Tag Archives: child abuse

“Faith” by Jennifer Haigh

Title: Faith
Author: Jennifer Haigh
ISBN: 9780060755812
Pages: 352
Release date: January 2012
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Genre: Literary fiction
Format: ARC (paperback)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: 4 out of 5

Short and sweet: Uncover the history of a family with both painfully obvious and deeply hidden vices
Bonus points: Jennifer Haigh has been heralded as one of the greatest living contributors to literary fiction—superlatives usually reserved for men.
Hollywood sibling: “Doubt”

Late in life—long after their tumultuous childhoods—Art Breen and Sheila McGann became friends. As half-siblings, they were separated by more than a decade, and their different paths in life sometimes seemed like an unbridgeable gulf.

Art felt called to the priesthood at the early age of fourteen, and he experienced a modicum of success as a member of the clergy. When he meets Aidan, the oft-suppressed regrets of a life not lived clamor in Art, and he begins treating the eight-year-old boy as his own son. It’s a pretty convenient arrangement for Aidan’s young mother, Kathy, who is overwhelmed at the idea of carrying on a normal life on her own, without the support of a man or a narcotic.

Sheila, in stark contrast to Art, quickly lost the faith imposed on their family by a well-intentioned but domineering mother. She, too, hides years-old wounds of loneliness and lost love; but unlike Art, her biggest weakness may be that she’s never allowed herself to heal.

Mike, Sheila’s full sibling and Art’s half-brother, kept his faith; but his wife’s resentment of Catholicism threatens to rip apart his relationship—and the respectable life he’s finally found.

When Kathy accuses Art of molesting Aidan, however, everything that the three siblings believe is put to the test. The secrets that they discover—about each other and about themselves—yank them from the comfortable groove of adulthood and threaten to tear the family apart at its already-fragile seams.

In Faith, Jennifer Haigh reveals an entangled world of secrets and beliefs, pain and joy, identity and desire, and the enduring ties of family and faith. She tackles a difficult topic, but she does so with grace and aplomb.

In this book, Sheila, the narrator, attempts to put into words the story of her disgraced but beloved Brother Father. She pieces together the earth-shattering events that shook Art’s world, and she attempts to defend her own faith in Art—even when that faith wavers. “It was a thing I’d always known but until recently had forgotten: that faith is a decision,” Sheila writes. “In its most basic form, it is a choice.”

Having a somewhat distant, admittedly prejudiced narrator adds layers and complexity to the novel. But for me, the novel lacked some of the resonance and depth I was expecting–especially after the book received rave reviews by Greg (The New Dork Review of Books) and Carrie (nomadreader), among others.

Here is my central gripe: I know a fair amount about Catholicism, and I was raised in a deeply religious household. But I was baffled by the wedge the Church drove into Mike and Abby’s marriage. He’s Catholic and she’s Lutheran—so what? It’s all Christianity. Abby argues that the priesthood is inherently flawed—that such an unnatural lifestyle attracts pedophiles—which I’ve certainly heard before. But the position of Abby, the only non-Catholic main character, comes off as a weak reduction of non-Catholic views on the abuse scandals in the Church.

Perhaps I simply don’t feel the deep connection that Art, Sheila, and Mike have to Catholicism. This distance from their visceral emotions toward the Church was the only flat note of the book for me, but it was a point upon which the book hinged.

All told, however, Haigh crafted a compelling, timely story with flawed and deeply human characters; I’m looking forward to reading more from her.

Quote of Note:

We are too much ourselves, the people we have always been.

Interested? Read it for yourself! Buy Faith from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle edition).

I receive a very, very small commission when you purchase the book through the above links. Thank you for helping to support my site–and my book addiction!

