The Feather Thief

Rating: 
Author: Kirk Wallace Johnson
Genres: Non-fiction
Pub date: Apr. 2018 (read Dec. 2018 on Audible)

I’m not quite sure what possessed me to pick-up The Feather Thief. It’s unlike any of the books I normally read, but I saw it on the Goodreads Choice Awards and was intrigued and then made an impulse buy on Audible. Needless to say, I was very impressed!

This works so well as an audiobook. I’ve said it again and again, but sometimes I struggle with audiobooks and it’s the only time I actually prefer reading non-fiction to fiction because non-fiction reads more like a podcast and it’s easier to digest in audio form. I could definitely picture this as a podcast series and I thought the narrator did a really good job (minus the accents, he is atrociously bad at accents, but it was find of funny).

The Feather Thief is based entirely on a true story and is one of the more bizarre incidents I can think of. Kirk Johnson first heard about the feather thief when he was fly fishing in the American south and his guide mentioned in passing a bizarre story about a young man who had stolen 300 bird specimens from the British Museum in order to use their feathers to make fly-ties for fly fishing. Johnson was totally intrigued by the story and spent the next several years investigating the crime.

It sounds kind of boring, and I could see how it would not be for everyone, but Johnson does a fantastic job recounting this heist that had me totally engaged in the world of fiy-tiers, naturalists, and museum thieves. I sped through this audiobook in just 2 days and was totally enthralled the entire time.

Johnson does a great job presenting the story. There are several components that make this an intriguing tale. First, there’s the naturalists and science. Many of the birds that were stolen from the museum were specimens collected by naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in the 1800’s and were used to confirm Darwin’s theory of evolution. Many of the birds are exotic species from South America, such as the Resplendent Quetzal, the Blue Chatterer, and the Red-Ruffed Fruit Crow (aka Indian Crow). Many of the bird species in the museum are now endangered and the birds provide an important historical record to scientists and are often still used in research, such as in studying the effects of climate change. The theft of the birds represented a sad blow to the scientific community.

Second, there is the fly-tying community. This was a totally new concept for me. If you’re familiar with fly fishing, you might be aware that fly-ties, which generally look like insects and bugs, are used to attract fish. However, what you might not be aware of is that making fly-ties is an art form that an entire community has developed around. There are some intense fly-tiers out there and those that get into traditional victorian fly-tying can spend hours and days working on specific ties. Because this hobby was developed in the victorian era, many of the feathers used in the fly-ties were sourced from bright and iridescent birds, such as the resplendent quetzal and the king bird of paradise. These birds are rare and it is expensive to acquire their feathers, yet authentic feathers are considered a requirement in the fly-tying community. Dyed feathers are considered (by the community) as incomparable and many fly-tiers participate in the buying and selling of the rare feathers. This is technically illegal, since most bird species are protected and you can’t just buy their feathers, but it’s a little persecuted crime and the sale of feather and entire birds can be found all over ebay and at fly-tying conventions.

That brings us to the heist. Edwin Rist has been an accomplished fly-tier in the community since he was a boy, but has always struggled to afford the feathers required for many of the traditional victorian fly-ties. He moved to England to pursue his degree in the flute, and at the age of 20, pulled off a pretty epic heist of the British Museum that was not even discovered until months later. He broke into the museum with a suitcase and stole 299 birds before disappearing into the night. He claims he only intended to steal a few birds of each species for his own use, but got carried away in the face of such beauty. He then proceeded to find buyers for the birds and feathers.

The British Museum has some 1500 drawers of birds, so it took them months before they even discovered the theft, and when they did, they were flummoxed about who would possibly be interested in such a small, but specific, subset of birds. Edward Rist was eventually caught (obvious since we’re sitting here talking about him), and was put on trial for the heist. However, even though he had been caught, many of the birds were unaccounted for. A good number were seized from his apartment and he did list some of his buyers, but almost a third of the birds still remained unaccounted for. Where were these birds? Did Edwin stash them away somewhere? Did he have an accomplice? Are they still floating around the seedy underbelly of the fly-tying market? These were the questions Johnson set out to answer. This book recounts the history of the birds, the fly-tying community, and the heist, but it also sets out to track down what happened to the missing birds and whether or not Rist acted alone and was correctly tried.

