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Book reviews: Gellhorn, The Family Fang, Faith 

Works by Caroline Moorehead, Kevin Wilson and Jennifer Haigh

It may feel like beach weather outside, but to meteorologists and the book industry, it's still spring — meaning it's a great time to pick up paperback editions of some excellent books. Here are two such books, one of them a new, welcome re-release of a wonderful biography that shouldn't have been allowed to go out of print in the first place.

Gellhorn: A Twentieth-Century Life by Caroline Moorehead (Holt, 496 pages, $20).

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Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998) was one of the most interesting people of the last century, and it's great that this terrific bio of her has been re-released to coincide with the release of a new HBO film, Hemingway and Gellhorn. The two writers met shortly before the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s; they covered that war together, each producing some of his/her best work. A proud independence was one of Gellhorn's best features, as Hemingway found out when he asked her, "Are you a war correspondent or wife in my bed?" She left him. She went on to cover other conflicts of the war-crazed 20th century, from WWII to Vietnam, and covered the discovery of the Nazis' concentration camps as well as the Nuremberg trials. She was a brilliant reporter, creating gorgeous, insightful prose that was relentlessly true, no matter the price to her own preconceptions. All the while, she managed to get herself into every center of activity, while having to negotiate the daft sexual politics that made her job twice as difficult as any male writer's. Her private life, though, was always a mess for a variety of reasons, but mostly as the price she paid for her solitary nature and, yes, thinking she was as good as any man.

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson (Ecco, 336 pages, $13.99).

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Caleb and Camille Fang are acclaimed performance artists in this smart, alternately grim and hilarious novel of a family that makes art out of dysfunction and rides it off the rails. Buster Fang and his older sister, Annie, are Caleb and Camile's kids. They grew up as "Child B" and "Child A" in their family's celebrated public art performances, which largely consisted of creating public disturbances of various sorts, and then recording and dissecting the reactions and chaos they unleash. Annie and Buster try to break free from their fate as artful co-conspirators but fail, until their parents suddenly disappear from a highway rest stop, wiping out whatever thin line still existed for them between art and life. Years later, Annie and Buster are grown, their lives are a big mess, and so they find their parents and move back in with them. Trouble is, as the awkward return home unfolds, Annie and Buster get the impression that their parents could be ensnaring them into one last big performance art piece. Author Kevin Wilson's insights and heart lead us to consider, and even value, the unpredictable border between creativity and destructiveness.

Faith by Jennifer Haigh (Harper, 352 pages, $14.99).

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Author Jennifer Haigh places her novel largely in Boston during the 2002 Boston Archdiocese sex abuse scandals. She makes church leaders' careless arrogance crystal clear, but her focus is on the lives of an Irish Catholic family in Boston. That family includes Sheila McGann, the primary narrator and half-sister of 50-something Rev. Art Breen, who is accused of the sexual abuse of an 8-year-old boy, and told to leave his parish. Sheila flies home to Boston, ready to defend her brother — which is where the novel starts taking one unpredictable, though believable, turn after another. Haigh weaves together Sheila's memories of growing up in a strong Catholic family in Boston (she has since left the church) with her own attempts to objectively figure out what's going on. The realities and unexpected consequences of family life, cultural traditions, class differences and the role of faith, both secular and spiritual, are all portrayed skillfully, even beautifully, by Haigh. She elicits the shades of gray imbedded in her story with subtle characterizations and short, sharp observations; and also delivering the sledgehammer blows needed to remind us that, notwithstanding the gray moral shades of life, some values are compromised, or shaded, at the risk of our humanity.

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