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29th October
2009
written by Steph
Someone's gotta do it!

Someone's gotta do it!

I still consider this little blog to be a fringe element when it comes to the world of blogging in general, and book blogging in particular, so it really was a flattering surprise when Trish from Hey Lady! Watcha Readin’? contacted me regarding reviewing something for TLC Tours.   Having never been part of such a thing, I thought it would be fun to try something new, so after perusing the selections for October/November, I signed up to read Looking After Pigeon by Maud Carol Markson. Looking After Pigeon is a thin novel, one easily read in a single afternoon (which is what I did).  It is a story told in retrospect – Pigeon as a grown woman has some serious scars and issues related to her past, and in an effort to move past them, she has undertaken the task of writing down the events of one summer, which she attributes as the source of all her relationship/commitment/general anxiety woes.  We learn that during the summer in question, Pigeon was just five years old, and it was this summer that her father up and abandons the family with no warning.  Consequently, Pigeon, her two siblings (Dove and Robin), and their mother move to a beach house on the Jersey shore.  This summer marks upheaval and dramatic change for the entire family, but ostensibly it is Pigeon who is affected most by the various events. It is perhaps appropriate that much of Looking After Pigeon takes place during the summer at the beach, because I kept thinking that it would be a great beach read.  Neither the language nor the plot was overly taxing so a couple of hours in the sun while reading, won’t really detract from reading it.  I don’t think this should be interpreted as a bad thing, rather, I felt that the story was sufficiently engaging to hold my attention over extended and lengthy reading periods, while the prose was also straightforward and uncomplicated as to aid in such an endeavor. That being said, this novel wasn’t a complete success for me.  The retrospective narrative can be tricky, since in theory, if one is recalling things from the distant past, it is unlikely that complete swaths of dialogue will be remembered verbatim.  In this case, Markson gets around this issue by having Pigeon recount her past as a story, so some authorial flexibility is automatically allowed for in this instance.  However, I still couldn’t get over certain things, namely that Pigeon behaved like no five-year old I have ever known.  It’s still not clear to me why Pigeon needed to be so young, but I constantly found myself thinking things like, “No five year old would ever talk like that or thinking something that mature or complex”.  Of course everything is colored by the older Pigeon’s eyes and experiences, and yet it was still jarring and bothersome.  When I wasn’t doing that, I was wondering whether anyone really would leave a five year old alone by herself all day on a regular basis!  To be fair, I haven’t hung around any five year olds recently, but it just doesn’t seem to me that they have very advanced conversations, nor do they routinely do things like make themselves sandwiches and the like, but maybe I’m just out of the loop. Apart from that, the other issue I had was that I just never really connected with any of the characters or their stories.  I never really figured out why the events as they are told to us are all that important and would be so indelible.  As a reader, I felt that there were dramatic reveals and twists and turns in the plot, and yet they never resonated with me. They simply felt like things happening, but without any sense of why something was important other than it mixed things up and added to the overt action.  The only exception to this was near the end of the novel when Pigeon receives a gift from her absent father, but I won’t say anymore about that, except that here I felt there as an event that would mark a person and was rife with symbolism.  It was a sad moment, but from a literary standpoint, it was also a good one. At times Looking After Pigeon reminded me of Alice Munro’s writing – it was melancholy and pensive, focused on family and relationships and the choices we make.  Markson does touch on issues of abandonment, sex, family, and control, all themes and ideas that could lead to a good book club discussion; clearly this novel throws a lot at its reader in terms of events and plot points, yet it manages to keep a gentle and serene tone, which was an interesting juxtaposition.  Ultimately, I think I wanted the author to dig deeper than she did, whereas a lot of the emotional action felt glossed over and as though we never penetrated past the superficial layer… the gentleness of the writing could at times let Markson down, because there were ideas that needed to be addressed in a raw and truthful way, and yet I felt there was always a veneer between myself and the characters, the characters and their emotions.  I think sometimes books need to go to a dark place, tap into something ugly and unhinged and wild, especially if the premise you’ve built the book on is that the story they’re recounting is one that has held them back, one that has stunted them emotionally and made them lame. If I am being fully honest, this book never fully took flight for me, which is a shame.  The writing was at times very lovely, and I think the premise and the plotting were good, there was just an elusive element that was evaded me the entire time I was reading.  If I may use the bird analogy one more time, when you get to the core of a bird, you get their bones, and bird bones are light because they are empty.  In a similar vein, with Looking After Pigeon, for all that was good, I ultimately felt that this was a story ensconced in a hard shell that felt just a little bit hollow inside. But look, I may be the odd duck here (Ha!  I lied; there was another bird reference!), and you can check out what other readers along the tour think about this book.  Bellezza over at Dolce Belezza liked this book a LOT and was moved profoundly by it, so perhaps we can chalk up my implacable façade to my utter lack of childhood abandonment issues.  Here are the previous TLC Tour stops along with the next three where Looking After Pigeon will be featured and I urge you to check them out:   Wed, Oct 20 - Dolce Bellezza Tues, Oct 27 - Literate Housewife Mon, Nov 2 - A Reader's Journal Tues, Nov 3 - The Scholastic Scribe Wed, Nov 4 - Raging Bibliomania Rating: 3 out of 5