It really was a fascinating story. Like I said, I can see how this wouldn’t be for everyone, but as someone who is currently engaged to an ornithologist and has heard more than my fair share of interesting facts about birds, I was intrigued. (Plus my partner was thrilled when he walked into the room and heard me listening to this; he was like, “wait… are you listening to a book about Alfred Russel Wallace?!” and then proceeded to get really excited for me) I thought the heist was interesting because it’s mystifying. What could possibly possess a 20 year old flutist with his entire life ahead of him to break into a museum just to steal a bunch of birds? But I think what was most interesting to me was the fly-tying community.

The fly-tying community is not messing around. They are a serious community. I don’t know if Johnson portrayed them accurately in this book or unjustly made them look bad, but to be honest, I think they deserve it. I’m sure there’s a lot of honest fly-tiers out there who get a lot from the community and what to improve it, but overall, I thought the community was pretty shameful. Johnson isn’t that critical of the community, but I think he was rightly frustrated with them. The heist obviously drew a lot of negative attention to fly-tiers as a community, which is unfortunate, but I think this community really needs to be held accountable for their destructive actions.

No one person is every indicative of a community, but the way you react to that person is. The fly-tying community essentially won’t talk about Edwin Rist. They don’t condone what he did, but they also don’t really seem to care that much about what he did. The community openly participates in the buying and selling of rare and endangered birds and they are never held accountable for it. Much of what they’re doing is illegal, they just try and hide it under legal means (like “I got the birds/feathers in an estate sale” or “I inherited them”).

I’m biased and I’m obviously going to side with the scientists, but these fly-ties are never actually used for fly fishing. There’s literally no reason why the community can’t use fake or dyed feathers. It’s a hobby. There’s nothing wrong with taking intense pride in your hobby, but not at the damage to endangered species. Many of the people Johnson interviews openly state that they don’t understand why the museum needs so many birds and believe museums should be selling their birds to fly-tiers. They feel they have a greater entitlement to the birds and are of the mindset that they’re honouring them through art. The most shocking to me was Ruhan Neethling (yes I’m calling you out by name dude because I think you are shameful), who bought two of Rist’s birds and knowingly kept them (many buyers sent them back to the museum when they found out they were stolen) because he felt the museum didn’t deserve them as much as him and that unless the museum could tell him exactly what they’d do with the feathers if he returned them, he’d be keeping them. As if the museum needs any reason for the feathers to be returned, the birds were stolen for them, no reason is needed for their return.

Anyways, I thought many in the community showed a complete ignorance to the scientific importance of the birds and showed no remorse over the birds having been stolen. Johnson indicated that he could see a marked increase in the buying and selling of birds and feathers in the fly-tying community forums and on ebay since the heist and postures that this influx is likely related to the stolen birds. Unfortunately there is no way to prove someone is trading stolen birds. All they had to do was remove the museum tags from the specimen and it could never be proved that it was stolen. This also struck me as sad because even though the museum managed to recover almost 200 of the birds (in the form of full specimens and plucked feathers), the birds without tags were no longer useful for scientific purposes. All in all, I think about a third of the stolen birds were returned still with tags, and therefore could still be used for science.

But I think what makes the fly-tying community so frustrating is their refusal to discuss Edwin Rist or the heist. They are both essentially taboo subjects in the community. Any posts on community forums about either always receive complaints and are immediately removed. To me, this demonstrates a lack of remorse on behalf of the community. They don’t seem to want to be better. They just want to return to the safety of anonymity so that they can continue to not feel bad about trading illegal feathers and continuing to endanger bird species. So that’s my rant about the fly-tying community. Like I said, I don’t want to condemn anyone’s passion or community, but this community obviously has a seedy underbelly and regardless of what Edwin Rist did, I think they need to address it.

