Category Archives: Fiction

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.

In the Wet

This week I finished reading In the Wet, by Nevil Shute. I love reading anything written by him, and I did enjoy this one although I found it to be quite quirky. True to all of Shute’s books, it’s quite a story. This one has a rather complicated plot — it was published in 1953 but the story takes place in 1983 — so it’s a tale of the future. There is also a time warp aspect to the story, which was very interesting. I think Shute was experimenting with different ways of telling a story, and although it was not a perfect book, it was certainly an interesting one. It’s not my favorite of his books, but as always, I find something that really strikes home with me. This time it was the ending paragraph…

“All that this strange experience has taught me has gone to confirm what I think I already knew, secretly perhaps, and deep down in my heart. If what I think I have been told is true, then it means that we make our own heaven and hell in our own daily lives and the Kingdom of Heaven is here within us for those who have gone before.”

The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's TaleOn finishing The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, the only thing I could say at first was “Wow!”  It is quite a story, so very well written, so very powerful, and so very sobering…I think it will stay with me for a long, long time.

Set in a dystopian future, in what these days seems chillingly like the near future, women have lost all rights. “Handmaids” are the only women who are still able to bear children, and their existence is completely dependent on being successful in producing a child…a child that another woman of a higher status will raise.

The story is an interesting exploration of the lives of women in a totalitarian regime.  It is a profound immersion into the “What Ifs” we must all ask ourselves about our society. I found it sad, disturbing, and fascinating, but not without hope!  I couldn’t put it down.

I’ve been thinking about it since I finished it a few days ago and realized that I am looking at things differently now. This is a perspective-changing book, and during this tumultuous time in US history, I think it is an important book for exactly that reason. It was written in 1985, and I was aware of it but until last week was too intimidated to read it. However, I’ve been so concerned about the direction our society is taking these days and the difficult challenges we all face, that I felt that instead of “escaping” (my usual response to overwhelming  news), I needed to tackle some of these ideas head on. I’m glad I finally found the courage to do so.

An Alternate Reality

alice-munro

The other day I wrote a post confessing that I’m an “escapist” and have turned to my books to get away from this awful election season. This morning I read a different view of that kind of “escape” from the brilliant writer, Alice Munro.

“She read modern fiction too. Always fiction. She hated to hear the word ‘escape’ used about fiction. She might have argued, not just playfully, that it was real life that was the escape. But this was too important to argue about.”

~ from Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro
(I found this quote and a brief description of this new book on the Vintage Books & Anchor Books Facebook page.)

A slightly different view of the idea of “escape,” but I won’t argue with it and very much like the idea that my reading is my reality and that real life is the alternate reality!

Note to self: I must read more and more Alice Munro!

A School Year in Fairacre

Village School

There are a number of fictional towns I would love to move to!  During May, I spent a great deal of time enjoying the village of Fairacre while reading Village School, by Miss Read. I slowly savored the pleasure of reading about this quiet community as described through the eyes of the local school teacher. I loved the stories of the children and their families, and the teachers and their lives, and I loved becoming part of their community, if only for a while.

As a retired school teacher myself, I loved the honest portrayal of school life and a school year, and I appreciated the wry and compassionate humor of the Miss Read. Her descriptions were so true to my own experiences in the classroom. Here is one passage that perfectly describes a warm sunny afternoon in my own classroom a few years ago:

The lesson on the time-table was ‘Silent Reading’ and in various attitudes, some graceful and some not, the children sat or lay in the grass with their books propped before them. Some read avidly, flickering over the pages, their eyes scampering along the lines. But other lay on their stomachs, legs undulating, with their eyes fixed dreamily on the view before them, a grass between their lips, and eternity before them.

garden_reading

Spending time in Fairacre was a lovely experience! Fortunately, I don’t have to leave the village for quite awhile because Village School was just the first of the series and there are many more Fairacre books to read. Sounds like a lovely place to spend my summer!

A Quote from Anna and her Daughters

Anna and Her Daughters

Going through my reading notebook this morning, I discovered a quote I had copied from Anna and Her Daughters, by D.E. Stevenson. It was a book I really enjoyed, by an author I love, and I particularly liked this paragraph:

The storyteller has always been a valuable member of society. Even in prehistoric times when men hunted wild beasts and lived in caves they sat round the camp-fire at night and listened to stories. Your profession is one of the oldest in the world and one of the most useful. “Away!” I cried, laughing. “It is, really. And we need stories more than ever now. We need stories to entertain us, to help us to forget our troubles, to fill our lives with colour.

