Sunday book review – The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster

This is a brilliant book – it goes straight into my shortlist of Books of the Year for this blog. Any book that starts with the author eating snake and quaffing beer in Madagascar is a bit special.

The author states that he is obsessed by Swifts, but actually, if he is, he hides it well in these pages because although this is a book about Swifts, in it the author visits many countries that Swifts fly over too, and his observations of those countries, the people he talks to and his own thoughts about a wide variety of issues make the book riveting and show that he is interested in many things. I read it quickly once I picked it up and very much enjoyed it. It didn’t make me laugh out loud but it certainly brought a smile to my lips several times.

This is a fairly small book with about 150 smallish pages of text and then another 20 pages of references and acknowledgements but it is intense, in that every page has arresting observations and thoughts. I felt no temptation whatsoever to skip a few pages, I wanted to read every word, and I did.

There is only so much that one can tell the reader about Swifts. It’s a bird that travels long distances, spends much of its life on the wing, eats aerial insects and nests mostly in buildings – those are the basics, and every book about Swifts will cover those in different ways. But the value added in this book is very high because of the freshness of the approach, the perspectives on Swifts and on life and on what the author thinks about a variety of issues.

The jacket illustration is by Jonathan Pomroy – it’s pretty much perfect to capture the bird and the feel of the book – 9/10. in the acknowledgements the author says he chose Pomroy because of his skill and says that if his book is judged by its cover then he’ll be pleased – nice touch! The in-book illustrations are by the same artist and are a great addition to the text – real adornments.

I have reviewed two good books about Swifts today; do I have a preference? I do, but it’s a personal preference and you might not agree with it, but I’d pick this book over Sarah Gibson’s because the text is quirkier, the cover price is slightly cheaper and Pomroy’s artwork is delightful. But you can’t have too many good books about Swifts and as well as these two remember the classic Swifts in a Tower by David Lack which was reissued recently – see my review here.

The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster is published by Little Toller Books.

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5 Replies to “Sunday book review – The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster”

  1. There must be something about swifts that attracts or brings out superior literary skill. Gavin Gamble, an occasional commentator and guest blogger here, wrote an article on Apus apus that was so brilliant Chris Packham posted it on his facebook page, something he rarely does. I can't think of any article I've ever read on any subject that surpasses it. If you get the chance to read it you'll see why Chris P regularly refers to Gavin as 'a top bloke'.

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    1. I’ve not seen the Gavin Gamble article and will have to search it out. The Swift also seems to inspire some of Mark Cocker’s best writing. I can’t locate the essay, as the book’s in South Wales and I’m in Northern Scotland, but there is an article in A Claxton Diary in which he draws a contrast between swifts, made entirely from the insects they eat, and humans, who consume everything. Awesome stuff.

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  2. Thank you for these two latest reviews, they are both now on my upcoming birthday list.
    Swifts are featuring strongly in this household with three breeding pairs, two in the soffits and one in a nest box put up last year. The ever attendant screaming party is a joy to watch. Also, much to our surprise, they seem to have evicted the sparrows from two of the sites including the nest box. One house sparrow was observed protesting vigorously when a returning swift entered its nest site.

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  3. Swift Awareness Week 2021 (3-11 July) has over 60 local events around the UK starting this Saturday so please do support any that are near you.
    The full list of events can be seen on the Action for Swifts site at https://actionforswifts.blogspot.com/p/saw-2021-events.html .
    They include evening walks, a zoom talk by Edward Mayer (hosted by the NW wales Wildlife Trust), swift counts, swift trails round Edinburgh, a display by a school near Bristol, an open garden at a house with swifts in Bristol (though this is sold out!) and much more. The most northerly event is in Aberdeenshire with others on the south coast.
    There is so much support for this bird across the UK with over 90 local swift groups running but the bird's decline continues unabated.
    The latest calculation is that it has dropped by some 62% in the last 25 years so it is certainly a candidate to be added to the red list next time the list is reassessed.
    Do look at the list and see if there any events near you.

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  4. Couldn’t agree more, it’s quirky, brilliant, a gem of a read.

    I haven’t read this myself yet but just found the Gavin Gamble article.
    https://gjgamble.wordpress.com/2017/06/04/the-greatest-bird-on-earth/

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