Sarah Goodrum

Jon McGregor's first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, focuses on one block in a city street and one horrible event of the recent past, the details of which are concealed until the end of the book. McGregor reveals this place from two points of view first, through a young woman who was a witness to the event in question. The second point of view is that of the neighborhood itself, an all-seeing consciousness that seems to arise from the silences and sounds of the block and looks into the visible and interior worlds of its inhabitants.

Through this lens, the reader sees that horrible day, beginning with college kids who drift home at dawn from the clubs and moving forward, through morning tea, children going out to play, a lonely man collecting urban artifacts, a couple in their bedroom, people with regrets, fears and secrets. What weaves these people together and turns a collected heap of discrete activities into a cohesive narrative is the fast-approaching terrible event. We are drawn, with dread, toward the inevitable moment when the curtains will be pulled back and we will witness this occurrence for ourselves.

The writing here is absolutely resplendent, the work of a true seer, who does for urban England what John Cheever did for Westchester County. McGregor intimately understands his subjects and portrays them in all their specificity, their poetry and their shortcomings. He paints his setting with achingly vivid detail and attention, avoiding broad strokes. McGregor has rewritten the rules of structure and dramatic action, letting the drama of the unknown event seep backward into the entire day that preceded it. The reader has the chance to do what no unknowing human can: to realize that everything is about to change and to pay informed attention to the way things are just before a critical event, to walk the line between the ordinary and the revelatory. There is a hint of magic realism here, but in this truly singular work of fiction, one ultimately finds something that is simply magically real.

Jon McGregor's first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, focuses on one block in a city street and one horrible event of the recent past, the details of which are concealed until the end of the book. McGregor reveals this place from two points of view first, through a young woman who was a […]

Some boys idolize baseball players and make pilgrimages to Fenway Park. Others idolize Hemingway, collect first editions and dream of seeing their own names on the covers of great books. It's these literary aesthetes in the making who populate the boarding school world of Old School, Tobias Wolff's first novel.

The author of the stunning memoir This Boy's Life gives us the story of an unnamed boy vying for a place in a world beyond his demographic, among those who were bred to inhabit hallowed halls. Wolff paints an authentic picture of life in an upper-crust boy's boarding school, with all its tradition and nostalgic ritual. The narrative revolves around the boys' obsession with the literary, and, in particular, with the visiting writers who visit the campus. More revered than presidents, these writers bestow the greatest honor imaginable when they choose the best poem or story submitted and hold a private audience with its author. There's a manic devotion that takes hold of the boys as they anticipate these events, and our hero is right there with them. As Robert Frost and Ayn Rand make their appearances, the dissonance between their idealized images as great writers and their true selves makes its mark, but does not dim his love for the next and final visitor: Hemingway himself. In the end, it's our hero's love for writers and the image of himself as a part of this literary brotherhood that clouds his judgment and allows him to make a fatal mistake one that alienates him from the very world he loves. Years after this stunning loss, the narrator discovers his unlikely partner in deception a man whose own misstep nearly cost him his place at the school, too. Only these two seemingly disparate men share this tremendous weight of awestruck love for school and the life of the mind, and only they would have lied to preserve it. This literary coming-of-age story will resonate with readers. Sarah Goodrum writes from Nashville.

Some boys idolize baseball players and make pilgrimages to Fenway Park. Others idolize Hemingway, collect first editions and dream of seeing their own names on the covers of great books. It's these literary aesthetes in the making who populate the boarding school world of Old School, Tobias Wolff's first novel. The author of the stunning […]

