After last week's coup, in which our subject
raved about the novel I assigned (Heidi Julavits's The Vanishers, one of
my favorite books in recent memory), I erred once again. Because I'd been
seeing its Etsy-ish cover everywhere and heard generally good things, I decided
to assign Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Bergman. Spoiler alert: it was a
dud. Here's our subject's tepid review:
of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Bergman is, without a doubt, an enjoyable and
very well written book by a highly talented writer, which explains why it's the
hot new choice at numerous Indie stores. It was easy to imagine myself, back in
my Trident Bookseller days, recommending this one to a pixie Mass Art redhead
with a love for Ploughshares and The Georgia Review. The prose is
tight, and the female characters are universally strong and well-rendered.
it's impossible to forget that Birds is a post-MFA first collection.
Three of the twelve stories feature veterinarians. There's also one staring a
nature guide, and another two with animal rescue workers. Two of the stories
are, in part, about women confronting their desire to have a child. All of them
are set, almost entirely, in rural areas that-with two exceptions-are almost
impossible to tell apart in a meaningful way. The one or two urban environments
that do exist in Birds of a Lesser Paradise are described in competent,
often pretty, but mostly superficial sentences. Not that this is a book with no
sense of place, it's that the places, characters and stories tend to bleed
together like watercolors applied to newsprint.
are a few that shine with Bergman's big talent, and big ambition-I'd personally
spotlight "Housewifely Arts," the title story "Birds of a Lesser Paradise," and
"Artificial Heart," which reads like a mini-prequel to Dennis Johnson's Fiskadoro,
though other reviewers have, it's worth noting, cited others. Despite the
sometimes mesmerizing evenness of the narrative voice, the prose still manages
to charm. For instance, take this bit that I tweeted not long ago: "I'd brought
Malachi here a couple of times. He'd loved the solitude of Maine. It's almost postapocalyptic, he'd
said, as if that were a landscape he might enjoy, a place he might take
prose never feels flowery or forced; if anything it's a bit too "goldilocks."
And while each of these stories works along the same line that doesn't keep
them from being interesting or convincing; they move quietly, gracefully, in
desirable ways. If the sense of repetition can't be ignored, neither can the
talent. In fact, the last short-story collection I liked this much was Drown
by Junot Diaz, and we all know how he turned out. Here's hoping Megan
Bergman has a similar future.
Book Rat Letter Grade: C+
My guilt has caused me to
allow the subject to do something unprecedented: pick his own book. He chose
Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker. Will our subject like a book he picked for himself
better than one I chose for him? Tune in next week to find out.