By strange coincidence (and what coincidence isn’t strange?) I found myself at the height of Sarah Palin’s publicity reading two different fiction novels set in Alaska.
I realized that I have always been a little fascinated by Alaska, the wintry landscape, the sparseness of population. The reputation as a place that those who walk to a slightly different beat might find a home. Northern Exposure fueled my interest as did my sister’s tales of her 6 month AmeriCorps adventure in the wilderness, which included having to shoot her gun in the air to warn off a bear.
My first set of books set in this completely foreign landscape was by Tom Bodett. The funny stories from the little town of End of the Road, Alaska were charming, sometimes thought provoking, and always amusing. Although I first read them 10 years ago they are just as much fun today-and I can vividly picture teenager Norm perched on a piling after falling off the boat, wondering if his estranged dad would even come looking for him, or the four friends skiing naked through the snow escaping a burning sauna only to find their car locked…and the keys still at the sauna. Highly recommended-and good for all ages as well, sauna scene notwithstanding.
When Michael Chabon came to Tulsa in December, I prepared by reading ‘The Yiddish Policemen’s Union’, mostly because it won the Hugo, and there was a lot of talk about whether or not it was really science fiction. It is set in current day Alaska, but in an alternate time line—WWII went a little differently, Israel did not survive as a nation, and Alaska became a haven for Jewish refugees. The main character, Meyer Landsman, is a police detective, divorced (from his new supervisor), an alcoholic, and a Jew. He and his partner, who is half Jewish, half Native American, investigate a death that becomes increasingly mysterious.
It reads just like any detective noir book, with lots of Yiddish (plus lots of graphic language and violence) thrown in. I confess I listened to this in my car while it was still warm enough to have the windows down and was horrified once to look over to the car next to me during one particularly blue passage to see small children in the back seat and parents glaring at me through their open windows! If you are not easily shocked, I highly recommend it, though. Mr. Chabon has a remarkable skill with descriptive language. It is both science fiction due to the time line, and hard boiled mystery due to the plot, and overall just a darn fine read.
I’ve read widely across the mystery genre, from cozies to serial killer novels. Somehow I managed to miss Dana Stabenow, which is a shame. I plucked the title ‘A Deeper Sleep’ from the Brookside Library’s collection of Books on CD one day while killing time waiting for my daughter. I was very pleasantly surprised to find it to be a solid, well written mystery, set in Alaska. More precisely, set in a fictional national park and township named Niniltna. In this series, featuring independent-minded and thoroughly professional Kate Shugak, Stabenow manages to highlight both the beauty and the danger that is Alaska. She describes what happens to most unprepared newcomers, those who come looking for a home—they often freeze to death, or are mauled by bears, or starve. If they survive they become part of the ‘park rat’ family.
Tribal and small town politics are woven seamlessly into the story, as well as the relationships between Kate and her family, related and extended. I’m putting her other books on my ‘to read when I get the chance’ list!