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Our book reviewers’ favorite reads of 2019

  • Author: David James
    | Alaska books
    , Nancy Lord
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: December 28, 2019
  • Published December 28, 2019

Our book reviewers' top reads of 2019.

Every year, reviewers David James and Nancy Lord find more than 50 books to share with ADN readers, from poetry to non-fiction and true crime. The only common thread: each book has some connection to Alaska. After a year of reading and writing, here are the books that left the deepest impressions.

Nancy Lord’s favorites

It was my pleasure this year to review for this newspaper 24 new books related to Alaska in some way. Here are six of my favorites. They represent journalism, memoir, fiction and prose poetry. Each one tells us something of what it means to live in the north as part of humankind, with ties to our history, environment, communities and families. They are listed here in no particular order.

“The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds, by Caroline Van Hemert. Little, Brown Spark, 2019. 320 pages. $28 hardcover, $14.99 Ebook.

There are moments in this beautiful and utterly engrossing memoir when the author questions the whole enterprise: What were we thinking? Readers might wonder the same thing. Who in her right mind would choose the kind of extreme adventuring that Anchorage resident Caroline Van Hemert and her husband, Patrick Farrell, endured? That thought is swept away by gratefulness that they did, and that we get to share in their life-embracing journey from the comfort of our armchairs.

The dream that took hold of them involved self-propelling themselves from Bellingham, Washington, to Kotzebue, Alaska, a distance of roughly 4,000 continuous miles. They traveled by rowboats (that they built themselves), feet, skis, pack rafts and canoes. They carried everything they needed for each stretch, resupplying at a few villages and remote cabin stops and with one bush plane drop. The journey started in March and ended in September.

The prose here is richly detailed, bringing the reader right into the experience, whether it’s the pinch of a very hungry stomach, the elation of watching thousands of caribou pass, or the adrenaline-filled escape from a predatory black bear. Caroline Van Hemert so clearly loves our world, with all its challenges, beauty and mysteries. Her book is a welcome invitation to do the same.

In “The End of Ice,” journalist Dahr Jamail blends extensive scientific research with the story of his own encounters with climate scientists, political leaders, and ordinary people feeling the effects of climate change and preparing for an uncertain future. Jamail’s research took him to various places in Alaska — from glaciers to the Bering Sea and Utqiagvik — augmented by witnessing climate disruption in Montana’s Glacier National Park, Florida, Palau, Guam, Australia and the forests of the American West.

While this book is rich in well-documented, very recent climate research, it never sinks beneath that weight. Jamail’s narrative style keeps the story personal and lively throughout. The author also shares how, in the face of so much despair, he came to be “hope-free.” He pledges to love the Earth as he would a dying friend and witness its beauty as he can. When he goes into his beloved mountains, he tells us, “my job is to learn to listen to them ever more deeply, and share what they are telling us with those who are also listening.”

A reader seeking a single book about the current state of our warming world should find “The End of Ice” an ideal summary. It may also serve as a call to action.

“You Are No Longer in Trouble,” by Nicole Stellon O’Donnell. White Pine Press, 2019. 103 pages. $16.

This stunning arrangement of prose poems and short lyric essays constitutes both a memoir of the author’s life as student and teacher and an insider’s critique of our educational system.

The three sections of the book explore a variety of subjects and time frames — from the author’s own school days in Chicago, her relationship with her father, her time teaching in rural Alaska and at a juvenile detention center, and her years teaching high school students in Fairbanks. The resonances between her own past and more recent interactions with students and the educational system volley back and forth through the pages, alternating between heart-rending emotions and reflective calm, building meaning. They are poetry in the basic meaning of the word; they present us with “a quality of beauty and intensity of emotion.”

“You Are No Longer in Trouble” should be read not just by those who love language and the compactness of poetry but widely by educators, parents, and anyone who works with young people in any capacity. It’s a book of essential compassion and a plea for educational and justice systems responsive to our shared humanity. These poems will live with their readers for a long time, bearing witness to intentional and unintentional cruelties and the kindnesses we sometimes give and receive.

“The Unpassing,” by Chia-Chia Lin. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019. 278 pages. $26.

In this dark but beautifully written and ultimately life-affirming debut novel, an immigrant Taiwanese family living near Anchorage in the 1980s confronts isolation and possibility. When 10-year-old Gavin wakes from a meningitis-induced coma, he learns that his younger sister has died from the same disease. The parents, without a support system of family or close friends, avoid speaking of the death or undertaking any type of formal grieving. The guilt-driven Gavin and his two remaining siblings grapple with their loss while also dealing with the family’s cultural differences and poverty.

