Delicate Edible Birds. By Lauren Groff. Short Fiction Collection
Wow. I really don’t even know how to begin. I’m always complaining that my biggest problem with short story collections, which I read frequently, is that when viewed as a whole, they tend to be uneven. In other words, some stories are amazing and others are just “eh”. Recently I read a collection by Katherine Shonk titled Red Passport and was surprised because it was the most well balanced collection I had read in years, unfortunately, though I enjoyed the collection, I was ultimately really let down by the way she chose to end each of the pieces, thus keeping it from being the fulfilling experience I had hoped for. So the world must have heard my whining and complaining because it sent me Lauren Groff’s wonderful and delicious Delicate Edible Birds. In fairness, the world sent me Groff’s book through a fantastic new blog called Andrew’s Book Club (so thank you Andrew!).
I don’t think I’ve read a collection this spectacular since, well quite frankly I’m not sure I ever have. It is certainly the best contemporary collection I’ve read in recent memory. I’m not sure it can beat out one of my long time favorites, Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger, but I’m also not sure it’s fair to compare the two. Contemporary short fiction is very different I think than reading classic collections by authors like Salinger and Hemingway. Mind you I’m not making a judgement that contemporary short fiction is better or worse – just different. In the past I’ve had trouble comparing them (apparently I still do). Regardless, I can’t think of a real flaw in Groff’s entire collection. Every single story was moving, engaging, emotionally resonant, and beautifully crafted. She had interesting ideas that hooked me from the first lines, and finely crafted characters and even her simplier tales moved me, twice to tears and once (in the title piece Delicate Edible Birds) to an impotent rage that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before in reading a short story. Amazing.
Every single story delivered. The one story that I would select as my least favorite (Fugue) was still a fine story, but I did find it a bit confusing with many female characters/names, and a deliberately confusing storyline that involved amnesia and multiple location shifts. It had the least emotional resonance for me, and delivered the least in the end for me of all the pieces. I’d list my other favorites, but that’s probably all the rest of them, ah hell, I’ll list them anyway:
Lucky Chow Fun begins so simply, but has an incredibly powerful undertow running throughout it, constantly threatening to drag you under. This story threatens terrible things, but refreshingly, only delivers some of them, which is accurate I think to how life really works and serves to make the story that much more powerful.
L. Debard and Aliette is a haunting and lovely tale about true love and Romeo & Juliet level ‘missed connection’. This one though beautiful and full of wonderful moments, has a terrible bite to it that shocked me in its intensity.
Majorette is a brutally honest and desperate little gem about a family that begins and ends in ways I never expected.
Blythe is a sharp and cutting tale about art and women and the human perspective that I found wonderfully enjoyable.
The Wife of the Dictator is an exposing tale of politics and gossip, told in the third person omniscent “we” that I have only experienced once before (in Joshua Ferris‘ Then We Came To The End) and which I thought he handled well, but that few others could manage without sounding like pretentious jerks. Suffice to say there is not a pretentious jerk to be seen in Groff’s story, and in fact, it is somehow the perfect perspective for a group of gossipy women stuck on the outside of a situation, bored and judging. It works exceptionally well.
Watershed in the hands of a lesser writer could be cliche and overwrought but is instead beautiful and desperate and horribly horribly sad and real, poignant in a way most writers aim for and miss by a mile (me included). Watershed moved me to frequent tears. No small feat.
Sir Fleeting wonderfully charts the life of a woman and her life long flirtation with a dashing man that never really manifests in the ways she expects. This story was fascinating in its ability to turn expectation (both the character’s and the reader’s) on its ear. Really solid stuff.
And Delicate Edible Birds. I suppose of all of those that I loved, Watershed and L. Debard and Aliette stayed with me the most – until I read the last piece, the title piece, Delicate Edible Birds, which truly moved me in a way I have never before been moved in a short work. Birds, written in third person seemlessly tells the story of five reporters in France during World War II, the transitions were so smooth and the characters so well drawn that it almost felt like five different first person tales…I had to go back while writing this actually to confirm that it IS in fact written in third. It is. Brilliant. And this story, which kept me rapt with every turning page, left me naked and angry and helpless in its last sentences. Which is not a bad thing…in fact it’s like some kind of storytelling miracle. If it wasn’t so perfect as is I would have begged for more.
Groff has a novel out there as well, The Monsters of Templeton, which I’ve added to my list of books to buy, and I suggest you run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore for both of these as well. 5.0 Stars (out of 5).
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