In celebration of Alaska Book Week, this week’s “Five Good Reads” feature has been expanded to include multiple contributors -- many of them well-known writers -- who were asked to focus on Alaskan books in any genre. Contributors weren’t asked for their five favorite Alaskan reads, just five good ones, five they liked and thought others might too, five because 50 would make an incredibly long newspaper article, and even then the sampling would be unfair and subject to change at any moment. Their lists are offered here in a spirit of discovery, as a point of departure for exploring Alaska’s literary landscape.
JOAN NAVIYUK KANE
• "Give or Take A Century: An Eskimo Chronicle" by Joseph Engasongwok Senungetuk
A groundbreaking book, easily Alaska's best memoir: prescient, spot-on, and finely written. Sadly, out of print.
• "Dangerous Goods" by Sean Hill
A book of poetry by one of Alaska's most unsung literary heroes, the book is not out until 2014, but an advance copy secures Hill's place as a major talent in American poetry.
• "My Name is Not Easy" by Debby Dahl Edwardsen
Though marketed as YA, everyone who wants to understand the impact of the boarding school experience before Molly Hooch should read this book, beautifully written and rich with detail.
• "Hollow Out" by Kelsea Habecker
A book of heart-rending, precise poetry written from Point Hope.
• "The People of Kauwerak" by William Oquillik
An essential compilation of recollections and our traditional story cycles from one of my grandmother's and great-aunts' contemporaries at the orphanage at Pilgrim Hot Springs after the 1918 flu epidemic.
Joan Naviyuk Kane, of Anchorage, is an Inupiaq poet with family from King Island and Mary's Igloo. Her debut poetry collection, "The Cormorant Hunter's Wife," won the Whiting Writers' Award. Her second, "Hyperboreal," will be published this month.
Disclosure: I’m a sucker for writing that reflects a flawless connection to place, steps around the aw-shucks Alaska mystique straight into the Bush, and shows an attention to craft that can’t be faked. I’m also incredibly fond of the personal essay as a craft form. There are many, many deserving books, many of them published in the past few years, and this is a very short list.
• “Ordinary Wolves” by Seth Kantner
At the best places, Seth’s writing in this novel is razor-honed and gorgeous. And being born in a sod hut 250 miles from the road grid, in a hunter-gatherer family, Kantner shines through as the real deal. P.S., His essay collection, “Shopping for Porcupine,” is even better.
• “The Only Kayak” by Kim Heacox
Gustavus resident Heacox’s deep love for, and knowledge of, Southeast Alaska shines forth in this fine essay collection.
• “Kantishna” by Tom Walker
This rich history of the Interior gold rush, incredibly well-researched and solidly written, hits on all cylinders.
• “The Wake of the Unseen Object” by Tom Kizzia
A collection of essays that flew under the radar from the get-go and always deserved more attention than it got.
• “The Inupiaq Eskimo Nations of Arctic Alaska” by Charles “Tiger” Burch
Tiger, who died a couple years back, was a gifted cultural anthropologist who sidestepped academic jargon and convention to provide you-are-there examination of the pre-contact Inupiat Eskimo culture, in all its rich complexity, and threw in a big dollop of humor. This chunky but accessible text will never make it to a best-seller list, but is one of my favorites.
Apologies to the many deserving Alaska writers not mentioned here.
Nick Jans is the author of “The Last Light Breaking,” “The Glacier Wolf” and other works. He recently finished deadline work for his new book, “A Wolf Called Romeo,” scheduled for release by Houghton Mifflin in July. He is also working on a kids’ picture book with Juneau’s Mark Kelley called “Once Upon Alaska.”
• “A Land Gone Lonesome” by Dan O’Neill
Part homage to the gold of Alaska past, part Huck Finn — Dan’s story of lives lived and lost along the Yukon is once-upon-a-time America. Heroes and homesteaders, greed and government, and the best bear story I’ve heard — it’s hard to ask for more than this river moving you through this great book.
• “How Winter Comes” by Sherry Simpson
Sherry’s writing is some of my favorite. What else is there to say? From the opening pages, the creamy soft wolf pelt hanging in the corner of a store, she carries you — no, accompanies you — along trails you might have missed, but now are so lucky to be on.
