Dear Blog Readers,

Jane Isenberg

Jane Isenberg

Sorry about all the posts, but it’s taken me a while to get it right. I’m doing an on-line interview about The Bones and the Book this Wednesday, November 12 at 4pm west coast time and at 7pm for those of you on the other coast. If you’re in the middle, I’ll be on at 6pm. You can listen and call in and ask me questions! Pam Stack is a terrific interviewer and reader. Here’s the CORRECT link: https:http://www.blogtalkradio.com/authorsontheair/2014/11/13/author-jane-isenberg-discusses-her-books-on-authors-on-the-air.  And here’s the phone number: 347-633-9609. I’d love to chat with you.

Meanwhile, I’m now starting Chapter 11 of my next book! I’m working slowly and enjoying the process.

Again, thanks for your patience and your interest.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Dear Blog Readers,

Jane Isenberg

Jane Isenberg

As you know, I’ve not written to a single muse recently. That’s because we’ve had visitors here and been visiting elsewhere. In between visits, I’ve made a little progress on my new book, but not nearly enough.  I hope July and August will find me hunkered down at the PC writing, writing, writing.

Meanwhile, I was just interviewed by Susan Wingate for blogtalkradio. This interview was a bit different from my last one because Susan, a writer herself, was very interested in all of my books, not only the most recent.  If you’d like to listen to it, here’s the link:

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/authorsontheair/2014/06/26/womens-fiction-author-jane-isenberg-on-dialogue-between-the-lines

Thanks for your patience and enjoy the summer.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Dear Blog Readers,

I’m almost done with a draft of a draft of chapter five of my new book project and I’m really enjoying writing. So it’s hard to take a break to tell you how much I enjoy reading the next writer I’m going to thank, a writer I came to through research and stayed with because I still have a lot to learn from him about storytelling. Meanwhile, here’s a link to a  recent review of The Bones and the Book from Storysparks, the book/story blog of writer Jane Kirkpatrick who archived it on her rich and interesting website. You have to scroll down a bit to find the review, but it’s there under the title Word Whispers. http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs134/1102964308331/archive/1116500847717.html

And to those of you who have endured the blasts and bruises of a windy, white winter, take heart. Spring is here! And I hope it is also there, where you are, too.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Dear Blog Readers,

Portland, Oregon radio host Ed Goldberg interviewed me about The Bones and the Book for Author! Author! and here’s the link: http://www.allclassical.org/author-author/jane-isenberg/

Ed’s a very skilled interviewer, so it was fun chatting with him.

I’m working hard on a new book now, so I post blogs less frequently, but you’ll see another note to a muse soon.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

4 Comments

Filed under feminist fiction, Historical mystery, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction, mystery, Uncategorized, Western novel

Dear Laura Ingalls Wilder,

Little House in the Big Woods

Little House in the Big Woods

Everything I learned about what an American family should be like, I learned from your Little House books, and I loved learning it! Thank you for teaching me all about ideal parenting, nature, and pioneering in the America that lies west of New Jersey. Now that I actually live in a leafy green burb about as far west of The Garden State as one can get, I sometimes feel a bit like a pioneer myself. Then I recall your books and smile.

I never told my parents, but they often didn’t measure up to Laura’s Pa and Ma, especially in the do-it-yourself department. I loved the way her Pa

Pa's Fiddle

Pa’s Fiddle

can put up a house, put together a bed, and, with the help of a few neighbors, make a barn happen. When the pantry is empty, he just goes out and shoots a wild turkey or deer and voila! dinner’s on the table which, of course, he’s crafted himself. After the meal, he plays the

Pioneer Woman

Pioneer Woman

fiddle and sings and tells stories, so they don’t need a TV. And her Ma’s no slouch as a DIYer either. Without a single appliance, she manages to skin, pluck, and cook whatever Pa shoots and provides delicious gravy and sides. She thinks nothing of spending days on her knees hulling corn for a special seasonal dish or waiting for the sap to flow to provide sugar. She sews, knits, or crochets all their clothes and linens, milks cows, and hauls water for laundry that she hangs on shrubs or prairie grass to dry.

Unlike Laura’s Pa, my dad seldom built anything, but occasionally managed to steady a wobbly table, blow up a bike tire, or open a sticky-lidded jar. He had a few hammers, wrenches, screw drivers, and pliers which he arranged in orderly rows in a “workshop” in the basement. Confronted with a leak or a power problem, he’d utter a stream of profanity and call a plumber or electrician. When I was seven he and my uncle sheet rocked our attic and turned it into a bedroom and a bathroom so he and my mother could move upstairs when my grandfather came to live with us. My uncle was unemployed at the time, but my dad had to be in the office, so his role, enacted on evenings and weekends, was more supervisory than hands-on. I was an adult before I realized how smart you have to be to supervise somebody performing a task you have no clue how to do yourself.

