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Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews585 followers
February 17, 2020
I’m Back.....

My first comments below: (Update follows)....
I need some time to cry in peace.
My GOD......
F#cking..... Hell......
This book will never leave me!!!!
Paul and I read pages together.....
I’m soooo thankful I read this....
The timing was perfect!!!!

Wallace Stegner is MY NUMBER 1 favorite author —
Three for three....
“Angle of Repose” and “Crossing to Safety” ... and now
“The Spectacular Bird”.... are ALL TOP *EVER* favorite books!

I don’t think I’ve ever felt more thankful for a book in my life as in this moment! I could read it a dozen more times!!

Back later....
I’ve need some quiet reflection time... small tears to explore and sit with
THANK THE GOD’S - friends- Stegner - love in my heart - for this experience!


I’m back....having just having finished “All The Little Live Things”....( a great companion with “The Spectacular Bird”).

Wallace Stegner was a spectacular gifted writer....opening up grand thought-provoking discussions about life.....a reminder to be truly present in our own lives....including being tender with ourselves.

“In every choice there is a component, maybe a big component of pain”.

Joe Allston was a retired literary agent who received a postcard from an old friend, a Danish countess named Astrid. At first Joe didn’t tell Ruth, his wife, about the postcard....but soon he not only shows her the postcard... but he also shows her journals he wrote twenty years ago - a diary of such - from when they visited Denmark.
Joe had just came into the house - it was windy and raining outside. Ruth was quietly reading a book....then looks up at Joe and laughs at his windy-looking-ways.
Ruth sat there watching Joe....
.... “like Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother—white hair, spectacles, Groucho Marx eyebrows, with amused house-detective eyes”.
Ruth says:
“Where’d you go?”
“Down to the study.”
“What for?”
“Look something up”.
“Sounds as if the storm is finally coming in”
“Big wind. Not much rain yet”
“A moments silence, the widening smile. You going to read some more now?”
“I thought I might. Why?”
“Then you’d better wipe the flowers off your glasses”.
“I removed my glasses and wiped the plan blossoms off and settled back down in the chair. She kept watching me”.
“What is this you’re reading so interestedly?”
“I was already wishing I’d left the notebooks in the study, where I could have read them in the morning in privacy. I didn’t suppose there was anything in them that couldn’t be read to Ruth, because I am not a confider, even in myself. Nevertheless, ever since that postcard had showed up in the mail, I had had a half-irritable sense of wanting to be alone with what it revived”.
“Papers, I said”.

Joe and Ruth had lost their only son, Curtis, 37 years old ... a tragic death while surfing...
The Danish trip was suppose to serve as a type of therapy for Joe.
Guilt, regret, and selfishness were secret emotions Joe carried inside him. With a gentle push from Ruth, Joe reads Ruth the all that he wrote. It takes many evenings. Much gets exposed - not particularly comfortable - but Ruth was wonderful. I think she knew it had to be painful forJoe to read them to her. ( hard for her to hear too- but there was no hardening or accusations coming from her).
It wasn’t a happy time.
And.....there was ‘a kiss’ between Joe and Astrid years ago ( but without reading the full simply sounds like an act of cheating, betrayal, and withheld communication.....
I see it differently.....
Ruth did too ....( bless her)....
Ruth says...
“If you hadn’t fallen at least a little bit in love with her I’d have thought there was something wrong with you”.

Joe didn’t deny being smitten with Astrid - he wanted to do something for her. He hated to leave her behind.
He would’ve liked her company the rest of his life…
Joe says to Ruth:
“In Other circumstances, if you hadn’t existed, I’d certainly have tried to marry her, and I think she might have had me. But those circumstances didn’t exist, and I never really fought you about coming home. I left all that behind, and eventually I forgot her. There have been stretches of two or three years when I haven’t thought of her, not once, and if her postcard hadn’t sent me looking for that diary, I probably wouldn’t have thought of her yet. That’s kind of sad, I’m sorry about that. But I’ll tell you something else. If I played the game the way people seem to expect, and jumped into the Baltic, all for love and the world well lost, and cut myself off from you and what you and I have had together, I couldn’t have forgotten you that way. I’d have regretted you the rest of my life”.

“One of the nice things about getting something talked out is that it brings on a spell of pampering”.

Much to love and think about in this novel...
.....marriage, aging, loss, death, grief, unfulfilled relationships, regret, understanding, forgiveness, acceptance, and love. Deep love!

This book won the National book award in 1977. It feels timeless!!
The writing is gorgeous with descriptions so beautiful… it makes a reader want to read them out loud… which I did....with Paul.

I enjoyed looking at this long term marriage - thankful for my own.
There is something very endearing about Ruth and Joe....and the ending melted my heart.

Profile Image for Dolors.
539 reviews2,278 followers
April 9, 2018
When do we cease to be actors in our lives to become mere spectators?
Do we really get a chance to decide who we are, what we do, where we go and with whom we share all these choices as we grope in the darkness of time?

Joe Allston, a retired literary agent, is seventy years old… and has turned into an adorable curmudgeon. With no ancestors or descendants, a tragedy involving his only son still weighting on his shoulders, and his wife Ruth as remaining companion, Joe ponders about the paths he’s been walking on for the last twenty years. The self-reproach of never bonding with his son, the grief of losing him forever to the aimless waters of a remote beach, the lack of pluck to write his own novels rather than limiting himself to publish those of others, the sour taste of ageing and loneliness. Joe doesn’t shy away from his failures; he patiently dissects his remorse as he observes the bird species that twitter in his garden.

Straddling two narrative lines, one in the present time and another two decades ago when Joe and Ruth travelled to Denmark trying to escape the loss of their only child, Stegner paints an introspective landscape that sometimes acquires a too intimate tinge for the reader’s comfort.
Without sacrificing the necessary dose of self-effacing humor to balance out the dramatic charge of the storyline, and with elegant, firm stroke, Stegner delivers some delightful surprises that include meeting Karen Blixen and a mysterious Danish countess that will leave track in Joe’s memories and mean a crossroads in his life that will haunt him for the rest of his days.

I turned the last page of this tour de force with regret, knowing it will be a while until I meet a novel that is so perfectly rounded. To witness an old man revising his life, the pain of past but necessary choices and the pangs of solitude that marked his slow ascend towards fulfillment was as arduous as it was beautiful. Such kind of beauty is the one I would ask for myself when my time comes; no more, no less.
Profile Image for Howard.
339 reviews244 followers
August 25, 2022
Sometime in the mid-80’s, I read Wallace Stegner’s All the Little Live Things, which was published in 1967 and set in that decade. Despite being an admirer of his work, I wasn’t impressed. I found his main character, Joe Allston, a retired literary agent pushing sixty and living with his wife in the hills near Palo Alto, California, to be tiresome. How would I describe Joe? How about crabby, curmudgeonly, crotchety, bitter, brooding, acerbic, opinionated, argumentative? Yes, any one of those will do, because they all describe Joe.

