Friday, March 29, 2013

Flocks of good words

Book: Delicate Edible Birds and Other Stories
Author: Lauren Groff
Published: 2009 (Hyperion)
Pages: 304

You guys, I’ve been burying myself in short stories because they’re awesome and I’m also trying to write good ones myself. This collection was a good place to dive in, because it has a story about a famous swimmer who coaches an invalid girl during the WWI flu epidemic and they mess around and fall in love and get separated from each other and their love child and then the swim coach becomes a famous poet and the girl becomes a famous lady-swimmer and they keep running into each other’s achievements without ever meeting in person again.

Groff tends to tell the entire lives of her characters, from where they are at the start of their stories to the ends of their lives whether or not that end puts a relevant end to the incident at hand. That works better in some narratives than others:

  • “L. DeBard and Aliette” (the swimmer story), “Sir Fleeting,” and “Blythe” are all about the protagonists meeting and getting tangled up with another person for life and exploring that tangle with a wide-tooth comb. I especially liked how “Blythe” showed the day-to-day drain of how always being there for a melodramatic friend only ever made that friend worse, and how even though it’s after decades of this, the protagonist can still decide she doesn’t have time for this shit anymore. Only classier. I think there was a cocktail party involved in this realization.
  • But like in “Majorette” and “Lucky Chow Fun,” both about scandalous community shake-ups that happen in the protagonists’ high school years and reshaped their towns forever, the ending goes on too long after the actual event has affected everyone.
  • “The Wife of the Dictator” was a collective-first person story about the rise and fall of a dictator’s regime as told through gossip about the dictator’s wife, and “Delicate Edible Birds” was about a group of WWII reporters trying to out-drive Nazis who ended up staying the night in a Nazi-sympathizer’s barn with no food or shelter until their woman reporter slept with the Nazi farmer.

Those were my favorite because their opposite use of voice fit each narrative perfectly: collective gave the gossip a dreamy air so I kept wondering what was actually true until the truth started folding itself and its own wives into cars to get the hell out of the country before the dictator crashed and burned; the tight-knit anxious camaraderie between the reporters made their gang-up on the woman reporter all the more devastating a betrayal when they put their pressure on her. 

Good stuff; goes back to the library by the 26th, but two upcoming teasers: Ann Patchett says read more short stories (yes, ma’am!), and Groff’s novel was less than $4 at Books-a-Million today when an overeager clerk gave me excellent excuse to saunter to the opposite end of the store when he was snagged by another customer. (Hello, bargain books, my old friends. I shall use some real money on you this time!) Stay tuned, dear Reader.

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