Three on a Theme: “Birds” Short Story Collections

I read these three collections one at a time over three and a half months of last year, initially intending to write them up as part of my short story focus in September but ultimately deciding to spend more time with the latter two (and then falling ill with Covid before I could write them all up in 2022). They topped my Best Backlist Reads.

The word from the title is incidental, really; the books do have a lot in common in terms of theme and tone, though. The environment, fidelity and motherhood are recurring elements. The warmth and psychological depth are palpable. Each story feels fleshed out enough that I could happily read an entire novel set in its realm, but also complete unto itself.


Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman (2012)

I knew Bergman from her second of three collections, Almost Famous Women; this was her debut. As is common for a first book, it incorporates autobiographical characteristics: North Carolina settings, a preponderance of animals (her husband is a vet), and pregnancy and early motherhood. Eleven of the 12 stories are in the first person, there are no speech marks, and the protagonists are generally women in their twenties or thirties coping with young children, crumbling households, ageing parents, and ethical dilemmas at work.

Creatures are companions or catalysts here. In “Housewifely Arts,” a single mother and her son embark on a road trip to rescue her late mother’s African gray parrot. In the title story, Mae accompanies her father and her new beau on a search for the ivory-billed woodpecker. Fear grapples with openness to change for many of these characters, as expressed in the final lines: “I wished for things to stay the same. I wished for stillness everywhere, but I opened up the rest of the bedroom windows and let the world in.”

Environmental threat blares in the background, but usually fades in comparison to everyday concerns; the 2050-set “The Artificial Heart” is more alarmed about her aged father’s bionic existence than about a dying planet. In “Yesterday’s Whales,” the overall standout for me, ambivalence about motherhood meets climate catastrophism. The narrator’s boyfriend, Malachi, founded a nonprofit called Enough with Us, which asks members to vow not to reproduce so the human race can die out and nature can take over. Embarrassing, then, that she finds herself pregnant and unwilling to tread the hard line he’s drawn. This one is funny and poignant, capturing so many of my own feelings, and seems 10 years ahead of its time.

When someone’s ideal is the absence of all human life, romance is kind of a joke.

I wanted, then, to become what I most admired, what now seemed most real to me. I wanted to be that exalted, complicated presence in someone’s life, the familiar body, the source of another’s existence. But I knew what I wanted was not always what I needed.

I envied my mother’s childhood, the awe with which she’d turned to her country and the world, the confidence she’d had in her right to exist and bear children. The world and mothers alike, I knew, had lost a little freshness.

(Secondhand, a gift from my wish list a couple of years ago)


Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff (2009)

What a clever decision to open with “Lucky Chow Fun,” a story set in Templeton, the location of Groff’s debut novel – it forms a thread of continuity between her first book and her second. Elizabeth, the only girl on the varsity swim team, comes to a number of realizations about her family and her community, including that the title Chinese restaurant is a front for a brothel that exploits trafficked women. The story becomes a wider parable about appearances and suspicion. “In these dark days, there is so much distrust in this town. … You never know quite what to think about people”. And what a brilliant last line: “I like to think it’s a happy ending, though it is the middle that haunts me.”

“L. DeBard and Aliette” recasts in the notorious Héloïse and Abelard romance an Olympic swimmer and a schoolgirl in Spanish flu-plagued New York City. The other seven stories alternate between historical fiction and contemporary, the USA and abroad, first person and third person, speech marks or none. Desire and boundaries, accomplishment and escape, fear and risk are contradictory pulls. While the details have faded for me, I remember that, while I was reading them, each of these stories enveloped me in a particular world – 30 pages seems like the ideal length here to fully explore a set of characters and a situation. If I had to choose a favourite, it would be “Blythe,” about a woman who feels responsible for her alcoholic best friend. (From my birthday book haul last year)


Birds of America by Lorrie Moore (1998)

Life: what an absurd little story it always made.

I’d read a few of Moore’s works before (A Gate at the Stairs, Bark, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?) and not grasped what the fuss is about; turns out I’d just chosen the wrong ones to read. This collection is every bit as good as everyone has been saying for the last 25 years. Amy Bloom, Carol Shields and Helen Simpson are a few other authors who struck me as having a similar tone and themes. Rich with psychological understanding of her characters – many of them women passing from youth to midlife, contemplating or being affected by adultery – and their relationships, the stories are sometimes wry and sometimes wrenching (that setup to “Terrific Mother”!). There were even two dysfunctional-family-at-the-holidays ones (“Charades” and “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens”) for me to read in December.

