Nancy Pearl Unearths Great Summer Reads
Unlike a lot of people I know, my summer reading doesn't differ significantly from the reading I do the rest of the year. I'm always looking for new authors, older titles I might have missed, books I want to reread, and a nice mixture of fiction and nonfiction. While I understand the concept of beach reading, for me it doesn't mean light reading, but rather choosing books whose ultimate destruction by sand and water won't concern me overly much because I know that I can easily replace them. (For example, I've now bought — over the years — four copies of Guy Gavriel Kay's The Lions of Al-Rassan, because I take it with me each summer to reread and it always ends up too grit-stained to take home.)
So here's a diverse selection of books I've enjoyed recently, including two mysteries; a reprint of a book long out of print; a beautifully written, emotionally resonant memoir; and a moving and important novel about a group of American soldiers, survivors of a firefight in Iraq, back in the United States for a victory tour. I hope you'll find at least one that sounds good to you.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And now, let's get some book recommendations from librarian Nancy Pearl. She drops by from time to time to share her under-the-radar picks, as she calls them, books she thinks are deserving of more attention.
And, Nancy, a stack of books here has just arrived that you've sent across the continent. Thank you very much. And one of them...
NANCY PEARL: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: ...is "A Gay and Melancholy Sound" by Merle Miller. And your name seems to be on it.
This is the first of the Book Lust Rediscovery series, which is going to be at least 12 of my favorite novels and perhaps nonfiction that have long been out of print. And now, "A Gay and Melancholy Sound" is back in print and it's maybe the book that I think is my favorite book of all time.
What makes it so great?
PEARL: It's a book that I read when I was about 18 and I was in college, and I just picked it up off the shelf at the Annapolis Public Library. It's one of the purest examples that I know of, of a novel as autobiography. So it's the story of Joshua Bland's life. And he is at a kind of crossroads in his life and he's looking back over what's occurred, and trying to decide what to do.
And it's set in the mid-20th century. And some of the important markers of that period are in here: McCarthyism, World War II. But it's not a book that is so redolent of its place that a 21st century reader couldn't find all the snark and the wit and the irony that just runs through this book.
INSKEEP: Now, we have to mention it's actually been covered on this program. I mean, you made some news when you partnered with Amazon, in order to put out this book and to begin to put out other books. And there were some independent booksellers - not fans of Amazon - who were not too thrilled with that.
PEARL: That's true, and I was not surprised. Sorry that that happened. But my loyalty has always been to readers and to putting people together with good books to read. And when this idea was offered to many, many, many publishers, Amazon was the company that really loved it and felt it fit their mission.
INSKEEP: Well, let's get some others here that are currently in print. Sara Levine, am I pronouncing that correctly?
INSKEEP: "Treasure Island."
PEARL: Well, Sara Levine's book - this is a book that is such a hoot. And it had me alternately laughing and wincing and wanting to step into the pages of the novel and shake these characters and say, stop behaving so foolishly.
But this is about a young woman. She, finally as an adult, has read "Treasure Island" - Robert Louis Stevenson's great classic. And she decides that if she could only live her life according to the precepts that Jim Hawkins lives his life by, everything will get better. So she'll be intrepid, resolute, independent, careless, clearheaded and brave.
And one of the things she does, as she embarks on this, is she steals an Amazon parrot named Richard from the pet library where she works. Of course, she's fired from the pet library. Lars, her endlessly patient and loyal boyfriend, becomes less patient and loyal. And it all culminates in what is truly a 21st century phenomenon - all of her family and friends stage an intervention.
INSKEEP: Now, you said that you cringed a little bit.
PEARL: I did because her behavior is so - I just want to say to her parents don't let her get away with that.
INSKEEP: I have trouble sometimes with comic writing or comic movies - not too much. But I mean, I sometimes have trouble watching or reading, because you don't like to see people make idiots out of themselves.
PEARL: Exactly, and I think that that's the feeling I had here. But what got me over that, I think, was just the high quality of the writing and that you could just see the author enjoying every moment of writing this book.
INSKEEP: Now what about this novel "Lost"?
PEARL: "Lost" is a perfect example of exactly what I look for in my mysteries. I really want them to have nice writing, a flawed but appealing hero who's trying to get to the bottom of a very complex plot. And if the crime that he's trying to get to the bottom of occurred in the past, that's a plus for me - it's like frosting on the cake.
And this is the story of a London detective-inspector is found shot in the Thames and he has no memory of how he got there. And he starts working with a friend, a psychologist, to regain those memories so he can figure out why he was there in the first place. He suspects that it was due in some way with the case of a young girl who went missing three years ago.
This is the second in a series of mysteries by Michael Robotham. And they're all good, but this is the one that I've always go back to when I'm trying to restore my faith in mystery reading.
INSKEEP: Well, let's take another book from the stack here. This is called "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," a novel by Ben Fountain.
PEARL: This is incredibly of first novel. It's a brilliantly conceived story that takes place basically over the course of one day. And it's the story of 19-year-old Billy Lynn who's a member of Bravo squad, and this is set at the beginning of the Iraq War. But the day that the book takes place is Thanksgiving Day and Bravo squad has been invited to Cowboys Stadium to watch the Dallas Cowboys play.
At halftime, they've been invited to walk to the center of the field and meet Destiny's Child and its lead singer, Beyonce. Keep in mind that the day after this is going to take place they're going back to Iraq and fight again. So the novel is filled with the kind of cognitive dissonance of being in two places at once. It's one of those books where I mark my books with the quotes that I always want to remember, with little silver darts. And so, my copy of this book is like twice as big, because it's just stuffed with things.
INSKEEP: You know, when you hear this story of heroes who don't feel like heroes being brought home to be a sort of shown off, I'm reminded of the true story in the book that became a movie, "Flags of Our Fathers," about the guys who raised the flag on Iwo Jima.
PEARL: Yes, this book does have some of that same sensibility - the way we make heroes and then use them for our own purposes.
INSKEEP: Nancy Pearl, always a pleasure to talk with you.
PEARL: Thank you, Steve.
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INSKEEP: And all the books on Nancy Pearl's list, along with many more lists of great reads from our critics and correspondence, are in the summer books section of our website. You can go to nprbooks.org.
It's morning edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.