Librarian Nancy Pearl Picks 'Under The Radar' Reads As a librarian and a reader, Nancy Pearl scours the shelves in search of hidden treasures — titles you may have missed. Her findings include two chilling thrillers, one exquisite 1960s memoir, a lively biography of George Orwell, an example of historical fiction at its very best, and much more fiction, nonfiction and poetry.
NPR logo

Librarian Nancy Pearl Picks 'Under The Radar' Reads

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/128823435/128946557" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Librarian Nancy Pearl Picks 'Under The Radar' Reads

Librarian Nancy Pearl Picks 'Under The Radar' Reads

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/128823435/128946557" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Librarian Nancy Pearl is back in our studios once again.

Hi, Nancy.

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

INSKEEP: She comes by from time to time with readings that she considers below the radar, books that she thinks we ought to know about that haven't quite broken out yet. And here is a stack of them...

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: ...about up to my shoulder here, Nancy. The first one is "Under Heaven," is the title here.

DR. PEARL: "Under Heaven" is one by one of my very favorite writers. He's - Guy Gavriel Kay is a bestseller in Canada, and one of my life's missions is to make him a bestseller in the United States - I mean, just to introduce him to a ton of readers.

What he writes are historical novels with a little veer toward fantasy - a zig toward fantasy. But this is set in the 8th century, during the Tang Dynasty in China. The main character, a young man named Shen Tai, decides that for the ritual two years of mourning that he has to do for his father who recently died, he's going to the site of the last battle that his father ran for - what Guy Gavriel Kay calls Kitai, but it's really China. And he's going to bury the unburied dead without regard to which side they were on. And as a result of this, his life changes in ways that nobody could ever foresee.

The problem with talking about books is that what you really want is just to give somebody a book and say, I think you'll like this, but I don't want to tell you anything about it because I don't want to - I want you to approach it as I approached it, without any...

INSKEEP: Preconceived notions.

DR. PEARL: ... preconceived notions, you know...

INSKEEP: I'm going to press you on one thing though...

DR. PEARL: Yes.

INSKEEP: Because you said historical fiction mixed with a little bit of fantasy. What are you talking about?

DR. PEARL: Well, the fantasy part - it's not China. I mean, he's taking liberties.

INSKEEP: It's almost a parallel universe, is what you're saying.

DR. PEARL: It's like a parallel universe. And the problem with books like this is that libraries and bookstores would tend to shelve "Under Heaven" with science-fiction and fantasy. And that means that all those people who love well-done historical fiction would be unlikely to find it. And that kind of thing just makes me very sad.

INSKEEP: The next book you've got here, Frank Baker's "Miss...

DR. PEARL: "Hargreaves."

INSKEEP: "Miss Hargreaves," okay.

DR. PEARL: "Miss Hargreaves," I jumped into correct you because she would be very offended if you said Hargreaves.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Yeah. Okay, fine. Fine.

DR. PEARL: And "Miss Hargreaves" is another one of those books that just appears, on the surface, to be a totally realistic book, but again, there's this zig into fantasy. And the main character in this book, a young man in his 20's named Norman Huntley, he describes himself as being somebody who doesn't lie to get out of trouble. He lies to get into trouble. And his father, as a result, always warns him against acting on the spur of the moment.

And one day, Norman and his best friend - on the spur of the moment - decide to, for their own fun, invent a woman: Miss Connie Hargreaves. She's a poet. They give her many specific details. She travels with a cockatoo, a Bedlington terrier named Sarah, a harp and her own hip bath.

INSKEEP: That's quite an imaginary friend they've got there.

DR. PEARL: Yes. The trouble is, Steve, that she then shows up at Norman's house and proceeds to wreak havoc in his life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: The fantasy comes to life. The lie comes to life.

DR. PEARL: Well, or is it a lie?

INSKEEP: Talk about somebody living a lie.

DR. PEARL: Yeah.

INSKEEP: May be it's not.

DR. PEARL: Right. And how this all works out is just pretty amazing. But I think you have to think about this book as a kind of Wodehousian fantasy with a little bit of Mary Poppins squeezed in, because Connie Hargreaves is not unlike Mary Poppins.

INSKEEP: This stack hardly seems any shorter than where we started. So we'll keep going here...

DR. PEARL: Okay.

INSKEEP: ...because this is just a fantastic stack of books here. This is called "Last Night in Montreal."

DR. PEARL: Oh, my gosh. I had never heard of Emily St. John Mandel until I was browsing through the library shelves and saw that book. It's a book about disappearances. And one of the main characters in the book, a young woman named Lilia, disappears from her boyfriend's life. And he, coincidentally, is doing his dissertation on lost and disappearing languages. So there's that synchronicity, I think, between them.

But reading Emily St. John Mandel's books and her newest book, which I also just thought was awesome, is "The Singer's Gun." And I think that reading them is like - is almost like looking through the viewfinder of a camera, and first it's a really tight close-up. And then, as the pages turn, the view gets bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. So you...

INSKEEP: You fill the canvas in your head.

DR. PEARL: And you see where all of those characters belong and what their back-stories are. And for people who love good writing, these are just wonderful, wonderful books.

INSKEEP: Let me - because you've praised her writing and because you have, in the past, come here and brought us great first lines, why don't you read the first two sentences of this book - because you're talking about a disappearance. It's quite lovely.

DR. PEARL: (Reading) No one stays forever. On the morning of her disappearance, Lilia woke early and lay still for a moment in the bed.

INSKEEP: How can you read that and not want to read on?

DR. PEARL: I know.

INSKEEP: At least a little more, at least a little more.

DR. PEARL: And, oh, it is so worth it.

INSKEEP: And you also have a book here, "The Lotus Eaters."

DR. PEARL: Oh, "The Lotus Eaters," oh, my gosh. There were two great Vietnam novels published this spring. One was "Matterhorn" by Karl Marlantes. Libraries have 200 and more holds on it. They've bought many copies. The second one is Tatjana Soli's "The Lotus Eaters," which did not get the readership that it deserves because...

INSKEEP: That's why it's on your under-the-radar list here.

DR. PEARL: That's right. "The Lotus Eaters" is the story of a woman photojournalist in Vietnam. And the book opens at that scene of chaos in 1975 when the U.S. is evacuating all their soldiers by helicopter. And the main character, a woman named Helen and her lover - a Vietnamese photographer, Linh - are trying to get out of Vietnam. And then through flashbacks, we see what Helen's experience has been in Vietnam over the last decade.

And "The Lotus Eaters," of course, in Greek mythology, were those people who were so narcoticized by eating lotus leaves that they just never - a life of indolence awaited them. And the ironic thing about this book is that what the main characters in the book are narcoticized by, or are addicted to, is danger...

INSKEEP: Hmm.

DR. PEARL: ...is war. It's the kind of book that I just want to press into everybody's hand and say, read this book now.

INSKEEP: Nancy Pearl, thanks very much.

DR. PEARL: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: She's the author of "Book Lust to Go: Recommended Reads for Travelers, Vagabonds and Dreamers."

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: And you can read all of Nancy Pearl's latest picks - or excerpts from them, anyway - at our Web site: npr.org.

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

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.