• “The Last Light Breaking” by Nick Jans
This is an important and great book — to me, and Alaska too, I’d say — for these stories and people, and this place that Nick spent so much effort to capture in words in the twilight of times changing.
• “In a Far Country” by John Taliaferro
Here’s the perfect Arctic Adventure — smart, exciting and all true. A hard one to put down. If you want more ice cold courage and endurance on land and sea than John Taliaferro has woven out of history, you’re not getting enough frostbite lately.
• “Descent into Madness” by Vernon Frolick
Starts in Fairbanks, ends in that part of Canada uphill from Juneau. Perfect descriptions of the land, snowshoeing, winter — an incredible story, just read it. I don’t want to give anything away.
Seth Kantner is the author of “Ordinary Wolves” and “Shopping for Porcupine,” among other titles. Upcoming projects include an illustrated children’s book, “Pup and Pokey,” with illustrator Beth Hill of Kokhanok, due out in fall 2014 with University of Alaska Press, as well as a young adult novel, and a book of essays and photographs centered on caribou.
• “Sailing the Mail in Alaska: The Maritime Years of Alaska Photographer John E. Thwaites, 1905-1918” by. J. Penelope Goforth
The old post office adage “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” takes on an entirely new meaning as the reader of this small book follows Thwaites through dreadful storms, near-shipwrecks, and harrowing encounters on the maritime mail routes of Alaska in the early years of the 20th century.
• “The Grizzly Maze” by Nick Jans
Excellent journalism and even better storytelling by one of Alaska’s best contemporary writers presents an accurate and even-handed portrayal of the often-sensationalized death of bear aficionado Tim Treadwell.
• “Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs” by Heather Lende
An intimate portrait of love and support woven through the fabric of a small community in Southeast Alaska.
• “The Faith of Cranes: Finding Hope and Family in Alaska” by Hank Lentfer
An often searing exploration of one man’s search for hope in a world where environmental plunder and disaster have become commonplace, deftly woven around the migration and life cycle of one of the planet’s most ancient creatures.
• “Libby: The Alaskan Diaries and Letters of Libby Beaman, 1879-1880” by Betty John
Written by the first non-Native woman to set foot on the Pribilof Islands, “Libby” is the well-told story of an upper crust Victorian woman’s experience during a year spent in one of the most remote places in the world.
Juneau-based Lynn Schooler is the author of “The Blue Bear,” Walking Home” and “Heartbroke Bay.”
In lots of ways I hate being asked for five good Alaska reads — I mean, there are way more than five, and such a variety of both Alaskan authors and so-called Alaska books, both past and present, that it’s staggering. I could write pages on this topic. Books are so personal that my few good reads listed here may not be yours, and that’s great, as it is what keeps writers writing and libraries full. Here are five that have kept me reading long after I should have been asleep.
• “The Music of What Happens” by John Straley
John Straley’s Cecil Younger — the flawed, good-hearted, and slightly bumbling defense detective — is one of my favorite fictional characters, ever. The series featuring him is one I recommend again and again. This one is about the custody case from hell, and takes place in Juneau and Sitka and on the water in between. There are people in here you will think you may have met, and the scary thing is, you may have.
• “The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France” by Daniel Coyle with Tyler Hamilton
Dan Coyle is one of the least mentioned Alaskan authors because he doesn’t write Alaska books. The former Outside Magazine editor and born and reared Alaskan now divides time between here and his wife’s Ohio home. His books on cycling — especially this insider’s look at what happened with the Tour de France and doping, written with cyclist Tyler Hamilton in Hamilton’s voice — are riveting. I’m a cyclist, which helps, but any athlete or sports fan will find this a very good read.
• “Seven Words for Wind” by Sumner MacLeish
Sumner MacLeish penned this slim book of essays about the time she lived on St. Paul Island years ago. It’s enlightening, sad and sweet, and a classic Alaska story of an outsider finding a home in the North, even if only for a short while. Her voice stays with you.