Back to the book, I obviously liked it, but my one complaint would be that the ending felt a little anti-climatic. I commend Johnson for his investigative journalism and I understand that sometimes our conclusions and investigations don’t end the way we hope they will, and it was just a little disappointing. The ending felt a little abrupt and not wholly satisfying. But that’s just the way it goes sometimes and I did thoroughly enjoy the journey. I would recommend this book to bird lovers, fly fishers, those who love a good heist, and those who love a good true story. This was definitely weird, but in the best way.

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November Summary

November has been the BEST reading month! Last month I sent a new PB for most pages read in a month, but it didn’t last long because I beat it again this month. I always read a lot of books in November because I get really into the Goodreads Choice Awards and always try and read as many of the nominees as I can (I decided to make this my November monthly challenge). This month I read a whopping 17 books, granted 6 of them were graphic novels and short stories, but it was still a new personal record for most books read in one month. Here’s what I read:

Books read: 17
Pages read: 5,221
Main genres: Graphic Novels, Fantasy, Fiction
Favourite book: So many good books! So hard to choose, but probably Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper

So, like I said, a lot of the books I read this month were nominees in the Goodreads Choice Awards. I read a lot of books, so I won’t spend too long on each one. To start things off I read two books by V.E. Schwab, Vicious (⭐⭐⭐⭐) and it’s sequel, Vengeful (⭐⭐⭐⭐), which was nominated in the Sci-fi genre. Vicious was published 5 years ago, but it’s only just geting a sequel, so I decided to read them back to back and really liked them. I don’t think the second book was quite as good as the first, but they’re fast-paced novels that examine morality and the things that drive good people to do bad things.

I also read a few non-fiction books, which is a genre I don’t normally read. I decided to read Phoebe Robinson’s new book, Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay (⭐⭐⭐⭐), which was nominated in the humour category, and absolutely loved it! I read Phoebe’s debut novel in 2016, which was pretty good, but I think she really upped her game in this book and I would totally recommend the audiobook. I also received a free copy of Abbi Jacobson’s new book, I Might Regret This (⭐⭐⭐), from Hachette, which I was thrilled to read, but ended up not loving quite as much as I’d hoped. Through I’m still a huge fan of Abbi and Broad City. Hatchette also sent me an early copy of Wundersmith (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐), the sequel to Jessica Townsend’s debut novel, Nevermoor. I read Nevermoor a few months ago and was pretty much obsessed with it, so I immediately jumped right into the sequel and was delighted that it was just as wonderful as the first book! It’s a middle grade fantasy series full of whimsy that gives me huge Harry Potter vibes. A solid 5 stars – this series is incredible and I would recommend to everyone!

I read a few very short books, Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini (⭐⭐⭐), which is a short illustrated picture book that he wrote for charity (which I didn’t review), and For Every One by Jason Reynolds (⭐⭐.5), which was nominated in the Poetry category. Both books were nice, but honestly, I thought they were both a little too short to pack that much of a punch.

For graphic novels, I read the latest volume of Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (⭐⭐⭐⭐). I absolutely love this graphic novel series, but the latest volume pretty much killed me, and it appears Vaughan and Staples may be going on a bit of a hiatus over the next little while, so that kills me even more. I also devoured the first 3 volumes of a new graphic novel series called Fence, by C.S. Pacat and Johanna the Mad (⭐⭐⭐⭐). Only the first volume is published at this time, but there are 12 issues available and I liked the first volume so much I actually had to seek out the individual issues instead of waiting for the next two volumes. It’s a series about a high school boys fencing team, which sounds kind of boring, but it actually excellent!

In addition to Phoebe Robinson’s new audiobook, I also listened to Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix (⭐⭐), which is the second and final book in Julie C. Dao’s dualogy. I really liked the first book, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, which I also read as an audiobook, but the second book was a huge disappointment. The narration changed characters and I found this one pretty boring compared to the delightful nastiness that was the first book. The first one was a retelling of the evil queen in snow white, where as this was one a more traditional snow white retelling, although they were both sent it an asian inspired fantasy world, which I liked. Speaking of asian- inspired fantasy worlds, I read R.F. Kuang’s debut novel, The Poppy War (⭐⭐⭐⭐), which was nominated in the fantasy category. It is a heavy book, but wow! Kuang’s story is rich is depth, setting and history. It examines the Sino-Japanese war and the atrocities people commit against one another in war and how we justify them. A heavy hitter, but very well written and plotted.

