The Book of Dead Birds
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The Book of Dead Birds

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3.73 of 5 stars 3.73  ·  rating details  ·  365 ratings  ·  67 reviews
Ava Sing Lo has been accidentally killing her mother's birds since she was a little girl. Now in her twenties, Ava leaves her native San Diego for the Salton Sea, where she volunteers to help environmental activists save thousands of birds poisoned by agricultural runoff.

Helen, her mother, has been haunted by her past for decades. As a young girl in Korea, Helen was drawn...more
Paperback, 256 pages
Published April 22nd 2004 by Harper Perennial (first published 2003)
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To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper LeeThe Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver1984 by George OrwellThe Grapes of Wrath by John SteinbeckAnimal Farm by George Orwell
Literature of Social Change
119th out of 325 books — 272 voters
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper LeeHarry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. RowlingThe Raven by Edgar Allan PoeMockingjay by Suzanne CollinsOne Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Books with birds in the title
357th out of 523 books — 121 voters


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Community Reviews

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Algernon
What is good about this novel is very good indeed. Mostly good prose (I'm not going to join in the chorus calling it 'lyrical'), delivering a story that moves across a generation (panning from a daughter's story to her mother's) with a notably brisk pace. Scenes from Korean islands, G.I. brothels, and contemporary southern California are rendered vividly.

Ava Sing Lo is the black-skinned daughter of a Korean woman who is fascinated by birds; the daughter has an uncanny knack for bringing about t...more
Jenny Schmenny
I'm on the fence about this book. I loved parts of it - the vivid imagery, the protagonist's frequent accidental killing of birds and her mother's ritualistic journaling thereof, the way her mother is hard, whimsical, pragmatic, and opaque. I disliked the way I felt Brandeis polarized sexuality: the mother's traumatic experiences as a prostitute and the daughter's frigid virginity. I also felt the romance was very formulaic. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed reading this.
Nadra
A half-black/half-Korean 25-year-old virgin struggles to connect with her mother, who became pregnant with her while working as a prostitute on a segregated American military base in Korea.

This is the crux of the Book of Dead Birds by Gayle Brandeis. While it sounds sensationalistic, it isn’t. The book has been hailed by Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston and is an admitted work of fiction. To boot, the author didn’t change her life story to sell more copies of it. She’s...more
Rivera Sun
The Book of Dead Birds is a haunting tale filled with images that linger and echo through your mind for days to follow. A Korean/African American woman explores her uncomfortable heritage, searches for her place is a wild world full of environmental destruction, and strives to heal the wounds of her mother's past that have left their imprints in her own young body. Ava Sing Lo is an awkwardly charming heroine who travels to the Salton Sea to care for the dying birds as a way of healing the issue...more
Kate
Winner of the 2002 Bellwether Prize for fiction of social responsibility this is a lyrical, edgy little book, angular, imaginative and pure. A young San Diego woman volunteers with environmental activists rescuing birds poisoned by agricultural run-off at the Salton Sea in southern California. Ava Sing Lo's coming of age as well as her Korean mother's story of being forced into prostitution on a US military base in Korea during the 60s and her subsequent immigration to the US, unfold episodicall...more
Lisa
Apr 30, 2009 Lisa rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: those who enjoy Barbara Kingsolver's books
Loved this book! I love birds and already knew about the Salton Sea so the setting and title intrigued me. I truly enjoyed the framing of the chapters with Omma's entries in her book of dead birds. Some of them just made me laugh at poor Ava's misfortunes with her mother's birds and others made me cry for the lonely and difficult lives of both Omma and Ava. As the story unfolds, Ava's bird dreams are added to the journal entries marking changes of chapters and storylines. Winner of the Bellwheth...more
Dawn
First novel by Gayle Brandeis. Recommended by Barbara Kingsolver on her website. Extraordinary story of young Korean/Black woman learning her mother's history while trying to figure out her own place in the world. I couldn't put it down, read it in one sitting.
Kaethe
Lovely and sad and hopeful, and all those literary novel adjectives.