• “The Droning Shaman” by Nora Marks Dauenhauer
Alaska lends itself to poetry because often it is truer to capture a small view, thought, or feeling than to wrestle with the whole big place both literal and figurative that we call home, which may be why Alaska has inspired so many fine poets. State Writer Laureate Nora Marks Dauenhauer is the grandmother of them all, and this volume shows you why she deserves all the accolades she has received. Her poems are spare and accessible, and make you laugh and cry for what she knows and what she shares. Reading them will fill you with gratitude for her generous spirit and hope for our future.
• “Skagway, City of the New Century” compiled and edited by Jeff Brady
The Skagway news editor and longtime resident has created a fat coffee table kind of book (486 pages), full of historical photos (over 350), old newspaper articles, in-depth historical features, and “listen to this” details about Skagway and Dyea taken from the pages of the visitor newspaper he also publishes, The Skaguay Alaskan, and written by some of the best journalists and historians in the region. It’s not the type of book you read all at once; rather, it’s more like a really big old-fashioned Sunday paper. Be warned, you will drive your friends and family crazy reading passages out loud.
Heather Lende, of Haines, is the author of “Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs” and “If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name.”
• “Road Song” by Natahlie Kusz
Probably one of the most poignant memoirs ever written, my favorite of all Alaska books, it’s about a Californian homesteading in Alaska, and what happens to the daughter after a dog attack. Be ready to be devastated. Unforgettable.
• “Pilgrim’s Wilderness” by Tom Kizzia
Just out this year, this true story of a madman posing as a family man is dark and RIVETING. You can’t put it down. I’m still not sure how Kizzia got reporting to read like a novel.
• “Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivy
Okay, everybody has read this book! But there’s a reason! It entrances.
• “The Blue Bear” by Lynn Schooler
This was recommended to me when I was on book tour in Seattle by a small bookseller, but I finally bought it while visiting my brother in Fairbanks. We had a stuffed glacier bear in our living room for a while, a present from a hunter/friend, and the animals have always fascinated me — but in this book it’s the friendship between the Japanese man and Schooler that keeps you so engrossed. The book is about a quest to see the bear, but it’s also about how people can still connect, despite all their brokenness and loneliness.
• “The Raven’s Gift” by Don Rearden
I’m not a thriller reader, but this book had such an exciting premise — a plague in the Bush, affecting Native villages — that I couldn’t stop reading. Read it for the landscape, the wild caribou stampede, and for Rearden’s masterful moves between present and past.
Leigh Newman is the author of “Still Points North,” a memoir, and numerous essays, magazine articles and short stories. She currently serves as Deputy Editor of Oprah.com and as an editor-at-large for the indie press Black Balloon Publishing.
• “The Wind Is Not A River” by Brian Payton
I’ve recently blurbed this book, set in the Aleutians during WWII, coming out Jan. 7. Here’s the blurb: “Beautifully written, lyrical and elegiac, “The Wind Is Not A River” is a novel you must read, because the battle for the Aleutians too often has been erased or forgotten and because John Easley’s struggle to survive and his wife Helen’s struggle to find him form the most triumphant and heartbreaking love story I’ve read in years.”
• Although it’s suspect to recommend the books of friends, you can’t go wrong with Deb Vanasse, Andromeda Romano-Lax, or Don Rearden, and I also liked meeting Eowyn Ivey at a festival in Australia. And Ray Troll in Ketchikan, where I spent my childhood, is a truly fascinating artist, looking back to our link with fish, so I think you should check out his books.
• “Bear Down, Bear North” by Melinda Moustakis
This is as good as writing gets stylistically, prose which is closer to poetry but unaffected, and her vision is compelling, also. If you haven’t read her yet, you need to. She’s the best Alaskan writer I’ve read.
Former Alaskan David Vann is the author of “Legends of a Suicide,” “Caribou Island” and “Dirt,” among other works. His new book, “Goat Mountain,” was released in September.
• “The Blue Bear” by Lynn Schooler, destined to be a classic. A beautiful story about friendship and one man’s journey to learn to trust.
• “The Island Within” by Richard Nelson, already a classic, winner of the John Burroughs Medal, and for good reason, so lyrical and wise. Turn off the television, read a page a day and think about it. Nelson is the closest thing Alaska has to a Henry David Thoreau.
