My thanks to Booktasters for a review copy of this book.

A Thing with Feathers is a story with many themes; at its heart a story about a man’s search for his ‘soulmate’, it is set in the background of politics, corruption, greed and power which seem to have replaced any compassion, care or finer feelings in the world at large, aspects now seen as belonging to the ‘romantic age’, and also revolves around the world of poetry, literature, and writing. The author describes this work as a ‘fictional autobiography’.

Jonah Q Cincinnatuski, Jr is a forty-year-old lawyer, who has quit his practice in Washington, disillusioned by the corruption, greed and power games, and by the fact that the common person on the street more often than not gets the short end of the stick. Now in Virginia, Jonah has been living off rental income from two houses he owns while trying his hand at being a novelist, something he always dreamed of doing. He has been ‘in love’ with Emily Dickinson ever since he was a child and even wrote an ode to her at age 11, and believes that she and Poe, whom he also admires, belonged together. He has had relationships in the past but is still searching for his soulmate, his ‘Emily’.

With little in life working out, Jonah is depressed and on the verge of suicide, but finds some interest again when a tenant and friend Phyllida Kellands, also a disillusioned lawyer, who works at the Ithaca County Public Law Library convinces him to take a part time job there, with the aim of exposing the Director and Superintendent whom she knows hire only people suffering illness or disability or those ordinarily discriminated or shunned for instance, for their sexual orientation, so as to maintain control and enrich themselves. As both are ‘men-haters’, Jonah must pose as being gay. While Jonah agrees and even gets the job, some way down the line, Phyllida finds the unfairness of her situation too much to bear and leaves. Jonah carries on though the Director and Superintendent begin to attempt to get rid of him. But then Phyllida’s replacement is appointed—twenty-seven-year-old lawyer and librarian-in-training, Julia Gottlieb. Jonah and Julia click immediately. Has he found his Emily’?

I certainly appreciated and was in agreement with a lot of the thoughts and sentiments expressed in this book. While its focus is on America and the state of American society—particularly the justice system and politics—many of the problems it brings up are ones plaguing societies across the globe, be it incessant greed and the race for money and power, unfair and unjust systems, corrupt politics, or increasing hate in various forms. The book (set in 2005, though written more recently), references US congresspersons and judges as well as judicial pronouncements, and while I was familiar with the latter, I didn’t know much about the former.

There is also the aspect of real care/concern or compassion for human beings having largely vanished in society. Very few really care for the people they are dealing with, either simply mechanically doing their jobs, or only concerned with enriching themselves, rather than doing right by those they are meant to be helping. Jonah stands apart from this crowd, taking genuine interest in the people that he helps/advises in the library, soon becoming a favourite, and later Julia is the same, both earning much appreciation. 

The book is also about Dickinson and Poe, and about poetry and literature and these were aspects I enjoyed reading about, as there are plenty of books and characters referenced, including Greek classics, as also some poetry quoted. Jonah also writes poetry, especially after finding, Julia, his Emily, and this appears throughout the book as do Julia’s writings (prose and poetry). The ending too, seems inspired by Russian literature, giving it a realistic touch. I also liked that the two main characters are interested in flowers and gardens, Jonah particularly in Celeste roses, and birds as well.

There were however aspects in the book I didn’t get along with as much. For instance, while the main characters seem to condemn the race for money and greed, there is also a lot of reference to labels which they own or wear, which to me seem part of that same chain. By extension is also the stress on ‘labels’ in terms of where someone is educated. There is nothing wrong with going to a good college/university but if the characters who are supposed to be seeing beyond these things also refer to such labelling, it feels a bit as though it was defeating the purpose.

Jonah’s character too I felt seemed to lose track in a sense, as when he took up the library job, the whole idea seemed to be to identify and expose the wrongdoing there—and he is well aware that the people involved manipulate, cheat, and are unfair. So, when he is not given a raise or denied a job which he deserves, his anger and frustration seem a bit misplaced since he knew this to be the practice. Some of Jonah’s relationship issues with his family were also ones I couldn’t connect with.

The ‘villains’ of the piece, the Superintendent and Director, I felt are characterised by all forms of bad, power hungry, corrupt, manipulative, but also predatory behaviours, which made them seem exaggerated. The story also seems to vacillate between idealistic and seemly aspects and crasser territory.

A book with plenty of relevant issues as well as finer sentiments but which could perhaps have trimmed down things a bit in terms of dimensions of the characters explored and made them truer to their beliefs. 

3.25 stars

11 thoughts on “Book Review: A Thing with Feathers by J John Nordstrom

  1. Great review Mallika. But believe me ‘incessant greed and the race for money and power, unfair and unjust systems, corrupt politics, or increasing hate in various forms’ is definitely global.

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  2. What a fascinating book. My country is full of greed and corruption, but I always have hope that it will change, but sadly, it’s not going to change soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. But has it ever been different? I feel we’ve all been complaining about greed and corruption since around the time of the Roman Empire! Sounds as if the aims of this book were a bit let down by the execution.

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