There are some books that are so good that you just don't want to put them down and get on with anything else in your life until you've turned the last page. Often the moving force that carries you along is the plot. Other times it could be the three-dimensional characters who seem to come alive off the page to keep you company, or it could be the extraordinary quality of the writing.
Here are some books that I found especially captivating — so much so that it was very tempting to call in sick just to be able to read to the end without stopping.
NovelsIt's difficult to do a precis of Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead. First of all, it sounds depressing, which it isn't, really. Secondly, it's one of those novels that's simply unique; I can't think of another story that's even similar. The plot, laid bare, is this: There's a worldwide epidemic due to an out-of-control synthetic virus that is inexorably leading to the end of humankind. Sounds like a thriller, right? But the plot itself is almost incidental to the book's theme, which really concerns the quite literal power of memory. In the world of this novel, when someone dies, they go to some other, intermediate place, where they remain so long as there is someone alive who remembers them. When they no longer exist in the memory of anyone living, they disappear. But again, Brockmeier doesn't mean this metaphorically -- in this intermediate place are ordinary people living their quotidian lives, publishing newspapers, falling in love, regretting the past, anticipating the future. In alternating chapters, we also get the story of Laura Byrd, who's part of a scientific team in the Antarctic. How these two seemingly disparate stories intersect gradually unfolds as the novel progresses. This is the kind of book you'll find yourself thinking about long after you've gone on to other novels. The writing is masterful, the ideas are provocative, and, all in all, this is a stunning achievement. Read an Excerpt: 'The Brief History of the Dead'
NonfictionNonfiction can be quite as compulsively readable as fiction, as can be seen in A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons by Robert Sapolsky. Brooklyn-born Sapolsky spent many years of his life in Africa, beginning when he was in his very early twenties, investigating the physiological relationship between stress and physical illness among the baboons of Kenya's grasslands. What makes this book so special is how Sapolsky brings the baboon troop he studied alive, so that we understand (and early on come to share) his deep love for these primates. Sapolsky also weaves in discussions of the role of game parks in Africa, poaching, and the corruption seemingly endemic to African bureaucracy. (There's also a rather wonderful section on gorilla researcher Dian Fossey.) Reading this book, I couldn't help but feel over and over again what a genuinely nice person the author must be, and how much I'd love to meet him. Sapolsky's writing melds the humorous and the deeply felt in a way that made A Primate's Memoir -- for me -- one of those books that you both learn from and absolutely love.
For Young ReadersThe Witch's Boy is a thrilling story for 11- to 14-year-olds. Abandoned as a baby, the most unattractive and unattractively named Lump is adopted by a witch (against the wishes of her familiar, a cat named Falance), who is extremely powerful at witchcraft but, alas, totally unfit for parenting. She turns over his childrearing to a bear and a djinn, with disastrous results from the latter. Lump's experiences growing up reflect his adopted mother's emotional coldness, and it takes many plot twists and turns for Lump to finally accept himself and forgive his mother (and incidentally, himself). Read an Excerpt: 'The Witch's Boy'
About Nancy PearlSince the release of the best-selling Book Lust in 2003 and the Librarian Action Figure modeled in her likeness, Seattle's Nancy Pearl has become famous among readers and NPR listeners alike. She is a regular commentator about books on Morning Edition and NPR affiliate stations KUOW in Seattle and KWGS in Tulsa.
"Part of what makes Donna Tartt's The Little Friend riveting is that it's part mystery and part coming-of-age novel," says librarian Nancy Pearl. She recommends this title and others in a summer books segment for Morning Edition.
For the rest of her life, Charlotte Cleve would blame herself for her son's death because she had decided to have the Mother's Day dinner at six in the evening instead of noon, after church, which is when the Cleves usually had it. Dissatisfaction had been expressed by the elder Cleves at the new arrangement; and while this mainly had to do with suspicion of innovation, on principle, Charlotte felt that she should have paid attention to the undercurrent of grumbling, that it had been a slight but ominous warning of what was to come; a warning which, though obscure even in hindsight, was perhaps as good as any we can ever hope to receive in this life.
Though the Cleves loved to recount among themselves even the minor events of their family history—repeating word for word, with stylized narrative and rhetorical interruptions, entire death-bed scenes, or marriage proposals that had occurred a hundred years before-the events of this terrible Mother's Day were never discussed. They were not discussed even in covert groups of two, brought together by a long car trip or by insomnia in a late-night kitchen; and this was unusual, because these family discussions were how the Cleves made sense of the world. Even the cruelest and most random disasters—the death, by fire, of one of Charlotte's infant cousins; the hunting accident in which Charlotte's uncle had died while she was still in grammar school—were constantly rehearsed among them, her grandmother's gentle voice and her mother's stern one merging harmoniously with her grandfather's baritone and the babble of her aunts, and certain ornamental bits, improvised by daring soloists, eagerly seized upon and elaborated by the chorus, until finally, by group effort, they arrived together at a single song; a song which was then memorized, and sung by the entire company again and again, which slowly eroded memory and came to take the place of truth: the angry fireman, failing in his efforts to resuscitate the tiny body, transmuted sweetly into a weeping one; the moping bird dog, puzzled for several weeks by her master's death, recast as the grief-stricken Queenie of family legend, who searched relentlessly for her beloved throughout the house and howled, inconsolable, in her pen all night; who barked in joyous welcome whenever the dear ghost approached in the yard, a ghost that only she could perceive. "Dogs can see things that we can't," Charlotte's aunt Tat always intoned, on cue, at the proper moment in the story. She was something of a mystic and the ghost was her innovation.
But Robin: their dear little Robs. More than ten years later, his death remained an agony; there was no glossing any detail; its horror was not subject to repair or permutation by any of the narrative devices that the Cleves knew. And—since this willful amnesia had kept Robin's death from being translated into that sweet old family vernacular which smoothed even the bitterest mysteries into comfortable, comprehensible form—the memory of that day's events had a chaotic, fragmented quality, bright mirror-shards of nightmare which flared at the smell of wisteria, the creaking of a clothes-line, a certain stormy cast of spring light.
Excerpted from The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. Copyright © 2002, Donna Tartt. Reprinted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.