"A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song." — Maya Angelou

Birds of a Lesser Paradise - Megan Mayhew Bergman

It’s no surprise that I’ve been reading too many books with the word “bird” in the title lately.  Let’s count the bird imagery I have surrounding me everyday. 1. The bird that has come back every year to my window to sing its same song and make its pine straw nest on one thick oak branch.  It’s the quintessential sign of Raleigh for me; that bird, that tree, that street light.  2. The bird cage I hang my jewelry from that came broken and cracked from the thrift store.  3. The wrist image (my dad may read this blog).  4. The wing tattoo, “She flies with her own wings.”  ….

I’m predictable when it comes to birds.  I like sitting at the kitchen table in my mother’s sunny yellow design and staring out the window squares to the maple that is now creating hazard underneath our house with its roots.  And yet, my dad concedes to chopping it down (it’s a love affair, us and that tree).  “It was supposed to be just a bush,” my mother always says, “when we bought it they told us it was a bush.”  “Pretty big bush” my dad always muses back.  Other than huge white flowers we float in bowls filled with water over the spring, it brings the robins, the blue jays, the cardinals, all their color and glory, all their hunger at the beginning of a season and their songs of goodbye at the end.

I could love a crow mangled on the street if someone asked me too, or put me up close to it.

That and one other reason is why it comes as no shock that I had to get my hands on the galley of Megan Mayhew Bergman’s first short story collection.  If you remember back a few months ago I read Best American Short Stories 2011 and her story “Housewifery Acts” was one of the debut stars of that collection.  I reviewed the entire book here, but mostly just gargled on about “Housewifery Acts” and how stunning the voice was.

I think it’s still my favorite story of Bergman’s even after reading Birds of a Lesser Paradise, but there’s one that I can’t stop thinking about after finishing it today.  The story I’ll probably be sleeping on is titled, “Artificial Heart” and it was first published here in Oxford American.  I can’t stop thinking about the senile father.  This is going to sound horrible, but he reminds me so much of the father figure in the movie (and Nicholas Sparks book, ehhh…) Dear John.  I think the father in the movie is much more raw than he is in the actual book and the man who plays him is wonderful.  I cried for hours after that movie, not because of the broken love story that is the main plot, but of the simple hand holding between father and son from a hospital gurney and a school chair.

Father figures in stories nearly always get me, especially when their older and half-resemble my own father.  The father in this story, however, tells his own story about upbringing, and growing old.  By performing a violent act he tells about a generational upbringing, a family tree, an experience, a story…within a story.  It’s not just Bergman’s writing that tells the tale of the daughter taking care of her older father who has commenced dating a woman even though they are both losing pieces of themselves and their past, daily.  It’s the idea that this man, in this simple action, has showed his daughter, his date and their respective family members, a story of himself from childhood.  A memory in action, even when he doesn’t remember the words.

It’s also set in 2025 meaning a good ten and some years from now, with the perspective that science will go as far as pumping people with artificial organs.  I think the great assumption of these artificial organs is that people will lose romance, intimacy, they have metal rather than flesh, knobs instead of veins, robotics instead of emotion.  And yet, this story tells of a man who although can’t always remember, shows great emotion towards the end of the story.

It’s so subtle, and beautiful, and sad.  It’s a tiny violin unable to play.

I loved that about almost every story in this book.  It was as if Bergman took the characters to the edge of the cliff and asked them if they’d rather dive, jump, or sit and dangle their legs.  And no one jumps.   No one is really trying to plunge into the darkness, but they are resting against the edge.   Their skin is touching the jagged rock and their shoes are flaked with mud from the walk.

It’s this darkness that Jill McCorkle always emphasized in her writing classes while I was an undergraduate at North Carolina State University.  Every story, every single story ever made has darkness.  Not because bad things are always happening to people (although they are and we’re all aware that life is unfair) but instead that good is boring in literature.  Why would you want to read about someone who always gets their way, is always perfectly ironed, no hair out of place, blush on apple cheeks?  You wouldn’t, you expect darkness and concern.  And yet, Bergman has a way of showing you the darkness without making you walk in.