But then I just finished The Spectator Bird, published in 1976, which returns to the story of Joe and his wife Ruth. Ten years have passed and Joe is now knocking on the door of seventy. But he is the same old Joe (see above). He hasn’t changed, but I have. While Joe is ten years older, I am now thirty years older than when I first met him in All the Little Live Things.

As that great philosopher Muhammad Ali once said, “The man who views the world at fifty the same as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.” I was older than twenty when I met Joe and I am older than fifty now, but the principle still applies. Furthermore, I have gained twenty years on him, and though he and I couldn’t be described as soul mates, I do have a better understanding and greater tolerance of him. Some – not all – but some of what he says and believes now makes sense to me.

One of the things that makes me more tolerant is that Joe had a rough childhood (as did Stegner) and I don’t think I originally made enough allowance for that fact. He is also unable to come to terms with the death of his only child twenty years earlier, who was described as an over age beach bum who died either due to an accident or suicide. Part of Joe’s grief can be traced to the fact that he and his son were in constant conflict and he feels that he was not a good father and thus was partly responsible for his rebellious son’s death.

Furthermore, Joe is not aging gracefully. He thinks to himself at one point that “I am just killing time till time gets around to killing me.” His dark outlook on life is partly due to a heart problem and the pain he experiences from the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, but it is also because he feels that he has lived an empty life. He is both retrospective and introspective; he broods about the past and the present – and the future.

Joe feels that he has been more spectator (see title) than actor in his life and in one of his introspective moods he muses to himself:

“As for Joe Allston, he has been a wisecracking fellow traveler in the lives of other people, and a tourist in his own. There has not been one significant event in his life that he planned. He has gone downstream like a stick, getting hung up in eddies and getting flushed out again, only half understanding what he floated past, and understanding less with every year. He knows nothing that posterity needs to be told about.”

That last sentence is a reference to his wife wanting him to write his memoirs. After all, he was an agent for some of the most notable writers of the day. And most important, she thinks that it will keep his mind active and alert and will help cure him of his depression.

Joe is intelligent, of course, and he isn’t always a gloomy Gus. When he is in the mood he can be charming and witty. Here is what Joe thinks about the idea of writing his memoir:

“… it is one thing to examine your life and quite another to write it. Writing your life implies that you think it worth writing. It implies an arrogance, or confidence, or compulsion to justify oneself, that I can’t claim. Did Washington write his memoirs? Did Lincoln, Jefferson, Shakespeare, Socrates? No, but Nixon will, and Agnew is undoubtedly hunched over his right now.”

All I have done is to set the stage. Much of the story is told in flashback to 1954 when Joe and Ruth took a trip to Denmark. They went there for an extended stay in an attempt to escape the heartbreak of the recent death of their son and to give Joe a chance to rest and recuperate from an illness. Why Denmark? Well, that is because his mother emigrated to America from there when she was only sixteen. Joe never knew his father. And because his only child and his mother have both died, he says that he has neither descendant nor ancestor.

He and his wife went to Denmark with the idea that they might locate the house in which his mother had lived. They did; and the plot thickens. Joe is a complicated character with a complex past, but in Denmark he met his match, a countess whose character and past was even more complex.

With the publication of this book, Stegner was at the peak of his popularity. The Spectator Bird won a National Book Award and his previous novel, Angle of Repose, won a Pulitzer.

Finally, Joe was right about Nixon and Agnew. Nixon did write his memoir, more than one, in fact, and so did Agnew. Of course, their memoirs were written after both had to resign in disgrace from their respective offices. Agnew even wrote a novel, The Canfield Affair. I have never read it, but the blurb here on Goodreads says: “This book is about a Vice President who was destroyed by his own ambition." I know it isn’t autobiographical because Agnew was destroyed by his greed.

Joe would have had something to say about that.
Profile Image for Jim Fonseca.
1,100 reviews7,187 followers
June 6, 2023
They say that as we approach old age, some look back with satisfaction and contentment about the life path they followed, and some reflect with regret and guilt, and, in hindsight, wish they had followed other paths to supposedly greener pastures. Approaching 70, our narrator is squarely in the latter category.

Despite the narrator's and his wife's relatively good health, an accomplished career as a literary agent, and a suburban villa an hour from San Francisco, he is filled with guilt for driving away his only child.

The narrator is in full whine looking at his body in the bathtub as 'a museum of dereliction.' He regrets 'the affair not taken' on a trip long ago to Denmark in search of his mother's ancestral home.

The book was written in the mid-1970s and the narrator has a lot of unfavorable things to say about the carefree lifestyle of the flower children and their disrespect for the elderly. Does the phrase crotchety old man come to mind? No wonder he drove his son away.

There's not much plot other than what we might call a genealogical mystery as he finds things out about his Danish ancestors that he didn't really want to know.

It's a story of how seniors reflect back on life and wonder 'who's next?' while those around them drop off one by one. His wife is a saint, putting up with his determined crotchetyness, so the book is also a tender love story of an aging couple.

All that being said, it's a good book. I gave it a '4' and I might be being stingy because I see strings of '5s' as I cursor through my friends' reviews on GR. Spectator Bird won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1977. In a way it's a manual about the aging process in America, akin to two others I have reviewed: Everyman and My Father's Tears and Other Stories.


Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) was a novelist and a historian. Many of his 25 books, fiction and non-fiction, are about the American West. He’s been called things like ‘the Dean of Western Writers.’ His three best-known works are, in order, Angle of Repose, Crossing to Safety and Big Rock Candy Mountain. I’ve read and reviewed the first two of those and both are truly excellent and among my favorites. If you take GR ratings into account, note that Angle of Repose with a GR rating of 4.25 based on almost 150,000 ratings is truly exceptional.

Photo from

[Revised 6/6/23, shelves and picture added]
Profile Image for Debbie W..
758 reviews563 followers
January 23, 2023
Why I chose to listen to this audiobook:
1. I really enjoyed listening to other audiobooks written by Wallace Stegner, so I added this one to my WTR list;
2. after listening to a Louise Erdrich novel, I was in the mood for a Stegner story;
3. it was readily available on Hoopla; and,
4. August 2022 is my personal "As the Spirit Moves Me Month".

