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The Spectator Bird

3.97 of 5 stars 3.97  ·  rating details  ·  3,398 ratings  ·  343 reviews
Joe Allston is a 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, had not been his choice. He passes through life as a spectator. A postcard from a friend cau ...more
Paperback, 224 pages
Published November 1st 1990 by Penguin (first published 1976)
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34th out of 100 books — 125 voters
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Mary
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
...more
Bruce
Perhaps more than most of Wallace Stegner’s novels, this one might be read differently by readers of different ages. Stegner wrote it when he was himself sixty-seven, and his protagonist, Joe Alston, is sixty-nine. This first person narrator is judged by his wife Ruth to have become irritable and depressed, and she is probably correct. Joe’s interior monologues are delightfully curmudgeonly. He is a retired literary editor, and his thoughts and speech are filled with literary allusions. Joe is w ...more
Heidi
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 Bre
...more
Jim
A short, skillful novel and an improvement over The Angle of Repose. At first, it seems the story is about aging gracefully with good humor and safety, in spite of the corrosive feeling that in your life, you were a spectator, a valet, to the banquet of life. But it takes a turn as the husband reads his diary to his wife about a trip they took to Denmark twenty years before.

For a short book it is multi-layered with the themes of settling into retirement, being part of an old married couple and a
...more
Joy H.
Added 9/7/13.
I listened to this book via audible.com. Such great writing! Very rich with allusions and metaphors. Wallace Stegner is remarkable!

This was a heartrending story. Stegner poignantly describes the agony of being torn between two loves. There is also a detailed back-story with ominous overtones, but the romantic scenes are always pure.

The audio book was read by Edward Herrmann who definitely added to my enjoyment of the story.

One GR reviewer wrote that the main character's "interior mo
...more
Rachel
Another beautifully crafted novel by Stegner about marriage, self-discovery, and...eugenics? Stegner artfully intertwines two plot lines, one that follows an aging, retired literary agent who is approaching his death with a healthy mix of fear, anger, and self-deprecating humor. As readers watch him struggle through his daily routines, something out of the ordinary arrives in his mailbox. It's a postcard from an old friend, a Danish noblewoman he and his wife lived with for a few months more tha ...more
Joan Winnek
I didn't realize until the end that this is a prequel to All the Little Live Things, a favorite of mine. Joe Allston is agreeably irascible, a foil to his wife Ruth and the unfortunate and intriguing woman of secrets, Astrid. Psychologically and philosophically true.
Elinor
Now that I am in my sixties, I enjoyed this book more this time around. I first read it several decades ago and it didn't resonate nearly so much. Written from the perspective of a 69-year-old retired literary agent, who is aging ungracefully, it touches on many of the unwelcome losses that the accumulated years bring. Joe feels that he has been a spectator to his own life. Then he starts to read his diary aloud to his wife, about a trip they took to Denmark twenty years before. During that peri ...more
Laysee
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 wit
...more
Dan
This book bored the hell out of me. Which is a shame, b/c Stegner is a wonderful writer and a decent storyteller. The protagonist of the story is a retired literary agent living out his life in Northern California (having retired from New York). A postcard from an old friend sends the character looking at old journals and the story takes off from there.

There is no denying Stegner's skill as a writer. He writes clearly and his imagery is evocative. His dialogue is clean and clear. He writes, fro
...more
Carolyn Francis
I am almost certain I will read this again in 20 years time and give it 5 stars. It is full of the poignant, often sad, old age musings of a retired New York literary agent as he battles with ageing, perceived irrelevance and questions of identity and legacy. With both his parents and his only child dead, what will be the evidence he even existed? Has he only been a spectator in life? Is he just killing time until time kills him? His humour is sarcastic and deliciously dry (while travelling he n ...more
Robert
With The Spectator Bird Wallace Stegner returned to Joe Allston, whom we first met in All the Live Little Things. He's a retired literary agent, now living with his wife Ruth in California and still depressed about their son's early death in a surfing accident, which Joe thinks might have been suicide.

