Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds

by Olivia Gentile

Reviewed by Grant McCreary on June 3rd, 2009.

cover of Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds, by Olivia Gentile

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA

Date: March, 2009

Illustrations: a few photos and paintings

Binding: hardcover with dustjacket

Pages: 352

Size: 5 3/4″ x 8 1/2″

MSRP: $26.00

comparison front view of Life List

comparison side view of Life List

Life List is the biography of Phoebe Snetsinger. If you are not familiar with the name, I summarized her amazing story in my review of Birding on Borrowed Time, her memoir:

She was a relatively late convert to birding at age 34, but she completely threw herself into her new hobby. She started traveling further and further afield, taking several major trips each year. But just as she was hitting her stride she got knocked back – cancer. Her doctor gave her a year to live, and even less time before the symptoms and complications would start affecting her day-to-day life. She had a long-awaited trip to Alaska planned for later that year. The timing was such that, with luck, she would be able to finish it before she started to feel ill. So she went. After all, birding was about the only thing that could take her mind off the situation. She felt fine at the end of the trip. And she kept on feeling fine well past the doctor’s deadline. So she kept going about her birding business, as if it could hold her disease at bay. At the time of her death, 18 years and several relapses later, she had seen more species of birds than anyone else had, ever.

By all accounts, Phoebe was a fantastic birder. Birds were more to her than mere ticks on a list; she seemed to revel in their presence while birding. But she also wanted to truly know them. Before her trips, she studied the hoped-for birds so much that she often knew more about them than her guides did, even in places she had never been before. She had strength, resolve, integrity, and dedication. There was much about her to admire.

But, of course, that isn’t the whole story. Her desire (obsession may be more apt) to see new birds kept her away from home for increasingly longer durations, forming a rift between her and her family. Despite what she told herself and others, she could be reckless in both where she went and how she pushed herself.

In other words, Snetsinger was a fascinating, complicated woman who led a remarkable life. Sounds perfect for a biography, doesn’t it? And Gentile does not disappoint. She interviewed Phoebe’s family and friends, and was given access to journals and other writings, which allowed her to present a seemingly complete picture of her subject’s life and motivations.

This biography is very well written. Gentile keeps it interesting and easy to understand, even for non-birders. The author admits that she isn’t really a birder herself, but she has been exposed to birds and the culture, and has obviously done her research. There are very few cases of statements being slightly off, as can easily happen when non-birders write about birds and birders. On the contrary, most of it is right on, such as this fantastic statement: “I’ve never done acid, but I imagine that when you do, you see things like the birds-of-paradise.”

For anyone familiar with Phoebe’s story, especially those who have read Birding on Borrowed Time, it would be natural to question whether another book on the subject is warranted. I had the same misgivings, but was happy to discover that they were unfounded. Life List gives a much more complete look at Phoebe’s life than does her memoir. For instance, while reading Borrowed Time, I kept wondering one simple thing: how could she afford this?! It wasn’t until the epilogue that I found out about her inheritance. Gentile goes into this very early on, and delves much more deeply into her family life than Phoebe did herself.

This biography also has a different focus than the memoir did. Unsurprisingly, Phoebe was more concerned with telling about the birds she has seen. She goes into great detail about some of her field experiences. Gentile mentions many of these, but is concerned less about the birds and more about the person of Phoebe Snetsinger.

Ironically, I felt like I got to know Phoebe better by reading about her in the words of someone who never met her than I did by reading Phoebe’s own words. This is primarily because Gentile presents a more complete look at her life, as mentioned above. But another contributing factor is that she can be more objective and critical. She is in a better position to discern such things like the changes in her subject, especially after the assault in Papua New Guinea. The memoir makes it seem like this harrowing experience had little or no affect on Phoebe at all. It certainly didn’t slow down her birding. However, this book points out some small, gradual changes, such as Phoebe becoming less “gregarious” and more “methodical”: “All she cared about was getting to eight thousand [species of birds seen], and any pleasure she got in the process was incidental”. She was also much more critical and unforgiving of her tour leaders, which was a stark contrast to earlier in her birding career.

A few color photographs of Phoebe and her family, as well as color and black-and-white bird paintings are also included.

Recommendation

Life List presents a great portrait of this fascinating woman and the incredible life she led. But that’s not all, it also raises some important questions not only about Phoebe’s decisions, but about life in general. As the author poses in the introduction:

  • What happens when society pushes you into a role that you aren’t meant to play?
  • If you’re told that you only have a short time to live, how should you spend it?
  • Where is the line between dedication and obsession, and when does obsession cross the line into pathology?
  • What does it mean, ultimately, to live, and die, well?

Wisely, the biographer does not attempt to answer these questions directly, but lets you draw your own conclusions.

I would enthusiastically recommend this book to any birder, as well as anyone, birder or otherwise, looking for a good biography. Also, if you have yet to read Birding on Borrowed Time, I would suggest starting with this one. Afterward, if you would like more details on the birds and Phoebe’s birding experiences you can get them from the memoir.

I usually don’t care much for Flash animations on websites, but a great one was created for this book. You can check it out below.
Alternatively, you can watch it on the author’s website, where you can also read the book’s introduction.

Category: Biographies

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Disclosure: The item reviewed here was a complementary review copy provided by the author. But the opinion expressed here is my own, it has not been influenced in any way.

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