Turnagain Arm

Photo of Turnagain Arm by rbbaird used under a Creative Commons license.

John McPhee, Coming into the Country (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991). McPhee does Alaska, in a book first published in 1977. Broadly organized in three parts: “At the Northern Tree Line: The Encircled River,” about a canoeing and camping trip down the wilderness of the Yukon River; “In Urban Alaska: What They Were Hunting For,” about the (now-settled) debate over moving the state capital from Juneau to a more central location; and “In the Bush: Coming into the Country,” about settlers in the small town of Eagle. Much of Alaska is, after all, a frontier. McPhee’s writing is, as always, a delight, and the book captures the size and flavor of a wild, empty state.

You can pay $3 to read Diane Johnson’s 1978 review in The New York Review of Books (I didn’t). Here are reviews from Charlie Marlowe and Anna Mills. Here are reading and discussion questions about the book put together by English 171 students at Brown University. At Bookslut, Weston Cutter says Coming Into the Country is “the Alaska book, a book it’s impossible to try to describe with much more specificity than that (a sprawling and large and inimitable book about a state featuring identical characteristics).” Ronald Kovach (The Writer Magazine) offers a brief review. Jennifer Nichols found someone who didn’t like the book. More from WordPress bloggers here. Scott Eric Kaufman points to McPhee’s ability to create memorable metaphors.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

BC Ferry, Strait of Georgia
Photo of the Georgia Strait by WeeScot used under a Creative Commons license.

Jonathan Raban, Passage to Juneau (Pantheon, 1999).
An account of Raban’s solo voyage aboard his 35 ketch from Seattle, up Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia, along the coast of British Columbia and then up the Inside Passage to Juneau. To travel this route by sailboat instead of ferry is to reckon with winds and tides, to shelter in unvisited coves, a slow and less direct trip that lets you see more. Travelogue combines with memoir, Raban’s readings of the accounts of Captain Vancouver’s expedition to the area in the 1790s, and reflections on Indian/First Nations art and culture. I loved this book. Unless you’re going to be on a small boat, Raban’s path is through a world that most visitors will not see much of, which is all the more reason to read his account.

Dave Weich of Powells.com interviewed Raban in 2000 (via Beth Wellington). Reviews from Sherry Simpson (SF Chronicle), Scott Sutherland (Salon), Michael Gorra (The New York Times), and Richard Bernstein (The New York Times). More from Dr. David P. Stern, Ann Skea, Traci J. Macnamara, HAK, Meg, Scott Esposito, t.s., Eileen D., and Ken Liu.

Buy this book at Amazon.com.