had, but also to take a deposition for a Senate subcommittee that he's on.

So how this kind of personal corruption and political corruption collide in Oklahoma City is just fabulous. And Ross Thomas - he was always known, when he was alive, as kind of an inside-the-Beltway writer. You're with a man who has no illusions about the way the world works.

INSKEEP: Now, what about "The Summer House: A Trilogy" by Alice Thomas Ellis?

PEARL: Oh, gosh. Here's another fabulous book. "The Summer House" is three novellas...

INSKEEP: You know, I just name these books and I love hearing the change in your tone of voice, the excitement that comes over you just from the name.

PEARL: I know.

INSKEEP: Go on. Go on.

PEARL: I know. It's a collection of novellas that were published in the late 1980s, and these three novellas all tell the story of a wedding that is coming up in a few days. And the wedding is between a 40-year-old man named Syl - Sylvester - and a 19-year-old girl named Margaret.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

PEARL: And it does not appear that this marriage is ever going to work. But the first story is told by Margaret, the second story is told by Syl's mother, and the third story is told by Margaret's mother's best friend.

INSKEEP: Oh, so this becomes like the movie "Rashomon."

PEARL: Yes, "Rashomon."

INSKEEP: Where you've got the same story...

PEARL: Right.

INSKEEP: ...again and again from different perspectives.

PEARL: Yes. And Alice Thomas Ellis, she has the driest British humor. Here's Ellis' famous, best-known quote.


PEARL: And it's not in this book, but this is what she has written: There is no reciprocity. Men love women. Women love children. Children love hamsters. Hamsters don't love anyone. It's quite hopeless.


PEARL: Those poor hamsters.

INSKEEP: It's like a food chain of love.

PEARL: It is.

INSKEEP: You know, and I love the technique of going into the same story again and again, because so much of our storytelling is about that. We pick up familiar themes in the movies. Songs repeat themselves or even get remade. And it's that mixture of familiarity with whatever is new and different that is brought to the story that makes people really get into it.

PEARL: Absolutely. And it takes a very skilled writer to do that, and I think all of these books do create this world that you can spend time with and in, and that changes your life.

INSKEEP: Well, Nancy Pearl, thanks for sharing some of the books that are part of your world.

PEARL: Totally my pleasure, Steve.


GONYEA: Librarian Nancy Pearl is the author of "Book Lust To Go." All her reading recommendations are at This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.