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The Spectator Bird (Contemporary American Fiction) Paperback – November 1, 1990

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Edward Herrmann is perhaps best known to younger audiences as kindly, patrician Richard Gilmore on the television series Gilmore Girls. Here, Herrmann uses his same elegant persona to amplify and underscore the bittersweet nuance of Stegner's novel about a retired man who travels to his mother's Danish hometown. There are hidden reserves of frustration and displeasure in Stegner's tale, and Herrmann aptly conveys these emotions with short, sharp bursts of dialogue matched with longer, more drawn-out ellipses of exposition. He even manages a serviceable Danish accent to top off his flawless performance. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.


"It is the autobiographical nature of Stegner's work . . . that makes it so compelling. In every novel, the narrator has all the gifts of language, empathy, and philosophy, but he nonetheless can never free himself from the torments of the past."
-Jane Smiley, from the Introduction

"Elegant and entertaining . . . every scene [is] adroitly staged and each effect precisely accomplished."
-The Atlantic

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Product Details

  • Series: Contemporary American Fiction
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (November 1, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140139400
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140139402
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.6 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (75 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,474,603 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

156 of 157 people found the following review helpful By Paul McGrath on January 6, 2001
Format: Paperback
The plot of this novel is deceptively straightforward: a postcard from a long-lost friend reminds retired, and tired, Joe Allston of the Danish trip he took with his wife twenty years earlier. He goes to his study and retrieves the diary that he wrote at the time. His wife, Ruth, asks him to read it aloud, so that she can relive these memories as well. And as we share in their moments together, both currently and on this memorable Danish trip, we realize that there had been some unspoken questions between the two of them dating from this journey. Bringing it into the open resolves their uncertainties with one another, and causes Joe to recall the emotional turmoil he went through which has never entirely gone away.

This is a book about love, about duty, about the sweet fulfillment of an enduring marriage, and about the sad futility of age. It is about kindness and despair; about joy and the bittersweet sadness of unrequitted love. It is filled with intelligence and wit and written by a man who was an absolute master of his craft.

It is pointless for me to go on. There is no superlative I can use which will ever do justice to this lovely, poignant novel. Despite the fact that we know what the inescapable conclusion is going to be, the last five or six pages are nevertheless like a series of hammer-blows to the heart, and I don't recall another novel bringing tears to my eyes as this one did at its end. It is only January the 6th, and I know I will not read a better novel this year, or perhaps for many years to come.
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63 of 65 people found the following review helpful By Bookman on March 12, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
When people ask who my favorite author is, Wallace Stegner is invariably one of the four or five names I toss out. And often I get the same response... "I've never read any Stegner" or even "I don't know the name". Stegner seems to be one of American literatures best kept secrets.
This book won the National Book Award in 1977. It's about Joe Allston, a retired literary agent, who lives with his wife in California. He is 69 years old and looking back at his life with a sense of discontent. He and his wife relive a trip they took to Denmark 20 years before, by reading a journal that Joe kept while they were there. The plot line switches back and forth from the present to the past.
This book is about the choices we make in our lives and how they affect everything that comes after. It's about aging and death, and foremost about life. Stegner writes about real life in such intimate terms that it makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck (at least it does that to me). Needless to say, a very highly recommended read.
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44 of 46 people found the following review helpful By John Sollami on May 5, 2005
Format: Paperback
In all the entangled limbs, passionate melodrama, wild fantasy, and bloody gore of today's pop and contemporary fiction, there is no match for this fine masterwork. In just a little over two hundred pages, Wallace Stegner manages to present a brilliant portrait of a real marriage, an entertaining story of a husband's pursuit of his mother's memory, and an astonishing portrayal of a bereft Danish countess whose beauty and elegance is haunting and sad. Stegner also gets in his digs about the so-called hip writers of his time, while maintaining a wonderful sense of humor and a poetic and rich style second to none. And, in perfectly chosen prose, Stegner describes what it's like to age and to know that one is aging. In his America of the 1970s, anyone past 65 was just plain forgotten and invisible, except when it came time to vote or be bait for a swindle. Nothing on that score is different today. In fact, this novel is filled with universal truths and with a steady current of wisdom that will make your reading it one of the most rewarding experiences you've had in a long time. I guarantee it.
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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful By AusE VINE VOICE on December 20, 2004
Format: Paperback
This is a very rewarding piece of fiction written by the late Wallace Stegner. His writing is accessible, but nuanced and deep.

In this work, the National Book Award winner for 1977, Stegner profiles a few days in the lives of Joe Allston and his wife Ruth, who are in their twilight years, almost 70, and retired in relative comfort near San Francisco. A respected literary agent, Allston feels the pang or sense of not having accomplished much of direct or lasting value or personal satisfaction in his own life, paralleling his own experiences with that of the bird that watches and observes the living of other, more active and involved birds. He sees himself as being on the perimeter of the lives of those writers that he represents and also reads; but whom he both loves and hates.

Having regard to the title and parallels, this is not really a book about birds, for if it was, I doubt I could have stayed the course. It is a story of a man both in part frustrated and satisfied, although not at a point of admitting either emotion fully, who explores a period in his life some twenty years before, which had a profound and lasting impact on his life since. His son having died many years before, he has lived out his life with Ruth, and there are silences, a few secrets, many knowing looks, questions, but also many shared emotions that give their marriage and this story much resonance. A large part of the book follows his journal writing 20 years earlier while on a sabbatical with his wife in Denmark, the land of his mother's birth, and from where she fled at a young age. There are some secrets buried in that place that form the backdrop for this story. This is a story of reflecting and learning, rather than neat thirty minute lessons lived out with happy conclusions.
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