The Best of Summer Reading

A librarian with her own action figure recommends summer reads.
By Davi Napoleon, ’66, MA’68


Read time: 5 minutes

Nancy Pearl, ’65, MALS’67, is probably the only librarian who has her own action figure, which comes with a stack of books and her finger to her lips mouthing “Shh.”

But that is just one of her many accolades and accomplishments. She reviews books on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition”; was named Librarian of the Year in 2011 by Library Journal; chaired the Pulitzer Prize fiction jury in 2017; and, at 72, saw the publication of her first novel, “George & Lizzie,” set in Ann Arbor. That along with recommending books to readers in seven other books, including four in a series titled Book Lust.

Raised in Detroit, Pearl loved visiting the Parkman branch of the Detroit Public Library, where a librarian inspired her love of books. By age 10, she knew she wanted to be a children’s librarian “to do for other kids what Miss Whitehead did for me.” After studying at U-M, she returned to work in Detroit, before moving west to work at libraries in Seattle and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

In May, Michigan Alumnus asked Pearl to recommend both fiction and nonfiction books her fellow alumni might enjoy reading this summer.

August SnowAugust Snow

By Stephen Mack Jones, Soho Crime, 2017

Set in contemporary Detroit, the title character is an ex-policeman, a whistleblower who cost the mayor his job and freedom. Now a private eye who renovates houses in poor areas of Detroit, he is hired to investigate a case. A strong protagonist and plot weren’t all that attracted Pearl — it made her homesick for Detroit.

Cactus League

Cactus League: Spring Training

By Emily Nemens, Arcadia Publishing, 2012

Nemens, the editor of The Paris Review, loves baseball. Pearl, though not a baseball fan, loved Nemens’ book. In nine chapters evoking nine innings, the book follows diverse characters as they go through spring training in Arizona. Pearl is attracted to character-driven fiction and good writing, and this book, she advises, has both.

Soul Of Viktor

Soul of Viktor Tronko

By David Quammen, Amazon Encore, 2014

Quammen, who mainly writes nonfiction, authored two novels, this one based on the true story of two Russians who defected to the United States during the Cold War. The problem was, they told conflicting stories: There was or wasn’t a Russian agent high in the CIA. “The complex plot unravels slowly,” says Pearl, “like the best of le Carré’s novels.”

Vanessa and Her Sister

Vanessa and Her Sister

By Priya Parmar, Ballantine Books, 2015

Parmar based her historical novel on the journals of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Wolfe’s older sister. Pearl says the book gave her a new way of looking at the Bloomsbury Group. An older sister herself, she “ended up loving Vanessa Bell more, her sister less.”

Cold Cold Ground

Cold, Cold Ground

By Adrian McKinty, Seventh Street Books, 2012

McKinty sets the first of his seven-book mystery series featuring Sean Duffy, a Catholic policeman, in Belfast, circa the 1980s, at the height of troubles in Northern Ireland. Neither Duffy’s Protestant coworkers nor his Catholic neighbors trust him because he works on a Protestant force. “This book is not only a very, very good mystery — you won’t guess what happens — but you also learn what it was like during that time of unceasing violence,” says Pearl.

Narow Dog To Indian River

Narrow Dog to Indian River

By Terry Darlington, Delta, 2009

Terry Darlington, his wife, and his whippet, Jim, take their boat from England to travel the Intracoastal Waterway from North Carolina to Florida. Pearl appreciated the view of the South, and she adored “the star of the show,” Jim, the whippet. “This memoir about a narrowboat in a narrow canal with a narrow dog is a delight,” she says.

The Heartbeat Of Wounded Knee

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present

By David Treuer, Riverhead Books, 2019

Pearl says other books suggest Native American history came to an end at Wounded Knee. “Part memoir, part reporting, a lot of history, and fascinating reading,” says Pearl of this book, which explores a more recent history.

Ninety Nine Glimpses Of Margaret 760

Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret

By Craig Brown, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019

“There are 99 almost-photographs, in text, of different times in the Princess’s life,” says Pearl of this nonchronological biography. Snapshots include interviews, lists, letters, headlines, and journal entries. “It’s enormous fun to read.”

Our Man Richard Holbrooke And The End Of The American Century

Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

By George Packer, Knopf, 2019

Packer paints a complex portrait of Holbrooke, “whose only goal was to become secretary of state, something he didn’t achieve.” He negotiated the Dayton Accords, which ended the Bosnian war. Pearl likes this one because “it gives us the good and the bad and the ugly.” She applauds the “wonderful writing about a fascinating individual.”

Old Baggage

Old Baggage

By Lissa Evans, Transworld Digital, 2018

Set in the 1930s before World War II, when fascism was growing in Europe, Evans’ novel is about Maddie Simpkin, a fictional suffragist, who “gathers a group of young women to teach them to be strong in mind and body. I’m never going to forget Maddie Simpkin,” says Pearl.

Davi Napoleon, ’66, MA’68, is a theater historian and arts journalist and the author of “Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theatre.”

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