Dr. Chilton is somebody to enjoy a coffee or a gin and tonic with, anywhere between Manitoba and New South Wales. After all, he did as much for a dead duck. He is a bit better than a tolerable writer, and what he has done is worth writing about. Not quite so dyed in the feather as are birders, he is nevertheless surpassingly obsessive. He is just odd duck enough for this book to attract birders and a larger audience of eccentric readers who like the small and close. Like Joe Roth, he captures much bigger things of history and sociology by tracing his steps, looking for the extinct Labrador Duck. This is no who-done-it book as other readers have crabbed. There is no punch line, no fabulous resolution. He hooked me when he explained the allusive obvious, Labrador is la bra d'or, a golden arm laying in a cold sea. He convinced me to visit Blanc Sablon before its last 1235 inhabitants leave on foot or by box; and certainly before the late summer black fly mating.
Dr. Chilton builds no argument, makes no grand claim. No dying duck in a thunderstorm plea from him either. He hooked me when he explained the elusive obvious. Labrador, when you look at its map, is a bra d'or, a golden arm lying on a cold sea. The Gulf of St. Lawrence is barely warmed by the last of the Gulf Stream. He is scientist enough to show you both the clever and the careful. His traveller enough to have quickly convinced me to visit Blanc Sablon before its dwindling 1235 people have left by foot or by casket. I know enough to go before the mating season of the black fly after mid-summer. Audobon & Son went to Blanc Sablon in a shoot-em-up and paint-em-down. He was not the first to draw or paint the Labrador Duck. As usual, the annoying Germans got a forty-four year jump on them in the person of Johan Friedrich (yes, another one) Gmelin.
We follow Dr, Chilton from Scotland in search of an old crank, as only an eighty-two year old, egg-collecting Scott can be. To Paris and even to St. Petersburg. I wonder how people move such a duck so far from its original limits. Who, then, is the stranger creature?
Glenn Chilton is an ornothologist on a mission: to see and note all the stuffed labrador ducks in the world. The labrador duck went extinct about 90 years after it was discovered, and only about 54 preserved specimens still exist. That means it should be easy to track them all down, right? Wrong. These 54 ducks are spread throughout the Western world, and their whereabouts aren't always clear. Add to that the fact that the owners of the ducks aren't always cooperative, and you've got yourselve an adventure.
I really enjoyed this book for about the first third. It was interesting to learn something about ornithology and the labrador duck, and the places Chilton visited seemed interesting. We get a little history about the various cities, and about where certain ducks came from. The best part was Chilton's writing. He has a casual style, which made the book easy to read, and he's got a good sense of humor. It's not all written to be funny, but the parts that are reminded me of humor collumnist Dave Barry's writing. If you're familiar with Barry, you realize that this is high praise. Chilton is a very likeable narrator, and I wanted to love this book.
However, despite the good writing, I soon started getting bored with the story. It was just too repetative. When Chilton visits a new city, he takes in the sights, eats and drinks, examines a duck or two, and reports on the condition of said duck(s). Some of the problems he runs into along the way are funny, but the various locations start to kind of blend together after a while. Chilton's travelling companions don't have much of a presence in the book, and their personalities didn't come through at all. The book description made it sound like there was lots of crazy adventures and scandalous history within the pages, but most of the things described only took about a page to get through.
I did like this book, but it could have been a lot shorter. There's just too much filler. Maybe if I had been to some of the places Chilton visited, I would have been able to distinguish them better, but all the long descriptions got boring. I think this is a good book to check out from the library. You can read as far as you feel like and skim the rest. If you decide to do that, I will tell you not to miss out on the last two chapters, as they're some of the best in the book. It's a book worth reading, even if you don't read the whole thing.
This work is a first person account of a rather obsessive ornithologist in his quest to locate, observe and study every Labrador Duck in existence. At this point the reader should know that this particular species of duck has been extinct for around 130 to 140 years now so we are talking stuffed ducks in various museums and private collections. This search took several years to complete and the author takes us with him on his journeys around the world.
You cannot help but compare Glen Chilton's style of write to that of Bill Bryson. Both authors have a rather low keyed and quirky outlook on life and their writing reflects that fact. Chilton has used this search for this dead duck to hang a very mellow travel book on and as a premise to observe the human condition as he travels from place to place.