1. as a more "mature" reader (at least, age-wise 😉); I can always appreciate Stegner's writing style which usually focuses on venerable characters involved in long-term marriages. In this case, MC Joe Allston, and his wife, Ruth, are at an age where they start thinking about their own mortality, especially when a close friend gets terminally ill. I really felt their aches and pains (literally and figuratively) that life threw at them;
2. I enjoyed listening to Joe and Ruth reminisce about their time spent in Denmark 20 years earlier, which was shortly after their son's death (accident or suicide?) as Joe reads aloud from his journals written during that time period. From these journals (and a mysterious postcard sent to Joe), we learn about their time spent with Countess Astrid and her bizarre familial background. It's obvious that Joe is hiding something from Ruth, and I'm afraid to find out what it is; and,
3. narrator Edward Hermann does an exceptional job!

1. Several literary references went over my head; and,
2. although I enjoyed spending time with Joe and Ruth, I'm afraid that these characters won't be as memorable as I hoped they would be.

Overall Thoughts:
Since my hubby and I honeymooned in Denmark back in 1988, it was fun hearing about familiar landmarks.
Although this was a good story, I preferred Stegner's Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose a lot more.

For readers who are 50+ and enjoy a slow-paced, character-driven novel. Also, a must-read for Wallace Stegner fans!
Profile Image for Zoeytron.
1,036 reviews690 followers
February 8, 2020
Joe Allston, a 69 year old retired literary agent, has immersed himself in a self-imposed old age state of mind.  Life lessons have soured Joe.  Dissatisfied with his life and the things he hasn't accomplished, the chip on his shoulder is approaching the size of Mount Rushmore.  He feels his body winding down, "sees" that he is becoming invisible to younger people.  A waylaid postcard from an old friend arrives, and spurs him to reread a journal that he kept from many years ago.  Ah, the sympathetic ear of one's journal.  The author's insights are keen, and I look forward to reading more of his works.  

Getting old is like standing in a long, slow line.  You wake up out of the shuffle and torpor only at those moments when the line moves you one step closer to the window.
Profile Image for Steve.
251 reviews900 followers
December 1, 2016
Ever notice how, on rare occasions, certain writers really stand out for their ability to capture the subtle and complex ways of folks? It’s usually a reason to celebrate since these insights are there for us to imbibe. But it may be a source of distress if what’s revealed is a difficult truth. For me, Wallace Stegner is that sort of author, and this book is one I celebra-hate. Actually, hate is too strong a word, even when it’s combined with a good thing. I should say I felt twinges of disappointment when recognizably human elements in the main character’s make-up prevented a greater happiness. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not looking for slants a la Hallmark. I just feel sad about opportunities missed, especially when those doing the missing are characters whose innermost thoughts I’ve been absorbing with interest.

I’ve told you about the malaise. I might as well mention a big reason for it (as long as I’m careful not to reveal more than the back cover does). Joe Allston, a crusty 69-year-old former literary agent, and his kindhearted wife Ruth live a rather isolated life in northern California. They had lost their son tragically in surf-boarding accident 20 some years prior. To make matters worse, Joe felt there had been unresolved father-son issues when it happened.

The story begins as a postcard arrives from an old friend from a trip Joe and Ruth had taken to Denmark. The extended stay there was, in part, meant as therapy to take their minds off their then-fresh and constant grief. It also allowed Joe to explore the small town where his mother had lived before shipping off to the states and having him. As chance would have it, they stayed with a Danish countess whose diminished circumstances required her to take in boarders. Astrid (the countess) was the one who sent the postcard. This sparked memories of the trip that Joe pursued even more by breaking out a journal he kept at the time. Ruth asked that he read it aloud so that she, too, could take the trip back in time.

The first entries in the journal were set on the boat ride over. They had met an older couple, which prompted Joe to write descriptively about their ilk, and about censorious people in general.
They sit in lace-curtained parlors and tsk-tsk on an indrawn breath, they know every unwanted pregnancy in town sooner than the girl does, they want English teachers in Augustana College fired for assigning A Farewell to Arms, they wrote the Volstead Act.

Once they arrived, the focus of the journal shifts to the countess. They learn that despite her elegance and good breeding, she was getting the cold shoulder from society types. Her estranged husband, unbeknownst to her when they’d been together, had been a Nazi sympathizer. Later into their stay they learn something else that explains the perceptions of her peers, but it would be a spoiler to say any more. I will say that you may or may not buy into this revelation. I decided that for me it was just a side issue, and that the far more important part of the book was Joe’s exploration of self.

This self under the scope was very thoroughly studied. Joe’s observational skills as a “spectator”, passively taking things in, were keen enough to recognize himself as a spectator, passively taking things in. This quote was telling:
I was reminded of a remark of Willa Cather's, that you can't paint sunlight, you can only paint what it does with shadows on a wall. If you examine a life, as Socrates has been so tediously advising us to do for so many centuries, do you really examine the life, or do you examine the shadows it casts on other lives? Entity or relationships? Objective reality or the vanishing point of a multiple perspective exercise? Prism or the rainbows it refracts? And what if you're the wall? What if you never cast a shadow or rainbow of your own, but have only caught those cast by others?

Relatedly, Joe seemed to regret his apparent detachment:
That is the way the modern temper would read me. Babbitt, the man who in all his life never did one thing he really wanted to. One of those Blake was scornful of, who controlled their passions because their passions are feeble enough to be controlled. One of those Genteel Tradition characters whose whole pale ethos is subsumed in an act of renunciation.

But might there have been times, thinking of what the journal hinted at but omitted, when passions were less tepid? And might actions or inactions in the face of these be even more defining in his life? See, I know the answers to these questions, and the only way you will is to read this masterful book.

While I don’t rate this one quite as high as Angle of Repose or Crossing to Safety, that’s a standard few, if any, can surpass. Stegner was just about Joe’s age when he wrote it, and advancing years were a theme. As sour as old Vin de Joe had become, I’d have preferred a cheerier example to live by. Beyond that, lines like this are beginning to hit home:
[...] I felt an uneasy adolescent peeking from behind my old-age make-up, as if I were a sixteen-year-old playing Uncle Vanya in the high school play [...]

Hey, but at least I wouldn’t call my face a “spiderweb with eyes.” Not yet, anyway.

