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

3.80  ·  Rating details ·  851 ratings  ·  172 reviews
A frustrated housewife sets out to see more bird species than anyone in history—and ends up risking her life again and again in the wildest places on earth.

Phoebe Snetsinger had planned to be a scientist, but, like most women who got married in the 1950s, she ended up keeping house, with four kids and a home in the suburbs by her mid-thirties. Numb and isolated, she turne
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published March 31st 2009 by Bloomsbury USA (first published January 1st 2009)
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3.80  · 
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 ·  851 ratings  ·  172 reviews

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Sep 10, 2012 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Anyone but obsessives
Recommended to Mark by: Tony Hodges
Good grief what a self -obsessed cow. Phoebe Snetsinger, (why do american surnames so often look as if they are made up), was a bird watcher of quite epic proportions. Indeed she was the first person to ever record sights of 8,000 different birds. By that I mean different types not 4,000 sparrows and a magpie or two. She did this over the course of some thirty years and achieved this amazing result by trawling back and forth across the globe in what she recognizes was the 'Golden Age' of birding ...more
Carrie Laben
Jan 25, 2015 rated it it was ok
Incredibly frustrating and subtly dismissive book about a woman who did something literally no-one else on earth had ever done, only to be criticized sidelong by an author who does the equivalent of attributing John Glenn's attempts to leave the earth to trauma and complaining about how unfair Marie Curie was to her husband. It's hard to say whether this is down to a species of internalized sexism or a simple inability to grasp the grandeur in the single-minded pursuit of an epic goal at the exp ...more
May 19, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: nature
I enjoyed this book covering the life of Phoebe Snetsinger, even though I can't identify with the subject. Phoebe sacrificed family relationships and her health in her obsessive search for birds across the globe and in every environment. Disregarding political turmoil, she ventured into places which compromised her safety and were beyond her physical limits (in her later years).

While parts of Phoebe's story were very interesting, I found myself comparing this woman's life to others "obsessed" w
Mar 15, 2012 rated it really liked it
A good view of a beautiful bird in the wild is the closest to bliss that I have experienced. The thrill and awe are unequaled - the rest of the world simply disappears. So, in many ways, I "get" Phoebe Snetsinger, though I will never have anything close to her life list - 85% of the known bird species on the planet. At the time of her death, she had seen more species of birds than any other person.

After a couple of decades of being a unfulfilled housewife and mother, Phoebe was diagnosed with me
Paula Cappa
Jul 12, 2016 rated it liked it
Why this book is categorized under birdwatching or birding is a misdirection. It's really a biography about Phoebe Snetsinger's life, her trials and successes, and how driven, obsessed actually, she became about birds. I can admire how she seemed to find her calling but I was disappointed in that it really isn't about birds or bird watching at all. The storytelling is okay. If you are interested in reading memoir or biography, then try this one out.
May 21, 2009 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Birders, bird-watchers
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 17, 2009 rated it liked it
I'm near the end. Only one more chapter and the epilogue to go. While this book has been the perfect primer for the wife of a birder, and it's phenomenally interesting to see how a person can become totally obsessed with something while facing her impending death (she has malignant melanoma), Phoebe Snetsinger (of whom the book is about) is a person I hope to never become. I became more and more angry with her selfishness to reach the goal of being the first person to see 8000 birds. This, at th ...more
Nov 04, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: birds, biography
I'm glad that a book about a well-known (at least in her time) woman birder exists. With so many books by and about men in the world of birding, we need more of this.

That being said, while I loved learning about Phoebe Snetsinger, I think this book could have been a lot stronger, and benefited from having more editor oversight. Parts of the book were super dry, what my coworker Liz perfectly described as "book report style." I didn't need to know all about the endless lists that Phoebe made, inc
Oct 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
Phoebe Snetsinger grew up in the mid-20th-century, and wanted to be a scientist. She received a good education, but in the 1950s, women (whether or not they had an education) got married and stayed home with the kids. Which is what Phoebe did. But, she was bored, so when she discovered birds when the kids were a bit older, she became obsessed. She spent most of the rest of her life travelling (and when not travelling, she was researching), so she could add as many of the 9,000 (ish, the number c ...more
Marlene Koslowsky
Feb 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
As a novice birder, I found the story of Phoebe Snetsinger remarkable. She was fortunate enough to travel the world over, and over again, to find the birds she had such a passion for. Good for her!

