The phone call came late one August afternoon as my older sister Gracie and I sat out on the back porch shucking the sweet corn into the big tin buckets. The buckets were still peppered with little teeth-marks from this past spring, when Verywell, our ranch hound, became depressed and turned to eating metal.
Perhaps I should clarify. When I say that Gracie and I were shucking the sweet corn, what I actually mean is that Gracie was shucking the corn and I was drawing a diagrammatic map in one of my little blue spiral notebooks of precisely how she was shucking the corn.
All of my notebooks were color-coded. The blue notebooks that neatly lined the south wall of my room were reserved for "Maps of People Doing Things," as opposed to the green notebooks on the east wall, which contained zoological, geological, and topographical maps, or the red notebooks on the west wall, which was where I mapped out insect anatomy in case my mother, Dr. Clair Linneaker Spivet, ever called upon my services.
I had once tried lining maps on the south wall of my room, but in my excitement to organize, I briefly forgot that this was where the entrance to my room was located, and when Dr. Clair opened the door to announce that dinner was ready, the bookshelf fell on my head.
I sat on my Lewis and Clark carpet, covered in notebooks and shelving. "Am I dead?" I asked, knowing that she would not tell me, even if I was.
"Never let your work trap you into a corner," Dr. Clair said through the door.
Our ranch house was located just north of Divide, Montana, a tiny town you could miss from the highway if you happened to adjust your radio at the wrong moment. Surrounded by the Pioneer Mountains, Divide was nestled in a flat-backed valley sprinkled with sagebrush and half-burnt two-by-fours, a reminder of when people actually used to live here. The railroad came in from the north, the Big Hole River came in from the west, and both left heading south, searching for brighter pastures. Each had its own way of moving through the land and each had its own odor of passage: the railway tracks cut straight ahead, asking no questions of the bedrock through which it sliced, the wrought-iron rails smelling of axle grease and the wooden slats of rancid, licorice-scented shellac. In contrast, the Big Hole River talked with the land as it wound its way through the valley, collecting creeks as it went, quietly taking the path of least resistance. The Big Hole smelled of moss and mud and sage and occasionally huckleberries — if it was the right time of year, though it had not been the right time of year for many years now.
These days the railway did not stop in Divide, and only Union Pacific freight came rumbling through the valley at 6.44 a.m., 11.53 a.m., and 5.15 p.m., give or take a couple minutes, depending on the weather conditions. The boom era of Montana mining towns was long gone; there was no reason for the trains to stop anymore.
Divide once had a saloon.
"The Blue Moon Saloon," my brother Layton and I used to say while we floated in the creek, our noses pointed pompously upward, as if only gentry frequented the establishment, though in retrospect the opposite was more probable: these days, Divide was a town of holdout ranchers, fanatical fishermen, and the occasional Unabomber, not dandy fops with a mind for parlor games.
Layton and I had never been to the Blue Moon, but the idea of what and who might be inside became the basis of many of our fantasies as we floated on our backs. Soon after Layton died, the Blue Moon burned down, but by then, even up in flames, the place was no longer a vesicle of the imagination; it had become just another building burning, and now burnt, in the valley.
If you stood where the old railroad platform used to be, next to the white rusted sign that, when you squinted your eyes in just the right way, still read D I V I D E—from this spot, if you pointed yourself due north, using compass, sun, stars, or intuition, and then walked 4.73 miles, whacking your way through the scrub brush above the river basin and then up into the Douglas fir-covered hills, you would collide with the front gate of our little ranch, the Coppertop, nestled on an isolated plateau at 5,343 feet, a stone's throw south of the continental divide, from which the town had gleaned its name.
The divide, oh, the divide: I had grown up with this great border at my back, and its quiet, unerring existence had penetrated deep into my bones and brain. The divide was a massive, sprawling boundary not determined by politics, religion, or war but by tectonics, granite, and gravity. How remarkable that no U.S. president had signed this border into law, and yet its delineation had affected the expansion and formation of America's frontier in a million untold ways. This jagged sentinel sliced the nation's watersheds into east and west, the Atlantic and the Pacific—and out west, water was gold, and where the water went, people followed. The raindrops blown a couple of miles west of our ranch would land in creeks that percolated through the Columbia River system into the Pacific, whereas the water in Feely Creek, our creek, was blessed with the task of traveling a thousand miles more, all the way down to the bayous of Louisiana before spilling through the loamy delta into the Gulf of Mexico.
