Books

Our reviewers read a lot of books in 2020. Here are some of their favorites.

Nancy Lord’s favorites

The book business, like everything else in 2020, was affected by the pandemic. Authors whose books came out this year were unable to tour with their books or present signings, but in many cases found creative ways using live internet sessions and social media to connect with readers. As we hunkered down, book sales went up.

For Alaska writers, it was another strong year. The following are six of my favorites written by Alaskans, published in late 2019 and 2020, and reviewed this year in these pages. Three come from Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press dedicated to northern literature. The six represent memoir, biography and fiction and are not in any particular order.

“The Adventurer’s Son: A Memoir”: By Roman Dial. William Morrow, 2020. 368 pages. $28.99. Also available on e-book and audio.

In July 2014, Roman Dial’s 27-year-old son emailed his parents about the next phase of his adventure travels in the rainforests of Central America. That was the last they heard from him. “The Adventurer’s Son” is the story, first, of the Anchorage family’s history of adventuring together and, then, of Cody Roman’s disappearance and the tremendous efforts made by family, friends and even strangers to discover his fate.

A compelling can’t-put-it-down narrative on one level, this memoir rises to something much greater than that. It tells the story of one man’s commitment to family and fatherhood, fiercely questioning what it means to parent well and pass along love and values. It asks how we know other people and how, in the face of conflicting information, we can know what is right and true. It asks very deep questions about how best to live—what amount of risk is acceptable and responsible, what is gained by testing oneself in hard and beautiful places, what makes us fully human.

“The Adventurer’s Son” is a brave, beautiful, and eventually restorative book already becoming an adventure classic.

“Under Nushagak Bluff”: By Mia C. Heavener. Boreal Books, 2019. 222 pages. $17.95.

Mia Heavener grew up fishing in Bristol Bay, where she absorbed stories her mother and other women told between tides and over tea. Her lovely debut novel, set in a village near Dillingham, draws upon those stories and her own knowledge of the region, its history, its Yup’ik people, and the fishermen and cannery workers who came and went with the salmon runs. Beginning in 1939, it is a compelling narrative, rich in its evocations of a time and place and the lives of people largely unrepresented in our literature.

Throughout, the village and the land and sea around it loom large, captured in luminous detail. Place is at the heart of all these women’s lives, in each generation. As much as they speak of leaving, they belong with “blood rooted in the soil.” The place itself is alive and constantly changing, just as they are.

Heavener has brought readers a story both dreamy and authentic, made of many individual stories and celebrating oral storytelling and the value of stories altogether.

“Raven’s Witness: The Alaska Life of Richard K. Nelson”: By Hank Lentfer. Mountaineers Books, 2020. 256 pages. $24.95.

Richard Nelson, who died a year ago, is one of Alaska’s most-admired writers, known for numerous semi-scholarly works of cultural anthropology, the natural history-memoir “The Island Within,” and his radio show “Encounters.” His friend, collaborator, and now biographer Hank Lentfer presents him here as a joyous man committed to watchful learning from Indigenous cultures, an intense engagement with nature and natural forces, activism based on respect for the land, and what has come to be called “participatory anthropology.”

Lentfer had a wealth of material to work with and has done a magnificent job of crafting a well-organized and literary book from that abundance. Nelson shared with him not only his stories, memories, notes, and daily journals, but all the letters and tapes he’d sent home to his parents as a young man living in northern Alaska villages.

Near the book’s end, Lentfer prevails upon Nelson to return to Wainwright, the village of his anthropological work in 1964-65. Nelson had avoided ever returning because he feared it would be irrevocably changed from the place cherished in his memories. There, the two of them reunited with some of Nelson’s old friends and discovered that intimate connections to the land and sea were still very much a part of the village’s life, as were the underlying, sustaining Inupiaq values.

“Mostly Water: Reflections Rural and North”: By Mary Odden. Boreal Books, 2020. 248 pages. $17.95.

The best memoirs invite us into the interesting minds of writers, carry us into territories we might not have tread ourselves, and leave us with new perspectives on life. Some can even fill our hearts with joy. In this series of spirited essays drawn from her singular life, Mary Odden proves to be an exceptional writer, offering up portraits of the people and places that have shaped her wise and loving view of the world.

The 10 long essays here each focus on a time or space in Odden’s life, beginning with her childhood in eastern Oregon and the life lessons she absorbed from her family, horses, and especially an independent older woman who became her mentor and friend. The rest track her Alaska life, to which she came as a young firefighter in the 1970s. Like palate cleansers, very short essays related to food, food sharing, and eating are interspersed, usually with a big spoonful of humor.

