Part of reading is finding the right book at the right time. There’s a notion that some books are “great books”, but I think all that is is that some books are the right book at the right time for the most people.
The hunt for the right book is half the fun of reading. It’s like trying to discover a perfect wine pairing, gem of a restaurant, or new band.
This book was the right book for me at the time that I read it. It’s about a photographer who lives on the Farallon Islands near San Francisco for a year, documenting bird and wildlife migrations. I went to the islands a year and a half ago, so the place means something to me. I just watched Werner Herzog's documentary about Antarctica, so the notion of weird scientists living in remote places has a currency to it. After so many Soviet/ Russian spy and war-era stories, I wanted something simple, linear, and personal.
First, the islands. We went there on a whale watching tour when in San Francisco for a conference a year and a half ago. It was fall. The water in the bay was smooth as glass … until we passed under the Golden Gate bridge. Then, we were sailing through waves and chop like I haven’t seen before. At one point the waves were rolling so much that the boat seemed to be on a 90-degree angle. Looking portside meant looking up, to the sky. Most of the people on the boat became seasick. Then, we finally arrived at the islands only to learn that there’s no dock. Trespassers are shot. We weren’t getting off the boat. Instead, they cut the motor and we bobbed around looking at the bird sanctuary.
If you know anything about boats, you of course know that cutting the engine in rough waters makes seasickness even worse. If you know anything about birds, you know that 250,000 birds are likely to produce an unimaginable stench. Basically, anyone who wasn’t seasick at that point, was overcome. Except me. I was just happy to be out in the sun. I think I even saw a whale.
Second, Herzog’s documentary about Antarctica shows scientists working in remote locations to be … a little wonky. They’re great fodder for fiction.
To say anything of the plot would be to give it all away. It’s a simple book - girl goes to island, stuff happens. A simple story, told neatly and with affection for the characters and places. No great social stakes. Just people doing stuff people do in an unusual place. With sharks and whales and seals and birds.