Layton and I used to climb Bald Man's Gap, the exact apex of the divide—he taking care not to spill the glass of water clutched in between his hands, while I minded a rudimentary pinhole camera that I had fashioned from a shoe box. I would take pictures of him pouring water on either side of the hill, running back and forth, yelling "Hello Portland!" alternately with "Hello N'Awlins!" in his best Creole accent. As much as I worked the dials on the side of the box, the pictures never quite captured the heroism of Layton in that moment.
Layton once said at the dinner table after one of our expeditions, "We can learn a lot from a river, can't we, Dad?" And though Father didn't say anything at the time, you could see in the way he ate the rest of his mash that he appreciated that kind of thinking in his son. Father loved Layton as much as anything in this life.
Out on the porch, Gracie shucked and I mapped. The tickers and clickers spattered the fields of our ranch with their droning orchestration, and August swam all around us—hot, thick, and remarkable. Montana glowed in the summertime. Just last week, I had watched the slow, quiet spill of daybreak over the soft, fir-topped spine of the Pioneers. I had stayed up all night drafting a flip book that superimposed an ancient map of the body from the Chin Dynasty on a triptych of the Navajo, Shoshone, and Cheyenne understandings of a person's inner workings.
At the nip of daybreak, I walked out onto the back porch barefoot and delirious. Even in my sleepless state, I sensed the private magic of the moment, and so I gripped my pinky behind my back until the sun finally cleared the Pioneers and flashed its unknowable face at me.
I sat down on the steps of the porch, bewildered, and those crafty wooden boards took this opportunity to engage me in conversation:
It's just you and me, buster—let's sing a quiet song together, the porch said.
I have work to do, I said.
I don't know...ranch work.
You are not a ranch boy.
You do not whistle cowpuncher tunes or spit into tin cans.
I'm not good at spitting, I said. I make maps.
Maps? the porch asked. What is there to map? Spit into tin cans. Ride the high country. Take her easy.
There is plenty to map. I do not have time to take her easy. I do not even know what that really means.
You are not a ranch boy. You are a fool.
I am not a fool, I said. And then: Am I a fool?
You are lonely, the porch said.
Where is he?
I don't know.
Then take a seat, and whistle a lonely cowpuncher tune.
I am not finished with my maps. There is more to map.
Excerpted from The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Reif Larsen, 2009.
Your reading this summer may involve brushing the sand off page five — or firing up your Kindle. However you do it, we have some reading suggestions for you, straight from independent booksellers Rona Brinlee, Chris Livingston and Lucia Silva.
This year, the booksellers' picks take readers on a variety of adventures, spanning from the great outdoors in Amy Stewart's Wicked Plants to the inside of a Scrabble factory in Kevin Wilson's collection of short stories Tunneling to the Center of the Earth. Whatever your reading pleasure — be it fiction, nonfiction, poetry, memoir or graphic novels — you're sure to find page after page of pleasant escape in the recommendations that follow.
Rona Brinlee, The Bookmark
Recommendations from a store by the sea, The Bookmark in Atlantic Beach, Fla.
'The Four Corners Of The Sky'
The Four Corners of the Sky, by Michael Malone, hardcover, 560 pages, Sourcebooks Landmark, list price: $24.99
Prepare to be enchanted by a masterful writer who knows how to tell a story. Michael Malone's skills derive partly from his work writing for the popular daytime soap One Life to Live, and partly from his affection for good literature. On the one hand, he knows how to script good dialogue and flesh out characters that capture your attention (if not always your heart). On the other, he can't resist the opportunity to pay homage to the classics.
It's the characters who make The Four Corners of the Sky compelling. Abandoned in Emerald, N.C., by her con artist father when she is 7, our heroine Annie doesn't hear from him again until nearly 20 years later, when he needs her help to recover a hidden treasure. His big con involves a jeweled gold statue, which may or may not be real. Joining Annie in her adventures are Aunt Sam, who believes movies can teach you everything about life; Uncle Clark, the punster; Annie's neighbor, who hopes that archaeologists will find her body a thousand years from now and comment on her good bone structure; and her father's sidekick, who loves quoting Shakespeare. Part Wizard of Oz and part Maltese Falcon, The Four Corners of the Sky is a wild ride full of twists and turns.
