Book Review: “Small Brown Bird: Stories in Praise of Folly” By Jennifer McLean
Reviewed by Mary Ickes
Ms. McLean asserts that “… there is an emotional prudery rampant in society: so much pressure to win … We are at risk of becoming highly successful bores.” Her seven Small Brown Bird stories recommend committing a personal folly, from one of the following categories, to counteract the rampant prudery: “1) good ideas gone terribly wrong–or somewhat wrong; 2) ideas that were bad to begin with, and 3) failure: spectacular and less spectacular.” Most of her plots begin and end in the same category but, due to human foibles, a few cross-categorize.
An unnamed woman, in “At The Creek,” overwhelmed by a park’s raucous picnickers and roaring maintenance machines, flees to the adjoining woods. A novice birder, in “S.B.B.”, the anthology’s signature story, asks knowledgeable peers to identify a sandpiper as Pectoral or Least. Susan Brown, a Ph.D. Candidate in “Saturn’s Hidey-Holes,” flies to Italy for a conference exploring “… the history of Latium from ancient days through the Renaissance.” Anthony and Ronald invite select guests to “The Hudson River Bus Trip,” a first-person story related in a letter, to sell Hudson River School paintings. Elderly Walt and Autumn purchase a new mattress in “Young Couples.” Intrigued by an ad for “Soc-TLF” (Society for Things Lost in Fires), Mr. Reed submits a candidate for the collection. Through journaling for her counselor, a mother contemplates the complexities of raising Karen, her 15-year-old daughter, to be a “Slow Beauty.”
Overall, the characters are a likeable lot. In this era of electronic gadgets threatening the existence of books, readers can only adore a mother raising a daughter with “… books stacked chin high … She sleeps with the damn things.” Walt purchasing a new mattress, that they can ill afford, because Autumn wants “… ONE thing in our place that is brand new, ours alone,” endears him to readers. Anthony writes “I’m not sure if it’s for laughing or crying, this one. Probably both, since it’s about Ronald, so Ronald.” So Ronald, in fact, that readers are soon so sympathetic toward Anthony. Their bus guests, disguised with nicknames lest the letter’s recipient recognize them, splendidly live up to their monikers: Admiral, the Cosies, Mercy, and Nice Girl. Susan Brown frantically pursuing the elusive Saturn in villas’ architectural detail makes for laborious reading. But then, back at the hotel, readers cheer her on when the small pointed beards crowd around to jibe, sneer, and bait her as an American given entirely too much leeway—and money.
The various paces at which the plots unfold enhances the anthology’s allure. Not until the eighth page of ten do readers fully comprehend the park woman’s folly. As though an honored guest, folly boards the bus with Anthony and Ronald to reign supreme the entire seventy pages. Beyond financial foolishness, folly appears quickly enough in Young Couples but, because the defining passage is in Spanish, many readers, including me, fall victim to literary arrogance.
A small brown bird, Reading Friends, seems a trivial symbol for follies better symbolized by a big, squawking bird, perhaps a cross between a peacock and crow, but Ms. McLean chose the image because “It is that which might appear small and unimportant to the world – but means the world to the person who pursues it.” To reinforce her perspective, small brown birds appear in every story but one. A fortunate protagonist finds comfort in “… a wren or sparrow breaking through in small gaps, but with another … a bird shats on her head.” A third woman succumbs to folly as … her hand [falls] like a shot bird. Poor Walt drives over the curb when his very non-brown bird symbol waves at him.
After the final story, Ms. McLean recommends that readers avoid becoming highly successful bores by sharing their follies at SmallBrownBird.net. (She promises that Discretion is assured.) Though her offer initially seems formidable, the park woman, the birder, Susan Brown, Anthony, Walt and Autumn, Mr. Reed, and the mother raising a slow beauty are so vulnerable and memorable that an opportunity to join their ranks brings relief.
Author’s Bio: It was natural for Jennifer McLean to write a book on folly as she is eminently qualified. She is a life-long expert in good and bad ideas of every conceivable size, shape, and hue. Her peregrinations have taken her through countless cities and towns on several continents and through more occupations, projects, and pastimes than would be economical to print here. The only real sense she ever made was in marrying her husband artist Lothar Jobczyk. They presently live in Asheville, North Carolina.
View from my Catio
Buddy T.C.P.E. (Tuxedo Cat Par Excellence)
Now that we’re back on track, here’s a picture of Tooley learning to help Mary print. He’s doing a fine job there, but I’m worried about his latest food obsession: Roy’s carrot muffins. Seriously. If Roy isn’t careful when reading the morning paper, the muffin he reaches for isn’t there.