Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Review: News from Heaven

Summary: The bestselling author of Faith and The Condition returns with a collection of unforgettable short stories inspired by a Pennsylvania coal-mining town and the people who call it home. 

When her iconic novel Baker Towers was published in 2005, it was hailed as a modern classic—"compassionate and powerful . . . a song of praise for a too-little-praised part of America, for the working families whose toils and constancy have done so much to make the country great" (Chicago Tribune). Its young author, Jennifer Haigh, was "an expert natural storyteller with an acute sense of her characters' humanity" (New York Times). 

Now, in this collection of interconnected short stories, Jennifer Haigh returns to the vividly imagined world of Bakerton, Pennsylvania, a coal-mining town rocked by decades of painful transition. From its heyday during two world wars through its slow decline, Bakerton is a town that refuses to give up gracefully, binding—sometimes cruelly—succeeding generations to the place that made them. A young woman glimpses a world both strange and familiar when she becomes a live-in maid for a Jewish family in New York City. A long-absent brother makes a sudden and tragic homecoming. A solitary middle-aged woman tastes unexpected love when a young man returns to town. With a revolving cast of characters—many familiar to fans of Baker Towers—these stories explore how our roots, the families and places in which we are raised, shape the people we eventually become. 

News from Heaven looks unflinchingly at the conflicting human desires for escape and for connection, and explores the enduring hold of home. -- Harper

A few weeks ago, I re-read one of my all-time favorite books BAKER TOWERS by Jennifer Haigh (my  review) in anticipation of reading her new book NEWS FROM HEAVEN. If possible, I think I enjoyed the novel more the second time around which is extremely rare for me. (The only other book I felt that way about is TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD!) To say I was looking forward to NEWS FROM HEAVEN is an understatement. I consider Ms. Haigh to be an incredible writer (one of my faves.) Plus, the story takes place in a fictional town only a few miles from where my grandparents live.

Often times when I am as excited about a book as I am for NEWS FROM HEAVEN, I tend to be disappointed. In addition, I wondered if I would enjoy the short story format since BAKER TOWERS was not a collection of short stories. I shouldn't have doubted Ms. Haigh's skills for one second. NEWS FROM HEAVEN is an outstanding piece of literature and I absolutely loved every word of it!

NEWS FROM HEAVEN is a collection of short stories; however, they are interconnected by one common themes -- characters with ties to the small town of Bakerton. Once a booming coal-mining town, Bakerton has suffered a gradual decline of both the town and its population. Through these various stories, Ms. Haigh delves into the lives of character who either once lived in Bakerton or still do. She manages to show a very real portrayal of this area and the effects of the coal mining industry's decline.

While BAKER TOWERS reminded me of my grandparents' lives, NEWS FROM HEAVEN resonated with me because it reflects what I have seen when I visit this area. I'm far from familiar with the daily occurrences in my family's hometowns, but I have seen how much the area has changed since I was a kid. There is no doubt that this area has been heavy hit and many individual's lives have been altered as a result.

Prior to the past year or so, I wasn't a big fan of short story collections. Fortunately, that has all changed for me and I do have a real appreciation for this genre. Having said that, usually when I read a collection of short stories, there are ones that I enjoy more than others. I can honestly say that I loved all of the stories in NEWS FROM HEAVEN -- there wasn't a dinger in the bunch! However, I will admit to enjoying the stories which centered around the Novak family because I was anxious to learn what happened to them after the end of BAKER TOWERS.

It truly is difficult for me to pick a favorite story (or two.) If pressed, I'd have to say I liked the ones about Sandy Novak the most. I was left wondering about him after BAKER TOWERS! The first is called "A Place in the Sun" and shows exactly what Sandy was up to after leaving Bakerton. I can't really say I was surprised, but I thought Ms. Haigh did a brilliant job of showing the complexity of his character and I loved how the story came full circle. The second one is called "To the Stars" and begins with Sandy's body arriving back to his family in Bakerton. While I found parts of this story to be utterly tragic, I still found it to be beautifully written.

Another wonderful story had to do with Mitch Stanek, the town's golden boy who arrived back home after quitting college and giving up a football scholarship. This story was so tragic and even held a few surprises for the reader. The way this story and its startling conclusion unfolded was especially moving to me... and incredibly well done!

I really can't express just how talented Ms. Haigh is. I'm almost at a loss for words and don't even feel like I have any right to be remarking on her writing. However, I have to say that she brings settings and characters to life like few authors can. She also has a special ability to write about day-to-day life in a way that I find utterly gripping. While she does tend to delve into some pretty heavy issues (in all of her books), I still find that I love the characters and their stories; and she somehow manages to leave me with a sense of hope!

Of course, I'm going to recommend NEWS FROM HEAVEN for book clubs. I wouldn't hesitate to pick it for our next meeting, but I already had to choose my pick a few weeks ago (don't worry -- it's an amazing book too!) There is a reading guide available with fifteen questions. Some of the themes you might want to explore include small towns, change, values, family dynamics, second chances, happiness, the meaning of the word home, and love.

I sure hope I've convinced you how special NEWS FROM HEAVEN is. Do yourself a favor and get a copy!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this book.


rhapsodyinbooks said...

With you and Kathy loving this so much, it sounds hard to resist!

bermudaonion said...

I loved this book too. I need to make the time to read Baker Towers soon.

Beth Hoffman said...

I put this book on my list several weeks ago and am so glad that you enjoyed it!

Jenn's Bookshelves said...

I'm reading this one now & thoroughly enjoying it!