Roots and Root Causes: Faith by Jennifer Haigh (Audio)

Jennifer Haigh writes the kind of thought-provoking, character-driven novel (see Mrs. Kimble, Baker Towers, and The Condition) that I love to settle down with and read…imperfect families, societal roles, the conflicting pulls of love and duty, passion and personal responsibility, etc. But I’m also always looking for great audiobook recommendations, so when I saw this rave at You’ve Gotta Read This, I decided to listen to the audio version of Jennifer Haigh’s latest novel Faith (HarperCollins, 2011). A good choice!
Narrated by Therese Plummer, Faith is a novel in the form of a memoir of sorts. In it, Sheila McGann has pieced together stories of people involved in her brother Art Breen’s life, past and present — some remembered, some imagined, some told to her. As in all of Jennifer Haigh’s novels, every character has depth and emotional complexity. A lot of painful feelings (shame, anger, sorrow) and, occasionally, joy or contentment run underneath these characters’ stories; Therese Plummer conveys this very well in her narration.
Sheila’s brother Art (12 years older than Sheila, her mother’s son from a early, annulled marriage) had been a parish priest in the Catholic archdiocese of Boston for many years when the clergy sex abuse scandal broke over the Boston area in 2002 like a storm across Grantham (a fictional working-class, South Shore, harbor town modeled on Hull, Massachusetts), where the Irish-Catholic McGann family lived. When Art himself is accused of molesting a child, the small McGann family (never close) is devastated and divided.
Much about Art’s faith and life in the priesthood remains a mystery to Sheila, a non-practicing Catholic, even after she works out the truth about events leading to his suspension and public disgrace. Sheila McGann loves and respects her brother, although she doesn’t share his faith, but how well does she really know him.
Faith is more about a family in crisis than it is about religion or the Catholic Church. (Although the leaders of the Boston archdiocese and St. John’s Seminary are the closest thing to a villain you will find in this book, they are presented as flawed individuals within an institution, not as evil pedophiles.) Faith and religion certainly play a role in the novel, but they are presented almost neutrally; no one’s religious faith is belittled or praised. Author Jennifer Haigh conveys sympathy for victims of abuse without demonizing all Catholic priests.
My only quibbles with the audiobook narration are that a couple of local place names were mispronounced and the broad Boston accents on a few of the characters (especially Sheila’s mother) sounded a bit overdone to me. (We don’t really sound like that around heah, do we?) But they are really just quibbles, because, over all, the narration — even of the male voices, which can be difficult for a woman to pull off — was excellent.
Faith is one of the best books I’ve read in 2011, hands down. It’s true, You’ve Gotta Read This!

Preview the audiobook at HarperCollins.
Therese Plummer talks about Faith as the best book she’s ever narrated on the Audible Web site.

Other opinions about Faith (all good):
Age 30+: A Lifetime of Books
Bibliophile by the Sea
Devourer of Books
My Books. My Life

Waiting on Wednesday — The Drop

“Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we’re eagerly anticipating. This week’s pre-publication “can’t-wait-to-read” selection is:

The Drop (Hachette Audio Edition)

Michael Connelly

Publication Date: November 28

The Drop is the seventeenth book by Michael Connelly featuring L.A.P.D. Detective Harry Bosch, long-time loner turned accidental family man. The Harry Bosch novels fall into the “rogue detective” category of crime fiction; Harry Bosch is a loose cannon in the eyes of supervisors and administrators, willing to break rules and/or heads as necessary to solve a murder case. The first several audiobook versions were narrated to perfection by Dick Hill. The switch to Len Cariou was a little disturbing at first (Who the heck is this? This isn’t Harry Bosch!) but I adjusted. (Really. I did.) Len Cariou is Harry Bosch now. (They’d just better not change narrators again. Ever.)
I’m not much of a crime fiction reader in general, but I’m eagerly awaiting the new Harry Bosch novel.