The thing about good comedy and silliness, the kind that endures, is that it takes a truly accomplished, adaptable author to pull it off, all the while making it look easy. Ron Hansen, the acclaimed author of such serious literary works as Mariette in Ecstasy, has given us the gift of well-wrought fun in Isn't it Romantic?, a literary confection he spun, in part, out of his own need for levity after the tragedies of 9/11. And what better way to deliver this ode to the charm, strangeness and warm familiarity of “normal” America than through the eyes of an equally charming outsider? Natalie Clairvaux, a beautiful young Parisian woman with a love for all things American, has chosen an atypical vacation America by sightseeing bus. Her tour features such thrilling sights as Goodyear's World of Rubber in Ohio, Herbert Hoover's birthplace in Iowa and the home of the grandmother who won the Tiniest Handwriting Contest a far cry from the typical European tourist's itinerary of “shopping in New York” and “Mickey Mouse in Orlando,” as her French travel agent puts it. And these quaintly unusual, mundane curiosities are, for Natalie, the antidote to the polish of trips to Avignon or Aix with her snobby fiancŽ, Pierre. They remind her of tales told by her grandmother, Sophie, who thought of the American soldiers stationed in her town during WWII as movie stars. When Pierre tracks Natalie down in Nebraska, looking around him with the ticks and sneers of a royal among peasants, they quarrel and set a deadline to decide whether they should marry after all. At that, Natalie and her red-wheeled suitcase march off into the dust toward the town of Seldom (pop. 395), and Pierre has no choice but to follow her. In Seldom, our travelers happen upon the local diner the beehive-like hub of the town's quirky but lively social activity and are quickly installed as the King and Queen of the annual “Revels,” a festival to honor the town's French founder, Bernard LeBoeuf. Pierre is ushered off by Owen, Nebraska's only master vintner, and Natalie is whisked away to the local no-men-allowed boardinghouse by Marvyl Christiansen, the local retired French teacher. Here ensues a true culture clash, full of all the romance, confusion and poetry that comes when sophistication meets true salt-of-the-earth charm. As Natalie is politely pursued by Dick Tupper, a Byronesque cattle rancher, Pierre is tempted by Iona, local beauty and diner waitress who is secretly coveted by Carlo Bacon, the diner's cook. Friendships form quickly and seamlessly amid misunderstandings, secret plots, high hopes and injured feelings. It is the Revels, after all, and throughout the story, there is a kind of whirling, flirtatious vividness to life in Seldom and its unpredictable inhabitants. Without giving one delicious crumb of the plot away, I will say that this mingling of cultures and personalities produces much humor, beauty and simply delightful humanity. For those who would sample this sweet story and find it too sugary, I say lighten up, pour it over your diner pancakes and dig in. Sarah Goodrum writes from Nashville.

The thing about good comedy and silliness, the kind that endures, is that it takes a truly accomplished, adaptable author to pull it off, all the while making it look easy. Ron Hansen, the acclaimed author of such serious literary works as Mariette in Ecstasy, has given us the gift of well-wrought fun in Isn't […]

There's a kind of providence in the weather, an overarching yet unpredictable order to which all creatures bend. In Jean Thompson's new novel, Wide Blue Yonder, events take the shape of a weather system with a handful of characters spinning around the storm's center namely, Harvey, a.k.a. "Local Forecast," the unknowing fulcrum and catalyst of it all. He's a sweet, elderly and mentally challenged man who repeats the Weather Channel's reports like a litany. Harvey is great-uncle to 17-year-old Josie and uncle to her father, Frank. It's the discovery that Harvey is developing cataracts, and may soon be too blind to care for himself, that starts the winds of these unremarkable lives swirling.

As Frank and his wife Elaine argue about what to do with Harvey, Josie begins an obsession with a local policeman that lands her in trouble, leaving her mother grasping for control over the girl. Meanwhile, Rolando, a man with one foot in reality and the other in the warped twilight of a madman, begins an odyssey in L.A. which leads him to rob, shoot and snarl his way east. At the center of it all sits Harvey, wrestling with memories of a disturbing childhood and half-lit years in a mental ward. In a twist that puts him and his grand-niece in a strange symmetry, both straining against the people who make their decisions for them, Harvey finds love. As unbelievable as a full-scale intersection of these characters would seem, that's exactly what we get by the end of Wide Blue Yonder, just in time for the appearance of a real tropical storm named Harvey on the radar screens of the Weather Channel. Thompson, a National Book Award finalist last year for her short story collection Who Do You Love, is a master of timing, of the rhythm of speech and thought. She leaves the reader rapt, feeling the chill in the air, the flicker of nerves down the spine, the sink of the stomach out of fear or love. It's not just the turbulence of the events that evokes thunderstorm imagery, but the degree to which each character plunges forward, following a path as inevitable as the jet stream.

