by Paul Hond
Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds
By Olivia Gentile
Bloomsbury, 352 pages, $26
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It was also in short supply. In 1981, with her life list under 2000, Phoebe discovered a lump in her right armpit. She was diagnosed with terminal melanoma, and given, at most, a year to live. Shattered, Phoebe sought consolation in the thing that made her feel most alive, and with her family’s blessing, she decided to see as many birds as she could in the time she had left. Life List revisits those far-flung trips and the amazing birds they yielded, providing us, through Phoebe’s eyes, a vision of an auspicious moment in history, when travel and access permit the explorer to see much of what remains of the planet’s dwindling avian populations. One can still see the Madagascar Bee-eater, the Emerald Cuckoo, and Temminck’s Tragopan (“a pheasant with a blue head, an orange throat, and a blood-red body that is sprinkled with white dots that look like pearls,” Gentile writes), even as habitat loss and pollution lower the window ever more.

Using Phoebe’s letters, field notes, her memoir (published posthumously in 2003 by the American Birding Association), and her writings in a Webster Groves nature newsletter, as well as extensive interviews with the Snetsinger family and Phoebe’s birding associates, Gentile has constructed a gripping biography colored with dashes of travelogue, social history (the rise of Audubon societies, the disaffection of college-educated women in the 1950s and ’60s), and field guide (the lovely illustrations are by Rebecca Layton ’93BC). Life List is also a painful portrait of an uncommunicative marriage, and a provocative tale of obsession. Not least, it’s a story of survival in the face of that 1981 death sentence. As Phoebe writes in her memoir: “Somehow I developed a feeling of virtual invincibility once I was on the plane and heading toward new places and birds; I was leaving the threat behind.” So she did, for 18 more years.

Gentile is a sharp and selfless narrator, giving generous rein to Phoebe’s own stark, intelligent voice, which is quoted throughout the book. The result is a satisfying interplay that owes something to Mr. and Mrs. Zagat. Here’s Phoebe in the Ivory Coast in 1999, just months before her death, observing rockfowls:

Phoebe set up her folding stool and, for a half-hour, gazed ecstatically. She noted their “bare golden” faces, their “heavy black” bills, and the “silky lemon-yellow wash” across their otherwise white chests. “Exquisite, stationary or leisurely hopping studies,” she wrote. “Totally amazing experience.”

It’s a graceful duet that allows both Phoebe and her biographer to fan their writerly feathers. (Gentile knows exactly when to step aside, and when to take the lead.) The book is less assured when it seeks to analyze Phoebe’s behavior, particularly her stoical reaction to a horrific assault suffered during a trip to New Guinea. Even as Phoebe becomes increasingly irritable with tour guides and more competitive in her listing, and misses both her mother’s funeral and her daughter’s wedding in favor of yet another bird tour, one senses that she exists outside the conventions of psychology. But that is no criticism of Gentile, for whom the task of capturing so darting and inspired a mind is as tricky as Phoebe’s own pursuit, at the time of her death in Madagascar, of Appert’s Greenbul, “a little peach-and-green bird,” Gentile writes, “that had been found and named only about thirty years earlier.” Phoebe never saw that bird, but Gentile allows us to see Phoebe, more closely than nature would seem to permit.

To her further credit, Gentile neither judges nor protects her subject. At the end of an exhausting and often repetitive whirlwind of globe-trotting marked by elation and tragedy, Phoebe is left standing in the mind’s eye, in floppy hat and binoculars, squinting up at a tree — a devotee who accepted the setbacks and hardships as a fair price for her happiness.

“I don’t go out of my way to court danger,” she wrote, “but on the other hand, if you’re looking for safety and security, there really isn’t any — anywhere.”

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