Jun 20, 2008

Jack proves there's nothing rotten in the state of Denmark

Jack threw open his suburban Orebyslot on Tuesday and helped us celebrate Stegner’s quasi-autobiographical journey to Denmark by offering plenty of Danish trimmings to go with his All-American grilled sausages and chicken. With warm weather and idyllic golf course views, the pickled herring, Danish blue cheese, and Carlsberg on ice evoked a summer night at the Tivoli Gardens. Indeed, the mood turned romantic on the patio when one of us reminisced about his Danish tryst years ago…but I shall stop before I violate our rules of disclosure.

Additional thanks to John and Roy, who each brought bottles of flavored aquavit (let’s use the Swedish spelling since no one wants to say “aqvavit”) to complement Jack’s bottle encased in a slab of ice. (Note to Jack: I would be tempted to sneer at any man who apes Martha Stewart, but your clever adaptation of her party trick certainly captured my fancy.)

And, finally, a big thanks to the multi-talented Armando, who cajoled us into a photo shoot by the pool and later managed to photoshop Peter in and John’s devil horns out. Scroll to the bottom of the blog to see the results.

The Book
The Spectator Bird drew a strong rating for the simple reason that a record number (5 of 15) failed to finish the book and therefore excused themselves from the voting. Had they read it, I suspect the average would have fallen below 7.3. I also think some gave the book the benefit of the doubt simply because it was Stegner, everyone’s favorite West Coast novelist-cum-environmentalist. (Witness both Garth and Stan, who loudly rounded up from 7.5 to 8.)

The book was divisive in other ways (beyond its inability to hold everyone’s attention for a scant 214 pages). Some liked the story’s movement between present and past using a 20-year old travel journal; others found it tedious and contrived. Some sympathized with the aging narrator’s perspective; others felt he was simply crabby (likening him to Steinbeck in Travels With Charley). Finally, some found inspiration (or at least closure) by the end, while others were left wanting. Most everyone, though, was impressed by the writing. Glenn and George found plenty of passages worth reflecting on, with Glenn going so far as to look up the English translation of the last line in Goethe’s Faust in order to make sense of the German version quoted by Stegner. Whether it was the quality of the writing or Stegner’s reputation, only Dan was sufficiently underwhelmed that he gave the book a 5; the rest of us gave it a 7 or 8.

Maybe The Spectator Bird didn’t match the breadth or insight of Angle of Repose (according to John), Crossing to Safety (me), or Big Rock Candy Mountain (Stan, I think), but its reflections on memory, aging, and the enduring power of relationships are vintage Stegner. That’s, of course, my humble opinion.

Next Up
Glenn proposed three eclectic titles for next month (Snow Crash, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and Flatland) and, worried that we had too little to choose from, he augmented his list with two more interesting possibilities: Atul Gawande’s Complications and Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. Sometimes too much of a good thing is too much of a good thing. Paralyzed with indecision, we eventually culled through the original titles and came up solidly in favor of Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk/sci-fi classic, Snow Crash. I do hope our selection won’t require us to dine virtually next month.


  1. Guys-

    You came through for me yet again! I look forward to your monthly writeups so I can vicariously live through your meetings. BTW, nice job on the group pic, too! Here in IL, I've yet to find more than one guy to enjoy books with. My biggest loss in moving to IL was definitely the monthly Great Apes meetings.

    I would have rated The Spectator Bird maybe a bit higher than some of you did. I appreciated *all* that Stegner was meditating on and thought the postcard then diary frame worked well, better say than a guy just looking back and musing about his life. Don't we all have our "what might have been" moments that for the most part (best)remain in our pasts and memories?

    Endings are always hard for authors and tend to problematic, but I really liked how and when Stegner wrapped it all up. I think what he's masterful at is always keeping the loss of Allston's son just under the surface. Isn't that what the book's really about? Isn't that what they've never resolved (at least together)or talked about? I think it ends with the hope that they'll be closer over their remaining years than they have been previously. Thoughts?

    I am intrigued by your next pick. I don't read that genre at all but will get a copy from the library and give it a try. I'll be interested if the sci/tech is dated? Will what was cutting edge at the time of publication hold up?

    Keep Kavalier and Clay in mind for a future pick; it's a good time read and very worthwhile for discussion too. A new discussion slant will be comic books like Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk becoming big summertime movies.

    As always, I await your next write up and thanks for letting me play too.


  2. Jeff,

    Thanks for sharing virtually from Illinois. Your comments about The Spectator Bird are right on. We didn't spend much time on the son's death, but I think that is certainly an important, if suppressed, theme of the novel. And I like your notion that the travel diary both captured and buried memories that were only later exhumed as a kind of marital catharsis for the the Allstons. With these kind of insights, you should be an English teacher!

    We argued about the ending, with most finding it too pat and unfinished, and with no real expectation that it augured something more positive for either Allston or his marriage.

    We'll see whether our venture into sci-fi holds our interest and sustains much discussion.