Greensleeves

Greensleeves

Nancy Pearl is one of my reading heroes so when she recommends a book, I listen!  Nancy Pearl’s Book Crush Rediscoveries  is her project, alongside Amazon Books, to reprint books for kids and teens, books that were out of print but that in her opinion should not have been out of print!  This series for teens is a recent offshoot of her adult series, Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust Rediscoveries, “devoted to reprinting some of the best (and now out of print) novels originally published between 1960-2000.” I love her idea of rediscovering old treasures! I have enjoyed each of her suggestions, and look forward to reading more books from her rediscovery series.

One of the books included in her Rediscoveries series is a book called Greensleeves, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, an author I love.  A few years ago I read her book, The Moorchild, and wrote a review of it here. So when I found another book by her on Nancy Pearl’s list, I knew it would be worth reading and I was not disappointed!

Greensleeves is a story about a young woman searching for her own identity in a confusing world. It is a timeless coming-of-age story, although written in 1968. Shannon Lightley, the daughter of a famous actress and a famous journalist, divorced and both remarried, splits her time between  two very different households. She is a “different person” in each household, overwhelmed by the strong personalities of both her parents, and simply doesn’t feel that she “belongs” anywhere. So rather than spend the summer with either parent, she turns to a close family friend, “Uncle Frosty” who has always been very supportive of her. Listening to her woes and confusions, “Uncle Frosty” gave her some wise advice:

“The chief thing is to get busy enough with something else to quit thinking about yourself for a while.”

He offers to help her get an apartment for the summer so that she can do some “undercover” work for his law firm. An elderly woman had just died and left a rather unusual will. In her will, she left all her money to her neighbors instead of to her daughter, who is now contesting the will. Shannon will move into the old woman’s apartment and see if she can find out whether or not the neighbors coerced her into changing her will.

So Shannon moves in, finds a waitressing job in the neighborhood, and assumes another “persona” for her sleuthing. Her summer is spent getting to know all about the old lady and her neighbors… and herself.

A fascinating read, this was a book I couldn’t put down, and I highly recommend it.

“That’s the beauty of a novel like Greensleeves: it might have been written almost half a century ago, but its heroine, and the choices she faces, are totally modern.”
~Nancy Pearl

Holiday Tales

holidays

A few years ago, I started a new reading tradition for myself. On November 1st, I begin to read books and stories about the holidays. A simple tradition but one that has brought much joy to my reading.

This year I started with an old classic published in 1897: Holiday Tales: Christmas in the Adirondacks, by W.H.H. Murray. I’d never heard of it before, but I’m glad I discovered it because it was a lovely beginning for this season’s reading. The book was free for my Kindle, and can also be read online as part of Project Gutenberg eBooks. It contains two stories about an old trapper named John Norton who lives in a cabin deep in the Adirondacks.

The Dismal Hut

The Dismal Hut

The first story, called How John Norton the Trapper Kept His Christmas, is about how he helps a neighbor, a woman with three children living in a dismal hut in the woods. They are starving and destitute, almost completely without hope. The Old Trapper had just started to put together a basket of food to take to them when a large crate is delivered to him from his son who had moved to a city far away. The crate contained warm clothing,  foodstuff, and other things needed to help the neighbor woman, whom the son had met on his last visit. With Old Trapper’s kindness , the caring generosity of his far distant son, and the help of the old friend who delivered the crate, they bring Christmas and renewed hope to the little family living in the “dismal hut.”

Ah, if some sweet power would only enlarge our hearts when, on festive days, we enlarge our tables, how many of the world’s poor, that now go hungry while we feast, would then be fed!

The second tale, John Norton’s Vagabond, is of another Christmas when John Norton decides to invite everyone in the woods, including the “vagabonds,” to his holiday dinner. The Old Trapper believes strongly that Christmas is a time for “forgivin’ and forgittin’,” so he invites even those men that have stolen from his traps. It’s a humorous story, but with the most important, albeit simple, messages.

Ah, friends, dear friends, as years go on and heads get gray–how fast the guests do go! Touch hands, touch hands with those that stay. Strong hands to weak, old hands to young, around the Christmas board, touch hands. The false forget, the foe forgive, for every guest will go and every fire burn low and cabin empty stand. Forget, forgive, for who may say that Christmas day may ever come to host or guest again. Touch hands.

With it’s poignant reminders of what the holidays are all about, with stories of kindness and caring, this was a very enjoyable book to start my holiday reading.

W. H. H. MURRAY, THE MURRAY HOMESTEAD GUILFORD, CONN.

W. H. H. MURRAY,
THE MURRAY HOMESTEAD GUILFORD, CONN.