Bergman and Cat (from her website)

On the one end, I felt I couldn’t get past the door frame to get to the real emotion within the darkness.  But, then again, don’t characters (or people) always go through the airy space between life and darkness before actually entering the cave?  Don’t they hope for light, or goodness, or fairness to triumph all?  Are we not all wondering if God is trying to prove something with Tim Tebow on the field, failing miserably for three quarters and then in the fourth winding up on shoulders, and kissing his fist and pounding his chest?

It’s something magic in characters that can see the darkness, but not yet enter.  I’m not sure anyone has ever written like that before. (That I’ve read at least).   Writers typically over cast the shadows, or place the character in the cave and make them juggle in the dark before they can get out into the sun.   Sometimes, I feel like a book is just pushing characters so far only to create drama, when it really isn’t needed. Maybe the drama is needed, but the push, the black, it isn’t.  And Bergman’s Birds of a Lesser Paradise is a great example of this.  Characters who are mildly living on the edge, kicking their legs, waiting for it all to unfold, or crumple, or fly.  I can’t help but be amazed by an author who puts it all out there, but with restraint.  There was nothing to prove in this collection, nothing to say, “see, I can write a sex scene…” or “see, I can kill off your mother.”  Nothing like that, just humanity; wide open and crawling.

I think I have extra bias towards this book though – not saying it isn’t something important in the literary community, but a few of the stories are set in Raleigh.  One even is set in a community garden located near or around Blount Street.  My brother lives on Blount in more a porch than a house, more a basement, than a two-story.  A street and block over is the Mordecai House which (is haunted) has a community gardens that neighbors can pick through during the season.  There is a grape tunnel, peach trees, apple, sunflowers, a fenced-in square with turnips.  Not saying that Bergman was thinking exactly of this place, but I was, because I know it.  I’ve seen my nephews face lathered and dripping in peach juice.  His teeth orange and shining in the sun.  I’ve seen it so I know those characters; “Tiny” and her grave stump teeth, her sagging breasts.  I’ve seen them, and I’m sure if you think about it, you have too.

At the heart of any of these stories isn’t people though; it’s pets and those who love them.  Which, obviously, I can relate to, because I inundate this blog with pictures of my cat, Jasper.  He is the man in my life with his regal lion stance, and slinky body.  Stories of saving animals just makes me want to watch Pit Bulls and Parolees.  Women who have too many pets that they refuse to give up reminds me that my friends truly believe I’m going to be a cat lady who reads the newspaper on her porch while kids bike by on the sidewalk, honking their horn, or letting their silver streamers rustle in the wind.

Let’s review.  This book is for:

  • Animal Lovers
  • People on the edge of darkness (which is everyone).
  • People who like short stories
  • Literary readers
  • You

Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

  • “Yet I felt I connected to my grandmother, my mother, this rugged line of hardy women with sharp ideas and heirloom casseroles, so in love with the world” (105).  Megan Mayhew Bergman
  • “It  occurs to me that some times we make homes where we do not belong” (119).  Megan Mayhew Bergman
  • “Dear Mary, I prayed, let me be celibate and rational.  Let me, for once, forget about men and be happy” (147).  Megan Mayhew Bergman
  • “‘Show me someone who can explain her first love,’ my mother once said” (187).  Megan Mayhew Bergman

And here are my usual exciting links:

If you can’t already tell, I’m recommending this, easily.  It’s due out March 6, 2012 but can be pre-ordered on Amazon now.

5 thoughts on “"A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song." — Maya Angelou

  1. Bea M. says:

    First, this was a well written review. I loved the imagery, but most of all, I loved the quotes that were your favorites. They were all simple sentences that really have something to say. The quotes alone make me want to read the book.
    I come from a long line of strong women who make great casseroles, so I can relate. The last quote about explaining your first love is a doozie! Who can explain that?! Looking back, that first love doesn’t make much sense.
    So, keep reading your “bird” books. Maybe you should try the book that the Alfred Hitchcock movie, I believe the title is “The Birds”, is based on. I have been told it was a good book, but scary.


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