A decade or so ago, a friend stated that Charlotte would be a "grown-up" literary city when it produced a wide variety of talented writers working in a wealth of styles and worldviews. From what I've seen over the past two or three years, we're now in the time my friend foresaw. As evidence, these fine new books by two Charlotte authors with styles and outlooks that couldn't be more different — a memoir by a longtime local literary figure, and an edgy novel by a relative newcomer. Read them both and you'll see just how broad a scope Charlotte's writers cover.
Losing My Sister: A Memoir by Judy Goldman (John F. Blair, 192 pages, $21.95).
Judy Goldman, veteran poet, novelist, essayist and teacher, has a great talent for close observation, and it shows in her new memoir about her relationship with her late sister Brenda. Goldman candidly unfolds stories from the girls' childhood years in Rock Hill, S.C., through their marriages, children, disputes, illnesses and on to Brenda's death in 2006 of cancer. Their relationship was intense and complex, so that even when Goldman's book traverses familiar events and feelings that many families go through, this particular sisterly connection's unique energy still shines through. When real crises happen — namely, Brenda's bouts with cancer — it all gets ratcheted up several notches, and sensitivities become raw. A perceived slight, perhaps unintentional, wounds more deeply than it should. There's a breaking away for a while. But then a reconciliation occurs that brings more joy than anyone outside the relationship can imagine.
Goldman presents her family history through a collection of small events in the sisters' lives — small, perhaps, but thoroughly parsed and observed by a writer with a poet's eye and mentality. This is tricky territory for a writer. Too much melodrama, and you're flailing in a gooey soap opera. Too much "just the facts, ma'am," and you come across as a cold fish. Goldman saves her memoir from those traps with her precise, poetic lyricism, as her clear-eyed observations evoke the sisters' deep connections. In such physically alive sentences as this one, about their mother in her garden — "Then she'd drag the hose across the lawn, wave it over her flowers like a wand, turning the water into an arc that crossed itself over and over" — Goldman draws in readers to an experience of her family that's both down to earth and ephemeral. Such small portraits fill Losing My Sister, taking readers deeper into Judy and Brenda's intensely shared life stories.
Losing My Sister is the kind of honest, clear-eyed memoir that asks readers to be open to their own experiences, and perhaps even learn something new about themselves. That's a high calling for, and a lot to ask of, a family memoir. Goldman shows in this splendidly subtle work that she's more than up to the task.
The Greatest Unit of Value by Michael Sadoff (Working Class Press, 264 pages, $14.95 paperback).
Author Michael Sadoff's first book is an electric, thoughtful, mile-a-minute and altogether compelling novel of personal adventure. In it, he takes on mental illness, friendship, lost souls, love, the power of words and redemption, while kicking along at a highly readable pace. Unlike most first novels that race from one "big issue" to another, however, The Greatest Unit of Value holds on to its hat while racing down the road.
The story finds Granger Callahan, a veteran of ongoing mental problems, taking life cues from the discarded journal of a young, severely frustrated filmmaker named Zachary Klein. Granger takes off across the country and meets Natalie Chambers, an experienced grifter and drug-hound. Sadoff places the plot within the maelstrom of Granger's troubled, seeking mind, veering from one direction to another to another, sometimes all at once. Sadoff's gift for lively description not only colors the story, it actually serves here as a touchstone for readers who may be occasionally puzzled and unsure of what's happening. It's OK — that's how Granger sees it, too.
Sadoff says he grew up in a house full of shrinks ("both professional and amateur"), so the fact that his first novel is about a brilliant but out-there-crazy protagonist is no surprise. It doesn't, however, explain Sadoff's growth as a writer since years ago, when he placed second in a Creative Loafing fiction contest. Whatever the explanation, the guy's got real depth, a knack for the telling description and powerhouse levels of imagination and heart. Pick this one up and fasten your seat belts.