Bendix

Bendix

Like Laura’s Ma, my mom could do a lot of housewifely things. She was a splendid cook who kept up-to-date by going to New York to take lessons in Chinese and French cooking. She could bake anything. And whatever she cleaned, which was everything, stayed that way. But often she didn’t feel up to cooking or cleaning, and we had no word for depression back then. She wanted to return to teaching, but my dad disapproved, and we had no word for feminism then either. Perhaps she figured that if her domestic prowess couldn’t keep her beloved husband from straying, why bother. So she got him to agree to hire a live-in housekeeper/cook whom she taught to do what she no longer had the heart for.

Most amazing of all, Laura’s parents never argue or complain about all the work they have to do, while mine─ whose lives seemed pretty cushy in comparison─ fought and kvetched a lot. So all this ideal family stuff in your books could have struck me as dull and sermon-like had you not fashioned each chapter around Laura’s take on an exciting event and used the seasons, senses, settings, and struggles that are the stuff of pioneer life to keep young readers interested. I always admired your informative and lively writing, as in this description of bedtime in Little House in the Big Woods.

Ma kissed them both and tucked the covers in around them. They lay there awhile, looking at Ma’s smooth, parted hair and her hands busy with sewing in the lamplight. Her needle made little clicking sounds against her thimble and then the thread went softly, swish! through the pretty calico that Pa had traded furs for.

Laura looked at Pa, who was greasing his boots. His moustaches and his hair and his long brown beard were silky in the lamplight, and the colors of his plaid jacket were gay. He whistled cheerfully while he worked and then he sang.

  So imagine my surprise when I read A Wilder Rose, a recent novel by Susan Wittig Albert, based on your letters and diaries and those of your daughter Rose Wilder Lane. In her Author’s Note which precedes the novel, Albert tells us that A Wilder Rose is

the tale of two exceptional women: a mother who had a fascinating pioneer story to tell but whose writing skills were not up to the challenge of shaping and polishing it for publication; and a daughter, a gifted and much published author who had both the skill to turn her mother’s stories into memorable books and the publishing connections that would get them into print.

A Wilder Rose

A Wilder Rose

Albert’s novel is rich in details of the Depression and of your life and that of Rose, your daughter and, ultimately, your editor. As a

Editor at Work

Editor at Work

writer, a daughter, and mother of a daughter, I was fascinated by the forces that drove each of you to undertake and continue a contentious collaboration. Albert has done a splendid job of researching and contextualizing this partnership and turning it into an exciting novel of her own that is worthy of its two talented writer-subjects.

While I was surprised to learn the significance of Rose’s contribution to the books that I loved as a little girl, this knowledge did not make me love those books any less. You knew you had moving and memorable stories to tell, and I’m grateful to you for doing what you had to do to tell them and share them with me.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

3 Comments

Filed under American classic, Children's book, Memoir, Uncategorized, Western novel

Dear Sandra Dallas,

True Sisters

True Sisters

Thank you for True Sisters.  As a new member of Women Writing the West, I read it to prepare to attend that organization’s 19th annual conference where both you and I would receive Willa Awards. When we met, I told you how much I enjoyed your stirring novel, but there wasn’t time to tell you why. There are several reasons. While reading it, I felt as if I were striding along beside your fictional Mormon women pulling a handcart through the snow on their real and perilous trek from Iowa City to Salt Lake City during the freezing winter of 1856.

Who knew from handcarts? Not this New Jersey native, still trying to fill in the canyon-sized gaps in her knowledge of western history. But I soon learned

Handcart

Handcart

that these flimsy contraptions designed to carry things and to be open to the elements were the cash-poor pioneers’ covered wagons and all that the Mormon Church could afford. The few novels I’ve read featuring Mormons have been written by lapsed Mormons. Not surprisingly most Mormons they’ve written about are also of the lapsed variety, but in your acknowledgements you explain that you are not a Mormon, and in your novel the women and men pushing those puny uncured wood carts up snow-covered mountains and across frozen rivers are not lapsed.

Most are true believers including Louisa who considers her husband, their leader, to be god’s spokesperson. Jessie, who loves farm life, is tired of the dried-up

Mormon Missionaries in England

Mormon Missionaries in England

church and farmland of England, so she finds the young Mormon religion and fertile American soil appealing. Nannie and Ella, two Scottish sisters, are also drawn to the new American religion. Ella is swayed by the Mormons’ claim that theirs is the “pure religion Our Lord founded so long ago” and Nannie is persuaded by the rhetoric of an engaging young male missionary. Something of a cynic, I was struck by both the effectiveness of the missionaries’ pitch and the credulity of those who buy it. Anne, a pregnant mother, is the only one of the women you detail who is not moved to become a Mormon. Nonetheless Anne feels compelled to leave her home in England to follow her husband and children to America after he sells their family business without consulting her. Before reading True Sisters, I had no idea that Mormon missionaries proselytized abroad, but they did, and so these women and their families are not only pioneers, but emigrants as well.

And emigrants are just a vowel away from immigrants whose stories I know, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that their losses begin on the transatlantic crossing when Anne’s young daughter falls ill and dies. The loss of a child is unbearable and yet must be borne. This little girl’s death is just the first of many losses suffered on this terrible journey. Like most emigrants, they bring with them a few precious items from the homes they left, but to make room in the small carts for the aged and infirm, foodstuffs, and other necessities, they repeatedly have to leave behind their treasured mementos in piles beside the trail.

