U-M alumna Nancy Pearl, ’65, MALS’67, has lived a life shaped by books, from her work as a librarian to writing her own books and curating reading lists for others.
The 2021 winner of the Literarian Award from the National Book Foundation, Pearl’s previous honors include the Woman’s National Book Association Award, the Librarian of the Year Award from Library Journal, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.
Her contributions to literacy inspired the Archie McPhee Librarian Action Figure, which comes with a stack of books.
We tapped her extensive knowledge to develop the following list. Keep it handy as you head to the beach or the mountains or your backyard hammock.
Thank You, Mr. Nixon
By Gish Jen, Knopf, 2022Pearl says this collection of linked short stories looks at life for Chinese, Chinese who have emigrated to the United States, and Chinese Americans in the years since Richard Nixon opened China in 1972. “Humorous and touching, in these stories Gish Jen brings her wide cast of characters off the pages and into our lives.”
The Christie Affair
By Nina de Gramont, St. Martin’s Press, 2022In 1925, Agatha Christie disappeared for 11 days. Having learned that her husband, Archie, was having an affair with a younger woman, Agatha completely dropped out of sight, only to reappear 11 days later. No one has ever been able to find out for sure where she was or what happened to her; whenever she was asked about that time in her life, she’d respond that she didn’t remember. “Obviously, this is prime plot material, and there have been several novels and works of nonfiction about her disappearance,” says Pearl of this New York Times best seller. “The newest novel, and my favorite, is de Gramont’s, partly because of the quality of the writing, but also because it’s primarily told from the point of view of Archie’s lover and, mostly, because the novel itself is an Agatha Christie-like mystery, making it absolutely required reading for any Christie fan.”
By Laird Hunt, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021This slim novel, only 161 pages, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Says Pearl, “It’s easy to see why from the first few pages.” Zorrie grows up in the Midwest during the Depression, and the book takes the reader through the events of the 20th century. “The writing is simple and direct, without bells and whistles. And you could say the same thing about Zorrie’s life. Just as the prose becomes beautiful in the hands of the author, Zorrie’s life becomes beautiful to us, the readers. … What we learn is that every life contains multitudes.”
A Shadow Intelligence
By Oliver Harris, William Morrow, 2020When Elliott Kane, an MI6 agent, learns that an old lover and colleague has disappeared in Kazakhstan, he decides to go after her. “If you’re a fan of Le Carre’s spy novels, this is a book you’ll love,” says Pearl. The book provides insights about geopolitics, and Harris’ spies make good use of up-to-the-minute technology, including cell phones and the dark web. Elliott Kane also appears in “Ascension,” the sequel to “A Shadow Intelligence.” Pearl says this quote gives you a sense of the novel: “The Foreign Office cannot bear too much reality. When you travel between a world of reports and the one that people die in, intelligence product becomes a dubious thing. You impose order on chaos, give other people a false sense of understanding and authority. It involves the transformation of friends and brothers into agents or targets.”
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev
By Dawnie Walton, 37 Ink, 2021Opal and Nev were the real thing in the 1970s—an interracial rock duo that filled the seats at every concert they did, until their last concert ended in tragedy. In 2016, Opal is considering getting back together with Nev for one final tour. Pearl loves the way the novel was written, “as a series of interviews by a music journalist intending to write an oral history about the events of the past. But most of all, I loved Opal; she’s someone you will never forget.”
Lions: A Novel
By Bonnie Nadzam, Black Cat, 2016Pearl says this “gorgeously written” novel takes place in a dying town in the Colorado desert, where we meet the last residents of Lions. When a stranger comes to town, and the last teenagers graduate from high school and go off to college, everything changes. Pearl offers this quote from the last chapter: “These days, everyone’s gone. If you were to take an unmarked county road off of the highway and drive north an hour, if you could find the place, distinguishable by its high rusted water tower and abandoned sugar beet factory, you could stand in the middle of Jefferson Street and hear each note from each barn swallow floating through the air like a globe of silver. In the silence between, blood singing in your ears.”
Leonard and Hungry Paul
By Ronan Hession, Melville House, 2020This first novel, written in prose by an Irish singer and songwriter who records under the name Mumlin’ Deaf Ro, is the story of the two friends in their 30s, both of whom live with their parents and both of whom are introverts. “As both Leonard and Hungry Paul experience changes in their circumstances, they’re forced to reevaluate what’s meaningful to them,” says Pearl. She offers a quote from the opening of the novel: “Leonard was raised by his mother alone with cheerfully concealed difficulty, his father having died during childbirth. Though she was not by nature the soldiering type, she taught him to look at life as a daisy chain of small events, each of which could be made manageable in its own way. She was a person for whom kindness was a very ordinary thing, who believed that the only acceptable excuse for not having a bird feeder in the back garden was that you had one in the front garden.”
The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey
By Rinker Buck, Simon & Schuster, 2015
Pearl recommends this winner of the PEN New England Award. The author decided, almost on a whim, to acquire a covered wagon, buy a set of mules to pull it, and head out on the Oregon Trail, following the route of the original pioneers—more than 400,00 of them—who headed west in the middle of the 1800s. Like those early travelers, Buck and his younger brother began their journey in Missouri and made their way through Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon to get to their final destination. “In turn humorous and serious, filled with hair-raising adventures,” says Pearl, “Buck addresses issues like overpacking, the impact of the Trail on the Native American population, and how the LDS Church affected the Trail and its history. Narrative nonfiction at its best.”
Davi Napoleon, ’66, MA’68, is a freelance writer and theater historian.