18 Comments

  1. 10/29/2009

    Well I wouldn’t say you convinced me to read the book, but I did have a wonderful time noting all of your bird references in your review! :–)

  2. 10/29/2009

    Dear Steph,

    Thank you for your very thoughtful and well written review of my novel, Looking After Pigeon. Although the characters may not have clearly resonated for you, I do believe you “got” the major focus of what I was trying to do. Only one small point– Pigeon was five, not four (although I don’t think that makes much difference).
    I will look forward to reading what your many readers think.
    Again, thanks!
    Maud

  3. 10/29/2009

    Rhapsody,

    I hope you will reconsider and try my book. It is short! And many readers have found that the characters do “speak” to them.

    Happy reading!

    Maud

  4. 10/29/2009

    The part that made it resonate with me is how terribly painful it is to be left by a parent. As a teacher of 25 years, and a mother myself, I know how that becomes such a difficult experience for children to endure. That is what I feel Pigeon was trying to work out in her life.

  5. 10/29/2009

    @ Rhapsody: Even if I didn’t convince you to read the book, I hope you do check out other people’s reviews, as they might sway you otherwise! The nice thing about these book blog tours is that they give readers the chance to get a balance of opinions relatively easily!
     
    @ Maud: Thanks so much for taking the time to come and read my review. Although not all of the book worked for me, I do think there were large portions of it that were admirable, and at the end of the day, I tip my hat to anyone who has found it in themselves to write a book (or two, as in your case!). Perhaps one of the elements I neglected to mention in my review is that clearly part of what we are meant to see with Pigeon is that she feels as though she has not control and is merely an observer. She is lonely and feels isolated. In many ways as a reader I felt these things too, since I felt I couldn’t really relate or “get” Pigeon and her family… I think this certainly added to my reading experience, even if such a sensation wasn’t always positive!

    Also, I’ve updated the review to correctly reflect Pigeon’s age! Sorry about that slip!
     
    @ Bellezza: I recall in your review you were deeply moved by the notion of a child being abandoned, and I can see how that would affect you given that you are a parent and work with children on a daily basis. I think that if I had that perspective, this book might have resonated more deeply with me.

  6. 10/29/2009

    Steph, isn’t it true that what we appreciate from a book often comes from who we are, or our life experiences? It just shows how different books are good for different people, and all of them are potentially enriching to us.

  7. 10/29/2009

    @ Bellezza: For sure – I know that I’ve encountered certain books too early in my life and haven’t had the perspective to fully appreciate them. Now when I review books, I try to be cognizant of this, and strip away what I didn’t get because of me versus what I didn’t get because there was a failure to effectively communicate that on the author’s part. Of course reading is a two-way street, the author puts the work on the table, but we all have our own palates and preferences!

