Stories of Subsistence, Longing, and Community in Alaska
Julia O’Malley’s fascinating The Whale and the Cupcake emphasizes the respectful, adaptive qualities that make Alaskan cuisine unique.
The book, published in partnership with the Anchorage Museum, collects essays that originally appeared in publications including The New York Times and The Guardian, and so some themes recur, particularly the centrality of subsistence. Taken on their own, entries are hearty encapsulations of the challenges and revivals that particular Alaskan communities face when it comes to putting food on the table.
See the story of a luscious feast at Twitter Creek, a microfarm in revivalist Homer whose greenhouse produces vegetables and herbs past the technical growing season; or another set on the edges of ANWR, where the Gwich’in people, who’ve been on the land for thousands of years, advocate against oil exploration on behalf of the caribou herd they depend on for survival. O’Malley travels to the edge of Alaska for doughnuts on a shut-down military base, to the banks of the Kenai River to record the annual rush for sockeye salmon, and to Anchorage to learn how to make Spam Musabi.
O’Malley’s appreciation for the products and people she’s describing is palpable, whether she’s discussing inventive growing and cross-cultural innovation, traditional fermented whale meat—“inky black, shiny, and gelatinous … its taste is herbal, marine, and sour”—or the local products on which people depend, including gull eggs, seal oil, and berries. She is matter-of-fact about the impact of climate change on Alaskan ecologies and talks to Indigenous hunters with respect, recognizing that for them, too, “respect is the main thing.”
The text also captures Alaskan longing for the conveniences of the lower forty-eight, extending to a tantalizing soliloquy upon the opening of Anchorage’s first Krispy Kreme:
[T]he doughnuts … emerged into a shower of glaze. In a minute, they were in our hands, volcanically hot, sweet as love, light as air.
What comes across most is that Alaskan cuisine is adaptive—all about preservation, creativity, and surviving harsh landscapes. The Whale and the Cupcake is a thoughtful and enticing culinary text.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (October 27, 2019)
Meditations, Practices, and Skills for Awakening in Nature
Founder of the Kripalu School of Mindful Outdoor Leadership Micah Mortali’s engaging and accessible guidebook Rewilding forwards practical exercises for experiencing nature, whether in the middle of a city, a suburban park, or a forest.
Sealed away from nature in pristine subdivisions and office buildings, people spend most of their time in front of computers, smartphones, and television screens; we’ve lost touch with the wild earth, though it is foundational to our being. So argues Rewilding, which also asserts that accelerated alienation from the natural world contributes to a general sense of anxiety, isolation, and restlessness. Getting back in touch with the wild is proposed as a way of helping people “remember what we are, where we belong, and how much we have to be grateful for.”
Unfolding like a gentle saunter in the woods, the text is assured and conversational, whether it’s recounting Mortali’s family’s treks in the Berkshire mountains, sharing the lessons he learned as a retreat leader, or citing the spiritual wisdom of Black Elk, David Abrams, and the Upanishads. Its exercises focus on being present and attentive; many are based on principles of yoga.
The book also outlines practical survival skills like building a shelter from branches and leaves, using ancient techniques to start a fire, and foraging for food. Soulful insights combine with practical advice for accessing nature wherever it’s found, including lists of essential items to pack for a day trip and tips for ensuring safe exploration.
What makes Rewilding most engaging is how grounded it is, and how open and humble its guide is, sharing personal experiences and insights drawn from hundreds of retreats. Rewilding is a vital resource for restoring and deepening connections to the primal world with joy, wonder, and confidence.
KRISTEN RABE (October 27, 2019)
Forty miles and a scenic ferry ride from Los Angeles lies Winter Island, whose residents can be transported back to the mainland in the case of an emergency. But it’s undecided what constitutes an emergency in Evangeline’s life: her estranged mother shows up unannounced, wanting to make nice; her fiancé is missing at sea; and a dead whale is trapped in the harbor a few days before her wedding. In Creatures, dealing with the whale becomes an exercise in exhuming the past as Evangeline sorts out what to keep and what to let go of among what she’s buried.
