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Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds Hardcover – March 31, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this biography of bird enthusiast Phoebe Snetsinger, former journalist Gentile wonders whether there is a line between dedication and obsession, and when does obsession cross the line into pathology? Married, with four children, Phoebe was a frustrated 1950s housewife who began experiencing a depression that felt like she was inside a tomb. Her introduction to bird-watching by another shy, brainy housewife, seeing a warbler through binoculars, was a revelation; it was as if she'd seen a blinding white light. With the help of a local birding club, Phoebe began her life list of birds and gradually began traveling farther afield in search of new sightings. Diagnosed in her late 40s with incurable cancer and less than a year to live, she threw herself into birding, traveling worldwide, ignoring injury and danger to work on her life list for another 18 years, until killed in a bus accident in Madagascar at the age of 68. Gentile's ambivalence, celebrating Snetsinger's having lived so fully and with so much spirit but noting that she had lost the capacity to take into account her family, her health and her safety, adds a reflectiveness that Phoebe herself may have avoided in life. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


“After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Swarthmore, Snetsinger stayed home with [her] four children, a dedicated but dissatisfied mother who might have served only as a cautionary tale for feminists if, one day in 1965, she hadn’t encountered—in her own backyard—a Blackburnian Warbler. Snetsinger’s very ordinariness is part of the charm of Life List, Olivia Gentile’s provocative biography of an amateur ornithologist … That Snetsinger flew the coop was both a point of pride and a point of friction for her family, and Gentile does not cast judgment but simply describes what she sees. By documenting the tension between the obligation to others and the obligation to oneself, Gentile has written a book as much about the life of women as about a woman’s life.”—Christian Science Monitor

"Except for one thing, this book would rate as a great adventure novel and fictional psychological portrait, about a woman's obsession with bird-watching, its effect on her relationships with her husband and her four children, and the horrifying mishaps that she survived on each continent--until the last mishap.  But the book isn't that great novel, because instead it's a great true story: the biography of Phoebe Snetsinger, who set the world record for bird species seen, after growing up in an era when American women weren't supposed to be competitive or have careers.  Whether or not you pretend that it's a novel, you'll enjoy this powerful, moving story."—Jared Diamond, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse

"[A] fascinating biography … a beautiful story of intellectual passion, love of nature, self-education, self-reinvention, and high adventure." —Slate

“Gentile’s tale of a desperate but determined housewife with a passion for birds and adventure is engrossing, sharp, and affecting—a touching portrait and great read.” —Susan Orlean, author of The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup and The Orchid Thief

"Gentile tells Snetsinger's staggering story with clarity and verve. She reflects incisively on the shadow side of Snetsinger's quest—the perverse metamorphosis that turned a liberating passion into a devouring addiction, and perceptively elucidates and celebrates her accomplishments. A remarkable woman of tenacity, courage and transcendence, Snetsinger leaves a profound legacy, which will now be more fully appreciated and treasured thanks to Gentile's enthralling, provocative and inspiring biography." —Chicago Tribune

"After she heard about the Snetsinger legend, Gentile spent eight years pursuing Snetsinger as earnestly as Snetsinger pursued birds. The result is a wonderful book … Snetsinger's story is an adventure story, a psychological drama, a tragedy—and a triumph." —Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Riveting." New Orleans Times-Picayune

“Compelling … [A] fascinating portrait of a woman torn between her obligations to her family and her life's passion: birds.” Cleveland Plain Dealer

“If you think … [Snetsinger] was a nice little lady who puttered around her back yard with binoculars, think again. Or better yet, read Life List, author and journalist Olivia Gentile’s engaging and often exciting biography of Snetsinger … [Snetsinger was] a rare species well worth observing.” —St. Petersburg Times

“[Gentile does] a masterful job of investigating and vividly describing the personality, the extreme will to achieve, and the previously unknown life of Phoebe Snetsinger, the famous first lady of world birding ... absorbing and informative.” —Surfbirds

“There was far more drama in Snetsinger's life than one would ever expect, and Olivia Gentile explores that life gracefully and convincingly... Gentile... places this brainy '50s mom nicely in the context of her times, while probing some of the fundamental questions raised by a hobby that turned into an obsession... A well-told story that carries you along as if on wings.”—Hartford Courant

“As much about meaningful living as about sparrows and chickadees, this intimate piece of reportage follows Phoebe Snetsinger, a housewife who in the 1960s takes refuge from banality in bird watching. Gradually sacrificing family ties and personal safety in her quest to see 8,000 birds before dying, she becomes a mythic figure among birders and leads Gentile to ruminate on how obsession with the natural world—so often touted as a scientist’s best asset—can be destructive as well as fulfilling.” —Seed

