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The Spectator Bird (Penguin Classics) Paperback – 27 Jul 2010

4.5 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 204 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (27 July 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143105795
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143105794
  • Product Dimensions: 12.8 x 1.5 x 19.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 374,381 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"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"

"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""

About the Author

Wallace Stegner was born in 1909 in Lake Mills, Iowa. The son of Scandinavian immigrants, he traveled with his parents and brother all over the West-to North Dakota, Washington, Saskatchewan, Montana, and Wyoming-before settling in Salt Lake City in 1921. Many of the landscapes he encountered in his peripatetic youth figure largely in his work, as do characters based on his stern father and athletic, outgoing brother. Stegner received most of his education in Utah, graduating from the University in 1930. He furthered his education at the University of Iowa, where he received a master's and a doctoral degree. He married Mary Stuart Page in 1934, and for the next decade the couple followed Wallace's teaching career-to the University of Wisconsin, Harvard, and eventually to Stanford University, where he founded the creative writing program, and where he was to remain until his retirement in 1971. A number of his creative writing students have become some of today's most well respected writers, including Wendell Berry, Thomas McGuane, Raymond Carver, Edward Abbey, Robert Stone, and Larry McMurty.

Throughout his career and after, Stegner's literary output was tremendous. His first novel, Remembering Laughter, was published in 1937. By the time of his death in 1993 he had published some two dozen works of fiction, history, biography, and essays. Among his many literary prizes are the Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose (1971) and the National Book Award for The Spectator Bird (1976). His collection of essays, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs (1992), was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award.

Although his fiction deals with many universal themes, Stegner is primarily recognized as a writer of the American West. Much of his literature deals with debunking myths of the West as a romantic country of heroes on horseback, and his passion for the terrain and its inhabitants have earned him the title 'The Dean of Western Letters'. He was one of the few true Men of Letters in this generation. An historian, essayist, short story writer and novelist, as well as a leading environmental writer. Although always connected in people's minds with the West, he had a long association with New England. Many short stories and one of his most successful novels, Crossing to Safety, are set in Vermont, where he had a summer home for many years. Another novel, The Spectator Bird, takes place in Denmark.

An early environmentalist, he actively championed the region's preservation and was instrumental-with his now-famous 'Wilderness Letter'-in the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act. Honest and straightforward, educated yet unpretentious, cantankerous yet compassionate, Wallace Stegner was an enormous presence in the American literary landscape, a man who wrote and lived with ferocity, energy, and integrity.
Jane Smiley's ten works of fiction include The Age of Grief, The Greenlanders, Ordinary Love and Good Will, Moo, A Thousand Acres (which won the Pulitzer Prize), and most recently the bestselling Horse Heaven.

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Format: Paperback
Wallace Stegner won the National Book Award for this work in 1977. This is the fifth book of Stegner’s that I have read, and I am still not satiated – far from it. I remain impressed with the range of his works. Having lived in Saudi Arabia for 20 years, I found his account – bowdlerized or not – of the early days of Aramco fascinating Discovery!: The Search for Arabian Oil. Now I find myself living five meridians west of the 100th, and thus also found Beyond the Hundredth Meridian exceedingly relevant, along with the story of John Wesley Powell. The third non-fiction work of his that I have read is The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail. The other previous book of fiction that I have read is Angle of Repose (Contemporary American Fiction), which won the Pulitzer Prize. The explanation of the title is most memorable.

In “The Spectator Bird” the protagonist is Joe Allston, a retired literary agent (hence the “spectator” to other’s achievements.) He lives with his wife Ruth, in the country, one hour north of San Francisco. At 69, he is my coeval, which was the first “hook.” Like “Angle of Repose,” a fair amount of the novel concerns the aging process, and where one is in life, when one is “coming down the home stretch.” He has walked down the long drive, awaiting the mail.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Not his best but still very well written, if a bit depressing for us oldies.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0x95cf3780) out of 5 stars 89 reviews
168 of 169 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x95d00408) out of 5 stars Another Stegner Masterpiece 6 Jan. 2001
By Paul McGrath - Published on
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.
64 of 66 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x95d0045c) out of 5 stars Very highly recommended 13 Mar. 2003
By Bookman - Published on
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.
45 of 47 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x95d00738) out of 5 stars Perfect, Funny, and Wise 6 May 2005
By John Sollami - Published on
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.
29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x95d00c60) out of 5 stars A subtle, thoughtful and accomplished work of literature 20 Dec. 2004
By AusE - Published on
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. Much that might help Joe is not apparent to him at the time he is experiencing it.

The story captures the irritations of family and over-familiarity with those we love but who can also drive us crazy. And coupled with that, the lure of the unfamiliar and exotic. As his life and the story evolves, Joe rediscovers the deep love he has for his wife and partner, Ruth.

Joe's questions and torment are perhaps reflected well in the following passage:

"What was it? Did I feel cheated? Did I look back and feel that I had given up my chance for what they call fulfillment? Did I count the mountain peaks of my life and find every one a knoll? Was I that fellow whose mother loved him, but she died; whose son had been a tragedy to both his parents and himself; whose wife up to the age of twenty had been a nice girl and since the age of twenty a nice woman? Whose profession was something he did not choose, but fell into, and which he practiced with intelligence but without joy? Had I gone through my adult life glancing desperately sidelong in hope of diversion, rescue, transfiguration."

Joe does not get all the answers to these questions in a neat little bundle, so neither do we. But he acknowledges finally that he has been on part of the journey of life as more than just a spectator.
25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x95d00c78) out of 5 stars Profound and Moving 16 July 2001
By Oddsfish - Published on
Format: Paperback
I had to read another book by Wallace Stegner after reading Angle of Repose. I didn't think this would have a chance of measuring up to Angle of Repose, and it didn't. That's not a put-down though because that just means it is around number two on my all-time favorite list. One reason I thought I would have trouble with The Spectator Bird is that it is about aging and about a long marital relationship, and I'm eighteen. I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to relate to its themes. I was very wrong. Even though I haven't lived seventy years and do not know many of the feelings Joe Alston had, I was able to learn from the novel. The Spectator Bird gave me many insights into the live of my grandparents and even my parents. I have seen my family members grapple with the questions about their own lives that Joe fought with in The Spectator Bird. I have also witnessed relationships like that between Joe and Ruth. The book has helped me to see some of what their existance is like and also what mine will look like in the future. The Spectator Bird is just an amazing book. Nobody writes as well as Stegner. I don't know how many lines of his prose I have written down so that I can remember them. The characters are also so multi-dimensional. It seems like you know them (and the author) so well. The Spectator Bird is just a beautiful and satisfying read which I plan to revisit in the future and which I plan to recommend to any intelligent readers. Stegner needs to be read more often.
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