Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

You guys, I really wanted this post to just be a list of quotes from this book, because there are so many good lines. How does Lorrie Moore do it?

birds1   birds2   birds3

Some covers. I own the one on the left.

I guess I’ll try to be insightful instead, although I find that I have a hard time articulating what it is I love so much about Moore’s writing. The best way I can describe it is to say that more often than most, her sentences give me that sharp, gut-punch feeling of instant recognition. You know, that moment of wonder when a book seems to be actually, and secretly, about your life, and everyone forgot to tell you. That feeling is what I read for.

All that aside, I did have a hard time getting into this book. Birds of America (1998) is a collection of short stories, a medium that Moore has perfected but also one that I have trouble with. I like very long, plot-driven novels, a preference which I suppose explains my MA in Victorian fiction but makes me not very hip. I always want more at the end of a short story—it seems like I’ve just gotten settled into the thing and then it’s over and I never see the characters again. I kind of hate that.

But Moore is such a good writer that I’m willing to suffer that disappointment. I’ve read two of her novels, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (perfect) and A Gate at the Stairs (not perfect but very good), as well as her newest collection of stories, Bark (dark and wonderful). She’s one of the only writers I can name who seems equally at home writing short stories and novels. (Who else? Margaret Atwood… ? I don’t read a lot of short stories.) But for some reason, the first story in this collection, about an actress who takes a break from Hollywood to move back to Chicago and takes up with a man who doesn’t watch movies, didn’t grab me.

Instead, I’d call this collection a slow build. The last two stories, “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” and “Terrific Mother,” were my favourites. The former is about a mother who discovers that her baby has cancer. Moore’s depiction of a paediatric oncology ward is incredible: realistic (I assume) and detailed with just enough absurdity and sarcasm to cut the bleakness. Equal parts darkly funny and devastatingly sad, the story follows the mother, father, and baby (never given names, although the other characters are) through their time in the ward. “Terrific Mother” is about a woman who is accidentally responsible for the death of a neighbour’s child. After spending a few months locked in her apartment, she marries and travels to Italy with her new husband, where she experiences something transformative in an unlikely place. As Michiko Kakutani points out in her review of this book, these plots seem like they could have come from a Lifetime movie—and yet Moore’s precise writing, sharp humour, and keen sense of the absurd transcend sentimentality.

One of Moore’s many talents is for oddities, those strange or unexpected details that make characters seem more real and also more memorable. Take, for example, the story “Charades,” about a family Christmas gathering. During a game of charades, a brother and sister have a fight about whether or not anyone else has heard of the song “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” It’s such a ridiculously specific argument that it feels exactly like how a brother and sister would interact. After all, the moments we share with those closest to us often seem inexplicable to outsiders. Moore’s ability to create such moments, and in a way that is universal, is rare and wonderful.

Like the birds of the title, we are all rare birds, aren’t we? (Aside: I assume the title was inspired by Audubon’s The Birds of America). Or so we like to believe. Moore knows this, and admires this about each of her characters, even as she skewers their self-importance, their insistence on their own individuality.

I bought this book after my first semester of graduate school, in the University of Victoria campus bookstore. I was mistakenly convinced that I was about to spend my entire Christmas vacation reading for fun, so I took this book back to Toronto with me. Instead, I’m pretty sure I watched a lot of Christmas movies and ate chocolate. Then I took it back to Victoria—then I lugged it home again when I left B.C. and it moved with me, still unread, into a new apartment last summer. It’s funny, the things you’re willing to take with you when you travel long distances. What do your possessions say about you? What kind of rare bird do you think you are?

And now, for fun, some of the best lines in the book:

“He bought her a large garnet ring, a cough drop set in brass.” (from “Community Life”)

“In general, people were not road maps. People were not hieroglyphs or books. They were not stories. A person was a collection of accidents. A person was an infinite pile of rocks with things growing underneath.” (from “What You Want to Do Fine”)

[a character reflecting on a movie she’s just seen, about a woman who falls in love with an alien disguised as a man] “To Ruth, it seemed so sad and true, just like life: someone assumed the form of the great love of your life, only to reveal himself later as an alien who had to get on a spaceship and go back to his planet.” (from “Real Estate”)

“When Olena was a little girl, she had called them lie-berries—a fibbing fruit, a story store—and now she had a job in one.” (from “Community Life”)

“She remembered it had made any given day seem bearable, that impulse toward a joke. It had been a determined sort of humour, an intensity mirroring the intensity of the city, and it seemed to embrace and alleviate the hard sadness of people having used one another and marred the earth the way they had.” (from “Agnes of Iowa”)

I’ve got three books by Dickens on my list so I’d better get started on him. Next up: A Tale of Two Cities.

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