My book club’s November pick was You by Caroline Kepnes (⭐⭐⭐.5). I’ve been trying to get to this one for a while and with the TV series being released on Netflix in December, it was good timing. You is a mystery/thriller novel told from the point of view of a stalker and boy, is it creepy. I didn’t like it quite as much as I hoped, but it is still very well written and quite different than most other books out there. I finally finished reading Swing Time by Zadie Smith (⭐⭐⭐.5), which I started reading way back in July (shocking I know). I had put it aside around the 300 page mark, but I finally picked it up and read the last 150 pages. I quite liked this book, but it is not very compelling, and for that reason it was hard to pick up, despite liking the story.

Finally, two of my favourite books of the month, along with Wundersmith, were The Simple Wild by K.A. Tucker (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐) and Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐). The Simple Wild was nominated in the romance genre and I was instantly motivated to read it when I found out it was about Alaska (I have a bit of an obsession with Alaska since reading The Great Alone earlier this year). It had a bit of a slow start and the main character was a little vapid at times, but I ended up loving this book! The main character was 26, which is refreshing since most of the books I read feature teenagers or families. I’m starting to really appreciate family dramas, and this one was a mix of family drama and romance that really worked for me.

Our Homesick Songs was my last read of the month and it was also a family drama, but this time historical, that completely captivated me. It’s about the disappearance of cod in Newfoundland in the early 1990’s and the impact it had on rural communities. It’s a simple story about a family living in a remote fishing town, but it is so beautiful written and evokes a strong feeling of homesickness and loneliness. Newfoundland is where I was born and raised, so it had particular meaning for me and I was incredibly impressed by Emma Hooper’s prose. I devoured this book and it is definitely going to be one of my top picks of the year.

So there you have it, all 17 of the books I read this month. There were some really great books. The fact that I rated three of them 5 stars is very rare since I sometimes go months without rating anything 5 stars. I feel like I’ve finally escaped the book slump that I was in over the summer and I’m feeling very inspired by all the great books I’ve been reading!

I’d love to know, what books did you read and love this month?

Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Phoebe Robinson
Genres: Humour, Non fiction, Memoir
Pub date: Oct. 2018 (read Nov. 2018 on Audible)

Okay, this book blew me away! I read and enjoyed Phoebe Robinson’s other book, You Can’t Touch My Hair, when it first came out. but this book was a whole level above her last book. I think her writing has gotten better and I had the joy of listening to her narrate this on Audible. Phoebe is most well known for her podcast, 2 Dope Queens, which I must confess I’ve never actually listened to, but it makes sense that she would make a great narrator.

My first thought when I started listening was that Phoebe is really funny. I laughed out loud at several of her stories and really enjoyed her perspectives. But she totally blew me out of the water with her essay on white feminism. I can’t remember the title, but it’s early in the book and if you read the book, you will definitely know which one I’m talking about. Phoebe takes no prisoners in this essay and while parts of it made me feel really bad, she is totally right and I really appreciate her calling it like it is. White women are absolutely one of the groups to blame for Trump being elected and our failure to make feminism intersectional is not okay.

The essay is at times uncomfortable, but accurate. Black women and women of colour are much more oppressed then white women and have been fighting for equality for much longer than white women have. But we’re at a time when feminism has really taken off (third wave?) and white women are dropping the ball on their black sisters. It’s nothing new, we’ve been doing it for centuries. I recently listened to Elaine Weiss’s book, The Woman’s Hour, which is about suffragists and their fight to win the vote. Weiss also draws attention to the fact that while the suffragists did win the right to vote for all women, they were never in support of women of colour and many didn’t believe they should be afforded the right to vote alongside white women. Robinson draws attention to the fact that Women of Colour have been showing up to fight for equality alongside white women for decades, but white women fail to return the favour.

