Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Reading: Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman
Thinking: Hallelujah, I love this book! I grew up with a homesteading, folk-singing grandmother who traveled around in a VW van and a homesteading, bus-driving mother who once shot a weasel (trying to slink its way into her chicken-coop) with a shotgun from twenty feet away. I have thus always found the majority of women in fiction tepid and passive and mild for my liking. On the flip side, I have found Annie Proulx’s female protagonists (when she occasionally writes them) overly tough-chickened and lacking the heart and tenderness and capacity to question that the women I know all have. So I have been floored and elated and utterly smitten by Megan Mayhew Bergman’s female protagonists in this collection of short stories. The first lines of the first story (“Housewifely Arts”) gives you a taste:
I am my own housewife, my own breadwinner. I make lunches and change lightbulbs. I kiss bruises and kill copperheads from the backyard creek with a steel hoe. I change sheets and the oil in my car. I can make piecrusts and exterminate humpback crickets in the crawlspace with a homemade glue board, though not at the same time. I like to compliment myself on these things, because there’s no one else around to do it.
In other stories Bergman’s protagonists are veterinarians, urban organic gardeners providing food for the homeless, animal shelter directors, conservation biologists. They all have intimate relationships with the natural world and its creatures (birds, raccoons, dogs, lemurs…). They all have fiercely independent natures. But they are no two-dimensional environmental or women’s lib stand-ins. These women are all also battling very real matters of the heart: watching their parents die, wanting children, not wanting children, wanting to be good mothers, wanting love, wanting to be loved. All without an ounce of sentimentality. All rendered with stunning sentences, like the ones in this last paragraph of “The Urban Coop:”
Ice on the boat was made of frozen seawater. To me, it filled bourbon with the taste of crustaceans, shells, salt, soft-bodied mollusks—the building blocks of living things.
Raise your hips, I’d read, let gravity help the sperm make its way to your legs. I gripped my hip bones and thrust my pelvis into the air.
Just days before, Tiny had lifted up her shirt and showed me her sagging breasts, the jagged white stretch marks surrounding her areolas.
My babies done sucked me dry and moved on, she’d said.
The boat rocked with Mac’s shifting weight. Zydo paced the hallway, keeping one eye on me and one eye on Mac. Though my chances were ugly and greatly diminished, I put my legs up on the wall to hold them all inside.