Life List is riveting ... the story of a suburban housewife and mother-of-four who became a legend in the testosterone-driven world of competitive birding is more than a biography. It raises themes that echo through all our lives, from the restriction of people’s roles by society, to questions of how best to spend one’s days on Earth. Is pursuing a rare bird a trivial pursuit, or a chase worthy of respect? Ultimately, Life List asks what it means to live, and die, well.” —Nature

“This little book rolls over you like a steam train, slowly gaining speed and intensity, and clattering away in your mind long after you've finished it. With her straightforward, mostly nonjudgmental take, showing without telling, Olivia Gentile raises questions about Phoebe Snetsinger's choices that caused me to examine my own prejudices and boundaries in the pursuit of personal fulfillment. Its penetrating depth is the little surprise of a book that's gripping enough to be a novel, but tells nothing but the truth.” —Julie Zickefoose, Bird Watcher's Digest

Life List is a great book ... Gentile demonstrates how birding can make us feel more alive.” —Montreal Gazette

“[Gentile's] enthusiasm in sharing her research is infectious ... [and her] knack for characterizing our feathered friends in a way that gives them some personality is matched by Rebecca Layton's illustrations, which are delightful.” —Philadelphia Inquirer

"Lively biography of intrepid, world-traveling ornithologist and cancer survivor Phoebe Snetsinger ... the prose delightfully conveys Gentile’s engagement with her subject. Compassionate and comprehensive." —Kirkus Reviews

"[A] stirring account of an intriguing woman and the life she led." —Booklist

"Gentile's in-depth research and lovely prose is accompanied by 16 equally lovely watercolor bird drawings by Rebecca Layton."—Austin American Statesman

"Diagnosed in her late 40s with incurable cancer and less than a year to live, [Phoebe Snetsinger] threw herself into birding, traveling worldwide, ignoring injury and danger to work on her life list for another 18 years ... Gentile’s ambivalence, celebrating Snetsinger’s 'having lived so fully and with so much spirit' but noting that 'she had lost the capacity to take into account her family, her health and her safety,' adds a reflectiveness that Phoebe herself may have avoided in life." —Publishers Weekly
“Snetsinger blended life as a Midwestern wife and mother with that of amateur birdwatcher until she received a terminal cancer diagnosis. Traveling some of the planet’s most remote and dangerous areas, she defied the odds and spent the next 18 years adding to the nearly 8,400 species on her 'life list,' a record that landed her in the Guinness Book of World Records and was only recently surpassed by two (male) British birders … [she was] as dedicated and focused as the best—dare it be said—Ivy League male scientist, a generous leader of her fellow birdwatchers and an advocate who brought attention to the world’s glorious birds and their shrinking habitat.”—BookPage

“Olivia Gentile’s Life List is the remarkable story of Phoebe Snetsinger, a woman trapped by her life as homemaker, who found liberation in bird watching. Diagnosed with terminal cancer, she began traveling the world, not seeking a cure, but in search of rare birds—becoming a kind of ornithologist's heroine, and living another eighteen years. Gentile’s journalistic temperament lures you in, whether you like birds or not (frankly I kind of hate them). The result is a beautifully revealing, sensitive exploration of Snetsinger’s singular obsession. The story slips under your skin—you can’t help but keep reading.”—A.M. Homes, author of The Mistress’s Daughter and This Book Will Save Your Life

"An intriguing portrait of one of the best-known birders of the modern age. I couldn't put it down!"  —Peter Kaestner, America’s top living bird lister

"Phoebe Snetsinger lived a life of high adventure and exotic travel familiar to 19th century explorers - except that she was a 1960s Midwestern housewife who was supposed to be dying of cancer. How she became the world's most driven, globe-trotting birder, what she gained and what she sacrificed to see three-quarters of the Earth's birds, makes Life List an unusually compelling story." —Scott Weidensaul, author of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize finalist Living On the Wind and Of a Feather

“I am not a woman. I am not a birdwatcher, and I don’t plan to become one. But nevertheless I found Life List to be a charming, heartening, fascinating, and altogether inspiring guide to living life (and facing death) with one’s full attention.” —Kurt Andersen, host of NPR’s Studio 360 and author of Heyday

Life List is an engaging saga of how a brave and complex woman defied cancer and gender in an epic quest to become the first person to see eight thousand bird species.” —Frank Gill, author of Ornithology and director and retired chief scientist of the National Audubon Society, and Sally Conyne, retired director of citizen science of the National Audubon Society

Life List will easily attract bird people and the rest of us with its distinctive call. Gentile has written a graceful and very appealing book.”—Meg Wolitzer, author of The Ten-Year Nap and Sleepwalking

Life List is an uncommon sort of book—a sincere, sometimes somber flight through the remarkable, storied life of one of birding’s most tenacious and most erudite adherents. Gentile approaches her subject with equal parts sympathy and sobriety, capturing both the exhilaration and the costs of pursuing one’s passion to the fullest." —Edward S. Brinkley, editor of North American Birds

