Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Book Review: Birds of America

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Birds of America
        
Author: Lorrie Moore

Author's Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/LorrieMooreAuthor
        
Date: 1998
        
Publisher: Picador / St Martin’s Press
        
ISBN: 0-312-24122-4
        
Length: 291 pages
        
Quote: “She let her life get dull—dull, but with Hostess cakes.”
        
Oops...how obscure was that cultural reference? Some online readers may live in countries that don't have Hostess cupcakes, or even analogous products: cheap amalgams of lard, sugar, flour, mostly artificial flavorings, and chemical additives, frequently sold in gas stations. If not the quintessential example of “empty calories,” they’re among the top contenders.
        
A substantial proportion of the clever observations in this book rely on U.S. cultural references like this one. To figure out what happened to the woman whose life got dull, but with Hostess cakes, readers must also recognize: Scorsese, Brando, juice bars, Mother Courage, Vantage (cigarettes), Days Inn, Disney, St Jude’s Medical, Ecstasy (the illegal drug), seashore-and-self-esteem tapes, monosodium glutamate, hillbillies, ponchos, nougat, Styrofoam, paisley, Django Reinhardt, tapas bars, “vita” (curriculum vitae), and Patti Lupone.
        
What’s not well represented in this book: birds. There are occasional references to flipping someone the bird, eating duck, someone circling like a bird before walking out of the room, but these are not stories about birds, or even bird watchers, which were what I personally was hoping for. Bird watchers are a group of people I find interesting. The characters in these twelve stories are not people I find particularly interesting.
        
A disproportionate percentage of major characters in these stories are homosexual. Once upon a time, long ago, this would have been daring, reflecting either substantial research or a vivid imagination. (Back then I wrote minor, sympathetic, reality-based homosexual characters and wondered whether I'd be daring enough to leave them in when I was old enough to write fiction.) Now it comes across as bourgeois, even venal: to get a second-rate book promoted, throw in a piece of the homosexual lobby’s propaganda, and certain people will instantly pronounce your book daring and brilliant and important and, most ironic of all, original, however good or bad it may be.
        
Very little fiction is or has ever been original. Very few short stories appeal to me. Fiction about people who, mostly, blunder in and out of each other’s beds, practically never appeals to me. I down-rated a collection by Margaret Atwood for this quality, a few years ago; I'm down-rating Birds of America for the same quality now. Some people think reading about the sexual behavior of strangers or fictional characters is enlightening. I think it would be more enlightening to read about the nonsexual behavior of these characters. Well...when they're not having sex, they are consuming contemporary U.S. pop culture...and at least characters who express their authors' philosophical views in bed are more fun to read about than characters who express their authors' philosophical views by dying, or committing murder, or losing their minds.
        
So how was it possible for me to read these stories, given that I seldom like short stories, don’t care about these characters, and don’t agree with the main political statement made in this book? It was possible because Moore does have wit and talent. U.S. cultural references work for me; I think “dull, but with Hostess cakes” may be an inside joke but it’s a clever one.

If you like clever insights into U.S. pop culture and plots that are mostly about pop-culture consumers in bed, you will love Birds of America. If you would have preferred a collection of more stories like Sarah Orne Jewett's "White Heron," you'll find Birds of America disappointing, but you may still chortle while reading it--once.

Anyway, although I've sold the physical copy about which this review was written, Birds of America is a Fair Trade Book. Send $5 for the book + $5 for shipping to salolianigodagewi @ yahoo.com, and out of this we will send Lorrie Moore or her charity $1.