The Penguin paperback edition I read has an introduction by Jane Smiley that is really good. It situates Stegner in the context of his literary times, noting his feeling that the Eastern establishm
...more
Bonnie
Expansion of the title: Joe Alston, the main character, was "a wisecracking fellow traveler in the lives of other people, and a tourist in his own." He drifted into his profession, as into so many so-called decisions in his journey.

This book is about the choices we make in our lives -- or the lack of choices. It can be poignant and funny at the same time, true to Stegner's mastery of the English language. I know of no other author who can entice me to start a book and read until I fall asleep, t
...more
El
When retired literary agent Joe Allston gets a postcard from an old Danish friend, he feels the drive to dust off his old diary from when he and his wife traveled to Denmark in search of his motherland back in the day. Joe's wife, Ruth, did not know he kept a diary at that time and negatively encourages Joe to read to her passages from it. The diary details more than just their trip, covering more personal details and emotions of happenings in their lives at the time than perhaps either were pre ...more
John
I'd never read Stegner before this book, and now I'm eager to read more. This novel, set in mid-'70s northern California, is told from the viewpoint of an aging literary agent who has sought refuge in a hilly, semi-rural community well outside San Francisco, with his wife and moribund neighbor-friends. His sardonic, sometimes prickly, point of view keeps you reading--as do his casual literary allusions--and he becomes tolerable because he candidly confesses he has put his wife (and now dead son) ...more
Teresa
Joe Allston & his wife are getting old, and Joe feels like his life has been pointless. After receiving a postcard from an old "friend," Joe agrees to read his wife his journals of a trip they took to Scandinavia after their son's death/suicide decades earlier. The book is painful, because you suspect the whole time that Joe has had an affair with this "friend," but the actual truth is not something you see coming.

I loved the book because it was Stegner, and he's such a fabulous writer. But
...more
Megan
I continue to be impressed with Wallace Stegner. Here's a novel about an aging literary agent, struggling with the meaning of his life now that it's declining and his body is not functioning the way it once was. That's far removed from my current life experience (30-something mom of small children). And yet! I felt I could identify with so much. The writing is impeccable, with ideas bound up in every forward movement of the plot. There are plot surprises (told in the form of remembrances), and t ...more
Monte Dutton
Wallace Stegner is more praised for his impact on and affiliation with other great authors -- Tom Wolfe, Larry McMurtry, Ken Kesey, Edward Abbey, et al. -- but I consider his own fiction to be rather underrated.
One of the highlights of my sportswriting career had nothing at all to do with sports. I chatted for a few minutes with Wolfe once regarding Stegner's antipathy toward Kesey.
I've read most of Stegner's fiction and quite a bit of his non-fiction. He is a remarkable craftsman. I encourage y
...more
Suzanne
I LOVED this book. But, then again, I love Wallace Stegner. I listened to it as an audio presentation and the reader, Edward Herrmann, did a fantastic job as an old man...and then transitioned into Ruth, his wife, and THEN into the Danish characters. It centers around the theme of an 'old' (68!), arthritic man in the 1970's, and his reminiscence of their time in Denmark in earlier years as he reads his old journals to his insistent wife. It is also about an old man as he ages. I feel Stegner has ...more
Kate
I'm starting to think that enjoying books is as much about timing as it is about words. This one caught me at the right time, all unawares.

