Monday, May 19, 2014

Life List: A Woman's Quest for the Most Amazing Birds (by Olivia Gentile)

My friend Melissa reminded me that this book had been sitting on my wishlist for a while, and since I just got back from some amazing birding in Ohio, the plane ride home seemed like the right time to read this! (I finished two books on that plane, so for Pie Not Included completists, there's another new entry directly below this one.)

This is the biography of legendary birder Phoebe Snetsinger, a brilliant woman with a scientific background who felt stifled by her role as a traditional housewife and mother, and who discovered birding as an outlet. She applied rigorous scientific ideals to the study of birds, and used her significant financial resources (her father was Leo Burnett, of the Leo Burnett add agency) to travel the world many times over, ultimately building a life list of over 8,000 birds seen in the wild.

Gentile draws from interviews with Snetsinger's family and friends as well as from her own memoir, poems, and other writings, to create a portrait of a fascinating woman who didn't always connect with her husband or kids (she was almost always traveling, from the time her kids were in high school onward) but who became a birding community legend.

My only real issue with the book is that Gentile dwells on the brutal incident where Snetsinger and a friend were abducted in New Guinea, and Snetsinger was raped. Once Gentile tells this story, she seemingly can't let it go, and keeps coming back to it and psychoanalyzing how it affected Snetsinger for the rest of her life, making some assumptions that I don't quite agree with. Obviously, it would be a traumatizing experience, one that maybe Snetsinger was too quick to shrug off, but Gentile brings it up again and again and again for the whole rest of the book, even when it's seemingly irrelevant.

Other than that, I loved learning more about Phoebe Snetsinger, and loved hearing about each and every bird she was able to see. Very inspiring, although I'll try not to neglect my husband and child too much in my own birding pursuits...

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