Traveling out here, where huge bones from bowhead whales litter the beach, takes a 90-minute jet ride north from Anchorage and another hour by small plane over the Bering Sea. In this vast, wild part of America, accessible only by water or air, there may not be plumbing or potable water, the local store may not carry perishables and people may have to rely on caribou or salmon or bearded seal meat to stay fed.
But no matter where you go, you will always find a cake-mix cake.
Elsewhere, the American appetite for packaged baking mixes is waning, according to the market research firm Mintel, as consumers move away from packaged foods with artificial ingredients and buy more from in-store bakeries and specialty pastry shops. Yet in the small, mostly indigenous communities that dot rural Alaska, box cake is a stalwart staple, the star of every community dessert table and a potent fund-raising tool.
In short, Man With a Seagull really got through to me. Which is pleasingly ironic for a novel that provides such an interesting thesis about the dangers of assuming you can ever really connect with a work of art. It is a precious and strange thing. A bona fide gem. A book that would be a credit to any shortlist.
Daniel Mendelsohn is a classics scholar, a translator, a memoirist and a quick-witted literary and television critic. The idea of reading his account of being trapped on a theme cruise — the theme is Homer’s “Odyssey” — is an attractive one.
Along on the cruise is Jay, the author’s 81-year-old father. Jay lives on Long Island. He can be vinegary. He’s close at times to the sort of character Philip Roth has described as a “letter-to-the-editor madman.”