THE THING WITH FEATHERS
By Noah Strycker. (Riverhead Books, 288 pages, $27.95.)
Human beings cannot fly (try as we might), but outside of that we share a surprising number of attributes with birds. So observes writer Noah Strycker in his fascinating, readable and informative book, "The Thing With Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human."
Strycker has been interested in birds since he was a kid; he had indulgent parents who allowed him to drag home a dead deer so he could record and photograph the buzzards that came to feed on the carcass. His book is filled with little asides like that, asides that make you go "Huh!" and, sometimes, "Ick!"
But mostly it reveals, chapter by chapter, bird by bird, similarities between avian and human behavior. The bowerbird decorates his home; penguins are afraid of the dark; starlings follow a sophisticated crowd-control system when they form those magnificent murmurations; parrots like to dance. At the end of the book, you might conclude, "We're all just a bunch of birdbrains." And that would not be a bad thing.
By Jennifer Chiaverini. (Dutton, 368 pages, $26.95.)
Bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini ("Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker") does a wonderful job transporting readers to Civil War-era America in "The Spymistress." The historical novel follows the exploits of Elizabeth Van Lew, an unmarried woman of independent means in Richmond, Va., whose loyalty to the United States inspires her to nurse and feed Union prisoners and, eventually, to spy for the North.
Although her allegiance never wavers, Van Lew must maintain a facade of Confederate sympathy, hosting a party for her nephew's brigade and temporarily housing a Confederate officer. Meanwhile, Van Lew feasts on "fast days" and leverages her social standing and money to gather military intelligence for the North, using slaves (whom she pays as servants) and recruiting a network of Union sympathizers.
This engaging novel — based on a real person — reads more like fiction than fact, which is a compliment. However, readers unfamiliar with the ebbs and flows of the Civil War would benefit from more context and a better understanding of the extent to which Van Lew's information helped the Union.
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