Don’t just take my word for it. Check out what other reviewers on the tour have been saying:

January 17: The Lost Entwife
January 24: Book Hooked Blog
January 26: Amusing Reviews
January 31: Write Meg!
February 2: Broken Teepee
February 6: Unabridged Chick
February 7: Take Me Away
February 15: Book Club Classics!
February 22: Veronica M.D.
February 23: Life is Short. Read Fast.
February 27: The Scarlet Letter

Top Ten Authors of Fairy Tales, Folk Tales, and Legends

This week, I’d like to introduce you to some of the best authors I’ve found who analyze or write fairy tales, folk tales, and legends. I’ve mentioned before how much I love this genre; my college classes on fairy tales, legends, and mythology had a great impact upon the way I read and think about stories. Think of this as primer to the genre, albeit a subjective one; I’m certain I’m forgetting some great writers, and I’m sure there are many I haven’t yet discovered.

Fairy tales, folk tales, and legends tell extraordinary stories that tap into the very real fears, anxieties, and emotions of everyday life. One of the best parts about reading the classic tales is comparing all of the variants. I felt like I knew so much more about the stories than people who have only heard the Grimms’ versions or (worse!) only seen Disney movies.

While contemporary tales are often more interesting because of their relevancy in my life, I’m glad to have that firm classical base, because now I can read contemporary fantasy/retellings and point to the different variations of classic stories, from popular new releases like The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas (my review here) and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (my review here) to older classics and lesser-known works like The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (my review here), The Crucible by Arthur Miller, and The Little Girl Who was Too Fond of Matches by Gaetan Soucy.

There are several authors you must read to get a good grounding in fairy tales, folk tales, and legends.

10. Peter Sís
In The Conference of the Birds (my review here), his illustrated version of the twelfth-century epic Sufi poem, Peter Sís introduces readers to an ancient, mystical story in a lyrical but beautifully simple way. It adds gorgeous detail in an imaginative way without distracting from the original story. This is a perfect example of a modern retelling of a legend.

9. Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is one of the undisputed masters of modern fairy tales, from children’s books like Coraline (my review) and The Graveyard Book (my review) that are enjoyable at any age to books like American Gods (Jack’s review) and the Sandman trilogy that are more grown up but no less magical.

8. Susan Redington Bobby
I can’t write about fairy tales without mentioning Susan Bobby, author of Fairy Tales Reimagined and professor of my Fairy Tales class, who introduced me to many of the authors on this list. Bobby is passionate about the subject with a particular emphasis on modern retellings of classic tales. I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher, and I’m thrilled that she’s edited this collection of essays. (Prof. Bobby also reviewed Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay here!)

7. Jack Zipes
Zipes’s Don’t Bet on the Prince, a collection of contemporary feminist fairy tales and essays in North America and England, is an excellent introduction both to fairy tales in general and to feminist literary criticism in particular. It manages to be serious and informative without being boring.

6. A.S. Byatt
A.S. Byatt–author of Possession, The Virgin in the Garden, and Angels & Insects, among others–is a master at retelling (or, more often, inventing) modern fairy tales. Her books The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye and the Little Black Book of Stories need to be added to your reading list right now.

5. Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood has authored more than forty books, including The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, and Oryx and Crake. Your life isn’t complete until you’ve read something by Margaret Atwood. (I would know–there are so many titles I haven’t read yet that I want desperately to get to!)

4. Kate Bernheimer
Kate Bernheimer is an expert on writing and analyzing fairy tales, with the collections of essays Mirror, Mirror on the Wall and My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me as well as the fiction series The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold, Merry Gold, and Lucy Gold under her belt.

3. Maria Tatar
Maria Tatar is editor of The Classic Fairy Tales, the book that built my knowledge of classic fairy tales. It made me look at variants across tales–stories across languages and cultures that are surprisingly similar–so that I could then see the underpinnings of these tales in countless works of fiction produced today. If you’re interested in fairy tale criticism, this book is a must.

2. Anne Sexton
Anne Sexton’s poetry deals heavily in fairy tale retellings, drawing upon raw subjects like child abuse and neglect. One poem, “The Abortion,” has always stood out in my memory, especially this line: “I met a little man, / not Rumpelstiltskin, at all, at all… / he took the fullness that love began.” Sexton published an entire volume of fairy tale retellings, Transformations, that contains sometimes difficult but always powerful themes.

