Book Reviews
4:28 am
Tue November 27, 2012

Librarian Nancy Pearl's Picks For The Omnivorous Reader

Originally published on Fri November 30, 2012 4:12 pm

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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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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