Anchorage Daily News book reviewers Nancy Lord and David James present, in no particular order, the 2022 works that they found most memorable and meaningful. Their lists include a National Book Award finalist, tales from the sea and dispatches about the natural world.
Nancy Lord’s favorites
Every year is a good year for books and readers, and 2022 is no exception. Alaska continues to be rich with stories and the exceptional talent to tell them. Of the 28 Alaska- and northern-related books I reviewed this year, here are some of my favorites, five works of prose and five of poetry. Notably, three of the prose writers are former Alaskans who now live elsewhere, and one — Frank Soos, a former Alaska writer laureate from Fairbanks — lost his life last year. Poetry was one of the year’s strengths, thanks to small and university presses.
By Leigh Newman; Scribner, 2022; 288 pages; $26.00.
Nine years ago, Leigh Newman, who lives, teaches and edits in New York City, published a superb memoir, “Still Points North,” about growing up in Alaska. This year she returned with an equally superb collection of short stories that make use of much of the same memory-inspired material. The eight stories, most of which have been published in major literary magazines, feature a recognizable Alaska and characters living at its various edges, often in complicated, troubled relationships viewed with both humor and compassion.
Newman writes beautiful sentences, paragraphs, entire pages. It’s a pleasure to flow through her evocations of a world she obviously knows well, loves and renders freshly. If “nobody gets out alive,” everyone in her stories lives richly until that time.
“Nobody Gets Out Alive” was one of five works of fiction that made this year’s finalist list for the National Book Award. Congratulations, Leigh!
By Frank Soos; Boreal Books/Red Hen Press, 2022; 232 pages; $16.95.
Frank Soos was known for his close, empathetic examination of human lives and the fine craftsmanship of his essays and short stories. These same qualities are evident in his posthumous book of stories.
The nine lengthy stories in “The Getting Place” are richly varied, taking place in Interior Alaska, coastal Maine and the coal-mining region of Virginia where Soos grew up. The principal characters are men and women; young and old; wealthy and poor; saintly and deeply flawed; intimate with classic literature, fly-fishing, car parts, acts of love and acts of betrayal. They resemble people we know or might know, and Soos’ genius lies in taking readers into their complicated lives and troubled souls, sharing what it means to be human.
We’re fortunate to have these final, lasting stories from Soos, this conclusion of mature work marked by insightful and kind examination of our world and how any of us make our way through it.
By Deb Vanasse; West Margin Press, 2022; 227 pages; $17.99.
Alaskans likely know in general terms about northern fur seals, their breeding grounds on the Pribilof Islands of St. Paul and St. George, and the Unangax people who were brought to the islands to kill seals for commercial interests and whose descendants remain there today. They may know about the 1911 Fur Seal Treaty that prevented the seals’ extinction, and they may even remember that in 1983 commercial take of the seals ended altogether.
In “Roar of the Sea,” Deb Vanasse presents a fascinating history of fur seal exploitation and conservation, pitting artist and advocate Henry Wood Elliott against the most famous of the seal pirates, a man named Alex MacLean, and a whole host of ill-informed and corrupt business and political titans. Her extensive research illuminates the historical characters, the difficulties of reaching an international agreement to protect wildlife and the significance of that treaty today.
Vanasse has given us a tremendous example of how close we came to losing one large and significant species, and how science, art and committed cooperation helped avert that tragedy.
By Lara Messersmith-Glavin; University of Alaska Press, 2022; 190 pages; $16.95 paper, $13.95 ebook.
Most of the wealth of writing about commercial fishing in Alaska focuses on dramatic events — storms at sea, sinkings, testosterone-fueled mayhem. “Spirit Things” is something else. In a series of essays, Lara Messersmith-Glavin, who grew up on a seine boat fishing out of Kodiak, presents the fishing life as she lived it, in memory, reflection and deep dives into myth and meaning. The memories come from her childhood and adolescent summers on the boat, from her start in the late 1970s at age 2, to age 21, when she left the family business to embark on her own travel and terrestrial life.