  8. 10/29/2009

    Very interesting review, Steph. I haven’t read the book (yet) but I find it fascinating that what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another person. I really hate it when someone says, Well, you’re not in the right place in life to appreciate this book, because I think a really good book will transcend age and experiences. On the other hand, I found myself saying that the reason I might not have enjoyed THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE by Andrew Sean Greer is because I haven’t been married for long enough to have gone through rough patches that would make me appreciate the book more.

    All that to say, I think your review is very insightful, and even though the book didn’t rock your world, you did (and always do) a great job of delineating what worked for you and what didn’t work for you. Thanks for being on this tour!

  9. 10/29/2009

    @ Trish: I understand what you’re saying, because I do agree that a really awesome book should be able to speak effectively to all readers. That said, I’ve talked before about how I’m an intuitive reader, and sometimes a book can be awesome but if I’m not in the right mindframe, it will be a disastrous marriage (e.g., if I want something serious, and I wind up with a fluffy book, I generally wind up ornery and disgruntled). I don’t think in those instances it’s fair to discredit the book, as to take the food analogy from my last comment further, if I’m looking for steak and someone serves me chicken, I might be somewhat disappointed, but the chicken might still be really good! I try really hard to let readers know what I’m bringing to the table, what I’m hoping for, so they know the mindset I had going in. And I try to strip that away so that I can objectively look at what was set before me. I think you get it right when you say it’s not that there wasn’t anything for me to respond to or like here, it’s just that another reader with different perspectives would probably get MORE out of it than I did.

  10. 10/29/2009

    What an interesting discussion. I agree that a really good book “transcends age and experiences.” But I also believe that our own experiences have to affect how we “read” certain books. I can always tell when a book is well written, but not all well written books resonate with me. Sometimes it is the mood I’m in when I read the book, or just the subject matter or the characters. Or sometimes I lack the patience for certain books.
    With my own writing– I realize I cannot appeal to everyone, but I do owe it to the readers to write the best book I know how– to take care with the language, the words. I also must always be true to my characters and their story. That is what I try to do with my fiction, but whether a reader “likes” it or not is out of my control. That’s where Steph’s food analogy sounds right– if a reader is expecting a steak and gets chicken or fish (even if the chicken or fish is very good), the reader may still be disappointed.
    At any rate, I, of course, want everyone to like my fiction. But if that can’t happen, I am happy that at least my book has spurred on this interesting dialogue.

    Maud.

  11. 10/29/2009

    @ Maud: I pretty much agree with everything you said! 🙂 One of the things I face as a reader who writes about books on my blog is that sometimes there is this divide between the objective quality of a book and the subjective experience I have in reading. There have been times when I read a book that I know was magnificently constructed, had unerring prose, was thoughtful and had all these qualities that I realize makes it a great book, and yet I don’t love it. When it comes to rating these books, it can be so tricky, because sometimes these feelings conflict with one another – it feels wrong to give the book a low rating simply because I didn’t tumble hopelessly in love with it, yet for all its technique and mastery, it failed to resonate with me… how do you sum up those ideas with a single number? I don’t think you really can, and that’s why I’m so grateful that I get the opportunity to talk people through my thought process, so they realize a book can’t be distilled into a single number.

    And I think that your book does show great skill and care when it came to crafting the sentences and the phrases. At times the language was downright poetic, very lyrical, and I could tell that this was a story that meant a lot to you as a writer. Even though not all of the novel worked for me in terms of the story it told, it absolutely came across as emotionally sincere, and that is always something I will appreciate as a reader.

  12. 10/29/2009

    Steph, you touched here on one of my great pet peeves in books and movies: the overly-sophisticated child. I have not read Looking After Pigeon, so I certainly can’t comment on the book, but in general I find it distracting when the protagonist is a young child who says or does things a young child would never say or do. I commend the author for even trying, because that’s got to be one of the trickiest things to do in fiction, to write a “believable” child narrator/main character. I am interested in the book, though, because in my opinion comparing someone’s writing to Alice Munro’s–well, you can’t get much higher praise than that. I tend to be the opposite of a lot of people: I can forgive a book a lot of flaws if it’s well-written. I have a much harder time with books that are supposedly great stories, but the author can’t write a decent sentence. (I’m looking at you, Stephanie Meyer. And your “great story” is questionable in my eyes, too.)

