Author Archives: Robin

About Robin

I’m a wife, mother, daughter, grandma, retired teacher, gardener, knitter, and passionate reader. I live near Portland, Oregon, USA.

The Spectator Bird

The Spectator Bird, by Wallace Stegner, was published in 1976, and received the National Book Award for Fiction in 1977.

From the publisher…

Joe Allston is a cantankerous, retired literary agent who is, in his own words, “just killing time until time gets around to killing me.” His parents and his only son are long dead, leaving him with neither ancestors nor descendants, tradition nor ties. His job, trafficking the talent of others, has not been his choice. He has passed through life as a spectator, before retreating to the woods of California in the 1970s with only his wife, Ruth, by his side. When an unexpected postcard from a long-lost friend arrives, Allston returns to the journals of a trip he has taken years before, a journey to his mother’s birth­place where he once sought a link with his past. Uncovering this history floods Allston with memories, both grotesque and poignant, and finally vindicates him of his past and lays bare that Joe Allston has never been quite spectator enough.

Throughout much of this story, Joe is a grumpy old man. At seventy, he has many physical aches and pains but he carries some heavy emotional aches and pains as well. Pain of any kind can certainly make a person grumpy and color one’s outlook on life. Dealing with the changes retirement brings is also quite challenging, and in Joe’s case presents itself in depression. Retirement puts one at a distance which is both welcome and a big challenge. I remember hearing my father say about retirement, “It’s amazing how quickly you are forgotten in the workplace.” Joe seems to be sitting on the sidelines, even more a spectator than earlier in his life, not sure of what he wants to do with his life at this point.

“Maybe because the bush tits are doing what I thought we would be doing out here, just messing around, paying no attention to time or duty, kicking up leaves and playing hide and seek up and down the oak trunks and generally enjoying themselves.

Joe also continues to grieve for the loss of his son and only child, Curt, who died in a surfing accident (Joe thinks it was possibly a suicide). He has not been able to let go of the guilt he feels about this troubled relationship with his son, and he questions himself every day.

“Do I hate the thought of Curt’s death more because he never fulfilled himself, or because he never fulfilled me?

Joe struggles with the aging process and grieves for the losses and irrevocable changes time brings, and he is also struggling to redefine meaning and purpose at this later stage of  life.  As he and Ruth share an old journal from a trip to Denmark they took many years earlier, they rediscover some important and defining moments in their marriage. It becomes clear that the most important thing is his relationship with Ruth, and that their marriage, with the easy (and difficult)  companionship of so many years, with what Virginia Woolf calls the “daily-ness” of their relationship, is the strength that guides him through each day and through the rest of his life. His realization of that is a tender and romantic notion, a notion that is also true in my own life experience. Wallace Stegner describes it beautifully.

“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.”

I read this book for The Classics Club. It is the first book I have read by Wallace Stegner, but will not be my last. I admit I’ve been a little intimidated to read him before now. I have some personal connections to him, and he has always loomed as a larger-than-life figure to me, so I think I was simply afraid to try him out. This book started out slowly for me, and I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, but his “big ideas” really touched my heart, his literary references amazed me, and his beautiful “way with words” have all made me a real fan.

A Favorite Character

 

Virago Press has an Instagram meme for this month called “#BooksforChange“.  I’m really enjoying the photos that people are posting in response to this meme, and these daily prompts inspire lots of ideas to think about regarding my reading.

Today’s prompt is favorite female character,” and it didn’t take me very long to decide that Penelope Keeling, from Rosamunde Pilcher‘s The Shell Seekers, is one of my all time favorite female characters. I liked her very much when I first read the book as a young mother, but I like her even more now that I am approximately the same age as the character.

Some things I love about this character: I love that she’s a gentle, thoughtful person, that art and beautify help her survive the terrible losses in her life, that she has an inner strength that guides her well through the relationships in her life, and that she finds joy in the little things in life — “the gentle powers,” she calls them.

“I’ve lived with sadness so long. And a loneliness that nothing and nobody could assuage. But, over the years, I came to terms with what had happened. I learned to live within myself, to grow flowers, to watch my children grow; to look at paintings and listen to music. The gentle powers. They are quite amazingly sustaining.”

In the two different movie versions of this book, the character of Penelope Keeling was played by two lovely actresses — Vanessa Redgrave and Angela Lansbury. Both of them were perfect for the role.

Crooked House

Last week I finished reading Crooked House, by Agatha Christie, but it’s been such a busy week and weekend, that I’m just now getting around to posting about it.  I’ve read many of Agatha Christie’s mysteries over the years, starting with And Then There Were None when I was in the 5th grade many, many years ago! I’ve read quite a few since then with Miss Marple as the detective, a number with Poirot,  and one or two with Tommy and Tuppence. And, happily, there are still a lot of them I can look forward to reading!  Crooked House is a stand alone novel, not part of one of her series, but is a very enjoyable mystery to read!

From the Agatha Christie web site, here is a synopsis of the story:

A wealthy Greek businessman is found dead at his London home… The Leonides were one big happy family living in a sprawling, ramshackle mansion. That was until the head of the household, Aristide, was murdered with a fatal barbiturate injection. Suspicion naturally falls on the old man’s young widow, fifty years his junior. But the murderer has reckoned without the tenacity of Charles Hayward, fiance of the late millionaire’s granddaughter…

In this book, I was particularly struck by Christie’s chilling description of the mindset of a murderer:

“What are murderers like? Some of them,” a faint rather melancholy smile showed on his face, “have been thoroughly nice chaps.”