• “The Last Light Breaking” by Nick Jans, his first book, essays about Bush life, powerful, lean and at times tragic and funny.
• “Shopping For Porcupine” by Seth Kantner, the J.D. Salinger of Alaska, so creative with the English language, a master of character development. Born and raised in the Arctic.
• “The Seventy-Mile Kid” by Tom Walker, today’s conscience of Denali National Park, a writer of great commitment and integrity.
Gustavus’ Kim Heacox is the author of the memoir “The Only Kayak,” the novel “Caribou Crossing” and “Shackleton: The Antarctic Challenge,” among other works.
• “Anóoshi Lingit Aaní Ká: Russians in Tlingit America,” edited by Nora Marks Dauenhauer, Richard Dauenhauer and Lydia T. Black
Of all the monumental works the Dauenhauers have contributed to Alaskan literature, this one strikes me as the most astonishingly innovative and accessible. It’s a page-turning account of the Battles of Sitka from the perspectives of both the Russians (through their journals and record-keeping), and the Tlingits (through their highly precise and detailed oral histories). In recounting this conflict which was, in its way, as important to American history as the Little Big Horn, the points of view of both sides are rich, telling and tragic.
• “Walking Home” by Lynn Schooler
Though Schooler has been widely (and justly) celebrated for his “The Blue Bear,” this memoir is, in its way, even more moving and profound. It manages to be both a deeply interior journey into a man’s heart and soul, and a literal journey into the most extreme wilds of Alaska, with all the peril, adventure and wonder that our land still holds for the seeker, which Schooler clearly is.
• “Ordinary Wolves” by Seth Kantner
A novel from 2004, this is a piece of brutal poetry from a writer who grew up in the remote Bush of Alaska and gives us an unsparing yet elegiac view into that harsh world. Only one who has lived this life in this world could give us such a picture, and it is heartbreaking and wonderful.
• “The Raven’s Gift” by Don Rearden
This is a spellbinding novel, a futuristic, apocalyptic thriller, which somehow remains grounded in the realities of a rural Alaskan setting while presenting finely crafted, believable (and even familiar) Alaskan characters. It’s the kind of book that can only have been written by a life-long Alaskan, which Rearden is.
• “Steam Laundry” by Nicole Stellon O’Donnell
This is a wonderful gem, a novel in poems based on the true story of a woman in Gold Rush-era Fairbanks and the Yukon. It is a highly satisfying and original take on the familiar Alaskan theme of the rough and tumble frontier town, and the hardships endured by all... especially the women who follow the men who follow the gold
Dave Hunsaker, a local screenwriter and playwright, is the author of the Perseverance Theatre-debuted plays “Yup’ik Antigone” and “Battles of Fire and Water,” as well as, most recently, a graphic novel on Edward Curtis called ”The North End of the World.”
• “Ordinary Wolves” by Seth Kantner
“Ordinary Wolves” is one of my favorite novels. This coming-of-age story of identity and culture put Alaska on the literary map. Kantner set the gold standard for every aspiring Alaskan writer with “Ordinary Wolves” (and then doubled down on all of us with his incredible collection of essays “Shopping for Porcupine”).
• “Turn Again” by Kris Farmen
“Turn Again” is a haunting tale of mythical transformation and lost love. Rich with Southcentral Alaska history and culture, Farmen delivers an authentic glimpse at a time when humanity was forsaken in the name of progress.
• “The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey
There is a spellbinding magic at work here that makes last year’s Pulitzer nominee “The Snow Child” an instant and unforgettable Alaskan classic. Ivey captures with brilliance and beauty both the struggles of a homesteading couple and the gut-wrenching anxiety of parenthood.
• “Beyond the Bear” by Dan Bigley and Debra McKinney
Alaskan bookshelves abound with scary bear tales and hair-raising accounts of near-death experiences in the wild, but this book transcends those with an inspiring true story of life and love after a devastating brown bear attack.
