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Caution: These Books May Make You Skip Work

Jul 11, 2006 (Morning Edition)

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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.

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Novels

It'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'

Nonfiction

Nonfiction 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 Readers

The 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 Pearl

Since 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.

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