Caution: These Books May Make You Skip Work

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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.

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There are some books that are so good that you just don't want to put them down and get on with anything else in your life until you've turned the last page. Often the moving force that carries you along is the plot. Other times it could be the three-dimensional characters who seem to come alive off the page to keep you company, or it could be the extraordinary quality of the writing.

Here are some books that I found especially captivating — so much so that it was very tempting to call in sick just to be able to read to the end without stopping.

Novels

It's difficult to do a precis of Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead. First of all, it sounds depressing, which it isn't, really. Secondly, it's one of those novels that's simply unique; I can't think of another story that's even similar. The plot, laid bare, is this: There's a worldwide epidemic due to an out-of-control synthetic virus that is inexorably leading to the end of humankind.

 

Sounds like a thriller, right? But the plot itself is almost incidental to the book's theme, which really concerns the quite literal power of memory. In the world of this novel, when someone dies, they go to some other, intermediate place, where they remain so long as there is someone alive who remembers them. When they no longer exist in the memory of anyone living, they disappear.

 

But again, Brockmeier doesn't mean this metaphorically — in this intermediate place are ordinary people living their quotidian lives, publishing newspapers, falling in love, regretting the past, anticipating the future. In alternating chapters, we also get the story of Laura Byrd, who's part of a scientific team in the Antarctic. How these two seemingly disparate stories intersect gradually unfolds as the novel progresses. This is the kind of book you'll find yourself thinking about long after you've gone on to other novels. The writing is masterful, the ideas are provocative, and, all in all, this is a stunning achievement. Read an Excerpt: 'The Brief History of the Dead'

Tartt cover

From the very first sentence, I knew that The Little Friend by Donna Tartt would be one of my "keeper novels," a book that has pride of place on my shelves. Part of what makes this novel riveting, is that it's part mystery and part coming-of-age novel.

 

Set in a small Mississippi town in the 1970s, it's the story of what happens when 12-and-a-half-year-old Harriet Cleve Dufresnes decides to track down the person who murdered her older brother Robin when Harriet was only a few months old (Harriet will remind you both of Scout Finch in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Frankie Adams in Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding).

 

It's compulsively readable, with simply gorgeous (but not overblown or especially lush) prose, and peopled with completely realized characters, both good and bad (and the bad are really, scarily bad). I have to warn you: Don't start the last chapter on what I still quaintly call a school night — it's especially impossible to put down. Read an Excerpt: 'The Little Friend'

Reading Katherine Dunn's Geek Love (about a group of children bred by their parents to become circus freaks) many years ago so undid me emotionally that I've never been able to read anything even remotely similar.

 

Then a good friend recommended Lori Lansens' The Girls. Despite the subject matter (conjoined twins), and with great trepidation, I began the book. Reader, I loved it. The story is told, more or less in turn, by Rose and Ruby Darlen, twins who are joined at the side of their heads by a common vein, so that they can never be separated. Because Ruby's legs never fully developed, Rose, who has a normal size body, must carry her. But — and this is Lansens' great achievement — we soon come to see that what appears to us as abnormal, extraordinary, and very disturbing from the outside is simply normal, ordinary, and quite acceptable on the inside. Rose and Ruby live separate lives — they go to school and have different jobs at the local library. Rose gives birth to a baby. They must face their own deaths. Their adopted Aunt Lovey, who raises them, believed "that all ordinary people led extraordinary lives, but just didn't notice." Rose and Ruby understand the obverse of that, and, because of this extraordinary novel, so do we.

Walter cover

Of course, we expect that thrillers will capture and keep our attention, but I find that the best ones are those that have a lot more than plot going for them. There's also a good backstory, the writing is good, and interesting ideas are running throughout the narrative (just what I ask for in any novel, in fact). Jess Walter's Citizen Vince has those qualities and more.

