The nice people from Princeton University Press popped this book through my letterbox (metaphorically - it's too big to go in my letterbox and too thick for even my postman to fold in two, though I suspect he tried) the other day. It's been out a while of course, long enough for a good number of 'proper' reviews to be written, to which I refer you if that's what you're looking for.
In case you don't already know, the 'jewel' in the title refers to pittas - all 32 currently recognized species, and a few other races besides, in the world, and the 'hunt' was the quest to see them all in a year. The author, Chris Gooddie, describes in the opening chapter how this hunt was conceived as the solution to a serious bout of mid-life crisis. You may have followed the blog Pittasworld (now defunct) which outlined his plan and brought together a scintillating collection of photos and art. You may even have met Chris and friends as they trawled the forests of Fraser's Hill, Taman Negara, Danum Valley or Sepilok during his "Year of the Pitta" a couple of years ago. He evidently lived to tell the tale, and kudos to him for following up on his promise to write it all down - hence, The Jewel Hunter.
First and foremost, I was glad to get this book so I could work out where the bird was on the cover - I'd spend quite a bit of time squinting at small images (like the one above) of it, trying to make out what the picture was. Now, I can reveal that it is actually a ... well, get yourself a copy if you can't figure it out!
I'd read quite a few reviews of the book before reading it, some of which were less than glowing, so I can't say I came to it with great expectations. However, by the middle of the first chapter I was thoroughly hooked! The book is an absorbing account of Chris's many and various experiences, not only of birds but also of the people and places he encountered along the way. The content is at times witty, at others sobering, often quirky, and always identifiably British!
There are a number of reasons why I really enjoyed this book:
1. I got a real feeling of being there (minus the many and considerable discomforts of actually being there!)
2. By the time I was halfway through, I knew that this was a book I would be urging my wife and daughter to read "so you can understand me". Actually, I'm hoping that it might make my birding extravagances look reasonable by way of contrast, thereby gaining me a bit more 'licence to bird' ("at least you're not as mad as that Chris Gooddie nutter.").
3. I learned a lot. Although probably quite a lot of us have our own theories about how to go about seeing pittas, I would wager that, having read this book, there'll be a few new techniques you'll want to try out - there certainly are for me.
4. Linked to 3, reading the book made me feel like going out and finding pittas. Any book that makes you want to go out into the field has got to be good.
5. Some of the pitta photos make mine look really good! Mind you, that's because they are all by the author, all taken within the aforementioned yearlong period, and often taken while he was either suffering from dysentery, soaked to the skin, several days up treacherously muddy mountain trails, seriously bleeding from leech bites and falls, or all of the above (not to give too much of the story away!)
6. It has lots of lists -from why pittas are the best things in the world, to how to make a propah cup of English tea (not that I ever make lists you understand).
So - did he succeed in seeing all 32 species of pitta? You'll have to buy the book to find out. I would lend you mine, but you'll need to take your place in the queue!
Finally, to whet your appetite a little further, I decided this was as good an excuse as I need to present my own humble collection of pitta photos - only Malaysian ones in my case!
Blue-winged Pitta, Kedah.
Mangrove Pitta, Pulau Pinang.
Hooded Pitta, Kedah.
Garnet Pitta, Pahang.
Giant Pitta, Sabah.