By Kate Poss
Library Associate, Langley Library
America’s best-known librarian held a rapt audience in the palm of her literary hand as she spoke at the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley for the 18th year in a row.
“This is a gift the Friends give to the island each year,” said Clare Creighton, president of the Friends of Langley Library, as she introduced Nancy Pearl on Nov. 4.
The diva of booklists and author of “Book Lust” addressed the 100-plus audience as if they were all close friends in a living room. Dressed in a red cardigan and charcoal gray dress, she first spoke glowingly about author Judy Bloom’s latest book, “In the Unlikely Event.” It is a story told from the perspective of a 15-year-old girl whose life is forever affected by the crash of three airliners in her New Jersey town.
Then she shared her 2015 booklist:
- “American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity,” by Chistopher Appy is Pearl’s No. 1 choice in nonfiction for 2015. “This is a relevant read for high school and college students,” she said. “It puts present events in context and asks the question: Does America occupy the moral high ground in terms of war from the 1940’s to the present?. It is a very accessible book.” By the way, Nancy Pearl has master’s degrees in both library science and history. She mentioned that she likes reading historical fiction mysteries.
- Hard to read, according to Pearl, but her favorite novel for the year is “The Sympathizer,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen. “It’s the best satire since “Catch 22,” Pearl said, telling the audience that the story is centered on an apparent South Vietnamese sympathizer who is rescued by Americans in 1973. Turns out the young man is actually a North Vietnamese spy who confronts his past while living as an immigrant in the USA.
- “Best Friends,” by Mary Bard. One of the children’s books in Pearl’s “Book Crush” series that was returned to print by Amazon. Its audience is girls 9 to 12.
- “Oregon Trail,” by Rinker Buck is a non-fiction title that Bill Bryson fans would enjoy. The modern-day adventurer constructs a covered wagon, hitches it to a team of mules and sets off to revisit the Oregon Trail. The author’s slightly crazy younger brother provides comic relief. “After reading this I wanted to go on the Oregon Trail myself, but only with my Toyota,” Pearl said.
- “Highly Trained Dogs of Professor Petit,” by Carol Ryrie Brink is a slim book aimed for 7- to 9-year-olds. It takes place in 1873 and one of the professor’s highly trained dogs helps solve a crime.
- “Heap House” by Edward Carey is Pearl’s third-favorite novel. This young adult tale is “not Harry Potter…more Philip Pullman—strange and dark.” The story takes place in a parallel-universe London that is filled with garbage. “Something’s off and evil,” in this story, Pearl said.
- “Strangler Vine,” by M.J. Carter. The mystery is the first in a series set in 1839 India. A soldier is tasked with finding a missing author and is forced to work with an unfriendly Foreign Service officer. Pearl notes that Miranda is the ‘M’ in M.J. Carter. Miranda used the initials to encourage more male readers. “Men tend to read stories by male authors.”
- “Tabula Rasa” by Ruth Downie is a mystery that is set during the Roman occupation of Great Britain. The eighth book in the “Medicus Investigation” series, this title concerns the challenge of British acceptance of Roman rule, specifically as it relates to a Roman official who marries a British woman.
- “Crooked Heart,” by Lissa Evans is a novel about the odd relationships that can occur during war. In this case, it’s WWII and a young London boy is shipped to the countryside where he stays with a strange woman.
- “Good Son,” by Michael Gruber is “hands down, an old favorite. A terrific thriller. The pages turn and I forget the grayness outside,” said Pearl. The story concerns a neglected son whose mother marries a Pakistani and then is kidnapped while on a peace-keeping mission in Asia.
- “Single, Carefree, Mellow,” by Katherine Heiny is not typical of Pearl’s usual reads, “But I loved this book.” Readers who like Laura Colwin’s “Home Cooking,” and “More Home Cooking,” will enjoy Heiny’s novel, which has “splendid writing, is funny, pointed and about relationships.”
- Two books by Mick Herron made Pearl’s list. “Slow Horses” is a satire about disgraced British spies who are relegated to solving cold crimes. “Nobody Walks” is a dark thriller about a father who learns his estranged son has been murdered.
- “Hold Still,” by Sally Mann is a memoir by a woman who was once criticized for publishing photos she took of her children. Pearl said this is her second-favorite non-fiction book. The book covers ancestors, Mann’s long marriage and what photography means to her.
- “Vanessa and Her Sister” by Priya Parma tells the story of Vanessa Stephens, the “merely intelligent” sister of writer Virginia Woolf. This is Pearl’s “second- or third-favorite novel. It details Vanessa’s caretaking of her mentally ill sister up to Virginia’s suicide in 1941.
- “Murdstone Trilogy,” by Mal Peet (who died after it was published this year and was, sadly, unable to complete the trilogy) is a “terrific satire that casts doubt on the world of books and publishing.”
- “The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools,” by Dale Russakoff. This Washington Post education reporter writes about the state of education in America today and whether proposed reforms such as charter schools are working. “The book expands your mind and illuminates the issue about this endemic problem,” Pearl said.
- “Unbecoming,” by Rebecca Scherm is, Pearl said, an excellent book for discussion by book groups. Near the top of her list for favorite fiction of the year, the book explores what it means to un-become who you once were.
- Bonus books to read on the plane: “The Distance: Thriller” by Helen Giltrow; “Altered Carbon,” by Morgan K. Richard; “The Swimmer: a Novel,” by Joakim Zander; and “The Last Supper,” by Charles McCarry.
While Pearl is clear in her likes and dislikes of the many books she reads, she answered one question on what to read by saying: “Never finish a book you’re not enjoying. Life is too short.”