Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Birds of a Lesser Paradise

Birds of a Lesser Paradise

3.2 5
by Megan Mayhew Bergman

See All Formats & Editions

Exploring the way our choices and relationships are shaped by the menace and beauty of the natural world, Megan Mayhew Bergman’s powerful and heartwarming collection captures 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.


Exploring the way our choices and relationships are shaped by the menace and beauty of the natural world, Megan Mayhew Bergman’s powerful and heartwarming collection captures 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. This extraordinary collection introduces a young writer of remarkable talent.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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.)
From the Publisher
Birds of a Lesser Paradise is an astonishing debut collection, by a writer reminiscent of such greats as Alice Munro, Elizabeth Strout and even Chekhov. Expertly delivered, Bergman's stories bloom from the minutiae of life. They confirm the inescapable power that nature—and our own biology—has over us.”
– Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants

“Megan Mayhew Bergman apparently possesses, all in one sensibility, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s love of a back-to-the-land self-sufficiency, Amy Hempel’s infinite tenderness towards animals, and Tillie Olsen’s fierce sense of the emotional intensities of motherhood. Birds of a Lesser Paradise features characters who, even understanding it as well as they do, want to mother the world, and their stories are rendered with dazzling compassion, intelligence, and grace.”
– Jim Shepard, author of You Think That’s Bad

“A big-hearted collection of stories—each one a precise and compassionate study of human life, the changes and obstacles—all carefully housed under the miracles and marvels of nature. Megan Mayhew Bergman is a brilliantly gifted writer who recognizes and highlights life's fragilities in a way that will leave your heart aching while also finding those bits of hilarity and absurdity that bring uniqueness to each and every creature.”
– Jill McCorkle, author of Going Away Shoes

“I predict that astronomers will soon be renaming the star Sirius to Megan Mayhew Bergman. Birds of a Lesser Paradise offers us a spectacular new voice in the world of American short fiction. The characters in these stories—each one—perform as beacons on who we are and how we should act, all without pretense or exhortation. This is a first-rate collection.”
—George Singleton, author of The Half-Mammals of Dixie

"Bergman's excellent stories are hard-earned and well-honed. Her characters speak as if their very lives depend upon getting it right, getting it down, facing the toughest stuff that tumbles down with equal toughness and enduring resilience. A very fine and impressive debut."
Brad Watson, author of Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives

"Readers will be shocked, amazed, and always entertained by the work of this accomplished writer of short fiction." —Booklist

"A top-notch debut... that deserves big praise. The beginning, one suspects, of a fine career." —Kirkus

Library Journal
With this debut story collection, Bergman establishes herself as a writer with a clear, striking narrative voice and a distinctive view of the world and its animal inhabitants, including our human selves. The story "Housewifely Arts" features a parrot sought by the daughter of its deceased owner as a way to remember the timbre of her mother's voice. Another story involves a woman who works in an animal shelter and refuses to give up any of the animals she keeps at home—three golden retrievers with assorted missing parts and other infirmities, one declawed raccoon, a one-eyed chinchilla, a cormorant, and several feral cats—for the sake of a long-term relationship with a rather nice man who also hunts geese with a bow and arrow. The deals we make with the world around us and with the assorted others who inhabit it, and the solace we find in our fellow creatures, are the larger concerns of these memorable stories. VERDICT This is an immensely appealing collection with a rare clarity and cohesion and the capacity to appeal to a wide-ranging audience, including readers who may generally eschew the genre.—Sue Russell, Bryn Mawr, PA
Kirkus Reviews
From a young Southern writer of note, a top-notch debut collection of stories, most of them revolving around motherhood, animals and conflicting loyalties. Stories from Bergman's collection have appeared in Best American Short Stories and New Stories from the South, as well as in major literary magazines, and it's easy to see why. In the luminous opener, "Housewifely Arts," a single mom drives her 7-year-old son nine hours south to a roadside zoo near Myrtle Beach in hopes of hearing one last time her mother's voice...or rather the perfect mimicry of that voice by the 36-year-old African gray parrot who had to be given away in the mother's dotage. In "The Cow That Milked Herself," a young mother-to-be gets an ultrasound in the office of her husband, a loving but distracted and harried veterinarian. "Yesterday's Whales" dramatizes a woman's ambivalence—or perhaps better to say that she grapples with her surprising lack of ambivalence—when she discovers that she is pregnant by her boyfriend, a fellow population-control activist and the leader of an anti-reproduction collective called Enough With Us that fulminates against unthinking, selfish "breeders." In "Every Vein a Tooth," a woman who shelters refugee animals (feral cats, a one-eyed chinchilla, three injured and ancient golden retrievers, a declawed raccoon) watches helplessly as her boyfriend, a hunter and outdoorsman, drifts away. His parting words come when she agrees to take into her home the ravenous, foul-smelling sheep of an urban shepherd: "You are looking for things to put between us." The woman's response is typical of the tender, smart, hard-nosed heroines of Bergman's tales: "Maybe it was true." But recognizing that doesn't change either her conviction or her decision—pained, hard-won, but hers—to carry on as she always has, no matter the human consequences. 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.
Polly Rosenwaike
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.
—The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.44(h) x 0.92(d)

