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The Spectator Bird

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  4,827 ratings  ·  532 reviews
This tour-de-force of American literature and a winner of the National Book Award is a profound, intimate, affecting novel from one of the most esteemed literary minds of the last century and a beloved chronicler of the West.

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
Paperback, 214 pages
Published November 1st 1990 by Penguin (first published 1976)
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Gretchen Guzman It deals with some of the same issues: marriage, aging, change. I have to say that I enjoyed Crossing to Safety more. Not sure why. Both are…moreIt deals with some of the same issues: marriage, aging, change. I have to say that I enjoyed Crossing to Safety more. Not sure why. Both are excellent.(less)

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Feb 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Patient observers
Recommended to Dolors by: Stephen P
Shelves: read-in-2018
When do we cease to be actors in our lives to become mere spectators?
Do we really get a chance to decide who we are, what we do, where we go and with whom we share all these choices as we grope in the darkness of time?

Joe Allston, a retired literary agent, is seventy years old… and has turned into an adorable curmudgeon. With no ancestors or descendants, a tragedy involving his only son still weighting on his shoulders, and his wife Ruth as remaining companion, Joe ponders about the paths he’s
Dec 01, 2016 rated it really liked it
Ever notice how, on rare occasions, certain writers really stand out for their ability to capture the subtle and complex ways of folks? It’s usually a reason to celebrate since these insights are there for us to imbibe. But it may be a source of distress if what’s revealed is a difficult truth. For me, Wallace Stegner is that sort of author, and this book is one I celebra-hate. Actually, hate is too strong a word, even when it’s combined with a good thing. I should say I felt twinges of disappoi ...more
In the earlier novel, All the Little Live Things*, Joe Allston had retired from being a literary agent and settled down with his wife Ruth in a country home in California.

The story of The Spectator Bird. Wallace Stegner takes place when Joe is 69 years old, and to his dismay much has changed around him. He is working on various notes when he finds an old postcard which prompts him to locate a diary from years before when he and Ruth had visited Denmark. Ruth insists that Joe read out aloud so th
Sometime in the mid-80’s, I read Wallace Stegner’s All the Little Live Things, which was published in 1967 and set in that decade. Despite being an admirer of his work, I wasn’t impressed. I found his main character, Joe Alston, a retired literary agent pushing sixty and living with his wife in the hills near Palo Alto, California, to be tiresome. How would I describe Joe? How about crabby, curmudgeonly, crotchety, bitter, brooding, acerbic, opinionated, argumentative? Yes, any one of those will ...more
I enjoyed every minute I spent with this book. Every line spoke to me. The lines had me alternately thinking or smiling.

I share a lot with the central character of the novel. I believe this is why I relate to the book as much as I do. The book is about Joe Allston, actually not just about him, but about his wife (Ruth) too, about the couple as a pair, about their relationship and their respective attitudes. The year is 1974. He is sixty-nine years old and very much aware of the fact that he is a
Blaine DeSantis
Jul 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
I have had a bunch of Wallace Stegner's works in my library for a few years but never got around to choosing one. So, about a week ago I walked over to the library and this book sort of jumped out at me. And so at age 63, an age I think is appropriate for reading this book, I settled in for what was a very worthwhile and thought-provoking week of reading.
The man writes beautifully and this book touches on things that I think cannot be appreciated until one hits these Golden Years of life. We ha
Apr 30, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction, 2015
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
Lynne King
Jun 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I absolutely loved this book from page 1 to the end. Joe Alston, a nearly seventy-year old is one of these miserable and depressing individuals who nevertheless brings joy to one. He's a pretty astute guy but very aware of his own mortality. He's also one of those honourable men whom I always find so very endearing and his wife Ruth of forty years or so understands him very well indeed.