Lin, herself a member of an immigrant family, probes America’s mythmaking about the immigrant experience and achievement of the “American dream.” The story further resists the myths and clichés of Alaska life; Alaska as depicted here is less about its “last frontier” opportunities for invention, reinvention and romantic adventuring, and more about the dead-end road, squirrels in the attic, the lock on the door, the off-the-path disorienting forest. Although Lin’s direct Alaska experience is limited, her descriptions of flora, fauna, mudflats and Alaskan rituals of fishing and clamming are impressively recognizable, treated not as exotic background but as part of the fabric of the place in which her characters live.

If one function of literary fiction is to bring readers into the lives of others that we might develop empathy for those who may not share our own circumstances, this novel is a standout.

With extensive research and skillful storytelling, journalist Mark Obmascik takes readers into the lives of two men, one American and one Japanese, who served their countries during the Battle of Attu in May 1943 and had one fateful encounter.

The book begins with a chilling preface. A “fidgety old man” came to the California home where Laura Tatsuguchi Davis and her elderly mother lived. Laura couldn’t figure out why he was there. Only when she walked him back to his car did he say, “By the way, I’m the one who killed your father.” Then he drove away. From there, Obmascik tells the stories of Laura’s father, Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi, a surgeon educated in the United States and conscripted into the Japanese military to run its field hospital on Attu Island during the Japanese occupation of the island, and American Dick Laird, the man haunted by having killed Tatsuguchi.

“The Storm on Our Shores” is a well-told and important book, not only for understanding a particular campaign of a war that’s fading from living memory but for questioning the demonizing of others. Even in a time of relative peace, we would do well to remember that, despite our differences in ethnicity, citizenship, beliefs or appearance, it’s our shared humanity that makes us as one.

“The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia,” by Marin Sardy. Pantheon, 2019. 304 pages. $25.95.

Marin Sardy grew up in Anchorage with a mother with schizophrenia and a brother who developed it as a young man and lived on the streets for years. Her deeply affecting book, told in essays that function as chapters, traces her family’s journey through the challenges and despair of mental illness and our capacity — as family, friends, and community — to address it. Aside from telling her very painful personal story, Sardy brings to this work considerable research into brain functions, mental processing, the varied expressions of schizophrenia and other psychotic illnesses, the effects of antipsychotic drugs, and the promise of non-medication therapies.

Any reader of this intelligent, deeply felt and beautifully written book will come away with a greater understanding of what it is to live with mental illness — as an individual, a family member or simply a fellow traveler on the road of figuring the lines between mental health and mental illness, or between mental illness and madness.

As homelessness and the numbers of people coping with mental illness appear to increase and present multiple societal problems in cities all across our nation, Sardy’s “The Edge of Every Day” should open a wide window into the reality of these lives. A reader’s heart must go out to a man, once so smart, talented, kind and loved, who is aware enough to know that others see him only as a “bum.” And to the families who, despite their best efforts, fail to save those they love from such an insidious, intractable and misunderstood disease.

David James’ favorites

This past year I reviewed over 30 books for this paper on a range of Alaskan and northern themes. Looking back, these are the ones that left the deepest impressions.

“One Water,” by Rob McCue, Red Hen Press, 366 pages, 2018, $16.95.

Rob McCue popped up out of nowhere with this debut collection of essays that describe life in Interior Alaska in ways that I’ve never seen done by any other Alaska writer. A longtime resident of Fairbanks, McCue works as a cab driver to pay the bills while spending his off hours getting out in the country and taking advantage of all Alaska has to offer. “One Water” offers accounts of both sides of this life, alternating between gritty urban nights spent driving passengers around the Golden Heart City, and ecstatic but challenging days out on the land, hiking, hunting, canoeing and more.

McCue wandered into Alaska from Kansas and found a home in Fairbanks that he embraces both in spite and because of its shortcomings. And whether he’s ferrying drunks around town in his cab on 40 below nights, guiding rich and clueless clients on Dall sheep hunts in the Brooks Range, or pondering the cultural gulf between himself and his Athabascan hosts in Arctic Village, he’s always seeking the humanity in everyone, even those he finds no common ground with. This remarkably human and humane book perfectly captures how Alaska’s Interior can feel both impossibly vast and claustrophobically confining at the same time, and how these elements forge the residents of this landscape into who they are. This was the first book I reviewed in 2019, and it remains my favorite.

“Fighter in Velvet Gloves: Alaska Civil Rights Hero Elizabeth Peratrovich,” by Annie Boochever with Roy Peratrovich, Jr., University of Alaska Press/Snowy Owl Books, 2019, 120 pages, $16.95.

“The Tanana Chiefs: Native Rights and Western Law,” by William Schneider, editor, with contributions by Kevin Illingworth, Will Mayo, Natasha Singh, and Thomas Alton, University of Alaska Press, 2018, 216 pages, $35.

