BIRDS OF A LESSER PARADISE

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.

 

Pub Date: March 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4516-4335-0

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Dec. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2012

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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