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Happy Holidays, Voyeurs: Nancy Pearl Picks Memoirs

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Happy Holidays, Voyeurs: Nancy Pearl Picks Memoirs

Best Books Of 2010

Happy Holidays, Voyeurs: Nancy Pearl Picks Memoirs

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Librarian Nancy Pearl is with us once again. She's sent along a list of reading recommendations and they are memoirs this time, a series of memoirs.

Hi, Nancy.

Ms. NANCY PEARL (Librarian, NancyPearl.com): Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: She's in our studios. And do you mind if I just get a little exercise here by lifting this stack of - it's pretty big stack of books...

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: ...as it often is. The first one is "The Hare with Amber Eyes" by Edmund De Waal.

Ms. PEARL: Yes, and I have to say first that I have a love/hate relationship with memoirs. I know that memoirs are inherently filled with ego and the me of memoirs...

INSKEEP: It's all about me, yes.

Ms. PEARL: Yes, and memoir is. M-E-M-O-I-R...

INSKEEP: There you go.

Ms. PEARL: ...so that makes sense. But I tend not to read and I certainly don't like, what I call, the Children of Job Memoirs.

INSKEEP: Which is?

Ms. PEARL: Oh, I'm suffering. I'm suffering.

INSKEEP: Oh.

Ms. PEARL: I'm suffering. Oh, how I've suffered. What I'm looking for in a memoir is really interesting characters and very, very, very good writing.

INSKEEP: And do you find it then with "The Hare with Amber Eyes?"

Ms. PEARL: "The Hare with Amber Eyes," I have to say is the best work of nonfiction I read this year. It's the story of the author's ancestors who were very wealthy Jewish bankers in the late 19th and 20th centuries. The founder, the main character of his ancestors that he talks about, is his great-uncle named Charles who collected 246 netsukes - the Japanese carvings that men used to wear on their sashes.

INSKEEP: Okay.

Ms. PEARL: And this is a story of how, through the tumult of World War I and World War II, those netsukes were passed down through various family members. So looking at the path of those, he can chart what happened to his family.

And his family, Charles Ephrussis was the model for Swann in Proust's "Swann's Way." There's so much art. There's so much culture. And it's so wonderfully written.

INSKEEP: Here's another book on the stack, "Half a Life" by Darin Strauss.

Ms. PEARL: Oh, Darin Strauss's book is wonderful. When Darin Strauss was a senior in high school, he was driving a car that hit one of his classmates on her bicycle and she died. And although the accident was officially termed a no-fault liability, it changed his life.

INSKEEP: May I read a couple of paragraphs here?

Ms. PEARL: Please.

INSKEEP: And they've been placed individually on a page, on otherwise white page.

(Reading) My surest memories of that day are the reflector running up the windshield and the sunshine in the cracks, as Dad got me home. I can imagine the flash of impact, of course, even if I'm unable to really call back much about it. But it's not hard to guess at the terrible scratched-out details.

The truth is anyone with a TV can fill in this scene, taking snippets from the editing floor, plug-ins from the visual and sound effects library we all carry; pretty girl on bike, a shy little thud, hysterical windshield. And I'm somewhere in there too trying to swerve, trying to disappear.

Ooh.

Ms. PEARL: I know. isn't that - and this event took place more than half his life ago and he's still, of course, coming to terms to that. He goes to the funeral of his classmate and he goes back to talk to her parents. Her mother says to him: I know it was not your fault, Darin. They all tell me it was not your fault. But I want you to remember something, whatever you do in your life you have to do it twice as well now, because you are living it for two people. Can you promise me? Promise.

I mean that's just like, oh, my gosh, heart-wrenching to read and to have that responsibility placed on you.

INSKEEP: Nancy Pearl is giving us some memoirs here. Let's go to a book where the title is "Stuffed" by Patricia Volk. What's happening here?

Ms. PEARL: Oh, this is a fabulous. This is another family history. And I think what just sets this book apart from many other family histories is the love that Patricia Volk has for all of her extended family; even the weirdest ones. Her family did have restaurants in New York, so there is that kind of food connection. But you don't have to be a foodie, which I am certainly not, to love this book.

There's this wonderful quote where she talks about her really beloved father, and how her father taught her how to swim, speak French, drive, eat using the utensils American-style - which nobody in America seems to do - be a spot welder, emboss, write English, ride Western, meringue, sing pop songs from World War I - "Keep Your Head Down Fritzie Boy."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PEARL: Up to his favorite, the one that still chokes him up although he's not sure why - "Younger Than Springtime," - remove a splinter, sap a blister by sticking a knot, carve a Thanksgiving turkey, chop/dice mince, et cetera.

And it's wonderful to read a memoir where the family, for the most part, was very close and really loved one another. And certainly, in Patricia Volk, they have the perfect chronicler.

INSKEEP: Here's one called "Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life."

Ms. PEARL: Yes. This is one of my all-time favorite books by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. And here's what she says in her foreword. She says: I was not abused, abandoned or locked up as child. My parents were not alcoholics nor were they ever divorced or dead. We did not live in poverty or in misery or in an exotic country. I am not a misunderstood genius, a former child celebrity or the child of a celebrity.

INSKEEP: This is going to be a short book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PEARL: I am not a drug addict, sex addict, food addict, or recovered anything. If, indeed, I had a past life, I have no recollection of who I was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PEARL: I mean how could you resist a book like that? And it's arranged in a very, very nice way. It's arranged...

INSKEEP: Alphabetical order.

Ms. PEARL: Alphabetical order, so it's like you're reading the index headings to these particular chapters...

INSKEEP: You go to the letter D, the first entry is there's an entry for deep massage...

Ms. PEARL: Yes, right.

INSKEEP: ...it's part of her life. Deli trays, the dentist, depressing, comma, things that I find depressing.

Ms. PEARL: Right. There's a wonderful, wonderful chapter in there of how she talks her way out of a parking ticket. It's great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PEARL: I loved that book.

INSKEEP: Okay, the next one here, "The Bill From My Father," Bernard Cooper.

Ms. PEARL: And Bernard Cooper in this book takes a familiar trope: Difficult father; son trying to develop a relationship when the son is an adult, knowing all the time that he's disappointed his father entirely, by not becoming an attorney, and also by his homosexuality.

Their relationship is not made any better by the fact that his father, at one point, sends him a bill for $2 million, which is the cost of raising him.

INSKEEP: Oh.

Ms. PEARL: You kind of shudder at the things his father did. But the way Bernard Cooper has come out of it and come to terms with who he is, is really a testament to him.

INSKEEP: Nancy, thanks for coming by.

Ms. PEARL: Oh, you're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: Nancy Pearl's own new book is "Book Lust To Go." the title there amounts to a four-word memoir of Nancy's life, I think. All of her recommendations along with our Best Books of 2010 roundup are at NPR.org.

You can follow this program on Twitter. We're @morningedition and @nprinskeep.

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

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