Mozart’s Starling

Mozart's StarlinEven though I am a writer by trade and inclination, I am frugal with my book buying dollars. I always stop at used book sales. I borrow from the library. Sometimes I exchange books with friends (that I know will bring them back). And sometimes, I buy new.

New books are expensive, and even though I know the reasons behind their pricing, I diligently curate my new book buying habit, purchasing only “good stuff” that I’m willing to give space to on my shelves.

One of my annual delights is treating myself to a new book (okay, it’s always more than one) in the month of May.

That’s my birthday month and my favorite independent bookstore, Norwich Bookstore in Norwich, Vermont, sends me a card good for 20 percent off any book I care to order.

In April, I start making a little list of non-fiction, books I plan to use as references for my own work or explorations into areas that just interest me.

Any of you who have read my Carding novels know that I have a fascination with crows. They appeared in my first book, The Road Unsalted, and my second, Thieves of Fire. Believe it or not, for a bird that’s so ubiquitous, good, readable references for them are as scarce as…well…crow’s teeth.

So when I saw a story about a book called Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, it shot straight to the top of that little list. By conventional publishing standards, Crow Planet is an “old” book. (It was published in 2011.) So I called the book store to see if they had a copy on the shelves.

“Sorry, but we can order that for you,” the woman who answered the phone said. (Yes, I was talking to a real person, not pressing buttons in an eternal tape loop of death.)

And then that old magician, Serendipity, entered our conversation. “Have you read her latest, Mozart’s Starling?”

No.

“Oh, it’s terrific. I just finished reading it and it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.”

Oh really? Tell me more.

And after she did, I reserved a copy of that book too.

So I have two recommendations for you. First is Mozart’s Starling. Haupt found her way to writing this book when she got curious about a story linking two of her life’s passions—birds and classical music, particularly Mozart. It seems that the great composer purchased a starling from a pet shop in Vienna when he heard the bird trill a passage of Mozart’s music. (Starlings, come to find out, are incredible mimics.)

Sounds straightforward, right? But there’s a strange wrinkle to this story. Mozart had not released that piece of music to the public. So how did the little bird know the tune?

Intrigued? So was Lyanda Lynn Haupt. And her curiosity led her to rescue a five-day old starling from certain death to raise in her home. (She learned the skills of avian rescue working at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee, just over the hill from where we live.)

Mozart named his bird Star. Haupt named hers Carmen.

Carmen turns out to be part curious kitten, part mischievous toddler as well as a teacher and an agile mimic. In addition to saying “Hi Carmen, c’mere” and lots of other human phrases, the bird also imitates sounds from everyday life such a creaking floor and a coffee grinder.

I have a love of books that delve into overlooked crannies of life, especially when they are by authors with the gifts of impeccable research, clear writing, and the ability to weave a narrative out of seemingly dissimilar threads. Michael Pollan did that in Botany of Desire, Robert Macfarlane in The Old Ways, and Malcolm Gladwell in Blink.

Haupt has these same gifts in abundance. Not only did I have the delight of vicariously living with Carmen, I learned about new research into bird song, music and the human acquisition of language. With our politics growing darker by the moment, I needed a book that reminded me of what I love most about our spinning blue planet. And living here in Vermont, I am fortunate to be surrounded by rivers and woods and hiking trails and mountains.

It was refreshing to spend time in the company of a woman who feels the same way.

My second recommendation is for shopping at independent book stores such as the one in Norwich. They are such special places and I find that staff recommendations are always worth listening to. I’m certainly glad I did on this occasion.

So, give your spirits a lift. Learn something new. Spend time with an author who’s a delight to read.

You’ve earned that, haven’t you?

 

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