I am glad the author gave us a good glimpse into Phoebe's personal life, enough to see that a quest such as hers was not without its challenges on many levels. When one has life goals and when one has people in one's life, most often the two clash in purpose and importance. Taking steps to reach one's
Holly Mascaro
Nov 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book is a great read for anyone who loves birds, birding, and world travel. It’s about Phoebe Snetsinger, the first person (and notably, a woman in a male-dominated field) to see over 8,000 of the world’s bird species - 84% of the species recognized in her lifetime. The book includes a lot of insights into the lives of young women and housewives in the 50s/60s, what was expected of them and how unsatisfied many of them became with their lives. This is what led Phoebe to embark on this epic ...more
Jan 03, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography, birding, nature
I've been a birder for a while, but not much of a birder, in that I hadn't heard of Phoebe Snetsinger.
It seems everyone else in the birding world has; when she died in 1999, Snetsinger had seen more bird species than anyone else in the world. And not just "seen" them, as in caught enough of a sight or sound to check the name of the species on a list: She had spent time studying birds, watching them, and recording her sightings. She'd been "in the game" long enough to have compiled her own field
Sep 12, 2011 rated it really liked it
Life List is a biography of Phoebe Burnett Snetsinger. Phoebe's story is in many ways the story of bright women who came of age between l945 and l970 or so. During World War II many women worked and day care centers apparently were available, because most men were away at war. After the war, women were told to go home, have babies and be full time mothers. They were guilted horribly by the government, women's magazines and society in general, if they didn't follow this high-pressure advice.

Bob Stocker
Jun 25, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds by Olivia Gentile is a biography of Phoebe Snetsinger, a birder who at the time of her death had seen 8,398 of the 9,700 recognized bird species in the world -- more bird species of than anyone had ever seen before. If you're looking for a book about birds or birding, you may find something more to your liking elsewhere. This the amazing story about how a diagnosis of terminal cancer and a new found hobby awakened and liberated a depr ...more
This book documents an adventure in birdwatching. It is not the birdwatching of sitting at your kitchen table and enjoying the Cardinals and Chickadees eating your sunflower seed and splashing in your birdbath. It is the birdwatching of intense travel to nearly every remote location in the world in order to see as many species as possible. The subject of this story is well known to the birding fraternity [sorority?] as Phoebe Snetsinger. Over a period of years and with an unlimited budget she wa ...more
Nov 04, 2018 rated it it was ok
This biography is an account of the remarkable life of Phoebe Snetsinger who eventually saw more species of birds than anyone else had before. As a young woman in th years before there were many other options for women, Phoebe was quite unhappy as a stay-at-home mother to four children. A neighbor introduces her to bird watching, which becomes her passion, and ultimately life's purpose after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis. Along the way she crosses paths with preeminent conservationists s ...more
Apr 07, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: birds
I suspect that at the end of the year, this extremely engaging and well-written biography of Phoebe Snetsinger will be on my short list of the best books I've read this year. I picked it up on a lark, since I will pick up nearly anything having to do with birds and since, of course, just the word "Snetsinger" is capable of putting me and many other birdcrazy people in profound and prolonged awe. I knew of course the "basic outline" of her story--diagnosed with malignant melanoma, but went on a f ...more
Marge Anderson
Jul 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
Astonishing biography of a brilliant woman hemmed in by the limited options of 1960's upper middle-class conventions for women. Once the kids leave the nest , Phoebe Snetsinger liberates her brilliant mind and sense of adventure through bird-watching across the globe. Far from ladylike, global birding in the 1970's and 80's was difficult and dangerous, heading into conflict regions ill-prepared. Snetsinger became one of the greatest birders of all time, faced and recovered from dangers, and free ...more
May 21, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nook-books, birds
Not good. The only reason I gave it 2 stars was because I loved many of the birding stories.
I did not like the formats it was written in. I was expecting a story and instead got a very long and overdone news article. Too many direct quotes to enjoy fully.
I also disapprove of how the author added what she assumed was in the brain of Phoebe. How she tried to be a psychologist not a writer.
On top of all this the story was sad. Not because of the rape, cancer or death either... but I felt sad for th
Dec 15, 2009 rated it liked it
Talk about OCD! Who knew birding could be a competitive sport? This is a true story of a woman who took up birding and became obsessed with becoming the person who viewed the most species of the world's birds (9,7000 at the time she was alive). She literally traveled 6-10 months of the year all over the world to obscure places just to see specific birds that she could check off her "life list". A very interesting profile of a unique personality. This woman was definitely running away from someth ...more
Jun 23, 2016 rated it really liked it
A fascinating account of the life and obsession of Phoebe Snetsinger - the first person to see over 8000 of the world's bird species. Not a book just for birders. It covers issues of women's roles particularly after marriage, thwarted ambition, obsession, family dysfunction and the environment and travel.
Apr 27, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
I really enjoyed this book! It inspired me so much, I ended up taking a couple of classes at my local Audubon Society to learn my about birds.
Sep 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: no-lib, own
Where to begin? This is the biography of Phoebe Snetsinger a world renowned birder. The first person to see 8000 species. Not hear but see. Near the end of her quest the rules changed and a heard bird was considered acceptable to list. She refused to do so.

