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Librarian Nancy Pearl's Picks For The Omnivorous Reader

I'm often asked how I choose the books that I'm going to talk about on Morning Edition's "Under the Radar" segments. Simple: I just pick some of the titles that I've most enjoyed since the last time I was on, without concern for whether they're fiction or nonfiction, genre or not, or aimed or classified as being for children or teens.

Because I am an omnivorous reader, at first glance my choices always seem to me to be completely higgledy-piggledy, with no book bearing any similarity to any other. Certainly some of these books have elements in common. Among Others and The Double Game could both be described as "booky." America Aflame and Color of Lightning are both about the Civil War. But beyond that, I can't see much that these titles have in common with one another besides my deep enjoyment of them.

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America Aflame

I'm not exactly sure why I was so taken with David Goldfield's America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation (Bloomsbury, 2012), but I think it's because it offers a view of the last decades of the antebellum period through Reconstruction years in ways that I had never before considered. Goldfield, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, analyzes the role that evangelical Christianity played in the years leading up to the Civil War. In the first four decades of the 19th century, political leaders sought a middle ground between an individual's rights and the need for national stability (we're still searching for the right balance today, it seems). The new messianic fervor gripping both the Northern and Southern states didn't allow for compromise, and the result was a war that in the author's view could have been avoided.

But this isn't simply a history of the Civil War: Goldfield considers all aspects of American life from 1834 to the centennial year of 1876, including the building of the railroads, the California gold rush, treatment of Indians, and the effect of the growth of technology on American society. Goldfield's prose is graceful; I'd stop many times during the reading of the book just to appreciate the quality of his writing. And, like all the best histories, it made me carefully consider my own assumptions and beliefs about our country's past. I predict that it'll do the same for you.

The Towers of Trebizond

In the fall of 2004, Steve and I talked about great first lines, and one of the books I cited was Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond: "'Take my camel, dear,' said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass."

An opening sentence as brilliant as that sets a high bar for the rest of this bittersweet comedy of manners (reissued in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux) but Macaulay doesn't let us down. Aunt Dot, Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg and Laurie, the novel's narrator, are traveling through Turkey with a psychotic (and unnamed) camel in order to spread the blessings of the Anglican Church (especially important as Billy Graham and his followers have preceded them there). They also plan (in the case of Father Hugh) to search for relics of dead saints for his collection, collect material to write a book about their travels (Aunt Dot), and provide illustrations for the book (Laurie). One of the reasons this novel is endlessly fascinating is that Macaulay never tells us whether Laurie is a man or a woman. The clues she offers (an unhappy love affair and a country house weekend among them) only add to the mystery. Despite my regular re-readings of The Towers of Trebizond, I've never quite been able to decide. (I've also got to say that this new edition has the best cover of any that I've ever seen.)

We Learn Nothing

Tim Kreider's We Learn Nothing: Essays and Cartoons is a remarkable collection. There were points in every one of them where I found myself nodding in agreement and wondering how he could so consistently express my feelings, and express them so much better than I ever could (or ever have). There are essays on how hard it is always to be appreciative of simply being alive (personalized by recounting the days, months and years following the time he was stabbed in the neck and almost died); gender (made meaningful by his account of keeping his friend, novelist Jim — now Jenny — Boylan, company for his convalescence following Boylan's gender reassignment surgery); meeting his birth mother and half-sisters (when he was in his 40s); and an especially lovely essay, "An Insult to the Brain," about mortality that was occasioned by spending a good deal of intense time with his mother when she was in the hospital, and reading Tristram Shandy aloud to her. It's the best analysis of and tribute to Laurence Sterne's novel that I've ever read: If this essay doesn't make more people want to read this 18th-century novel, I can't even imagine what will. This is not a memoir: Although we do learn a lot about the author, it's always in the context of some larger idea. Rather, it's a splendid example of what my old high school journalism teacher, Mr. J. Rodger Gow, described as "the personal essay."

Heft

At first glance, the two protagonists of Liz Moore's second novel, Heft, seem so dissimilar that it's hard to believe they even belong in the same book. Arthur Opp once taught literature to college students. Now he is 58, a recluse weighing 550 pounds, living in the house in which he grew up. Kel Keller is handsome and popular, an extremely talented high school baseball player who is hoping to make it to the bigs. Because I don't believe in giving anything away about the plot, all I will say is that discovering the connection between these two men, if they are, indeed, connected at all, will keep you reading this emotionally true (and often heartbreaking but never bathetic) novel.

