Life is finally getting back to some version of “normal.”
After being housebound for far too long, people are jumping at the chance to take vacations and staycations. And those are ideal times to feed our minds with good reads.
My love for fly fishing was a major motivator for me to book my first trip. And my first book recommendation ties in perfectly with that love. It’s “The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century” by Kirk Wallace Johnson, one of those stories you’d have a hard time believing if it weren’t true. (And it is.)
It’s about a 20-year-old American musical prodigy who hops a train after performing a concert in London to rob one of the world’s largest ornithological collections: rare bird specimens…and feathers. The detail is that the flutist, Edwin Rist, is obsessed with the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying. Rist makes off with hundreds of bird skins – some dating back to Charles Darwin’s time – and disappears into thin air.
The author hears of the heist a couple of years later from a fly-fishing guide and becomes equally obsessed – but this time with investigating what seemed like an inexplicable crime in search of an explanation. The best part is that he digs into the roots and the impact of obsessions. Not just Rist’s – but also our own.
The pandemic gave us ringside seats to watch how pharmaceutical companies operate – including their unhealthy interrelations with the agencies that regulate them. That added another dimension to what we had seen earlier in the news about the company that brought us OxyContin.
“Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty” by Patrick Radden Keefe gives us a scary look into pharmaceutical companies and how their products are marketed. The Sacklers – one of the wealthiest families in the world – were best known for their generous donations to the arts and sciences. Less known was the fact that their three-generation fortune was built on the marketing of Valium. And their downfall would come from making and marketing the blockbuster painkiller OxyContin.
Valium’s marketing methods were replicated: influencing the FDA, manipulating doctors and hiding the dangers of the drug. But this time, they resulted in an opioid crisis worth $35 billion in revenues and millions of lives ruined. Hundreds of thousands would die.
What is most enlightening is to see the lengths to which this family would go to evade responsibility – based on its belief that the elite are somehow above the law. The detailed investigation into the Sacklers’ greed and indifference turns this book into a compelling, can’t-put-it-down, eye-opening read.
A recent safari trip to South Africa inspired my next two recommendations.
The first, “The Soul of the White Ant” by naturalist Eugène N. Marais, is about termites. While to most of us, these are simply pests that need to be driven from our homes to avoid destruction, to Marais, they were part of a captivating world of psychologically sophisticated creatures. His extensive research – conducted in South Africa and translated into English from Afrikaans in 1937 – is as relevant today as it was then.
This book isn’t just for someone with a scientific interest in insects. It is equally captivating to anyone introduced to the hierarchy and roles of what goes on among a community of workers, soldiers, queens and kings in a nest. You’ll be surprised.
My second Africa-inspired recommendation is an animal lover’s treat. “The Elephant Whisperer” by Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence recounts conservationist Anthony’s efforts to save a herd of seven “rogue” elephants from death by taking them onto his South African preserve. The book offers pure adventure on every page.
Anthony works to create enough acceptance from the elephants to stop their escaping without becoming too tame. He achieves this by building trust with each one, carefully factoring in each animal’s wide range of emotions and intuition. The gift for Anthony comes in the form of poignant life lessons about loyalty and freedom.
What is most astounding is the depth of the relationship the elephants hold for Anthony. Don’t miss it.
So how do I escape when I can’t get away to remote fly-fishing locations and South African savannahs – and I don’t have another book at hand? I crack a book of Sudoku puzzles. Pure escape!
Let me know what’s on your reading list these days. I’d love to hear your recommendations. Until then, here’s to a relaxing, family-filled summer!
This article originally appeared in Old Colony Memorial