But there are far worse losses. Many fall victim to hunger, illness, cold, and injury. Near the end of their trek, those still alive are stacking not only belongings,

Woman Pulling Handcart

Woman Pulling Handcart

but bodies “like logs in the snow.” Death is gender blind, but childbearing is not. Pulling a hand cart is especially hard if you’re pregnant. So is starving. And breastfeeding. And what about giving birth in the snow by the side of that same handcart?  The now verboten Mormon practice of “celestial marriage” or polygamy was not gender blind either. The prospect of being taken as a sister-wife or having one’s husband take a sister-wife haunts the women. A few live seemingly contentedly as sister-wives, but being a sister-wife is no woman’s first choice.

In Memoriam Brigham Young

In Memoriam Brigham Young

Because many of the problems the travelers face are the fault of their leaders who are all men, you make it clear without being in the least didactic that female leaders might have made different decisions and that patriarchy itself is flawed. Even so True Sisters is not an anti-Mormon screed. And thanks to your careful reading of archival material, your sense of balance, detailed description, and convincing dialogue, the story you tell about this awful journey is ultimately uplifting. We see the women bond to help one another and their men bear the painful experiences they share. These are tough, smart, and resilient women, true sisters to one another and true heroes to us all. And you give them powerful voices to tell of their experiences so they can take their deserved places in the pantheon of western heroes and so they can inform and inspire transplanted writers like me.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

6 Comments

Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, feminist fiction, Immigrant story, Western novel

Dear Blog Readers,

Have posted a guest blog at http://writinghorses.blogspot.com about what inspired me to write The Bones and the Book . Writing Horses is one of the blogs mystery writer Susan Schreyer posts, and she’s included a few pictures of yours truly engaged in research for my next book. Soon I’ll be back with another note to another muse. Meanwhile, stay well and accept my belated wishes for good health, good fortune, and good books in 2014.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Dear Sherman Alexie,

Reservation Blues

Reservation Blues

Thank you for Reservation Blues which was recommended to me by a friend who knows I’m researching the Yakama Nation. I was a little skeptical about how a book about the Spokanes would illuminate the Yakama Nation, but I figure both Washington tribes share gripes with history and maybe, like Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, their many differences are not as great as their similarities. In your moving and marvelous novel, one of the marvels you conjure up for the reader by way of magical realism is Robert Johnson coming back from the dead to bring the blues to the Spokane Indian Reservation. He inspires Thomas-Builds-the Fire, a young tribal storyteller whose stories “climbed into your clothes like sand, gave you itches that could not be scratched,” and two young friends, Victor Joseph and Junior Polatkin, to form a band they name Coyote Spring. We root for Coyote Spring to succeed, make them rich and famous, and liberate them from the rez. They could use a break. Victor was orphaned early, abused, and lives to bully, gamble, drink, and fantasize about money. His sidekick Junior, who’s supposed to be pretty smart, dropped out of college and drives a Bureau of Indian Affairs water truck on the rez when he’s not drinking and bullying. These two may be drunk, disorderly, undereducated, and violent, but, like Thomas, they’re also musically talented, loyal, courageous, generous, humorous, and eager for love.

Tribal Storyteller

Tribal Storyteller

 Audiences flock to hear Coyote Spring, but still, the band fails. Its failure is a reenactment of the betrayal of Native Americans by whites. The treacherous executives of the recording studio are named after the generals Wright and Sheridan who orchestrated long ago battles in one of which the tribe’s horses were slain, insuring that they would have trouble defending themselves, and offering unfair treaties. The band’s failure is also due, perhaps, to the fact that Coyote Springs is not a real “Indian” band. The blues and rock ‘n’ roll they play are not indigenous to them, but borrowed from another oppressed group. Even Robert Johnson’s efforts to help the band ultimately fail, perhaps because his own people still need help themselves.

Slaughter of Spokane Tribal Horses

Slaughter of Spokane Tribal Horses

Pundits and professors often lament the fact that so many Americans are ignorant of our own history. It is noteworthy that each band member, no matter how drunk or damaged, knows the tribe’s history, knows the details of hopeless battles fought and lost, treaties broken, spirits crushed, identities erased. Each of them knows this litany of losses, knows he once had land, a living language, music, and religion, and lots of life-sustaining salmon in clean and close-by rivers. And Native Americans do not overlook our entwined histories any more than Palestinians ignore the historic tangle that underlies their relationship with Israel. Your novel is enriched by the way you work tribal history and culture into every layer of your story. You capture tribal culture as it is: the drinking, the gaming, the perpetual hunger, the barely habitable homes, the complex relationships between the Indian and the white man, not to mention the white woman, and the overwhelming hopelessness.

But you also include vestiges of the tribe’s more vibrant and viable past. One of these vestiges is Big Mom, a modern medicine woman who embodies that past in her large frame and even larger heart. She uses their own past to strengthen the inhabitants of the rez. At the end when Thomas, his girlfriend, and her sister finally leave what’s left of Thomas’s ancestral home for Spokane, their spirits are buoyed by the presence of the historically significant “shadow horses”  resurrected and galloping beside their truck.

