4 out of 5
My bookshelf is 99% fiction. I’m not voluntarily browsing the non-fiction section of the bookstore, and if there’s a topic on which I’ve expressed interest, don’t recommend some book or documentary – I’m very, very unlikely to check it out. There’s an (often circular) conversation on those types of preferences, but for purposes of this here review, it suggests that Pigeons, by Andrew D. Blechman, probably ended up in my collection by way of gift, since I’ve been known to obsess o’er the lil’ head-bobbing creatures in my time.
I was surprised to actually still see it on my shelf, because I know I’d read it, and that means I’d decided to keep it. My 100% fiction rating denied; and now I’ll revisit the book to document my opinion on it: will it survive this second go-through?
Thanks to Blechman’s casual tone – and very much thanks to the way the book leans more into the sensational than the dryly factual – it does. Pigeons isn’t some historical, scientific study of the bird; it’s the click-bait of non-fiction, taking us through fancy pigeon shows and sneaking into pigeon shoots, then sprinkling things with just enough of those facts to ground it, and make us pigeon lovers nod appreciatively at how noble and misunderstood the coo-ers are. This is a horribly dismissive way to describe the book, as it makes it sound un-researched, but that’s not the case: rather, the skill is in constructing this stuff in a way a good teacher might, so a reader walks away with some real knowledge, but couched in spirited true-life tales that are more fun to repeat.
But: while I acknowledge the fun of this, and tear through the book at a good rate, even on this second reading, I find what I always consider to be the limitation of the genre – that it’s not a story with a beginning an end. Blechman thus must add something of a structure to his list of Crazy Things About Pigeons, and he chooses to do so by framing it as a journey, starting and ending with a NY-based pigeon racer. Racing then becomes the most frequented topic in the book, and it does begin to get repetitive, also leading to the most dragging chapter, in which Blechman tries to segue in and out of more of the history of the bird’s domestication, while he’s already provided most of that context at several points already. The book’s last few chapters keep harping on this to a degree, revisiting topics we’ve already read about, if from slightly different directions. The “signal” to this is when Blechman goes chasing an interview with Mike Tyson, known pigeon fan – the chapter offers nothing except an amusing runaround for an interview; it doesn’t focus on pigeons at all, really. And once we’ve gone down that path, it gives later chapters liberty to do some of the same, padding us to over 200 pages.
However, by this point, we have learned a fair amount, both in the Crazy Things and Facts columns; enough to certainly merit there being a book dedicated to the birds, and to push the entertainment factor of Pigeons into the positive column. Blechman’s tone throughout is a big assist: he stands back from too much commentary, not trying to overly wow us with some of the wow-worthy bullet points – for how long pigeons have been revered; their still misunderstood homing capabilities – or be overly critical of the extreme types who dedicated their lives to pigeon breeding and racing; he approaches and presents the material very openly, embracing it all, and even participating in (and detailing) things that prevent him from being too easily painted as an animal lover: picking up a gun and taking some shots at a pigeon shoot; consuming squab after being walked through its processing. This wide-eyed style is what helps keep things flowing, masking the somewhat repetitive nature of the later chapters until you’re most of the way through the book.
I’m sure there are more informative books on pigeons out there, but Blechman’s surely must qualify as one of the most entertaining. And maybe it’s not the source to hold up and point to for your research paper, however, it’s a springboard: fiction is made to guide me, and with non-fiction, I like to guide myself. Pigeons provides a great mix of both – guided through a fun tale of discovery, and provided with enough context on topical offshoots I can find out more about on my own.