I can see how this essay might alienate some of her readers, but I’m so glad she wrote it. I’m sure some will dismiss her as an angry, black woman, but she should be angry, her feelings are valid, and she should be empowered to write about it. In my opinion this was the strongest essay in the book, but she did write some other great essays on money and social issues.

I was all ready to give this book 5 stars after her essay on feminism, which I thought was a really hard hitting thought piece, but her book took a bit of a different direction after that. She includes several funny stories about what it was like to finally achieve a modicum of success and what it was like meet Oprah and Bono. The essays were funny, which is the primary reason people come to this book, but they just weren’t as inspiring as some of her other essays. Its a minor complaint because not everything is going to have the same emotional gravitas, but after that one really great essay, everything else just felt the tiniest bit disappointing.

Phoebe is a little bit over the top sometimes, as are her jokes, and I didn’t like the addendum in the audiobook, which is basically like this weird couple interview that I thought didn’t add any value. But overall Phoebe delivered on everything I was looking for in this book. She was laugh out loud funny (I would seriously recommend the audiobook over the hard copy), and she made me think.

Side note: Phoebe’s attempt at going on a blind date when she was visiting Vancouver was pretty much the funniest, most accurate thing ever. Her date tried to convince her to go on a morning hike with him and she was like, “Nope, I am not going out in the wilderness with a man I don’t know, that is how women get murdered.” Which is totally accurate (the murder part), but also the best description ever of what dating in Vancouver is like. Everyone’s all about that nature; I don’t even doubt this was a total innocent (and oblivious) move on her blind date’s part. People are just obsessed with the outdoors in Vancouver and don’t understand how someone might not be as into it as the rest of us (I include myself in this us, lol).

I Might Regret This

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Abbi Jacobson
Genres: Non-fiction, Memoir, Humour
Pub date: Oct. 2018 (read Nov. 2018)

Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

First of all, I LOVE Broad City and it was definitely the primary motivation in me reading this book. I’m a bit late to the game and I only discovered Broad City last year, but I actually love everything about it. So when I saw Abbi was publishing a book, I had to have it.

I Might Regret This is a collection of essays and drawings circling around a road trip Abbi took last year across the US. She shares some thoughts about her trip, some general thoughts about her life and recent break-up, and some stories about her experience working in comedy. It was a fun book and I really enjoyed some of the essays, but unfortunately others felt a little bit like, what’s the point?

The full title of the book is “I Might Regret This: Drawings,Essays, Vulnerabilities. and Other Stuff”. I want to highlight the vulnerabilities, because I think that was the strongest part of the book. I think one of the reasons people like to read celebrity memoirs is to learn something new about that person and what makes them human. Famous people can sometimes seem really unrelatable, so showing us some of their vulnerabilities makes them seem a little more human.

I really like Abbi’s stories about making it in comedy, the challenges of being a woman in comedy, and how scary and debilitating it can be to achieve success and when to acknowledge it’s time to try something new. I liked reading about her experiences and the challenges she has faced. I liked reading about her break-up, fears, anxieties, and vulnerabilities. I think Abbi and Ilana are both already very relatable and reading about her experiences re-iterates the point that she’s really not that different from anyone else. Plus, it’s cool seeing someone make it on their own.

I think that Abbi and Ilana are pioneers in their own way. Their characters are real and gritty in a way that we don’t often see on television. They’re not afraid to be real – they don’t have their lives figured out, they make mistakes, they don’t have good jobs, and they smoke a lot of pot. They care about the world and social issues, yet it’s so much easier for them to navigate the world by virtue of being white and they get away with a lot of bullshit. But I love that their friendship is central to Broad City and everything else is secondary. They don’t really fight with each other and they always put another first in every situation. It’s so lovely to see a female relationship like that portrayed on TV. I know they care about social issues like equality for women, people of colour, and every spectrum of LGBTQIA. I would have loved to hear Abbi’s opinions on social issues or stories about her relationship with Ilana, but instead this memoir tells some kind of trivial stories about her road trip that are kind of funny, but mostly lacking in any kind of real talk.

