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The books our reviewers couldn’t put down in 2017

  • Author: David A. James, Nancy Lord
  • Updated: December 22, 2017
  • Published December 22, 2017

Winter in Alaska is an ideal time to catch up on reading, and with 2017 coming to a close, ADN book reviewers David James and Nancy Lord have looked through their libraries for their most memorable finds of the last year. Perhaps you'll discover your new favorite book of 2017 — or 2018 — in the works listed below.

DAVID JAMES' FAVORITES

Every December I look back at what I've reviewed over the course of the year and revisit my favorite books. This isn't a "best of" list for 2017, but rather the things I read that stayed with me and that I'd recommend.

Threadbare: Class and Crime in Urban Alaska

By Mary Kudenov. Alaska Literary Series/University of Alaska Press, 2017. 136 pages, $15.95

“Threadbare: Class and Crime in Urban Alaska,” by Mary Kudenov

Topping my personal list is "Threadbare" by Mary Kudenov, a collection of previously published essays that form a memoir about life in the part of Alaska one doesn't find on television shows or in promotional material for tourism.

Kudenov's mother was an alcoholic, and she grew up poor in Haines and Moose Pass. As an adult she washed up in Anchorage, where she lived in one of that city's roughest neighborhoods. Her description of the dilapidated apartment building where she lived and where crime and violence were daily occurrences will humble and horrify well-heeled readers who think they have difficulties.

Eventually Kudenov made her way into the University of Alaska Anchorage, ultimately earning an MFA in creative writing and then working to help others out of the circumstances she rose from. Her stories continue to haunt me months after I read them.

Finding Franklin: The Untold Story of a 165-Year Search

By Russell A. Potter. McGill-Queens University Press, 2016. 280 pages, $35.96

“Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition,” by Paul Watson

Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition

By Paul Watson. Norton, 2017. 384 pages, $27.95

The lost Franklin Expedition was one of the first things I learned of upon coming to the North, and it has haunted my mind. The fate of the two ships and 129 men lost in a futile effort to discover the Northwest Passage after leaving Britain in 1845 has obsessed thousands and launched endless searches — both public and private — that finally culminated in 2014 and 2016, respectively, when the sunken Erebus and Terror were located.

Paul Watson's "Ice Ghosts" details the early searches for the ships and then jumps to their discovery, noting that after more than a century and a half of looking in the wrong place, the ships were found precisely where Inuit oral history had said all along they were.

"Finding Franklin" by Russell A. Potter covers similar territory, adding accounts of searches by Americans and Canadians that Watson skips. Potter also examines the scant evidence left behind and the vexing questions it raises. But his best contribution to Franklin lore is his ability to capture better than any writer on the topic I've yet encountered how the story of Franklin and his men becomes an obsession that some people, he and I included, simply cannot let go of.

Whiteout

By Jessica Goodfellow. Alaska Literary Series/University of Alaska Press, 2017. 80 pages, $14.95

“Whiteout,” by Jessica Goodfellow

Another expedition that ended horrifically was that of the group of 12 men who scaled Denali 50 years ago under the leadership of Joe Wilcox. Only five of them returned. Storm systems pummeled the mountain while the men were near the summit, trapping them for days. Several of the victims' bodies were never recovered.

Poet Jessica Goodfellow lost an uncle she was too young to truly know in that calamity. Her collection "Whiteout" is an attempt at understanding both what transpired and the traumatic impact it had on her mother and other family members as they grapple with the loss of a promising young man so central to their lives. They've mostly coped by saying nothing. Goodfellow breaks this silence, and one hopes that in so doing she helped her still-grieving family to heal.

Breaking the Ice

By Kieran Lynn. Oberon Books, 2017. 62 pages, $17.95

“Breaking The Ice,” by Kieran Lynn

"Breaking the Ice" is the script for a satirical play about a scientist attending a meeting of the Arctic Council in Barrow. Frank Montgomery, sent to the gathering on short notice from England, steps out of his hotel for a cup of tea. That's when all manner of havoc transpires. A shopkeeper gets in his face about the need for jobs in the North, a pair of inept eco-terrorists kidnap him but can't decide what to do with him, an energy executive also gets a hold of him, a Native police officer takes him into custody, and Montgomery ultimately finds his way into the presence of a philosophy professor.