You’re a poet too, so each chapter in this book is prefaced by a song/poem that sets the reader up for the events to come. My favorite is the one that introduces the final chapter in which one band member is buried and another leaves the rez for good. The poem, a lament for the many who do not survive reservation life and a call to action, begins, “I saw ten people die before I was ten years old/And I knew how to cry before I was ever born/Wake alive, alive, wake alive, alive . . .” Hell, I know families whose pets live better than the kids born on the res. A lot better. And since I’ve moved to Washington, I’m aware of this inequality in a way that I wasn’t in New Jersey. Perhaps that’s because here only a few generations have elapsed since we waged those battles and broke those treaties. The wounds still bleed, the losses still hurt, and in Reservation Blues it seems as if those on the losing side still suffer from PTSD while we winners enjoy amnesia.

The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian

The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian

With help from storytellers like you, we Americans face the genocide that, like slavery, is part of our history. Your stories in The New Yorker and your award-winning books for kids and adults arm the survivors struggling on the reservations while informing the rest of us how America looks to its victims. That you manage to make this terrible mirror an engrossing and memorable read is nothing short of miraculous.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

2 Comments

Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, Native American Novel, Uncategorized, Western novel

Dear Joan Leegant,

Wherever You Go

Wherever You Go

Thank you for Wherever You Go, the first selection of my synagogue’s newly formed book group. According to the book jacket your novel is about three American Jews who venture to Israel: Yona seeks forgiveness from her sister who is living on a settlement, Mark, a recovered drug dealer turned Orthodox but now losing his faith, is after spiritual renewal, and Aaron, a college dropout with serious daddy issues, yearns for acceptance. I’ve never visited Israel, so I hoped to learn a lot about that country and its place in the mental landscape of assorted American Jews, and I did.

You open the book with Yona’s arrival in Jerusalem’s airport. Your description is so vivid I can visualize the “sea of Hasidim in inky black hats as if a

Jerusalem Airport

Jerusalem Airport

flock of crows had swooped down and settled on everyone’s heads.” I can hear the loudspeakers “blaring in five languages” and the security officer’s clipped bark, “You. Miss. You.” Later with Yona as my guide, I visit one of the infamous settlements I read about in the newspapers, the ones built by Israelis in defiance of reason, peace prospects, and law. Again you make me see this immaculate and grassy oasis of gated and guarded security, an American-style suburb, a theme-park-like in-your-face place plunked down in the desert. But what Yona finds inside her sister’s house is not so idyllic. She “made out a front room stuffed with furniture and toys and

Israeli Settlement

Israeli Settlement

mounds of laundry. The shutters of the back doors had been closed against the sun. Somewhere a fan cranked loudly. The smells of garlic and cooking oil hung in the air, and then Yona picked up another odor, more pungent, human. Diapers. Unwashed. Ripening in the triple digit heat.” Although I have not yet and probably never will set foot in these places, I feel as if I know them.

And I know your characters too, especially Yona who made a big mistake years ago and seeks her sister’s forgiveness and her own redemption in Israel. She interests me because I’m researching a book in which the central character, another contemporary American Jew about Yona’s age, also made a grave mistake years ago. She has never been forgiven by the family she wronged or forgiven herself but, when the occasion arises, she sees the possibility of redemption. My as yet unnamed protagonist will leave her home as Yona does. She will travel not to Israel but to a place right here in America that, like Israel, has a certain biblical resonance, a bloody history, and its fair share of violent extremists.

So as I read your account of Yona’s quest and the characters she encounters, I paid attention to how you brought them together, how you kept me turning pages, and

Fairy Dust

Fairy Dust

how you fabricated a meaningful and satisfying ending. I also appreciated how you allowed for Yona’s maturation as she lives out her story. When we meet her she is an assistant in an art gallery fresh from a trip to St. Martin in the company of the most recent in her string of wealthy married lovers. At the end she sees the possibility of a more meaningful job and relationship. I’m not sure how realistic her new romance is, but everything else in the book is so ripped from the gritty grim headlines that I welcomed a little fairy dust in the love life department. I say Bravo! And bravo too for the meaningful names you give your characters and for reminding us just how far-reaching the consequences of poor parenting can be.

Your novel raises many significant questions. Can a democracy survive its violent extremists?  How does a country atone for a history of blood

Oklahoma City, After

Oklahoma City, After

and betrayal? Can an individual human being find redemption and forgiveness for her or his own errors of diligence and/or judgment? These are the same questions I am wrangling with in my head as I research my next book. Thank you for showing me that they can be the undertow that powers a gripping and important story.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

Leave a comment

Filed under feminist fiction, Jewish fiction, Uncategorized

Dear Ivan Doig,

Work Song

Work Song

Thank you for Work Song! Aware of my desire to explore western writers, several of my friends insisted I read it, and I’m glad they did. In this first person novel about Morrie Morgan, a young former school teacher making his way in Butte, Montana just after WWI, you demonstrate that it’s possible for a man to write historical fiction about the American west without including descriptions of flaying, scalping, and other brutalities.

