Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Memoir much more than just a book about birding and travel

Author Dan Koeppel had me at "A Father, A Son and a Lifelong Obsession." That's the subtitle for his book, To See Every Bird On Earth.

The book was published in 2005, I got it in 2007, but I only just read it this past winter.

I have to fight off the tendency to think, "Wow, why did I wait so long?" But I also believe - on my good days - that everything happens for a reason, everything comes at the right time.

The book is about much more
than counting birds.
I felt a connection with this book, and its author Dan Koeppel, just a few pages into the main part of the book. The prologue intrigued me, simply because it's set in one of my favourite places in the world, the Amazon. I've been fortunate enough to have paddled there and viewed parrots there on a few occasions, so any book that starts off with a segment about seeing birds there stands to keep me interested for at least a few chapters.

The fact that travel would be involved in trying to fulfill the goal described in the title is also a good way to keep me reading.

But what really hooked me - what really made me pour over the pages each night in my library in the middle of winter, where good books to read are a must-have - what really kept me coming back was the human interest story.

In reading the story of his father Richard's life - his birth, youth and adulthood - I was struck by how much it paralleled my own father's life. Not exactly the same, but certainly with enough similarities - and set in approximately the same time period - that it became a bit of an emotional journey for me, as much as it must have been for Koeppel writing it.

I could feel the anguish and frustration his father must have felt, with strict, expectant Jewish parents that thought the only way their son to live a purposeful life was to become a doctor. And get married. And have children. The typical American-dream of the mid-20th century.

His father, though, felt a passion for bird-watching early in his adolescence, and that passion never completely waned. It may have taken a backseat at times, but was always present. Richard Koeppel really would liked to have gone to university to become an ornithologist, but succumbed to parental pressure, studied to become a doctor, got married and had two sons.

But he never became truly happy.

His happiest moments were spent birding; his happiest period in his life was spent travelling around Europe on birding trips while stationed as a military doctor at a U.S. army base in West Germany during the height of the Cold War.

That was also where his his parents' marriage began to disintegrate.

Eventually, they moved back to America, life continued on, but the author's parents eventually split up and went their separate ways, another situation I can certainly relate to.

Koeppel describes some of the trials he went through as a child of split parents, than as an adult in starting his career as a journalist. Again, while not the same experiences I had, eerily similar to what I went through in my life, which resulted in my feeling a great deal of empathy for the author.

The one constant throughout all the unhappiness and struggles was the birding. Richard Koeppel continues to travel around the world recording numbers of birds seen, meeting some of the top-notch experts and authorities in the world of bird-watching and getting ever closer to a huge milestone touched on in the prologue.

Father and son, from the book jacket.
The book does a good job of explaining this world to the reader while also keeping one hooked with the emotion of human interest that always simmers throughout. Koeppel is to be applauded the way he pulls no punches in revealing what went on in his family, all the while doing it in a sensitive, non-sensational manner. But the warts are exposed. As are the good sides, as well.

I'll leave it at that, because I don't want to spoil anything. I won't tell you whether it has a happy ending or a sad ending to the tale...that's all a matter of perspective, anyway.

But it is an excellent read, whether you are a birder, a traveller or just someone interested in reading a memoir full of emotion and honesty, one that can help the reader realize we are all human with human failings.

We can begin to approach a touch of the divine in striving to, and sometimes succeed in, overcoming those failings. And getting right back up to try again, when we do fall down.

This bird - the Marvelous spatuletail - was recorded in the Peruvian amazon; 
Koeppel's book sets sail in the Brazilian Amazon.

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