Quibbles aside, here’s the bottom line: Wallace Stegner is the real deal. With him, it’s insight and great writing on every page. I hope you all do yourselves the favor of his wisdom and art.
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book557 followers
August 25, 2022
I wonder what I would have made of this book and Joe Allston if my younger self had read it when it was initially published. I wonder if I could have understood exactly where Joe was in life and how inescapable looking back is from that vantage point, or how poignant. Joe is 70 years old and looking old age squarely in the face. He hasn’t lost it yet, but he sees it deteriorating and he watches his friends, sometimes his age or a little older, faring worse than he does or dying. It makes him crotchety and cross, and it makes him reflective.

I drifted into my profession as a fly lands on flypaper, and my monument is not in the libraries, or men’s minds, or even in the paper-recycling plants, but in those files. They are the only thing that proves I ever existed. So far as I can see, it is bad enough sitting around watching yourself wear out, without putting your only immortal part into mothballs.

Spurred by a postcard from an old friend, Joe begins to remember a trip taken to Denmark after the death of his only son, and as the story of that trip unfolds, we get a chance to see who Joe was, who he has become, and at least part of the road he has taken between those two places in life.

There is a feeling part of us that does not grow old. If we could peel off the callus, and wanted to, there we would be, untouched by time, unwithered, vulnerable, afflicted and volatile and blind to consequence, a set of twitches as beyond control as an adolescent’s erections.

I found a kinship with Joe, this man with more life behind than in front of him but with no desire to exit the play before the final curtain. I understood his sorrow over both the present and the past; his respect for the life he lived and his nostalgia for the life he might have had.

I was reminded of a remark of Willa Cather’s that you can’t paint sunlight, you can only paint what it does with shadows on a wall. If you examine a life, as Socrates has been so tediously advising us to do for so many centuries, do you really examine the life, or do you examine the shadows it casts on other lives?...And what if you’re the wall? What if you never cast a shadow or rainbow of your own, but have only caught those cast by others?

Maybe every man nearing seventy asks himself these questions. I certainly have. I suspect Stegner did. I’m fairly sure this is a book I came to at the right time in life. It took me a long time to make it here, but the timing was perfect.

Profile Image for Bianca.
1,078 reviews917 followers
November 3, 2019
Am I allowed to declare my undying love for Stegner's writing after only reading two of his books? Is it presumptuous, hasty? I do not care. I love his writing!

The Spectator Bird is narrated by Joe Alston, a depressed, morose, seventy-year-old, retired literary agent. He lives with his devoted wife, Ruth, in Northern California. Their life is quiet and he seems to be happier with just staying home reading rather than socialising.

There's a more exciting, distracting episode relating to the couple's visit to Denmark twenty years prior when Joe attempted to track down his roots of his Danish-born mother, while recuperating from illness. They rent a room in the house of mysterious countess Astrid, a striking woman, down on her luck. While spending time with her, they find out about her family's strange history and a few other things.

The indignities of ageing, long marriage, grief, depression, making choices vs just falling into things are some of the prevalent themes of this relatively quiet novel.

This novel was published forty-two years ago. It aged really well because of its universal themes.

The Spectator Bird is literary fiction of the highest calibre, the type that makes me think "This is why I read".

I forgot to mention, this audiobook was narrated by the incredible Edward Herrmann, who gets a million stars.
Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,297 reviews450 followers
December 28, 2019
"The truest vision of life I know is that bird in the Venerable Bede that flutters from the dark into a lighted hall, and after a while flutters out again into the dark. But Ruth is right. It is something--it can be everything--to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below; a fellow bird whom you can look after and find bugs and seeds for; one who will patch your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn over your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can't handle".

That's the best description of a long marriage I've ever read. This is the story of a long marriage, with its ups and downs and highs and lows, surviving the death of their only son, the aches and pains of getting older, watching good friends get sick and die, move into care homes, and ultimately knowing that "the line forms on the left" as Joe says. A postcard from an old friend in Denmark leads them into reminiscences of a trip 20 years before, and Joe's realization that choices have to be made and lived with, whether you're a spectator of life or not.

This was a magnificent novel. It's Wallace Stegner, what can I say?
Profile Image for Jennifer Welsh.
258 reviews219 followers
February 26, 2022
Stegner’s protagonist and narrator, Joe, feels authentic and lets you in. He’s sensitive, intelligent and funny. He’s also quite a curmudgeon. A 69-year-old married white man in the year 1972, in the California Hills. The novel is specific and small. Our journey takes place inside of him, and I often wanted to break free. Stegner is gifted, but I found Joe’s pain confining. The confinement, however, was exquisitely constructed. There were gorgeous moments, like when his wife, Ruth, first asked him to read his journal out loud, an entry from a trip together, long ago. They had lost their son, and in attempt to alleviate Joe’s depression, visited Denmark, the birth place of his mom.

This is where the story picks up. The couple befriends a countess with a sordid story of her own. And both Ruth and Joe fall deeply in love with her.

The ending chapters swept me away. These contained the treasure at the end of an arduous journey, and it was well worth the wait. I felt melted, shapeless and quivering with sorrow and love. It also felt like a natural culmination of all we - the characters and the reader - had endured, and it was one of the richest reading experiences I’ve ever had.

National Book Award Winner for Fiction, 1977.
Profile Image for Lisa (NY).
1,544 reviews602 followers
February 21, 2021
The Spectator Bird is a beautifully written novel. What I loved most was Stegner's thoughtful, profound portrayal of a mature, complicated, loving relationship between a married couple. To steal from The Troggs, Wallace Stegner, you make my heart sing!
Profile Image for Tony.
918 reviews1,553 followers
February 19, 2019
An observant soul, that spectator bird.

Joe Allston is a literary agent, perhaps polishing brighter stars. If he was in Denmark, one or more poets might call him “an attendant lord.” So it is not just chance that takes Allston in fact to Denmark. Well, it’s a postcard actually, a postcard that arrives now that Allston is retired. The postcard is from a countess he once knew in Denmark and it gets him to rummage through his boxed memories for a journal he kept of those days. His wife, Ruth, who was there in Demark with him, shared Denmark with him, wants him to read his journal to her; just a bit, every night. The reader immediately feels Allston’s discomfort.

A bit awkward that literary device, but it gets us from the Allston’s home in California to that time in Denmark twenty years before. So there’s plot(s) there, secrets to unfold; but, frankly, some of plot is kind of strained, as if Stegner felt an obligation to his readers to provide a running story. A necessary evil, maybe, but one that allows that spectator bird to, well, spectate.

Stegner says it’s like what Willa Cather once said, that you can’t paint sunlight, you can only paint what it does with shadows on a wall. But, Allston muses, what if you’re the wall? What if you never cast a shadow or rainbow of your own, but have only caught those cast by others?

