Islands Apart by Ken McAlpine

Islands Apart by Ken McAlpineTitle:  Islands Apart:  A Year on the Edge of Civilization

Author:  Ken McAlpine

Paperback:  256 pages (Advance Reader’s Edition)

Published: 2009

ISBN:  9781590305300

Acquired:  won in the May 2009 LibraryThing ER batch

Challenges:  ARC Reading Challenge, New Author Challenge, We Didn’t Start the Fire Challenge (under California)

A humorous and wise look at contemporary American life—and how time spent alone in nature can give us a fresh perspective and greater clarity about what matters most.

In this touching and often humorous book, author Ken McAlpine does what many of us long to do. Overwhelmed by the hectic pace of his life, he escapes to a beautiful, remote location where he finds the open spaces and solitude that bring him some peace of mind. McAlpine camps alone in the Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Southern California, a place where time slows down, the past reveals itself in prehistoric fossils, and where a person can become attuned to the rhythms of the natural world and find their rightful place in it

For McAlpine the Channel Islands become a modern-day Walden Pond—an enchanting, isolated location from which to reflect on nature, civilization, and what matters most. Back on the mainland, McAlpine continues his explorations by seeking out experiences that reflect who we are and what we value today. His travels include spending time at a soup kitchen in Beverly Hills; a Catholic monastery; and visiting Arlington West, a veteran-run memorial to soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Islands Apart is an engaging meditation on what we can learn about ourselves and our world when we open ourselves to the wisdom of nature and begin to look more deeply.

-Product description at Amazon.com

I have had Islands Apart by Ken McAlpine on my ARC-alanche pile since June of 2009.  It’s one of my way-overdue ER books, and the second one I’ve completed this month (three more to go, woot).  When I first read the description and clicked the button to enter my name in the fandangled LT ER algorithm, I was intrigued by the premise of the book.  McAlpine wants to get away from it all, and find a quiet place to reflect on humanity… kinda like Thoreau with Walden, but on the Channel Islands in Southern California.

For the most part, I really enjoyed this book.  The chapters on time spent between the islands and the mainland alternate, so that it has a feeling of interaction with people and then reflection on our place in this world.  I liked this book so much, that I have struggled to understand how the two diverse world are suppose to relate to each other because a lot of the time it felt like I was reading two different books that were mashed together.  What do a hustler/wannabe actor, a tree-loving priest, homeless diners, veteran protestors, and preschoolers have in common with each other, let alone with the foxes, eagles, and xantus murrelets of the Channel Islands?

We lay claim to the things we come across in our lives, as if it is possible to own them, but you can no more own an island or a stoic gull than you can possess the fleeting moments that accumulate into a lifetime.  It is good to recognize life’s gifts, but foolish to hold them too tightly.

Islands Apart by Ken McAlpine, page 201 (ARE)

I think what McAlpine was trying to do was to show that there is a deep desire in all things, in people and in nature, to know that there will be some piece of them left behind after they die.  To know that they won’t just fade into oblivion.  It is why we have children.  It’s why writer’s write, cavemen drew, why the park ranger’s work so diligently to preserve the foxes and murrelets and the ugly scrub that’s native to the islands.  It’s why the xantus murrelets continue to lay eggs in caves where rats destroy the embryo within before it’s even had a chance to firm up.  What’s more, in an effort to ensure we continue on, we do what we can to control what little bit we can, whether by planting a tree in the desert or by working long hours to invest every cent possible in a future hoped for. 

This book was a slower read, no matter how much I wanted to hurry, and I almost abandoned it at one point.  Despite absolutely loving the first 127 pages, when I hit the chapter on San Miguel Island, it was like falling into a pit of quicksand.  It’s the only part of the book that I hated.  I think it was too long, too boring, and interminable (a word I had to learn to spell to describe this chapter)  That chapter should just say, “Spent a week on San Miguel. Ian was cool. The elephant seals were horny buggers. The fur seals are mean little shits. And all the pinnipeds are louder than a Greek convention at Grant’s Farm! There’s bird poop everywhere, the ravens know how to pick locks… oh, and some dude killed himself because he thought this place was Heaven on Earth.” Next chapter!