  13. 10/29/2009

    @ Priscilla: Yes, overly precocious children are definitely a pitfall for most books that even attempt the concept, so I agree that it’s a really hard thing to pull off. It doesn’t fully work here for me either, but I will say that Markson does a better job than most simply because of the premise she’s set up (it’s a restrospect told by an adult, so clearly there is some interpolation going on).
    And I will say that I don’t think a direct comparison between Munro and Markson is perhaps always appropriate, just that there was a melancholy in this novel that reminded me of the quiet and somewhat gloomy nature I feel characterizes the stories that I’ve read by Munro. The whole novel doesn’t always attain that elevated quality, but there are certainly moments. Considering that Munro has been writing a whole lot longer than Markson, I think that there’s a lot of promise here.

  14. 10/29/2009

    Priscilla,

    I hope you will “try” Looking After Pigeon. I, too, am a huge fan of Alice Munro so even to be at all compared to her is high praise for me indeed.
    As Steph points out, my book is really an adult looking back on this pivotal summer in her life. She writes it as an adult with an adult perspective and, most of all, an adult memory (meaning she only truly remembers what was most important to her and has made up some along the way). All family members remember important events differently. Is only one telling the truth? Or are they all telling their own version of the truth?
    At any rate, I look forward to hearing back from you after you’ve had a chance to read my book (or at least I hope you will read it!)

    Maud

  15. steph,

    as always, your review is wonderful–you have a talent for getting to the core and giving supporting details. i sometimes see book bloggers review in this style: “I didn’t enjoy this book. It just didn’t work for me.” without elaborating. that’s never the case over here!

    but even better than your review is the discussion it sparked within the comments! book blogging can bring literary discussions to a new level because many authors are willing to jump into the fray, as markson does.

    no two people read the same book (paraphrased quote i’ve seen) and i find that to be true. generally, people can recognize quality writing even if the story or characters don’t resonate on a personal level.

    i read a review on this book recently (also for TLC) and was moved to put it on my hold list at the library–i often like to see if my opinion holds with the reviewer’s.

    thanks for a quality review and great conversation!!

  16. 10/30/2009

    Nat,

    I recognized you from the other “book tour” site. Obviously, you are a true book lover. Please write after you’ve gotten my book from the library and had a chance to read it– I look forward to hearing your comments.

    And this is so much fun for me– communicating with readers whether they like my book or not. It’s always revealing.
    Maud

  17. 11/02/2009

    Steph, I really think this is an excellent review, and I am glad it had started such a lively discussion! I am hosting this book for the tour on Wednesday, and I have to say that your review is right on the mark. I felt that the writing was really very beautiful and that the tension in the story was palpable and worked well, but I just really had a hard time trusting the voice of the narrator. I think it may be because I teach this age group, but it really felt to me that some of the revelations and thoughts that Pigeon had were framed from a much more adult mindset. I also had a hard time believing that she was left home alone for most of the summer. I can’t even trust that my kids will behave long enough for me to turn my back, let alone leave them be for an hour or two. So, in that way, I think the book didn’t work for me. The other elements of the story were much more successful for me, and I really like that you mention the symbolism of the gift her father sends. I hadn’t even thought of it in that way, but it really does say a lot.

  18. 11/02/2009

    @ Zibilee: Yes, there was a believability issue for sure on my part, and I think I was also frustrated by the fact that for all the beauty in the writing, the characters just didn’t come alive for me. Pigeon aside, I never felt like I understood the heartbeat of her siblings or her mother. I think if I had at least been able to latch onto the supporting characters, then I would be able to be more forgiving to the somewhat jarringquality of Pigeon’s narration. I understand all of this is colored by memory, that this is all seen through the lens of someone who has been deeply affected by all of this, but the problem for me was that I wasn’t won over by the story being relayed to me. It had nice moments to be sure, but I really did want more.

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