Bird People

categories: Cocktail Hour


I sent Jonathan Franzen the link to my last post, and he sent along a nice note, saying my piece had been “even-handed,” and he made only a couple small digs at me for taking thorough notes on our birding excursion.  He claimed to have never read the vicious Times reviews before—hard to believe but perhaps he was warned– which made me the bearer of ugly news.  One other afterthought on the piece: a few people said it read like a defense of Franzen, and I suppose it is, but I should add that one of my favorite essays in the last decade (and one that I would include were it my job to anthologize our best recent essays) was a frontal assault on Franzen by Ben Marcus in Harper’s called “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It.” Even when I didn’t agree with the content of the essay, which was often enough, I loved the feel of it, the military build-up, the energetic argument, the thrill of attack.

* * *

A few more bird-people notes.

* This past Sunday I reviewed Sy Montgomergy’s Birdology in the Washington Post. The word length was somewhat restrictive, and I’m not sure if I got my general feeling about the book across.  The feeling was this: I learned a lot, felt the author could write well, and that she was an amiable and occasionally inspiring guide.  What I felt was missing was any crazy Thoreauvian excitement, any sense that what I was reading could be “put to use” in my own life.   (I will tackle this idea in my next blog, “Against a Literature of Fact.”)  This thorny sort of writing is exactly the sort that gets weeded out by New York as interesting, idiosyncratic writers are suppressed.  And it was what I missed in this otherwise admirable and enjoyable book.

* Before I end, I want to mention a few people who roam the ecotone of birds and literature.   The first is Nick Neely, who has done some great blogging for the High Country News, and who edited (edits?) the [LBJ Journal,] which features writing about birds.  The second is John Hay, the great nature writer, who is in his nineties and lives in Maine now, and whose book about terns, The Bird of Light, should be required reading for anyone who aspires to make lit out of feathers.

Two other writers I need to mention are Katie Fallon and Chris Cokinos.  Katie recently finished a beautiful book on cerulean warblers, and Chris, known to bird people for his great book, Hope is the Thing with Feathers,  just edited the last issue of his journal Isotope(shed a tear.).  Chris also has a -piece in the new anthology, Flights of the Imagination: Extraordinary Writing About Birds (where, by way of true confession, I must admit to having a piece on pelicans called “Learning to Surf.”)

Hate to end a self-promotional note, so let me say this: yesterday I saw some great (not “great swamp”) tanagers down at Carolina Beach State Park.  Crazy orange-red.  Like shards of flame flying through the live oaks.

P.S. I almost forget to mention Alan Poole.  He can’t be neglected, particularly during osprey breeding season!   As a biologist, Alan’s dark secret is that he was once an English major.   This might be professionally embarrassing, but it sure came in handy when he crafted the lucid sentences in [Ospreys: An Unnatural History,] a book that has become a classic of the genre and one that I leaned on heavily when writing my own osprey book.

  1. John Jack writes:

    I’d read a fair bit of Gessner and Roorbach before the Cocktail Hour started. I want to believe I could recognize their unique narrative voices anywhere.

    Gessner’s a hushed, awestruck reverence prospecting for intuitive transcendental enlightenment. Roorbach’s a reflexive, insouciant irreverence confident in self-identity seeking the social sutures of significant object signifiers.

    I’d not read enough of Franzen to appreciate his voice, a deficiency I’ve remedied as of last Friday from reading _The Corrections_. Deft ironies of overstatement and understatement expressing a full spectrum of intimate emotions and character personalities. Verbal ironies, situational ironies, dramatic ironies galore, exquisite subtext. Most ironies I find amusing if not outright hilarious. Oh so tortuously rarely an irony that touches me deeply enough to choke me up and well up tears. The family Punishment dinner scene struck a deep chord.

    Mom made Punishment dinners. Her liver and onion dinners were as vile as anyone’s. Scorched heel-leather liver cutlets, alien limp greens–algae-like briny mammock, lumpy bitter beet and rutabaga mashes. I didn’t too much mind them. I’d overheard both Mom and Dad conspiratorially refer to them as Punishment dinners to their private acquaintances.

    My liver and onions preparations, though, tender and tasty Southern cooking gourmet delights al la poor man’s paté.

    Mom’s tuna macaroni cheese casseroles were her worst punishment dinner. She had more than two Punishment menus when I was young. She’s added to her repertoire since I left home decades ago. It was hard for me to believe in her tuna mac and cheese as food, let alone keep it down. I made the mistake of demonstrating a passion for good food and food preparation. As I grew up, more and more, Mom and Dad cooked less and less. They’re back stuck with it again, except for holiday family gatherings, now that us seven siblings have long since flown the nest.

  2. reader writes:

    Here’s a follow-up question that’s maybe not unrelated. It’s interesting to see the two personalities of this blog assert themselves. Bill seems gentler, more willing to take the long walk around things. Dave seems more aggressive, more willing to transgress or willfully offend, brasher. Which do I like better? I like them both plenty. I think I’d rather have Dave on my side in a bar fight, but I think I’d rather have Bill around early in the evening to defuse the fight before it started.

    I tried reading through these posts without looking to see who posted them. It’s not hard to guess which writer is which. There are tonal differences and also structural differences that seem reflective of these differences in temperament.

    This is the best new site on the Internet. Keep doing what you’re doing, guys.

  3. reader writes:

    Did Bill or Dave write this piece and the Franzen piece? Because the Franzen piece is credited to Dave, and this piece is credited to Bill, but this piece claims to be authored by the same guy who authored the Franzen piece. I’m thinking these are both Dave pieces, but wanted to be sure.

    Also, I wondered about what you wrote here about Franzen’s response to the piece. Was Franzen saying he was upset because you brought him in, he was a famous writer, he thought you were going to have a nice morning birding, but you had ulterior motives to maybe capitalize on the fact that you were going birding with a famous writer, and you operated out of those motives without disclosing them? If so, my gut reaction is to say that he’s right to be miffed, although I don’t suppose I would feel the same way if you did the same thing to, say, your mother, who is not a public person. Writers do this kind of thing to everyone all the time, but it seems somehow worse to do it to another writer. The ethics of the guild have been breached.

    What say you, Dave or Bill?

    • Bill writes:

      Dave wrote it, but I posted it, forgetting to log in as Dave. So after I saw yr note, I went back and switched things around, logging in as Dave–he trusts me with his top-secret password and thumbprint I.D.–anyway, I noticed I felt brasher just for those few moments as Dave, more willing to offend… I even took my own side in a bar fight… which is why I’m writing from the emergency room… they have wi-fi here, and the Food Channel is on the TV in the waiting room… you’re not going to believe what I’m watching… That’s me gently judging the cake competition (if you can get through the commercial, etc.).. I’ll let the real Dave answer the rest… Thanks for kind words…

    • Dave writes:

      Dear Reader,

      I think you have a a good point. I’m not sure Franzen was too miffed–he has been brutalized so often in the media that this is softball–but I think that I am on ethically murky ground as far as writing about him. We actually joked about as we were bird-watching.

      I would say I’m a fairly trustworthy person overall, but as far as not writing about people, I would trust me about as far as I could throw me. (That’s quite a sentence.) I wrote about my whole town on Cape Cod (East Dennis) and then went home again and heard about it from everyone. My family has grown pretty used to having almost everything they say recorded. My poor daughter is 6 (7 tomorrow) and already been in three books. I took good care of my father while he was dying but I also took notes.

      I don’t have much of a conclusion to this, but I do think your question is interesting.

      All Best,

      Brawlin’ Dave