Birds of a Lesser Paradise

Megan Mayhew Bergman
Megan Mayhew Bergman. Scribner, $24 (240p) ISBN 978-1-4516-4335-0
Paperback - 224 pages - 978-1-4516-4336-7
Ebook - 240 pages - 978-1-4516-4337-4
Downloadable Audio - 1 pages - 978-1-4423-5792-1
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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 cliché and sentimentality, using honest autobiographical moments to make her work unique (like Yannick Murphy (The Call), Bergman’s husband is a veterinarian, a character that appears in several stories). Reflections on the natural world, animals both domestic and wild, family, and death figure prominently as motifs. In the title story, a young woman who lives with her father in backwoods North Carolina confronts her loneliness and her father’s mortality when an attractive stranger engages them to help find a woodpecker believed to be extinct. While Bergman’s tone is melancholic, a sense of possibility and rebirth figures prominently. “Six times he’d eaten a sock. Five times it had come out the other side, worse for wear, composted,” says the narrator of “The Two-Thousand-Dollar Sock,” a struggling new mother whose dog survives the sock only to take on a bear desperate for a taste of honey. Bergman writes straightforward, elegant prose that dovetails nicely with swampy Americana, and possesses a great facility for off-kilter observations. A woman in “Housewifely Arts” learns the details of her mother’s mourning for her dead husband from a parrot, and worries after her own child: “The things my body has done to him, I think. Cancer genes, hay fever, high blood pressure, perhaps a fear of math—these are my gifts.” Agent: Julie Barer, Barer Literary. (Mar.)
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