Life as Art: The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

Artists aren’t thought of as the best parents, seen as expending more energy on making art than on creating a stable family life for children. In The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson, Annie and Buster Fang grow up with not just one artist parent, but two. And not just artists, but performance artists, who require their children’s participation — however reluctant — for the success of their live pieces.
Scorning the “dead” forms of art like painting and photography, performance artists Camille and and Caleb Fang live for the thrill of making a scene in public, never letting on to the bewildered portion of the public, unsuspectingly participating, that this is an improvised enactment of a planned scene — an experience of spontaneous art — with the ensuing confusion or chaos surreptitiously recorded for later review.
As children, alternating between pride and embarrassment in their parents’ theatrics, Annie and Buster were known in their parents’ art circles and (more often than not) to their parents as “Child A” and “Child B.” As adults, Annie and Buster distanced themselves from their parents’ art. Annie is a talented actor who performs well but has a tendency to shock others by behaving unconventionally when off-camera. Buster is a two-time novelist suffering from writers’ block, supplementing his meager income by writing magazine articles about people with strange hobbies, like shooting potatoes from guns. After years away, Buster and Annie both end up at the Fang family home. But in a weird twist on the adult-children-returning-to-the-nest theme, their parents almost immediately disappear, leaving behind a scene of violent foul play.
Their disappearance reopens old wounds in Buster and Annie. How many times had their parents not told them the full plan, keeping their children as unsuspecting as the general public for the purposes of performing spontaneous art? They can’t tell if what seems to have been a violent abduction was real or staged. (They can’t believe it’s real; everything their parents do is in the service of their art. Isn’t it?) But if the whole scene was staged, why didn’t Caleb and Camille let Annie and Buster in on the plan? Why were they kept in the dark the same as the police and the public? Is it their punishment for deserting the family Fang to pursue their own interests? Is there even a real Fang family, or has it all been one long performance piece by their parents, with Child A and B roles that could have been filled interchangeably by children at random?
Similar in some ways to Mr. Toppit by English writer Charles Elton, The Family Fang is a darkly comic novel about adult children overshadowed by larger-than-life parents. Although The Family Fang comes down more firmly on the side of comedy than the much darker Mr. Toppit, both novels nudge readers to ponder the nature of family, the meaning of art, the culture of celebrity, the transience of life, and the possibility of happiness.

Browse inside The Family Fang at HarperCollins here.

Other opinions on The Family Fang (mostly good):
Algonquin Books Blog
Beth Fish Reads
The Broke and the Bookish
The Washington Post
(Ron Charles)

Whine & Cheese

Bittersweet Love: Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner

Like a magic trick, Vaclav & Lena, a first novel by Brooklyn author Haley Tanner, is quietly dramatic and deceptively simple — satisfying the human craving for the mysterious and the straightforward at the same time. A best-book-of-the-year review from Hey Lady! got me to read this book despite its bland title and even blander cover, and I’m glad I did. Books about magicians are big right now, but this novel is determinedly down-to-earth, non-fantastical, a realist’s romance, a love story with the illusion of disillusion. There’s a touch of fable in the author’s writing style, but the only magic is Houdini-esque, not Potter-esque.
As young children, Vaclav, a child of Russian-immigrant parents and Lena, who entered school speaking no English, become friends by default. Vaclav is shy and a bit strange, with his magic tricks and obsession with Harry Houdini; little Lena is quiet, still more comfortable speaking Russian over English. Vaclav’s workhorse of a mother, Rasia, who singlehandedly wrested her husband and son out of Russia for a better life, sees that, in America, Vaclav is going to need a friend and that parent-less Lena needs rescue.
For Lena, it’s a relief and an escape for Lena to visit Vaclav’s family after school every day. For Vaclav, it’s settled: when they grow up, Vaclav will be a famous magician and Lena will be his beautiful assistant. Knowing she is necessary to the act, Lena occasionally resents her secondary status, but Vaclav’s better command of English gives him power over the list-making and plans. For Rasia, it’s a worry every time she has to bring Lena home where she is neglected by an aunt.
This is how it is until adolescence when everything changes; the children are separated. The story skips over a gap of years and resumes when Vaclav and Lena are seventeen years old, moving along faster after the halfway point. Everyone’s English skills have improved, but the ability to communicate feelings to one another hasn’t much. Painful secrets are too hard to discuss, whether in Russian or in English.
The novel touches frequently on assimilation (which Rasia wants for Vaclav), and the author has said in interviews that the experience of immigration is part of being American already, but Vaclav & Lena isn’t intended to be a detailed portrayal of the Russian immigrant experience in Brooklyn. (For novels about the immigrant experience, go with Jhumpa Lahiri or one of the many other novelists listed on this list from Cornell University, for example.) Love — romantic and maternal — is the central theme in this story. Some reviewers have complained that the Russian-American characters are either too stereotyped or too atypical. Others have pointed out that Vaclav is a Czech name and that Vaclav’s mother’s name should be “Raisa” not “Rasia”, but these are minor flaws that can be forgiven in a first novel.
Vaclav & Lena is recommended for readers looking for a contemporary love story or family story, not a novel about the Russian-American immigrant experience. It is sweet — in many ways unbelievable — but it is a touching story that sheer grit (especially in the characters of Rasia and Lena’s aunt) keeps from veering into sentimentality.

Read The New York Times review of Vaclav & Lena.

Other opinions about Vaclav & Lena:
Hey Lady!
The Indextrious Reader
That’s What She Read

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