Although all works of fiction and narrative nonfiction have characters — be they animals, hobbits, dragons, humans, werewolves or whatever — I've found that there are some books in which these characters are three-dimensional and awfully interesting. (Whether or not they're likable is another question.) These characters become, as the story progresses, more and more real to me. It's as though they've become good friends.
I'm always on the lookout for this kind of book, but they're not always easy to find. Oh, I've read plenty of novels in which the characters are pleasant enough, but they're not particularly memorable. The sort of book I'm talking about here leaves you with a longing to find out what happened to the characters after the book ended. Here are some books — six novels and a work of history — that have marvelously evoked characters.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Librarian Nancy Pearl is with us once again. She comes by from time to time to recommend some books to us, things we might otherwise have missed. And this time, she's got a number of books that she has sent us; this stack features, she says, people you ought to meet.
NANCY PEARL: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: Delighted to meet you again. Now, what do you mean by people you ought to meet?
PEARL: Well, the books that I tend to love best are the books in which the characters are really fully fleshed out. You begin to be part of their lives. And so, when you finish, it's like you're losing a friend when the last page of the book is turned. And all of these books, I think, have characters that become part of your lives after you finish reading them.
INSKEEP: Okay. So who's going to become part of our lives when you we read the novel by Jo Ann Beard called "In Zanesville"?
PEARL: Well, an unnamed 14-year-old girl and she is growing up in a small Midwestern town in the 1970s. And the narrator of the book is that 14-year-old girl, who is trying to figure out all those things that one tries to figure out at 14, including how to be a best friend and how to have a best friend.
I thought that what Jo Ann Beard does with this book is amazing; even throwaway lines, lines that aren't going to advance the plot, are just beautifully wrought. And there's one line in here where she's talking about her dog, and it's a terrier. And she says: Terriers are utterly loyal to their masters; of course, sometimes their master is a tennis ball.
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PEARL: Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I recommend this book to both of my daughters - grown daughters. And both of them called me and said, it's way too depressing.
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PEARL: And so, what I said was, well, being 14 is depressing. And I thought that "In Zanesville" that it's probably my favorite novel of the year.
INSKEEP: All right, you've got another book here on the stack, Vaclav - is that how you say it, or Vaslav?
INSKEEP: A novel "Vaclav and Lena."
PEARL: "Vaclav and Lena" is a first novel. And this is about two children. Ten-year-old Vaclav, one of the things he likes doing best when he's not going to learn English as a Second Language - in a school in Brighton Beach, New York with a bunch of other Russian Eastern European emigres - one of the things he likes to do is practice magic. And he would love to be Houdini when he grows up.
And he meets in that English as a Second Language class, a newer arrival in the United States, a young girl named Lena. And Lena becomes Vaclav's assistant and the relationship that they develop is just a wonderful, wonderful friendship. And then something happens and Lena disappears from Vaclav's life. The question at that point is, you know, how can his magic help him get her back. But this is a much more realistic book than that.
INSKEEP: Okay, so he's not going to wave a wand and she's going to come back...
INSKEEP: It's all about how he gets her back. OK.
So, this novel by Haley Tanner has characters that you think we ought to meet, and that will enter our lives in a way. And you say that is also true with "Down the Mysterly River" by Bill Willingham.
PEARL: Yes, and this is a book for middle-grade readers. And Bill Willingham is known to adult readers as the author of a series of books called "Fables." But this is a great fantasy for that middle-grade age group. The characters in this book who you really grow to care about intensely, are a young man, Max, The Wolf - that's his nickname - who is a great Boy Scout. I mean he's an expert at orienteering. He can build fire by rubbing two twigs together, all of those things.
And then he finds himself one day and he has no memory of how he got there. He finds himself in this mysterious wood, and the beings that he meets there also I think creep on four feet into your lives. One is a black bear named Walden. There's another one, a badger, named Banderbrock. And then there's something called McTavish the Monster. And all of these three, plus Max, have to figure out how to save the innocent people of this wood where they have found themselves.
If you're looking for a book for a child in the middle grades, this would be a good choice.
INSKEEP: Let's go to one more book here, Nancy Pearl.
INSKEEP: You have sent us a bunch of novels, but this is a very thick book of nonfiction. Now, why would we have people we ought to meet in this book by Amanda Foreman called "A World on Fire?"
PEARL: I think what Amanda Foreman does so well in this book - and this is a book for real history buffs, people who have read almost all there is to read about the Civil War but want to look at it in a slightly different way. And what Amanda Foreman does in this book is take us through the Civil War period. But also, it's always from the point of view of Great Britain and their role and their feelings about the war. Why the majority of Brits supported, at that time, supported the South.
INSKEEP: Let's remember that this was a big question during the Civil War: Would the British somehow aid the South in breaking away from the North.
PEARL: Right, even though Britain had outlawed slavery a couple of decades before. So, on every page - she has over 200 characters in this book, real people. And many of them are people that even - I have a masters degree in American History - I didn't know who any - very few of these people were. And I think that what she is able to do is, even in a few short sentences, bring these people to life.
And it's not only politicians, like Lord Palmerston or Lincoln's secretary of state Seward. It's women spies like Rose Greenhow, all of whom play a role in this. When I was reading this book, I was just sitting down making lists of names saying, oh, I'd like to find out more about that person. So, it's just a treat.
INSKEEP: Well, when you have a book that is, well, over 800 pages long and that actually seems like the beginning, not the end of your research, that's impressive.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PEARL: Yeah, right. Although I never call it research. I just think of it as fun.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
INSKEEP: Book recommendations from Nancy Pearl. Nancy, it's always a pleasure.
PEARL: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: She is the author of several books including "Book Lust To Go." And you can find the full list of her latest recommendations at NPR.org.
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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.