Library copy.
Natylie Baldwin
Three and a half stars.
Emily Crow
The birds in the book keep dying because Ava Sing Lo, the protagonist, has terrible luck. Every time her mother brings home a bird, Ava does something to kill it by accident, such as cooking with a Teflon pan or forgetting to close the window. Trying to win her mother's approval, Ava volunteers to help rehab poisoned pelicans at the Salton Sea. That part was actually quite a good story, and the setting was vivid that I could almost smell the reek of algae and rotting bird-flesh, and feel the swe...more
Rouillie Wilkerson
This was by far one of the best books I've read lately. The characers, although a bit bazaar, are very believable. The story line is fresh, the uniqueness of the relationship between the mother and daughter and my ability to relate: I'm of mixed parentage, one parent is not from the US either. But as usual, I was a bit put off by the reference to yet another mixed chick as somehow damaged. Many of us are happy, healthy and unlike the heroine in this novel, not caught between our cultures, but ha...more
Maethelwine
This overlooked first novel is very good, and I'm not the only one who thinks so. Gayle Brandeis won Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize, and the back jacket carries an endorsement from Toni Morrison. Not at all bad for your first time out.[return][return]The book moves back and forth between the story of a young Korean woman forced into prostitution on an American base, and her daughter by an unknown black serviceman. The title of the novel refers to the mother’s scrapbook memorializing the c...more
Michele
Subject may not be pretty, but the book is beautiful

The characters illustrated in this lyrical novel stayws with me for some time. It's a beautiful, well-written story. Gayle Brandeis has a true gift. Her main characters are quiet and introspective, and yet we hear their voices very clearly. We see everything they see, feel everything they feel, and smell everything they smell.

The plot is built around a series of dead birds--birds inadvertently killed by the main character, a young woman of mix...more
Sarah B.
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Pamela
A hauntingly-beautiful, poetic, generational novel of how shattered dreams, broken wings, and lost innocence - all things potentially spirit-crushing or fatalistic, can be turned into beautiful, priceless "eggshell mosaics," and treasured living memoirs. This story is about mother and daughter relationships, cultures and histories, touching sharply upon many unpleasant topics - gender and race prejudices, prostitution, rape, murder, pollution, death, physical deformities. And though the unpleasa...more
Sarah
so i'm reading my way through the bellwether prize winners. this is my 3rd (kissing the virgin's mouth; girl who fell from the sky came before). barbara must have a thing for birds. :)
i was expecting this to be a depressing read based on the title and weighty mantle of "social commentary," but it was strangely not (depressing). it was certainly interesting to see through ava's eyes, as half black, half korean. the flashbacks to her mother's life as a prostitute on an army base in korea are horr...more
Big Shell
This book is neither here nor there. The prose is plain but exceptionally memorable, and the subtlety of the characters are well thought out. Suffering don't have to be dramatic, especially for the ones already grown numb to it. This is well established in this book.

The down side is that at times it reads like several proses pasted together into a whole book. It felt like the writer gave up a few times, then picked it up again and lost her momentum on what she was on about. So much that a partic...more
Samantha
I didn't honestly think I was going to like this book when I started it. Just due to the name and the premise, I just didn't think it was 'my kind of book.' So when it was assigned for my Fiction class in college, I made sure to save reading this for the last minute.

And how wrong I was. Maybe a little slow to start, this book picked up fast, catching my interest really fast. It's amazingly relatable, and I found myself totally invested in all of the characters and goings on of the book. Unfortun...more
Mary
Slightly disappointing. This book started out strong but disintegrated into too many different characters and threads, some of which just seemed pointless. Everything got tied up all nice and neat at the end but it felt a bit forced, and too "touchy-feely" for my personal taste. I would have liked to read more about Hye-Yang's life in America after she gave birth to Ava and was abandoned by her husband but that was barely touched on even though that life is clearly what made Ava such a sad, dysf...more
Tricia
You know how some books keep you reading because the sentences are gorgeous? And you have to re-read whole paragraphs because you can't believe someone said it that way and you've been waiting for someone to say it that way your entire life? Well, this is not that book, but it's simplicity of language and compelling (though also rather simple) plot will keep you reading. I was consistently surprised by plot turns (in a subtle way) which took me from the Salton Sea (during a particularly desolate...more
Nicole
May 26, 2008 Nicole rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: everyone
Recommended to Nicole by: everyone
This is the story of Ava who is biracial Black and Korean. Her mother has a troubled past that is interwoved with Ava's current life. Even if they keep each other at arm's length as far as mother daughter intimacy goes but there is something that links them....her mother's love for birds and Ava's accidently and repeated killing of her mom's birds. In a way to redeem herself Ava reads about some local birds that are dying in alarming numbers near her home of San Diego so she goes there to volunt...more
Alix
This book was very easy to read - it hooked you in from early on and then you just wanted to keep reading. The story was full of interesting and multi-layered characters that were further unveiled with each chapter. The internal story about various birds was interesting and sad at the same time, and Brandeis did a good job of tying the 'bird' stories together to make a cohesive unit. The main story line was fairly easy to follow as it jumped from past to present, although there were some unexpec...more
K M
I really liked this book, and found myself caring for the characters and their lives right from the start. The book alternates between Ava's life experiences, and the story of her mother's past. One thing I liked was that Ava's story was written in one font, and her mother's in another. Seeing the font seemed to prompt my mind into the correct settings of time and place before reading the text-like getting into the mood for what's to come.

