Book review: Alaska’s literary review springs forth a new and impressive volume

“Alaska Quarterly Review, Winter and Spring 2024”

Edited by Ronald Spatz; 232 pages; $12

The latest volume of “Alaska Quarterly Review” is, like those of its last 39 years, packed full of some of the most creative and powerful prose and poetry of its time. Its 10 short stories, eight narrative essays, and poems by 21 poets showcase a wide range of contemporary experiences and the talents that speak to them. The works of three Alaskans are included.

Besides the high quality of the work it publishes, AQR is known for its attention to innovation and storytelling that promotes human understanding. That continues to be the case in this newest volume, in which the prose works — both fiction and nonfiction — are typically structured in a non-linear fashion and, as well, address some of the “big questions” surrounding life, death, and relationships to family or the larger world. The poetry is varied in form and style and tends toward concrete imagery and story. Those who may ask what’s “Alaskan” about AQR will find the answer not in content related to the north but in its openness to opportunity, adventure and spaciousness — qualities that Alaska and Alaskans share.

The short stories this time trend away from realism into speculative, futuristic and even horror genres while providing insight into current conditions, both tragic and absurd. In “Oil Boy” by Will Richter, a corporate lawyer for the oil sands industry narrates his life as he’s consumed, from his feet up, by a giant Indonesian python. In “Simone De Beauvoir is Living on Mars” by Mary Grimm, 50 very short, numbered paragraphs present the 162-year-old French philosopher as she lectures on feminism, teaches creative writing classes, hosts salons, and writes a gossip column for the Mars colony newsletter. In “Object Conversion” by Jessica Powell, the narrator joins a service that allows her to convert into pieces of furniture — a hammock, a bed, a leather armchair.

This reviewer’s favorite of the short stories, John Searcy’s “The Celestra Variations,” describes three commercials for a new (imagined) drug called Celestra. The first commercial is recognizably like those that flood our televisions, with scenarios of happy people who’ve been treated for a formerly debilitating but undefined condition. The second shows a similar group of people, but this time the drug does more than treat the ailments; it brings those who take it to a state of elevated, wild health. In the third, the “Ask your doctor if Celestra is right for you” is followed by an apocalyptic scene.

The personal essays tell true stories in impressively creative ways, mainly as hybrids that combine the personal with research-based nonfiction. “Mother Matter” by Miel Sloan consists of seven parts subtitled with the words that spell out “Matter can not be created or destroyed;” each part, in very short, often single, paragraphs queries the definitions of those words while telling the story of a mother trying to help her depressed, suicidal son. Christopher Citro’s “Have You Ever Given Your Sister a Snowman?” also uses a segmented form to shift among childhood memories related to objects saved in a box, a conversation with a friend, excerpts from Charlie Brown comics, and bits of scientific information. Mary Peelen’s “A Genealogy with Trees” braids together the author’s life with facts of dead and dying trees and the death of a friend.


“Adalimumab” by Fairbanksan Heather Aruffo is the most traditional of the essays in the issue — but as impressive as any. Aruffo combines her story of growing up with a scientist father who was a leader in pharmaceutical research until his early death from cancer with her later decision to become a science writer who works for a drug company. Along the way, she provides fascinating insights into what it takes to develop a new drug and ultimately critiques the corporate nature of the industry and the cost of life-saving drugs.

The poetry section includes work by two Alaskans — Sara Eliza Johnson of Fairbanks and Mistee St. Clair of Juneau.

Johnson is represented by two prose poems of beautiful imagery and ominous feeling. “At the End, There is Always a House” includes a speaker with a refrigerator crisper full of greens “turning to sludge, bananas on the counter blackening like frostbitten skin.” She follows with, “I used to quarter an apple with such perfection I could have been autopsying my own heart.”

St. Clair’s “At the BIA Office,” a tercet, tells of being taken by her father to receive “my certificate / of Indian blood. Like he was reclaiming me.” This powerful poem ends with “It’s hard to remember what we needed to prove. / How long I believed I was misplaced, lost / between birth, rebirth, paperwork, and blood.”

The well-known Arab American poet Naomi Shihab Nye is also included in this section with “Son,” about a child who is “all space” and a memory of a janitor erasing blackboards. The final poem, “Ode to Darnel (Ode to the Crocus)” by Carey Salerno concerns a kind nurse and a “tender and blooming flower.” This poem perfectly bookends the volume, which has at its gorgeous cover a photograph by Kodiak’s Marion Owen of a purple crocus emerging from snow.

Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."