And when you've finished and returned Heft to the library or lent it to a friend or archived it on your e-reader, you'll find yourself missing having the characters around. You'll wonder, while you're waiting for the light to change or kneading bread dough, what happened next. One of my very favorite Anne Tyler novels is Searching for Caleb. Reading Heft reminded me why. The authors' writing styles are not at all alike, of course (Moore seems to me to be much more straightforward and direct), but both Tyler and Moore have created characters that I'll probably never forget.

Among Others

Jo Walton's Among Others is one of those rare novels about adolescence that will appeal both to teen and adult readers. It won both the Nebula and Hugo awards for best novel. The narrator, Morwenna "Mor" Phelps, is a teenager who's sent off to boarding school after a devastating occurrence near her home in South Wales (the details of which Walton slowly reveals over the course of the novel) left her in almost constant pain, both physically and emotionally. What saves her is reading — in particular, reading science fiction and fantasy novels. While visiting the local library in the town nearest the school, she discovers that there's a whole group of SF fans that get together weekly to talk about books by writers like Ursula Le Guin, Robert Heinlein, Susan Cooper, Roger Zelazny, Andre Norton, James Tiptree and many more.

Walton not only offers up a compelling plot and a sympathetic and utterly believable main character in Mor, but also gives readers a passport to a world of future reading. At one time I might have considered myself pretty well-read in the area of speculative fiction, but no more. My to-be-read list grew by leaps and bounds as a result of Walton's novel. And my reading of the novel slowed down drastically as I kept pausing to check whether the books were available at the Seattle library, and to reserve them if they were. I was thrilled to find that Molly Templeton, a fellow fan, created a pinboard with the covers of all the books mentioned in Among Others.

The Double Game

Fans of spy novels will find much to love in The Double Game by Dan Fesperman. It's one of two novels on this list that I'd describe as "booky" books. (The other is Jo Walton's Among Others.) They're clearly born of the author's desire not only to give you a satisfying read, but also (equally important) to share some of his or her favorite books with you; Fesperman's is an homage to the spy novels written throughout the 20th century. Bill Cage, the son of a Foreign Service officer, grew up in the 1980s in Eastern European cities like Prague, Budapest and Vienna before he went off to college in the U.S. and became a reporter. The beginning of the end of his career came when Edwin Lemaster, an intelligence agent and novelist, revealed to Bill that he had once upon a time considered doubling himself and spying for the Russians.

Fast forward 20 years: Out of the blue, Bill, who now works for a PR firm in Washington, D.C., receives a cryptic note telling him he should have been more thorough in investigating Lemaster's troubling statement. And we're off: As Bill looks more deeply into Lemaster's past, it holds up a mirror to his own, intersecting with people Bill knew (including his father and former girlfriend) and with places he's lived. What's the truth? Who's living a lie? Sorry, but I'm not telling. You have to read The Double Game to find out. And I'm very grateful to Fesperman for including a terrific bibliography of spy fiction. It was great fun to read it over and find old favorites (Len Deighton's Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match, for example).

Code Name Verity

Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity is an intensely moving novel for teens (although I suspect that adults will also enjoy it). It's one of those novels that are especially hard to talk about because it's vital to a reader's enjoyment not to give anything about the story away in a description or review. (John Green's The Fault in Our Stars is another example of this sort of novel.) I'd be tempted to simply say, "Trust me, just read it," and leave it at that, but I suspect that I need to add a bit more.

How about this: Set during World War II, Code Name Verity is a story of deep friendship, incredible bravery and the difficult choices that life sometimes forces on us. On a spy mission to France that's gone badly awry, the Nazis capture Julie. Only after several rounds of torture does she agree to write her "confession," which must include everything she knows about Britain's war plans, including details of the rumored Allied invasion of Europe. Meanwhile, her best friend Maddie, who piloted the small plane that brought the two to France, apparently didn't survive after it was shot down. (Julie, at Maddie's insistence, successfully bailed out before the crash.) And then the novel really picks up steam.

I urge potential readers not to judge Code Name Verity by its cover. Had I done so, I might never have picked it up and discovered one of the smartest, and best, novels of the year.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's catch up now, as we occasionally do on books we may have missed. Librarian Nancy Pearl stops by from time to time to share reading recommendations, what she calls Under the Radar Books. So let's start with a history here, "America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation," but it is not solely about combat of the Civil War.