 

Set in the last week leading up to the presidential election of 1980, it's the story of Vince Camden, whose life has involved lots of low-grade criminal activity. Vince is currently a doughnut maker in Spokane, Wash., where he's been sent as part of the witness-protection program. His dodgy past catches up with him in the form of a hitman sent from New York to kill him. This is also a story of a man's one last try for redemption (even if it does involve merely doughnuts —"Fry, frost and fill," Vince muses at one point. "No reason such a sequence should be any less satisfying than some other sequence — say, scalpel, suction and suture,") framed against a presidential election that turned on the hostage crisis in Iran and Ronald Reagan's inspired question: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" Part crime novel, part character study, it all adds up to one awfully good read. Read an Excerpt: 'Citizen Vince'

Oblivion by Peter Abrahams is another thriller with value-added qualities. The compelling prose limns a sympathetic hero and a complicated (but not too complicated to comprehend) plot (it reminded me a bit of the movie Memento). Private investigator Nick Petrov — who's become a household name because one of his previous cases was made into a successful movie — is asked by a mother to track down her daughter. But nothing in this book is as simple, or obvious, as it seems, and the case soon turns into a murder investigation, complicated by the fact that something strange is happening with Nick's memory. Suspense novels are a dime a dozen these days; Abrahams and Walter set the bar very high. Read an Excerpt: 'Oblivion'

Nonfiction

Herman cover

Nonfiction can be quite as compulsively readable as fiction, as can be seen in A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons by Robert Sapolsky. Brooklyn-born Sapolsky spent many years of his life in Africa, beginning when he was in his very early twenties, investigating the physiological relationship between stress and physical illness among the baboons of Kenya's grasslands. What makes this book so special is how Sapolsky brings the baboon troop he studied alive, so that we understand (and early on come to share) his deep love for these primates. Sapolsky also weaves in discussions of the role of game parks in Africa, poaching, and the corruption seemingly endemic to African bureaucracy. (There's also a rather wonderful section on gorilla researcher Dian Fossey.) Reading this book, I couldn't help but feel over and over again what a genuinely nice person the author must be, and how much I'd love to meet him. Sapolsky's writing melds the humorous and the deeply felt in a way that made A Primate's Memoir — for me — one of those books that you both learn from and absolutely love.

Another nonfiction narrative not to miss is Arthur Herman's To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World. It's the rousing history of the British Navy; among the many subjects it covers are piracy, the sugar industry, the rise of England as an imperial power, mutinies, all the famous battles, the Napoleonic Wars, the attack of the Spanish Armada (which the Brits won through luck — weather — rather than smart tactics), Britain's shameful early role in the slave trade, and people such as Francis Drake, Lord Nelson, Sir Walter Raleigh, and many lesser known, but no less interesting men. Covering the 16th through the 20th centuries, this is a great choice for history fans, and a must-read anyone who loves the C.S. Forester or Patrick O'Brian novels. Read an Excerpt: 'To Rule the Waves'

For Young Readers

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The Witch's Boy is a thrilling story for 11- to 14-year-olds. Abandoned as a baby, the most unattractive and unattractively named Lump is adopted by a witch (against the wishes of her familiar, a cat named Falance), who is extremely powerful at witchcraft but, alas, totally unfit for parenting. She turns over his childrearing to a bear and a djinn, with disastrous results from the latter. Lump's experiences growing up reflect his adopted mother's emotional coldness, and it takes many plot twists and turns for Lump to finally accept himself and forgive his mother (and incidentally, himself). Read an Excerpt: 'The Witch's Boy'

Books Featured In This Story

The Brief History of the Dead
The Brief History of the Dead

by Kevin Brockmeier

Hardcover, 252 pages | purchase

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  • The Brief History of the Dead
  • Kevin Brockmeier
The Little Friend
The Little Friend

by Donna Tartt

Paperback, 624 pages | purchase

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Purchase Featured Books

  • The Little Friend
  • Donna Tartt
Citizen Vince
Citizen Vince

by Jess Walter

Paperback, 293 pages | purchase

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Purchase Featured Books

  • Citizen Vince
  • Jess Walter
The Girls
The Girls

A Novel

by Lori Lansens

Hardcover, 345 pages | purchase

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Purchase Featured Books

  • The Girls
  • A Novel
  • Lori Lansens
Oblivion
Oblivion

by Peter Abrahams

Hardcover, 337 pages | purchase

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  • Oblivion
  • Peter Abrahams
A Primate's Memoir
A Primate's Memoir

by Robert M. Sapolsky

Paperback, 304 pages | purchase

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Purchase Featured Books

  • A Primate's Memoir
  • Robert M. Sapolsky
To Rule The Waves
To Rule The Waves

How The British Navy Shaped The Modern World

by Arthur Herman

Paperback, 648 pages | purchase

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Purchase Featured Books

  • To Rule The Waves
  • How The British Navy Shaped The Modern World
  • Arthur Herman
The Witch's Boy
The Witch's Boy

by Michael Gruber

Paperback, 16 pages | purchase

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  • The Witch's Boy
  • Michael Gruber

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