Each of the 17 essays is titled with a “thing” — one word that serves as a vessel of meaning and provides a launch ramp for related thought. Net, salmon, wave, winch, buoy, knot, glove, radio and so on. Her descriptions are detailed, accurate and beautifully written, as pleasurable to read by those who fish themselves as by those who may never have stepped on a boat of any kind or seen a fish outside of a restaurant.
“Spirit Things” captures, like a net full of salmon, the sparkling details of a nourishing way of life that is too quickly disappearing into the mists of history.
By Ben Rawlence; St. Martin’s Press, 2022; 307 pages; $29.99.
The boreal forest, that ring of trees that circles the globe at high latitudes, is the largest living system after the ocean; it’s also the “lungs” of the planet and thus key to our planet’s health. Ben Rawlence, a Welsh writer who frequently writes about human rights, traveled for four years around the northern forests — to Norway, Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland — to meet with residents and scientists and to learn for himself what’s been happening with the farthest-north trees and life associated with them.
How interesting can the treeline be? Incredibly interesting, it turns out, when the subject is in the hands of such a skilled researcher and writer. A book about trees can, we discover, be a page-turner. Part travel adventure, part deep dive into emerging science, part reflection on our history on Earth, part philosophical questioning about the fate of the Earth — ”The Treeline” is a lively weaving of fascinating topics.
By showing how the boreal forest interacts with all life on Earth, Rawlence paints a grim picture of where we’re headed. He doesn’t offer false hope but speaks instead to the need for a new relationship with the Earth, one we might begin with a walk in the woods.
It’s unfair to poetry to lump so many terrific-in-their-own-ways books together, but the alternative is to leave most of them out of this year’s round-up. We all need to read more poetry, which does so much to celebrate language and to show us the world in ways we may not have seen it before. Choose any (or all) of these to linger with the sharp intelligence, heartfelt emotions and creative disciplines of this varied group of Alaskan poets. You’ll find good company for thinking about nature, parenting, ways of knowing and living meaningful lives.
“Old Woman with Berries in her Lap” by Vivian Faith Prescott. University of Alaska Press, 2022. 136 pages. $16.95.
“Water the Rocks Make” by David McElroy. University of Alaska Press, 2022. 100 pages. $16.95.
“Fish the Dead Water Hard” by Eric Heyne. Cirque Press, 2022. 71 pages. $15.00
“Breaking into Air: Birth Poems” by Emily Wall. Boreal Books/Red Hen Press, 2022. 80 pages. $16.95.
“tender gravity” by Marybeth Holleman. Boreal Books/Red Hen Press, 2022. 88 pages. $16.95.
David James’ favorites
It’s time for the year-end list of my favorites among the books I reviewed. There were many favorites, actually, but these four stand out. I try to limit my reviews to books worthy of readers’ time, and all the books I reviewed this year meet that standard. As always, my pile exceeds my available column space, but as the new year begins, I’ll try to keep sending readers in worthwhile directions.
By Olivia Hill; Woodneath Press, 2022; 244 pages; $19.95.
Like so many before her and since, Olivia Hill came to Alaska in 1982 looking to build a new future, free from the burdens of her past. She was young and newly married when she and her husband Seth moved to the village of Tatitlek, on Prince William Sound, where he had been hired as a teacher. Hill is Black, her then-husband is white, and the villagers are Alutiiq/Sugpiaq. There, like so many before her and since, Hill learned that Alaska presents its own challenges that can exacerbate the very problems people hoped to escape.
In “Travel North Black Girl,” she tells of what took place in Tatitlek as her marriage slowly crumbled, explores her upbringing and early adulthood in the poor neighborhoods of Kansas City, examines the impacts of poverty and racism on communities, celebrates the resilience of those who grow up subjected to these forces, and, through her experiences, provides insight into Alaska’s own racial divide, one we prefer to pretend doesn’t exist. In doing so, she breaks important ground. Black Americans have been coming to Alaska since whalers entered its waters in the 1850s, but few have told us their stories. The Black experience of Alaska is distinct, and without hearing the voices of those who have lived it, we cannot truly understand Alaska.
