STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Librarian Nancy Pearl is with us once again in our studios. Hi, Nancy.
NANCY PEARL, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: She comes by. She brings reading recommendations. She sends or brings us stacks of books to talk about. And she's brought this stack just in time for the July Fourth holiday, when some people may have a bit more time to read. And I hope that's the case, although I have a question for you, Nancy. In these news-saturated times, are you having trouble focusing on books?
PEARL: Yes and no. I mean, partly I'm making more of an effort to just kind of laser-focus on books so nothing else intrudes. I just want page turning. I want some reason to really keep on reading. The kind of literary fiction - character-driven fiction that I'm normally most drawn to is, I'm finding, harder to read.
INSKEEP: OK, so we're going for excitement. And the first book on your stack is called "Design For Dying" by Renee Patrick.
PEARL: Well, Renee Patrick is the pen name for a husband-and-wife team. This is their first novel. And it is set in Hollywood in 1937.
PEARL: A young woman named Lillian Frost comes to Hollywood to make her fortune. She's very beautiful. And like many girls at that time, she wants to go to a soda fountain and sit and be discovered. And then, one of her former roommates is found dead wearing a dress that has been stolen from Paramount Studios. Now, who was working at Paramount Studios at that time? Edith Head. So Lillian meets the great clothing designer and dresser for the stars in the movies, Edith Head.
PEARL: And together, they set off to find what happened.
INSKEEP: OK, this sounds like a new angle on an era that I feel that I've almost lived in. If you've watched a few old movies...
PEARL: Yes, yes.
INSKEEP: ...You feel you know that studio-system era in Hollywood.
INSKEEP: Or you read Raymond Chandler novels...
INSKEEP: ...You know the streets of Los Angeles. And that's this.
PEARL: This is great fun. And at the same time, they've woven in real people. So you meet a very young Bob Hope, for example, and Barbara Stanwyck. And it's the first of a series.
INSKEEP: OK, so we've got that on the stack. And then we have "August Snow" by Stephen Mack Jones.
PEARL: Now, "August Snow" is one of my favorite books that I've read recently. And I'm not just saying that because I'm from Detroit and it's set in Detroit. The main character is a guy named August Snow. He was a former Detroit policeman. He was kicked off the police force because he was part of an investigation into the Detroit mayor's malfeasance.
Now, what August Snow did after he was fired was sue the police department. And he won, got lots of money, spent a few years abroad and then has come back to his home in Detroit where he grew up, in the area that is known to August Snow as Mexicantown. His mother was Hispanic. His father was African-American. And once he moves back into town, he gets a call from a woman he once worked for, asking him to investigate what dirty dealings are happening at the bank she happens to own. And then the plot just takes off. Now, this is a book - can I just read a little section?
INSKEEP: Please, go right ahead.
PEARL: You will love this, I think.
(Reading) To the right, off of westbound Jefferson Avenue, there were still neighborhoods that served as the gateway to hell, where black children cowered in the corners of abandoned houses, reading books stolen from school libraries by the last light of day - places where the devil was fed his daily dinner by a state that hated its largest city and a country that unctuously pitied those who lived there.
INSKEEP: That's beautiful writing.
PEARL: So this book is so good. I actually put it down, and I briefly entertained the notion of moving back to Detroit. And that's how much this book - this book just - is just great.
INSKEEP: I thought for a minute this next book might be about Detroit because there's an old factory on the cover.
INSKEEP: And it's called "Lions" by Bonnie Nadzam.
PEARL: Right. Yes. Boy, this is another wonderful, wonderful novel.
INSKEEP: But not actually about Detroit?
PEARL: But not actually about Detroit. Lions is the name of a town, a dying town, a soon-to-be ghost town in the high plains of Colorado. And it is a book that is so evocative of that place that you kind of shiver - when you're reading it - for this once-active town where there's nothing left. And I have a quote from there.
INSKEEP: Go ahead.
PEARL: (Reading) These days, everybody's gone. If you were to take an unmarked county road off of the highway and drive north an hour, if you could find the place - distinguishable by its high, rusted water tower and abandoned sugar beet factory - you could stand in the middle of Jefferson Street and hear each note from each barn swallow floating through the air like a globe of silver, in the silence between blood singing in your ears.
INSKEEP: Nancy, in the last couple of minutes, you've taken us on a tour of the news - or the back story of the news.
PEARL: I know.
INSKEEP: From urban struggle to rural areas that are losing population and losing economic vitality. That's really beautiful.
PEARL: I mean, the writing - I picked that quote, but I could have picked hundreds others.
INSKEEP: What about this book on the stack, "Proving Ground" by Peter Blauner?
PEARL: Well, this is a - this is a great thriller. The main character in this book is a young man named Nathaniel Dresden, known as Natty Dread. And sons can rebel against their fathers in many, many ways. Natty's father is a famous civil rights attorney. And in his rebellion against his father and his mother, Natty Dread joined the Army and has finished serving several tours of duty in Iraq. And he comes home with medals and all that mental and emotional baggage that one brings home from the experience of war. And I just kept turning those pages. I love Natty Dread. Yeah, I love Natty Dread.
INSKEEP: And we're continuing with a news theme here...
INSKEEP: ....Actually. We were going to - we started out trying to get away from the news, but we're actually getting fresh perspectives on the news of recent years.
PEARL: I did that for you, Steve.
INSKEEP: Thank you, Nancy. And you're restoring my faith in the American novel. I mean, sometimes I feel like fiction in this country isn't too connected to events, but you're showing me that it is...
PEARL: Yes, it is.
INSKEEP: ...Which is cool - which is cool. Nancy Pearl, thanks very much.
PEARL: Thank you, Steve.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOONLIT SAILOR'S "THE CHEERS ON THE PARADE")
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