Birder's Eye View

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Book Review: Life List

Life List
By Olivia Gentile

“Right now you can get to more wild places, extraordinary habitats, and incredible birds than has ever been possible in the past, or will be possible in the future. They’re all out there somewhere – so do it in whatever style suits you – and ENJOY IT!” – Phoebe Snetsinger

Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds is the intriguing new biography of Phoebe Snetsinger, the first person in the world to see 8,000 life birds against all odds.

The book starts off slow, describing her early life as a housewife in the 1960s. Despite being a highly independent woman who had excelled in science in college, she gave in to societal pressure, got married, and raised 4 children. But when another housewife introduced her to birding one day, her life changed forever.

As this passion escalated to an obsession, Phoebe studied birds zealously, joined nature clubs, and made friends in the birding world -- something she’d had less luck at doing in her role as a housewife.

In 1981, however, she was diagnosed with cancer, and told she had a year to live. Rather than toil over her ephemeral life, Phoebe decided to travel the world and see as many birds as she could before her time was up.

Little did she know that she would live another incredible 18 years after the diagnosis. Thinking that each year could be her last, Phoebe went on birding tours for months on end, traveling everywhere from Antarctica to Madagascar, Peru to the Himalayas, often on dangerous and strenuous expeditions to some of the most remote regions of the planet.

Unfortunately, this obsession caused her to drift away from her family. Although all of her children ended up going into environmental fields of study, they felt distanced from Phoebe, and bonded more with their father.

Phoebe kept going right until the end though. Although she tried to make amends with her family, birding was her priority and she didn’t slow down.

Despite her human flaws, Phoebe’s life makes an incredible story that I’m sure someone will make into a movie sooner or later. Although it does start off slow, the vivid descriptions of Phoebe’s adventures around the world make it hard to put the book down at times.

I’d rate Life List an 8/10. It is a must-read for any birder, but could probably have been written a little better in some parts. Author Olivia Gentile uses many one-word quotes throughout the book that can get a little distracting, but not enough to take away from the extraordinary story of Phoebe Snetsinger.



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