STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Librarian Nancy Pearl is with us once again. She has sent us yet another stack of books, which she recommends we read. It's a regular feature we call Under The Radar Books. Hi, Nancy.
NANCY PEARL: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: And the first Under The Radar Book is called "Understories." What am I holding here?
PEARL: This is a collection of short stories and I think probably my favorite collection of short stories in recent memory. And the reason is that Tim Horvath writes these stories that are firmly grounded in realism, then he moves into off-kilter.
INSKEEP: Magical realism?
PEARL: I call it elastic realism.
INSKEEP: (Laughing). Go on, go on.
PEARL: He stretches that definition of realism into places that we might not think it would go. So there are two stores in here that I particularly loved and one is called "The Discipline Of Shadows." This is set on a college campus in a multidisciplinary department, the department of umbrology.
INSKEEP: People who take umbrage or umbrellas, what is that?
PEARL: Right, the department of umbrology studies shadows.
PEARL: There's a guy, for example, who studies shadows in film.
INSKEEP: All right.
PEARL: There's somebody there who studies Japanese shadow puppets. There's an astrophysicist in the department who studies the shadows that muons make.
INSKEEP: Without even knowing what a muon is, I just want to comment there probably is an academic department very much like this somewhere in the United States.
PEARL: I suspect there is and not only is there a department like this, but this department that Tim Horvath describes is very similar to all the academic departments with its infighting and its people problems among the professors. But the joy of this short story is the sense of this terrific college department. And you end up believing, well, there must be a department of umbrology somewhere. It sounds too good not to exist.
INSKEEP: Now, you have another short story that you love.
PEARL: I have one more short story in here that I just want to call out, which is called "The Gendarmes." And this is about a young man who hears a noise on the roof of his apartment and he goes up there and he finds a group of young kids and asks them what they're doing. And they say, well, they're conducting an experiment to try to teach animals to grasp the concept of extinction. (Laughing). And then he says we're tired of having to bail out endangered species. It's high time they learned individual responsibility.
INSKEEP: (Laughing). Suck it up, wildlife.
PEARL: Right? Now, how could you not just embrace a book and a writer who can come up with a sentence like that? It's amazing.
INSKEEP: OK, let's go from this elastic realism to events that actually happened, but must have seemed a little bit beyond reality to the people who were experiencing them. It's a history, Peter Stark, "Astoria, John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire." What is that empire?
PEARL: Well, that empire was really a figment of John Jacob Astor's dream that happened to coincide with Thomas Jefferson's dream of building another country really on the West Coast of America past the Louisiana Purchase and then joining it to the existing United States.
INSKEEP: Well, this is when the West Coast did not belong to the United States at all.
INSKEEP: It was claimed by Spain and by other powers.
PEARL: Yes. So John Jacob Astor was sitting in his very comfortable house in New York and sent out 140 men and one woman in two different modes of transportation. There was the overland group who were going to go by canoe.
INSKEEP: Going across like Lewis and Clark had gone? OK.
PEARL: Yes, yes. And this is just a few years after Lewis and Clark actually. And then there were the people who are going to go by sea around Cape Horn to come up to the United States. And what Peter Stark does in this book just gives you a sense of the grandiosity of Astor's vision and how it was put into play. And these two expeditions, which were to meet up in Astoria, they were not quite suicide missions, but they were far more dangerous than anybody expected and out of the 140 people who set out, 61 of them died in various ways. And it's a period of history that a lot of people are unfamiliar with and I think just a very valuable book in that sense. But more importantly, from my perspective, it's really good reading.
INSKEEP: You know, we should mention for people, you're on the West Coast. You're out there in sunny Seattle. There still is an Astoria, Oregon, is there not?
PEARL: There is an Astoria, Oregon, yes, at the mouth of the Columbia River.
INSKEEP: OK, so we've got elastic realism, then we've got a real story that stretches the bounds of reality and now let's move on, continuing this kind of theme, to "The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet."
PEARL: This is a fabulous, fabulous novel. Set in contemporary times, it's a story of a 12-year-old boy, T.S. Spivet.
INSKEEP: Of course.
PEARL: Who is a cartographer and he maps everything. He maps the dinner table conversation. He maps sound quality as it travels through the Montana countryside where he and his mother and father and older sister of live. But T.S. Spivet gets a call one day that he has won a very prestigious award from the Smithsonian Institution for his maps. And he is invited to come to Washington to speak. Now, they don't know that he's only 12 years old. And he gets on a train and much of the book is his adventures on the train as he travels across the country mapping everything getting to Washington, D.C. There's just so much to love in this book. Here's a quote that I found that just struck me where T.S. says "adults were pack rats of old useless emotions." Isn't that great?
INSKEEP: Sad, but true.
PEARL: Sad, but true.
INSKEEP: In some cases, anyway.
PEARL: Well, when I go back and think about this book, this is a book about fathers and sons. And this is a book about sons trying not to disappoint their fathers and yet knowing that they will disappoint their fathers. You could reread this book again and again and again. There's so much in it.
INSKEEP: Mapping the world of books. It's librarian Nancy Pearl. Nancy, thanks very much.
PEARL: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: She is the author of "Book Lust To Go." More recommendations from Nancy are at our website; also find NPR Books' summer travel series, NPR.org/bookyourtrip. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.