Tag Archives: short story collections

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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Writers’ Group Publishes Short Story Collection

Writers’ groups help their members turn their stories into work that is publishable, or at least passable. The writers’ group to which I belong took that a step further—we published a collection of our members’ short stories. The book, available at www.amazon.com, is called, 13 Stories from the West Hartford Fiction Writers’ Group 2012.

The short story collection was the brainchild of Lida Boynick, who had heard about a local poetry group that had published an anthology. She raised the idea at our group’s monthly meeting and all of us enthusiastically received it. Why not? We had a trove of great material from which to select the best stories. We thought we could crank it out in a matter of months. How wrong we were.

Participants in a project that involves multiple writers should think about:

  • Leadership. The old saw, “when everybody is in charge, nobody is in charge” applies to group projects like this. We appointed Lida to lead our effort. She was the right choice as she handled her duties with tact and aplomb.
  • Organization. Key decisions must be made. How many stories to include? Which stories? What are the criteria? We put together a small subcommittee that drafted a set of criteria and circulated it to the group at large. We meet regularly and assigned various tasks to group members.
  • Quality Control. We insisted every story must have gone through the workshop process at a monthly meeting. We made one exception for an accomplished writer in the group who had been unable to attend meetings due to a scheduling conflict. We agreed her story had to go through the same process as the rest: assignment to an editor on the committee. Every story was reviewed by a committee member and sent to the author with changes.
  • Book Structure. Where would we place the stories? The stories covered a number of genres and we had to come up with the right mix of story length, genre, etc.

The group reserved the right to reject any story that did not meet a publishable standard. Luckily, there were no close calls.

The 13 stories reflect the diversity of our group. Our authors included a lawyer, a retired truck driver, and a teacher, and covered a wide range of ages and life experiences. The collection spans many genres, including mystery, romance science fiction, and fantasy.

My story was called, Solid Gold. It was a tribute to the golden age of radio in the 1960s, when two rival radio stations (WDRC and WPOP) ruled the airwaves in the Hartford region. It explores themes of reality versus illusion, escapism, and the place of rock and roll in people’s lives.

Read Solid Gold

Check out the short story anthology and leave a review.

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