She also was a wife and mother. Highly educated from a wealthy family. Her father was a self made man. Leo Barnett started an ad agency not just any agency but the agency that created Tony the Tiger and the Marlboro Man. But Phoebe was a prod
Sirpa Grierson
Dec 02, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nature
Without Boundaries

The story of one of the most accomplished birder in the world, was a mixed read for me. At times I felt that the author repeated herself and that the writing was not as sophisticated as I had hoped. Yet, the subject of the story, Phoebe Snetsinger, is a complex, driven, and fascinating woman. Although perhaps not in “touch” with her deeper feelings, according to the author, her ability to focus on her love of birds drove her many years past a cancer diagnosis and many mishaps a
Feb 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
Going in to this I had no idea who Phoebe Snetsinger was. I'm relatively new to birding though, and the world as Snetsinger knew it (the competitive listing, the 'clubs' etc) isn't the one I see. It's amazing how much easy technology has opened up the playing field.

This is essentially a biography of one of the greatest birders of all time, a woman with the drive and the resources to see more birds than anyone else in the world. Of the approximately 10,000 extant species, she personally observed
Jul 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
I had never heard of Phoebe before until I heard her name mentioned in another book - so I started this one. As somebody relatively new birding, I found this book super interesting. She had the resources to live her life, albeit, selfishly. She ignored her family for the great bird chase, but, that's just who she was. She had no concept of how to be a good family woman since her dad was clearly absent, putting his career ahead of his relationship with them. She essentially did the same - she had ...more
Feb 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: favorites
This is the story of a woman birds. Phoebe Snetsinger who is quite wealthy, pursues her dream of seeing and keeping a record of the most birds ever seen by one person in the world. Birders refer to the recording of bird sightings as a Life List. Of course, this isn't just about birds but about obsessive compulsive disorder ( I am not a psychologist), narcissism ( did I mention that I am not a psychologist?), and absolute heartbreak for her family. I couldn't stop reading this, kin ...more
Roberta R. Carr
Jul 03, 2017 rated it liked it
An interesting bio about a frustrated, intelligent, and driven woman. She uses a substantial inheritance and a grim medical diagnosis to confront a mid-life crisis by becoming the world's top birder. I admire her drive and accomplishments but question her sanity after she puts herself in so much danger. She ignores her family--doesn't attend her mother's funeral nor a daughter's wedding, leaves her husband for months at a time-- in pursuit of growing her life list of birds. Wouldn't be my priori ...more
Jul 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
Really interesting biography. I love to bird and was fascinated by this story. Although there are quite a bit of mentions of various world birds (almost all of which are unfamiliar to me), this isn't really a story about birding, but more about the frustration experienced by educated women forced to be housewives, how a cancer diagnosis leads to a total change in lifestyle, and the line between passion and obsession.
Jul 31, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: biography
Phoebe Snetsinger started bird watching in her thirties and eventually became the first person to see 8,000 species. The author, Olivia Gentile, tells Phoebe's life story, giving the details of her years of traveling all over the world to see exotic species that the majority of people will never see. This story was appealing to me as a bird watcher.
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I'm an author, journalist, and mother. I write about grandparents and their growing importance at my website, The Grandparent Effect: Stories from a quiet revolution. I'm crazy about fiction for both kids and grownups.