• “Alaska Quarterly Review” edited by Ronald Spatz
AQR is consistently ranked as one of the top literary journals in the country. Twice a year, Alaskans have the unique chance to read brand new work from some of America’s biggest literary names as well as talented new Alaskan authors from a homegrown University of Alaska Anchorage literary journal. Some of Alaska’s best-known writers first appeared in the pages of AQR. For the price of a couple lattes you can get a yearly dose of fiction, nonfiction and poetry.
Don Rearden, of Bear Valley, is the author of “The Raven’s Gift,” and a faculty member at UAA.
• “Haa Shuká: Tlingit Oral Narratives” edited by Richard and Nora Dauenhauer
The Classics of Tlingit Oral Literature series is one of the highlights of modern American literature. It is endlessly nourishing and will teach us how to live in Southeast Alaska.
• “This is What They Say,” Stories by Francois Mandeville, translated from the Chipewyan by Ron Scollon
This book by the great Chipewyan storyteller Francois Mandeville and edited by the late Alaskan Ron Scollon, a deeply humanist scholar, is a treasure of gritty, contemplative Athabascan stories.
• “Sitsiy Yugh Noholnik Ts’in’: As My Grandfather Told it: Traditional Stories from the Koyukuk,” by Catherine Attla and edited by Eliza Jones
I could never know Homer or the poet of Beowulf, but I knew the late, great Koyukon Athabascan storyteller Catherine Attla. She was a very quiet, gentle woman, but deep with profound, life-changing oral literature.
• “The Things That Were Said of Them: Shaman Stories and Oral Histories of the Tikigak People,” by Asatchak and edited by Tom Lowenstein
Asatchak told the great stories of Tikigaq, of great adventures, shamanic encounters, adult humor and deep sensitivity. The land is alive and speaks, and Asatchak was one of the great listeners and teachers of what it has to say.
• “In Honor of Eyak: The Art of Anna Nelson Harry,” edited by Michael Krauss
Anna Nelson Harry was one of the last speakers of Eyak, a deeply quiet, unassuming Elder who lived in Tlingit country for much of her life. The tradition was vitally alive in her quiet voice, tender meditations of love and separation, the entanglements of men and women, and scales of large and small, between the powerful and the powerless.
Ishmael Hope is a local playwright, poet and storyteller.
It’s difficult to list five (or ten, or a hundred) Alaska books that are exceptional. Here’s a try, listed in no particular order.
• “On the Edge of Nowhere” by James Huntington
Story of a family living in dad’s trading post on the middle Yukon. Rings as true as the borealis on a clear winter night. If you don’t weep at the two little boys trying to wake up their dead mother and take care of their baby sister, close the curtains and stay inside; no one wants to see you.
• “The Tlingit Indians” by Aurel and Arthur Krause
Reprint of the best single volume on the people. The Krause brothers were sent over by the Bremen Geographical Society in the 1880s as early anthropologists. Typical German thoroughness; every aspect of Klukwan lives documented by Aurel with illustrations by Arthur. The culture was mostly unchanged from the traditional.
• “Bush Rat Governor” by Jay Hammond
Hammond was a pilot, by choice a wilderness dweller in Bristol Bay, and the perfect governor of Alaska when the serious oil money began rolling in. He truly loved the state and wanted the use of the wealth to benefit Alaskans, not just the out-of-state corporations. His great sense of humor helped.
• “Bering’s Voyages” by F.A. Golder
The subtitles tell all. “Volume I - The Log Books and Official Reports of the First and Second Expeditions 1725-1730 and 1733-1742. With a chart of the Second Voyage.” “Volume II - Steller’s Journal of the Sea Voyage from Kamchatka to America and Return on the Second Expedition 1741-1742.” Reading the logs of the first Russians to come to Alaska gives the unvarnished version of the voyages. Essential if you love small boats and journeys to unknown lands.
• “A Voyage in a Dory: From Sitka to Tacoma by Oars, Sail, and Tow Rope” by R.N. DeArmond
In 1931, a 20-year-old Bob DeArmond decided row the Inside Passage in a 16-foot dory, so he did. He claims in the foreword he had sparse material saved from the journey, but his meticulous account presages the superb Alaska historian he became. If DeArmond wrote something happened, it did, and just as he described it. Of further interest to locals would be DeArmond’s “Some Names Around Juneau,” “The Founding of Juneau,” “Old Gold: Historical Vignettes of Juneau.”
