MAGPIE RISING: Sketches From the Great Plains by Merrill Gilfillan (Vintage: $9.00). Gilfillan reflects on the history, geography, flora and cuisine of the plains in this prize-winning collection of personal essays. Like many previous commentators, he's fascinated by the sheer scale: "On this continent and in the psyche of its peoples, the plains have always been a staggering presence, a place of myth and cliche, a place for transformation, bafflement, or heartbreak." Gilfillan roams the heart of the North America, decrying the needless draining of small ponds where waterfowl nest in North Dakota, visiting the places that inspired Willa Cather's "My Antonia" in Nebraska and observing the flight of a Swainson's hawk in Wyoming. His handsomely crafted sentences form an introspective portrait of a region that is often dismissed as a geographic impediment to be flown over as quickly as possible.