A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
A few weeks ago, with an hour to kill before a play at the National Theatre, I did what any Bookfox would and spent it browsing in Foyles Bookshop. As ever, I ended up with a small pile of books I never knew I wanted, and sat down next to the Natural History section to wait for my companion. My eye was caught by what looked like a secondhand book, cheek by jowl with brand new Helen Macdonald and Robert Macfarlane. Convincingly pre-loved it was, with a torn dustjacket and mid-20th century design – but when I picked it out I realised that this was the most perfect trompe l’oeil, which extended to the endpapers with all the trappings of a discarded library book. Just the joke for me – I was hooked, and started on what is known in our house as a ‘wee free read’.
The ‘dust jacket’ description lured me in:
The Mincing Mockingbird Guide to Troubled Birds is an illustrated pocket field guide that enables anyone to quickly identify psychotic, violent, or mentally unstable bird species. Written in non-technical language for the layperson, it describes where to find – and where to avoid – the most seriously disturbed North American birds.
Throughout the book you will read tales of murder, assault, mental breakdowns, obesity, drug abuse and infidelity among these birds. This guide, while ignored by leading ornithologists, is used and recommended by law enforcement agencies worldwide.
As the subject is the birds of North America, I have no idea what is the species of the gaudy red bird in the first illustration with the caption He gave them the heebie-jeebies. He had nothing else to give. It’s a great starting point. The books consists of a collection of stunningly gorgeous paintings of birds, all of them breaking into the frame in a mildly disturbing fashion. We have a psychotic Grosbeak, a hyper-critical Owl, a hummingbird on a hair-trigger, and a number of other species I shall have to look up in a proper birdbook, all with hilarious, sweary, crazed captions and commentary (warning for Jackie, aka Wussy Fox: these birds are prone to eviscerate their own kind and other creatures).
The creator is artist Matt Adrian, and his ambivalent relationship with his subjects may be best summed up in Owl Is Not Impressed:
“Isn’t that simply magnificent. Please excuse my yawn.
“Don’t let my presence give you pause. Fiddle with your paints and palette. Waste your days on whims and prancing through the daisy fields of inspiration.
“You are boring me with your ‘specialness’ and your ‘talent’.
“Now bring me a juicy mouse or BEGONE!”
The whole thing takes about ten minutes to read (the first time), and for a slim volume it is priced rather extravagantly though the book design and production are utterly brilliant, but I had to buy it because it made me helpless with laughter, there in the middle of Foyles, on Election Day. That was such a precious memory and I needed to take it, and the book, home with me. I don’t know, and don’t mind what it is – showcase for Matt Adrian’s gorgeous artwork, extended joke, awful warning about messing with the Kingdom of Birds or disquisition on the faintly alien and discomfiting nature of these pretty flying dinosaurs, but part of what inspired my hilarity was discovering that Foyles had obviously puzzled over where to put it – Humour, Art – and copped out by classifying it as Natural History and putting it with the bird books. No better place for it, on reflection, as it is perfectly observed:
THIS IS A BIRDFEEDER, NOT A CHINESE BUFFET
I’m cutting you off. I’m done filling this feeder. From here on out it’s only a yard decoration.
Aw, c’mon, man. Don’t look at me like that. I see you out there every day – the flight from the tree to the lip of the feeder leaves you looking like you just ran up 12 flights of stairs. You’re not looking so good. A bird’s got to know when to say when. Just because the feeder is full up on seed does not mean you have to eat it all in one sitting.
Okay, one more time. One more fill. Here you go. For old time’s sake. You’re such a pretty bird, you know that? You’re one beautiful, morbidly obese sonofabitch. That’s it. Not so fast. You’ll choke.
The Mincing Mockingbird has been eavesdropping on me and the Greenfinches.
The Mincing Mockingbird Guide to Troubled Birds. An authoritative illustrated compendium to be consulted in the event of an infant or small child being torn apart by a murder of crows. Written and illustrated by Matt Adrian. New York: Blue Rider Press, 2014. 66pp
ISBN 13: 9780399170911