For this installment of our book club series, we chose the theme of “birds.” These stories range from terrifying to poetic, so read on to find something new to enjoy!
“Feathers” by Raymond Carver
My standard practice for finding short stories to share with our book club includes reading every potential contender to make sure it’s worth discussing. After I read “Feathers” by Raymond Carver, I thought: “What did I just read?” Carver’s bleak story is narrated by Jack, a simple man, as he reminisces on what he remembers to be one of the most special nights of his life, in which he visits a friend, his wife, their child, and their pet peacock for dinner.
All of us reflected on the tension present throughout the story. We felt that Jack described an awkward evening rather than an enjoyable one. Some of us expected the story to be a horror, while others of us simply didn’t trust the characters and the faces they presented. Ultimately, this story was about nostalgia’s rose-tinted glasses and one couple’s mistake in adopting another family’s dream.
“The Birds” by Daphne du Marier
Someone had to pick this story. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect beyond its inspiring Alfred Hitchcock’s movie of the same name, but du Marier’s short story was a complete hit with the group. We thought that the supple, classic prose served as an exemplary modal of the adage “show, don’t tell” for writers and more than adequately rendered the tension and terror to visceral effect.
Du Marier’s tale focuses on Nat Hocken, a veteran with a war-time disability who works part time as a farm hand. He is pensive and competent—and yet, his neighbors ignore his observations and concerns about the behavior of the birds in the area.
We picked up on the parallels that du Marier was likely crafting between the birds and the air raids of World War II, but the power of this tale is how the impending doom of the birds can stand in for just about any metaphor that you’d like.
“Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats
In the summer of 1819, John Keats composed five remarkable odes, reimagining the ancient Greek form for the English Romantic age. Perhaps my favorite of these odes is “Ode to a Nightingale,” in which Keats’s distraught speaker ponders the prospect of death as he hears a nightingale’s beguiling song. What can ease the pangs of morbid thought? Surely Dionysian delights or Parnassian pleasures. But no—the harmonies of Hades pour forlornly from the bird, an immortal song about the sorrows of transience.
This is Keats at his best. His lines and phrases ring in the mind long after one has set the poem aside. “Ode to a Nightingale” is a perfect example of what critic Helen Vendler calls “first-order” verse: Each stanza has a quality of immediacy and surprise, as if the speaker were recording experience in real time. And yet the poem is meticulously crafted and worked over. Quite the magic trick.
Chapters 17–19 of The Once and Future King by T. H. White
When our theme was chosen, I knew what I wanted to pick almost right away. In doing so, I plunged our group into a conflict from which we may never emerge: Is it fair (for lack of a better word) to excerpt longer fiction for a reading group without providing context for the selections? (Nonfiction, interestingly, seems to be less of a concern.)
There are pros and cons to this approach, and for me, the pros won out: White’s novel is one of my all-time favorites and his love for birds and their world shines through both casual dialogue—rooks form “larky mobs” and pigeons “flee from the aggressor with true philosophy”—and more poetic descriptive passages:
The sun, as it rose, tinged the quick-silver of the creeks and the gleaming slime itself with flame. The curlew, who had been piping their mournful plaints since long before the light, flew now from weed-bank to weed-bank. . . . The redshanks scuttled and prodded like mice. A cloud of tiny dunlin, more compact than starlings, turned in the air with the noise of a train. . . . Shore birds of every sort populated the tide line, filling it with business and beauty.
Perhaps the hubris of familiarity prevented me from anticipating issues that others would have, but I was surprised at how questions about the story as a whole—tone and anachronism and particulars of plot—formed a barrier to the contents of the particular chapters. That was much of the conversation, and our debate about the suitability of selections will probably continue as book club progresses. But I see few better ways to spend time than imagining oneself a bird, and it seems more necessary now than ever to consider their place in the world. If you don’t mind selections, read these chapters; either way, read the book.
“The Rite of Passage” from H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
In the wake of her father’s death, Helen Macdonald is consumed by an insurmountable amount of grief. She decides the best way to deal with her loss is to focus her time and energy into training a goshawk, one of the most temperamental and difficult creatures to tame. Over the course of the training, Helen comes to identify with the goshawk in more ways than she could ever imagine and undergoes an unexpected emotional transformation.
H is for Hawk is unlike anything I’ve read, for it combines nature writing and memoir with a sort of a modern goshawk training manual. Helen cleverly weaves her journey of self discovery with the biography of author T.H White, who becomes foil against Helen’s goshawk training experience. Helen finds a way to craft her abstract emotions of grief into something digestible for her readers while reminding them of humanity’s interconnectedness with nature.
Whether or not the group enjoyed this specific selection, I think we all agreed that we have immense respect for anyone training a goshawk, especially Helen Macdonald. Helen’s story is enticing, educational, and often relatable. I hope after reading this excerpt that someone felt inspired to add H is for Hawk to their reading list, for I highly recommend it.
“The Erl-King” by Angela Carter
Ever since I read Angela Carter’s short story series The Bloody Chamber I waited for an opportunity to assign one of the stories to the club. This ten-story anthology, according to Carter, sets out to “extract the latent content” from traditional fairy tales—rather than the tantalizing inclination to characterize them as simply as “feminist re-tellings of Brothers Grimm stories” (of which I’m guilty) which would be a tad reductive. However, the larger narrative and themes of feminism, agency, and oppression are indeed weaved throughout the book. I not-so stealthily suggested “birds” as our book club topic for the selfish purpose of assigning my favorite story from the collection, “The Erl-King.” Drawing on Germanic folklore (see also Goethe’s “Erlkönig” or even the ambiguous “Green Man” figure), this story is a perfect representation of what Carter set out to accomplish.
In “The Erl-King,” a maiden brings us along into the woods where we experience the Erl-King’s seduction of her over time. He uses himself, his ways, and his woods as instruments of father-like and emotionally abusive behavior to lure the girl further and further into his world. Our heroine, between the haze of youthful and naive adoration, begins to realize that the Erl-King plans on imprisoning her, adding her to his caged collection of other girls he’s turned birds. The story ends in a frozen scene: she is about to strangle the King with his own hair, and we’re left to decide if she succeeds with the murder or not. Does the maiden break the cycle of abuse, consumption, and exploitation? I hope so.
The style is a bit stumbling—like tripping on roots in a drugged stupor—which I found perfectly fitting of the plot. While it didn’t agree with some, this story was generally liked by the group, if not breaking a few hearts along the way. We, somewhat unfortunately, happened to read this piece amidst the Jeffrey Epstein revelations, so drawing obvious comparisons to such revolting current events did lead us down some dark, twisted roads—an interesting and timely lens, but maybe not to everyone’s inclination.