1. Emma Donoghue
One of the best authors I discovered in school was Emma Donoghue. I wrote a paper on “The Tale of the Voice,” a feminist retelling contained in Donoghue’s marvelous book Kissing the Witch. And it won’t surprise my longtime readers to hear that Donoghue’s Room (my review here) is one of the best books I’ve ever read!

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature created by The Broke and the Bookish. Each Tuesday, bloggers create top ten lists about reading, writing, blogging, and more!

I receive a very, very small commission when you purchase the book through the above links to Indiebound. Thank you for helping to support my site–and my book addiction!

“The Kid” by Sapphire

Title: The Kid
Author: Sapphire
ISBN: 9781594203046
Pages: 384
Release date: July 5, 2011
Publisher: Penguin Press
Genre: Fiction
Format: ARC (Hardcover)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: 2 out of 5

Sapphire’s second work of fiction, The Kid, begins with the funeral of the protagonist of her first novel, Push (my review here). Precious’s son, Abdul, is nine years old, and in the wake of his mother’s death he faces a terrifying world completely alone.

Throughout the book, he is shuttled from one place to another: foster care; a school for orphaned boys; his great-grandmother’s ancient Harlem apartment; his middle-aged sugar-daddy’s upscale place; a downtown artist’s loft; and finally a mental hospital.

Abdul resolves to do whatever it takes to reach his dream of being a successful dancer, but the path to success is not easy. And just when it seems like he has made it, the side of him that he has kept hidden for too long takes over.

The Kid explores the line between victims and perpetrators and the sometimes self-perpetuating violence of rape. Patterns of sexuality as violence control Abdul’s life; he suffers abuse at the hands of his caregivers, and he begins inflicting abuse on other children.

It is impossible to separate his revenge fantasies from his actual life, and he insists that he only does bad things in his “dreams”; he can’t understand why he would be punished for that. Abdul blends reality and fantasy in a way that reminds me of Black Swan; in fact, he even references “Swan Lake” to describe himself at one point.

Identity is a central, if subtle, theme. While his mother, Precious, never let anyone call her by any other name, Abdul changes names like others change clothes. And just as Precious’s identity stood firm despite what others did to her, Abdul’s identity morphs with every name change.

When he is J.J., he is both a victim and a perpetrator of sexual violence. When he is Arthur or Martin, he uses sex for commercial gain. When he is Crazy Horse, he is a vengeful wild man. Abdul is so jealous of the life he could have had, he does not understand that he is choosing to become someone else–to lose himself–every time he gives up his name.

Furthermore, his sexual identity is tangled up in sexual violence. He despises homosexuality but he embraces it at the same time; the only way he knows how to survive is to offer himself to others, usually men.

He is never able to overcome the divide in his mind that threatens to overwhelm him, because he doesn’t really know who he is. His only goal in life is to find acclaim as a dancer–to be a “beautiful black boy” that everyone loves–but he sacrifices too much of himself to get there.

What impressed me more than Precious’s sense of self was her optimism; no matter what life threw at her, she kept going and reaching for a better life.

Abdul, on the other hand, rails against the injustices of his life. He believes that he would have been different–better–if his mother had lived, if he’d known his father, if he’d had more money like other kids, if, if, if.

He yearns for a “normal life,” and he questions why he “can’t just get a full deck like everybody else.” However, he never stops to think about the changes he has the power to make in order to better his life. Because he never accepts who he really is, he is never able to escape his enduring pain.

His dissociative behavior and strange internal dialogue are strong indicators of a schizophrenic antisocial personality disorder. A protagonist like that is hard to like. (Unless you’re Chuck Palahniuk.) As the book goes on, it becomes harder and harder to want to hear more about him; Abdul is increasingly and unrepentantly violent as his “dream” world and his real world begin to collide.

I only kept reading because of my obsessive desire to finish a book once I’ve started it. I needed to know what would happen to Abdul. But the ending was far from satisfactory; I really have no idea what happened to him or even who he really is, where his twisted “dreams” end and his life begins. And that’s probably the point–he doesn’t know either–but The Kid pushes this trope a little too far.