Perhaps our narrator Morrie avoids these atrocities because when he arrives in Butte in 1924, copper mine owners, not cowboys or Comanches, are the villains. One doesn’t think of Montana’s iconic Big Sky as a backdrop for such a grim urban industrial complex. The inhumane working

Miner at Work

Miner at Work

conditions in the mines are hidden deep underground and the mine’s environmental damage is as yet unforeseen. Nevertheless, the setting is Dickensian.  But Morrie is no small orphan boy condemned to slave in the bowels of the earth. You assign that bit part to a lad so skinny he’s named “Russian Famine.” Morrie himself is a grown man, a handsome bachelor, classically educated, with a past just shady enough to make him interesting and a tongue of sterling silver. In the movie he’d be played by Hugh Grant.

Grant’s British accent would work because most of the folks in Butte during this chaotic postwar interval are immigrants drawn there by the guarantee of employment in the mines. Ignoring the fact that Montana is literally a word in another language, I never thought of The Treasure State as an immigrant magnet. And I rarely, if ever, thought of Butte at all. In fact, before reading your novel all I knew about Butte was that once a notorious red light district flourished there. But in Work Song I learned that in 1924 Butte was home to 100,000 miners, almost all immigrants.

As a former resident of Hoboken, New Jersey, that old immigrant mill town and port city where On the Waterfront was filmed, I’m no stranger to conflicts between labor and management. So I can say with some assurance that your approach to the often bloody battles between unions and owners is relatively gentle. Hugh Grant is no Marlon Brando. The Butte you describe is real enough and brutal enough but you spare us the mine owners who remain like puppeteers, in the background pulling the strings. Your decision to keep your story and your protagonist literally above the fray interests me because when I set my Bel Barrett mysteries in my beloved Hoboken the place was still gritty with the residue of its own past. And, like you, I opted to keep that grit in the background and so made Bel a sassy sort determined, like Morrie, to rise above it.

The Most Irish Town in America

The Most Irish Town in America

I loved Morrie’s take on Butte, when the town’s immigrant workers pour from the mine at the change of shift. “It was as if Europe had been lifted by, say, the boot heel of Italy and shaken, every toiler from the hard-rock depths tumbling out here. Old habits had followed them across the ocean, husky Finns clustered with other Finns, the Cornishmen not mingling with the Italians, on across the map until each of the nations of Butte came to its own home street.” You paint these newcomers with a light brush, making us smile at the old Welsh miners who share Morrie’s table at the boarding house and again at the Norwegian funeral director who slants his advertising towards the Irish rather than towards his own countrymen because “Norwegians don’t die enough for him to make a living. The Irish, they’re another matter.” Your treatment of Butte’s foreign born workers interests me because my next book is set in Washington State’s Yakima Valley, another place where jobs, here in agriculture, attract immigrants and where the changing demographic increases the potential for conflict.

Butte, Montana

Butte, Montana

After reading Work Song, I see Butte also as a place where the ongoing struggle between worker and owner that defines capitalism created an indelible monument. Morrie recalls his first view of the place from the train . . . “the dominant rise of land, scarred and heaped and gray as grit which was referred to in everything I’d read as the Richest Hill on Earth, always grandly capitalized. . . . It was a butte called Butte.” I found other descriptions of Butte that I also liked, especially one in which Morrie compares the “long-legged black steel frameworks over the mineshafts” atop the hill to “a legion of half-done miniatures of Eifel’s tower.”

Mine Shaft

Mine Shaft

I identified with Morrie, an accountant, who chooses not to work for the mining company so as to distance himself from its unpopularity.  And I was amused by his description of his first job as the designated crier at funerals and glad when he got a more appropriate one assisting the wealthy and eccentric head of the town library. Both “white collar” positions contrast greatly with the dangerous drudgery going on below ground. But it’s not always possible for Morrie to avoid confronting the fact that potentially hazardous explosions are being conducted underground because the boarding house is often shaken by them. In fact, for Morrie, Butte is an interesting place to visit, but it’s unlikely that he’ll remain there even though he is quite smitten by the pretty widow who runs his boarding house. Fortunately he stays just long enough to teach the union members a song, a work anthem of sorts, to rally and sustain them as they strike for fair wages and safe working conditions. And there are a few other fairy tale touches at the end which I fully appreciate and which Ms. Jane Austen will not mind your borrowing.

Butte Public Library

Butte Public Library

Just as I identify with Morrie, I also identify with you because instead of focusing only on the grim, you opt to people your pages and your beloved native state with good hearted souls who make us realize that even in a hellish place like Butte, the American dream lives on in the minds and hearts of our newest arrivals. Thank you for reminding me to look for it in the denizens of Yakima.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

Leave a comment

Filed under American classic, Immigrant story, Uncategorized, Western novel

Dear Virginia Woolf,

A Room of One's Own

A Room of One’s Own

Thank you for A Room of One’s Own which I read as a freshman in college in 1958 and didn’t fully appreciate. The scaffold on which your brilliant series of lectures on women and fiction balances so solidly is “— a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction . . . .”  Simple, right? What’s not to understand? Even with your witty encapsulation of women’s history and astute critiques of the work of women writers you admire, I still didn’t get it, didn’t see how your edict applied to modern middle-class only-child, eighteen-year-old freshman me. Then I graduated, married a grad student, took a teaching job that paid $4,850 a year, acquired debts, and had kids anyway.

