The stories in Birds of a Lesser Paradise are so consistently good that I almost didn’t want to read them.
Beginning Megan Mayhew Bergman’s collection, I had no expectations. She’s been much-anthologized, and has a nice list of publishing credits, but that doesn’t guarantee a good match between reader and writer.
I approached the work with the usual intentions, planning to read just the first story.
Normally, I take time between stories — a day, or so, at least — so that I can allow each story to settle on its own terms.
(I used to read collections straight though, like I read novels, but giving the stories some space works well for me as a reader which, in turn, works better for the stories; I’m more likely to appreciate them as individual works of art when I approach each story deliberately.)
But after finishing “Housewifely Arts”, my expectations swelled like the blister on a fresh burn.
I was content to just set the book aside at that point, just sit and think; I was fairly sure that the next story would leave me feeling let down.
It did not.
Neither did the next one.
Or the one after that.
Then, with “Yesterday’s Whales”, I started to get nervous.
A string of stories that all left me with the sense of satisfaction that I crave with short fiction? It was bound to break.
I loved “Yesterday’s Whales”.
On the first page, Lauren bursts out of the bathroom with a positive pregnancy test wand, prepared to discuss whether they should have a baby at this stage in their relationship, despite Malachi’s fervent belief that the human race is heading for extinction and human reproduction is not only foolish but irresponsible.
I didn’t know Lauren and Malachi on page 76, not until they burst into my reading life on page 77.
And, sure, we spent time together until page 100, but the details of their lives bear little resemblance to my own and we all know that I’m going to meet new people on page 101.
What we share are a handful of words in the bigger manuscript.
“When someone’s ideal is the absence of all human life, romance is kind of a joke.”
“I’d brought Malachi here a couple of times. He 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.”
“Mothers, I believe, intoxicate us.”
But, then, and largely because of the story’s final paragraph (and I won’t share that because you might intuit something of the wider arc of the story from it), I settled into the idea of loving this collection.
The stories are fundamentally about preservation.
Not only in the tangible sense. Though you could point to the bird sanctuary or the environmental activist group or the story set in 2050, or the story of the shelter rescues.
But in the wider sense of the word, in that they are rooted in relationships (often parental and care-giving relationships) between the two-legged and the winged, finned, and four-legged (even three-legged).
Birds of a Lesser Paradise is a strong and satisfying collection that I’ll be keeping on my shelves and contentedly revisiting. It reminds me why I read short stories and keep reading them.