'The Housekeeper And The Professor'
The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa
paperback, 192 pages, Picador, list price: $14
Emotion and caring triumph over intellect in Yoko Ogawa's poetic novel, which features three main characters: the professor, the housekeeper and the housekeeper's son Root (so nicknamed because his flat head reminds the professor of the square root sign). Due to a traumatic accident, the professor's short-term memory lasts only 80 minutes, and each day the housekeeper must reintroduce herself. Nonetheless, she, the professor and Root manage to form a lasting friendship helped, in part, by numbers, which provide order to the professor's truncated world. Every morning when the housekeeper reintroduces herself, she is greeted by a question about her shoe size or perhaps the date of her birthday, and the professor then finds a relationship or pattern in those numbers that reconnect the two. This poignant story reminds us that the heart remembers what the mind forgets, and that people can find order and solace in unexpected places.
'The School Of Essential Ingredients'
The School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister, hardcover, 256 pages, Putnam Adult, list price: $24.95
In Erica Bauermeister's debut novel, The School of Essential Ingredients, eight people come to cooking school, even though most have no real interest in learning how to cook. Instead they come for various other reasons, ranging from loneliness to the need to honor a gift certificate. Their teacher is as interested in how people cook as in what they cook. She recommends, for example, that couples bake a wedding cake together before they get married, and muses that if this were indeed required, many would change their minds. Her extraordinary understanding of the relationship between food and emotions allows her to see two sides of the cooking equation. In the end, her students do learn how to cook, and each one's life is made better.
If you judge a book, as I often do, by whether you'd like to spend time having lunch with its characters, you're likely to decide that Bauermeister's novel merits a three-course repast. Whether you love to cook or not, you will be charmed by this book. You need to be warned, though: You will want to eat your way through it.
'The Selected Works Of T. S. Spivet'
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, by Reif Larsen, hardcover, 352 pages, Penguin Press, list price: $27.95
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen is a uniquely constructed novel whose story is enhanced by drawings, separate stories and musings in the margins. The titular hero is a 12-year-old boy who maps everything, including faces, the dinner table and the geology of his home state of Montana. After seeing his work, the Smithsonian, not realizing the boy's age, invites him to be a keynote speaker at an important gala. His journey across the country on a train (hiding in a Winnebago being shipped) is a great adventure filled with wit, humor and fundamental truths about life and family. And unlike many other books' footnotes, which beg to be ignored, the maps and stories that occupy the book's marginalia are an extra treat that need to be devoured as part of the main feast.
Stone's Fall, by Iain Pears, hardcover, 608 pages, Spiegel & Grau, list price: $27.95
Iain Pears, the author of the best-selling An Instance of the Fingerpost, knows how to deliver a complex historical mystery. He starts Stone's Fall with London financier John Stone's fatal fall from a window. But knowing the end to Stone's story raises more questions than it answers: Did he commit suicide? Was he pushed? Or did he just trip on the corner of the rug? And who is the mysterious child he mentions in his will?
Three different narrators reconstruct Stone's life at different times, starting in London 1909, moving backward to Paris in 1890 and, finally, Venice in 1867. Along the way, the reader is treated to a series of "aha" moments as things start to make sense. In unraveling Stone's story, Pears also delves into the financial markets and arms race of the time, plus the role of greed, the need for power and the desire for war. Stone's Fall is one of those gloriously long books that is never long enough.
Chris Livingston, The Book Shelf
Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities, by Amy Stewart, hardcover, 223 pages, Algonquin Books, list price: $18.95
I consider myself the "outdoorsy" type. Camping, hiking, rock climbing, canoeing, fishing — I love it all. And as you may have experienced yourself, being outdoors has a calming and rejuvenating effect. However, after having read Amy Stewart's Wicked Plants, I will be looking over my shoulder a bit more often. Stewart, the best-selling author of Flower Confidential, has brought us a fascinating botanical lexicon loaded with plants that "kill, maim, intoxicate, and otherwise offend." From deadly nightshade to mandrake root, killer algae to hemlock, pitcher plants to — if you can believe it — Kentucky bluegrass, this book has them all. Each entry includes compelling historical tidbits and anecdotes. For instance, did you know that a fungus that attaches itself to grains like rye and wheat most likely caused hallucinations in eight young girls suspected of demonic possession in Salem, Mass., in 1691? I found this wicked little book a delight, and you will, too.