I responded to my students’ papers at a small “ladies” desk in a corner of the dining room in our apartment or, more often, at the kitchen table.

Lady's Desk

Lady’s Desk

When we moved to Hoboken, I continued to teach and did my paperwork on a desk made of a door bridging two metal

Writing at Kitchen Table

Writing at Kitchen Table

file cabinets in a corner of our bedroom. Sitting there listening to a husband’s snores, I recalled your pronouncement. You were right. I didn’t begin writing for publication until my first husband died, leaving life insurance sufficient to send our kids to college and my parents died leaving me enough money to pay debts, stop teaching extra classes, and even contemplate my eventual retirement. By this time I was fifty years old and in grad school myself.

I installed my first computer in the corner of the middle room on the bedroom floor of our row house. This room boasted no windows but offered a lovely view of the bathroom immediately to my left and a front row seat at the practice sessions of my son, who was learning blues guitar in the adjacent bedroom. My nook was also a great spot for overhearing my daughter’s phone conversations and the footsteps of our exuberant upstairs neighbors. It was in this shared space that I wrote Going by the Book.

Woman Writing in Closet

Woman Writing in Closet

Once both of my kids were in college and stopping home only occasionally, I moved my PC into a reconfigured closet in my daughter’s room. Emboldened, I replaced her bed with a pullout sofa bed and an end table and lo! An office! And most of the time it was all mine. Here I wrote the first three Bel Barrett Mysteries. And here I came to truly understand and appreciate your marvelous insights into women and fiction. We need money and rooms of our own, yes indeed.

Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway

In grad school, I elected to take a course focused entirely on your fiction and met the memorable British matron Mrs. Dalloway, protagonist of your novel named for her. After reading just a paragraph, I felt Clarissa’s experiences and her inner life resembled my own. We shared a zest for hostessing and for morning air. Like me she reflected on the friends and suitors of her long-gone youth. But our ruminations are not all about the past. From her window she sees her own grim future in the bedtime routine of the very old lady across the street just as I had read my future in the lines of my late mother’s face.

Woman's Lined face

Woman’s Lined face

Clarissa and I both enjoyed walking in our respective cities. In London on her oh-so-genteel errand, buying flowers for her party, Clarissa confronts the sounds, smells, and sights of a metropolis full of folks recovering, or not, from World War I while I, walking  the streets of Hoboken and Manhattan, came face to face with the homeless and dislocated. Clarissa and I are distressed by our confrontations with present realities as well as by thoughts of the future.  Clarissa’s daughter’s liaison with a foreign female tutor as well as Clarissa’s own recollection of her attraction to a childhood girlfriend, remind her that, for better or worse, it is the Twentieth Century and all the frocks, good crystal, and obedient servants will not stop Big Ben from inexorably marking the passing of time.

Big Ben

Big Ben

            Into Clarissa’s day of reunions, reminiscences, and party preparations you weave the day of Septimus Warren, a misdiagnosed veteran of the War suffering from what we have come to know too well as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. While Clarissa muses on her old boyfriend, her choice of husband, and her penchant for party-giving, Septimus hears terrible voices which evoke nightmarish visions of bloody battle scenes and irreparable loss. To your credit, news of Septimus’s death intertwines seamlessly with Clarissa’s life when, to her dismay, a party guest mentions it. “Always her body went through it first . . . ; her dress flamed, her body burnt. . . .”  At the time I read Mrs. Dalloway, a member of my writing group was working on her dissertation, a study of PTSD experienced by nurses who had served in Viet Nam, and like Clarissa, I was moved by their war-caused suffering.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

Like Joyce’s Leopold Bloom and Faulkner’s Benjy Compson, Clarissa Dalloway lets the reader into her head, makes this reader privy to her feelings and the thoughts they inspire, half-formed, fleeting, and unedited. But unlike Leopold Bloom and Benjy Compson, Clarissa Dalloway is a woman, a full-grown upper-class female whose reflections on love, aging, marriage, motherhood, patriotism, and war moved me while also adding to my understanding of women of her time and place. And, as you taught me, understanding women who came before us enables us to figure out our own place in the world and, if necessary, to work to change it.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

2 Comments

Filed under feminist fiction, Uncategorized

Dear Junot Diaz

This Is How You Lose Her

This Is How You Lose Her

Your collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her, made me nostalgic. Yunior, the young Dominican narrator of the first tale, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” reminds me of my community college students in Jersey City where I used to teach.  Yunior is, to hear him tell it, “. . . not a bad guy.  . .  . I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good.” And like a few of my students, Yunior goes on to write about the especially big mistake he made when he cheated on his devoted girlfriend Magda and she found out. She attributed his infidelity to what she and her girlfriends believe: all Dominican men are cheaters, a view shared by several of my female Dominican students who sometimes wrote about similar mistakes their Dominican boyfriends made.  The matter of sexual monogamy comes up repeatedly in the stories and, to your credit, you seek no simple resolution.