There is much self-reflection here that will appear familiar to those entering their twilight years:

He says that when he is asked if he feels like an old man he replies that he does not, he feels like a young man with something the matter with him.

Allston considers each body part as it hurts or is otherwise compromised, including with some self-deprecation and thankfully no more specificity: That too. Hail and Farewell. But it is the diffused pain that he suspects is rheumatoid arthritis that sends him to the Britannica - this being a time before the internet – because, he says, the unexamined disease is not worth having. And, I liked this about Joe Allston:

The encyclopedia did not mention bourbon as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, either because the learned man who wrote the article did not deal in the obvious or because he wasn’t that learned after all.

The contrived plot was not without its benefits. In particular, there is a meeting and lovely dialogue with Karen Blixen. All Danes accounted for.

But at its heart this is a story about an old married couple, and how they survive things. How they share. At one point they are having a conversation about another couple, the husband dying. And Joe Allston, who only appears heartless, starts:

”Well, we don’t have to for a while.”
“No. We’re lucky, we really are.”
“I always thought I was.”
“See?” she said. “You really can be nice.”
“Given provocation.”
Profile Image for Barbara.
284 reviews243 followers
March 17, 2020
Joe Allston, a retired literary agent, is an observer: of his past, of the current society, of life in general. He is troubled by the death of his son and the tense relationship they had had. His body is showing signs of age and so are the morals and norms he values. He has regrets, guilt, and pain, both physical and mental. Yet, he is engaging, intelligent, and known to be humorous. He and his wife have a loving, caring, and enviable relationship. Is he a curmudgeon, a grump. just an old crab? Unlike some reviewers, I don't think so. I believe his "spectating" is extremely realistic, especially of a 68-year old retiree. His musings are revealed in his diaries and reluctantly to his wife. He has difficulty discussing his innermost thoughts - not unusual in my opinion. His persona may not be one of joviality but it is not that of a crank.

This 1977 National Book Award winner is the third book I have read by Stegner. Each book demonstrates his masterful understanding of people. Each book has completely unique characters and storylines. The only similarities among his books are the beautiful dialogue, the astute insights, and the captivating stories. How I wish he could have continued writing forever.
Profile Image for Laysee.
518 reviews250 followers
September 22, 2013
I had wanted to read another novel by Wallace Stegner since “Crossing to Safety”. “The Spectator Bird” lived up to expectations and not because it won the US National Book Award for Fiction in 1977. Even though it was written almost forty years ago, the relevance of the issues it dealt with shone through the pages with contemplative resonance.

Set mostly in Denmark, “The Spectator Bird” centered on Joe Allston, a 69-year-old retired literary agent, his wife (Ruth), and their summer friendship with a Danish countess who had fallen from grace. The arrival of a postcard from Astrid Wredel-Krarup stirred up memories of a “therapy” trip the Allstons had undertaken twenty years ago, and evoked feelings that mattered to Joe because the interlude was "that irruption of the irrational, that reversion into adolescence". The narration was interspersed with journal entries Joe had made from that trip as he read it aloud to his wife (at her insistence).

Perhaps, this novel would seem drearily depressing to individuals in the prime of their lives. It speaks candidly about the dignity (or indignity) of growing old and the realities of a long marriage. People who have been blessed with an enduring marriage may be able to identify with this observation, “After forty-five years we can still, if we let ourselves, bristle and bump one another around like a pair of stiff-legged dogs.” Additionally, there is sobering reflection on aging: “It is not arthritis and the other ailments...It is just the general comprehension that nothing is building, everything is running down, there are no more chances for improvement." Brutal realization for disgruntled individuals such as Joe for whom it seemed life happened. During the Great Depression, the toss was between becoming a "broke talent" or a "talent broker". A significant personal loss deepened his sense of helplessness and found him having to “scratch dead leaves” over what he did not wish to see.

What I found most touching was the way the Allstons negotiated the revelations that emerged from reading the journal entries. Half the time I read with trepidation the thoughts and feelings that Joe had no way of censoring while reading without escaping the intuitive appraisal of his wife. A quiet grimace communicated unacknowledged needs and fears. “The Spectator Bird” is about honesty in intimacy. It is about choices. Joe said it well, “It has seemed to me that my commitments are often more important than my impulses or my pleasures, and that even when my pleasures or desires are the principal issue, there are choices to be made between better and worse, bad and better, good and good.” Each choice is made with "a big component of pain".

Steger has such an impeccable way with words that are at times delighfully laced with self-deprecating humor. His language has a penetrating quality that can unnerve the reader and yet one has to keep on reading. The Allstons aside, the novel has an intriguing story to tell about the Countess and the incredulous circumstances leading to her ostracism from Danish society. Great book!
Profile Image for Blaine DeSantis.
921 reviews117 followers
July 30, 2017
I have had a bunch of Wallace Stegner's works in my library for a few years but never got around to choosing one. So, about a week ago I walked over to the library and this book sort of jumped out at me. And so at age 63, an age I think is appropriate for reading this book, I settled in for what was a very worthwhile and thought-provoking week of reading.
The man writes beautifully and this book touches on things that I think cannot be appreciated until one hits these Golden Years of life. We have a book that discusses aging, health, relationships, as well as lives and past loves (or at least past desires). Even though written in the 1970's the book does not feel dated and the feelings that Stegner writes about are as fresh and worthy of review now. Maybe it is because I retired rather early, but I have spent quite a bit of time reviewing my own life and there is something about taking the time to contemplate ones life that makes this a perfect book for a retired individual to read.
If it is so great then why not a 5*****? Well, for me it is the fact that while it is a part of the story the entire genetics portion of the book just did not really ring true and was just hard to fathom. There were questions that were left unanswered and so for that single reason it dropped a star in my opinion. However, for me this was a very fine book. I read much of it to my wife who also enjoyed things, and the book made me realize that the time has come for me to not spend quite as much time thinking and sometimes lamenting the past, but that at age 63 there is a whole lot of future that I need to continue to live - even though I have so many of those same aches and pains that the books lead character Joe Allston suffers from.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,780 reviews1,459 followers
May 7, 2018
I enjoyed every minute I spent with this book. Every line spoke to me. The lines had me alternately thinking or smiling.

I share a lot with the central character of the novel. I believe this is why I relate to the book as much as I do. The book is about Joe Allston, actually not just about him, but about his wife (Ruth) too, about the couple as a pair, about their relationship and their respective attitudes. The year is 1974. He is sixty-nine years old and very much aware of the fact that he is approaching old age. Health concerns trouble him. He is retired. Husband and wife have settled down in a rural community in California, offering the peace of countryside living and only an hour’s distance from the intellectual community at Stanford. They have lived in NYC and have traveled extensively. Literature is an integral part of who they are. Joe’s mother was of Danish descent.

