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The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century
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December 2018: Geek Reads > The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson--5 stars + ♥

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Nicole R (drnicoler) | 7644 comments The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson
5 stars + ♥

I was totally surprised at how much I loved this book. The story is so insane! Edwin Rist, a 20-year old flute prodigy studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London, is also another kind of prodigy. He is arguably the world's best fly tier. As in fly fishing ties.

Now, you may be thinking. "Oh! This is a history story. This guy obviously lived in, like, the Victorian Era." Ummm, no. Despite his antiquated hobby, Rist is younger than me and was 20 in 2009!

Rist becomes obsessed with getting the feathers to make classic salmon flies. These flies—which were designed in the Victorian Era—use feathers from some of the rarest birds on Earth. Birds that are now protected from importing and selling by numerous international treaties and domestic laws. Which, of course, sends grown men scrambling for ladies Victorian hats and estate sales in hopes of stumbling upon rare feathers.

But Edwin has a better idea. He is just going to scoop up a suitcase full of them from....the British Museum of Natural History in Tring, England.

Y'all, he just broke into a museum and took them. 299 of them to be exact. He took Birds of Paradise that ALFRED RUSSELL WALLACE collected. He passed on Darwin's finches because they were not pretty enough. He rolled his suitcase out of there, got back on a train to London, and brazenly sold the skins and feathers on EBay under his own freaking name.

And it still took over a year for police to find him. And then he did not serve a day in prison! In fact, he got a job at with the ultra-elite German orchestra where he continued to work at least up to the writing of this book. Why? Because a doctor, who happens to be Sasha Baron Cohen's cousin, said that he had Asperger's and did not know right from wrong. A diagnosis that seems suspect at best, and one that even Edwin admits he feels was inaccurate but he was not going to look a gift horse in the mouth!

Like the author, this story boggles my mind. And hurts my heart at the natural history loss that comes with the stealing of these birds. The author not just tells Edwin's story, but touches on Wallace, Rothschild who started the Museum of Natural History in Tring, how museum specimen continue to contribute to science, the underground world of fly tying (which is CRAZY intense), and the web of possibly culprits who are still hoarding the 60+ stolen birds that are unaccounted for.

Was the book perfect? No. There were a couple of parts that dragged on a bit. And the last section was told from the author's point of view about how he decided to recover the remaining missing birds and detailed his exploits. I wasn't crazy about how the author came off. Like, he seriously thought he was just going to magically track down all of these birds and return them, with their catalog tags intact, to the museum? He was a little self-aggrandizing. With an odd mix of naiveté.

But, bottom line, this story blew my mind. I learned so many new things and it reaffirmed that I really should read more microhistories because they are totally my thing. Deep dives into narrow topics that allow me to totally geek out!


Nicole R (drnicoler) | 7644 comments Also, interested in the story but not enough to commit to a whole book, This American Life covered it as well!

https://www.thisamericanlife.org/654/...


Joanne (joabroda1) | 7122 comments This look fascinating! I am adding to my shelf, your review really pulled me in-


message 4: by KateNZ (new) - added it

KateNZ | 2208 comments I’ve had this on my radar for a while, as it sounds so bizarre. But for some reason, I hadn’t clocked that it was so very recent - which makes it even weirder.

Makes your heart ache for the museum curators


Nicole R (drnicoler) | 7644 comments KateNZ wrote: "I’ve had this on my radar for a while, as it sounds so bizarre. But for some reason, I hadn’t clocked that it was so very recent - which makes it even weirder. "

Right?! Before I seriously considered reading it I also totally thought it was an older story. It just seems so ridiculous. Wait til you read how he broke in....


message 6: by KateNZ (new) - added it

KateNZ | 2208 comments That’s it. The older (ex biology student) son is getting it for Christmas. Not that his wife will thank me if it rekindles his short obsession with fishing - he has my father’s box of fishing flies ... And then I can snaffle it later. Sorted.


Nicole R (drnicoler) | 7644 comments KateNZ wrote: "That’s it. The older (ex biology student) son is getting it for Christmas. Not that his wife will thank me if it rekindles his short obsession with fishing - he has my father’s box of fishing flies..."

Hahahaha! I love the plan!


Hayjay315 | 199 comments A friend gifted this to me and I was so intrigued by the eye popping colorful cover that I had to sit down and crack the cover. Ended up finishing it in a day as I could not put it down! A truly wild story and one that made my top 10 list of most enjoyed books this year!


Nicole R (drnicoler) | 7644 comments Hayjay315 wrote: "A truly wild story and one that made my top 10 list of most enjoyed books this year! ."

I haven't put together my Top 10 list yet for the year but it is definitely a strong contender! I have had several excellent nonfiction books this year.


message 10: by Theresa (last edited Dec 12, 2018 01:11PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Theresa | 6114 comments This is definitely on my top 10 list for the year. I read it right after it was published for Pop Sugar Challenge - I needed a true crime book and did not want to read anything with a serial killer or grotesque murder in it (I dislike true crime in general -- and yes, I love mysteries, suspense, detective books. True crime is not the same). Fortunately this was mentioned in a column about upcoming publications to watch out for, the cover absolutely sucked me in and I paid full hardcover price for it.

I loved loved loved it! Stayed up way too late over 2 nights just to finish it. Fascinating. I actually concluded that the whole Asperger's defense was a defense Rist concocted as sort of a last resort effort. And it worked. I found it so very clear at the end that Rist morally has absolutely no sense of having done something wrong. In some ways he seems to believe he had a right to do what he did. I fail to see that as having anything to do with Aspergers or any other aspect of autism.

One of the things I also liked about the book was that it really painted in the background history as well, not just of the art of fly tying, but also of natural history and collecting. My heart breaks just thinking about the destruction.

To NicoleR's point about the author and his tilting at the windmill of researching and retrieving some of the missing specimens, I saw it all of a piece with who the author was and his own obsessions and leanings towards work and goals that can be reached only against overwhelming odds -- remember the kind of work he had done for years prior to researching and writing this story. At the same time, it demonstrated very clearly the fruitlessness of efforts to locate and restore items stolen from museums. I think it was a necessary part of the story.


message 11: by Joi (new) - added it

Joi (missjoious) | 3778 comments WTF. So many WTF's in your excellent review.
Added to the TBR in hopes of the NFL challenge winning!


Nicole R (drnicoler) | 7644 comments It is WTF-packed! Lol


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