Yunior finds visits to his country of origin restorative no matter how poor and corrupt it is, so he hopes he and Magda can repair things on a trip to Santo

Dominican Scene

Dominican Scene

Domingo. Instead, their vacation only serves to reveal their different expectations and needs. On the story’s final post-break-up page, Yunior, now dating again, gets a letter from Magda telling him of her new boyfriend. This missive “hits like a Star Trek grenade and detonates everything.”

Star Trek Grenade

Star Trek Grenade

After reading it, Yunior recalls ruefully how, at the end of their sad holiday, he was still insisting to Magda that their relationship could work if they tried. It’s the optimism and determination of the youthful immigrants I taught that I miss as well as their insider’s take on the vibrant lives they lived right under my nose but not always on my radar.

My voyeuristic nostalgia for proximity to the experiences and personalities of my immigrant students grew as I read the other stories. There’s one about two young brothers experiencing their first snowstorm from the dubious vantage point of their isolated and ghettoized tenement apartment next to a landfill. The troubled state of their parents’ marriage and the cold cruelty of white flight are reinforced by the strange freezing whiteness of the deepening snow.  Each story has a slightly different take on the same theme: Yunior’s lifelong struggle to come of age as a bi-cultural writer, professor, son, and lover.

But Yunior is different from many of my students in that he is linguistically gifted in two languages which he blends in sentences that are literate and witty. Here’s Yunior’s rant that opens the final story in the collection, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love.” “Your girl catches you cheating. (Well, actually she’s your fiancée, but hey, in a bit it so won’t matter.) She could have caught you with one sucia, she could have caught you with two, but as you’re a totally batshit cuero who didn’t ever open his e-mail trash can, she caught you with fifty! . . .

Telltale Clue

Telltale Clue

Maybe if you’d been engaged to a super open-minded blanquita you could have survived it . . . . but your girl is a bad-ass salcedeña who doesn’t believe in open anything; . . .” Here you demonstrate your mastery of slang and colloquialism in two languages in perfectly grammatical and correctly spelled English befitting the savvy, culturally aware college prof that Yunior is. And here you enable me, a reader unfamiliar with three of the four Spanish words in the passage, to get what you mean without a dictionary. Like the French word fiancée, near the top of the excerpt, these four Spanish words are not italicized, probably because although they’re foreign to me, they’re not foreign to Yunior. And folks lucky enough to be bilingual like Yunior turn to their home language for personal and highly charged topics like their love lives. Finally, in this quote, Yunior displays the self-deprecating wit that reveals self-understanding, a kind of comprehension I’m partial to. It didn’t surprise me that by the end of this story and the book Yunior resumes writing and, after reading his opening pages of what probably became one of the stories in this book, he reports that for once he doesn’t want to burn them or give up writing forever.

Oops!

Oops!

You’ve given us a portrait of the writer as a Dominican-American young man, and I love it. I only wish that you’d written it before I retired from teaching so I could have shared it with my students. Instead I have to be satisfied with reading it for my own purposes which include learning that sometimes it is our mistakes, not our triumphs, that make the best stories.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

1 Comment

Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, Humorous fiction, Immigrant story, Uncategorized

Dear Thomas McGuane,

Nothing but Blue Skies

Nothing but Blue Skies

Thanks for your comical 1992 novel Nothing but Blue Skies. Since I moved west, I’ve been searching out “western” authors and you were highly recommended. Most of the western stories I’ve read have been a bit grim. That’s why I was surprised to find humor in a book chronicling the self-destructive acts of a Montana businessman grief- stricken after his longtime wife Gracie leaves him. But Blue Skies is a hoot. Forty-something Frank Copenhaver still lives in his hometown, Deadrock, Montana, where Gracie dumped him. After spending just a few pages with Frank, I didn’t blame the woman. In fact, when I read his account of his very first visit to Gracie’s family home, I couldn’t figure out why she married him in the first place. He ate and drank too much at dinner, so later that night, unable to find the bathroom he defecated out his bedroom window, soiling the front of his hosts’ house. The next morning, rather than offer to clean up this impossible-to-miss mess, he didn’t even own up to it but simply drove away. Gracie married him anyway.

As a young man tiring of hippiedom and exiled from the family business for literally turning one of the properties he was managing into a pigsty, Frank went to work and eventually made money. By the time Gracie leaves and their beloved daughter Holly has nearly finished college, Frank owns several rental properties, a cattle ranch, and other lucrative investments. He’s a respected member of Deadrock’s business community.

Maybe that’s why his self-sabotage is so amusing. Or maybe I found his story funny because, as you put it, his loneliness takes some “peculiar forms.” Abandoned by Gracie, Frank screws her best friend and drinks way too much, but these are conventional behaviors for dumped spouses. Your “hero” gets more original or “peculiar” when he roams around town at night peeping into people’s windows, has acrobatic sex with Gracie’s bff outdoors in someone else’s truck, fires his ranch manager, transforms the town’s historic hotel into a huge chicken coop, and ignores mail, phone calls, deadlines and commitments essential to his assorted business interests. These peculiar forms of grieving nearly cost him his home, his credit rating, his ranch, his savings, and, of course, his good name.

