Friday, March 22, 2013

On Not Quite Feeling Like the "Class Reader" and a Review of Jennifer Haigh's News From Heaven

Once upon a time, I had to double-up and post two reviews at a time because I was finishing books fast enough that I was posting book reviews TOO often. Lately, that's not a problem. I'm not sure what it is that's shifted, but I'm finding it very hard to focus during my usual pre-bed reading time. I previously could read for a good two hours a night but recently I often can't even make it through a page. The pain's bad, but it was bad before, and there haven't been any medicine changes. I'm just riding through and hoping that my reading light turns back on as suddenly as it turned off (though MM appreciates the lack of an actual late-night light!). Anyway, I DID manage to finish off a book...

I've started a number of reviews by noting that I don't tend towards short stories.  Still, I have found they abound of late and I picked this one (a review copy from Harper) because I'd enjoyed two of Haigh's novels (Faith and The Condition, I also read Mrs. Kimble but didn't realize immediately that it was the same author).  This is a set of stories all tied to the town of Bakerton, PA, a small town that grew around a single coal mining company).  Some characters reappear, others you can sense in the distance since the stories ranged from the boom days of the 1940s through the town's decline as the coal company shut its operations.  Apparently some of the characters had also appeared in a prior work, Baker Towers.  I hadn't read that and it wasn't any problem, although some reviewers seemed to have really loved it and that made revisiting Bakerton an exciting treat. 

The stories are both character and place driven (which is always a plus for me).  The protagonists vary widely including a teen girl meeting an exciting aunt, a young woman leaving to work as a maid in New York City in the '30s, a life-long resident reflecting on her brother's passing, and a woman experiencing a later-in-life relationship.  Some of the stories simply left me cold and I struggled to get through those.  Other stories had characters that felt vivid and whom I wished I could "visit" for longer.  I enjoyed the concept of watching the town evolve through the years, although I had trouble connecting to some of the latter day tales, despite a strong interest in what happens to industry towns as the industry fades.  The concepts of family and home are key throughout all the stories.   

There were definite highs and lows for me in this one.  I'd rate Broken Star (a woman reflecting on a summer in her teens when a relative returned, bringing a feeling of excitement that contrasts with her rather staid family) and Something Sweet (a portrait of a young schoolteacher in the mid-40s, including a glimpse at a student who has trouble fitting in small-town life) as my favorites.  On the other end of the spectrum, I didn't care for A Place in the Sun (a visit to Las Vegas focused on a man who left Bakerton but never really found his way) or What Remains (other townspeople watch the decline of one of the last members of the family that owned the mines and look towards a new industry that may bring back the struggling town).  Haigh is clearly a gifted writer and her prose can be pitch-perfect at times, but something about it can also drag when the story isn't connecting.  There are moments that are beautifully sad and poignant.  There are other times when I thought I should feel something but instead felt cold and unconnected. 

3.5 stars.  I feel reluctant to round either way...I plan to include this on two sites that favor full stars so I'll put one at 3 and one at 4....

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