Strangely enough, I really did not enjoy Angle of Repose, which is much more of a book. This is more of a musing on age, memory, love, and family. It feels a little thin if you try to make it into a BOOK. Not much happens and the narrator is a grouchy guy who's acting older than he really is, BUT. But. There is beautiful language and the intimacy of a many-d
...more
Catherine
Joe Allston’s wife, Ruth, tries unsuccessfully to engage him in volunteer work when he becomes listless in retirement. Joe hasn’t taken much joy from life since the death of their son years before and, despite his sharp mind and relatively good health, spends his days dwelling on the end of life. Then a postcard arrives from an old acquaintance, sparking memories. Joe and Ruth relive their acquaintance with her by reading Joe’s old diaries and coming to terms with events they have never discusse ...more
Merilee
What a beautiful writer is Wallace Stegner. I'd really give this 4.5 stars if that were possible, and the only reason it didn't get five is that I didn't find it quite as perfect in comparison to Angle of Repose (6/5) and Crossing to Safety (5/5). This 1976 novel is about 69-year-old Joe Allston, a writers' agent who has retired to the hills above Stanford U (where Stegner lived). He is dreading the ravages of time and feels that somehow he has been but a spectator throughout his life, rather th ...more
Bobbi
Another wonderful book by Wallace Stegner. I've read four of his now and have loved each one. This is the story of Joe Allston who is in his late 60s, has aches and pains and wonders if this is all there is to life. He receives a post card from an old friend and discovers she has died. Searching through some old boxes, he comes upon journals that he had written about a trip he and his wife had taken to Denmark years earlier, and reads them to his wife. The journals tell the story of his trip and ...more
Dholsten
Nothing like reading aging topics through the eyes of a jaded older protagonist. Joe Allston struggles with memories of a dead son, a family legacy that includes some disturbing revelations and a domestic life that is somewhat boring. The prose is riff with literary allusions. The paragraphs are long--in a good way--in a way of T-bone done to perfection--for the reader that loves well-constructed sentences and great wordplay. I read this because the author was featured in a recent fiction I enjo ...more
Judy
Joe is retired & lives on the San Francisco peninsula with his wife, Ruth whom he dearly loves. He is the spectator bird & knows it. He observes others & their emotions but keeps his own feelings in check. A decade or so before the current action of the story, the couple visited Denmark where they rented space in the home of a countess, Astrid. As Joe contemplates his own aging process, we go back in time, via his journal, to that visit.

Just as Joe says, everything happens to him of
...more
Pascale
A dark and surprising book. For one thing, I wasn't aware that the indignities of old age were a theme in the fiction of the 1970s. The novel alternates between the present, when literary agent Joe and his wife Ruth have retired to California, and the past, when they traveled to Denmark in the aftermath of their only son's death. Twenty years ago, after Curtis died, possibly a suicide, Joe and Ruth decided to spend a few months in Denmark, wherefrom Joe's mother had emigrated as a teenager. By a ...more
Steve Smits
Joe Allston is not living his “golden years” gracefully. Nearly 70, he is consumed with the notion that he’s just “killing time until time kills him.” He’s obsessed with his physical ailments and thinks he’s losing his sharpness and vigor. He views his life as mostly one of failure to impact anyone for positive. His wife Ruth is impatient with his dour affect. She urges him to write as a form of therapy, but he’s reluctant to do so as he just doesn’t have the spirit that’s needed. He lost an adu ...more
Megankellie
What can I say. I just got spoiled by Angle of Repose and keep waiting to vomit up an unexpected hairball when I read his books.

Similar themes, similar central sweetheart, weird almost mystery-storyish reveal and I think a bunch of things I didn't totally understand, or just now at this very second am like "oh wait, genetics and fate. Right. Genetics and fate and the hollowness of the idea of one single answer that fixes everything. Oh right."

So I think I read it kind of distractedly which is gr
...more
Veronica
A retired literary agent reflects on his life through a diary kept from a trip to Denmark 20 years earlier. Stegner shows his finesse with managing to consistently deliver mot juste with The Spectator Bird.

The current time is 1970’s California in an area ripe with unwanted urban sprawl. The past is 1954 Denmark where the Allston’s hope to trace Joe’s mother, but instead encounter a mysterious countess whose family secrets make their life look like a winning day at the races.

Joe Allston is not ta
...more
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All About Books: The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner (Gill & Jenny) 46 27 Dec 28, 2014 12:24AM  
Stegner - a brilliant writer 5 19 Feb 15, 2014 10:40AM  
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Wallace Earle Stegner (February 18, 1909—April 13, 1993) was an American historian, novelist, short story writer, and environmentalist. Some call him "The Dean of Western Writers."
More about Wallace Stegner...
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“Most things break, including hearts. The lessons of life amount not to
wisdom, but to scar tissue and callus.”
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