June 25, 2008 · Updated 1:01 PM
"If you're looking for a few good books to read this winter, Nancy Pearl, executive director of the Washington Center for the Book, has plenty of suggestions. Pearl reviewed some of her favorite books on Dec. 6 at the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in a free event sponsored by Friends of the Langley Library. Pearl herself is an author, having written a book about books called Now Read This: A Guide to Mainstream Fiction 1978-1998.Booklovers at WICA scribbled down titles and authors' names while Pearl told just enough about each book to pique audience interest without giving away the story line. Beginning with the thrillers, Pearl recommended Chinaman's Chance and Briarpatch by Ross Thomas, who has written more than 20 books, and Metzger's Dog by Thomas Perry. The books are similar in that they are suspenseful, humorous capers - and out of print. According to Pearl, they are so wonderful that if you see them in a used book store, you must buy them.A more recent book Pearl recommends is the coming of age story of a Native American boy in Thomas King's Truth and Brightness. Tecumseh, the main character, is befriended by the reservation's famous Indian artist whose goal is to repopulate the plains with metal sculptures of buffalo. King, like Sherman Alexie, is one of our best Native American writers, Pearl said, though King is a less angry writer than Alexie.If you're a fan of Anne Tyler character novels such as The Accidental Tourist, Pearl suggests reading Living to Tell by Antonya Nelson. Members of the dysfunctional Mabie family find themselves living together when the three adult children move back home with their parents. Emily, a single mother, and her two children occupy the top floor of the family home. Mona lives in turmoil about her failed love affairs, and Winston returns home after serving five years in prison for driving drunk and causing the death of their grandmother. Most contemporary fiction is about 150 pages too long, but not 'Living to Tell,' Pearl said. After finishing the book, I was really sad I wasn't going to spend any more time with the Mabies.Also recommended for Anne Tyler fans was Rhian Ellis' After Life, the story of Naomi Ashe whose small town in New York state is home to many psychics.Pearl loved Joy Williams' The Quick and the Dead for its wonderful writing and interesting characters: three motherless teenage girls, a ghost who comes back to haunt her husband and give him stock tips, and several other odd characters, including 7-year-old Emil,y who decides living is like licorice, an acquired taste. Except for the last 75 pages, which were too quirky, Pearl found this novel wonderfully charming.Helen DeWitt's debut novel, The Last Samurai, is one of the best first novels I've read this year, Pearl said. It is the story of Sibylla and her 11-year-old son, Ludo, who share high IQs and a love for learning. Together they conquer Greek, Hebrew and other languages, calculus, astronomy and contract bridge. They also share a passion for Akira Kurosawa's movie, The Seven Samurai, which they watch three or four times a week. Sibylla won't tell Ludo who his father is, so Ludo identifies seven men he believes might be his father, and tests them in much the same way the seven characters in Kurosawa's movie were tested.Pearl likes fiction that helps you understand the world, such as award winning author Michael Ondaatje's latest novel, Anil's Ghost. It is the story of a pathologist who returns to her native Sri Lanka to identify dead bodies after a civil war. Like Ondaatje's The English Patient, this is an elliptical novel with no overt real violence, Pearl said. What he doesn't describe, what he leaves to the imagination, is what makes Anil's Ghost moving, disturbing, interesting and powerful, she said.Oregon author Molly Gloss's latest novel, Wild Life, is about Charlotte Drummond, a single mother of five, who makes her living writing dreadful penny adventure novels. Charlotte's life changes when she joins a search for a missing 6-year-old on Mount St. Helens and becomes lost herself. Though this book is set in the 1900s, it raises many of the same questions Mary Doria Russell's science fiction novel, The Sparrow, raised about what it means to be human. This is a fascinating book you can't put down, Pearl said.Frederick Dillen's second novel, Fool, is a funny, thoughtful novel whose main character, Barnaby Griswold, a player in the New