Saturday, December 31, 2011

Larsen, Reif—The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is the kind of light read even the most dedicated literature nerd can appreciate. Far from the loathsome ineptitude of many bestsellers, Larsen’s book is delightfully inventive and the plot is a satisfying mix of a traditional coming-of-age story and absurd happenstances.
The titular T.S. has a knack for, or rather an obsession with, mapping. At twelve years-old he has amassed an impressive repertoire of maps and diagrams that wins him the Smithsonian’s prestigious Baird Award. T.S. (which stands for Tecumseh Sparrow maps and diagrams everything he can get his hands onto, from shucking corn to mapping loneliness in Chicago.
                After winning the award without knowing he applied T.S. takes off to Washington D.C. from his rural Montana home to claim his prize from an unsuspecting Smithsonian (who have no idea the age of the winner). Unwilling to let his distant family know where he is going, T.S. rides the rails in true hobo fashion. At the same time he shelters guilt about the shooting death of his younger brother and deals with a strong sense of not belonging common to all preteens.  Sounds exhausting to me!
Young Master Spivet will seem familiar to readers of such novels as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer and Lemony Snicket’s young adult series A Series of Unfortunate Events. The trope of the odd, brilliant, and eccentric young person with a strange family life who gets sent on a strange journey is a popular one in current fiction. This does not necessarily detract from Larsen’s work, but it is worth mentioning.
                Larsen’s book is notable for its inventive use of illustration. T.S.’s diagrams and maps are placed along the sides of pages to aid in telling the story. Illustration, once a common part of all books, had faded out of everything but children’s literature. Larsen is wise to reincorporate it. In our increasingly visual world images are becoming integral to how humans communicate. It seems natural that fiction should start moving in a more visual direction.
                Entertaining and fresh, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is a great novel looking for a light but not trite read around the fireplace or pool.

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