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The Book of Dead Birds: A Novel Paperback – April 22, 2004
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“Lyrical, imaginative, beautifully crafted, and deeply intelligent. Before anything else, its characters take you by the heart.” (Barbara Kingsolver)
“[It] has an edgy beauty that enhances perfectly the seriousness of its contents.” (Toni Morrison)
“THE BOOK OF DEAD BIRDS is a story of healing--a skillful, textured weaving of dark and light.” (Donna M. Gershten, author of KISSING THE VIRGIN'S MOUTH)
“The plight of the mother and daughter is … heartbreaking.” (Kirkus Reviews)
“A moving and perceptive first novel.” (O magazine)
“Brandeis’s writing is sensitive, lyrical and diverse.” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
“A uniquely inventive novel.” (Rocky Mountain News)
“Intricate and elegant ... a novel that illustrates a compelling search for meaning that is ultimately familiar.” (Denver Post)
“Moving … powerful and strangely interesting.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
“An emotional story forged in crystalline prose.” (Bust Magazine)
About the Author
Gayle Brandeis is the author of The Book of Dead Birds, the winner of Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize, an award in support of a literature of social change. Reviewers have highly praised this, her first novel, and Toni Morrison said: "It has an edgy beauty that enhances perfectly the seriousness of its contents." She is also the author. Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write.
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There seems no reprieve from shame, survivor's guilt, dangers and insult real and imagined. Even among volunteers saving birds, or at a rave, or with a wanted, patient lover. Ava, the daughter carries the weight of grief.
Brandeis does not avert her eyes from the horrors. She writes from the senses in carefully chosen details. Viscera, blood, smells, touch. There is massacre and racism, there is individual exploitation and torture. There is ecological disaster. It is as complicated as reality. This could make a claustrophobic read. It could seem too many strands of plot for 250 pages. But this is a wonderfully well-crafted book. One pelican is released back into the wild, a woman breaks free of abuse, there is love. Finally, there is witnessing: the names of the dead are read and acknowledged. So moving I was brought to tears.
The scenes at the Salton Sea are rendered so truly, you can smell the air and feel the crunch of the hard shore. Brandeis, who has written about the importance of sensuality in her book Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, skillfully puts the reader in the triple-digit heat of the stinking bird kill or the cool waters of a lagoon diving for abalone in Korea.
But the author is tricky. The places and characters in this fierce novel are deceptively exotic. The story is actually a familiar one, exceptionally well told, of the rage between parent and child when life has been so much less than good. Finally, with all its images of death, The Book of Dead Birds is really about rebirth, about taking one more chance, believing that happiness is possible, and deciding to go get it.
The plot is built around a series of dead birds--birds inadvertently killed by the main character, a young woman of mixed heritage (Korean and African American) named Ava Sing Lo. Information about each bird--its life and cause of death--are recorded in her mother's scrap book, The Book of Dead Birds. As Ava attempts to break the spell of the dying birds and her shame and sorrow of being a disappointment to her mother we come face to face with her fragility, pain, and insecurity. We, and all those within the story, root for her to soar.
Brandeis weaves together two stories--the daughter, Ava, and the mother, Hye-yang (Helen). She takes us from San Diego to the Saltan Sea and back to Korea in the 1960s, where through Ava's retelling of her mother's song, we learn of Hye-yang's slide into prostitution, Ava's conception and their ultimate flight path to freedom.
I highly, highly recommend this book. It's one of the best I've read so far this year.
Michele Cozzens, Author of A Line Between Friends and The Things I Wish I'd Said.