Librarian's Picks: Saving the Best for First

About Nancy Pearl

Since the release of the best-selling Book Lust in 2003 and the Librarian Action Figure modeled in her likeness, Seattle's Nancy Pearl has become famous among readers and NPR listeners alike. She is a regular commentator about books on Morning Edition and NPR affiliate stations KUOW in Seattle and KWGS in Tulsa.

The tale of an imaginary universe where elevators are really important, the story of the first giraffe in Europe and a novel about a drug that restores lost memories. Intriguing-sounding books by themselves, but what makes them more alluring is that they are all authors' debut works.

Nancy Pearl

Nancy Pearl says it's hard for authors to match the intensity of a first-time book. Marco Prozzo hide caption

itoggle caption Marco Prozzo
Collage of book covers

Pearl's list includes The Intuitionist, Whores on the Hill, Zarafa and Lost. hide caption

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Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl says writers pour their heart and soul into their first books. "Not that they don't do it for subsequent books, but I think in some cases maybe the best has come out there."

She talks with Steve Inskeep about some of her favorite first books and what makes them worth pulling off the shelf again and again.

Try These First Books

I love discovering new writers. The best way I've found to do that is by taking a chance on an author's first novel or first work of nonfiction. There's something so intrinsically hopeful and yet a bit frightening about reading these books, both on my part (Is this the start of a longtime reading relationship with the writer? Will the promise of that terrific first line carry through to the last page?) and, I trust, on the part of the writer as well (Will readers enjoy the topic as much as I enjoyed writing about it? Will the characters be as real to them as they were for me?).

Often, of course, there's heartbreak ahead: the characters refuse to come alive for the reader, the writing is workman-like rather than transporting, and the topic becomes dull after a chapter or two.

But sometimes, as in the books that follow, the results are pure wonder: three-dimensional characters, a mind-bending plot, and entrée into a subject that set me off in a dozen different reading directions.

Try these books for a taste of what I'm talking about:

'The Intuitionist'

'The Intuitionist'

Some books are so imaginative that you wonder how the author can ever live up to his ideas. Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist is one of those novels. In this case, Whitehead fully delivers on the promise of his premise. Part science fiction, part noir mystery, Whitehead's novel creates its own world and its own genre. Set in an unnamed city filled with skyscrapers (where elevators are therefore very important), Lila Mae Watson is the first black female elevator inspector. Not only is she set apart by her race and gender, but Lila Mae is among those inspectors known as "Intuitionists," who can judge an elevator's safety by instinct, as opposed to the "Empiricists," who are confined by the rigors of checklists before they declare an elevator safe. As the novel opens, the Elevator Guild's elections are coming up, and both Intuitionists and Empiricists are searching for the lost writings of James Fulton, the father of Intuitionism, and his plans for the perfect elevator which will render all current buildings obsolete. How Lila Mae becomes involved with this search and all its ramifications — that touch on race and gender issues — is written in a stylish prose that will bring to mind Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon.

'Lost'

'Lost'

Although Hans-Ulrich Treichel has published poetry and nonfiction in his native Germany, Lost is both his first novel and his first book to be published in the United States. This small gem, smoothly translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway, is set in 1950s Germany. It's told from the point of view of an eight-year-old boy, who learns that his older brother (whom he was always told had died of starvation during World War II) was instead given to a bystander in 1945, when his mother thought the family was going to be killed by the advancing Russian Army. Now the family learns that perhaps this older brother didn't die — the government has identified a foundling (#2307) who just might be Arnold. While the young narrator and his parents go through a myriad of tests (think the painful absurdities of Kafka here) to determine if that particular orphan is indeed their brother and son, the narrator relates his feelings about what's happening to him in language that shifts beguilingly from crankiness to reluctant acceptance to recognition of both the ridiculousness and hopelessness of the family's situation. The ending is both unexpected and wonderful.

'Banvard's Folly'

Paul Collins
Photo: © Kenneth Ulappa

Paul Collins' Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales Of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, And Rotten Luck is a collection of all-too-brief cautionary accounts of people who were famous in their own day but whose names ring no (or very few) bells today. Included among them are the artist John Banvard, whose three-mile-long panoramic painting of the shores of Mississippi River brought him both fame and unbelievable fortune in the mid-19th century until he decided to try to compete with P.T. Barnum and lost it all; Delia Bacon, who tried to prove that the fourth-rate actor, William Shakespeare, didn't write the plays that bear his name, but that they were written by a troika composed of Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh and Edmund Spenser; A.J. Pleasonton, who believed that "blue light" (light streaming through blue glass) was a cure for ailments both physical and mental (only one of a number of medical quackeries Collins mentions); and Martin Farquhar Tupper, a household name in 19th century poetry circles, who was beaten out for England's poet laureate by no less a poetic eminence than Alfred Tennyson, and yet is totally unread and unknown today (except maybe in a few English departments). I suppose the lesson to be learned is that fame is, indeed, at best fleeting.

