STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The librarian Nancy Pearl is with us next. She is the author of, among other things, the "Book Lust" series of books, which recommend things to read, which is exactly what she does from time to time here on MORNING EDITION. And she joins us once again from Washington state. Hey there, Nancy.
NANCY PEARL: Hello, Steve.
INSKEEP: And you've sent us a stack of works of fiction here that teach us something about the real world. I am interested in this because I know readers of historical fiction often tell me that's the way that they can absorb facts is through fiction.
PEARL: Yes, you do. And there are some people who think that reading historical fiction gives you the truth of history rather than just the facts.
INSKEEP: Oh, which is a thing that is said about all literature...
INSKEEP: ...You can kind of go past all the ugly details and get to the essence of things.
PEARL: Yes, which I think is so important.
INSKEEP: So we have a book here that is labeled as a novel. "Out Of Darkness, Shining Light," by Petina Gappah. And it is, in theory, about David Livingstone, the famous Scottish explorer and missionary in the 19th century who traveled through Africa. Although, it's really about two Africans.
PEARL: Yes. And David Livingstone, as I learned from this novel, "Out Of Darkness, Shining Light," really was this very complex individual who was an early British abolitionist, yet had slaves, who devoted his life to finding the source of the Nile. And instead of, like, writing a biography of him, what Petina has done in this novel is write about what happened after his death.
And this novel is so fascinating. It's told - it has two different narrators, one is Livingstone's cook, a young slave, a woman, Halima, who was bought to be the traveling wife of the leader of the expedition. And the other person who narrates the story in the second half is a freed slave, who is keeping a journal of the expedition.
And what you get from this book is such an interesting - interesting thoughts about colonialism, about Africa at that period and about what that all meant - what that meant to the Africans who came in contact with these European explorers and what the European explorers - how their ideas about life and the importance of what we do in the world, how that changed through their interaction with the native Africans.
INSKEEP: One question about historical fiction like this - so far as you can tell, when there is a checkable fact, does it seem to be a real fact?
PEARL: Yes. She did a lot of research and a lot of primary research studying Livingstone's journals.
INSKEEP: Now, we have another one here that is also about a traveller. "The Adventures Of Alexander Von Humboldt" - a name that I've learned in some of my own research. Who was he?
PEARL: So he was a naturalist from the middle of the 19th century. There was a big, big biography of him that came out a few years ago by a woman, Andrea Wulf. And then this year, what she did was work with an illustrator, Lillian Melcher, to write and illustrate this book, "The Adventures Of Alexander Von Humboldt," which in graphic novel format...
PEARL: ...It really covers his primarily South American journeys. This is a book that makes it accessible to kids, perhaps, older kids, who are interested in science, who are interested in exploration, in travel, in the natural world. And I think books like this, which are just so beautifully illustrated, are so important that we have.
INSKEEP: This is a coffee table graphic novel, I guess we could say.
PEARL: It is, an oversized graphic novel, very hard to shelve (laughter).
INSKEEP: Yeah. Yeah. Hardcover. And there - it mixes in paintings along with drawings and other forms of art. It's really fascinating to look at.
INSKEEP: And this is a guy from an age when people were figuring out how to map the world. And Humboldt is the guy who's walking around continents doing this.
PEARL: Yeah. And he was one of those people who was interested in everything. And so everything turns up in his life. He's just such a - sort of a polymath, I guess.
INSKEEP: Another novel here - "Old Baggage" by Lissa Evans. What's this?
PEARL: Oh, my gosh. Like, this is one of my two favorite novels of the year. And this is a story of a suffragette - a British suffragette named Mattie Simpkin. And it's what she - how she is going to choose to live her life after Parliament finally gave women the right to vote. And Mattie is one of those women who speaks her mind. And she's a character that you will never, ever forget. What she decides to do with the rise of fascism is take a group of girls and teach them how to be strong in mind and body.
This is such a good book. It's such a good novel. And what those young women went through to get the right to vote - you know, they were beaten. They were imprisoned. They were force fed. And Mattie is still lecturing about that. You know, the book opens in 1928 and then goes back and forth in time so we get a fuller picture of the period.
INSKEEP: We're getting pretty distant from the time when women didn't have the right to vote. The century mark is coming in the United States. And yet, it's strange to think there are still people alive who were alive then...
INSKEEP: ...Who remember that time.
PEARL: Yes. It's amazing.
INSKEEP: You have another novel here. There's a picture of a bunny - a bunny rabbit on the front...
INSKEEP: ...And an ominous title, at least from the bunny's point of view, "Rabbits For Food."
PEARL: And "Rabbits For Food," by Binnie Kirshenbaum, is my second favorite novel of the year. And the main character in this book is a young woman named Bunny. And Bunny is a writer who is in the midst of a terrible writer's block. She has really slid into a deep depression.
And one of the things that - when people say to her, gosh, you're 43 years old, why did your parents name you Bunny? And she said, well, my parents raised rabbits for food. Now, that tells you everything, really, I think, that you need to know. And Bunny describes herself. Here's a line from the book. (Reading) Generally speaking, I am a headache of a person who is not easy to like.
INSKEEP: Now I'm wanting to know if Binnie Kirshenbaum was called Bunny at some point.
PEARL: (Laughter) I know. I know. It's so tempting always to sort of give novels an autobiographical slant or to wonder how much of it is the author and how much of it is just this made-up character. Of course, you take events or - from your life but also from other people's lives. And novels, I think, end up being a mishmash of everybody's experiences that you've ever learned about.
INSKEEP: Nancy, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.
PEARL: You're welcome. Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's librarian Nancy Pearl, whose books include "Book Lust" and the novel "George And Lizzie." You can find more of her book recommendations and our favorite books of the year at NPR's Book Concierge at npr.org/books.
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