Sarah Goodrum is a writer and editor in Nashville.

There's a kind of providence in the weather, an overarching yet unpredictable order to which all creatures bend. In Jean Thompson's new novel, Wide Blue Yonder, events take the shape of a weather system with a handful of characters spinning around the storm's center namely, Harvey, a.k.a. "Local Forecast," the unknowing fulcrum and catalyst of […]

One of the beauties of fiction is its ability to invite us into moments we could never witness in reality, into circumstances far beyond our experience. How clearly this beauty is illustrated and exploited by Lydia Millet in her new novel, My Happy Life. It's the story of one woman's life, as spoken or written from her locked room in an abandoned mental hospital. The staff and patients are gone, but no one has thought to come for our narrator. She is left with nothing but the water in the bathroom to keep her alive, her few possessions and the last light from two flickering light bulbs to fend off windowless darkness.

We come to know that the dreary room is not unlike her life. She began as a foundling in a shoebox, shuttled from one foster family to the next. "You are extra," the women in the state home told her, "Nobody needs you." No stranger to abuse from an early age, she is subjected to rape, kidnapping, abandonment and staggering neglect. Everything that she manages to love is either taken from her or is, itself, the source of more pain.

Despite the real beauty of the writing, there are points where the narrator's voice stretches too thin over the circumstances, becoming unrealistically erudite for an uneducated woman. Yet there could hardly be a more difficult character to create, one of the throng of homeless in our cities, shuffled in and out of our mental health system, marginalized and forgotten. Within these pages, Millet enters a world where the "invisible" of society exist, punished when they attempt to become part of the foreground.

Although she focuses on the horror of this woman's life, Millet also conveys the woman's capacity for love for her attackers, who at least want to be close to her, for those who would use her and ignore her, no matter how loathsome they might be.

Never shrinking from the bald sadness of this woman's life, Millet stays true to the character's unending supply of hope, both wise and childlike. In doing so, she proves herself a delicate and fearless writer with an uncommon voice.

One of the beauties of fiction is its ability to invite us into moments we could never witness in reality, into circumstances far beyond our experience. How clearly this beauty is illustrated and exploited by Lydia Millet in her new novel, My Happy Life. It's the story of one woman's life, as spoken or written […]

If you want to be lost in the atmospherics and intrigues of Victorian literature, to be spellbound by the secrets that lurk in the lives of the aristocracy, look to Wilkie Collins or the Brontes. If you want to see the tried and true elements of such novels stretched as canvas on the frame of the modern British world, look to Josephine Hart. In The Reconstructionist, the author of the acclaimed Damage gives us her view on the power secrets have to undo us.

Jack Harrington, a psychiatrist specializing in victims of trauma, is himself traumatized. As young children, he and his younger sister, Kate, lost their mother and were taken from their home in Ireland after a horrific and mysterious event left them estranged from all save their grandfather's brother, who raised them in London. Jack also bears a burden even greater than memory one which is kept deliciously just out of the reader's reach until its discovery wields shocking dramatic power. When the family home in Ireland comes up for sale, the truth about what destroyed Jack and Kate's idyllic youth screams to be confronted. To free Kate from a shadowy past and to give himself the closure he needs to live a full life, Jack will have to dismantle the carefully wrought reconstruction of the events he has been wearing like a shield for more than 20 years.

Jack's psychiatry practice is a rich backdrop for the novel, with ample opportunities for exploration of the human response to trauma. Without it, Jack's coldly methodical approach to horror and emotional injury might have made it difficult for the reader to find an emotional point of entry. A certain poreless surface to Jack's resolve first makes him seem aloof and unkind, and, as we begin to know him, becomes chilling.

Josephine Hart's style is nearly cinematic in its immediacy. Her ending has a subtlety, a quiet approach to a blaring discovery, that makes putting the book down unthinkable. Overall, The Reconstructionist is a razor-sharp read.

Sarah Goodrum is a writer and editor in Nashville.

 

If you want to be lost in the atmospherics and intrigues of Victorian literature, to be spellbound by the secrets that lurk in the lives of the aristocracy, look to Wilkie Collins or the Brontes. If you want to see the tried and true elements of such novels stretched as canvas on the frame of […]

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