Winging it! Birds Of A Lesser Paradise – Stories

Don't you just love the cover?

Many of my favorite books have been about non-human characters (animals) teaching humans powerful life lessons. My book choice for April is an obvious one – Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew. I’m up for a book discussion when you finish the book! – Enjoy! Allison

Exploring the way our choices and relationships are shaped by the menace and beauty of the natural world, Megan Mayhew Bergman’s powerful and heartwarming collection captures the surprising moments when the pull of our biology becomes evident, when love or fear collide with good sense, or when our attachment to an animal or wild place can’t be denied.

In “Housewifely Arts,” a single mother and her son drive hours to track down an African gray parrot that can mimic her deceased mother’s voice. A population-control activist faces the ultimate conflict between her loyalty to the environment and her maternal desire in “Yesterday’s Whales.” And in the title story, a lonely naturalist allows an attractive stranger to lead her and her aging father on a hunt for an elusive woodpecker.

As intelligent as they are moving, the stories in Birds of a Lesser Paradise are alive with emotion, wit, and insight into the impressive power that nature has over all of us. This extraordinary collection introduces a young writer of remarkable talent. –

Winging it! “We want stories to stir our desires. We also want them to lead us to places we don’t recognize and build us a temporary residence there. Bergman provides alluring glimpses into the strangeness, the ruthlessness, of the animal kingdom. ”

Megan Mayhew Bergman’s first story collection, “Birds of a Lesser Paradise,” begins with a woman driving hundreds of miles to see a parrot. She can’t stand the bird, which sings Patsy Cline tunes and tells off imaginary telemarketers, but it has one trick worth listening to: It sounds just like her dead mother. The two women didn’t get along, but now that the mother is gone, the daughter longs to hear her familiar voice, even coming from a beady-eyed mimic.

This memorable story, called “Housewifely Arts” and included in “The Best American Short Stories 2011,” sets the tone for the 11 offerings to follow. In complicated ways, creatures great and small affect the lives of human characters, who treat the animals’ ailments, track them in the wild or adopt them as members of the family. A wolf hybrid permanently disfigures a veterinarian’s face. A woman’s father suffers a heart attack while searching for an ivory-billed woodpecker, a species most likely extinct. An alcoholic mother volunteers with the “Feed an Aye-Aye a Raisin program at the Lemur Center,” less as an act of magnanimity than of desperation. Her relationships with humans have failed – her husband left when she quit rehab, her daughter believes in imminent apocalypse – but, she supposes, “animals I could do.”

The nonhuman characters in Bergman’s collection include dogs, cows, sheep and silkie bantams. The chickens, wonderfully described as parading “around the coop like ‘Solid Gold’ dancers,” sprint toward their food in a manner that delights their owner. “That’s how you get what you want,” she thinks. “Go all out or give up.” Longing to conceive a child but afraid it’s too late, she apologizes to the hens: “I’m sorry I eat your children before they hatch.” In another story, a woman dying of cancer advises her daughter, “Make peace with the food chain. . . . Do it now, before it breaks your heart.”

Many of these characters already walk around with broken hearts, their homes overtaken by feral cats, crickets, and stray dogs they invite in like itinerant lovers. Yet we don’t feel sorry for them. They draw strength from their self-sufficient isolation and their alliances with nonverbal misfits – even as they dream of babies, and effusive phone calls, and a blue heron circling the rooftops, looking for a place to land.

The story that closes the collection, “The Two-Thousand-Dollar Sock,” is as delicately sad as the parrot story that begins it. An ailing dog sprints into the woods on the trail of a black bear, its final act a passionate chase. After burying her pet, the narrator observes that her baby daughter, too, “understands the urge to have what you must have.” New to the world, “she still trusts the raw pull of desire. One day it will tear her away, . . . take her down a dirt road to a place she does not recognize, and there she will make her home.”

We want stories to stir our desires. We also want them to lead us to places we don’t recognize and build us a temporary residence there. Bergman provides alluring glimpses into the strangeness, the ruthlessness, of the animal kingdom. We learn that “in captivity, the jaguar mother is capable of devouring her own cubs”; that “today’s whales sing lower songs, and no one knows why”; that superstitious villagers in Madagascar claim aye-ayes can “pierce” a human aorta “with their middle finger.”

At times while reading “Birds of a Lesser Paradise,” I wished it would send us deeper into the woods, and more fiercely stalk the mysteries that elude us, disturb us, tear us apart. As a first expedition, though, it offers plenty of plumage for us to train our binoculars on, as well as bird calls that force us to stop and listen.

Courtesy of: Sunday New York Times Book Review

Polly Rosenwaike has written for The San Francisco Chronicle, The Millions and other publications.

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