This year's Alaska Book Week may have ended its celebration of Alaska letters, but reading never stops across the Great Land. Winter is on its way, after all, bringing holiday gift-giving and cooler weather perfect for curling up with a book. Several favorite Alaska writers have titles on tap as the seasons change:
Sherry Simpson, "The Dominion of Bears" (University Press of Kansas) Essayist Simpson, ("The Way Winter Comes," "The Accidental Explorer"), continues her exploration of modern-day Alaska in this title focused on bears and how we interact with them. As described by the publisher, "The Dominion of Bears" is “firmly grounded in the expertise of wildlife biologists, hunters, and viewing guides ... Simpson considers not only the occasionally aggressive behavior bears need to survive, but also the violence exacted upon them by trophy hunters, advocates of predator control, or suburbanites who view bears as land sharks that threaten the safety of their families.” Simpson excels at blending personal observations with scientific fact and cultural truth. In this case she considers bears with the eye not only of a writer but also alongside biologists, hunters and guides. (Many Alaskans will need no introduction to Simpson, but for those who have missed out on her earlier collections, this is a perfect opportunity to enjoy the quiet elegance of her writing on nature and northern life.)
Gordon Haber and Marybeth Holleman, "Among Wolves" (University of Alaska Press) Haber, a longtime biologist who made the study of Denali’s wolf packs his life’s work, was killed in a plane crash in 2009. This title includes his field notes, excerpts from his journals, published articles and reminiscences from friends and co-workers all focused on his passionate and often controversial commitment to his work. “[Haber] weathered brutal temperatures in the wild to document the wolves and provided exceptional insights into wolf behavior...[His] writings and photographs reveal an astonishing degree of cooperation between wolf family members as they hunt, raise pups, and play, social behaviors and traditions previously unknown.” ("Among Wolves" includes many photographs and is guaranteed to make you think about predators and ecology and the economics of wildlife. Haber's fans will likely celebrate this book and his foes abhor it but hopefully enough folks in the middle will give it solid attention and begin a new and serious discussion about Alaska's long and complicated relationship with this predator.)
Joan Naviyuk Kane, "Hyperboreal" (University of Pittsburgh Press) Kane, who won the Whiting Writers’ Award for her first collection, "The Cormorant Hunter's Wife", returns with this new poetry collection which includes poems written in both English and Iñupiaq. "Hyperboreal" focuses on King Island, Kane's ancestral homeland in the Bering Sea whose inhabitants were relocated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1959. From a recent article in the The Arctic Sounder, "Hyperboreal" is described as "a product of her investigation of personal and communal identity in light of a geographical severance from tradition. Despite the deep sense of loss inherent in the poems, the collection comprises a hopeful reclamation of place and selfhood. Language, story, and the imagination are all essential links to a past that frames the present." (Kane's work is vital to the continued attention Alaskans must give to the collective loss of land and memory in so many of the state's forgotten places. She has other projects in the works on King Island, and is a writer to watch.)
Jean Potter, "The Flying North" (Shorefast Editions) Originally published in 1945, "The Flying North" returns to print with a previously unpublished afterword from the author. Including photos gathered from archives across Alaska and a cover by Skagway artist Courtenay Birdsall Clifford, this is the first book written on Alaska’s pioneer bush pilots and the only one to collectively include interviews with the Wien brothers, Bob Reeve, Joe Crosson, Jack Jefford and more. There are also chapters looking at the careers and deaths of Ben Eielson and Harold Gillam. From the publisher: "'The Flying North' presents Alaska as it was during the dawn of aviation, and how a group of dedicated pilots forever transformed the Last Frontier.” (No matter what you think a 21st-century bush pilot is, these guys are the ones who started it all, and their stories are as fascinating now as they were more than 60 years ago.)
December is traditionally a slow publishing month, but obviously an important time of the year for book shopping for others. "Gaining Daylight: Life On Two Islands," Kodiak resident Sara Lowen’s look at motherhood and marriage in a fishing family, is tailormade for book clubs and an excellent choice for readers interested in Alaska but weary of reality TV's exaggerations.
Juneau's Sarah Asper-Smith has two recent pictures books for younger readers, the bedtime story "I Would Tuck You In" and the collective-noun alphabet book "Have You Ever Seen A Smack of Jellyfish?" Both include beautiful images of Alaska wildife and Asper-Smith's charming writing style that will be enjoyed by both children and the adults reading to them.