The story flips back and forth between the present,1974, and the past, 1954. In 1954 Joe and Ruth traveled to Denmark for several months; ostensibly, Joe was recuperating from myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. Beside this, their son had died in a surfing accident. Now, in the present, Joe is reading to Ruth the journals he wrote on that trip, and they are talking, finally talking about what they have not been able to speak of before.

The book is about one’s thoughts as one nears seventy. It is about family relationships and guilt and misgivings and about accepting that how you feel you ought to be is perhaps not how you can be. There is a lot here about daring to voice one’s innermost thoughts. The book is about connection to others. Look at the title. Are you a “spectator-bird”, observing others at a distance, or are you one who lets others come close?

Before retirement, Joe had been a literary agent, making it natural that authors and books are intermingled in the telling of the story, but not in the sense of name-dropping. Instead, characters and events in well-known books are used as reference points; if you have read the book you know the kind pf person Joe or Ruth are speaking of, understand their train of thought and catch the underlying humor. Nothing is explained; readers must themselves figure out what is inferred. If you have read the book you will understand. If you haven’t you won’t!

Cultural differences, particularly the Scandinavian lifestyle in comparison to the American, is amusingly and insightfully drawn.

The details are perfect—from the lack of adequate illumination in European hotels to the experience of traveling on a boat in a violent storm to the behavior of a Siamese cat to the tone of a Danish dinner party compared to its American counterpart to how a husband and wife married for many years communicate both verbally and non-verbally.

I very much like how the story ends. I like the choice Joe made in the fifties. I like seeing where he is today having made that choice twenty years earlier.

The book does not go off on tangents. In tone, it is low-key. It has historical underpinnings of both the 1950s and the 1970s, that is to say the years after the Second World War and the Hippie 70s.

Edward Herrmann’s narration of the audiobook is fantastic. There is not a question of my rating his performance with anything but five stars. He knows when to pause. He never over-dramatizes. He captures exactly how this couple would have spoken to each other. The speed is perfect, and every word is easily heard.

This is a really good book and the audiobook is extremely well read. I do think it will appeal to some readers more than others. The words underlined in the second paragraph indicate what kind of person the book will appeal to most.
Profile Image for Cathrine ☯️ .
630 reviews349 followers
May 4, 2019
3.75 ★ Rated Ɱ for mature reader
“He says that when asked if he feels like an old man he replies that he does not, he feels like a young man with something the matter with him.”

Exploring the road not taken, the what ifs that rob us of happiness and contentment by fertilizing regret.
Written 9 years after All the Little Live Things, Joe Alston is now 70 and pondering the indignities of aging, loss, and choices made earlier in life that determined which directions he went.
A postcard brings back memories that prompt him and his wife to revisit a time they traveled to Denmark. Something happened but Ruth has never been sure exactly what and he is thinking life has passed him by—that he was more spectator than participant. Clarification and reckoning has come due. It starts with reading Joe’s journal together at bedtime.

Both books were nominated for awards and this one was the winner. But I enjoyed reading its precursor more as the Danish segments here came off a bit disconnected from the story that seemed to be unfolding. Ultimately, as expected, it all came together. Stegner’s observations of married life are always sweet and sorrowful, profound and full of truth and wisdom.
As always, I loved where he took me in the end, as I have with all his stories.
Profile Image for Cheri.
1,794 reviews2,384 followers
October 15, 2021

Published some 45 years ago in 1976, this seems like a timeless story of a marriage in many ways, while also having touchstones relating to specific eras, and the negative opinions of many of those being shared by Joe Allston, a retired literary agent throughout. This is, at the heart of the story, a story of a marriage, the allowances made, the secrets kept from each other along the way in order to maintain a reasonably happy marriage, and the memories made along the way.

Joe is no longer young, and is feeling a bit betrayed by his body no longer being as limber or healthy as it once was. His family has dwindled in size. He’s lost both of his parents, and his only son. He never enjoyed his work, helping others hone their gifts, watching them be appreciated with no credit given for his help getting them there. And now it’s too late to begin again, to undo what has been done.

When Joe receives a postcard from an old friend, he begins to revisit his old journals from years before, including his trip to Denmark, his mother’s birthplace, in an attempt to learn more about his mother’s life before he was born. He reads these old journals to his wife, Ruth, at her request, somewhat reluctantly, it seems - at least at first.

Slowly, the story of this trip is revealed as he shares his journal with Ruth. It is a timeless story. There is an honest and gentle sharing of feelings about that time they can finally, freely share about their marriage, and thoughts about the ‘what-ifs’ that could have been.

’...after a second or two in which we looked at each other with that baffled, stubborn expression that people who have been long time married often wear when they are reading each other's minds, I began reading again. My problem was the opposite of what I said it was. In our relationship with Astrid Wredel-Krarup, and in the recollections that the diary brought back, I wasn't quite spectator enough.’

A contemplative story of the journey of life, memories, age, and the relationships formed along the way. The gift of offering forgiveness to others, as well as oneself, perhaps especially in marriage.
Profile Image for Mary.
428 reviews785 followers
January 4, 2015
Sartre wrote: We are our choices.

At a time of the year when many people of varying ages take stock, Stegner’s story of ageing Joe Allston was especially poignant. Whatever your age, we’ve all had those pivotal moments in life when we chose one fork in the road over the other, and go on to either live with regret, or relief. Even those who feel they’ve lived uneventful lives have, at some point, actively made decisions that altered everything forever.

I sometimes get the feeling my whole life happened to somebody else.

Stegner was a master at creating characters that feel utterly normal because nothing much really happens to them. They’re quietly despondent and repressed. They don’t usually blow up, but accept the finality of the circumstances. It’s not the most inspirational message, but it sure is realistic.

It comes as shock to realize that I am just killing time ’til time gets around to killing me.

Other than a brief digression into a bizarre side story, this novel is subtle and beautifully written.
Profile Image for Julie.
2,011 reviews38 followers
November 18, 2021
Wallace Stegner defines the relationship between a long married couple, Joe Allston and his wife Ruth, so well it truly resonated with me. I loved how the story quietly unfolded. Narrator, Edward Herrmann read the characters beautifully in his mellow voice, which was a pleasure to listen to. It was a perfect marriage of book and narrator.

Here are quotes that I found meaningful:

"He has been a wisecracking fellow traveller in the lives of other people and a tourist in his own."

"Catching me with my feelings showing would give her power over me, as surely as if she had collected my nail pairings or tufts of my hair."

"The complexity of being married to a woman you dearly love and automatically resist. I inevitably evade her management. I even evade her sympathy and affection or meet them with my guard up."

"Ruth sleeps in the other bed like a tired dog and here I sit in my back breaking oriole's nest, wide awake in spite of the pill I took at eleven."

"In rejecting me, he [their son, Curtis] destroyed my compass. He pulled my plug. He drained me. He was the continuity my life and effort were spent to establish."

"Her face was a spider's web with eyes."

"Dressed and sweatered, but in slippers, I wandered into the living room and dug out the Britannica and looked up rheumatoid arthritis. The unexamined disease isn't worth having."

"Orion was coming to meet us, then he was entangled in the oak, then as we came into the open again he was free. The daffodils in the meadow were touched with pale nocturnal gold."

"But Ruth is right, it is something, it can be everything, to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below. A fellow bird whom you can look after and find bugs and seeds for. One who will patch your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn over your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can't handle."
Profile Image for Lynne King.
494 reviews676 followers
June 22, 2018
I absolutely loved this book from page 1 to the end. Joe Alston, a nearly seventy-year old is one of these miserable and depressing individuals who nevertheless brings joy to one. He's a pretty astute guy but very aware of his own mortality. He's also one of those honourable men whom I always find so very endearing and his wife Ruth of forty years or so understands him very well indeed.

But it was the journals that had me entranced with this book and the fact that he read them to Ruth. To travel back in time to when these journals were written about Denmark and the countess Astrid. Now they were amazing.

An excellent book.
Profile Image for Betsy Robinson.
Author 9 books1,075 followers
September 23, 2019
This is my third Stegner book, and I now love the man. I first met his protagonist Joe Allston in All the Little Live Things, the follow-up to this book, which ended in an earthquake. The Spectator Bird is much quieter but just as good a literary meal.

I finished this book just after attending my 50th high school reunion, and I could not have been better prepared to understand what Stegner grappled with and came to peace about in this National Book Award-winning novel. I came away from my reunion with a sweet sad happy sense that my life and even things that didn’t feel like choices at the time, but rather rejections, failures, and a hopeless inability to meet my own goals, were actually perfect choices—all leading to a life that I would not trade for any other. This is essentially what Stegner is writing about with such profound understanding in The Spectator Bird. I’m satisfied.
Profile Image for Lisa.
431 reviews67 followers
June 12, 2021
Wallace Stegner's The Spectator Bird brings the return of curmudgeon Joe Allston from All the Little Live Things. This companion book is more tightly scripted, and the story is both introspective and retrospective. In it Stegner, through 69 year old Joe, reflects on growing old and death and quietly celebrates long-term marriage.

As I approach my 60th year I can empathize with Joe's feelings about friends who are failing and the ups and downs, joys and solidarity of my 35 year-long marriage.

With the unexpected arrival of a postcard from a Danish friend Joe begins to think 20 years into the past. He is motivated to pull out his journals from the trip he and his wife took to Denmark at that time, and at Ruth's request begins to read them aloud. Stegner uses this device to move back and forth between the Allstons' current life in rural California--suffering bad news about a neighbor, dealing with storm damage, and managing an unexpected visitor--to 1950's Denmark and their entanglement with Astrid, a Danish countess, and her family. (In the 1970's when this novel was published this technique was relatively novel.)

It is here that we get a good look at the Allstons' marriage -- the survival of the death of their son, their ability to communicate with just a look or gesture, their gentle care of each other, their sustaining each other as their friends age and die, and the resolution of a long-held worry.

"It is something--it can be everything--to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below; a fellow bird whom you can look after and find bugs and seeds for; one who will patch your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn over your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can't handle."

As with all of Stegner's works the writing is exquisite, the descriptions of nature are beautifully rendered, wry humor is interspersed throughout, and there are true and perceptive looks into the human heart.
Profile Image for Heidi.
150 reviews8 followers
December 28, 2013
Another deeply satisfying book by Wallace Stegner, with themes reminiscent of Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose: mortality, the labyrinth of marriage, the mind game that is aging and physical disability, the search for self.

I wonder if to be known to one’s self, to make transparent to ourselves the good and bad that is resident in each of us, is the “safe place” Stegner alludes to so often. Perhaps the safe place is not a physical pilgrimage after all: not returning to our origins, not Bregninge, not the New World, not “the little Kafka animal’s hole.” Perhaps it is an internal pilgrimage: finding the wherewithal to be self-aware, and then taking the inevitable next step toward honesty.

The narrator and protagonist Joe Allston is embattled in body, mind and spirit: angry and anguished over an enormous loss he shares with his wife Ruth, hurt by a world he imagines as hostile and uncharitable toward the elderly and infirm, intimidated by youth and convinced of a feud between the generations. A curmudgeon, his wife calls him, but he is worse than that: he is emotionally closed and locked in place, a spectator.

Joe is reminded of Willa Cather who pointed out that “you can’t paint sunlight, you can only paint what it does with shadows on a wall.” He extrapolates this to Socrates’ call to examine one’s life, asking “do you really examine the life, or do you examine the shadows it casts on other lives…?”

Arm in arm with Stegner, Joe dips into the past, examines the shadows, and is rewarded with a transcendent return to sunlight.

Stegner gave me many gifts in this novel. Here are two.

One, he shares a philosophy or approach to life I have often tried but failed to put into words. Clairvoyant Karen Blixen gleefully tells her guests, one of whom she has just affronted by deliberately alluding to painful memories, “…my dear, look on it as a story…it pains Astrid to hear these things spoken of, but they are part of a story and stories are part of the accumulation you think will tell you something.” When we position painful events within the larger perspective of our life story, we exchange subjectivity for objectivity, we prick the bubble of our self-importance, we reduce the event to realistic, if not amusing, proportions. We should all be storytellers!

Two, he addresses the suffering caused by secrets. Stegner describes Joe in the bath where he ruminates on how the body carries its memories in his right shoulder and elbow (competitive tennis), and right toe (kicking a friend in his youth). But the mind does the same thing. Its secrets manifest in defensiveness, resistance, mockery—his “japery,” I think Joe calls it. Joe has a secret and precious time passes as he keeps it suppressed.

But the best gift of all is Stegner’s sentences. He saves his most beautiful, luminous sentences for scenes where the stakes are high, when emotion and truth, for this self-described “adolescent,” ride to the rim. This is a gorgeous book, full of truth and consequences, and I am loving my Wallace Stegner journey.
Profile Image for Wyndy.
194 reviews81 followers
February 17, 2019
3.5 stars.

Retired literary agent Joe Allston and his wife Ruth are a couple I can imagine inviting over for dinner. They’re unpretentious. They’re not that much older than my husband and me and, like us, have managed to keep a multi-decades long marriage together. They’ve been through the worst kind of hell imaginable - losing their only child - and are still best friends. They value a quiet, predictable life filled with books, walks, and a few close friends. We could all four comfortably share a bottle or two over a simple supper and commiserate over our aches and pains, both physical and emotional - common ground for us oldsters.

But here our similarities and cozy conversation would end because I really didn’t bond with Stegner’s telling of Joe’s and Ruth’s time in Denmark (through Joe’s nightly reading to Ruth of his 20-year-old “diary”) and wouldn’t want to hear them rehash this bizarre chapter in their lives. I understand why they took the trip. I sympathize with the mysterious countess and her “incredible” tale and with Joe’s infatuation with her. But this part of the story was weird, ultimately predictable, and fairly uninteresting for me. Also, after a while, the constant “woe is me - I’m so old” from Joe started to grate on my nerves a bit. I would like to have read more of Ruth’s perspective on their lives.

This is my third straight novel to move back and forth between a single narrator’s past and present life, and it didn’t work as well for me as the previous two. That said, Wallace Stegner’s ability to pinpoint human emotions and relationships is the best of any writer I’ve ever read, and this book is filled with many rich examples, so I’m rounding up. Plus, he wrote ‘Crossing To Safety’ - one of my all-time favorite novels.

“When we had been married no more than twelve hours, she told me she had made a vow never to go to sleep on a quarrel. It must be settled before we closed our eyes. Since my impulse is to close my eyes on the quarrel and sleep it off, our systems have not always meshed.”
~ Joe Allston

That is marriage in a nutshell, as only Stegner can write it.
Profile Image for Dan.
1,135 reviews52 followers
April 19, 2019
The Spectator Bird is a short novel by Wallace Stegner that won the National Book Award in 1977.

A profound novel with a much simpler story than Angle of Repose. There are only four characters of any importance in The Spectator Bird and one could make a case that only three are essential.

Ruminating about Joe’s past love interest and his reflections on old age are the essential elements in this story. There is a mystery connected to Joe and Astral’s relationship that is not resolved until the end and it is disturbing. Will Joe and his wife Ruth make it through the past issues of potential infidelity? Will the wisdom of old age save the day?

Anyone who has read Stegner will immediately recognize his writing style. Often beautiful prose in both narrative and dialogue that include meditations on old age, better than I’ve read in a lot of fiction.

4.5 stars. It took a little while to settle into the book. The storyline jumps back and forth 20 years between 1970’s Palo Alto area and 1950’s Denmark.
Profile Image for TBV (on hiatus).
308 reviews74 followers
July 5, 2019
In the earlier novel, All the Little Live Things, Joe Allston had retired from being a literary agent and settled down with his wife Ruth in a country home in California.

This novel takes place when Joe is 69 years old, and to his dismay much has changed around him. He is working on various notes when he finds an old postcard which prompts him to locate a diary from years before when he and Ruth had visited Denmark. Ruth insists that Joe read out aloud so that she might share the memories, and in the process she learns more about her husband’s thoughts and feelings at that time. And so the elderly couple sit in bed, one listening and one reading.

But reliving the past can spark all sorts of other thoughts. Joe for various reasons ended up doing a job he wasn’t mad keen about, his son had a senseless accident (or not!) and died, and his little paradise in California is fast changing due to development. He is now very much aware of his age and his frailties, and he ruminates on old age and everything that goes with it (some things literally). He realises that he has never really fit in, and that he has always viewed life as a spectator bird might. But on reflection, was he a spectator or not?

Some of Joe’s grumpy, self-disparaging remarks are hilarious. This might not be so for a younger reader, but those over 60 might recognise the symptoms of Joe’s grouchiness and empathise with him. Let’s face it, laughter is great therapy. However, sometimes there is such bitterness and pain in Joe’s musings that it makes for difficult reading.
Profile Image for Dale Harcombe.
Author 14 books316 followers
December 10, 2018
Joe Allston is 69, a retired literary agent. He lives with his wife Ruth. Their son died years earlier and Joe still harbours a lot of Bitterness about the hand life has dealt him. He seems to be cutting himself of from friends and becoming more and more grumpy and solitary. He feels his life has been lived as a spectator. When he receives a postcard from a woman he and Ruth knew years before it sends him searching for the journals he wrote during his time in Denmark. It was during this time that he and Ruth returned to his mother’s birthplace and met the countess.
Having read only one other books by Wallace Stegnar, Crossing to Safety which I loved, I was looking forward to this. Some of the writing is beautiful. Initially I chuckled along with some of Joe’s acerbic comments. There is something about a grumpy old man (or woman) that can be endearing in a book or film. In real life not so much. I was enjoying the story for a while, more so the present day parts than after it went back to the journals and story from 1954.
It was okay till it got further into detailing the story of the countess and her relationships. This was just awful, and seemed completely out of left field. From that point I skimmed. These details changed my whole attitude towards the book. So, in the end, despite some enjoyable bits, it was only okay. I’m now off to read something light and uplifting.
Profile Image for JimZ.
1,061 reviews495 followers
August 25, 2021
This is the second book I have read by this author who I know is revered. I did not care for ‘Crossing to Safety” and I was looking forward to liking this book, and it did not happen. I don’t know what it is about his style of writing or what, that I don’t like his books. 🙁

Well wait, I just looked back at my records and liked one of his earliest works a lot, ‘Remembering Laughter’. It’s been a while since I read that (1997) so maybe it’s time I read it again since I don’t remember a thing about it! 😊

That’s a good thing about having a memory like a sieve…I can wait a while (2 years maybe) and do a re-read and it’ll be like reading something new….so I can just pick books in which I’ve given 4 or 5 stars to and just schedule them every other year and I’ll be in a state of bliss. 😉

I found ‘The Spectator Bird’ to be quite boring. It involves a husband reading a diary he kept some 20 years ago to his wife – the diary is of a trip they took to Denmark and a Countess they briefly shared a small house with. The chapters go back and forth from the current to the past. I found neither the past nor the current life of Joe Alston and the characters around him to be particularly interesting. I will say that Joe’s complaints about old age – his old age and his arthritis and other age-related maladies – did resonate with me.

The ending of this book reminded me of the end of a movie where some famous male movie star is slapping the face of a female movie star

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