I personally enjoyed this read but then it must be noted that I am rather obsessive in nature myself, am an avid birder and have been for years, and I enjoy reading most of Bill Bryson's work. I also enjoy travel and enjoy musty museums so this work met my needs perfectly.
I did get quite a number of laughs out of reading this work as the author's self depreciating wry sense of humor fit me like a glove and I understood perfectly where he was coming from as I read his words. The entire book is written in a light, conversational manner and is simply a fun read. I look forward to reading any future work by this author.
Everybody has their own little obsessions in life. For me, as a travel photographer, it's finding the perfect place to photograph a sunset from a really pretty beach. (That's not too much to ask in life, is it?) For Glen Chilton, the obsession was going to see (and examine) every stuffed and very extinct Labrador duck on Earth--and he did. This book is a kind of travelogue/adventure story/ornithology lesson all rolled into one and, while you might not think so based on that description, it's a very fun book to read. What I found most fascinating about the book was that there are fakes out there (who is faking stuffed extinct birds?) and that there are so many dubious examples to be found (though not all turn out to be what they purport to be, many seem to have bits and pieces of the real thing--which is even more strange).
The author, Chilton, is really a likable and funny guy who translates some rather obscure science into very a fun adventure story. I have to admit I don't recall who funded this quest for the Holy Quail, but there is quite a bit of international travel going on and that is half the fun. Along the way he meets some really fun and colorful characters, as well.
I have to say, most natural history books--even those getting great reviews--turn out to be dry, tedious reads. But like Annie Dillard, this guy makes natural history quite a warm and cozy subject. This is a very good book for a long flight or for a summer weekend at the beach. Not much in the way of harrowing adventures, but a very pleasant book that you will enjoy.
"I was a nervous and obsessive child" writes Glen Chilton at the beginning of his first chapter, and readers take heed. What follows is a more-than-bizarre world travel finding and examining all remaining stuffed Labrador Ducks he can locate. This was no pleasure cruise.
He travels to Blanc Sablon, Labrador; Ontario, Nova scotia, Canada; London and Liverpool; Paris; to small German towns and old Russian villages; Clifton manages to pull off a smartly-written and entertaining book. Even Liverpool comes across as attractive and pleasant.
Although the scenes may play off rather somber in the background-- the long flights, train rides or taxi drives, the dingy hotels and the foul weather-- his passion for the ducks and his wry humor keep the reader going. All the characters in this book, like accomplices to a crime, help him achieve his goal of finding all the Labrador Ducks, surely shaking their heads in disbelief at such a passionate man.
But, despite my pleasure in reading this book, some may find this rather dull. There is much explaining for the unscientific minded in this book, such as taxidermic stands versus a study skins, before one can read on. If a reader doesn't care for birds, then perhaps they should persue no more.
Clifton explains each in laymans terms before going on about his studies. He travels from museum to museum to identify and then measure each bird he finds. Some trips aren't successful. Curators, museum administrators and anyone nice enough to help him out are lovingly portrayed in this book. Those who are grumpy or annoyed are not.
One has to have an interest in birds, ornithology, eccentric travel and of-the-wall history, and patience to put up with this sort of travel, but what saves Clifton is his upbeat personality, his ever-optimistic outlook and his clever humor. All this is evident in his writing style, which flows rather freely across the page.
Who would have thought anyone was interested in the Labrador Duck? I was compelled to continue reading, as any good professor would to his students, and I finished this book rather impressed with what I picked up not just about this extinct bird, but what I learned about certain towns, train stations, museums and bars. The unusual plot, the original background and the pleasant people together make this an enjoyable weekend read.
In the end, it is Clifton's determination and upbeat personality that shine through in this book, and after finishing the book one feels one sat back and listened to an enthusiastic professor at a bar one night boasting about his global escapades.
"Glen, ya gotta write a book!" one bar patron surely said.
"By god lad, I will!" Clifton no doubt responded. And that's how I see the birth of this book.
Having contributed to the exhaustive Birds of North America species account for the White-crowned Sparrow, Glen Chilton took up the account for the Labrador Duck thinking an extinct species about which little was known would make for a quick, easy job. Little did he know that that account would drive him obsessively on a quest to see every Labrador Duck specimen in existence.
