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Librarian Nancy Pearl's 2009 Under-The-Radar Books

Dec 10, 2009 (Morning Edition)

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When it comes time to take stock of the year in books, it's inevitable that a few titles will escape notice in the rush to hand out accolades. Here are a few books that flew "under the radar" this year that I think will make perfect holiday gifts for everyone on your list — babies, kids, teens, and adults.

Oh, and don't forget yourself, too — read them all before you wrap them and give them away!


Spooner

Spooner, by Pete Dexter, hardcover, 480 pages, Grand Central Publishing, list price: $26.99

Pete Dexter won the National Book Award for his novel Paris Trout. He's a brilliant writer who began what was once my favorite novel of his, The Paperboy, with a terrific first line, one of my all-time favorites, ever: "My brother Ward was once a famous man." With his new novel, Spooner, he's written my new favorite. Spooner is an autobiographical novel that will share pride of place on my bookshelves with books like John Irving's The World According to Garp, Steve Tesich's Karoo, Merle Miller's A Gay and Melancholy Sound, and Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole.

Spooner tells a coming-of-age story that is funny and heartbreaking, frequently at the same time. It's the story of a boy from Milledgeville, Ga., becoming a man, and how that man best learns to accommodate himself to the vagaries of the world. It's filled with unforgettable characters, both human and canine: Spooner's stepfather, Calmer; his friend Harry, a would-be boxing champion who follows Spooner where common sense shouldn't take either one of them; and a series of dogs (one named Lester Maddox) who share Spooner's life. Each one of them (even the dogs, I suppose) could become the main character in another novel, and I found myself wanting to know what happened next — I wanted more about Harry-the-boxer, Spooner's sister Margaret, and other characters. Dexter's narrator is a born storyteller, and as he spins one episode into another, I found myself just wanting more. Here's a description of Calmer, as he confronts Miss Sandway, one of Spooner's high school teachers, a woman who assigns her students to memorize the poem "Trees" by Robert Frost, though Calmer, a science teacher in the same school, has shown her that Frost did not write that particular poem:

And Calmer, who admired Robert Frost above all other poets, and had fixed broken things all his life, making do with what was on hand, who had once landed an airplane using the wind against his open door to steer after the ailerons cable broke, who had delivered a dozen breeched babies from the wombs of animals on his father's farm, and who had undertaken to mend the life of a woman for whom misery itself was a comfort — Calmer looked at the hulking figure of Miss Sandway, and punted. Some things could be fixed, some things couldn't.

Spooner is one of the very few novels I have read in a long time that I wished were longer; as someone said to me recently, telling me her positive reactions to the book, it's the novel Dexter was born to write. (Read about Spooner's troubled, reluctant birth.)


When Wanderers Cease To Roam

When Wanderers Cease to Roam: A Traveler's Journal of Staying Put, by Vivian Swift, hardcover, 208 pages, Bloomsbury USA, list price: $20

I probably cannot adequately convey how much I absolutely loved reading Vivian Swift's When Wanderers Cease to Roam; A Traveler's Journal of Staying Put. For over two decades, Swift traveled the world, for work and fun, and then she settled down with five cats in a house in a small village on Long Island Sound. Wanderers is her diary (highly illustrated with her watercolor drawings) of those years, with diversions into her past. It's charming, delightful and captivating. I loved the pictures of the single mittens that she's found over the years, but I could have equally chosen any of hundreds of other examples of what made this book so much fun to read.

Here are some: It's through this book that I learned about the mid-18th century French soldier Xavier de Maistre, who was confined to prison for 42 days (for dueling) and decided to write about each of the items in his room as though it were an important tourist attraction. Swift says that he "invented a new mode of travel." And Alexander von Humbolt, who was an explorer and naturalist, and almost an exact contemporary of de Maistre (although they probably never met). He spent five years exploring Latin America and then, according to Swift, settled in Paris for 20 years to write 30 books about his Latin American adventures. Wanderers is a perfect gift for travelers, those with artistic souls, those with a sense of wonder, those who are hug-the-hearths — in short — nearly everyone on your gift list. (See Vivian Swift's collection of lost mittens, and other pages from Wanderers.)


The Good Soldiers

The Good Soldiers, by David Finkel, hardcover, 304 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, list price: $26

It was difficult to read David Finkel's book The Good Soldiers for more than a chapter at a time, because I found myself weeping so often. But of all the books I — and we — have read about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — all the excellent and not-so-great "we were there" accounts and reports from embedded journalists — Finkel's account stands head and shoulders above the rest.