Perhaps the best gift would be a selection of works from Alaska's poets. In addition to Joan Naviyuk Kane mentioned above, consider Nicole Stillon O'Donnell's "Steam Laundry," a novel in poems based on the life of Sarah Ellen Gibson who arrived in Fairbanks in 1903. It includes historical photographs and documents. Juneau poet Emily Wall's most recent title, "Liveaboard" is rooted in the four years she lived on a 37-foot sailboat traveling from Puget Sound, along the British Columbia coast and up to Southeast Alaska. Fairbanksan Amber Flora Thomas "invite[s] the reader into a world thick with the lush bounty of summer in the Far North, where the present is never far from the shadow of the past" in her collection "The Rabbits Could Sing" and, a bit of a surprise for John Straley fans, the mystery novelist has a collection entitled "The Rising and the Rain" that in the words of one longtime fan is "poignant and delicate," a love letter to the Pacific Northwest and Southeast Alaska.
Judy Patrick, "Arctic Oil: Photographs of Alaska’s North Slope" Not an overtly political book but a full color celebration of labor under harsh climatic conditions that largely sidesteps all the issues about oil and our dependence on it and instead focuses on the majesty of the people on the ground getting the job done. From her introduction the author writes: “My favorite subjects are people working. To me, it doesn’t matter if they are an equipment operator, truck driver, mud man, driller, roughneck, geologist, bull cook, mechanic or company president -- it’s the people that are the most interesting to me.” (I’ve seen several page-spreads of this one and it is stunning; I hope Patrick turns her lens to the aviation industry someday.)
John Straley, "Cold Storage, Alaska" (Soho Press). Shamus Award-winning author Straley gives readers a story he describes as a “tribute to one of my favorite genres: the screwball comedy.” Cold Storage is a fishing village with an abandoned cold storage plant and a shrinking population. Clive McCahon has returned home after seven years in jail for drug dealing. He wants to make things up to his decent hard-working younger brother and dreams of opening a “bar-slash-church.” Unfortunately a former business partner is out to get him, and the local cop wants to bust him, and he might be going crazy (lately animals have been talking to him). “Will his arrival in Cold Storage be a breath of fresh air for the sleepy, underpopulated town? Or will Clive’s arrival turn the whole place upside down?” (How could this not be good? Seriously?!)
And looking ahead to next summer, Nick Jans has "A Wolf Called Romeo," about the joyful life and tragic death of Juneau’s unofficial mascot, due from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in July 2014. Heather Lende is also scheduled to have a new essay collection due from Algonquin in the fall next year, "Finding the Good."
Finally, in case you missed them, there were several outstanding titles related to Alaska published earlier this year including "Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods" by Healy’s Christine Byl (Beacon Press) on working for the National Park Service in Alaska and the Lower 48; "Chasing Alaska" by C.B. Bernard on discovering his family’s connection to the history of exploration in the Arctic wtih Vilhjalmur Stefansson, while finding his own way while living in Southeast; "Pilgrim’s Wilderness" by Homer’s Tom Kizzia about many bad things that went down for one family in McCarthy; Shannon Polson’s "North of Hope" about her trip to ANWR, the place where her father and stepmother lost their lives to a bear attack; Leigh Newman’s "Still Points North," about her childhood in Anchorage; "Skagway: City of the New Century," edited by Jeff Brady, a series of stories and photographs all about the town’s history; a new edition of "Tlingit Indians," by Aurel Krause, translated by Erna Gunther, that originated with Krause and his brother’s observations of Tlingit life between 1881 and 1882; "The Raven’s Gift" by Bear Valley’s Don Rearden, a novel that the Washington Post called a blend of “...hunter-hunted suspense of Geoffrey Household’s 'Rogue Male,' the post-apocalyptic bleakness of Cormac McCarthy’s 'The Road' and the haunting mysteriousness of 'The X-Files.'" Rounding out a list of notable books already in stores are Alaska Poet Laureate Peggy Shumaker’s most recent collection of poems "Toucan Nest," and Eowyn Ivey’s Pulitzer Prize finalist "The Snow Child," a Russian fairy tale set in the Alaska wilderness of 1920.
Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com