Short Takes

By Kate Tuttle
Globe Correspondent / May 15, 2011

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By Jennifer Haigh
Harper, 318 pp., $25.99

Jennifer’s Haigh’s powerful new novel, her fourth, is set in a landscape of small suburban Boston towns and the parish churches they cluster around, but its real territory is the deep, sometimes dangerous interplay among family loyalty, religious duty, and truth. The story is voiced by Sheila McGann, the middle child and only daughter in an Irish Catholic family beset by both the average difficulties — divorce, alcoholism, secrets — and a few special torments most families kept secret until the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal broke in the early 2000s.

After years spent away from her pious, needy mother, and increasingly senile father, Sheila returns home after her brother Art, a priest, is accused of molesting a boy. No longer a believer herself, Sheila finds herself unable to judge Art’s guilt or innocence; instead, she ponders the life of a priest, “isolated and weightless,’’ sequestered from human warmth and connection. And she questions a process in which the church “corrals together herds of parentless boys in the throes of hormonal upheaval,’’ along with the toxic inheritance of abuse that unspools over generations. Their other brother, Mike, a former cop and father of three small sons, isn’t hampered by such doubts; his quest to confirm Art’s guilt propels the book’s taut, suspenseful narrative.

If religion is a choice, then family isn’t. Sharp-eyed, sardonic, yet ultimately sympathetic, Haigh’s picture of a family in extremis is both startling and familiar. “Every one of us limps from old wounds,’’ Sheila says of her own clan. “We poke each other’s tender places with a stick.’’

By Pete Hamill
Little, Brown, 288 pp., $26.99

Over the course of one long New York night and day, veteran newspaperman Sam Briscoe finds himself staggered when someone he loves hits the front page. On the very same day, he’s forced to confront the death of the very concept of the front page, at least one made out of newsprint. In veteran newspaperman Pete Hamill’s new novel, no character has just one cross to bear, one death to mourn. Perhaps to match its setting, the book is full of big, lurid trouble, conveyed in the bluntest tough-guy terms possible. The plot throws together newspaper folk, terrorists, cops, homeless veterans, an aging painter, a patron of the arts, and other assorted New York types as they hurry about, colliding with one another in acts of lust, commerce, and crime.

The story is at times implausible, and the characters tend toward cliché, but Hamill’s love for the vanished world of New York newspapers is infectious. Anyone who ever dreamed of becoming the next Woodward and Bernstein, or who thrilled to Rosalind Russell’s performance in “His Girl Friday,’’ will likely be charmed by Briscoe’s regarding his old manual typewriter as a “holy relic’’ or the old rewrite man (a woman) who fondly remembers the city room in the days when everyone could smoke there. Like the tabloids it celebrates, “Tabloid City’’ doesn’t aim for high literary style or gravitas; it goes for simple truths about human nature, the kind that come out in full relief only when someone dies, or kills, or loses a job, or falls in love. It’s a beach book for those who’d rather be in a smoky bar — even if only in memory — than any beach.

By Melissa Fay Greene
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 368 pp., $26

Calvin Trillin once wrote that families always operate under stated or unstated themes, one of which is: “There are simply too damn many of us to make this thing work.’’ With nine children, Melissa Fay Greene’s family could easily feel that way — or it could seem, as she frets at times, less like a family than like a group home. But despite some rough patches — fewer, it seems, than in many families with only a couple of children — that never happens. In this utterly winning memoir, Greene chronicles her family’s evolution from a fairly conventional four children to nine, five of them adopted internationally (four from Ethiopia, one from Bulgaria).

Greene, an Atlanta-based journalist who has written about race, history, and the South, is enormously sensitive to how children think and feel, and equally open when chronicling her own emotions. Greene describes one monster tantrum when daughter Helen, newly arrived from Ethiopia, wants a Coke she isn’t allowed (at age 5) to have: “Helen and I sat on the floor, locked together by my straining arms, and howling like infants. I sobbed: Life is ruined. She bawled: I really wanted that Coke. ’’

This is emphatically not a how-to book, but it’s rich in both concrete and philosophical advice about adoption and parenting in general. When her youngest four sons lock themselves into a weeks-long brotherly grudge match, she agonizes, strategizes, talks to them, and finally waits it out. But family peace is always fragile; each fight, she points out, “offered a chance to emerge at a slightly better, closer level.’’ Over and over, Greene writes, she reminds her children “that a life guided by friendliness, patience, and forgiveness is happier than one warped by old resentments, a sense of victimization, and a desire for revenge.’’ By the book’s end, many readers will find themselves either yearning to adopt or wishing their own mother had been more like Greene.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at