These two books from University of Alaska Press provide entry points for those interested in learning of the struggles Alaska Natives endured in the first half of the 20 century to be recognized as citizens and equals in their own homelands, an objective still not fully accomplished.

“Fighter in Velvet Gloves” is a young adult book chronicling the tireless work of Tlingit activist Elizabeth Peratrovich, who rose from the humblest of beginnings to become, along with her husband Roy, the face of the Native rights movement. The book shows how apartheid-like conditions existed for Alaska Natives well into the 1940s, and how Peratrovich’s determination became an inspiration to other Natives, and ultimately Alaskans as a whole.

While those events transpired in the Southeast, “The Tanana Chiefs” documents a 1915 meeting in Fairbanks between government officials and Athabascan leaders that aimed for a solution to land conflicts between white settlers and Natives, and where the Athabascan leaders sought to acquire the elements of Western society that could benefit them while maintaining their distinctive identity. These two books explore key steps that preceded the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, showing how persuasion could not fully resolve differences, but did move the needle in that direction.

One would think a book about the economic history of early 20th century fur trading in remote Alaska would be pretty dull, but in the able hands of independent scholar John Bockstoce it becomes a fascinating look at the myriad ways that the trade irreversibly impacted and changed both white and Native cultures in the region. It also shows how fashion trends among wealthy urban Americans and Europeans drew rural Alaska into the global economy for the first time. And how fickle shifts in fashion tastes reverberated into a subsequent economic collapse in that same region, where the local economy had quickly shifted from subsistence to cash and couldn’t easily revert. It’s an overlooked round in Alaska’s long running boom-bust cycle and a reminder that an economy tied above all to resource extraction will never be stable.

Alaskans were gripped by the disappearance of Anchorage barista Samantha Koenig in 2012, with the story making front pages across the state. It grew even more horrific when Israel Keyes, the man who abducted her, was captured, her body recovered, and it emerged that he was a serial killer who had taken at least dozen lives across America and possibly overseas while meticulously leaving no trace of his actions. Journalist Maureen Callahan digs deeply into Keyes’ life and finds a pathway littered with corpses, indicating that he might have committed his first murders before he was out of his teens. We’ll never know. Keyes was just beginning to confess to investigators when he took his own life, and with it all his secrets. He was arguably the most stealthy and skillful serial killer yet known, and he walked among us, blending in so well as to escape notice until he finally made one critical mistake that led to his apprehension.

“Bear: Myth, Animal, Icon,” by Wolf D. Storl, North Atlantic Books, 320 pages, 2018, $21.95.

“North Pole: Nature and Culture,” by Michael Bravo, Reaktion Books, 256 pages, 2019, $24.95.

These two books are quite different from each other in many ways. Yet on two levels they operate on the same ground. Both are focused on northern obsessions, and both show how these fascinations have had tremendous impacts on cultures across the globe.

“Bear: Myth, Animal, Icon” is a quirky, sometimes flaky, but thoroughly captivating assessment of how humans and bears have interacted for millennia. Author Wolf Storl uncovers folk legends, examines the spirit animal practices of shamanism, digs into linguistics, and travels from Neanderthal days to modern children’s stories to document the many ways that human imagination has dealt with an animal we both fear and revere.

Thousands of years before serious efforts were launched at reaching it, the top of the world had already become a fixation. In “North Pole: Nature and Culture,” Michael Bravo looks at how true north has long beckoned humanity, from the glory days of Greece when the mystical land of Thule was introduced by the cartographer Pytheas, though the European Age of Exploration, and into modern times when climate change threatens to make real what 19th century British theorists passionately believed to exist: an open polar sea at the highest latitude. Like “Bear,” “North Pole” is replete with art, myth, legend and history, lending us a deeper understanding not just of its topic, but of ourselves as well.

2019 was the one of the hottest years on record for our planet, and it was they year that scientists announced a tipping point. The ice sheet atop Greenland is melting at a rate previously considered to be the worst case scenario. Catastrophic sea level rise is no longer a question of if, and now has entered the realm of when.

Greenland has long been central to climate change research, and for reasons extending well beyond concern for its ice sheet. In “The Ice at the End of the World,” historian and journalist Jon Gertner places climate research into the broader context of European exploration on the ice sheet, starting with Fridtjof Nansen’s 1888 trek over the ice sheet and working forward to the latest scientific discoveries. Gertner is both a gifted storyteller, bring readers along on harrowing journeys across the island, and a skilled journalist, distilling complex scientific concepts into easily understood ideas. For anyone wanting an accurate understanding of climate change and why it matters, this book is required reading.

I already have an enormous pile of books to cover in 2020, so there’s plenty more to come.

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