#82) Book review: “Islands Apart” by Ken McAlpine

“Islands Apart”, Ken McAlpine’s memoir of the Channel Islands of California, came dangerously close to being the second consecutive book from which I jumped ship.  Fortunately, there was enough about the book that worked to keep me going, although it did take me about 6 weeks to get through the 256-page volume.

If you don’t know what to expect from this book, you won’t get past the first five pages.  Even people such as myself who are die-hard fans of the Channel Islands National Park might find their interest tested.  However, McAlpine’s story ultimately pays off.

If you know anything about the Channel Islands, you know that a memoir of time spent on them will not be a wild, whacky, fun summer read.  The Channel Islands National Park’s prime offering is isolation; despite being only a few dozen air miles from civilization, the five islands in the park all are remarkably primitive.  Hikers, canoeists, campers and other outdoor enthusiasts who prepare for trip to the islands usually love it; those who don’t are miserable.  McAlpine understands this; he makes it clear to his readers that this book will be leisurely paced.  He doesn’t promise surprise plot twists or sex drugs and rock and roll.  He positions his book as a modern-day “Walden” and his story sees him spend a week on each of the five Channel Islands in the park – Santa Rosa, Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz.  In between the chapters on each island are episodes on the main land, in which he “would continue to look deeply at our world…explore experiences that spoke of our current world and times past too…”

I don’t envy McAlpine’s task of bringing the Channel Islands to life.  I love visiting them and count them among my favorite hiking destinations, but the only thing I could imagine that’s more difficult than spending a week each of them is finding things to say about the week spent on each of them.  While McAlpine ably recreates the desolate, wind-swept environment of the islands and also sees the beauty in the life that’s managed to thrive despite the barren and inhospitable climate, he also sometimes seems to be simply trying to show off his writing ability.  I for one got pretty tired of reading about how the sun “ladled the softest pink light” over the horizon and of homilies that are meant to be profound and inspirational but ultimately come off a little preachy: “We lay claim to the things we come across in our lives, as if it’s possible to own them, but you can no more own an island…than you can possess the fleeting moments that accumulate into a lifetime.”

On a bigger level, the book as a whole suffers from an irony.  While McAlpine purports to use his pilgrimages on the islands and mainland to better understand his fellow man and his world, his writing often has a Bill Bryson-esque sense of superiority.  This is apparent in the stock verbiage he uses to critique modern life: “In a world of freeways bordered by Subway sandwich shops and Walmarts…”  One is left feeling that despite the noble intentions of his journeys, McAlpine’s quest ultimately was about making himself look good.

Yet while he may have some of Bryson’s elitism, he also possesses some of his humor.  In describing his stay at a monastery, McAlpine notes, “conflicts [between the monks] were hard to envision….Father Luke super-glued my robe to the pew, or maybe Father Matthew spoke rudely to me in Latin.”  On San Miguel Island he states, “Researchers have shown that…ravens and crows can count and use rudimentary tools, placing them one evolutionary rung above entertainment reporters and contestants on American Idol.”

To his credit, McAlpine tells a story that might well have otherwise gone untold.  It’s a story that could have been told better; it’s a story that will likely connect with a limited audience.  Some of that audience may find themselves continuing on to “Off Season”, “Fog” or any of McAlpine’s other books.  Though I may be wrong, I predict that the next book reviewed on this site will be by a different author.

 

 

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