York Stock Exchange, loses his fortune, wife and daughter and returns to Oklahoma City to care for his aging mother-in-law. In this story of the rise and fall of Barnaby Griswold, Pearl said, there is an interesting question of whether Barnaby rises again.For a beautiful book with good characters and poetic writing, Pearl recommended Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. A native of rural Kentucky, Jayber is a failed minister, a bachelor, a barber and a philosopher who tells a story about the people he considers family. Pearl compared this book with Edgar Lee Masters' 1915 Spoon River Anthology, a collection of poetic fables from small town America.Don't read the dust jacket blurb! It ruins the first line, cautioned Pearl about Margaret Atwood's latest novel and winner of the 2000 Booker Award. The Blind Assassin weaves three stories into one: the present day life of Iris Chase Griffin, an octogenarian; her childhood, adolescence and marriage; and her deceased sister Laura's science fiction novel. A lesser writer than Atwood couldn't keep the three stories straight, but you're in good hands, Pearl said. Booker Prize finalist Matthew Kneale's English Passengers offers many pleasures, including the cover, which shows a ship sailing upside down. This historical fiction is set in 19th century Tasmania and moves like a Charles Dickens or Anthony Trollope novel. It has 24 narrators, including an aboriginal boy, a British admiral who believes the Bible says the Garden of Eden is in Tasmania, a genetic scientist, and a ship's captain who is an inept smuggler. This book is an almost perfect novel, Pearl said. Very funny in places, but also tragic. A terrific novel.For Pearl, author Ward Just is the closest living novelist to Graham Green. In Just's latest novel, A Dangerous Friend, the protagonist, Sidney, teaches farming in Vietnam during the early 1960s before American troops arrive. An American pilot is shot down and Sidney tries to get him released. The writing is stunning, the book amazing. If I could make Ward Just more a household name, I feel I could die happy, Pearl said.For nonfiction, Pearl recommended Barrow's Boys by Fergus Fleming, an historical account of 19th century British expeditions, and Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran by Elaine Sciolino, a sociological account of contemporary Iran and all its contradictions.If you like memoirs and the theater, Pearl suggests you read former New York Times drama critic Frank Rich's Ghost Light. She also recommended Gregory Martin's loving, affectionate memoir of his family, Mountain City. Founded by Basque immigrants who moved to Nevada to mine and raise sheep, the hyperbolic Mountain City has 33 residents who live in a time and place that will never again be recaptured in the United States.Finally, for science lovers, Pearl recommended a trio of books about Albert Einstein: Einstein in Love: A Scientific Romance by Dennis Overbye, E = mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis, and Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain by Michael Paterniti.To hear more book suggestions from Nancy Pearl, tune in to KUOW 94.9 Mondays at 2:50 p.m. Her comments also are available on the Internet atwww.spl.lib.wa.us/wacentbook/picks.html. Winter Reading List(alphabetic by author)Margaret Atwood: The Blind Assassin, Cat's Eye and Lady OracleWindell Berry: Jayber CrowDavid Bodanis: E = mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous EquationHelen DeWitt: The Last SamuraiJohn Derbyshire: Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a DreamFrederick G. Dillen: FoolRhian Ellis: After LifeFergus Fleming: Barrow's BoysMolly Gloss: Wild LifeWard Just: A Dangerous FriendThomas King: Truth and Bright Water and Green Grass, Running WaterMatthew Kneale: English PassengersGregory Martin: Mountain City and National Geographic Expeditions AtlasAntonya Nelson: Living to TellMichael Ondaatje: Anil's GhostDennis Overbye: Einstein in Love: A Scientific RomanceJeffery Paine (editor): The Poetry of Our World: An International Anthology of Contemporary Poetry Michael Paterniti: Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's BrainThomas Perry: Metzger's DogFrank Rich: Ghost Light: A MemoirDavid Roberts (editor): Points Unknown: A Century of Great ExplorationElaine Sciolino: Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of IranRoss Thomas: Briarpatch and Chinaman's Chance Joy Williams: The Quick and the Dead "