ArtBeat: Juneau-raised author garners praise with dazzling book

Mike Dunham
Snow surrounds the Grand Canyon's Desert View Watchtower in Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona in this January 2001 photo.
Theresa Levitt on a recent trip to Gustavus
Photo courtesy Theresa Levitt

The only reason Theresa Levitt's book "A Short Bright Flash" wound up on my desk was the mention of the author's experience working at the Alaska State Museum in the first sentence. The rest of the book has nothing to do with the 49th state, but our rule is to flip through at least the first few pages of anything by anyone with an Alaska connection as part of literary triage.

It didn't take many more sentences for the history of French genius Augustin Fresnel and the development of the modern lighthouse lens to hook me. The subject appealed to my inner nerd on several levels, but it was also smoothly and briskly told, taking less than 200 pages to recount the science and romance behind the device that has arguably saved more human lives than anything, aside from the advancement of sanitation. Nor could I find any overreaching or misstatements of fact; such gotcha-ism is part of the reason a geek reads history, and we usually snag something -- sometimes substantive, sometimes trivial. But not in "Flash."

"This is awfully good," I found myself muttering. "It can't really be by an Alaskan." (That's not intended as an automatic snub, just a bias based on experience.)

Others found it equally compelling. A critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune said, "Levitt's writing captures the mix of scientific rigor and cultural shifts in a way that mirrors the sea voyages of the day -- a journey fraught with uncertainty, but in the end, guided to success by Fresnel's lighthouse lenses." The Wall Street Journal wrote, "Levitt recounts all this in fine prose, combining matters of biography, science, engineering, technology, art, history, economics and politics seemingly effortlessly and definitely seamlessly. 'A Short Bright Flash' is an excellent book and a joy to read."

Not until I had finished reading and turned to the back jacket cover did I realize that Levitt has a doctorate from Harvard and is a professor of history at the University of Mississippi, which may be why a chapter is dedicated to lighthouses during the Civil War. On the same back cover I noted for the first time the publisher, W.W. Norton, maybe the most reputable imprint for readable academic work in the world.

And yes, she is a former Alaskan. "I was born in Juneau and stayed there until I left for college when I was 18," she told me. She has family here and makes trips back at times of the year when it makes more sense to be in Alaska than in Mississippi. Her fascination with lighthouse optics was sparked by the old Cape Spencer lens now in the collection of the State Museum. I'm not sure how she became fluent in French, but I'll credit the Juneau school district.

Historic UW crew headed to Hollywood

Another excellent book recently came my way -- one that has nothing to do with Alaska. "The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown (Viking) concerns the 1936 Olympic gold-medal rowing team from the University of Washington. Ordinarily, sports sagas bore me with the same old plot: hardscrabble underdogs succeed against all odds. Yippee. In this case, though, I found myself on the edge of my recliner even though I knew the happy ending before I read the first page.

Despite a weakness for cliches, Brown's storytelling approaches that of a good novelist and his research is thorough and admirable. There's a bit of structural oddity in how he spends most of the time in Depression-era Puget Sound, then flips to contemporary -- and, in my opinion, extraneous -- happenings in Germany to make points that detailing the team's story has already made. But the reviews are all positive, and justifiably so. It is now on the Pacific Northwest Bestseller list and a movie version is planned, to be directed by Kenneth Branagh.

By the way, Daniel James Brown should not be confused with either Daniel Brown or James Brown. The first is a best-selling author of questionable historical fiction and the second is the late Godfather of Soul.

Speaking of books

The 2014 New England Book Festival is looking for the best books of the holiday season. Entries are accepted in nonfiction, fiction, biography/autobiography, children's books, young adult, how-to, cookbooks, science fiction, photography/art, poetry, spiritual works, compilations/anthologies, gay, unpublished stories and wild card, "for books that don't neatly fit elsewhere." All entries must be in English. Books published on or after January 1, 2011, are eligible.

The grand prize is a $1,500 appearance fee and a flight to the awards ceremony in Boston. There's a $50 entry fee, but apparently no limit on how many books you can submit. More information will be found at The deadline is November 25, 2014, so start writing.

Arts conference approaches

The Alaska State Council on the Arts is preparing a conference titled "Latitude: 2014 Arts Convergence." It will open May 1 with workshops and discussions. Organizers say "an exciting new program" from the Rasmuson Foundation and other groups will be announced at the event. The conference will run through May 3 at the Hotel Captain Cook. More information at

Bee winner from Kodiak

Congratulations to Gray Harver, a seventh grader from Kodiak who won the Alaska Geographic Bee Friday at the Egan Center. Harver bested a field of nearly 100 other students from around the state and will now represent Alaska at the national bee in Washington, D.C., next month.

Alaskans' play honors architect

UAA theater professors David Edgecombe and Elizabeth Ware have been on sabbatical this year, but hardly idle. They've created a 70-minute one-act play about Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, the architect who designed many of the destination structures around the Grand Canyon and is credited with helping develop the Southwest architectural style.

"The production features slides of her major works and gives insight into a turbulent artistic life," Edgecombe wrote in an email. The new work, "A Woman by Design," will premiere June 6-7 at La Posada, the classic resort in Winslow, Ariz., that is among her most admired creations. And it will be reprised on June 14 in the Shrine of the Ages at the Grand Canyon, which Colter didn't design but which many people will see as the setting for a popular Easter sunrise service next week.

Now that's ice cream

The University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Natural Science and Mathematics held a science festival yesterday at which the curious were treated to ice cream made with liquid nitrogen. I hadn't heard of this before, but since the boiling point of nitrogen is 321 degrees below zero -- cold even by Fairbanks standards -- I had to find out how it's done. The recipe attributed to Tom Clausen, professor emeritus in chemistry, was forwarded to me (below) and included the caution to eat it immediately because "this stuff melts quickly."

Why would ice cream made at -321 F not hold up like regular salt-and-ice chilled ice cream? Or even the good old Alaska recipe of fresh snow and sweetened condensed milk? Another member of the chemistry department, Brian Rasley, explained via UAF's publicity office. "Not only is the liquid nitrogen cold, but the mixture of cream and sugar is extremely hot by comparison. As the liquid nitrogen touches the mixture, it boils away into smoke while chilling the mixture enough to turn it into ice cream." But the liquid nitrogen doesn't remain as an ingredient. Rasley, who used to own an ice cream shop, noted that because the liquid nitrogen turns the mixture into ice cream pretty quickly, the ice crystals that form are relatively small, giving the ice cream a smooth texture.

Here's the recipe -- but I don't think you should try this at home. No mention is made of possible third-degree brain freeze headaches.

2 quarts whole milk

1 quart and 1 pint half-and-half

4 cups light corn syrup

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

4 liters liquid nitrogen

Mix the milk and half-and-half together. Slowly add the corn syrup with lots of stirring -- you want the syrup to dissolve into the milk, not collect on the bottom. Stir in the vanilla extract. Pour the mix into suitable containers and store in a refrigerator until ready for use.

Use a large metal bowl to make the ice cream. Pour in some of the mix and start beating with an electric mixer or a metal whisk. Have an assistant slowly add the liquid nitrogen. The volume of nitrogen needed will be about the same as the volume of mix. Serve immediately.

One batch of this recipe makes about 18 cups (4.5 quarts or 1.2 gallons) of mix, which translates into 180 scoops of ice cream.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.