“Olivia Gentile is a natural storyteller who has found a subject worthy of her remarkable talent. Life List is a book about birds and nature and also about obsession and choices and risk. Gentile has made an elegant, eloquent debut.”—Edward Dolnick, author of The Forger’s Spell

“A phenomenal tale—beautifully told—of escape, risk, and obsession. Judicious [and] insightful.” —Patricia O’Toole, author of When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 345 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; First Edition edition (March 31, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1596911697
  • ISBN-13: 978-1596911697
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #497,625 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

31 of 34 people found the following review helpful By James D. DeWitt VINE VOICE on October 25, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I am a birder. A serious amateur. And a bird photographer. And a big fan of the late, great Phoebe Snetsinger.

Any biography of Snetsinger has to be measured against her own, posthumously published journal, Birding On Borrowed Time. Olivia Gentile had access to many of Snetsinger's family members, most of her papers, and many of her friends and birding companions. She had all the resources. Does she bring anything new?

Gentile makes some excellent points, but the best are left for the reader to glean, not the ones that Gentile forces on a reader. It's hardly news that birders can be obsessive. The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession, Kingbird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder and To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifetime Obsession are just three examples of the subgenre. What Gentile does establish is that Phoebe Snetsinger was among the very best amateur birders of the 20th century. She was much more than one of those birders who tick them off a life list, after a glimpse or a party member's report; she scorned that kind of birder. And Gentile also establishes effectively that for Snetsinger - at least perhaps until the last few years - the birds were the goal, to be savored and appreciated; not the number on a list.
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37 of 43 people found the following review helpful By Julie S. Zickefoose on April 21, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Because I'll be reviewing Life List in an upcoming issue of Bird Watcher's Digest, I'll keep this brief. This little book rolls over you like a steam train, slowly gaining speed and intensity, and clattering away in your mind long after you've finished it. With her straightforward, mostly nonjudgmental take, showing without telling, Olivia Gentile raises questions about Phoebe Snetsinger's choices that caused me to examine my own prejudices and boundaries in the pursuit of personal fulfillment. Its penetrating depth is the little surprise of a book that's gripping enough to be a novel, but tells nothing but the truth.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful By A. Hoey on April 1, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Although I am not a birder, I loved this book. I am a big fan of biographies and this was certainly a riveting one. The story of Phoebe Snetsinger's life is so fascinating it could be a novel, but it's not. Ms. Gentile's writing style is engaging to read and I found myself unable to put the book down until I had finished it. I would definitely recommend this to birders and non-birders alike.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Helen Sewell on April 28, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Olivia Gentile's beautifully recounted story of Phoebe Snetsinger's life raises universal questions of what it means to live a fully-actualized life and the potential price of greatness. It is also just a great read! Highly recommended.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on April 12, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I am a very amateur birder, but an avid reader. This book is a gem! The writing style is personal and yet detached enough to give a full understanding of a remarkable woman.

Phoebe Snetsinger comes to life in this book with all of her delightful charm as well as her rough edges. And all within the context of birds, birds, birds. What a wonderfully balanced fabric is created between the avifauna of the world and the world of this woman.

I think Olivia Gentile does a marvelous job of telling a complex and detailed story in a way that never bogs down, yet never feels rushed or shallow either. At the end of the book I felt like Phoebe was a friend, someone I knew. And I'm sorry I didn't know her on a birding tour.

The birding tales are fantastic and inspired me to get more serious with my birding.

And my own writing!

Just an excellent read!
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I have and had been aware of the exploits of Phoebe Snetsinger well before her death at the age of 68 in a bus accident in Madagascar. While I was aware of her, I most certainly did not know the "full story," but thanks to Olivia Gentile many missing pieces were filled in. I found myself fascinated with Phoebe and her life.

Let me state that I am a birder and have been for well over 50 years now. And yes, I admit to being a "lister" I also must confess that I suffer (If suffering is what you want to call it), with a bit of an obsessive personality. My obsessions are not all directed toward my birding, although there is that aspect too, but I most certainly understand where Phoebe was coming from.

This book was of interesting to me on several levels. Mrs. Snetsinger came to birding rather late in life, and when she was diagnosed with cancer in her late 40s with a very, very poor prognosis. Birding became the center of her entire life. She became a world traveler; an obsessive traveler focusing almost completely on her birding. She was most certainly a "lister" and in the end her "life list" included around 8,500 birds. Folks, that is a lot of birding!

In writing this book the author had almost full access to Phoebe's personal papers, journals, interviews and cooperation with family members and friends. The author has drawn much from these sources and the results are a very well documented account of this fascinating woman's life. The book is extremely well written using simply syntax which is presented in a rather detached manner. I feel it was very important that this work be written in this style as the author has obviously gone out of her way to be strictly nonjudgmental for the most part.
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