But it was the journals that had me entranced with this book and the fact that he read them to Ruth. To travel
Aug 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 28, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 21, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Jim Fonseca
Oct 06, 2013 rated it really liked it
They say that as we approach old age, some look back with satisfaction and contentment about the life path they followed, and some reflect with regret and guilt, and, in hindsight, wish they had followed other paths to supposedly greener pastures. Approaching 70, our narrator is squarely in the latter category. Despite his and his wife's relatively good health, an accomplished career as a literary agent, and a suburban villa an hour from San Francisco, he is filled with guilt for driving away hi ...more
Joy D
Introspective novel about long-term marriage and aging. Protagonist Joe Allston is a retired literary agent who feels he has allowed circumstance, coincidence, and opportunism to govern his life. He and his wife Ruth have retired to Palo Alto, California. As he approaches 70, he looks back on his passive life with regret and bitterness. A postcard from an old acquaintance leads Joe to locate the journal he kept when the couple traveled to Denmark twenty years before, after the tragic death of th ...more
Jul 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
THE SPECTATOR BIRD. (1976). Wallace Stegner. *****.
This is a marvelous un-put-downable novel from Stegner that was fully deserving of the prize for Best Fiction from the 1977 National Book Award. It is the story of a trip taken by a married couple to Denmark, told through the rereading of a series of journals kept by the husband during the trip twenty years earlier. The reader is not quite sure what the theme of the book is all about until very near the end. Suddenly we are brought up to speed v
Dale Harcombe
Dec 10, 2018 rated it it was ok
Joe Allston is 69, a retired literary agent. He lives with his wife Ruth. Their son died years earlier and Joe still harbours a lot of Bitterness about the hand life has dealt him. He seems to be cutting himself of from friends and becoming more and more grumpy and solitary. He feels his life has been lived as a spectator. When he receives a postcard from a woman he and Ruth knew years before it sends him searching for the journals he wrote during his time in Denmark. It was during this time tha ...more
Opening: On a February morning, when a weather front is moving in off the Pacific but has not quite arrived, and the winds are changeable and gusty and clouds drive over and an occasional flurry of fine rain darkens the terrace bricks, this place conforms to none of the clichés about California with which they advertise the Sunshine Cities for the Sunset Years.

Page 6 - So far as I can see, it is bad enough sitting around watching yourself wear out, without putting your only mortal part premature
Nov 30, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2017
"Most things break, including hearts. The lessons of life amount not to wisdom, but to scar tissue and callus."

I'm not going to waffle on about this one - *cue cheers at the back* - because I'm rather ill at the moment and not in any kind of mood to write an exhaustive - and probably exhausting - review.

However, what I will say is that Wallace Stegner is rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors - and I can say that with confidence after reading just two of his books. Crossing to Safety was
The Spectator Bird is a beautifully written novel. What I loved most was Stegner's thoughtful, profound portrayal of a mature, complicated, loving relationship between a married couple. To steal from The Troggs, Wallace Stegner, you make my heart sing!
Jul 09, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Joy H.
Feb 23, 2009 rated it really liked it
Added 9/7/13.
I listened to this book via 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
Octavio Solis
Aug 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing
A beautiful novel by a master of the form. As we get older and more settled, we find the past calling for its reckoning, and in this novel Stegner takes his protagonist on a reckoning from present-day (1970's) Northern California to post-war Denmark through the journals he kept stashed away among his relics. Stegner is a writer's writer who paints the most evocative and striking scenes with his finely honed descriptive eye, while also maintaining characters of sharp wit and intelligence who have ...more
Jul 28, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Apr 13, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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
Joan Winnek
Jul 02, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Mar 25, 2014 rated it really liked it
Not a word is out of place in this comparatively short novel by Stegner. And that is eminently suitable for a novel that revolves around the retelling of a 'memoir' (diary-notes *were* taken at the time..) and 'life memories' from one particular earlier life-period of a 'retired literary agent,' the protagonist of the novel. ...So put on your 'literary thinking caps' and stir up your own memories of every 'lit. course' you ever took, way-back-when, because the references and allusions to almost ...more
Liza Fireman
Mar 09, 2016 rated it really liked it
Another delightful book from Wallace Stegner. Even though I have ones I favor more than this one (Angle of Repose, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, All the Little Live Things). Stegner is capturing getting old in a way that I do not believe that anyone else succeeds, with the fear, but also with the intimacy of couples that are married for long long years, with regrets and memories, with friends that are going away (passing away, or losing their health, or just far away). Joe is more funny yet grump ...more
Feb 11, 2009 rated it it was ok
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
Monte Dutton
May 27, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Aug 14, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
Carolyn Francis
Sep 06, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
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Play Book Tag: The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner - 4 stars 3 18 Nov 14, 2018 08:31AM  
All About Books: The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner (Gill & Jenny) 46 29 Dec 28, 2014 12:24AM  
Stegner - a brilliant writer 5 23 Feb 15, 2014 10:40AM  
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Wallace Earle Stegner was an American historian, novelist, short story writer, and environmentalist. Some call him "The Dean of Western Writers." He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 and the U.S. National Book Award in 1977.
“Most things break, including hearts. The lessons of life amount not to
wisdom, but to scar tissue and callus.”
“The lessons of life amount not to wisdom, but to scar tissue and callus.” 76 likes
More quotes…