Thursday, September 14, 2017

Book Review: The Thing with Feathers

In the absence of any new blog material, and not for lack of trying - this past weekend I was in Chicago and made my way, via the Red Line, to the Montrose Bird Sanctuary (a.k.a. the Magic Hedge).  Upon arriving in Lincoln Park, I realized I had forgotten my camera battery.  I left my hotel room in such a rush and with my camera battery still in my suitcase.  Secondary to the time of day, there was no way the situation could be rescued.  C'est la vie.

However, last night I finished a very good book.  For a number of reasons, I think it's worth writing about.

Many will recall Noah Strycker's trip around the world in 2015 to see as many birds as possible.  Noah's trip was on the heels of Dorian Anderson's 2014 Green Big Year around the United States on his bicycle.  I followed Dorian's blog closely, catching up with each post just before going to bed at night.  I found it mesmerizing.  I actually felt like I had come to know the guy.  (I later met Dorian in person and realized that I hadn't come to know him at all).  I remember thinking, affected by Dorian's dramatic and brave bicycle trip of over 17,000 miles (the number of miles may not be exactly correct), how different Noah's world-wide and essentially completely fossil-fueled trip might be.

When Noah's trip was announced, with some fanfare, by the National Audubon Society who would be publishing Noah's [mostly] daily blog Birding Without Borders entries, I was immediately on board. Where Dorian had left off, Noah picked up.  Each night before going to sleep, I closed out the day with Noah's blog.  As the year went on, I knew there was a book in there somewhere.

I hadn't known much about Noah Strycker except that he was associated with the American Birding Association and that he had written a book or two.  Unfortunately, I am a skeptic about "bird books" and have often not been able to get through some of those written by even very famous authors.   But, when Amazon sent me a notification that Noah's book, Birding Without Borders, was forthcoming, I pre-purchased it ... and, why not, I also purchased The Thing with Feathers, Riverhead Books, 2014.

The first thing that struck me were the review snippets on the first three pages ...  The Wall Street Journal, "... writes like a poet," The Washington Post, "Bird journalism of the highest order," Kirkus Reviews, "A delightful book of broad appeal."  These and others by high end reviewers could not be dismissed.  

Noah opens his book with a introduction that is clever and captivating and I knew I was in for some reading pleasure.

Noah separates each essay in one of three parts:  Body, Mind and Spirit, and then further separates each into its own category.  

Of the thirteen essays included, I have three favorites:  Snow Flurries, Fairy Helpers and, my very favorite, Wandering Hearts.  He does indeed write beautifully.  While reading, I was frequently reminded of my two young home-schooled friends, (I don't know if Noah was home-schooled), who  learned to observe and then apply their observations to the bigger picture of life.  Noah Strycker's large world view is full-scale in The Thing with Feathers.    

While we wait for the release of Birding Without Borders - hardcover release on October 10th - I recommend picking up The Thing with Feathers for the flavor of Noah's writing.  He's a little older now and has had more experiences.  In the meantime, The Thing with Feathers will leave you wanting more.  I think we are in for an upcoming treat. The kindle version is already available and there are ten reviews on Amazon all giving it five stars.


I do have one criticism and it kept me from purchasing The Thing with Feathers when it was initially published.  In two words:  the title.

Many know Emily Dickinson's beautiful and haunting Poem 254, "Hope" is the thing with feathers - That perches in the soul - ... ca 1861.

Many years ago I read my, arguably, favorite "bird book" ever and where Christopher Cokinos used the first line of Emily Dickenson's poem as the title of his book Hope is the Thing with Feathers:  A Personal Chroncile of Vanished Birds, Warner Books, 2000.

Though it has been many years since I read Hope is the Thing with Feathers ... I still remember how it gripped me.

Christopher Cokinos, a former president of the Kansas Audubon Council, was already an award-winning writer and poet when he wrote Hope is the Thing with Feathers ... .  Of the book the Washington Post Book World wrote, "Eloquent and moving ... a charming narrative that is both personal and historically meticulous."   The Boston Globe wrote, "resounds with excitement."  And, the Chicago Tribune wrote, "A eulogy, a call to conservation, and a careful history."

In addition to the three extinct birds above, he also writes about the Passenger Pigeon and the Labrador Duck and the Great Auk.

Though Noah Strycker's title is not exactly the same, it's certainly close enough. I'm a little surprised his editor and publisher allowed it.  Perhaps I'm nitpicking, but another title may have given Noah's book more distinction.

I love good writing and I love non-fiction and I love birds.  Both of these books have all three.      

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