The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, by Kao Kalia Yang, Paperback, 296 pages, Coffee House Press, list price: $14.95
In the late 1970s, Kao Kalia Yang's parents met while on the run. They were fleeing from Laotian soldiers who were wiping out the Hmong, a people who assisted the United States in its fight with the Viet Cong. In The Latehomecomer, Yang beautifully recounts her parents' journey from refugee camps in Thailand to their eventual arrival in St. Paul, Minn. Her memoir crafts both a portrait of an immigrant couple, but also one of the Hmong, a people without a place. Yang's grandmother, a woman whose strength and faith keeps the family united through almost impossible odds, looms large at the center of her story. More than simply a memoir, The Latehomecomer is an affirmation of the human spirit.
'The Stolen Child'
The Stolen Child, by Keith Donohue, paperback, 336 pages, Anchor, list price: $13.95
Keith Donohue's novel The Stolen Child is a modern retelling of the eastern European changeling myth. The story begins when 7-year-old Henry Day is kidnapped by a group of childlike beings reminiscent of the Lost Boys from J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan and replaced by one of their own — a doppelganger who must try to convince the Day family of his authenticity. Narrated by both Henry and his replacement, this novel follows both boys as they attempt to define who they are, or were, before they traded places in the world. Donohue explores what it is to be human without getting overly sentimental. I highly recommend The Stolen Child and am looking forward to Donohue's next offering.
'Laura Rider's Masterpiece'
Laura Rider's Masterpiece, by Jane Hamilton, hardcover, 224 pages, Grand Central Publishing, list price: $22.99
Laura Rider's Masterpiece truly lives up to its title. Rarely has a book made my face tired, but Jane Hamilton's first comedic novel had me smiling for its entire 214 pages. Hamilton's protagonists, Laura and Charlie Rider, own and run Prairie Wind Farm in rural Wisconsin, where Laura listens to the Jenna Faroli Radio Show and dreams of writing a romance novel starring host Jenna. When Charlie has a chance encounter with Jenna on the side of the road, Laura sees it as a chance to conduct a character study. Together, Charlie and Laura begin corresponding with Jenna via e-mails that are at first friendly, but become increasingly intimate. Soon they are all crossing lines they never thought they'd cross. I don't know about you, but Hamilton is one of my favorite authors, and I was delighted with her change of pace with this novel. It's romping fun!
'A Reliable Wife'
Laura Rider's Masterpiece, by Jane Hamilton, hardcover, 224 pages, Grand Central Publishing, list price: $22.99
A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick, hardcover, 291 pages, Algonquin Books, list price: $23.95
Robert Goolrick's A Reliable Wife is my must-read recommendation. Set in rural Wisconsin just after the turn of the 20th century, the novel features Ralph Truitt, an obscenely wealthy landowner and businessman who lives a life of solitude and despair. Desperate for companionship, he places an advertisement in a Chicago newspaper for a "reliable wife." Catherine Land, the woman who answers, travels in the dead of winter to begin a new life with Ralph. Both Catherine and Ralph are intent on a new beginning — but both also have hidden motives and are not exactly whom they portray themselves to be. This engrossing and addictive novel will leave you both chilled and satisfied.
Lucia Silva, Portrait Of A Bookstore
Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen, paperback, 256 pages, Picador, list price: $14
When Dr. Leo Liebenstein's wife, Rema, comes through the door of their apartment carrying a little dog, he knows instantly that she's an impostor. First of all, Rema doesn't like dogs. And secondly, though this simulacrum has the same "hayfeverishly fresh scent ... same tucking behind ears of dyed cornsilk blond hair," and does a perfect imitation of Rema's Argentine accent with "halos around the vowels," he's certain she's not his Rema. Either Leo's mind is fracturing or the reality of the book is fractured, and the novel perches on this dangerous ledge. As we follow Leo's desperate search across the globe to find out what happened to the "real" Rema, we become entwined in twin mysteries — the mystery Leo believes in, and the mystery of whether or not we believe him. Anchored by the arc of a simple love story (man loses woman, tries to get her back), Galchen touches deeply on ideas about how we sustain love and attempt to repair it when it begins to fade, and how we reconcile the person our lover becomes, with the person we fell in love with.
