[the book rat project] Week 7: Meh

 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:

Birds 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.

But 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.

There 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 vacations."

Bergman's 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.

The 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.


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