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Reading the North

Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories

By Melinda Moustakis (University of Georgia Press, $24.95)

The blurb: Melinda Moustakis brings to life a rough-and-tumble of Alaska homesteaders through a series of linked stories. Born in Alaska herself to a family with a homesteading legacy, Moustakis examines near-mythological accounts of the Alaska wilderness.

Excerpt: "She's nineteen years old and pregnant. She's nineteen years old and pregnant with me and waiting at the bus stop and it's fifty below in Fairbanks.

"One of these times, she rides the bus to a job interview for a secretarial position. She and my father had twenty-three dollars to their name. 'They wanted me to do a typing test,' she says. 'So right there I chewed off my fingernails -- every one. I spit them into the trash can while the lady in the suit watched.'

"Now she keeps her nails long, just past elegant, and paints them blood-red to match her lipstick. Mine are like hers, so tough it hurts to clip them, but I keep mine short. There's the woman in red lipstick, sitting around the campfire, watching the sun slink down on Mount McKinley. A cigar glows in her mouth. 'And I didn't break a sweat,' she says. She fans out her fingers over the flames. 'Or a nail.' "

Kristine Killdeer: The Serpents of Eden

By Stephen Gilbert Brown (Lime Orchard Publications, $19.95)

The blurb: The first of four books in the Kristine Killdeer Saga, the story takes place in Alaska, where Killdeer falls for a Bush teacher named Owen Woodson, cross-cutting between their romance and the war between loggers and eco-activists.

Excerpt: "The Cessna 110 dropped out of the August clouds like a yellow dragonfly droning through the epic silence of the Far North. The craft bounced and vibrated in the Siberian immensity. I did what I always did when scared. Picked out a spot and hung onto it as if my entire world consisted of it and nothing else -- in this case, a droplet of condensation sliding down the windshield. The altimeter needle vibrated, as the winds in the pass bounced the Cessna from one reading to another, even as my thoughts veered from one fear to another: of going down in this heaving sea of white-capped alps, of slamming headfirst into one of these icy summits, and of returning for yet another winter to the Sky Glacier Wilderness.

"I squirmed in my seat, tightened the safety strap across my chest."

Empire of the Beetle

By Andrew Nikirofuk (Greystone Books, $17.95)

The blurb: Journalist Andrew Nikiforuk describes the massive destruction beetles have caused to more than 30 billion pine and spruce trees from Alaska to New Mexico.

Excerpt: "The first of the continent's great beetle outbreaks overran Ed Berg's backyard outside Homer, Alaska, in 1993. That's when spruce beetles hit the towering ancient old-growth Sitka spruce on the ecologist's one-acre lot just off East End Road. 'You could hear a little crunch as they were going into the bark,' recalls Berg. Within a year or two, about 95 percent of his trees turned red, dropped their needles, and died. So, too, did the trees at his neighbor's place. Most people had built off East End Road to enjoy the splendor of, say, 270-year-old Sitka spruce. Now the trees stood as lifeless as gray skeletons. 'We were all heartbroken,' says Berg. 'It was a gut-wrenching experience.' "

-- Compiled by Matt Sullivan, Anchorage Daily News