Birds and Books

I read My Name is Lucy Barton before and after Snowzilla. Like all of Elizabeth Strout’s books, it is about family relationships, up close, detailed, bits hauled after the characters who aren’t even sure they’re hauling it, let alone knowing whether to let it go.

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Last weekend before the snow blessedly disappeared for the most part, there were snowbirds, or dark eyed juncoes as some folks know them.

Like all but The Burgess Boys, which is current and immediate, this book has an air of being set in the past. In the case of Lucy, her life is brought up to date, but much of what happens is past, processed by the narrator. I mention this because I find it a pleasant narrative technique, a bit lulling, which often means the punches hit their mark.

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And there were robins.

The book opens with Lucy in the hospital with a serious ailment that is never explained. Her husband has called her mother and paid for a ticket from Illinois to New York. Lucy hasn’t seen her mother in years. Her mother has never seen Lucy’s children. Yet the two still have a common past and they begin to talk in that way you can with someone known well, no matter how many years ago.

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Lots of robins, chattering and flocking.

The conversation covers people known long ago, former friends, parents of friends, her mother’s dress making clients, townspeople. They don’t talk of Lucy’s father or her siblings or the family troubles that are slowly revealed. Nor do they talk of the grinding poverty that Lucy escaped because a teacher worked to get her a college scholarship. Hers is a story of escape and the costs of escaping, which can be distance from family, insecurity and uncertainty entailed in a meteoric rise from poverty to the upper middle class.

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And something I had never seen before, the two together. The robins usually come too early, in February, and have to weather a storm, but I’d never seen one with a snowbird.

It is also a story about love, its ties and forms, and what it bears. Some years after her mother’s visit, when Lucy’s husband treats her to a writing workshop in Arizona, she presents the story for the teacher’s review. The writer acknowledges their masterful telling, and then she warns Lucy that people who read the stories will talk about poverty and abuse and that Lucy must remember that the stories her mother told at her hospital bed were all about love, its survival and its failure.

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The hawk was out, too, but I think she was looking for pigeons.

For me, the whole book is about love. If you have enough, you’re okay, not enough, and you may not think you’re loveable or worthy and it may take a while to form a self that is comfortable in the world. In Lucy’s case the uncertainty of the love she carried from home was compounded by poverty that left her unfamiliar with things others her age took for granted. She is impressed by people who move through the world with confidence. It’s nice to see how she comes to her own confidence.

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And last weekend the mail started again and I got a postcard from Hawaii!! Boomdee, I put it up on the fridge where I can fantasize about warm breezes!

This book just came out in the U.S. and is not yet available in the UK, but I think it will be in a few months. I recommend it, whether you have to wait or not.

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40 Responses to Birds and Books

  1. This sounds like another author to add into the expanding list. I have not heard of her before and you sound as if you are very familiar with her work. It is certainly widening out my reading avenues this sharing!! πŸ™‚ Robins are the most beautiful of birds – I befriended one once in England.

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    • arlingwoman says:

      Have you heard of Olive Kitteridge? That was her book before Burgess Boys and it has been made into a tv series. I’m liking the book selection we get as well. There are authors I did not know being reviewed and that’s very exciting. Robins are pretty, aren’t they? I think they’re very different in England, though, smaller. I like the fact they’re so chatty with each other.

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      • Lisa, as I read this the robins are chatting in nearby trees. They’ve been at it for a few days, flying back and forth from the front to the back of our house, leaving large black deposits in their wake.

        We read Olive Kitteridge in our book club a few years back. I enjoyed the writing but found it unsettling as well. I’m glad you found a good book for your snow days, and happy too that the snow is finally melting. It’s dry, clear and in the high sixties here today, strange, even for California.

        Liked by 1 person

      • arlingwoman says:

        Yes, Olive was a bit hard to take and I still feel so sorry for her overhearing the girls at her son’s wedding criticizing her dress. Lucy is a character with no fewer problems, but a softer edge, a different, more reflective way of approaching them. That said, the book is no walk in the park depending on what you bring to it.
        I do love hearing the robins and seeing them in late winter and early spring. Mostly I love the way they talk.

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      • I’ve discovered over the years that much of the best writing is also fraught with sadness and misery to some degree. One of my favorite recent books, The Book Thief, was difficult to get through. The same with The Dress Lodger. Sometimes I just take a break and read Janet Evonovich for a good laugh, or dive in to books on gardening and organizing, both enjoyable but a rest for my psyche.

