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Pearl's Picks

Monthly reading suggestions from Nancy Pearl, librarian, author and National Public Radio book reviewer. Visit Pearl's Website for biographical information.

Pearl's Picks for October 2009

The Night Inspector: A Novel - by Frederick Busch
Frederick Busch's novel The Night Inspector isn't nearly as well known as it should be. (In fact, I fear that Busch himself is known to a relatively small group of readers.) The Night Inspector will please fans of historical fiction, those who simply love good writing, and anyone interested in the life and times of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick and other works. The novel takes place mainly in Manhattan, just after the end of the War Between the States. The main character, Will Bartholomew, spent his army years as a Union sharpshooter, until the day a bullet from an enemy's gun horribly disfigured him. Because most of his face was shot away, Bartholomew now wears a papier-mâché mask at all times. Along with Herman Melville, now working as a customs inspector with his writing career apparently at an end, and Jessie, a beautiful Creole prostitute, Bartholomew concocts a plan to rescue a group of black children who are still being held by their owners, despite the abolishment of slavery. Busch has captured in vivid, evocative prose New York of the late 1860s, with its chasms between social classes, its casual cruelties, and its myriad of pleasures and dangers. At the same time, the flashbacks describing Bartholomew's experiences during the Civil War are graphic enough to give most readers nightmares. Sadly, Frederick Busch died when he was only 65; the literary world lost a great teacher and a productive, imaginative writer. If you've never read anything by him, drop everything and start now. Two of my favorite books of his are Girls and Harry and Catherine, but Don't Tell Anyone is an amazing collection of short stories. In fact, except for Busch's Closing Arguments, a novel which somewhat freaked me out, I can honestly recommend without reservation everything that Busch wrote.

Pearl's Picks for August 2009

A Final Arc of Sky: A Memoir of Critical Care - by Jennifer Culkin
Jennifer Culkin’s affecting and effective A Final Arc of Sky: A Memoir of Critical Care is primarily an account of her experiences working as an emergency flight nurse on board a helicopter (an Agusta A109A for those whirlybird aficionados among you) in the state of Washington. But as we read about her attempts to keep heart attack and trauma victims alive while en route to the nearest hospital, we also gain insights into her personal life and her views on parenting, family relationships, and religion. As difficult as emergency medical care is under the best of circumstances (i.e., in a hospital setting), Culkin helps us see how the difficulty and danger are ratcheted up when you’re 8,000 feet up in the air and several hundred miles from the nearest hospital, working in the cramped confines of a chopper’s cabin. Some of the saddest parts of the book are where she describes the deaths of close friends and co-workers (in helicopter accidents) and her mother’s difficult death. Constantly living with life and death tempers a person, I believe, and Culkin is not only the kind of nurse I think we all dream of encountering when we’re in need of emergency care, but the sort of writer whose words and wisdom we can cherish.

Pearl's Picks for October 2008

Dragon's Keep by Janet Lee Carey (2007)

One of the best reasons to give Janet Lee Carey's Dragon's Keep to young teens (especially girls) is that it's a page-turning fantasy filled with well-drawn, three-dimensional characters (both human and otherwise). Because one exciting episode (and chapter) no sooner ends than another one begins, Carey's book would have made a wonderful serial, if only there were a magazine for teens that did that kind of thing.