… “Murder, you see, is an amateur crime. I’m speaking of course of the kind of murder you have in mind–not gangster stuff. One feels, very often, as though these nice ordinary chaps, had been overtaken, as it were, by murder, almost accidentally. They’ve been in a tight place, or they’ve wanted something very badly, money or a woman–and they’ve killed to get it…

…”But some people, I suspect, remain morally immature. They continue to be aware that murder is wrong, but they do not feel it. I don’t think, in my experience, that any murderer has really felt remorse…And that, perhaps, is the mark of Cain. Murderers are set apart, they are ‘different’ — murder is wrong– but not for them — for them it is necessary — the victim has ‘asked for it,’ it was ‘the only way.'”

Crooked House was one of Christie’s own favorites of the books she wrote:  “Writing Crooked House was pure pleasure and I feel justified in my belief that it is one of my best.”

I chose to read this book as one of my 50-books-in-5-years for The Classics Club.

 

A Long-Awaited Pre-Order

Audible just told me that my long-awaIted pre-order will be available in 13 hours. I know what I will be listening to tomorrow while I try to finish up my current knitting project! I love the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear and am so looking forward to reading this latest installment, In This Grave Hour! I read the first book in the series, but have listened to the audiobooks of all the rest. Orlagh Cassidy if a wonderful narrator and, in my opinion, a perfect voice for Maisie Dobbs.

A Self-Education

Civilization

The Story of Civilization on my bookshelf.

When I was 16 years old my father gave me the complete set, which at that time was 9 volumes, of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization. I was both thrilled with and overwhelmed by the gift. I love history, as did my Dad, but 9 volumes (soon to be 10, and then eventually 11) with fine print just overwhelmed me. Although I’ve used them like an encyclopedia, looking up information needed, in all this time I’ve never read them cover to cover, although they have traveled with me through every move and have survived every purge of books in my lifetime, thus far.

You will understand, then, when I tell you why I am extremely proud of my son. In the last few years, our son, Dan, has had a long commute to work. He has made that time spent in the car both productive and bearable by listening to audiobooks. He has just completed a huge project listening to the complete unabridged set of the 11 volumes of The Story of Civilization!  If I added correctly, that’s over 424 hours of listening time! But it’s more than that because along the way on his historical journey, he took many “side roads” and listened to much of the classic literature of the time period he was immersed in.

We have had the most wonderful and fascinating long talks with him about the different historical time periods, about the amazing people involved, about human nature and culture, and about the writing of this epic life’s work by Will Durant and his wife, Ariel. What an amazing education Dan is giving himself over the miles! I know my college professor Dad would have been incredibly proud of him, too, and they would have had amazing discussions about all that Dan has learned. The pleasure of learning is certainly a powerful gene in our family, and I’m so very proud of the self-education Dan is giving himself through his reading.

“Perhaps the cause of our contemporary pessimism is our tendency to view history as a turbulent stream of conflicts – between individuals in economic life, between groups in politics, between creeds in religion, between states in war. This is the more dramatic side of history; it captures the eye of the historian and the interest of the reader. But if we turn from that Mississippi of strife, hot with hate and dark with blood, to look upon the banks of the stream, we find quieter but more inspiring scenes: women rearing children, men building homes, peasants drawing food from the soil, artisans making the conveniences of life, statesmen sometimes organizing peace instead of war, teachers forming savages into citizens, musicians taming our hearts with harmony and rhythm, scientists patiently accumulating knowledge, philosophers groping for truth, saints suggesting the wisdom of love. History has been too often a picture of the bloody stream. The history of civilization is a record of what happened on the banks.”

— Will Durant

Our son, Dan, reading to his son…

Spinning

I joined The Classics Club earlier this week and have immediately found a fun way to pick my first book to read from my list of 50-classics-to-read-in-5-years. Every so often, the club has a special event called the “The Classic Spin.” It works like this:

Choose 20 books from your list of classics TBR and post that list on your blog before March 9th. On Friday, March 10th, we’ll post a number from 1 through 20. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by May 1, 2017. 

So here is my first Spin List.  It should be fun to see which number (and which book) is chosen in the “spin” on Friday! That’s where I will start my five year classics journey!  I’ll return to this post on Friday and highlight the book chosen.

Classic Spin #15:

  1. Rose in Bloom, Louisa May Alcott
  2. The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad
  3. The Railway Children, Edith Nesbitt
  4. A River Runs Through It, Norman McClean
  5. Arabian Nights and Days, Naguib Mahfouz
  6. Persuasion, Jane Austen
  7. Around the World in Eighty Days, Jules Verne
  8. The Chosen, Chaim Potok
  9. A Very Easy Death, Simone de Beauvoir
  10. The Haunted Bookshop, Christopher Morley
  11. A Room With a View, E.M. Forster
  12. The Moorland Cottage, Elizabeth Gaskell (started on 03.10.17)

  13. Ask Me, William Stafford
  14. The Spectator Bird, Wallace Stegner
  15. Travels With My Aunt, Graham Greene
  16. The Ramayana, Bulbul Sharma
  17. Crooked House, Agatha Christie
  18. The Gaucho Martin Fierro, José Hernández
  19. The Measure of My Days, Florida Scott-Maxwell
  20. Marcovaldo, or The Seasons in the CIty, Italo Calvino