        We’ve never had so many robins gather here as the did this past weekend. It was a treat.

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      • arlingwoman says:

        If you haven’t read Where’d You Go Bernadette, do and have a laugh at the same time you get some good writing. As someone with children in school, you will enjoy the opening…

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      • Lisa, funny you should mention that title. It was one of our book club books last year, yet I somehow missed that month. I’ll find it again. Thanks for the tip.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Now I’m confused – Olive Kitteridge and / or Elizabeth Strout are/is the author/s of ‘My Name is Lucy Barton’ ?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Eliza Waters says:

    Thanks for the review. I’ve read her other books and was wondering if I wanted to read the new one. There is something unsettling about them, I find. They are not easy, happy reads! ‘Olive Kittredge’ was my favorite.
    I wonder what became of our robins since we’ve had snow. I expect they headed to the pine forest.

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  4. The way you have woven photos and words in this post is quite delightful. It gives me a sense of the way I like to read a book—especially at this time of year when it’s cold outside and warm inside—near a window, quietly, where I can look up occasionally and absent-mindedly watch snowbirds or robins go about their business as I ponder what I have just been reading. Very nice!

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  5. jennypellett says:

    It’s already on my wish list Lisa, after you mentioned it in my book pile post. I looked it up and it appealed then, and now your review here has underlined this for me!
    Your birds are beautiful. I don’t know what a snowbird is – perhaps we have a different name for them here – I’ll do some research.

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    • arlingwoman says:

      They are called juncoes and I don’t know if they have relatives across the Atlantic. The ones in the picture are dark-eyed juncoes, there is another kind. It’s funny how birds have so many different names. My father always called a flicker a yellowhammer, so I had to learn what a flicker was (and that if I was in the deep south, nobody would know what a flicker was)

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      • jennypellett says:

        I’ve done a bit of digging…it seems that our nearest relative would be the diminutive sparrow, but although ours are very sweet, they don’t have such pretty markings. They are a bit brown.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for the insightful review, Lisa. And for the telling illustrations. I am pleased the snow has desisted

    Liked by 1 person

  7. arlingwoman says:

    Me too, Derrick. It’s all gone except for the piles that towered!

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  8. Sylvie G says:

    Thank you for this review arlingwoman. I like the theme and would like to read it (beautiful photos of birds) πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Maria F. says:

    Thanks for the recommendation. I always like seeing Robins even when we don’t have them here, because I remember them from my trips to the U.S..

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  10. KerryCan says:

    Very informative review! I need to look for the book–the college where I taught served a LOT of first-generation college students, students who, in many cases, were trying to make a break from a family “tradition” of poverty, under-achievement, etc. But, even as they had the chance to make the break, they felt some guilt about abandoning the life they knew, as if they were repudiating what their parents had lived.

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  11. BunKaryudo says:

    It sounds an interesting read. Now you’ve got me wondering what happened with her father and siblings!

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  12. LB says:

    How clever to weave a book review with your winter bird photos. Love the hawk!
    I’ve only read one of Strout’s books, and as with Alys, it was Olive Kitteridge, a book group selection. I’ll have to suggest this one, although the members of the group found Olive Kitteridge unsettling. Did you prefer one of these two books over the other?

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    • arlingwoman says:

      Lucy is a softer character. Olive, frankly, was someone I would have avoided in real life. Her rage was difficult and disturbing. Lucy is a lot more inward, working things out and reaching for a better life emotionally, so while it’s not easy, there’s a mystery to it and she’s a more likable character.

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  13. Great review and lovely birds! And I got such a nice post card too, what a treat right? xo Johanna

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  14. starkwe says:

    I’m so glad to hear a good review; I have this one loaded on my tablet and waiting for me to read and review myself. It’s been a bit too busy for me to do much reading lately, but hopefully things are settling down a bit now.

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  15. Boomdeeadda says:

    ‘Snowzilla’ that’s still cracking me up. Yep, we saw the whole event unfold from our cozy island suite in Maui. Glad the postcard arrived, it traveled farther than I, ha! American Postal service is really quite astonishing compared to Canada’s I think. Ours seems to take forever to get anything anywhere. As we most services in Canada, we’ve learned to be patient. If Trumps elected, and you all move to Canada (as some are threatening), you’d best be prepared to slow down. The pace of everything seems lazier here. xk

    Liked by 1 person

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