NANCY PEARL: In fact, I think that David Goldfield's book, it's light on combat and big on context and nuance. His feeling is that the Civil War, that there didn't need to be a war to solve the problem of slavery and the Union. What he felt drove the nation to war was the sort of exponential growth, in both the North and the South, of evangelical Christianity.

And I have to say this is a book that made me really look back at my assumptions and my beliefs - the kind of received knowledge that you get when your kid - and start reassessing them. Because the book is set over 1834 to 1876, basically...

INSKEEP: Much, much wider frame than just the four years of the war, right?

PEARL: Hugely, and he talks about all different aspects of society; the building of the railroads, the treatment of the American Indians, the Gold Rush - I thought that was a fascinating part in the book - and shows what the effects of those years leading up to the war and the hectoring from the pulpits about good and evil. It seemed, in many ways, he could be talking about our society today.

INSKEEP: Which is, of course, what happens with history books. People will write them and they are about a past time, but they're also a reflection of our own time. It's almost the conversation between eras.

PEARL: It is. And I think that that's one of the reasons why there have been so many books about the Civil War, say, because each time we reinterpret that war out of our own sensibilities.

INSKEEP: You have also sent us a fictional look at history here, set in 1943. The novel is called "Code Name Verity."

PEARL: "Code Name Verity" is a novel written for teens, although I do think that adults would enjoy it, as well. It's the story of two girls, Maddie and Julie -Maddie is British, Julie is Scottish - and their work for the government during World War II. The book opens up on a very suspenseful scene. Julie has been captured by the Nazis in occupied France and she agrees to confess everything that she knows about the British war effort.

I don't want to say anything else about the book because I think that I just want other people to meet the novel without any preconceptions.

INSKEEP: Well, you know, when you say World War II novel you get a particular story in your head. It's something that's been written about so much and shown on the screen so much, that I'm sure one of the challenges for any writer, at the beginning of a project like that, is to ask what can I add that will not seem like it's already been done.

PEARL: And one of the things that Elizabeth Wein added to this book, or the reason she wrote this book, was really to explore the role of young women in the British war effort. And it's a subject that we don't see a lot of fiction about, at all, for teens. And to have such a wonderful example of that here, with "Code Name Verity," is just splendid.

INSKEEP: Well, let's move from World War II to the postwar era, the Cold War, because there's a novel here called "The Double Game."

PEARL: "The Double Game," by Dan Fesperman, is one of those books that will especially appeal to anyone who loves spy novels, as I do. The main character in this book is a man - now middle-aged man - but when he was a young cub reporter starting out, he was interviewing a man named Edwin Lemaster, who was one of the top spies during the Cold War. And in that conversation, he reveals to Bill that he had thought of going over to the Russians and becoming a double agent.

Now, fast forward 20 years. He gets an anonymous note one day, saying to him, You didn't investigate what Lemaster said thoroughly enough. One of the best parts of this book is that many of the clues, some of the plot points, are physically found within various spy novels...

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. You find some of the clues, or rather, inside the book, some of the clues are found within books that are lying around.

PEARL: Yes, or they are on pages that have been torn out from these classic spy novels.

INSKEEP: You love books about books, books that feature books, I think.

PEARL: I do. I do and I especially appreciate it when, as Dan Fesperman did at the end of this book, there is a pages-long bibliography of what he regards as the best spy novels ever.

INSKEEP: You have also sent us a novel calls "Heft" by Liz Moore. What is it?

PEARL: Liz Moore's novel "Heft" is one of those books that is just perfect for people who love character-driven fiction. And it's the story of two people who are lonely and feeling isolated. One is literally isolated and that's Arthur Opp, who was once a literature professor at a kind of community college in New York. Now he's 58. He's a recluse weighing 550 pounds. He's living in the house where he grew up.

The other main character is a young man, a teenager named Kel Keller who's handsome and popular, and he's an extremely talented high school baseball player who really wants to make it to the Bigs.

Their connection is slowly revealed through the novel, so that it's one of those books where you really get to know the characters so well, that when you're finished with the book you feel bereft of their company.

INSKEEP: Hmm. I'm reminded of a colleague years ago who said of a novel that she loved: I slowed down reading it because I didn't want it to end.

PEARL: Yes. And I think that "Heft" is one of - well, I have to say, I think most of these books that I'm talking them talking about today have that quality for me.

INSKEEP: Nancy Pearl, thanks for coming by.

PEARL: My pleasure, Steve.

INSKEEP: She's the author of "Book Lust to Go" and a regular guest on this program. And you can find a list of all of Nancy's Under the Radar reads at NPR.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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