I’ll single out four of the 12 as favourites, though, really, any or all would be worthy of anthologizing in a volume epitomizing the art of the short story. “Which Is More than I Can Say about Some People” has a mother and daughter learning new things about each other on a vacation to Ireland. “What You Want to Do Fine,” another road trip narrative, stars an unlikely gay couple, one half of which is the flamboyant (and blind) Quilty. “People Like That Are the Only People Here” is so vivid on the plight of parents with a child in the paediatric oncology ward that I feel I should check whether Moore lived through that too. And the best of the best: “Real Estate” (not least because she dared to print two full pages of laughter: “Ha!”), which turns gently surreal as Ruth and her philandering husband move into a house that turns out to be a wreck, infested by both animal and human pests.

Moore is as great at the sentence level as she is at overarching plots. Here are a few out-of-context lines I saved to go back to:

She was starting to have two speeds: Coma and Hysteria.

In general, people were not road maps. People were not hieroglyphs or books. They were not stories. A person was a collection of accidents. A person was an infinite pile of rocks with things growing underneath.

Never a temple, her body had gone from being a home, to being a house, to being a phone booth, to being a kite. Nothing about it gave her proper shelter.

(From Oxfam Books, Hexham – a stop on our Northumberland trip last year)


Two of these writers are best known for their short stories; the third (Groff), to my mind, should be. Unusual for me to fall so wholeheartedly for short stories – these all earned my rarest rating:

18 responses

  1. Delicate Edible Birds is an inspired title. It invites curiosity. But from your reviews, I’m definitely going to look for any or all of these collections. Our library isn’t great on short story collections, so I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled elsewhere. By the way and apropos, I think maybe you haven’t seen that I posted for Love your Library – not surprising as it was at the wrong time in the month:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The title story does indeed refer to ortolans being eaten (in the 1940s).

      No, I’m sorry I missed that, but I’ll be sure link to it in this month’s post. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That makes the title even more intriguing. And … thanks.


  2. I tried Delicate Edible Birds more than ten years ago now and couldn’t get through it; I’d like to return to it. Birds of America has been on my TBR for years; I liked A Gate At The Stairs and Frog Hospital a lot, but I know Moore is known for her short stories! The Bergman as a whole doesn’t grab me from your precis but I do like the sound of the story about climate/motherhood, unsurprisingly!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think you like reading about animals, so you’d probably be less engaged with the Bergman, though I do recommend finding the one story.

      I hope you’d like the Groff if you tried it again. Arcadia is the one of hers I read longest ago and should reread to try to appreciate.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember really enjoying Frog Hospital (though I barely remember it) and the quotes you pulled from Birds of America sound brilliant!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She’s one of those writers’ writers, isn’t she?


  4. Birds of America is a brilliant collection. I believe that story is based on some of her own experiences as a parent with a child in the NICU because she absolutely, painfully nails it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I suspected as much. It was a powerful story. And I was reading it at the same time as Rob Delaney’s A Heart that Works, which is also about having a child on the ped-onc ward.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, I’ve been hearing about that one. That would be a heavy combo!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It helps that Delaney is a comedian.


  5. I didn’t know that Groff wrote short stories! I loved Birds of America, Moore’s stories are always so sharp and insightful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Her 2018 collection Florida was my favourite fiction release of that year.


  6. I’ve read Moore’s collection long ago and remember liking it. The other two are on my TBR. I’m fans of theirs! Florida was so so good.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Birds of America was the first Moore I read and was very struck by it. Not so much by A Gate at the Stairs, but I’ll always make time for a Moore story. I can see I should try Groff’s stories too.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Well, that’s interesting. I was also wondering what the heck was the deal with Lorrie Moore. Maybe I’ll try this. The Lauren Groff sounds interesting, too. I usually like her.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Well, now I want to read all of these. I think the lesson here is that we should read short story collections with birds in the title! (I wonder how that would go… I think you should pursue it!) 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  10. […] September – I seem to need that alliterative crutch to get to a dozen or so of them – but my “Birds” trio and these three were so great that I had to wonder why I don’t read them all year […]


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