Dee Longenbaugh is the owner of Observatory Books in Juneau, an historian and the author of numerous articles on the history of Alaska.
On my shelves are dozens and dozens of Alaska titles in a dazzling variety of genres and styles, books I recommend often, including some authored by good friends of mine. Limited to five, I’ve reached back in time for those that have inspired my own writing: character-driven narratives with a brilliance of atmosphere, internalized tension, haunting language, and a keen reliance on place. These books make me want to drop everything and read them all over again.
• “And She Was” by Cindy Dyson
Brilliantly interwoven in this novel are the sagas of long-dead Aleut women and a troubled cocktail waitress, an outsider in the fishing boomtown of Unalaska in the 1980s. A page-turner with scenes and images that will stick with you for a long, long time.
• “Blessing’s Bead” by Debby Dahl Edwardson
Edwardson gained well-deserved recognition for “My Name is Not Easy,” a National Book Award finalist, but I have a special fondness for this middle-grade novel, rich with history and quiet tension. Like Dyson’s book, it interweaves past and present.
• “Just Breathe Normally” by Peggy Shumaker
A poet, Shumaker has crafted a memoir of excruciating beauty, pivoting on haunting images and scattered memories from a horrific accident in Fairbanks. A tribute to the power of the human spirit.
• “Road Song” by Natalie Kusz
Honest, original, wise, elegant, riveting, sad and courageous — these are among the adjectives that have been used to describe Kusz’s story. I couldn’t agree more. This is no ordinary memoir of a family’s move north.
• “Ordinary Wolves” by Seth Kantner
I love everything about this book. Flinching from nothing, it rings true in all the ways a novel should, plus it transports you to parts of Alaska you’d likely never otherwise know. It should be required reading for every Alaskan.
Founder of Running Fox Books and co-founder of 49 Writers, Deb Vanasse has authored 12 books. Forthcoming are “Cold Spell,” a novel about a woman who’s obsessed with a glacier, and a narrative nonfiction project called “Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Last Great Race for Gold.”
It’s very hard to narrow down reading recommendations to just a handful of books when there is so much good writing coming out of Alaska. To make it easier (and to try to select titles that others might not), I narrowed it down to a small selection of long-time and recent personal favorites.
• As a lover of the essay, my picks have to include collections by two excellent Alaskan essayists. Sherry Simpson, whose third book, “Dominion of Bears,” is about to be published, ranks high among Alaska’s fine writers. Her first book, “The Way Winter Comes,” has a place in my heart because — in addition to enjoying her thoughtful exploration of authentic Alaskan stories about humans and their interaction with the natural world, not to mention the engaging and inquiring voice of it narrator — it led me to the MFA program at UAA.
• Sara Loewen’s debut book, “Gaining Daylight: Life on Two Islands,” is a beautifully observed collection that draws you into her world: living two different lifestyles in two places on Kodiak; facing the challenges of commercial fishing; trying to find a balance between motherhood and writing.
• Seth Kantner’s novel, “Ordinary Wolves,” is a vivid and extraordinary narrative of one boy’s growing up in remote rural Alaska, caught between cultures. From the first page, his fresh and lyrical descriptions draw the reader in, and his writing won’t let you go until the last sentence.
• Another book that I found impossible to put down is “Pilgrim’s Wilderness” by Tom Kizzia. The story he tells exemplifies the adage that truth is stranger than fiction! It’s a well-researched narrative paced like a detective story, written from the perspective of a narrator familiar with both his subject and the community where events unfold.
• Finally, “Weathered Edge,” the collection of three novellas by Alaskan authors published in Alaska by VP&D House, contains three very different and distinctive Alaskan stories by Kris Farmen, Martha Amore and Buffy McKay. It leaves you wanting more from each of these emerging writers.
Linda Ketchum, of Chickaloon, is the executive director of 49 Writers, but this list was compiled from her personal perspective as a bibliophile and recent MFA grad from University of Alaska Anchorage, where she focused on creative nonfiction.
