Bernd Heinrich's THE SNORING BIRD: MY FAMILY'S JOURNEY THROUGH A CENTURY OF BIOLOGY
Review of Part 1 (published July 15, 2017)
I'm almost finished with Part 1 of this fascinating book. It is one of the best example of a "true life adventure" I have ever read.
The scope of the tale is very broad and at times reads like fiction. The author describes his family's origins as well-off but hard-working landowners in rural Poland. Part one focuses on his father's experiences as an amateur and then professional biologist, as a lover of multiple women, as a world traveling naturalist, as a soldier, and as a leader in helping the family escape to America following Germany's collapse after World War II.
Throughout the book we're entertained and informed with fascinating details about birds, insects, animal behavior, constant travel, and survival -- and escape -- from dangerous situations almost too numerous to mention.
The early parts of the book are reconstructed not just from the author’s childhood memories but from letters, conversations with relatives and friends, and from examination of family artifacts. Especially touching is the author having a distant childhood memory of finding an especially exotic wasp when he was five years old confirmed in 2003 and seeing in his late father’s handwriting an acknowledgement of his son’s role in the discovery.
The adventures of the author’s father in hunting and collecting rare birds in foreign lands equipped with little more than a shotgun, binoculars, and a compass are worthy of a book just on their own. Into this narrative the author weaves the father's disciplined approach to wasp collecting as well as the father's unique relationship with women. At the same time we see what it was like to grow up in an free and stimulating environment where scientific curiosity was not just encouraged but expected.
The author does not shortchange describing the roles of the many women in his life -- the mother, the mistress, his sister, servants, and relatives -- all receive attention.
In addition to the scientific details we also see what it was like to live in a pre-electronic era undergoing economic, social, and political upheaval. Especially unnerving are the family's adventures during and immediately following World War II as they leave everything behind and move East to escape the oncoming Russian army as they fear what happens to intellectuals, landowners, and the educated classes in a defeated country.
That's where I am now at the end of Part One. I started reading the book borrowed from the library, then I bought a used paper copy from Amazon, now I have a Kindle edition to read while traveling. Can Part Two live up to Part One? We'll see.
Review of Part 2 (published August 1, 2017)
The second half of the book is devoted to the author's growing up and becoming an academic scientist. Where the first half of the book concentrates on his father's family's adventures in Europe and in wartime (WWII) and international expeditions, Part 2 now shifts to the author's own experiences starting with the his family's somewhat rocky adjustment to life in America.
Many words are devoted to the author's fascination as a boy and young man with animals and insects of all kinds and how, despite having an aloof father, he inherits his father's disciplined approach to research and study.
A major difference between the father and son emerges. This provides the basis for much of the dramatic interest of the second half of the book.
The father's research interests consist of physically collecting and identifying different species of birds and insects and describing sometimes minute physical characteristics related to color, shape, and body parts. The author himself is more of an experimentalist and comes into academia at a time when studies of animal behavior and genetics were undergoing profound change. His description of "bee lining" as a boy is a precursor of a research orientation.
The differences between the two approaches to scientific research provide some dramatic tension but the author avoids oversimplifying his relationship with his father and in the process sensitively explores their overlapping worldviews.
An interesting sub-theme throughout the second half of the book is the author's relationship with women. His father in Europe flourished at a time when it was possible for a man to manage multiple simultaneous relationships including what we traditionally referred to as "mistresses." In part 2 the author describes his own marriages and how his dogged focus on scientific field research in the field contributed to two marriage failures.
The scientific and family tales of the father and son are interesting enough by themselves to be the basis for two books. The thoughtful way the author brings the two stories together truly makes this book unique. Recommended.
Review copyright (c) 2017 by Dennis D. McDonald