Circumscribed by the island and her circumstances, Evangeline must acknowledge and recover from the piecemeal attachments she’s experienced. Between her negligent father, absentee mother, and the basic precariousness and instability that’s part of island life and part of the outcome of her father’s choices, Evangeline’s learned to live in the present’s shallow pool, never asking for too much lest it plunge her into treacherous depths.
As Creatures transits its narrative arc, the expected tensions avoid predictable resolutions. Marriage and romance, mothers and daughters, friendship and motherhood, adulthood and death all make an appearance without any one becoming central. In every part, Crissy Van Meter balances fracture and fusion and navigates Evangeline’s story with exquisite, racking grace. Particularly moving are the research notes from Evangeline’s job at the Sea Institute; they interrupt the narrative and become spaces wherein the story of her pain is distant enough to approach. There, an all-consuming “you” emerges and demands that the whole world feel with her.
Filled with the “pressure of missing things, the leaving of things,” and “the constant foreboding of implosion,” Crissy Van Meter’s bold debut novel is stamped with a signature, polymetric tension all its own.
LETITIA MONTGOMERY-RODGERS (December 23, 2019)
One Woman’s Story of Challenging Borders in Israel/Palestine
In A Small Door Set in Concrete, Israeli activist Ilana Hammerman attests to the cruel and ever-worsening effects of the borders and policies that separate Israel and Palestine.
Seeking new meaning after loss through travel, Hammerman undertook a solo bike trip across New Zealand. Though warned that she risked being robbed, raped, and murdered, she forged ahead, testing her strength against the hostile landscape and experiencing both hardship and the heady joy of unrestricted movement.
She states that such freedom is denied to her Palestinian neighbors. Upon returning to Jerusalem, Hammerman engaged in risky border crossings and acts of civil disobedience to learn how the decades-long occupation affects their lives. What she learned outraged her.
Welcomed into the homes of Palestinian men, women, and children, Hammerman witnessed how what is taken for granted on one side of the border is denied on the other: taking children to a nearby beach; finding a job that offers a fair wage; commuting without having to be smuggled to work in the trunk of a car; knowing that one’s house will stand and their family be safe; being treated fairly by the justice system; and having reliable access to food and clean water. Daily life for Palestinians, she asserts, is designed to be humiliating, frustrating, and to deny them a full sense of their humanity.
Intense, heartbreaking, and filled with memories of shared laughter and tears, A Small Door Set in Concrete is the work of a sensitive, courageous soul. Its stories of injustice and oppression might be overwhelming were it not for Hammerman’s example of facing it all with compassion and courage. Her text demands to know why nothing is being done and calls upon the world to effect change through the power of mass civil disobedience.
KRISTINE MORRIS (December 23, 2019)
A Graphic Novel Adaptation
Octavia E. Butler’s classic science fiction novel Parable of the Sower has been adapted into graphic novel format by Damian Duffy and John Jennings.
In the bleak America of the 2020s, Lauren Oya Olamina, a young black woman, resides with her family in a gated California community that serves as a refuge from the violent, chaotic world outside. When the community’s security is breached, Lauren’s family is killed. She moves north with traveling companions to search for a better life. Faced with physical challenges and moral dilemmas, she develops and refines her philosophy/religion, Earthseed, and founds a new community based on its tenets.
Lauren is unique and complex, perhaps best shown by her “hyperempathy,” through which she feels pain when those around her feel it. She’s also an independent thinker, compiling a guide to her new belief system based on the ideas that “God is change” and the destiny of humanity is “to take root among the stars.”
A multitude of meaty topics add depth. Lauren’s world is dystopian, but not classically post-apocalyptic. Here, the drivers of civilization’s demise are not exchanges of nuclear missiles, but the scarcity of natural resources and a kind of corporate wage slavery. Lauren’s hyperempathy is the product of her mother’s addiction to a drug, Paraceto, and her journey bears many similarities to the modern day experiences of immigrants fleeing war-torn countries. Earthseed is handled in a realistic and satisfying way; Lauren’s companions challenge her with intelligent questions, forcing her to clarify her concepts.
Duffy and Jennings have done justice to Butler’s work, losing none of the story’s richness and adding an exciting visual element that makes the reading experience even more visceral and engrossing.
PETER DABBENE (December 23, 2019)