This book isn't an ornithological description of the extinct Labrador Duck (certainly not like one of the Birds of North America species accounts, the writing of which as stated originally set Dr. Chilton on his trek), though many details about the species make their way into the narrative. Nor is it strictly a travelogue accounting the journey across the world (Dr. Chilton logged nearly 80,000 miles by air and thousands more by train and car), though many of the anecdotes do indeed read like such (from his posing throughout Russia with a Beano comic book to the travails of a nearly-day-long bus ride in the UK). Instead, the book weaves together something of each of these elements and says--proclaims admittedly, even--something about human obsession. What else would explain talking your wife into a "vacation" whose real purpose is to visit a museum and study
The prose itself was to me a quick, fairly smooth read, written with a dryly humorous and irrelevant tone ("What does arsenic smell like? Almonds? Or is that cyanide?" to paraphrase one bit where he is musing on the woodsmoke-like smell presumably of preservative inside one specimen; another museum warned of "not licking the ducks" to avoid the potential of cyanide poisoning--as if someone actually anticipated a bout of duck-licking in the researcher-only archives!). Although there are a few points where Dr. Chilton struck me as trying too hard to keep his tongue in cheek, overall, I definitely enjoyed the writing.
As other reviewers have noted, there are what may seem to be rather repetitive accounts of each of the 55 Labrador Duck specimens Dr. Chilton examines around the world (from the traditional taxidermic mounts to "study skins"), but I read those as only a further expression of the obsession which is at the stated core of the book itself--and found most of the described ducks to be unique: this one with a mallard's feet, that one with some of its feathers replaced with another duck's (noticed due to the iridescent green sheen), this's bill unnaturally painted, and so forth.
Overall, I really enjoyed the book, and though I am a bird enthusiast and also have a strong background in the sciences, I do not think this book is aimed at or is limited to ornithologists and rabid bird watchers. It put me in mind of another story of avian obsession (Mark Obmascik's The Big Year) which I read and enjoyed well before I was interested myself in birding or would dream of racking up frequent-flier miles in pursuit of a glimpse of a tiny feathered bit of color in the wilds.
(The actual curse refers to one particular specimen--I won't ruin the story given the anecdote ties together and concludes the book, but it's one with a history of misfortune for its owners through history.)
Dr Glen Chilton, from the list of degrees and professional achievements appending to his name, is a serious scientist. However, he has written a book that for charm and irreverent humor will cause the reader to laugh out loud.
This is the story of one man who set out to view all the fifty-something stuffed and skinned specimens still existing of the Labrador Duck--a quest that took him to natural history museums in Canada, the United States, Great Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Belgium and Russia. The great charm of this daffy idea is Dr Chilton himself, a perfect traveling companion, ready to hit every bar on the way to the natural history museum and full of honest irreverence for the sacred cows of the great cities he visits.
One sees the method in his madness, as his bird watching is done indoors in the central areas of great cities. He usually gets into the museum for free. He has a devastating eye for human foibles, a wicked sense of humor and a breezy and casual style that make this off-beat travelogue an absolute gem.
Examples can be found on nearly every page:
On security checks: "A lady with a hand wand checked my trouser zipper with a degree of enthusiasm that didn't seem entirely professional."
On drinking before dinner: "...my dinner companions were Tony Blair, Judy Jetson, Papa Smurf, Alanis Morissette, Sir Bob Geldof, Queen Gertrude of Belgium, Thomas Hardy, and Ed Sullivan."
On the Avenue of Americas in New York City: "En route, I met Shopping Cart Man, who stood in the middle of the avenue shouting, "Either you're a Republican and you're for America, or you're a Democrat and you're against America...""
Glen Chilton definitely has the eye for the odd ducks and might be a little daffy himself. To anyone who has ever enjoyed a natural history museum, this book is invaluable because Chilton does not pull his punches in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the institutions he visits. I'd recommend this to fans of travel, natural history, birds, beer and literature as Chilton's frank, off-beat observations are dead on.