Read an Excerpt

Birds of a Lesser Paradise

I fell for Smith the day my father hit his first hole-in-one on his homemade golf course. Dad had spent years shaping the earth in our backyard until he had two holes that landed somewhere

between an extravagant minigolf spread and a Jack Nicklaus par-72.

Mae! my father yelled, hoisting his nine-iron into the air. I did it!

He was a couple hundred yards away, and because I didn’t think my voice would carry, I jumped up and down a few times and clapped my hands, trying to appear visibly thrilled. But I was self-conscious with Smith standing behind me, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his army-green cargo pants, an anxious scowl on his almost beautiful face.

Dad sauntered off to pluck the winning ball from the hole, long, white beard trailing in the wind, his spaniel, Betsy, two steps behind. It was hardly fifty degrees out, but Dad was wearing shorts and hiking boots. He was nearing seventy, but he had the bulging calf muscles of a man half his age.

I want to see birds no one else has seen, Smith was saying. I printed out the checklist for North Carolina. How soon can we mark these off?

Slow down, I said, smiling.

I don’t know if I can tell a common goldeneye from a loon, he said. Is that important?

He followed me to our picnic table, which was soft from rot and green with moss.

Smith stuck his fingers into his bramble-thick hair, hair the color of sea grass. It seemed inclined to one side, like a plant reaching for the sun. He wore a paint-flecked T-shirt covered in a school of dolphin fish.

First, I said, let me tell you what we can see here in the Great Dismal Swamp.

I opened our brochure, pushed it toward him like a menu. We had a chunk of land outside of town that had been in my father’s family for two generations. We lived in his ancestral home and ran Pocosin Birds, our bird-watching business, from the property.

In April, I began, birders can expect to sight fifty to one hundred bird species in the swamp.

Are you reading backward? Smith asked.

I have it memorized, I said.

I studied his face. His left eye was deep brown, his right hazel. For a moment, I wondered if he had a glass eye.

Eyes like David Bowie, I said, nodding my head in approval.

Are you going to take me into the swamp? he asked. He smiled. He was lean and dark from the sun. I couldn’t tell if he was twenty-five or just short of forty, impoverished or on the receiving end of a trust fund. When he smiled, he looked like too much fun to be thirty, as if he wasn’t tired of the world yet.

Typically, I said, we help our clients assemble the correct gear and map a course. We drop you off at daybreak.

I took a red pen from my pocket and circled an area near Lake Drummond.

The best nesting sites for warblers are here, I said. What do you know about songbirds?

I want to go in with you, he said.

Dad was born on the outskirts of the swamp at a time when it was desolate, hard, and flecked with ramshackle hunting cabins. His father had been into timber, and Dad was raised wild—the kind of man who could pick up a snake by its neck with the confidence I’d exhibit picking up a rubber version in a toy store. He was sentimental about his family home and the town. Anything he was used to having around he wanted to keep around. So when the town got too small to sustain a post office, he converted the blue mail drops into composting hubs in the back corner of our lot. He bought the abandoned elementary school at auction for almost nothing—no one wanted to pay the taxes on it, and looters had already taken the copper pipes and pedestal sinks. He rented it out for birthday parties, weddings, and to local artists for studio space. When a developer leveled the city park, Dad reassembled the jungle gym in our side yard near the garden and let the scuppernong vines go wild.

