Tuesday, May 22, 2012

read: birds in america

At some point, I began to ask myself what I wanted to accomplish through writing.  And I decided that if others read what I wrote, I wanted to communicate redemption — the hope that even of trials, suffering, loss and mistakes, some kind of good could come. Naturally I can be rather melancholy, and I sometimes tend towards sad movies and stories (some of my friends label them depressing, but I call them realistic). All this to say that I’ve made a concerted effort to look for stories that show this kind of hope to observe how it’s done, and of course, to cultivate hope in myself. 

Still, I didn’t expect Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America to surprise me with so much hope. Some of these short stories seem depressing at the outset because each of her characters are dealing with such heavy issues, and they’re so weighed down. There’s Mack, a trying-to-be recovering alcoholic whose wife left him and took their five year old son along. Oh, and for a living he’s a house painter, and a crappy one at that. Olena is a first-generation Eastern-European-American learning to survive as an adult after the death of her parents. She misses them, and who she was with them, terribly. And Adrienne (my personal favorite) accepts the practical marriage proposal of her boyfriend when, at age 35, still unwed and skittish around babies, she falls off a picnic bench while holding her friend’s child, killing the young boy. These people have issues.

Where the hope comes in is that these characters all surprise you with their humor, their grace, their ability to remember and wish and desire, and in the midst of all the heartache, to choose. There are some really lovely themes of birth and rebirth (and what is choosing but a chance to birth something new?) woven through these stories, in particular with the parent-child relationship showing up in each story. There’s a section of dialogue in one of my favorite stories, called People Like That Are the Only People Here, where the mother of a baby with cancer is bargaining for a different way for her child (she’ll take a sixteen-year-old in a car crash — “Sixteen is a full life!”). The make-believe manager of Marshall Field’s (this is a different kind of “bargain shopping” that a mother does in her grief) responds with insight that uncovers the theme of the story and, in my opinion, of this collection of stories:
What makes humans human is precisely that they do not know the future. That is why they do the fateful and amusing things they do: who can say how anything will turn out? Therein lies the only hope for redemption, discovery, and — let’s be frank — fun, fun, fun! There will be things people will get away with. And not just motel towels. There might be great illicit loves, enduring joy, faith-shaking accidents with farm machinery. But you have to not know in order to see what stories your life’s efforts bring you. The mystery is all.
I also wanted to share my very favorite passage of redemption from this collection. It’s in Adrienne’s story, called Terrific Mother. After causing death, she is learning to live with herself again. This is a peak into her experience:
A shadow fell across her, inside her, and she could feel herself retreat to that place in her bones where death was and you greeted it like an acquaintance in a room; you said hello and were then ready for whatever was next — which might be a guide, the guide that might be sent to you, the guide to lead you back out into your life again.
Now, a quick list of what I loved about Moore’s writing:
  • Like I said in my previous post, she uses language in unique ways, with fresh metaphors and word pictures.
  • She helped a reader out. Her symbolism wasn’t buried ten layers deep. She served it up, and in a way that a reader with an appetite would readily reach out to serve themselves to more.
  • Her characters are real, vivid, likeable and struggling. And she touched on universal desires, hurts and loves. I am so different from many of the characters, and yet I related to each one of them.
I could write more, but I think I gave you enough. I hope you’ll choose to read these stories!

P.S. I forgot to mention that this book was a used book find! I spotted it at a publisher's clearing house type store and snagged it for 25 cents.

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