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.

The Boat People

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rating: 
Author: Sharon Bala
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Read: Feb. 2018

Oh my goodness, I feel like this book took forever to finish! Between going on a ski trip last weekend and the Olympics stealing all of my attention, it took me a bit longer than anticipated to get through The Boat People. But I finally finished!

This was the first book of my February Reading Challenge and I am a little concerned I might not fit them all in this month because I am just completely obsessed with the Olympics! This month I challenged myself to read 3 books about Canada and this was my pick from the Canada Reads 2018 shortlist.

The Boat People is written by Sharon Bala, who fascinatingly was born in Dubai, raised in Ontario, and currently lives in Newfoundland, and it’s about a ship full of refugees from Sri Lanka who landed on Vancouver’s shores in 2010. It was a bit of a thrill to read a book about the place where I currently live, as I don’t read that much Canadian literature, and this was a fascinating bit of history about an event I knew shockingly nothing about.

Sri Lanka has been torn apart by war for decades, driving many people to desperation to escape the violence in any way they can. These 492 Sri Lankan’s board a cargo ship bound for Canada in an effort to seek out a better life. Fortunately everyone survives the journey and they are thrilled when they first see the coast of Vancouver Island, but the welcome party is cut short when they are promptly separated and detained in two prisons while the government fumbles to try and decide what to do about them.

I knew very little about the process for migrants who show up un-announced at the border and this was very eye-opening. Refugees must first seek permission to request asylum and then go through admissibility hearings for their request to be granted. In this case, the government was worried about terrorists being on board and wanted to delay the process as much as possible to assuage the public’s fears. The adjudicators had very little information to go on outside of the refugee’s testimony and because the government wanted to delay the process to dissuade copycat voyages, the refugees were forced to remain in these detainment prisons for months while their hearings were repeatedly denied and postponed.

I did struggle a bit with this book as there’s a lot of legalese in it, a lot of (slightly confusing) Sri Lankan history, and a lot of character names and stories that I struggled to keep straight, but I really liked how Bala wrote this book and she was not shy in tackling a lot of different issues.

The story is told from 3 perspectives: Mahindan, a single father who made the journey from Sri Lanka with his 6-year old son Sellian; Priya, an articling student (of Sri Lankan heritage) who’s firm takes on 5 refugee cases pro bono and has her help out on the cases; and Grace, an adjudicator (of japanese heritage) who is assigned by the xenophobic Minister of Immigration to adjudicate the detainment hearings.

This is a morally-gray book and I appreciated Bala for not making this a straight-forward morality tale. She tackles so many issues in this book; the xenophobia of the Canadian public, the refugee diaspora, the immigration process, Canada’s past failings, the importance of history and remembrance, reconciliation, culture shock, and the list goes on.

The novel first presents us with the refugees, ecstatic to arrive on Canada’s shores, and the brutality of their arrival and immediate imprisonment. In my opinion, you can’t help but empathize with them and think the government harsh. But then Bala gets into the morally gray areas of war and how good and innocent people can be forced and coerced into participating in what western countries view as terrorist organizations.

Are we right to studiously evaluate every refugee who comes into Canada for terrorist affiliation? I think yes, but do we need to steal their humanity from them in the process? No. Do we have the right to deport people when deportation will mean certain torture and death? People may be split on that opinion, but it’s a question that requires empathy and understanding that we will never have by “othering” people and fearing them.

Innocent people are forced to do bad things in wartime, but how to we evaluate those acts and decide if the intent was forced or malicious? What’s direct involvement in acts of “terrorism” and what’s proximate? These are impossible questions to answer and as much as I often disliked Grace’s line of thinking, I could appreciate the pressure that was put on her in these quasi-legal proceedings. All she has to go on is the migrant’s story and how is she to know what is truth? That said, she was an adjudicator appointed by the government in power, which begs the question if she should have the power to make those decisions at all.

However, I liked the contrast of Grace’s story and how Bala demonstrates how cyclical history can be. Grace is the grand-daughter of Japanese immigrants and takes a hard line on border safety and who should be permitted to enter Canada. She is determined to safeguard her daughters freedom to move around without fear, while at the same time struggling with her mother’s declining health. Her mother, Kumi, has Alzheimer’s and is slowly regressing into the past. Her parents had been interned during WWII and lost everything. They never spoke up about the injustice and kept their heads down to give their children a chance to become “true” Canadians. However, now she worries that the apathy of her parents has been passed down to her daughter and grandchildren and that Grace has forgotten the injustices of the past, perpetuating the cycle of oppression.

I thought it was an interesting theme on how people who were once oppressed and othered can learn to be oppressors themselves. And on how important reconciliation is, not just for righting our wrongs, but for protecting against repeating them, to keep fresh an empathy for others.

So while I did feel like it took me forever to get through this book, it was worth it. The Boat People made me think a lot and while it definitely was more ‘liberal-leaning’, it wasn’t a straight forward good vs evil narrative. It’s complex, gritty, and heartbreaking. A fabulous and meaningful debut for a Canadian author.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky


Rating:
 .5
Author: Mark T. Sullivan
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: July 2017 on audiobook

Ugh, this book.