'Tunneling To The Center Of The Earth: Stories'
Tunneling to the Center of the Earth: Stories, by Kevin Wilson, paperback, 240 pages, Harper Perennial, list price: $13.99
Like the pen-and-ink love children of Aimee Bender and Lorrie Moore, or George Saunders and Amy Hempel, the 10 stories in Kevin Wilson's Tunneling to the Center of the Earth are potent mixtures of weirdness and tenderness, deeply human tales with a delicate touch of the absurd. The opening story, "Grand Stand-In," is narrated by an older, unmarried, childless woman who answers an ad in the paper: "Grandmothers Wanted — No Experience Necessary." Soon she's employed by a Nuclear Family Supplemental Provider — in short, she's a rent-a-grandma for five families whose own have died before their kids got to know them, or who are too unwell to be any fun. Another story, "Blowing Up On The Spot," is told by a sorter at a Scrabble factory who spends his days up to his knees in tiles, searching for Qs.
Far from being weird-for-the-sake-of-weird, these stories deftly explore the human desires for love, family, friendship and the deep loss and longing forged by their absence. In the notes at the end of this edition, Kevin Wilson explains that he started writing because he thought that if he wrote a good enough story, people would be compelled to make out with him; I suspect that after finishing this collection, a good many readers will be disappointed to learn that Mr. Wilson is now happily married.
'Mirrors: Stories Of Almost Everyone'
Mirrors, by Eduardo Galeano (translated by Mark Fried), hardcover, 400 pages, Nation Books, list price: $26.95
Imagine Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, but penned by a poet and expanded to include the history of the entire world. Framed in inventively organized tiny vignettes — most just a paragraph or two long — Eduardo Galeano's Mirrors explodes our ideas of history in both content and form.
Fiercely political and fiercely human, Mirrors is a feast for the browser, armchair historian, poet and activist. Galeano rewrites the histories of the forgotten and the unsung, holding the guilty accountable in lyrical, inspired and unapologetically passionate prose. The table of contents alone is satisfying, with listings like "Adventures of the mind in dark times," "Wigs," "The despicable human hand," "Forbidden to be a woman," "Jazz," "Lenin," "Mark Twain" and "Django Reinhardt." A sumptuously written and bravely constructed mosaic of history, this book dares the reader to reflect, respond and speak out at every turn.
The Photographer, by Emmanuel Guibert (text & illustrations), Didier Lefevre (photographs), paperback, 288 pages, First Second Books, list price: $29.95
In 1986, young photojournalist Didier Lefevre left Paris on his first assignment: documenting a Doctors Without Borders mission into Afghanistan during the height of the Soviet occupation. Trekking across vast mountain ranges under cover of night, learning new languages and witnessing the horrors of war from all sides, Lefevre came of age both personally and professionally. Ten years later, graphic novelist Emmanuel Guibert worked with Lefevre to shape his journey into a graphic memoir that would combine photographs with text and graphic-comic illustrations. The resulting book, The Photographer, is an instantly accessible reflection on the history and politics of a country whose fate has so prominently figured in that of our own. In artfully and seamlessly merging photographs with storytelling and illustration, the authors exceed the emotional resonance of any one medium alone; the hybrid narrative is immediate, deeply affecting and deeply human — qualities that remind us of the real costs of war.
'Oh! A Mystery Of Mono No Aware'
Oh! A Mystery of Mono No Aware, by Todd Shimoda, with artwork by Linda Shimoda, hardcover, 310 pages, Chin Music Press, list price: $22.50
On a lark, 20-something Zack Hara leaves his tepid life in L.A. for Japan. Following tiny shifts of fate, he quickly becomes fascinated by the ancient Japanese notion of mono no aware — an elusive concept that loosely means "the beauty of sad things," a sudden, intense moment of awareness that makes us cry "oh!"
In search of his own moment of mono no aware, and intent on awakening his own emotional life, he becomes captivated by the suicide clubs that meet in the Aokigahara forest. In seamless counterpoint to the philosophical current, Shimoda shapes a delicate mystery that grows darker as the novel progresses. The book itself is a fine work of art, with a gorgeous, embossed cover, rice-paper-thin pages, and textured paper inserts with illustrations that offer clues to Zack's fate — a triumphant kick in the pants for anyone who doubts the future of paper-and-ink books.