Tag Archives: short stories

Book Review: News From Heaven, By Jennifer Haigh

Jennifer Haigh’s first short story collection, News From Heaven, traces the slow decay of the fictional Pennsylvania coal-mining town of Bakerston, through 10 linked stories. Introduced to readers in her fine 2005 novel, Baker Towers, Bakerston was a typical mining town. In its heyday in the middle of the 20th Century, the Baker Brothers mines employed virtually every able-bodied male in the town and even built the workers’ cookie-cutter homes. The workers made good wages and the town grew into a tight-knit community where everybody knew everybody else’s business. Or so they thought.

When an explosion toppled one of the mines and killed a number of the miners, the dramatic climax of Baker Towers, it rocked the town forever. By the time the 21st Century dawned the company had extracted every bit of coal it could and it closed the mines. Workers went on unemployment or moved South for new jobs, while some suffered worse fates, their lungs scarred by decades in the mines.

While on one level the stories present a microcosm of the nation’s economic woes, their true power lies in the exploration of the inner lives of the families–bound by their daily struggles and the yearning for a better life. Haigh’s characters are a diverse lot, from the disturbed heir to the Baker fortune, living in squalor, to the restless son of the Novak clan, who leaves Bakerston far behind but can never quite escape its grip.

Haigh brings these characters alive with a perceptiveness and eloquence. While the characters know intimate details about their fellow townspeople, there are long-held secrets, hidden mostly out of love. In “Beast and Bird,” the opening story, a Bakerston family sends its young Polish teen-ager to work as a live-in maid for a wealthy Jewish family in New York City, where everything is unfamiliar and nothing makes sense to her. “A Place in the Sun” and its twin story, “To the Stars,” focus on Sandy, the youngest of the Novak clan, who struggles to find a new life on the West Coast, but cannot outrun his demons.

There are tender moments as well. In “Thrift,” 50-year-old Agnes Lubicki, destined to be an aging spinster, unexpectedly finds love with a much younger man. In “The Bottom of Things,” Ray Wojick returns home from Houston as a successful businessman to attend his parents’ 50th anniversary, triggering memories of his troubled brother’s death and his guilt over whether he could have prevented it.

Haigh is the author of four critically-acclaimed novels. In addition to Baker Towers, her works include Mrs. Kimble, The Condition,and Faith.

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Author Spotlight: Alice Munro

Alice Munro occupies a special place in my pantheon of modern authors. She is part of my Holy Trinity, along with Anne Tyler and Alice McDermott. Long recognized as one of the pre-eminent short story writers of our time, Munro received the 2009 Man Booker International Prize in recognition of her lifetime body of work. She is often called the “Canadian Chekhov.”

Ironically, Munro didn’t set out to write short stories. “I never intended to be a short-story writer,” Munro said in a November 1986 interview with The New York Times. ”I started writing them because I didn’t have time to write anything else – I had three children. And then I got used to writing stories, so I saw my material that way, and now I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel.”

She found short stories more satisfying than novels. ”I don’t really understand a novel,” she said in the same interview. ”I don’t understand where the excitement is supposed to come in a novel, and I do in a story. There’s a kind of tension that if I’m getting a story right I can feel right away, and I don’t feel that when I try to write a novel. I kind of want a moment that’s explosive, and I want everything gathered into that.”

Munro sets many of her stories in her native southwestern Ontario Province. The small towns of rural Huron County provide the backdrop for her complex female characters, many of whom feel the urge to break away from their roots, a theme explored to great effect in her 2004 collection, Runaway.

As is the case with Anne Tyler’s work, Munro writes quiet stories that plumb the interior depths of complicated relationships. Some critics say little of consequence happens in her stories, but that is her strength. Munro doesn’t need body counts or car wrecks to keep the reader riveted to her stories.

“Munro’s writing creates…an empathetic union among readers, critics most apparent among them. We are drawn to her writing by its verisimilitude—not of mimesis, so-called and…’realism’—but rather the feeling of being itself…of just being a human being,” Robert Thacker wrote of Munro’s work

In an interview on the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group website, Munro spoke about her approach to writing and why she was attracted to short stories. “I want to tell a story, in the old-fashioned way—what happens to somebody—but I want that ‘what happens’ to be delivered with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness. I want the reader to feel something that is astonishing—not the ‘what happens’ but the way everything happens. These long short story fictions do that best, for me.”

She also discussed her relationship with her characters. “I always have to know my characters in a lot of depth—what clothes they’d choose, what they were like at school, etc…And I know what happened before and what will happen after the part of their lives I’m dealing with. I can’t see them just now, packed into the stress of the moment. So I suppose I want to give as much of them as I can.”

Munro also made the astute observation that memory is a key element of story-telling. “Memory is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories—and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories. We can hardly manage our lives without a powerful ongoing narrative. And underneath all these edited, inspired, self-serving stories there is, we suppose, some big bulging awful mysterious entity called THE TRUTH, which our fictional stories are supposed to be poking at and grabbing pieces of. What would be more interesting as a life’s occupation? One of the ways we do this, I think, is by trying to look at what memory does (different tricks at different stages of our lives) and at the way people’s different memories deal with the same (shared) experience. The more disconcerting the differences are, the more the writer in me feels an odd exhilaration.”

At the age of 81, Munro is still going strong. Her publisher announced recently she will publish her 13th book of short stories in November, Dear Life. I can’t wait.

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