Tuesday, February 5, 2013

News From Heaven : A Mom & Me Review

Get it quickly by hopping here to Indiebound or
Amazon.  Available on all your likely e-readers too.

News from Heaven, Jennifer Haigh’s most recent short story collection, echoes Sherwood Anderson’s American classic Winesburg, Ohio in that all its stories center around a small town.  In this case, it’s rural Pennsylvania we revisit, and the stories take place from WWI era through to the present day, spanning nearly a century.  If you imagine that such a setting couldn’t produce much drama or interest, Jennifer Haigh will make you think again with this worthy, rich, and accessible collection.

My Take:
I loved it.
From her very first sentences in “Beast and Bird”, Haigh plants you smack dab in the middle of a whole new world, fully featured and populated with realistic and intriguing characters:
Every Sunday morning, at seven o’clock promptly, the two Polish girls crossed the park and walked fifty blocks downtown to church.  Early morning:  the avenue wide as a farmer’s field, the sunlight tempered with frost.  The girls were bare-legged, in ankle socks and long coats, their blond hair dark at the ends from their morning  ablutions.  The younger, Annie Lubicki, was also the prettier.  She had just turned sixteen.
As with so many great fictions, if we look closely enough at this first short paragraph, we can predict many of the themes and even the key conflicts in the story, in addition to grasping a clear sense that we have been plopped down in the middle of the lives of two rural teenagers now living in the city in a time when “ablutions”, ankle socks, and seven o’clock church were quotidian elements.  Pick any of the stories in News from Heaven – even those set in the late 20th century: you’ll find equally adept writing.
            Whatever the era, Haigh’s protagonists are everyday working people from a small coal mining town, and still they fascinate because – without many linguistic flourishes, but with a clarity of purpose and economy of language that are both admirable and expert – Haigh creates a world in whole cloth, and she brings us close into the minds and hearts of her characters without schmaltzy over-sympathy or wildly unusual plotlines.  These are real people (yes, they feel real, even though they’re fictions) with real problems worthy of our attention.  Suddenly I’m thinking of Willy Loman:  “Attention, attention must be paid to such a person.”  That (in this case, unspoken) plea for us to honor regular, work-a-day people haunts this collection as well, and we can’t help but pay attention because Haigh has honed every detail, every word, every glance, every nuance, wasting nothing and giving us a sentence by sentence, moment by moment unfolding of regular lives offering everyday epiphanies.  And because the writing and the writer’s insights into our daily lives offer so much quotidian beauty and depth, I couldn’t wait to return home each evening and read one more story. 
Mom went me one better and read Haigh's novel Baker Towers, too.  She liked them both:

Jennifer Haigh definitely has a way with words. Her way with words took me back to my own growing up days in a small town in Illinois. My town wasn’t totally a Bakerton—but in several ways it was near enough for me to connect the two. For example, it had coal mines; it had the one street main street though it was really 4 blocks built around a square since it was the county seat with a courthouse as its centerpiece; it had its boys going off to war; it had the farmers who supported the folks who lived in town with eggs, milk, cheese and helped the war effort with the wheat, corn and soybeans they grew. So the reminiscence factor was there for me.
Aside from this very personal aspect, I repeat, “Jennifer Haigh definitely has a way with words.” She brings not only the setting but more importantly the people to life from the very start. Reading the first story in News From Heaven captured me as she described the almost instant growing up of a 16-year old, totally unworldly girl from Bakerton as a maid in New York City. Imagine her innocence about nearly everything, her fear about making a mistake and being sent home, her first experience on a date.
After reading this first story I decided to read an earlier book Jennifer Haigh wrote,  Baker Towers.   Baker Towers takes the reader through the ups and downs of residents of  Bakerton,  the little town totally dependent on coal mining for its existence. News from Heaven returns to some of the characters from the earlier novel, and fleshes them out with what happened to them later in life.
For instance, in “A Place In The Sun”, Sandy Novak leads a vagabond life—leaving home to work first in one city, then another, finally moving to California.  He rarely returns to Bakerton, but remains beloved by sister Joyce, a character who figures prominently in the next story, “To The Stars”.  Here is how Haigh describes one phase of Sandy’s life, as he – in a moment of serendipitous generosity – prepares to give away his entire, and much-needed, winnings from a trip to Las Vegas:
Flashes don’t last, of course, and that one didn’t. After his Jesus year had come and gone, after Marnie went back to Canada and Myron Gold was looking for him and it wasn’t safe for Vera to take his calls, he would remember his one moment of grace.  The wallet swollen in his pocket, a feeling nearly sexual, as he crossed the street to Western Union and wired fourteen hundred dollars, the sum total of his earthly wealth, to Rebecca Rose Hauser, the mathematical miracle. The baby girl (Joyce’s daughter) who shared his birthday.
Welcome to the world.
When I finished reading the two books I felt that I had really been absorbing two sets of history: one book is the story of a coal mining town, typical of all the coal mining towns that existed and continue to exist somewhat similarly today, the second story is that of the human race with its happy and sad moments, good and bad activities, life and death as it comes.

Go, Jennifer Haigh. Keep feeding us your wonderful, evocative prose.
The Bottom Line:  Buy it.  If you're seeking high quality American short stories, or if you'd like to be convinced of their merits, you couldn't find a better place to begin.

And thanks once again, TLC Tours, for introducing us to this stellar collection.

MFB from Mom and Me,
p.s.  Hop here for a pod-cast with Jennifer Haigh hosted by Book Club Girl: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/book-club-girl/2013/02/05/jennifer-haigh-discusses-news-from-heaven .
Mom & Who? 
Mom's a retired science librarian/tech writer in New Mexico; I'm a high school English teacher in Washington state. We share a love of our imperfectly tended gardens (OK, mine's oh so much more imperfect than hers), lifelong learning (not a day goes by...), Jacques Pepin, travel, show tunes, our two-legged and four-legged family members, and - of course - books.

Once a month or so, we offer up a tandem review about a new book we both suspect you'll enjoy.  We hope you'll find our "dialogue" valuable reading in and of itself, and that we'll inspire you to try your own inter-generational read-along, be it with our picks or with your own.


Jen said...

Oh my gosh, I absolutely love this tandem review concept. This was lovely. I enjoyed seeing both of your reactions and perspective. How fun!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for being on the tour!

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