Through each of these encounters, British playwright Kieran Lynn deftly explores the conflicting interests all converging on the Arctic in a time of rapid climate change, and does so with that distinctively absurdist wit that the Brits have mastered. That he makes his own sympathies known without sermonizing is even more impressive. Alaskan theater companies need to stage this one.

Jamestown, Alaska

By Frank Turner Hollon. Dzanc Books, 2016. 232 pages, $15.95

“Jamestown, Alaska,” by Frank Turner Hollon

In "Jamestown, Alaska," protagonist Aaron Jennings, an author of trash fiction, travels north by mysterious invitation to write the history of a planned Utopian community of the same name as the book. His journey there is surreal enough on its own, but upon arrival things only get stranger. Nothing is as it seems, nor as it should ever be.

Author Frank Turner Hollon is clearly influenced by the work of the great science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, perfectly capturing Dick's sense of paranoia and, like Dick so often did, diving down a constantly twisting wormhole where each turn leaves readers once again flummoxed. But where Dick's nightmares were of the collectivist sort popular during the Cold War, Hollen finds equal cause for fear behind the libertarian Utopia widely dreamed of by many in the new millennium. He's a worthy successor to Dick, rather than just a mimicker.

Walter Harper: Alaska Native Son

By Mary F. Ehrlander. University of Nebraska Press, 2017. 216 pages, $29.95

“Walter Harper: Alaska Native Son,” by Mary F. Ehrlander

Finally, Fairbanks author Mary Ehrlander gets a nod for her biography of Walter Harper, the half-Athabascan assistant to Episcopal Archdeacon Hudson Stuck. Harper is best known as the first man to step onto the summit of Denali during Stuck's famous 1913 expedition. But as Ehrlander shows, there was much more to Harper's tragically short life (he died in the 1918 sinking of the Princess Sophia after departing Skagway).

Ehrlander explores the conditions faced by Interior Alaska Natives during the early infiltration of their lands by Americans, offers a much more nuanced and balanced assessment of the role Christianity played in this era than many modern writers understand, and provides rousing descriptions of weekslong dog-sled trips in the depths of winter.

I have a huge stack for review in 2018. More to come.

– – – – –

NANCY LORD'S FAVORITES

How lovely it is to be able to recommend a handful of this year's Alaska-related books that I was fortunate to review in ADN pages. Whether given as gifts or earmarked for some quiet winter reading of one's own, these will take readers on a variety of journeys.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

By Hannah Tinti. The Dial Press, 2017. 376 pages. $27

“The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley,” by Hannah Tinti

This, the only fiction on my list, asks readers to consider what, in our lives, constitutes a hero and whether a man might be both tragically flawed and lovingly good. These are apt times to think about the complexities of every person and the gray that stretches between black and white extremes when it comes to our beliefs and behaviors.

Samuel Hawley is a career criminal. He's also a dedicated, caring father. The book's title calls up the story of Hercules, who — in the legend — murdered his wife and children before setting out on the quest in which he battles monsters and wins the approval of the gods. In Hannah Tinti's novel, Hawley bears the scars of 12 bullet holes, similar to the 12 "labors" that exhibited Hercules's great strength.

Hawley's wayward life takes him to many parts of the country, including Alaska. In that one very dramatic chapter, about halfway through the book, Hawley, living in Anchor Point, accepts a "job" in Cordova. When he gets there, he drives to the Childs Glacier, where the glacier plays a significant role in what goes wrong.

Never Quit: From Alaskan Wilderness Rescues to Afghanistan Firefights as an Elite Special Ops PJ

By Jimmy Settle and Don Rearden. St. Martin's Press, 2017. 320 pages, $26.99

“Never Quit: From Alaskan Wilderness Rescues to Afghanistan Firefights as an Elite Special Ops PJ,” by Jimmy Settle and Don Rearden

"Never Quit" is the true story of a pararescuer who grew up in Anchorage and eventually earned a Purple Heart for heroics in the Afghanistan war. Jimmy Settle, a gifted storyteller, takes us into the world of intense PJ training required to attain such an elite status. Along the way, he also shares his personal history involving a family tragedy and his own physical setbacks. His story culminates in a firefight in the mountains of Afghanistan, when he received the head injury that ended his career.

Settle's inside look at the "PJ" (for para jumper) world is full of joy. What, he asks, is not to love about a job that means "We jump out of planes and helicopters to save people"? From a guy working in a shoe store, after being a high school athlete and leaving the U.S. Naval Academy when a heart condition put him on restricted status, Settle set himself on course to be one of the very few to rise to the PJ top. Most wash out along the way, but Settle "never quit."