I’m very glad I didn’t abandon it, because the next chapter, “Almost Famous”, was the best part of the whole book.  In this chapter, McAlpine explores the extent people go for the chance to be famous.  He spends long hours with James, a Captain Jack Sparrow working the tourists outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater.  I liked James, and you can tell McAlpine does, too, but I can’t help but wonder how much more he could accomplish if he would put his hard work toward something tangible.  At what point in time do you accept the reality that your dreams are just that, pipe dreams, and the real world is calling.  James wants nothing more than, and WORKS harder than anyone I’ve seen to achieve it, to be a star.  But does he have a viable and real future in it?  Sadly, I don’t think so.  I think he should grow up and get a job and find a way to contribute that way.  But… no one’s depending on him, he’s his own man, and he’s not taking public assistance, so who is he hurting?

I also relished the chapter “Lunch in Beverly Hills” where Ken spent time getting to know and gaining an understanding and appreciation for the homeless.  I have a personal interest in this issue.  You see, seven years ago, the girls and I WERE homeless.  We weren’t without a place to stay, there’s a large shelter here in town, and the people who run it are fantastic.  Thanks to them, I was able to take some time to look at my life and where I was taking my kids, and to reevaluate my priorities.  I want to go back to school to finish up my degree in Sociology so that I can get a job as a client-to-community liaison in a homeless shelter.  In this book, McAlpine says that homelessness is a complex problem, and that is very true.  Some people have chosen it as a lifestyle, others are there because shit happens, while still others are there because it’s better than where they came from.  We were in this last group, having left an abusive and volatile situation with the hope of something better.

I must admit, however, that I can very much relate to MRS. McAlpine, who told him at one point in his working on this book, “I hate you, you know.”  Ken is a white professional male, close to, if not already, middle-age, and has the means, ability, and the people in his life that affords him the ability to just take off whenever he feels like it to spend a week camping on an island or at a monastary, to just sit and think.  Kathy McAlpine makes the statement that she doesn’t have time to go off and think.  And I have to say this:  Where are the books where women just take off, leaving their children for weeks at a time with their fathers, so they can go listen to their inner voice? 

No Where.

Why?  Because we live in a society that, despite the lip-service of equality, that if Ken had been a Kendra, she would have been railed against as a bad mother who abandoned her kids to selfishly wander.  Mr. Kendra would have filed for divorce, and NOT wanted custody, so that Kendra would have had to either cart the kids around, (What a bad mother, not giving her kids a stable place to live) or leave them with someone (What a bad mother, she just dumps her kids and runs off). 

Okay, social rant is over.  In the interest of full disclosure, I hate Ken, too, and wish I could run off to an island and just sit and ponder, too. But, I still love the book, even if I am jealous. 😉

I think Islands Apart by Ken McAlpine is a book that will stick with me for a while.  The Channel Islands are a beautiful place, and I recommend you take time to check out their website.  The Parks Department has put together an extensive, multimedia site with details of what’s being done to preserve as much of the indigenous species as possible, as well as the discovery of the best preserved and most complete fossilized remains of  a pygmy mastodon.

4 out of 5 stars

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The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Title:  The Glass Castle

Author:  Jeannette Walls

Hardback:  288 pages

ISBN:  9780743247535

Dad came home in the middle of the night a few months later and roused all of us from bed.

“Time to pull up stakes and leave this shit-hole behind,” he hollered.

We had fifteen minutes to gather whatever we needed and pile into the car.

…An hour passed before we finally tied Mom’s paintings on the top of the car, shoved whatever would fit into the trunk, and piled the overflow on the backseat and the car floor.  Dad steered the Blue Goose through the dark, driving slowly so as not to alert anyone in the trailer park that we were, as Dad like to put it, doing the skedaddle.  He was grumbling that he couldn’t understand why the hell it took so long to grab what we needed and haul our asses into the car.

“Dad!” I said.  “I forgot Tinkerbell!”

“Tinkerbell can make it on her own,” Dad said.  “She’s like my brave little girl.  You are brave and ready for adventure, right?”

“I guess,” I said.  I hoped whoever found Tinkerbell would love her despite her melted face.  For comfort, I tried to cradle Quixote, our gray and white cat who was missing an ear, but he growled and scratched at my face.  “Quiet, Quixote!”  I said.

“Cats don’t like to travel,” Mom explained.

Anyone who didn’t like to travel wasn’t invited on our adventure, Dad said.  He stopped the car, grabbed Quixote by the scruff of the neck and tossed him out the window.  Quixote landed with a screeching meow and a thud, Dad accelerated up the road, and I burst into tears.