'Whores on the Hill'

'Whores on the Hill'

The reckless trio of teenage girls striding through Whores on the Hill, Colleen Curran's first novel, don't mind being referred to by other girls at their Milwaukee Catholic high school as the "the whores on the hill;" in fact, led by Astrid, they court their dicey reputation by wearing skirts shorter than anyone else, picking up motorcycle-riding dropouts, and generally raising hell as only rebellious 15-year-old girls can. Curran honestly and painfully lays it all out: first love, first betrayal by a best friend, and the inevitable tragic outcome of all that wildness. Here's a sample of her writing, describing a scene following an ill-advised evening of joyriding on motorcycles with boys they'd barely met: "At home, even in bed with the covers pulled tight, it still felt like we were flying, Astrid, Juli, and me, burning through our bare, balding town like a breath of wet fire. Our desire. We wanted the world. All of it, and now."

'Zarafa'

'Zarafa: A Giraffe's True Story'

I can't imagine that the subject of giraffes is common fodder for discussion around the dinner table, but after reading Michael Allin's nonfiction tale, Zarafa: A Giraffe's True Story, From Deep in Africa to the Heart of Paris, it just might become the subject du jour. Allin follows the adventures of a young giraffe, sent to King Charles X of France in 1826 by the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt. (He was hoping to deflect France's involvement in a little war he was conducting against Greece.) We learn of Zarafa's capture in Africa, her long sea voyage, first down the Nile to Alexandria, and then on to Marseille, and finally a 550-mile walk to Paris, accompanied by an ever-growing rapturous crowd of followers. But this is more than Zarafa's tale; it's a fascinating look at the early 19th century, filled with memorable descriptions of Napoleon (a voracious reader who led a well-read army), Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, the great French naturalist (of whom I'd never heard before), and others. Zarafa herself is now on display in a museum in La Rochelle, on France's west coast, where you will be sorely tempted, as I was when I read this charming book, to go pay homage to a most lovely lady.

'Spilling Clarence'

Anne Ursu
Photo: © John J. Ursu

In Spilling Clarence, author Anne Ursu asks readers to consider what place our memories have in our lives, whether who we believe we are is a reflection of what we've chosen to remember, or to forget. In the small town of Clarence, a powerful drug gets into the water system, and everyone is now able to remember everything — every single moment and incident — about their pasts. For some, this is a blessing, but for others, who counted on the passage of time to make the past bearable, it's a heartbreaking nightmare. This is a witty, intelligent, and gracefully written novel, but it's particularly special because Ursu cares so deeply about her characters that the reader cares about them, too. Her seemingly intuitive understanding of the ways we invent and reinvent ourselves is breathtaking.

'In the Fall'

Jeffrey Lent
Photo: © Marion Ettlinger

In the Fall by Jeffrey Lent begins during the Civil War and continues into the 20th century, charting the course of a family whose life changes radically when young Union soldier Norman Pelham brings Leah, the runaway slave whom he marries, home to Vermont. Three generations of the Pelham family face the consequences of Norman's marriage, and Lent makes it clear that no one can escape the effects of slavery — not the owners of slaves, nor those they owned, nor their descendants. A must for historical fiction fans.

'Ross And Tom'

John Leggett
Photo: J.B. Leggett

Many writers never get further than their first book; some famous "one-offs" are Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, and John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces (Toole committed suicide before his novel was accepted for publication). The question of "why?" always comes up in a discussion of these three writers (although for Toole it's pretty obvious!). Two less well-known writers, Ross Lockridge (Raintree County) and Tom Heggen (Mister Roberts), fall into this category as well. They're the subjects of John Leggett's Ross And Tom: Two American Tragedies, an insightful and fascinating look at success and failure, at elation and despair, and "the dark night of the soul" in the literary world.

Books Featured In This Story

The Intuitionist

by Colson Whitehead

Paperback, 255 pages | purchase

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Title
The Intuitionist
Author
Colson Whitehead

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Lost

by Hans-Ulrich Treichel and Carol Brown Janeway

Paperback | purchase

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Title
Lost
Author
Hans-Ulrich Treichel and Carol Brown Janeway

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Banvard's Folly

Thirteen Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck

by Paul Collins

Hardcover, 286 pages | purchase

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Title
Banvard's Folly
Subtitle
Thirteen Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck
Author
Paul Collins

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Whores On The Hill

by Colleen Curran

Paperback, 218 pages | purchase

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Whores On The Hill
Author
Colleen Curran

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Zarafa

A Giraffe's True Story, from Deep in Africa to the Heart of Paris

by Michael Allin

Hardcover, 215 pages | purchase

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Title
Zarafa
Subtitle
A Giraffe's True Story, from Deep in Africa to the Heart of Paris
Author
Michael Allin

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Spilling Clarence

by Anne Ursu

Paperback, 280 pages | purchase

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Spilling Clarence
Author
Anne Ursu

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In the Fall

by Jeffrey Lent

Paperback, 511 pages | purchase

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In the Fall
Author
Jeffrey Lent

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Ross and Tom

Two American Tragedies

by John Leggett

Paperback | purchase

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Ross and Tom
Subtitle
Two American Tragedies
Author
John Leggett

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