The book is interesting on so many levels as it touches o...more
Chana
A quick and powerful read that has 2 main subjects:
The use of Korean women as slave prostitutes on American bases during the Korean war
The Salton Sea in California and the environmental issues that plague it.
The story is told through birds, song and drumming, and the relationships between mothers and daughters. There is a lot of heartbreak here, a lot of dead birds actually. But there is redemption also, and some of the birds live you know.
My favorite praise that I read about the book is this...more
Stacy
There are things about this book I really like, but others I'm not so crazy about. It follows her general pattern of a character or characters finding themselves while dealing with larger social issues. This deal with the dark side of American soldiers in other countries. It also deals with how the past, and sometimes not even our own, effects the present and even the future. I liked the ending although there were some things that weren't wrapped up as well as I would have liked. I did like wher...more
Laura
Sep 20, 2007 Laura rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone!
This is a book about a mother/daughter relationship, told from the perspective of the daughter. The mother, a Korean prostitute, basically rejects her half-black daughter as the girl is growing up. A string of the mother's dead birds (all killed by the daughter) serve as first a wall and then a bridge between them.

My favorite part of this book is how you only know what the daughter knows, so the whole story isn't packaged up and handed to you. Tidy happy endings that leave no questions are borin...more
Christine
Since reading Animal Vegetable Miracle my great love for Barbara Kingsolver and anything she writes has been rekindled, and I've been seeking out the winners of her Bellwether prize for fiction incorporating themes of environmental issues. I enjoyed this book a lot, but it clearly wasn't written by Kingsolver. It felt like there were gaps in the story development, and a few characters didn't feel terribly real, but I enjoyed the character of the mother and her story, as well as the struggles of...more
Martye Green
The plot is built around a series of dead birds--birds accidentally killed by the main character, a young, mixed race, woman (Korean and African American) named Ava Sing Lo. The birds in question all belonged to the young woman's mother who records information about the death of each bird death in her scrap book, The Book of Dead Birds. As Ava grows up she tries to find a place for herself in society and a way to communicate with her mother. Enough said. Highly recommended.
Ann
A story about a woman discovering her past (mixed race, Black and Korean) and dealing with a complicated past. Her particular "gift" is killing birds, so in an attempt to redeem herself, she heads to the Salton Sea where there is an environmental crisis (and many dying birds). The story moves back and forth between scenes of her mother's past (which she is writing down) and her own real time attempts to save birds at the Salton Sea. A wonderful read.
Brenda
Although the title is a bit sick this was a very interesting book. It was a quick read. The book of dead birdsis a book that the mother a Korean lady keeps to remember all the pet birds her daughter accidently kills. The daughter Ava (who is black and a product of her mothers prostitution) also keeps a journal about her mothers life (back in Korea) as she tells it bit by bit. Very good read and I highly recommend it.
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Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperSanFrancisco), Dictionary Poems (Pudding House), The Book of Dead Birds, which won Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change, and her latest novel, Self Storage. Other awards include the QPB/Story Magazine Short Fiction Award and a Peace Poetry prize from...more
More about Gayle Brandeis...
Self Storage Delta Girls: A Novel My Life with the Lincolns Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write The Book Of Live Wires

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