We are with the 2-16, an Army Rangers battalion, that was sent to Baghdad at the beginning of the "surge" in 2007. Finkel has a terrific journalistic eye (he won the Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for The Washington Post) and he shares with us the soldiers' experiences as they attempt to bring a kind of peace to Baghdad. The trauma of being away from friends and family, the daily boredom of patrolling a city that is all too frequently punctuated by the terror that comes with an attack or a suicide bomb, the lack of trust of the civilians — all this comes through in writing that is both vivid and visceral.

Finkel is fully aware of the irony that this group of young men, who are fighting what appears to be a rear guard — and losing — battle, are led by Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, whose lifetime motto has always been, "It's all good." After reading about the reality of life lived under the constant threat of death and bodily injury, it's not hard to come to the conclusion (and I have to believe that Finkel did) that a better motto would have been, "None of this is good." Finkel's fine book offers readers a deeper understanding of both the physical and mental risks we are subjecting our soldiers to. (Read about the battalion commander's reaction to the death of one of his soldiers.)


Liar

Liar, by Justine Larbalestier, hardcover, 384 pages, Bloomsbury USA, list price: $16.99

I am generally not fond of books with unreliable narrators — they simply seem to add to my already abnormally high level of anxiety. Call me naive, but I usually want a narrator I can believe. Which makes it all the more interesting that I fell for Justine Larbalestier's Liar, in which the main character admits right away that she seldom tells the truth, can't be trusted and may (or may not) be guilty of a horrendous crime. And that's all that I can tell you about the plot of the book without giving away too much. I want everyone to experience it just as I did, one page at a time. I will say that it's a spectacularly imaginative and gripping story, and the narrator is a young woman whom I won't soon forget. If your adult book group is interested in trying a teen novel, this will make for a great discussion. (Read a few of the narrator's choice fibs: Was she really born with fur all over her body? Did her mask really come from Venice? Is Zach really dead?)


Going Bovine

Going Bovine, by Libba Bray, hardcover, 496 pages, Delacorte, list price: $17.99

Another novel that I suspect teens will enjoy a lot is Libba Bray's Going Bovine. I don't love the cover (we all know you can't judge a book ... etc., but isn't it hard not to?) but the plot hooked me right away. The story begins when the book's 16-year-old narrator, Cameron Smith, is diagnosed with "mad cow" disease. As his doctors search desperately for a cure, Cameron spends his time trying to save the world (and himself) by trying desperately to locate a mysterious Dr. X. He's aided on his journey by his classmate Gonzo, a Mexican-American hypochondriac dwarf, a punk rock angel named Dulcie, and a lawn ornament who was once (perhaps) the Norse god Balder. Based loosely on Don Quixote (a comparison I didn't get until near the end of the book), Cameron's complicated quest is both comedic and tragic. This is another novel that will leave readers talking about what really happened: how much of Cameron's trip is simply a delusion caused by his disease and how much really happened. I know which of the two I'm hoping for. (Read about Cameron's disastrous shift working at "New Agey" fast-food restauant Buddha Burger.)


When You Reach Me

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, hardcover, 208 pages, Wendy Lamb Books, list price: $15.99

I could wax on about wonderful books for teens, (E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is another great read), but let's move on to an equally outstanding novel for middle-grade readers: Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me. Two different librarians — one school librarian and one who works in the public library and is herself the author of middle-grade children's books — have both predicted that Stead's book should win the Newbery Award, which is given annually by the Association for Library Service to Children "to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." In any event, it should end up high on every critic's best-of-the-year list. Really, it's that good. It's one of those all too few and far between novels that you want to reread as soon as you finish them, just to see how the author so successfully wrote a fantasy that feels completely real.

In 1979, 12-year-old Miranda and her best friend Sal are savvy New York kids. They know what's safe to do, what places to avoid, and how to deal with the strange and bothersome homeless man on the corner of their street. But when Sal gets attacked — for no discernible reason — by one of their classmates, it kicks off a series of disturbing events: Miranda's apartment key — carefully hidden — disappears, and she gets the first of a series of disturbing and mysterious notes, all of which have something to do with future events. Even as Miranda tries to figure out what's going on, she has to deal with the realities of life: her crush on her classmate, Colin; her new friendship with Annemarie; and her dislike of Annemarie's former best friend, Julie. And that's leaving out the plot line about helping her mother practice to be a contestant on the television show The $20,000 Pyramid. Still, all these diverse strands come together in a most satisfactory way. Best of all, in addition to its thought-provoking plot and its realistic depiction of preteen experiences, When You Reach Me is a wonderful homage to Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, Miranda's favorite book. (Read about Miranda's preparations for her mom's game-show appearance.)


