April 5, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Megan Mayhew Bergman's Birds of a Lesser Paradise is a stellar debut, a collection of stories notable for the empathetic portrayals of its characters (both human and animal) as well as the resiliency of the women protrayed.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote of the book:
"Bergman's stores are well-crafted, unpretentious, and filled with memorable, empathetic characters who reveal their pain, anguish and emotional upheavals in bracing situations, but conclude, mostly -- although it's not always pretty -- with survival: 'There are no perfect rescues. You go down with your own ship.'"
Epigraph: "Oscar Wilde" by Company of Thieves
The epigraph for Birds of a Lesser Paradise is a sentence plucked from Darwin: "We will now discuss in more detail the struggle for survival." So much a part of that struggle, I think, is our "self" – that chatty apparatus inside of us, that higher consciousness that humans tend to be so proud of, the trait that sets us apart from other animals. I love the way Company of Thieves repurposes Oscar Wilde's related witticism: "We are all our own devil, and we make this world our hell."
"Housewifely Arts": "My Doorbell" by the White Stripes
In "Housewifely Arts", a woman is so eager to remember her dead mother that she breaks into her abandoned childhood home. I like the tension and anticipation in "My Doorbell"—e.g. when you gonna ring it, when you gonna ring it? My protagonist is on a quest to hear her mother's voice, and there's a certain energy leading her to this old house, and I feel that inevitability in the Stripes' song. (Plus, I always like thinking about how Jack White was an upholsterer before becoming an acclaimed musician. I know a lot of writers who feel that past lives can make for richer art and stronger work ethic.)
"The Cow That Milked Herself": "Wagon Wheel" by Old Crow Medicine Show
"The Cow That Milked Herself" is the first story I wrote for the collection, and also the first story I wrote where I knew I'd found my voice. The story is the most personal of the collection; I wrote it when I was pregnant with my first daughter—it is, for good or bad, full of motherhood anxiety.
We were living in Raleigh at the time I was writing this story, near my family—I had more or less lived in North Carolina for the last thirty years. I knew we were about to put our house on the market and move to Vermont, away from everything I understood.
The song speaks of "running from the cold up in New England" and trying to get home to a girl in Raleigh, "the land of the pines." Some of my last clear memories of North Carolina are looking through my office window at the pines while working on this story.
"Birds of a Lesser Paradise": "Bernadette" by the Four Tops
In the title story of my collection, my protagonist has moved to the North Carolina swamp she was raised in to be near her aging father. She thinks about how the men in the songs she grew up hearing are now dead, or unable to love women in the way they sang about. She wishes for a man to feel the same way Levi Stubbs felt when he sang about Bernadette: "You're the soul of me."
What woman doesn't want to be wanted like that?
"Saving Face": "What's Love Got to Do With It" by Tina Turner
"Saving Face" features a veterinarian-narrator whose face has been disfigured by a dog who woke up during surgery. Because she feels less beautiful, she wants to end things with her fiancé. She is looking past the sentimental and obligatory side of love, trying to find some honesty in the notion, which is what Tina sings about so wonderfully in this song. My narrator is a realist, afraid of having her heart broken. Like Tina says: "I've been thinking about my own protection; it scares me to feel this way."
A close second – "My Man's Wedding Vows" by Ike and Tina. Lord. Vintage Tina is amazing when she holds forth on love.
"Yesterday's Whales": "Everything She Wants" by Wham!
(And yes, the exclamation mark is required punctuation here, a matter of respect and accuracy. Many people know I'm a huge Wham! fan. I had two roosters named George and Ridgely.)
What happens when a population control advocate accidentally gets knocked up? My narrator and her boyfriend work through their ideas and emotions in "Yesterday's Whales." He is disappointed by the pregnancy, which calls to mind the lyrics from "Everything She Wants": "And now you tell me that you're having my baby; I'll tell you that I'm happy if you want me to." George sells his pain here; I buy it.
I wrote this story when I was pregnant with my second child. As an environmentalist, I wasn't comfortable with the knowledge that I was contributing to overpopulation. Furthermore, I questioned putting children onto what I feel is a planet in decline. This story is me working those feelings out on the page, acknowledging the way biology can override ideas.
Watch George and Andrew spin on the stage in all their 80s glamor.
"Another Story She Won't Believe": "Don't Cry" by Guns and Roses
There's a moment in this story when the narrator, who has made some poor decisions as a mother, flashes back to a time when she yelled at her pre-teen daughter, who had been listening to a GNR album on repeat: "You'll never be Stephanie Seymour, okay?" It's just the kind of short-tempered statement that could crush a young girl.
(And who doesn't want to be Stephanie Seymour during the Axl-in-his-prime era? That body! The fight scene!)
"The Urban Coop": "Fantasy" by Earth Wind and Fire
The two main characters in this story deal with a challenging time in their lives by trying to live out their dreams—an urban garden that serves the homeless, a child.
"The Right Company": "Smile" by Lily Allen
After an unfaithful husband, my narrator swears off men for a while and moves to a historic seaside town. "Smile" has this same vibe; a protagonist who gets crushed, then acts in an unpredictable fashion. Sings Allen: "I couldn't stop laughing; I just couldn't help myself. See you messed up my mental health; I was quite unwell."
"Night Hunting": "Winter" by Tori Amos
There is, if I'm honest, some grief over my mother-in-law's death in this story, which is set in Vermont in winter.
Amos: "When you gonna make up your mind? When you gonna love you as much as I do?...Because things are going to change so fast."
So much of this collection is a mediation on the complicated love between parents and children, all of which I think Tori Amos understands and pours into her live performance of this song.
"Every Vein a Tooth": "Be Good to Me" by Sia
I always feel the sorrow in Sia's songs is deeply felt but never too serious or melodramatic. There's a line in this song—"we just do our best, and I, I just want to cry, because you'll be good to me"—and I love the way it hints at the inequity that sometimes exists in relationships, that one person is trying harder than the other, and that's the case in "Every Vein a Tooth."
"The Artificial Heart": "No Surprises" by Easy Dub Allstars
I'm a big fan of Easy Dub's Radiodread album, the rastafication of Radiohead that makes for a sort of tropical melancholy, which is a perfect match for a dystopic story set in Key West. This cover of "No Surprises" speaks of "a heart full-up like a landfill." There's a whiff of revolt and conspiracy theory, of brewing madness, in this song, and such is the spirit of the father's character in "The Artificial Heart."
"The Two-Thousand Dollar Sock": "In Your Lair, Bear" by Marissa Nadler
Marissa Nadler is the sister of my friend and fellow writer Stuart Nadler, and that's how I came to her music, which is gorgeous and haunting. In "The Two-Thousand Dollar Sock" a beloved old dog sprints after a bear which has been visiting the family apiary and terrifying a new mother. Nadler sings of "that old familiar fear" which "creeps up your little arms and runs through your veins."
I like the way this story casts out into the future with its last line, and Nadler's song is that way too, a song that you can fall into and inhabit for a while.
Megan Mayhew Bergman and Birds of a Lesser Paradise links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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