Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Book Review: "The Snoring Bird"

Biologist Bernd Heinrich's The Snoring Bird: My Family's Journey Through a Century in Biology (Ecco, 2007) is an intriguing glimpse into the life of a man perhaps best known for his work with ravens (Ravens in Winter) and hibernation (Winter World). It cannot properly be called an autobiography, as much of the book concerns the life and career of Heinrich's father, an extremely unorthodox fellow whose views about human interaction, biology and life in general come across as more than a little peculiar.

Relying on family memory, documents and other sources as necessary, Heinrich tells his father's story as best he can - from a comfortable life in pre-WWI Poland through a rough time during and after the Second World War through a tenuous post-war existence in Maine. "Papa", who never got a college degree, became an expert in ichneumons (a sort of wasp) and made it his life's (rather obsessive-compulsive) work to classify as many of the worlds' species as he could. To fund his collecting trips around the world, he arranged for European and American institutions to hire him as a specimen collector (usually for birds, mammals and other things).

It's clear that Heinrich still bears some residual bitterness toward his father, whose slights and inattentions to the people around him feature prominently in the book. It made, at times, uncomfortable reading; I felt like I was hearing more than I wanted to know. It's also clear just from Heinrich's description of his own interactions with people over the years that the son inherited at least a few of his father's less orthodox tendencies.

More the story of a family's journey than of a century in biology, this book was most interesting for its descriptions of life in wartime and post-war Europe than anything else. I enjoyed it, but not quite as much as I expected to.

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