This is a challenge to rate because it really is a fascinating story that deserves to be told, but oh my god, the writing was brutal. I really wish this story could have been told by someone like Markus Zusak, Anthony Doerr, Kristen Hannah, or literally anyone who knows how to better write emotions and dialogue.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky is the fictional telling of Pino Lella’s true story. Lella is an 17 year old Italian from Milan who comes of age at the height of World War II. His parents send him out of Milan and he ends up guiding jews and other people looking to escape Italy through the snowy alps to neutral Switzerland. He does this until just before his 18th birthday, when his parents call him back to Milan and force him to enlist with the Germans to avoid being drafted to what would likely be sure death with the Italian Army. This is a huge source of shame for Pino and when he finds himself assigned to be the driver for German General Hans Leyers, he seizes the chance to redeem himself by turning spy for the Allies. Oh, and along the way he falls in love with this girl Ana.

This was an incredible true story, but the writing failed on so many levels for me. Disclaimer, this was my first audiobook, so it’s possible that maybe audiobooks are just not the right format for me, but I really think it’s the writing. First of all, the dialogue was awful – it didn’t feel at all natural. Secondly, it was not dynamic. I know this book is based on a true story, but it’s still supposed to be fiction. As an author you can take some liberties on a true story, to infuse emotion into the story and make it more palatable to your readers. Historical fiction writers do this all the time.

I think Sullivan should have just written a biography because this novel was way too precise. I felt like I was reading a boring chronology of Pino’s life. “Pino did this, and then he went here, and then he saw this, etc…” It was way too long and Sullivan tried to make every single event seem so intense, he spent so much time detailing each alpine crossing and everywhere Pino went as a driver. It was weird how precise he was with everything, even down to the specific distances Pino hiked and specific time he did something. I didn’t need to know how many metres Pino traversed for every part of his mountain crossings and I didn’t need to know where exactly he took General Leyers at 2, 4, and 6pm.

Sullivan conducted extensive interviews with Pino Lella and I felt like he didn’t give enough voice to the character and tried to stay too close to Lella’s story. Pino’s narrative felt like that of an 80 year old man recounting what happened to him during the war rather than that of a 17 year old actually living these experiences. This experience happened to Pino 70 years ago and I’m sure it was hard for him to articulate his emotions about it, which is where I had the biggest issue with Sullivan’s writing.

Sullivan didn’t know how to emote. Pino felt like the most basic character ever. He’s constantly talking about how he “feels”, but it had no depth for me. I think Sullivan should have taken a bit more liberty with the story to better connect with or imagine what Pino really would have felt. This book was an example of telling your audience instead of showing them. Sullivan obviously admires Pino (as do I), but it got in the way of his writing because Pino didn’t really have many flaws. I feel like Sullivan didn’t imagine what it would really have been like for Pino to enlist with the Nazis and the struggle he would have faced being shunned by his brother and best friend. Sure he was “sad” or “angry”, but his emotions were so basic and lacked depth.

This went for all the characters. Most upsetting for me was Ana. She had no personality whatsoever and her relationship with Pino was so romanticized. I mean, Pino was 18 at the time, so I could believe his fawning over her, but ugh, there were way too many descriptions of Pino being intoxicated by her “female scent”. Bletch. Seriously, what did Pino like about her besides her beauty? We never learn anything of substance about her except a quick flashback to her father’s tragic death.

But enough about the writing, on to the story: it was so heartbreaking! Pino was a busy teenager during the war and made a truly incredible contribution to the war. The synopsis gives no indication about the time Pino spent in the alps guiding refugees across the border, which I found even more fascinating than his spy work under General Leyers. It’s wild how many historical events he bore witness to and I really liked learning about Italy’s occupation. I’ve read a lot of WWII fiction about the camps and what it was like during the war in England, France, Germany, Poland, Russia, and even Hungary, but I’ve never read any WWII fiction about Italy.

The ending and epilogue were some of the most meaningful parts of the book for me. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but there was one death (it’s war, there’s obviously going to be deaths) at the end of the story that was actually one of the most horrifying things I could ever imagine and I was extremely disturbed reading it. Honestly, everything about the end of the war in Italy was disturbing: the civil war in Milan, the revenge killings, the desecration of Mussolini’s body in the square. Death is so unpredictable and it was one thing that Sullivan did a good job of demonstrating towards the end of the book. 

Sullivan’s depiction of the aftermath of the war in Italy was also meaningful because it really showcased the hardships the people of Milan had experienced and their anger at the Nazis and the fascists. It’s a frightening look at the depravity of humans and how even after suffering so much, we can still want to see others suffer. Can revenge actually soothe your soul after bearing witness to so much pain? Pino was so detached emotionally at the end of the novel that I thought this was the one scene where Sullivan actually showed us his pain instead of just telling us about it. Pino was numb inside, so Sullivan stopped narrating his internal emotions and we were able to discern them from his actions rather than being told how he felt.

After finishing this book, I’m not surprised that Pino kept his experiences to himself. I don’t think him a coward, but I understand now why he thought himself one. He was shamed and shunned by a lot of people when he joined the Nazis and when he becomes a spy, he’s frustrated by not being able to share it with his family or Carletto and hates for them to think of him as a traitor Nazi. But to an extent, he was. He did join the Nazi party and it was only by fate that he ended up as a driver to Hans Leyers. I’m glad he was able to rebel under the Nazi regime and secretly fight against the Nazis, but the story could easily have gone another way if he had had no opportunity to fight for the Allies and ultimately, the winners.

But in a time of war we can’t know how things will turn out. Pino was young and not equipped for the situations he was put in. It’s impossible to predict how we will act and react in extreme situations and how the bounds of right and wrong can become blurred and confused by the people and events around you. I can see how Pino would be haunted by his experiences for the rest of his life and how war can really change the trajectory of your entire life and character.

I am very glad that Mark Sullivan has created a record of Pino’s life so that history will remember him, but don’t expect a well-written book.