I'm most charmed by Dr Chilton's method of urban navigation: he just picks out some people who look like they know where they are going and follows them. He's also the kind of guy who won't rest quietly in the hotel room but goes out looking for adventure; he's the oldest guy in the bar, noting that the band does not look old enough to be there. He's a live wire and he's written a wonderfully funny book. Do read it before you go extinct.
on October 28, 2009
First things first: this is not a mystery (which everyone who saw me reading it thought it was), and it's not really about birds or extinction (which I thought it would be). What The Curse of the Labrador Duck is is an amusing, witty account of Glen Chilton's travels around the world, as he goes from museum to museum hoping to examine every remaining stuffed specimen of the extinct Labrador Duck. He mentions several times throughout the book that he gives lectures and talks about his attempts to track down every single stuffed Labrador Duck, which explains why the book reads almost exactly like a travelogue. You can almost hear the spaces left in for audience chuckles after Chilton makes a corny pun or tells a humorous anecdote.
I enjoyed this book. Glen Chilton isn't a great author, but he's a good one, and he has enough changes of venue and adventures during his travels that the pace of the book makes up for the sometimes choppy writing. If you're in the ornithology or museum fields, you'll enjoy the fact that Chilton is very conscientious about mentioning the people who helped him or communicated with him throughout his project; as a result, anyone close to the fields will likely find a few familiar names in the book- I knew two of the people mentioned. But in general, I'd say this would be enjoyable for people who are fond of travel stories or mildly humorous nonfiction books. Anytime you set off for a foreign country where you don't speak the language and try asking questions about extinct ducks, you're likely to have a few good stories to tell. Since Chilton does this over and over again, there are more than a few good stories recounted in The Curse of the Labrador Duck.
I opened the book knowing nothing about the author, Glen Chilton, except what was on the cover. By the third paragraph of the introduction, I was hooked. This is a funny man, one determined not to let his book become as dry as the specimens of extinct Labrador ducks he searches for. And he certainly succeeds.
The short version of the basic story is this: The Labrador duck went extinct over 130 years ago and may have been the first North American bird to go extinct after the arrival of Europeans. Chilton decided to make it his quest to find every single specimen in the world and basically to do everything he could to learn as much about the Labrador duck as possible. (He's an ornithologist, so this sort of thing is right up his alley.) But, as with so many journeys, this one's point is not the destination but the trip itself. In this sense, he's fairly similar to Bill Bryson. That comparison is apt. If you enjoy one, you should enjoy the other. The journey here is really a fairly random one, despite the unifying nature of the quest: Chilton deals with pretty much everything that crosses his path, including marital advice, child smuggling, rude museum workers, pleasant museum workers, and much more.
My only hesitation in recommending this book is that there are times when I think Chilton needs to rein himself in a bit. Sometimes, it seems as if he is being glib simply to be glib. But this is, and I want to stress this point, a minor objection--a trifling quibble. The Curse of the Labrador Duck is a thoroughly enjoyable read and has made me eager for the release of Chilton's next books (which are about rhododendrons and ferrets).
According to the jacket of "The Curse of the Labrador Duck," Dr. Glen Chilton is a leading authority on the extinct Labrador Duck, as well as a renowned ornithologist. According to another reviewer on the back, he's also "a bit insane." I don't feel qualified to judge that, but Dr. Chilton is certainly passionate about his subject. The last duck of this species disappeared in 1875, but 54 stuffed ducks remain and can be found all over the world. Not only did Dr. Chilton travel to each and every duck, he also investigated various rumors about missing ducks, which led mostly to dead ends. Still he persisted, and "The Curse," is a very funny account of how.
On a quest that will take him and his family everywhere from Scotland to the Soviet Union, Dr. Chilton examines duck models in varying conditions, aided and abetted by people of varying helpfulness. He also provides details about the collectors, museum curators and taxidermists of the ducks and tips for tourists of these places. Among the other things I learned was that Newfoundland has a lot of vicious black flies, foreign phrasebooks aren't always the wisest to consult, that Belgium is literally very colorless, and that taking a photo of a federal building in the U.S. isn't illegal, even if a guard says otherwise. Good to know.
While a little light on a detailed background of the Labrador duck, the book provides an amusing international journey in order to complete one man's obsessive quest.