• “Alaska Native Education” by Ray Barnhardt and Oscar Kawagley
• “Haa Shuka: Our Ancestors — Tlingit Oral Literature” by Richard and Nora Dauenhauer
• “Words of the Real People” edited by Ann Fienup-Riordan and Lawrence Kaplan
• “Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being” by Harold Napoleon and Eric Madsen
• “The Alaska Native Reader” edited by Maria Williams
Lance Twitchell is assistant professor of Alaska Native Languages at the University of Alaska Southeast. He is a regular language columnist for the Empire’s Arts section.
• “Black Wolf of the Glacier: Alaska’s Romeo” by Deb Vanasse
A little piece of Juneau history to share with the young people in your life. Vanasse explores the story of Romeo through the eyes of a young girl and her dog who come to know the black wolf of the Mendenhall Glacier during their daily explorations on the lake. Vivid illustrations by Nancy Slagle feature sparse use of reds and blues against the stark contrasting blacks and whites of the Alaskan winter landscape.
• “The Raven’s Gift” by Don Rearden
If you’ve been swept up in the guilty post-apocalyptic pleasure of “The Walking Dead,” Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” or Justin Cronin’s “The Passage” trilogy, then you need to give “The Raven’s Gift” a shot. Imagine what a deadly outbreak might have looked like in rural Alaska had the historic serum run to Nome not have arrived in time. A deadly outbreak decimates village after village along the Kuskokwim and first-year teacher John Morgan heads upriver into an unknown, unforgiving landscape accompanied by a blind girl he encounters in the aftermath. Alternating scenes provide relief from the wasteland and provide insight into the pre-plague world of Bush Alaska where two young teachers, very much in love, headed expecting adventure but instead find horror.
• “Legend of a Suicide: Stories” by David Vann
Some of the best stories are the hardest to read. Not because they are written in complicated language or involve complicated philosophy, but because they are raw and real and don’t have tidy endings. Vann’s story collections jump back and forth in time, exploring the impacts a father’s suicide has on his family from various perspectives. Largely narrated by a grown adult son trying to make peace with and uncover the mysterious final years of his father’s life, the collection is turned on its head in a very shocking way in the novella, “Sukwan Island.” Vann writes about hard topics with grace and beauty, despite the heavy emotional impact the stories imprint upon the reader, they are very difficult to put down.
• “The Rising and the Rain” by John Straley
Many people know Straley for his mystery novels set in Southeast Alaska and featuring private investigator Cecil Younger, but not as many people know Straley the poet. “The Rising in the Rain” (2008) uses the narrative poem to capture the magic, understated beauty of this fog-shrouded corner of the earth. Some of my favorites are “wile e. coyote considers the obvious,” “words overheard at elmer fudd’s funeral” and “the erotic life of books.” Straley’s observations illuminate the overlooked with zen simplicity.
• “Steam Laundry: poems” by Nichole Stellon O’Donnell
From San Francisco to Skagway up over the Chilkoot Trail and on to Dawson, “Steam Laundry” is a unique portrait of a family’s journey to Alaska during the Gold Rush. Their story is told through poems, a technique referred to as a novel in verse or a novel in poems. Most of the poems take the shape of letters chronicling the transformation of Joe and Ellen Gibson and their two sons. Interspersed are historical photos and documents from the Sarah Ellen Gibson Collection at UAF. You don’t have to like poetry or history to enjoy this amazing chronicle of family relationships in the face of hardship. I love this type of creative work, which weaves together historical objects, photos and letters, and fills in the blanks with the imagined. This is the story of a tough woman making it in rough country in a tough period in history.
Jonas Lamb is a local poet and an assistant professor of library science at the University of Alaska Southeast.
CLINT J. FARR
There are so many Alaskan authors I love such as Heather Lende, Seth Kantner and Kim Heacox. Reducing the stock to only five books is difficult. So I stuck to books that either walloped me emotionally or nudged me onto my current path.
• “Fishing Alaska” by Jim Repine
This little, out-of-print, book probably has more to do with who I am today than my parents. It remains a great guidebook to fishing in Alaska. More so, though constructed by species and rigid in its outline, author Jim Repine’s personality and love of Alaska and its fish comes singing through. Like Rick Steves’ Europe books, it is a guidebook you can read cover to cover and discover something much more meaningful than where to fish and what rod to use.
