Shelf Life

The character for 'mountain' (top), as calligrapher Mi Fei wrote it, above one of his landscapes. The character for "mountain" (top), as calligrapher Mi Fei wrote it, above one of his landscapes. ("China: Empire of Living Symbols")
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jan Gardner
August 3, 2008

Mapping the world
Reif Larsen's unfinished thesis for a master's degree in fine arts at Columbia University is a hot property in the publishing world. An illustrated debut novel titled "The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet," it was bought by Penguin Press for about $900,000 earlier this summer, according to Publishers Lunch, an industry newsletter.

At the heart of "Spivet," to be published next summer, is a 12-year-old genius mapmaker who lives in Montana and seeks to understand life's mysteries through his meticulous drawings.

In announcing the deal, Penguin president Ann Godoff called the novel "completely unique from page one."

Larsen, the son of Peik and Judith Larsen, visual artists who live in Cambridge, is illustrating his novel. Citing his publisher's wishes, Larsen declined to talk about his work.

Larsen has worked on a number of projects in the arts. He taught at a school in Botswana and organized a US tour for the school's marimba band that included an appearance on the "Today" show. He has made documentaries about students working in the arts. Two summers ago he taught a fiction-writing workshop at a cattle ranch in Idaho. This summer he's buckling down to finish his novel so he can turn in his thesis and graduate in October.

Summer and sand
"Beach Reading Redefined: Proust, Hemingway, Camus, and Mann," a new course beginning Aug. 14 at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, offers a novel twist on classic works. Benito Rakower, a retired Harvard professor who has been teaching at the Cambridge Center for more than 35 years, will examine the role that the beaches of Europe play in "In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower," "The Sun Also Rises," "The Stranger," and "Death in Venice."

Character studies
With the Beijing Olympics beginning on Friday, dozens of books about China are fighting for position in the marketplace. Two about language deserve special mention.

In the lavishly illustrated "China: Empire of Living Symbols" (Da Capo), Cecilia Lindqvist, a scholar of China since the 1950s, provides an introduction to Chinese characters and a sweeping tour of the nation's history and culture. First published in 1989, it had been out of print until this spring.

Focusing on a small fraction of the tens of thousands of Chinese characters, Lindqvist pairs a Chinese character with photographs and illustrations that suggest its derivation. The meaning of the Chinese symbol for "mountain," for example, is apparent when the symbol is juxtaposed with a mountain landscape painted by Mi Fei, one of China's famed calligraphers.

George Kung, a software engineer who was born in Taiwan and now lives in Lexington, provides another path to understanding with his new book, "Read Chinese Without Knowing Chinese: A Complete Guide to Computer-Aided Chinese Reading" ( Kung offers a step-by-step guide to using translation and optical character-recognition technologies to "read" Chinese.

Citing the difficulties of becoming fluent in Chinese, Kung finds comfort in a proverb from his childhood: Learning is like rowing upstream - struggle ahead or drift backward.

Coming out

  • "Foreign Body," by Robin Cook (Putnam)

  • "How Fiction Works," by James Wood (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

  • "Iodine," by Haven Kimmel (Free Press)

    Pick of the week
    David Lampe-Wilson of Mystery on Main Street, in Brattleboro, Vt., recommends "Severance Package," by Duane Swierczynski (St. Martin's): "Grand Guignol meets Monty Python in Swierczynski's over-the-top comedy of terrors as a business meeting results in termination for everybody via poison, bomb, gas, bullets, and sundry office supplies. Not for the squeamish, this feminist 'Die Hard' is a laugh-out-loud beach read with comic-book sensibilities."

    Jan Gardner can be reached at

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