Sapphire seems to glory in the casual violence, the disappearing boundaries between pain and pleasure and between sanity and madness. And I get that–I like dark and gritty and uncertain. But she seems more intent on shocking readers with intensely graphic scenes than on inspiring any real emotion.

DeNeen Brown, in a review for The Washington Post, commented that “a sensitive reader may want to put the book down and turn away.” I do not consider myself a sensitive reader, but this book horrified and sickened me; I struggled to finish it, and I felt no closer to understanding Abdul after I’d turned the last page.

And to top it all off, you never find out what happened to Little Mongo, his older sister!

Interested? Read it for yourself! Buy The Kid from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle edition).

I receive a very, very small commission when you purchase the book through the above links. Thank you for helping to support my site–and my book addiction!

Or check out what other reviewers on the tour have been saying:

July 5: “That’s Swell!”
July 11: Sarah Reads Too Much
July 12: Books From Bleh to Basically Amazing
July 14: Dreaming in Books
July 18: Wordsmithonia
July 19: All About {n}
July 21: Reviews By Lola
July 26: Tea Time with Marce
July 27: Take Me Away
July 28: Regular Rumination
August 2: BermudaOnion’s Weblog
Date TBD: Reads for Pleasure

“Push” by Sapphire

Title: Push
Author: Sapphire
ISBN: 9780679766759
Pages: 192
Release date: April 29, 1997
Publisher: Knopf
Genre: Fiction
Format: Paperback
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 4 out of 5

Precious Jones is an illiterate young black woman who has never left her native Harlem. She is pregnant with her second child, a product of rape. For her entire life, she’s been abused and overlooked: her parents have both used her sexually and violently; the school system has failed her; and she’s never had a friend, much less a boyfriend. Now, she’s been suspended from her middle school, and the only option her mother suggests is getting on welfare.

But Precious is not about to give up. She is determined to make her life–and, more importantly, the lives of her children–better. The only thing that scares her is becoming like her parents.

She enrolls in an alternative school, where she begins learning to read and write. Her teacher, Ms. Rain, is kind and supportive, and Precious flourishes in her classroom. Precious strives to be a person worth remembering, worth listening to, worth loving. She compares most of her life to a movie with vampires that act and talk and look like real people, but when their pictures are taken they are invisible:

I big, I talk, I eats, I cooks, I laugh, watch TV, do what my muver say. But I can see when the picture come back I don’t exist. Don’t nobody want me. Don’t nobody need me. I know who I am. I know who they say I am–vampire sucking the system’s blood. Ugly black grease to be wipe away, punish, kilt, changed, finded a job for. I wanna say I am somebody. . . . I talk loud but still I don’t exist.

Precious learns more at the alternative school than simply reading and writing; she learns how to change the direction of her life. Along the way, she meets scores of women who have suffered much as she has, and she finds strength as she struggles to find a better life.

At times, Precious’s honesty is brutal:

How cum I’m so young and feel so old. So young like I don’t know nuffin’, so old like I know everything. A girl have her father’s dick in her mouth know things the other girls don’t know but it’s not what you want to know.

This was not an easy book to read, even though it was short. It will keep you up at night thinking about everything Precious endured and overcame.

This book came highly recommended from many of my friends, in whom it doubtless provoked a strong reaction, but few could put into words exactly how it is so powerful and why I should read it. They tried, of course; I’d heard Push was brutal, brilliant, a must-read, incredibly depressing, and eye-opening. And all of that is true. But what I hadn’t heard is how optimistic a book it is.

The reality of Precious’s life will never go away. The things that were done to her, the injustices that she must suffer for the rest of her life, can never be erased. But despite all of that, Precious perseveres. She hopes, she dreams, she laughs. She is a lesson in optimism for anyone who has faced oppression and abuse.

Push is a powerful book. It exposes the pain of abuse and the injustice of public and social services, but more than that, it presents a strong black heroine who takes her own life into her hands, despite what has and will happen to her.

This was made into an award-winning movie, “Precious,” which I have not yet seen. What did you think–did you read the book or see the movie?

Push is the first of 25 books I’m reading for Bookshelf ROWDOWN! I plan to read an entire row of great but neglected books from my personal collection before July 1, 2012.