By Tom Kizzia; Porphyry Press, 2021; 344 pages; $21.95
One of those Black Alaskans was George Flowers. The son of Black Mississippi sharecroppers, he reportedly walked from Seattle to Alaska somewhere around 1910, found his way into McCarthy, took to trapping, and lived out his life in that remote town at the foot of the Wrangell Mountains. For many decades people went to McCarthy to escape the world, only to have the world follow them there. Flowers is just one of many whose stories are told in “Cold Mountain Path,” Tom Kizzia’s beautifully written history of that tiny community. Kizzia covers the half-century between the 1938 closure of the nearby Kennicott Mine, the existence of which had brought McCarthy into being, and the 1983 murder spree that took the lives of six of the fewer than two dozen year-round residents.
The stories Kizzia brings to the pages of this book are fascinating and memorable. McCarthy is a bit of a microcosm of Alaska itself, a place people have gone to reinvent themselves. Over the course of this book, readers meet a parade of outsiders, mountain men, tourism promoters, scavengers, artists, hippies, the occasional pimp and even singer John Denver. The murders place a horrifying end to this story, but Kizzia primarily celebrates the lives that were lived in McCarthy. This is the Alaska that myths were made of.
By Richard Price; Carcanet Classics, 2021; 188 pages; $18.99.
Mythology lies at the roots of all societies, and while those mythologies are as varied as the cultures from which they sprang, there are common themes running through most of them: the creation of the world, the human role in it and the exploits of long ago brave heroes whose adventures help us understand our world. Three ancient Inuit myths, passed down orally for centuries and first recorded on the printed page in the early 1900s, are rendered into verse by the British poet Richard Price in “The Owner of the Sea,” putting them in a form familiar to Western readers.
The first, which shares its title with the book, is a creation tale involving the goddess Sedna that tells how the world of the Inuit was made, how the creatures inhabiting it came to be, and how people arrived. The second story, “The Old Woman who Changed Herself into a Man,” explores gender fluidity, highlighting how a topic that vexes our society today was addressed within Inuit society long ago. The third and longest piece, “Kiviuq,” is a hero’s journey worthy of comparison to Gilgamesh. Kiviuq is a shapeshifter who sets out into the world, encountering all manner of adventures in a realm where clear lines of distinction between men and women, humans and animals, flesh and landscape all vanish. He finds himself inseparable from the natural world, and there he finds his identity.
By Andrea Pitzer; Scribner Books, 2021; 320 pages; $18.
Europeans who sought to forge their identities in the Arctic have met with decidedly mixed results when myth meets reality. One myth that dominated Europe for centuries was that of an Open Polar Sea. It was believed that the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean merely ringed war and navigable waters, and if that ice could be penetrated, ships could sail. It was the dream of Dutch navigator William Barents, who made three attempts at discovering the Northeast Passage, hoping to open a trade route over the top of Russia and onward to China. He returned from his first two tries.
In “Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World,” veteran journalist Andrea Pitzer brings the Europe of 1590s into being. It was an age of rising empires, with Portugal dominating the seas and Spain rapidly ascending. The Netherlands, newly independent from Spain, was immediately taken with imperial ambitions, and an exclusive trade route to China was key to that goal. Getting there via the mythic open sea. Until it was attempted. In 1594, Barents tried, was blocked by ice, and returned before winter and without serious incident. His second trip the following summer was plagued by accidents, a deadly polar bear attack, a mutiny and the loss of two men. Undaunted, Barents went back in 1596. This time his ship was trapped when the sea ice closed in. Hunger, scurvy, frostbite and multiple deaths, including that of Barents, ensued. In Pitzer’s able hands, readers are on board for it all.