It hurts me to say that because I think Abbi has created something really unique and important with Broad City, and I enjoyed her stories about her experience, but some of the content in this book seemed a little trivial and I was just expecting more. It probably doesn’t help that I immediately followed up Abbi’s book with Phoebe Robinson’s new book, Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay, which is both smart and funny and doesn’t shy away from pulling the punches on social issues such as institutionalized racism and how white women need to show up for women of colour and make their feminism more intersectional. Robinson’s writing has been totally blowing me away and in retrospect, makes this book seem a little trifling.

That said, this is Abbi’s first book (and not Robinson’s) and it is a little unfair to compare the two. I think Abbi was going for something very different in this book, but as much as I wanted to love it, it fell a little flat. I still think it’s a 3-star read, it just didn’t blow me away. But I’m still stoked for season 5 of Broad City!

Not That Bad

Rating: 
Author: Edited by Roxane Gay
Genres: Essays, Non-fiction
Pub date: May 2018 (read as audiobook Jul. 2018)

I listened to Not That Bad as an audiobook on audible and thank goodness I’ve finally found a new book that translates well to audiobook! I really should just stick to non-fiction when it comes to audiobooks because they translate so much better when read aloud than fiction (from my experience anyways). I read Bad Feminist, a series of essays by Roxane Gay, as well as her memoir, Hunger, and loved them both. This collection is edited by Roxane Gay; she’s not featured in any of the essays, but it was wonderful!

Not That Bad represents a diverse collection of stories about rape culture and how women condition themselves to hide their experiences or tell themselves their experiences aren’t valid because they “weren’t that bad” in comparison to other stories they’ve heard. How women brush off street harrassment because it’s not as bad as getting raped, how we’re taught to always be nice at the expense of our own comfort and safety, how a certain level of harrassment should be expected because of what we wore or how we acted, how we should be flattered instead of offended if we’re still getting catcalls when we’re older.

I’ll admit, because I listened to this as an audiobook over several weeks, I’m already struggling to recall a lot of the essays, but there are two that stick out for me.

The first was an essay about a girl in college who was pressured into attending a party (on a boat/island) with a guy who she obviously didn’t like and was afraid of – and how she spent the whole night hiding from him because she knew he expected sex and she didn’t want it. She watched him from a far as he angrily stormed around the island looking for her, asking “where’s that f***ing b***h”, and how she waited until she felt it was late enough to safely go back to their room, only to be woken from sleep to him raping her. “They will wake you up to rape you.”

It’s enraging that women can never win and can never really be safe. That many men feel they can expect sex for taking a woman out or buying her something, or in this case, taking her to a boat party. That they feel entitled to call women horrible, derogatory things if they aren’t interested in having sex and that they feel in any way entitled to a women’s body without her consent. In this case, the author later sees her rapist and he makes jokes about her rape and legitimately doesn’t think that he raped her. I’m not sure why this story stood out to me more than any of the others. This to me is very obviously “that bad”, just as all of the other stories are, but women still condition themselves to keep quiet about these horrible, invasive things that happen to them and are even forced to interact with their rapists after the fact. Some of these stories are about rape, some are about harrassment, some are about rape culture, but they are all “that bad”.

The second story that stands out to me is that of another woman who was raped and when she tells other people about it, she is routinely told, “you’re lucky he didn’t kill you”. I can’t even imagine having this response to a rape victim, but I can imagine it in a million other scenarios. He catcalled you? You’re lucky he didn’t touch you. He touched you? You’re lucky he didn’t rape you. It goes so well with this idea that as women we are responsible for the things that happen to us and not the people who actually perpetrate them. If you go drinking wearing a short skirt, you’re lucky if no one touches you. If you walk home alone a night, you’re lucky if no one bothers you. If you stay with a person who hits you, you’re lucky he doesn’t kill you.

This logic is so obviously flawed and yet it’s so pervasive in our society. This is a hard collection to read, but so important. I especially loved that many of these essays were narrated by the writers. I love when audiobooks are narrated by the writers because no one can convey tone better than the author. I only talked about two of the essays, but they are all meaningful and important in their own ways. A great collection!