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The Book of Dead Birds    by Gayle Brandeis order for
Book of Dead Birds
by Gayle Brandeis
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2004 (2003)
Hardcover, Softcover

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* *   Reviewed by Shannon Bigham

Ava Sing Lo, a young woman who is now a college graduate, is known for accidentally killing her mother Helen's pet birds since childhood. Granted, Ava does not mean to kill the birds; it just seems to happen. Now Ava leaves her home town of San Diego for the Salton Sea, as a volunteer helping environmental activists save thousands of birds that are dying due to poisoning from agricultural run-off.

Ava's trip to Salton Sea serves more than one purpose. While she has finished her graduate work, she has not yet found a job and the volunteer work is something she can do right now, while she lives on her savings. Also, Ava still lives at home in San Diego with her mother. While she and Helen have always been relatively close (due to the fact that Ava never met or knew her father) there is a distance between them. Perhaps Ava hopes that her volunteer work with dying birds will bring her closer to her mother, in whose heart birds hold a special place.

Helen, born and raised in Korea, had a difficult past. Her mother and grandmother were 'skin divers.' Helen was drawn into prostitution at a young age, 'serviced' black men at a segregated American army base, and became pregnant by one of them. Before Ava was born, a white American soldier married Helen and brought her to California for a new life. However, mother and baby were abandoned when Helen's husband realized that Ava was not his child. Though she knows that Helen's life has not been an easy one and that she was a prostitute, Ava only has a sketchy idea of her mother's past.

The Book of Dead Birds, which won Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize for Fiction, is beautifully written, even lyrical. The characters are well developed and, while the writing is meaningful and intelligent, the pages turn quickly. The novel has depth and lends itself to discussion about relationships between mothers and daughters, survival, reconciliation and cultural differences. I recommend it to fans of literary fiction, and also to book clubs, as there are many facets of the novel that encourage discussion.

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