STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Librarian Nancy Pearl is here this morning with some more recommended reading. She is a regular guest on this program. But this time she has tried to get us into trouble because she is armed with a stack of books that she calls books worth calling in sick for.
Nancy, welcome back.
NANCY PEARL reporting:
Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: And the first book on the stack here is a book called Oblivion, by Peter Abrahams. And I have to say, actually, this is a book worth taking to jury duty, which is what I try to do. And it got me through jury duty very quickly. I was disappointed actually to be dismissed before I could get very deeply into it.
PEARL: I think if you would have kept on you would have liked it even better, because what Peter Abrahams has done in Oblivion, I think, is just what I like in a thriller. He gives you a bunch of value added qualities, not only a really interesting character, an ex-policeman named Nick Petrov.
But there's also, of course, the new case that he's working on which appears on the surface to be very simple. A mother comes to ask Nick to search for her missing daughter, and then even as he is trying to find this missing teenage girl, something is happening to his mind. And you, as you're reading the book, start to understand just what is going on with Nick, even a little bit before Nick himself does.
INSKEEP: Now, this next book here is called Citizen Vince by Jess Walter. And the cover art, the cover illustration is a political campaign button with a candidate's face and there is a bullet hole through it.
PEARL: I think, Steve, that this is the book. Of all the books today, this is the book that you would call in sick for that you wouldn't be able to put down. It is a suspense novel set in the week leading up the Carter/Reagan election. So it's 1980. And Vince Camden, who is the main character, is in the witness protection program in Spokane, Washington. He's had a lifetime of card sharking, little robbery, that kind of thing.
And this is the first time that he can vote, because he was convicted of a felony before he turned 18, or 21 I think. He's never been able to vote. And he gets a voter registration card in the mail and he all of a sudden takes an interest in this question that Ronald Reagan asks, which is are you better off today than you were four years ago.
So in many ways, this is a thriller because Vince's past with the Mafia is starting to catch up to him. This is Vince's one chance for redemption to make a new person of himself. And he spends a lot of time in this novel thinking about who he is going to vote for. And, in fact, you could say that the climax of the book turns on Vince's making sure that he gets to that polling place against a lot of odds.
INSKEEP: Is this one of those books that recreates the relatively recent past and takes you back almost like a historical novel would?
PEARL: It does. It gives you a sort of interesting skewed view of that period. But can I read you a wonderful part in this book where Vince is trying to impress a girl. And the way he does it is by reading novels. And he reads a novel every week, and he tries to get as much read as he can. He never finishes it. There's this line, this little bit where he says, (Reading) "...he'd like to finish some of the books but he needs to get a new one each week so they have something to talk about, but also because he superstitiously believes he might find the novel that causes her to fall for him. But there's another reason he never finishes, if he's honest with himself. He's afraid of being disappointed by the endings, which is the reason he stopped reading fiction. He'd read Great Expectations at Riker's and had loved it, the story of a criminal secretly sponsoring some poor kid's life, until the jail librarian pointed out that Dickens had written two endings. When he found the original ending, Vince felt betrayed by the entire idea of narrative fiction.
This story he carried around in his head had two endings, a book like a life should have only one ending, either the adult Pip and Estella walk off holding hands or they don't. For him the ending of that book rendered an entirely moot, 500 pages of moot, every novel moot."
INSKEEP: Did you like the ending of this next book, A Primate's Memoir is the title of this next book, A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons.
PEARL: A Primate's Memoir by Robert Sapolsky. I think goes to show that non-fiction can have as much gripping narrative power, despite what Vince Camden says, as fiction can. And this is a book that really introduces you to a most remarkable man, a man who spent his adult life studying the Savannah baboons in Kenya. And in this book he explains not only his love for these primates. He gets adopted into their tribe, into a tribe of Savannah baboons as a transfer male, and he's very proud of that because...
INSKEEP: Transfer male?
PEARL: Yeah, from another tribe.
INSKEEP: Okay. He's like an immigrant basically?
PEARL: He's like an immigrant. And they welcome him after a little bit of initial hesitation. And you come to really appreciate all the differences among the Savannah baboons. But that book has a wonderful opening line.
INSKEEP: Which is?
PEARL: (Reading) "I joined the baboon troop during my twenty first year. I had never planned to become a Savannah baboon when I grew up. Instead, I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla."
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INSKEEP: It sounds like he went off to join the circus.
PEARL: Well, I think in some ways he thinks that. And I think just from looking at the cover of this book you get a terrific sense of the humor and the affection and the respect that Robert Sapolsky has for these Savannah baboons that he studied.
INSKEEP: One more book, the Little Friend by Donna Tartt.
PEARL: This for me was the book when I first thought of books worth calling in sick for. It's a story of a twelve and half year old girl named Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, whose brother Robin was murdered on Mother's Day when Harriet was six months old. And when she's twelve and half, she decides along with her best friend Healy, a boy who's eleven, that they are going to track down who killed Robin.
No one has ever been even accused of this. And this is the story of that summer. I have to say one of the things I loved about this book so much is the character of Harriet, who will remind readers of Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird or Frankie Adams in Carson McCullers' Member of the Wedding. Those really brave, spunky, somewhat fool hearty kids who are just trying to find there way in the world.
INSKEEP: Nancy Pearl is the author of Book Lust and more Book Lust. Nancy, thanks very much for coming by.
PEARL: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: And you can find a printable list of books to call in sick for, as well as excerpts from these books, at npr.org.
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INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.