Rivers and waterways dominate the image-rich prose throughout, as both physical features and metaphors. It is okay, even desirable, Odden writes, to break through to new channels, “leaving expectations behind like a vestigial circle of slough.” Her essays remind us of the large and small pleasures to be found in friendships, families, and the unexpected.

“Silences So Deep: Music, Solitude, Alaska”: By John Luther Adams. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020. 194 pages. $26.

John Luther Adams, who won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his orchestral composition “Become Ocean,” made his home in Alaska as a young man and was deeply influenced by the landscapes, soundscapes, and friendships he found in the north. His memoir takes readers into those influences and the creative impulses of an artist called by New Yorker critic Alex Ross “one of the most original musical thinkers of the new century.”

“Music is my way of understanding the world, of knowing where I am and how I fit in,” Adams writes in his prologue. With his arrival in Alaska in the 1970s, he began that journey of listening, feeling, fitting into both the boreal forest he chose as home and the wider world of musical traditions, poetry, ideas, and activism. That decades-long journey was sustained by enduring friendships—especially with the three individuals to whom he dedicates the book—his wife Cynthia, the late Gordon Wright, and the late John Haines.

“Silences So Deep” is no celebrity memoir. In accord with the author’s own quiet, contemplative character, Adams’s many commissions, teaching invitations, national and international performances, and accolades are barely mentioned. What’s important, the author makes clear, is the work itself, and the stories that surround the work--stories rich in friendships, conversations, appreciation for the natural world, and silences.

“Steller’s Orchid”: By Thomas McGuire. Boreal Books, 2019. 274 pages. $15.95.

Georg Wilhehm Steller, the doctor and naturalist who accompanied Vitus Bering on the first Russian voyage to North America, in 1741, has long been of interest to historians and readers generally. “Steller’s Orchid,” a work of fiction, both casts the historic Steller in fresh light and posits the quest of a later botanist for an orchid he’s been told Steller described in a letter. This richly-told tale is deeply informed by Alaska history, geography, natural history, and all things related to ships and seafaring.

While the story of the botanist and his adventure is entirely fictional, there does not appear to be a single wrong note in the details and descriptions of what might have been encountered in 1924, the year when the botanist travels to the Shumagin Islands. The intricate story is filled with lively action, a cast of unforgettable characters, and realistic depictions of both the landscapes of western Alaska and the largely lawless conditions of the time. The characters are endowed with complex lives and emotions, as well as backgrounds in Aleut culture, Chinese poetry, boat navigation, and—in the botanist’s case—privileged, dogmatic thinking.

“Steller’s Orchid” most definitely deserves a spot among the best of contemporary Alaska fiction. It’s a perfect example of literature that can entertain while also teaching about place, history, and the human heart.

David James’ favorites

It’s time for the annual summary of my favorite books that I reviewed in 2020. Attentive readers will notice that most of these were published in 2019. I spent the bulk of this year digging out from the pile I accumulated during the previous one. I’ve received quite a few requests from authors asking for reviews, but have declined most because I had gotten so buried. So my apologies to all who requested that I look at their books. I’m starting to see the bottom and will hopefully resume accepting submissions in a couple more months.

“Alaska in the Progressive Age: A Political History 1896 to 1916″: By Thomas Alton. University of Alaska Press. 296 pages, 2019. $24.95.

“Fortune’s Distant Shores: A History of the Kotzebue Sound Gold Stampede in Alaska’s Arctic”: By Chris Allan. National Park Service. 188 pages, 2019. Free as a pdf.

I did a lot of digging around in the past this year, perhaps to escape the present. Two of my favorite books dig into Alaska history in areas that have not received adequate attention in the past.

Thomas Alton’s “Alaska in the Progressive Age” places Alaska’s early development in a national perspective that is generally lacking elsewhere. While many scholars mention the debates over monetary policy in the 1896 presidential campaign that helped kick start the Gold Rush, Alton delves into the debate itself and shows why events in the contiguous states helped drive prospectors north seeking their fortunes. Then he moves into the first decades of the 20th century and explores how Wall Street and Washington alternately helped and hindered Alaska’s economic and political growth, exposing how Alaska’s simultaneous dependence upon and contempt for federal government authority and Outside financial powers predates the establishment of territorial status. It’s Alaska history, but most of the action takes place in D.C.

In “Fortune’s Distant Shores,” Chris Allan focuses on a little-known episode in Alaskan history involving an 1898 gold rush on Kotzebue. If you haven’t heard about this, it’s because there wasn’t any gold to speak of. But word from a lone whaler claiming otherwise was enough to launch a mad run on that remote Arctic region, where nearly 1,000 miners dug in for a single winter hoping to find their fortunes. They didn’t, but they did permanently alter life for the Inupiat people, with whom they traded goods, but also viruses. An enormous trove of historic photographs add to the value of this book, which can be downloaded for free from the National Park Service at npshistory.com.

“Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition”: By Buddy Levy. St. Martin’s Press. 400 pages, 2019. $29.99.

“Starvation Shore”: By Laura Waterman. University of Wisconsin Press. 384 pages, 2019. $27.95.

Rare is the year that I don’t review at least one book about Arctic explorations gone terribly wrong, and this year the specific event was the 1881-84 Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, better known for the name of its commander as the Greely Expedition. Part of the First International Polar Year, 25 men were sent to the northern coast of Ellesmere Island to establish a station and make scientific observations. Sea ice prevented their retrieval after two years, and a desperate run south ensued. Forced ashore for the winter, they set up camp and then succumbed to starvation, accidents and one execution. There was also, in all likelihood, cannibalism. Only six made it home.

In “Labyrinth of Ice,” Washington State University English professor Buddy Levy presents a narrative history of the story that sparkles with a novelist’s flair for storytelling. Laura Waterman novelizes the tale in “Starvation Shore,” exploring the difficult moral decisions that survival can demand. I’d advise reading both books. Levy’s for the broad historical picture, and Waterman’s for a well-researched and intensely written meditation on what it must have been like to be there.

“The Whale & the Cupcake: Stories of Subsistence, Longing, & Community in Alaska”: By Julia O’Malley. Anchorage Museum/University of Washington Press. 176 pages, 2019. $24.95.

If reading about starvation on the ice leaves you with an appetite, pick up “The Whale & the Cupcake” by longtime Anchorage journalist Julia O’Malley, who hopscotches across the state, looking at what Alaskans eat. She finds an emergent cuisine that combines wild fish, game and plants with home-grown meat and vegetables, as well as shelf-stable items from grocery stores. Blend Native foods with regional favorites imported by those who have arrived from elsewhere in the United States and the world, and you have a ready-to-make gumbo that’s part Betty Crocker, part Cajun, part Inupiat part Southeast Asian, and entirely Alaskan. And O’Malley includes recipes.

“Hostile Territory”: By Paul Greci. Imprint. 352 pages, 2020. $17.99.

Food is on the minds of the four teenagers who find themselves thrust into a survival situation after an earthquake wipes out the leadership camp they’re attending in Paul Greci’s latest novel “Hostile Territory.” What begins as a survival tale, with the kids trying to reach safety from a remote Alaska location, morphs into a political thriller, as they learn there’s a lot more going on than just a natural disaster. Greci is emerging as the state’s best author of young adult fiction. An educator who targets kids in the age range when many quit reading, he keeps them engrossed with a fast-moving plot and plenty of cliffhangers. It’s a formula that will keep adults turning pages as well.

“Without a Paddle”: By Don Rearden. Di Angelo Publications. 176 pages, 2020. $12.99.

Political divides and Alaskan landscapes are among the topics Don Rearden visits through poetry in “Without a Paddle,” a collection that wanders through the human and natural worlds. His writing is spare, with many open spaces left for readers to fill in the blanks, something each will do in their own manner. Rearden proves himself capable of providing new insight into something as simple as a mosquito to as world-shaking as the horrors of Dachau. He also confronts his wife’s battle with cancer (she was recently declared cancer-free), the pitfalls of social media, the joys of hunting one’s own meat, the adventures of ravens and discovers an emergency use for a blue tarp. You can’t get more Alaskan than that.

“The Big Wild Soul of Terrence Cole: An Eclectic Collection to Honor Alaska’s Public Historian”: Edited by Frank Soos and Mary F. Ehrlander. University of Alaska Press. Snowy Owl Books. 354 pages, 2019. $19.95.

Finally, with the loss of beloved historian Terrence Cole this month, it’s worth revisiting this collection of essays that honor his immense contributions to Alaskans’ understanding of themselves. A few of these authors offer personal reminiscences of their friendship with Cole, including telling anecdotes. But most of the contributors pay homage by following Cole’s lead with essays about overlooked corners of Alaskan history. Many leading Alaska authors appear here, but the best piece is provided by Sherry Simpson, one of the state’s most eloquent essayists and another one we sadly lost this year. She delves into the role dogs played in Gold Rush era Alaska. They’re in so many photographs, and Simpson finds out what they were doing there. She learned how to do this kind of sleuthing from Cole, who decades from now will still be regarded as a giant in Alaska history. This book shows how, through those he inspired, his work will continue to be built upon.

I still have one more 2019 book on the pile, which will be reviewed next week, then it’s onward into the year just finished. Hopefully I can keep more abreast with the times in 2021.




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