In The Town All Year 'Round

In the Town All Year 'Round, by Rotraut Susanne Berner, hardcover, 72 pages, Chronicle Books, list price: $16.99

It's hard to imagine a better picture book for helping children develop their powers of imagination than Rotraut Susanne Berner's chock-full-of-delights In the Town All Year 'Round. This oversize book is divided into four sections, one for each season, and Berner introduces each section with pictures of the characters, both people and animals, that will appear on the following pages. (The Winter section, for example, introduces us to a mysterious motorcyclist, Pedro the guitar player, Olivia the avid reader, and Cassie the cat, among others.)

As young readers pore over the illustrations, they'll find themselves making up stories about everyone and everything they see before them. And because there's so much happening on each page (a kindergarten is being built, a woman runs to catch her bus, a group of children visits a natural history museum, a nun loses hold of a penguin balloon, the wind turns an umbrella inside out, a little girl practices the piano), this is an endlessly fascinating book that changes in content every time you share it with a child. Children notice something different and "write" a new tale each time they pick the book up. The colorful, busy drawings may remind some readers of the Where's Waldo series by Martin Handford (another favorite of mine to share with young readers) or the always-popular Richard Scarry titles.


Bubble Trouble

Bubble Trouble, by Margaret Mahy, hardcover, 32 pages, Clarion Books, list price: $16

I count myself as someone crazy for the books of Margaret Mahy, especially her picture books. I love her flights of fancy and her scrumptious way with words. Her new book, Bubble Trouble, is great fun to read. Now, for several reasons it's somewhat difficult for me to review a picture book. First, so much depends on the marriage of the illustrations to the words, and in the case of Bubble Trouble, it's hard to imagine the text without the winsome watercolor and cut paper pictures by Polly Dunbar. They carry along the silliness of the story and make you smile as you look at them. Second, it always seems to me that it would be so much easier if I could just include the complete text in the review, rather than pulling out bits and pieces to quote. Third, the plots of picture books are frequently the least important part of the book — instead it's the use of language, rhythm, and (often) rhyme that makes a book a winner. But reviewing Bubble Trouble is irresistible.

When Mabel blows a bubble, her little brother is caught up in it, wafting out of the house and through the town. Mabel, her mother, and the rest of the townspeople — Chrysta Gribble, her brother Greville (in his nightshirt), Tybal and his mother Sybil (who are playing a game of Scrabble when they see the baby float by, encased in the bubble Mabel blew) — all chase after the baby. Even "crumpled Mr. Copple and his wife (a crabby couple)" and "feeble Mrs. Threeble, in a muddle with her needle (matching pink and purple patches for a pretty patchwork quilt)" try desperately to bring the baby safely to Earth. "With the problem let us grapple," murmured kindly Canon Dapple. "... and the problem we must grapple with is bringing Baby down." Even when it seems as though things are hopeless (owing to the dastardly deed of rascally Abel), someone figures out a way to save the day (and the baby). Reading this aloud (and it must be read aloud) will be the high point of any library story hour. Indeed, it's the perfect choice for that "just one more book"-before-bedtime plea from any 3- to 6-year-old. (Click right here for the start of the trouble, with Baby aloft in Mabel's big bubble.)


Travels In A Thin Country

Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile, by Sara Wheeler, paperback, 336 pages, Modern Library, list price: $13.95

I'm working on a new book — Book Lust to Go — which will include armchair travel, explorers, history, all that sort of thing. It should be out sometime in the fall of 2010. One of my great discoveries in all the reading I've been doing is the author Sara Wheeler. I both admire and worry about her fearless attitude toward travel. Her Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile is definitely not to be missed by any armchair traveler, someone on his or her way to Chile or with an interest in the country. Chile is approximately 2,600 miles long, and is never more than 250 miles wide (its average width is 110 miles); Wheeler makes her way from the arid north to the islanded south.

Here's a brief example of her writing: "I woke up on my thirty-first birthday in a seedy hotel very close to Argentina, and John the Alaskan tried to wish me a Happy Birthday in Spanish, but by the time he had worked it out we had both lost interest."

Before reading Travels in a Thin Country, I never really considered visiting Chile; now it's on my list of must-see places. Note to political junkies: Wheeler's book is one of the few books about the country that aren't centered on its terrible history under the dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Now for the worry: I have one very adventurous (seemingly fearless) daughter, who, like Wheeler, has an amazing gift for friendship and instant closeness with nearly everyone she meets. At one time in her life she, like Wheeler, had a tendency to drop whatever plans she had in order to go rock climbing with a group of strangers, have her passport confiscated on a train between Florence and Budapest, fall out of touch from her parents for weeks on end, and generally make me very nervous. As a result, all the time I was reading Wheeler's wonderful book, I was feeling dreadfully sorry for her mother.

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