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Nancy Pearl Turns Back The Pages With Picks From The Past

Steve Debenport

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."



by Ross Thomas

"The trouble with talking about mysteries is that it's my feeling that you don't want to give anything away," Pearl says. "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."

A Long Way from Verona

by Jane Gardam

"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," says Pearl. "It's 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.' I just love that. And then there's just wonderful parts in this book about growing up."

The Cold Cold Ground: A Detective Sean Duffy Novel

by Adrian McKinty

"This is the best crime novel mystery that I've read in a long time," Pearl says. "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.

"[McKinty is] a great writer. This is the first of a trilogy. The second one is already out — it's called I Hear the Sirens in the Street — and the third one will come out this spring."

The Summer House: A Trilogy

by Alice Thomas Ellis

"The Summer House is ... 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," says Pearl. "And the wedding is between a 40-year-old man named Syl ... and a 19-year-old girl named Margaret. 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.

"And Alice Thomas Ellis, she has the driest British humor. Here's Ellis' famous, best-known quote — 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.' Those poor hamsters!"

The Summer House: A Trilogy follows the same vein as the Japanese film Rashomon, which tells the same story multiple times from different perspectives. "I love the technique of going into the same story again and again, because so much of our storytelling is about that," Inskeep says. "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."

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:

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff