Spectator Bird–Considerations of Time and Life

The Spectator Bird

By Wallace Stegner

Published 1976

Read Oct 2021

Joe Allston was a successful literary agent in New York City for many years.  About eight years prior to the start of this story he and his wife moved to a house outside of San Francisco after he retired.  Apparently, they were pretty active socially initially and enjoyed showing off their property and Ruth’s excellent cooking.  They have started losing friends to the usual reasons associated with retirement and have become more withdrawn from society.  At the same time, Joe has started experiencing the usual aches and pains that accompany aging.

One day they receive a postcard from Astrid, a Countess from whom they rented rooms in her apartment while in Denmark 20 years ago after the death of their son (accident?  Suicide?  Not clear…) and a serious illness Joe suffered.  Initially Joe doesn’t tell Ruth they received the postcard but does later that evening when he brings journals from that time into their bedroom where they spend their evenings reading and watching TV.  Ruth convinces Joe to read the journals aloud although both of them anticipate the experience will incur some pain for both of them.  Ruth is interested in “getting the pebble out of her shoe” regarding what really happened between Joe and Astrid.

The book alternates between sessions reading the journal (with its extensive details including dialog…) and present day (~1976) in which Joe narrates their various events, including a visit from a former client who is a famous Italian author, and Joe’s thoughts about his current physical and mental state. 

While it’s clear the “current” and “past” sections both occurred in the past (no cell phones, no computer searches but rather investigations using “Who’s Who” and other written documents in a library) much is quite universal and timeless.  As someone who has been retired about seven years and who also moved to an enviable lake house, this reader found Joe’s comments very close to home at times.  Certainly, the story of their trip to Denmark provides some startling details but the most relevant aspects for this reader are about Joe’s review of his current situation and how he came to it.  His comments about never really choosing his path but rather just bumping along it are quite raw and relevant to many of us. In addition, Stegner’s language and descriptions of their current and past environments and actions are exquisite.  It’s quite easy to understand why this book won the National Book Award when it was published.  This reader’s advice:  read and savor. 

The Midnight Library—Alternate Lives Explored

The Midnight Library

By Matt Haig

Published 2020

Read Oct 2021

The genre into which these novel falls isn’t obvious—not science fiction nor speculative fiction by this reader’s definition but certainly requiring the reader to accept an interesting premise.  In this case the premise is that when at least some people are about to die, they enter a library of alternate lives.  For the main character, Nora, the library looks like the library in her school and is maintained by Mrs. Elm, the school librarian.  For another character, the library is of DVDs in a DVD store.  Regardless, the person of interest is confronted with a large number of alternate lives that would have been (or are actually?) had they made a different decision at some point in their life.

Nora’s “root life” is miserable—she’s out of a job; her cat has just died; her parents have passed; she is estranged from her brother; and she has just broken off an engagement days before the planed wedding. She just wants to die and has taken excessive anti-depressants and washed them down with alcohol.  But she wakes up in the library with Mrs. Elm who tells her she can try out an alternative life.  If it doesn’t work out, she will automatically return to the library and can try another.  Mrs. Elm suggests Nora look at her Book of Regrets to help her decide which decision she’d like to have been different which will pick the alternate life she will start leading. 

Nora has many regrets including: dropping out of competitive swimming despite the possibility of becoming an Olympic star; quitting the band she is in with her brother just as they are close to being signed by a record company; breaking off the engagement with her fiancée; not following her dream to become an artic geoscientist.  The book follows Nora through a number of alternate lives.  An interesting aspect of this is that Nora brings only her current memories and knowledge with her so she doesn’t hold the history of becoming, for instance, a PhD geoscientist and the academic papers she wrote in this life.  So part of Nora’s immediate attention in the alternate life is to figure out what she knows and has done—easier in some cases than others.  It’s also not clear what happens to the Nora she displaces when she tries out this alternate life.  The reader just needs to accept and move on.  This reader was willing.

Some reviewers have complained that the story is told “straight line” and too simply.  That Nora’s story is just a vehicle to discuss alternate universe theory and provide some therapy to the reader.  That the story isn’t quite dark enough, Nora’s character not engaging enough, etc.  This reader reads lots of dark, complex novels, some of which tend to reach for complexity without finding the point of that complexity.  So, this reader quite appreciated the “simplicity” of this book and its interesting material, some of which is, frankly, therapeutic for readers of a certain age that wonder “what if”. While “simple” and “straight line” , it did provide this reader, at least, a number of things to consider while Nora is working through alternate lives and deciding whether or not she really wants to die—or not. 

The Consequences of Fear—More Massie Dobbs from Winspear

The Consequences of Fear

By Jacqueline Winspear

Published 2021

Read Sept 2021

This reader of this essay may note that this book was both published and read in 2021.  Yes, this reader has read all the previous books in Winspear’s Massie Dobbs series and will read the next one soon after it becomes available. 

What draws this reader to the series is fulfilled again in this book.  First, the descriptive language of the setting—London, Scotland, and Kent—and time—1941 and the circumstances of time—the country after two years of war with Germany with regular bombings and the loss of solider and citizen lives.  Second, the protagonist Massie Dobbs with whom we’ve shared her highs and lows of her eventful life through the various books and whose doubts and fears are highlighted as she perseveres despite many losses in the two world wars England has suffered.  Third, an interesting mystery that informs the reader about some aspect of history—this time that UK intelligence used young boys to literally run memos between various locations in London.    

Not unlike the Tony Hillerman series, this series of mysteries provides more than the mystery.  There are interesting characters dealing with serious issues in their lives.  There is immersion in a time and place that provides some teaching about that time and place.  And the stories are not cookie-cutter.  This reader recommends both series and is glad that Winspear will be providing more of Massie Dobbs. 

All the Pretty Horses–Seeking the Cowboy Life

All the Pretty Horses

By Cormac McCarthy

Published 1982

Read Sept 2021

This reader listened to McCarthy’s The Road a number of years ago and was nearly dumbstruck by its ability to describe the disintegration of humanity (as the world’s ability to provide sustenance for its inhabitants has been eliminated) and at the same time provide a beautiful story of a father and son pressing forward to preserve.  That book had its moments of graphic violence but the book wasn’t violent for violence’s sake but rather admitted that violence was part of the current situation.

This reader was aware that a number of McCarthy’s other books involve much violence so this reader didn’t immediately dive into other McCarthy books after The Road.  An audio version of All the Pretty Horses became available so this reader took the plunge.  As with The Road, listening to All the Pretty Horses eliminated all issues of McCarthy’s tendency to avoid punctuation and this reader could focus on the story and the language McCarthy uses to tell it. 

This novel is set in 1949.  Sixteen-year-old John Grady Cole’s mother is going to sell his recently deceased grandfather’s farm in Texas on which John Grady Cole has lived all his life.  Having no interest in living in town, he sets off on horse back with his friend Lacey Rawlins, heading to Mexico with the hope of finding work as cowboys.  They encounter a boy, Jimmy Blevins, who rides a large beautiful bay.   His ownership of the horse, and claimed age and intentions are questionable, but Grady Cole and Rawlins allow him to ride along with them.  Their interactions with him prove their eventual, although not immediate, undoing.   Before that happens, Grady Cole and Rawlins find work on a ranch, Grady’s skills with horses is recognized and utilized, and Grady meets the ranch owner’s mysterious daughter.  Despite the warnings of her great-aunt, Grady Cole becomes deeply involved with the daughter before he and Rawlins are arrested for horse stealing (which Blevins, not they, did when Blevins steals back a horse he lost).  Grady Cole and Rawlins experience substantial violence in jail but they are eventually freed.  They separately make it back to their home town, but at the end Grady Cole again leaves in search of a life he hopes to live but may no longer be available.

Had this reader read this book first, it’s unlikely she would have sought out The Road.  While much of the language is quite beautiful, and John Grady Cole’s desire to find a life that may no longer exist is an interesting subject, this reader never felt the deep connection with him that she felt with the Man and Son in The Road.  John Grady Cole certainly preserves through many physically and mentally difficult situations, some of which involve quite graphic violence.  However, the book still felt mainly like a western written beautifully which wasn’t quite enough for this reader. 

Lady Susan-An Unusual Austen Lady

Lady Susan

By Jane Austen

This short book/long story was written in approximately 1794 (when Jane was about 19) but it wasn’t published until 1871, long after her death in 1817.  It is written mainly as a set of letters between the principal characters with a conclusion by an unnamed narrator.

Lady Susan is about 35 years old, is recently widowed, has a sixteen-year-old daughter, and has no home of her own in which to reside so she relies on friends and family for a place to stay.  As the book opens, she is abruptly leaving her friends’ home near London to stay with her brother-in-law and family in the country.   She has deposited her daughter in a school in London, apparently to repair the effects of limited schooling she had while living at home. 

Many rumors follow Lady Susan to her brother-in-law’s estate including the reason for the abrupt departure (excessive flirting with the man of the house), cause for lack of home ownership (the property had to be sold to cover debts incurred by Lady Susan’s excessive spending), and the reason for her daughter’s poor education (Lady Susan had been too busy socializing away from home to pay attention to her).  The letters progress a story that demonstrates Lady Susan’s amazing abilities to deflect rumors, win over people who have a poor opinion of her, and generally manipulate anyone necessary to get what she wants.  Jane Austen’s chosen language for the correspondents is marvelous and paints a picture of a thoroughly self-absorbed woman who uses her beauty, charm, and articulateness to full advantage. 

Austen seemed to have much fun creating the Lady Susan character and using her to highlight constraints placed on women—and men—in this society and how they deal with them.  Some of Austen’s characters’ language and actions make clear a focus on the drive to marry for money with a hope that the bride will be able to stomach the husband and if not your lives can be conducted separately enough to tolerate the situation (or that he’s old and/or infirm enough to die soon).  Two couples—Lady Susan’s brother-in-law and wife and that wife’s parents—seem to have marriages that are more desirable and may involve a real love between the parties.  Lady Susan’s sister-in-law tries and succeeds in pulling Lady Susan’s daughter into her (much more) stable home.  But here again there is a continued focus by the sister-in-law on Lady Susan’s daughter’s successful marriage, this time to her brother.  The sister-in-law convinces her mother to join her in this campaign as Lady Susan’s daughter is seen by them as a deserving and desirable mate for the brother/son.

A 2016 movie, Love and Friendship, is based on this book.  It does a remarkable job of converting a story told through letters to a “live action” drama.  Much of the dialog is taken directly from Austen.  A few changes are made to help an American audience in 2016 understand things but the changes are generally quite minor.  The biggest change regards the marriage of Lady Susan to Sir James which is described in the narrated conclusion in the book.  Sir James has always been smitten with Lady Susan, but Lady Susan’s intentions through the story have been to marry her daughter off to rich Sir James.  Austen merely reports that they marry.  The movie provides a possible and very believable interpretation of what prompts the timing.   This reader/watcher suggests you read the novella and then watch the movie and be delighted by both. 

Still Life with Bread Crumbs–Life is not over at 61

Still Life with Bread Crumbs

By Anna Quindlen

Published 2014

Read July 2021

Once again, this reader’s local Little Library provided a good book to read.  This reader has read several Quindlen books and they are usually a good break from some of the heavier, grittier books often on this reader’s book list. 

Rebecca Winter’s original artist outlet had been painting.  But when the photographs she took of various kitchen objects she planned to paint became of interest to the photography art community, photography became her (very successful) focus.  She even has recently received a notable award—although she is concerned this signals the fading of her career.  She is now 61.  She hasn’t sold any photographs for a while and her income has dwindled although her expenses haven’t, especially the bill to the Jewish Home for the Aged and the Infirm at which her mother resides.  She has rented a small cottage in a small town that is driving distance to New York and is renting her apartment in New York with the difference in costs designed to supplement her income.

The book follows her experiences in this small town and with this cottage which needs maintenance skills she doesn’t possess but which Jim Bates, a local, does.  Along the way we learn that she married and is now divorced from a professor who is enchanted by younger women until he finds need of a younger one, and that she has a grown son from that union.  The story isn’t wholly unpredictable but that’s ok. 

Quindlen’s storytelling and language is always engaging for this reader.  This reader liked Rebecca Winter much more than the main character in Alternate Side, perhaps because she is both more vulnerable and more self-effacing. At any rate, this was just the right book for this reader at the right time.  This reader looks forward to more from this author. 

Bel Canto—A Book that Sings

Bel Canto

By Anne Patchett

Published 2001

Read Sept 2021

An unnamed South American country’s government invites Katsumi Hosokawa, CEO of a Japanese electronics company, to come to their country to celebrate his birthday.  They hope he will choose to build a plant there.  By inviting Roxane Coss, a famous soprano opera singer, to sing at the event, they are successful in getting him to attend the event which is attended as well by executives from a number of companies around the world.  One person is not in attendance—the President of the country.  The Vice President is hosting the event at his large home.  Near the end of the party a terrorist group invades the ballroom with the intention of taking the President hostage.  When it is learned he is not there (he preferred to watch his favorite TV soap opera instead) they take all the party participants hostage.  After the first few harrowing hours, they decide to release all the women (except Roxane Coss) and a few others.

While the book’s beginning feels somewhat like an action-thriller, once the hostages are winnowed down and Joaquin Messner, a Swiss Red Cross representative (who happens to be vacationing in the country) arrives to begin negotiations, the hostages and captors slowly develop an understanding of protocols and acceptable actions and behaviors by the hostages.  Similarly, the book now focuses on the individual characters and their evolving relationships. 

We learn much about Mr. Hosokawa including his love of opera and that only Roxane Coss’s appearance was able to coax him to come to the event.  We learn that Roxane Coss was lured to the event by the money she would be paid and that she now vows to restrict her engagements to three stable countries.  Roxane Coss was the only woman kept as a hostage for her clear “worth” in the negotiating process.  After a few days when she recognizes the situation isn’t resolving quickly, she decides she must continue her routine of practicing so she will be able to reenter her singing career when the situation is over.  A new accompanist is recruited, music scores are obtained from a local source through the young priest who decided to remain a hostage, and she begins singing.  And the book sings as well.

 The book’s song carries the reader through the development of a unique hostage/captor community.  The Vice President takes on a role of serving and cleaning.  The French ambassador to the unspecified country becomes head chef and some of the captors are his sous chefs.  Gen, Mr. Hosokawa’s multi-lingual interpreter, becomes an important element of the situation as so few of the hostages speak the language of other hostages or their captors.  Two of the captors turn out to be young girls.  One of them, Carmen, is assigned to stand guard at Roxane Coss’s bedroom.  Romantic relationships develop, not surprising given the close quarters they all share.  Several young captors have talents that are “discovered” by their hostages and the hostages begin to help them develop these talents which may allow them to have very different lives post-hostage situation than they lived before. 

Truth be told, neither the reader nor the hostage/captor community really want the situation to end.  But the song does come to an end that is not wholly surprising but somewhat so.  The epilogue is the encore that reminds us of the great song that has been told and sung. 

This is beautifully written book about a very unique set of circumstances that shouldn’t have happened but did and the remarkable, but temporary, result that followed.   

We Begin at the End–a Police Officer and an Outlaw

We Begin at the End

By Chris Whitaker

Published 2021

Read Aug 2021

There are many characters in this book but the two main protagonists are Walk (short for Walker, his last name) and Duchess Radley.  Walk grew up in the small Californian town in which he is now a member of the two-person police force.  Duchess is the 13-year-old daughter of Star Radley who also grew up in this town.  Star dated Vincent King, Walk’s best friend, when they were in high school but that relationship was truncated when Vincent went to jail as a teenager after being convicted of manslaughter of Star’s six-year-old sister, Sissy.  Walk figured out Vincent was probably the driver of the hit-and-run and his testimony sunk his friend.  Walk has tried to remain in contact with Vincent while he’s been in jail but Vincent hasn’t obliged. As the book begins, Vincent has been released from jail after serving his sentence.  Duchess is a self-proclaimed “outlaw” and tries to be tough.  She has certainly had a tough life as she is basically the primary care-giver for her five year old brother and her substance abuser mother, Star.   

A new tragic mystery arises in the small town—Star Radley is found dead.  Vincent is arrested for her murder.  Walk reconnects with his girlfriend from high school—but only to obtain a lawyer for Vincent who seems committed to returning to jail to serve time for this new crime.  In the meantime, Star and her brother are trundled to Montana to stay with distant relatives which looks promising but of course falls apart. 

Did Vincent murder Star and, if so, why?  Will Walk regain his friendship with Vincent?  Will that enable Walk to move forward with his life?  What will happen to Duchess Radley and her brother?   Lots of questions for the plot to cover. 

This reader found the book reasonably engaging. All of the characters seem quite lost and not capable of finding a way towards a life they might consider worth living.  Duchess Radley’s assertions that she is an “outlaw” did not seem quite convincing.  She certainly rails against everything and everyone that tries to help her.  Is this what she thinks an “outlaw” is?  The language seems to be trying too hard sometimes to be “literary” which almost gets in the way of the very complex story.    There has been much praise for this book and a Disney studio apparently intends to bring the story to the screen.  The story likely would make a good several-part dark TV series for streaming.  There is many twists and turns that might come up short in a movie version but time will tell.

A Kiss Before Dying—a Classic Must-Read Thriller!

A Kiss Before Dying

By Ira Levin

Published 1953

Read July 2021

Ira Levin was only twenty-three when he wrote this now classic mystery/thriller.  He would go on to write Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, The Boys from Brazil, and a number of plays including No Time for Sergeants and Deathtrap, a long running comedy/thriller on Broadway.   

A Kiss Before Dying, published in 1953, is set in that timeframe.  Young men and women on college campuses smoked and flirted.  Young women lived in dormitories and some young men lived in rooms rented in town by widows.  Young men who had served in WWII were benefitting from the GI bill and were a little older than many of their college classmates. Some of these young men came to college with more “experience” and may or may not have been more likely to persuade their female classmates to join them in bed.  Regardless, college girls did have sex even in those pre- “pill” days, and sometimes found themselves in the situation of hoping their boyfriend would become their husband.  Such is the case for Dorothy Kingship, the daughter of a wealthy copper tycoon.  When Dorothy’s older sister, Ellen, decides to investigate Dorothy’s suicide, things get very interesting—but you will have to read (or listen to) this book to find out why. 

This reader enjoyed being transported in time to 1953 to see some of the culture of the day.  But the primary draw of this novel is Levin’s expertise in building tension repeatedly and experiencing the jolts from the unexpected plot turns. 

Read and enjoy!!  

Peace Like a River–Some Miracles and More in the Badlands

Peace Like a River

By Leif Enger

Published 2001

Read Aug 2021

Reuben Land is born in 1951 and is expected to die as he can’t seem to take a breath.  Then his father, Jerimiah, commands him to breathe which he finally does.  Miracle #1 witnessed by Reuben.  Fast forward to 1962.  Jerimiah is raising Davy, 16, Reuben, 12, and Swede, 9, alone.  His wife left after it was clear to her that Jerimiah has abandoned his medical education when he suffers an accident while he was in school.  In fact, he is now happy to be a janitor at the local school.  Reuben continues to struggle with his breathing—likely severe asthma.  Swede is a fan of western novels and is extremely adept at writing poetry about a range of circumstances.  We are treated to a number of lines she writes with apparent ease and to her epic poem about a cowboy as she writes it.  She and Reuben are very close.  Jerimiah breaks up an attempted sexual assault at the school which sets up a battle between the assailants and his family.  The bullies kidnap Swede; it’s not clear exactly what they do to her.  However, brother Davy is set on a course to take revenge and ends up killing both young men.  Reuben and Swede plot to break him out of jail but fortunately he escapes himself.  The rest of the novel follows the family’s search for Davy as he heads into the Badlands with an FBI agent on his tail.

This reader generally enjoyed this book.  The descriptions of the land they traverse are especially nice.   The story being set in 1962 enabled some disconnection from current society norms.  Is this a book that this reader would recommend to her book discussion group?  Likely not because while pleasurable it wasn’t a book that prompts this reader to want to talk about the book with others. This reader will consider reading this author again in the future.