I’ve acquired a healthy appreciation for the short story lately. I’m not sure why this is, but I suspect it has something to do with the broadened literary horizons that come after pursuing an MFA in writing. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy short stories before, but I usually opted for novels instead of short stories whenever I had the chance. For me, novels were sort of like love affairs – intense, drawn-out and all-consuming – whereas a short story was more akin to a one-night stand. As such, the puritan in me often shunned the instant gratification of the short story for the toil of the novel. I’m happy to report that I’ve overcome that particular neurosis and have rejoined the flock of short story aficionados.
The other day I reread a short story collection that happens to be among my favorites. It’s called Delicate Edible Birds and it came out in 2009, on the heels of The Monsters of Templeton, the acclaimed novel by the same author, Lauren Groff. When Groff came to Louisville for a signing several years ago, I was lucky enough to meet her for coffee (she had hot chocolate, actually) and a chat about her collection. As a gentle flurry of snow came down, she told me she had had an Axton Fellowship at the University of Louisville – hence the signing in Louisville – and that she had recently moved to Florida and had her first child. When we got around to talking about writing I told her I was especially curious to hear why she found short stories so alluring.
“Short stories are like little birds,” she explained. “They’re fragile and delicate, but the strength of their structure allows them to fly. They can also be consumed, one at a time.” Her analogies made perfect sense and whenever I read a short story today, I recall her words. And when I remember her words, the title of her book always comes to mind. Delicate Edible Birds. The book features nine stories of compelling insight and variety, each delving into the psyche of twentieth-century American women. Parent-child relationships pop up and themes such as the dynamic of human relationships and the secrets that people harbor fuel the narrative.
“Lucky Chow Fun” returns to Templeton, the town fictionalized in her debut novel, where a high-school swimmer must confront the darkness that can prevail in even the most idyllic of settings, and in “The Wife of the Dictator,” the eponymous spouse, brought back from a visit to America, must come to terms with both alienation and isolation. In “Sir Fleeting,” a Wisconsin farm girl on her South American honeymoon falls for a French playboy. Whatever the setting, Groff’s little birds demonstrate some type of mastery – they swim, they twirl batons, they write poems – and they try time and again to exercise the personal freedom that will allow them to soar.
Hardly surprising, birds of the feathered variety make random appearance throughout this collection, flitting about as leitmotifs in the rafters of spooky old buildings or awaiting consumption at tables in swanky restaurants. Mostly silent, yet often inquisitive, winged creatures look on as girls and women experience change, learning and growing in the process. In the title story “Delicate Edible Birds” a band of fleeing war correspondents—one of them, a lone, high-spirited woman —falls victim to a Nazi sympathizer in the French countryside and although she is the most defenseless in the group, it falls to her to save them in the end. One of the most memorable scenes for me was the heroine’s recollection of the time she was served l’ortolan, a fattened songbird that is drowned in Armagnac before roasting. Delicate and edible, these birds are the basis for one of the most fabled dishes in French gastronomy and they are the perfect symbols for Groff’s short stories. Each one comes with a subtle power to enthrall, the ability to whisk the reader away, if only for a short time, with each morsel that is consumed.