We lived in a dying town with a dwindling tax base. I never thought I’d come back, but the swamp was in me; if Dad was half feral, I was one-quarter. I liked the way the water tasted, the sound of birds outside my window in the morning. A few years in Raleigh studying conservation biology at the state university and I needed to find a place where I could look out my window and see nothing man-made. I missed the smell of things rotting, the sun bearing down on a wet log.

Nothing in the city seemed real to me—it was fabricated, plastic, artificial, fast. After years of biology classes, every come-on was a mating call, every bar conversation a display—a complicated modern spin on ancient rules. I didn’t believe in altruistic acts—I could find a selfish root to anything. Eventually I felt as if I was looking out at the busy world and I could see nothing but its ugly bones.

I was taught that at the heart of all people, all things, lay raw self-interest. Sure, you could dress a person up nice, put pretty words in his mouth, but underneath the silk tie and pressed shirt was an animal. A territorial, hungry animal anxious to satisfy his own needs.

At least in the swamp, there was no make-believe chivalry, no playing nice. It was eat or be eaten out there, life at its purest, and it’s where I wanted to be.

Another thing—I loved my dad. I’d never known my mother—she’d died just after giving birth to me—so he was all I’d ever had. He was honest, fun, and unapologetically himself.

I’m not asking you to come home, my dad said, when I approached him with the idea. You won’t find a husband here, he added.

I don’t want one, I’d said—and for a while, that had been the truth. Perhaps it was all the years I’d watched my father carve out a happy life alone.

Your old room is packed solid, he’d said. I disassembled a tobacco barn. Numbered the slats. You can’t move in ’til I sell it.

I’ll take the room over the garage, I said. I have some money to fix it up—I’ll put in a shower.

Aside from serving in Korea and a short stint living on a houseboat in his twenties, Dad had remained hidden from the world in the swamp, inhabiting the same house, trapping the same illegal lines, fishing the same shallow waters.

We didn’t watch the market or follow politics. That was part of the appeal, for me anyway. For centuries people had used the swamp to hide from their problems. Runaway slaves, ruthless fugitives, shell-shocked soldiers, and cheating wives—all had hidden in the swamp at one time.

When I moved from the city to the swamp, the things I could not have became special again. Cappuccino was special. Driving forty minutes to eat second-rate Indian food was special. Planning a day around the “good” grocery store—special.

You got about half fancy living out of town, Dad told me.

I was a thirty-six-year-old single woman living in a poor man’s theme park, running birding trips into the swamp. Most of my binocular-laden clients were pushing sixty and just as concerned with sunscreen and hydration as they were with spotting a pileated woodpecker. I drove them into the swamp in Dad’s pickup, left them with a map, a bagged lunch, water, a GPS device, and a phone, and picked them up at twilight in a place that seemed less wild every day.

For the most part, I was happy.

Meet the Author

Megan Mayhew Bergman grew up in North Carolina and attended Wake Forest University. She has graduate degrees from Duke University and Bennington College. Her stories have appeared in numerous journals including Ploughshares, Oxford American, One Story, and Narrative. She lives in Shaftsbury, Vermont, with her veterinarian husband, two daughters, and several animals.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Birds of a Lesser Paradise: Stories 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
books4gail More than 1 year ago
I loved this. First caught up by the quirkiness of the first story and then touched and surprised by the stories of women in varied circumstances all intertwined with animals of some sort. A real treat and it's a beautiful volume.
PierresFamily More than 1 year ago
As I began reading this book, I found myself being put off by the continuing use of the book to promote the author's very obvious political beliefs. I happen to share most of them, but I think  a book shouldn't be used as a bully pulpi. I imagine that with maturity, will come less of a heavy hand, politically. Having said that, I plodded on, because of my lve for animals. And in facat, what ultimately redeems this book is the author's  compassion and advocacy for animals. She gives you the "inside skinny" on the situations of many animals.  If you are about our fellow creatures, this books is worth it. Don't give up on it; hang in there, and you will be glad you did!
Bogette More than 1 year ago
Megan Mayhew Bergman writes these stories with emotion and charm. Each story has its own feeling and the characters become all too real. I love the way Megan mingles the characters with different animals and how each animal has their own significance to the story. A must read for any short story lover and animal lover.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read the first story and thought it was depressing, read the second story and thought it was just dumb. I thought these were stories where animals played the starring role. The animals are more accessories, and the people are pathetic.