The pleasure in this book comes from being in Settle's generous company, sharing in his attitude. A self-described prankster, he obviously has a great sense of humor and a way with words. Through the partnership with Alaska author Don Rearden, "Never Quit" delivers a remarkably life-affirming look into the training and work of those who give so much to assure our safety. More than an adventure story, it's a testament to ambition, persistence, spirit and resilience.

Rough Crossing: An Alaskan Fisherwoman's Memoir

By Rosemary McGuire. University of New Mexico Press, 2017. 187 pages, $19.95 paperback

“Rough Crossing: An Alaskan Fisherwoman’s Memoir,” by Rosemary McGuire

Alaskan Rosemary McGuire has done it again. She's followed her 2015 short story collection, "The Creatures at the Absolute Bottom of the Sea," with a second beautiful book related to the rough life of Alaska fishermen. This time, she's delivered a personal, introspective story — a memoir of her first season commercial fishing.

"Rough Crossing," winner of the River Teeth Nonfiction Book Prize, starts in a cold spring with gray cod fishing in Homer, proceeds to salmon tendering in Prince William Sound and ends with salmon fishing in Bristol Bay. McGuire made no money at any of it that season, while meeting a whole raft of crude and abusive men and maybe a very few who were not. As a 23-year-old greenhorn in the year 2000, she started at the bottom of the business. The dangerous operations, the bad behavior and the sexism that McGuire faced were things she survived — and grew stronger and wiser from.

The writing, as in McGuire's stories, is well-crafted and lyrical, a joy to read. She delivers lively scenes in all their beauty and brutality and shows what it is to have a heart for the former and a stomach for the latter.

Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, From River to Table

By Langdon Cook. Ballantine Books, 2017. 329 pages, $27

“Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, From River to Table,” by Langdon Cook

For Alaskans, "Upstream" is — or should be — a cautionary tale. In it, author Langdon Cook explores the West Coast world of wild salmon from Alaska's Copper River to California's Sacramento Valley and inland to Idaho's Red Fish Lake. This entire region is, or once was, salmon country, in which humans and their cultures, for thousands of years, intersected with an iconic animal that held a key place in an interwoven system of life.

As we well know, the great salmon runs of all the great rivers of our country's west coast have been depleted and endangered — not because anyone wanted to destroy them, but because of carelessness, poor decisions regarding development and water use, and the loss of habitat.

A Seattle resident, Cook traveled throughout salmon country on a quest not just to understand the history and value of salmon but the present-day conflicts among those who fish for them, the impacts of fish farming and fish hatcheries, and efforts at conservation and restoration. The author introduces a cast of individuals engaged in protecting, honoring and sustaining wild salmon. He adroitly feeds in the necessary and nuanced background information about salmon life history; Native American fishing and the court decisions that have supported it; hatchery programs and their controversies; and the consequences of logging, dam building and urbanization. He shows — convincingly — that what's good for salmon is also good for people, for our own habitats and our human society.

Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean

By Jonathan White. Trinity University Press, 2017. 335 pages, $28

“Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean,” by Jonathan White

Jonathan White — a sailor, surfer, marine conservationist, and exceptional researcher and writer — presents a captivating examination of all things tidal in "Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean." His journey circles the world to experience the most interesting tidal phenomena and consult with ocean experts. Interwoven around his adventures, readers will find fascinating historical and scientific information about tides and the ways humans have interpreted and responded to them through millennia. Who knew that the Chinese developed the world's first predictive tide table, carved in stone, more than a thousand years ago — a full two centuries before the Western world created one?

And who knew that so much influences tides — not just the gravitational pull of multiple celestial bodies but winds and storms, barometric pressure, the sizes and shapes of water bodies and something known as "resonance." There are, in fact, some 400 tide-generating constituents, although only 12 make most of the difference. There are also, still, numerous mysteries to be explored.

The book begins in Alaska, where nearly 30 years ago White's wooden schooner went aground on a large tide in Kalanin Bay, near Sitka, and was nearly lost.

Thus began his quest to learn everything he could about tides. His subsequent travels and research have included the world's greatest tide ranges in Canada's Bay of Fundy, the Bore Watching-Festival in China (with its 25-foot bore tide), tidal power experiments off the Orkney Islands and Chile, and the city of Venice threatened by and adapting to rising sea-level.

What was your favorite Alaska book this year? Write to us at play@adn.com.

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