Birds of a Lesser Paradise: Stories
Megan Mayhew Bergman, 2012
A heartwarming and hugely appealing debut story collection that explores the way our choices and relationships are shaped by the menace and beauty of the natural world.
Megan Mayhew Bergman’s twelve stories capture 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. (From the publisher.)
• Where—Gaffney, South Carolina, USA
• Raised—Rocky Mount, North Carolina
• Education—B.A., Wake Forest University;
graduate degrees, Duke University, Bennington
• Currently—lives in Shaftsbury, Vermont
Megan Mayhew Bergman was raised in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. She now lives on a small farm in Shaftsbury, Vermont with her veterinarian husband Bo, two daughters, four dogs, four cats, two goats, a horse, and a handful of chickens. In November 2010, Megan was elected Justice of the Peace for the town of Shaftsbury. She also teaches literature at Bennington College.
Megan graduated from Wake Forest University, and completed graduate degrees at Duke University and Bennington College. She was a fiction scholar at Breadloaf and received a fellowship from the Millay Colony for the Arts in November 2007.
Birds of a Lesser Paradise, her first collection of stories, was published in 2012. She has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and her work has appeared in the New York Times, Best American Short Stories 2011, New Stories from the South 2010, Oxford American, Narrative, Ploughshares, One Story, and elsewhere. (From the author's website.)
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…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.
Polly Rosenwaike - New York Times Book Review
Megan Mayhew Bergman’s collection of stories contains all of the elements that, it could be said, make up the very best in short fiction: each story is beautiful, full of palpable pain or joy--sometimes both--all loosely connected and based on the types of figures we’ve all known in our lives. But what sets this collection of stories apart is that each sentence feels sturdily crafted, each ending feels satisfying in a way short fiction rarely does. Mayhew Bergman does something exceptional with Birds of a Lesser Paradise--she quickly constructs a world filled with animals and nature and family who hate and love and mostly need one another--and it feels complete. —Alexandra Foster (Amazon Best Book of the Month)
Bergman’s stellar debut is set among the dense forests and swamps of her native North Carolina and rooted firmly in a crumbling and economically troubled post-crash America. These 12 short stories, all but two of which were published in journals like One Story, Ploughshares, and Narrative (and anthologized in the Best American and New Stories from the South series), may be tethered to familiar Southern gothic tropes, but Bergman deftly sidesteps cliche and sentimentality, using honest autobiographical moments to make her work unique.
Readers will be shocked, amazed, and always entertained by the work of this accomplished writer of short fiction.
From a young Southern writer of note, a top-notch debut collection of stories, most of them revolving around motherhood, animals and conflicting loyalties.... The collection’s second half doesn’t quite measure up to the level of the first, but that’s a minor flaw in a book that deserves big praise. The beginning, one suspects, of a fine career.
1. How much of a role does nature play in the lives of the heroines of Mayhew Bergman’s stories? How do their relationships with the natural world affect their decisions?
2. Whether it is an African Gray parrot or a lemur, animals are central to each of these stories. How do the characters identify with or distinguish themselves from animals? Do any of the characters share certain qualities with the animals described?
3. In “Housewifely Arts,” what did her mother’s parrot represent to the narrator while her mother was still alive? How did the parrot’s importance change after her mother passed away?
4. How did you react to the veterinarian husband in “The Cow That Milked Herself” examining his pregnant wife in the same way he examines animals? Do you think his clinical take on his wife’s pregnancy reveals any universal truths about motherhood?
5. “For centuries people had used the swamp to hide from their problems” (41), says the narrator of the title story. Does Mae use the swamp to hide from her own problems? If so, how? How does her father’s scare in the swamp change her priorities?
6. Lila feels ugly and damaged after her face is disfigured in “Saving Face,” and goes to great lengths to isolate herself. How do you think her experience with Romulus and the sickly calf will change her? Can she reclaim the person who she was, despite her new challenges?
7. Lauren, the population control activist in “Yesterday’s Whales,” has a crisis of faith when she becomes pregnant. Have you ever experienced an event that’s challenged your long-held convictions? Is there any way to reconcile two wildly different points of view?
8. Do you think the narrator of “Another Story She Won’t Believe” realizes the mess she’s made? What do you think propelled her to self-destruct? Do you think her treatment of the lemurs represents an insurmountable character flaw?
9. What does it take to forgive yourself after an act of negligence? What kind of mother do you think the narrator of “The Urban Coop” will turn out to be, if she can become pregnant?
10. “My mother once told me: Never underestimate avoidance as an effective coping mechanism,” says the narrator of “The Right Company” (146). Is her retreat to the small Southern town of Abbet’s Cove an effective way to deal with the collapse of her marriage? When she tries to free Mussolini’s dog, the animal refuses to make an escape. What does this juxtaposition say about the narrator’s circumstances?
11. In “Night Hunting,” a young girl must come to terms with her mother’s declining health. How does her walk through the cold Vermont night force her to confront her fears? Do the ever-threatening coyotes represent a more primal danger than her mother’s cancer?
12. Could a hunter and an animal lover ever have a functional relationship? Do you think the woman in “Every Vein a Tooth” uses her relationship with animals to avoid the messiness of human intimacy? Or does her extreme devotion to the animals she rescues come from a purer, more optimistic place?
13. “The Artificial Heart” is the only story in Birds of a Lesser Paradise that’s set in the future. How do you think it fits in with the rest of the stories in the collection? Do you think it’s a natural impulse to want to prolong life, even if the quality of that life becomes less than ideal? Or do we become lesser versions of ourselves if we try to cheat death?
14. The narrator of “The Two-Thousand Dollar Sock” is a fighter, as is her husband, and ultimately her dog, Vito, who attacks a bear to protect the family. Do you think humans have a similar compulsion to fight and defend?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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