•”The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey
Yeah, yeah, I know. Jump on the bandwagon; let Pulitzer do the thinking for you. I get it. But there is a reason there’s a bandwagon for Eowyn Ivey’s “The Snow Child.” The book is a clean narrative. There is not a wasted word. I liken it to young adult literature, not the themes so much as the style — sharp, efficient and simple. Simple is not the same as stupid of course. Great effort and care is needed to communicate complex themes simply. If anything, flowery language can be a crutch, a sign of lazy writing, an attempt to snow the reader into thinking something is there when there isn’t. Not this book. Think of Ivey as a mystical Hemingway set in Wasilla. I cannot wait for her next book.
• “The Blue Bear” by Lynn Schooler
Yes; another obvious choice. There are reasons some choices are obvious. Clearly, “The Blue Bear” had to be written. Even if it had not been published, “The Blue Bear” would be sitting in Lynn Schooler’s sock drawer. I love that. This book must have been burning inside Schooler; it feels necessary. It feels as if, had he not written it, the death of his friend would have consumed him. That we get to see such clear insight into men’s souls, in both subject and writer, is a rare privilege.
• “Alaska Bear Tales” by Larry Kaniut
This book messed me up as a teenager. I read it at least 20 times. There are passages where you can feel the vibration of bear’s teeth raking your skull. Larry Kaniut throws together a number of bear attack stories. Some are humorous, but most are terrifying. The writing is uneven, but the stories never fail to stick. I especially enjoy the stories of the capacity of humans to survive if they put their mind to it. And that’s why the book works so well. Ostensibly about bears, it’s really about us and the price we pay for stupidity in the woods, and the endurance we can conjure when given a chance of survival. By the way, never chase a wounded bear into a thicket of alders.
• “Under the Midnight Sun” by Deb Vanasse
When you have kids, you really appreciate a good kids’ book. You’re going to read the thing a thousand times before the child outgrows it. The words will cement themselves into the fissures of your prefrontal cortex like windblown dust. You’ll forget your anniversary date before you forget, “a story as old as the midnight sun.” So it really helps that Anchorage writer Deb Vanasse crafts this beautiful poem. Good poetry, like good governance, is difficult.
A poem where the words keep time, / A cadence of assonance, rhythm, and rhyme. /That tells the story of a girl just young, / On a stroll, in the woods, with her mom, / Under Alaska’s solstice sun.
Clint J. Farr is a local writer who writes a regular column for the Empire’s Arts section, Farr North Perspectives.
• “Hyperboreal,” by Joan Naviyuk Kane
Inupiaq poet Joan Kane’s family is from King Island (uninhabited since 1959); many of these poems trace themes of displacement, while remaining rooted in the northern Alaskan landscape. Sparse and unsettling, yet rich in language and imagery -- beautiful.
• “And Her Soul Out of Nothing” by Olena Kalytiak Davis
Olena Davis’ first book of poetry, published in 1997 when she was living in Juneau (she’s now based in Anchorage) remains one of my favorite books of poetry ever. Incredible work.
• “Fifty Miles From Tomorrow,” by William L. Iggiagruk Hensley
I picked this book up hoping to gain a better understanding of Alaska history and politics. I came away with that and much more. Hensley has written a very personal narrative, allowing readers to view Alaska history through the complex lens of his own experience and identity.
• “Legend of a Suicide,” by David Vann
One of the few books I can think of that is actually worthy of the adjective “stunning.” Vann, who gave a reading in Juneau a few years ago, changed my ideas about what fiction can do.
• “Still Points North” by Leigh Newman
Leigh Newman’s memoir traces a childhood split between her “Great Alaskan Dad” and her East Coast mom, and an adulthood that bears the imprint of that split identity. Above all I loved Newman’s voice -- honest, insightful, brave, pitch perfect.
Amy Fletcher is the Arts editor at the Juneau Empire.
To contact the Arts desk, or to submit your own list of Five Good Reads, email firstname.lastname@example.org.