“Don’t be so sentimental,” Mom said.  She told me we could always get another cat, and now Quixote was going to be  a wild cat, which was much more fun than being a house cat.  Brian, afraid Dad might toss Juju out the window as well, held the dog tight.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, pages 17-18

This incident haunted my mind throughout the whole book.  I couldn’t help think, “If they could just toss the cat out without a thought, telling me we could just get another, who’s to say they wouldn’t do that to me, as well?”  Later in the book when Jeannette takes a tumble out of the moving car, the same thought occurred to her as she watches the family disappear down the road.  “What if they decide I’m too much trouble to come back for?”  It had to be a terribly difficult uncertainty to grow up with.

Not only is there the impermanence of home and things, there are virtually no rules nor supervision, as the Rex, Jeannette’s father, spends much of his time “researching” at the local tavern and her mom, a narcissistic enabler with some sort of mood disorder fritters her time and money away escaping reality in books and painting.  Too many times to count, the kids are forced to go hungry… or worse, dig through garbage to find food… while Dad drinks and smokes the money away and Mom sneaks nibbles of Hershey bars hidden under her covers. 

On the rare occasion the mother works, it’s the kids who have to force her out of bed and onto school where she’s a teacher, then clean her classroom after school, grade her papers and make out her lesson plans in the evenings.  After spending 8 weeks away from Rex and the kids, living in a dorm, eating regularly and taking classes to keep her teaching licence up to date, she comes home to report she’s had an epiphany.  She tells her teenage daughter who has been handling the bills, working and feeding her siblings, that she’s spent her whole life taking care of everyone else and now she’s gonna live life for herself… say WHAT?!

yeah….. m’kay.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is a shocking and heartbreaking memoir of growing up with an alcoholic father and mentally ill mother.  Over and over, I was stunned and even angered by the so-called adults complete and total lack of parenting skills.  At one point, Jeannette, who was 7 or 8 at the time, wakes up to find a strange man touching her beneath her covers, and when she tells her parents maybe they should shut and locked the doors at night so as to keep the creeps out, they tell her some crap about fresh air and not letting fear get the better of you.  In her teens, when Jeannette tells her mom that her uncle has been inappropriate with her, her mother tells her he’s just lonely and that “sexual assault is a crime of perception.”  Time and again, these two genetic donors (calling them parents is going too far, to be honest), show a complete lack of common sense and sheer laziness to step up to the plate.  I am amazed that the kids lived to adulthood, let alone to be anything close as successful as they nationally syndicated columnist and regular contributor to MSNBC.  Brian and Lori also made good despite their upbringing.

One thing I can say about reading this book is that I can say with 100% certainty that I’m not that bad as a parent.  It’s done a lot to make me feel better as a parent… at least I shut the doors at night and feed my kids and make sure they bathe regularly.  I make sure they’re fed before I feed myself and I’d damn sure have food in the fridge AND pantry before gnawing on a Hershey bar.  I feel guilty if I decide not to share my candy bar.. or Lindt truffle balls, nom nom nom…  but that’s because they’ve ate plenty and had dessert, and By GOD, this is ONE thing I kept for myself.  And I feel guilty for THAT!  I can’t imagine the utter self-centeredness, truly clinical narcissism, the mother wallowed in.  Also, I can say with certainty to my kids that they’ve never gone hungry.  They may not like what’s in the cabinets, but there IS food… it’s just not ready-made junk for them to snack on. 

I read a few reviews of The Glass Castle, and one reader dinged the book because the author conveys such neglect and abuse in a very unemotional manner.  How could anyone suffer such a life without feeling a sense of indignity and injustice?  To this I must point out that Walls is a professional journalist, and relaying information in an objective, matter-of-fact way is part of the job, so I wasn’t surprised by that at all.  Also, I think it’s a normal part of the coping skills of an abuse survivor to learn to be able to talk about it with some distance and disconnection.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is a great story of resilience and survival.  I don’t recommend it to be read in one sitting, as it can get emotionally overwhelming, but definitely a worthwhile read.   If I could ask Walls one question, I’d want to know how she thinks her life might have turned out without public libraries and books to turn to.  At times, it seems the only escape the kids had and a part of her best memories.  I give The Glass Castle 4 out of 5 stars.