Nothing but Blue Skies gave me insights into the minds of some business people. These folks are a species I had little experience with until I moved to Washington State

Businesswoman

Businesswoman

from the east coast in 2003. I left behind dear friends who are mostly teachers, artists, and “human service professionals.” But in Washington and retired, I’ve found friends who are former developers, investment bankers, insurance agents, realtors, retailers, marketers,   and IT people. Accompanying Frank on his downward trajectory helped me understand the similarities between a person who earns her living peddling reading or sculpture or therapy and one who peddles beef or real estate or stocks. Until I read Blue Skies, I had focused on our differences. But your book showed me how those differences fade when we suffer. Alone and unloved, Frank undermines his business interests just as an artist or teacher, feeling similarly, will also find a way to shoot his/her professional self in the foot.

Shooting Oneself in the Foot

Shooting Oneself in the Foot

Fishing in Montana

Fishing in Montana

Although Frank is a native Montanan, there’s little that is specifically western about his midlife rampage. Aside from references to cowboy boots,

Rockies in Montana

Rockies in Montana

cattle, and Stetsons, Frank could just as well be in Maine or even Manhattan except when he goes fishing. He is most at ease when he is up to his boot tops casting in a cold stream under a blue sky and observing the insect life, the surrounding vegetation, and the fish swimming his way.  Outdoors in the wild, Frank seems to regain his self-respect. Perhaps that’s because he realizes that although “the tone of the West” was set “by the failure of the homesteads, not by the heroic cattle drives. . . that wasn’t the whole story.”  Frank’s love for where he lives is unconditional. “He knew it was a good place. . . . There was something in its altitude and dryness and distances that he couldn’t have lived without.”  I enjoyed seeing Montana, a state I’ve never visited, through Frank’s bloodshot fisherman’s eyes.

And I enjoyed reading about Frank’s Montana in your justly acclaimed poetically condensed prose like this synopsis of much of American history: “The Fourth of July. Few people knew the country had not always been an independent nation. Most people took it as a day in honor of the invention of the firecracker, and towns like Deadrock bloomed with smoke and noise and pastel streamers of light on the evening sky. This year, what no one expected was that the hundreds of Indians who lived away from their reservations, on small plots or in tenements or in streets and alleys, would march on this quiet city with its sturdy buildings, broad central avenue, and flowery neighborhoods, and ask for their land back. It ruined the Fourth of July.” The way Frank sees the land itself,  “Blue skies, white flatiron clouds, sagebrush and grass, rhythmic hills betraying sea-floor origins . . .”  will sharpen the way I look at Washington.

Native-American Pictographs in Montana

Native-American Pictographs in Montana

Sex Pistols Logo

Sex Pistols Logo

Finally, Frank’s recollections of youthful sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll are among the most expressive I’ve read. “And what fun those darn drugs were. Marvelous worlds aslant, a personal speed wobble in the middle of a civilization equally out of control. And it was wonderful to have such didactic views of everything, everyone coming down from the mountain with the tablets of stone. Hard to say what it all came to now. Skulls in the desert.”  I read your Ninety-Two Degrees in the Shade, so I know you can write your way out of a sealed coffin, but the words you put in Frank’s mouth make him the most literate, poetic broken-hearted businessman I know!

Thanks so much for this absorbing, amusing, and fascinating novel.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

2 Comments

Filed under American classic, Humorous fiction, Satire, Western novel

Dear Jami Attenberg,

The Middlesteins

The Middlesteins

I pushed away a container of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate-covered almonds before I got to chapter two of your terrific novel The Middlesteins.  It’sMorbid Obesity Help! a wrenching read, an up-close and personal look at four generations of a Midwestern Jewish family, the decisions they made, and the choices that remain to them. I loved ex-attorney Edie Middlestein’s wit and warmth, and the kindness she extended to friends and the less fortunate, but I didn’t want to be her. That’s because she deals with losses─ her beloved father, her faith, her role as do-gooder, her law career, and, finally, her husband─ by bitching at said husband and overeating until, at sixty, she is a full-blown fat lady needing vascular surgery twice in one year. If this sounds like I think your book is a late-night commercial for diet pills or gastric surgery, I don’t. In this novel you join the exalted ranks of authors who chronicle the Jewish mother’s metamorphosis from overprotective immigrant Sophie Portnoy to the very American morbidly obese, diabetic Edie Middlestein.

Kale

Kale

Like a skilled tightrope walker, you go backward and forward in time, showing the reader how each of Edie’s relatives copes with her refusal to reform her eating habits. We see Edie’s adult kids struggling with her legacy of addiction and the burdens of taking care of someone in its grip. We see her daughter-in-law as another version of the modern Jewish mom, force-feeding her family kale and carrots in lieu of chicken soup. We see Edie’s husband Richard who opts for self-preservation and a search for love and life rather than for staying the course with Edie. We meet their twin grandchildren preparing for their slightly over-the-top b’nai mitzvah while their family is in chaos. We also see Edie and Richard reaching out for the love they no longer feel for one another and we know the deep satisfaction of an ending that is both unexpectedly nuanced and inevitable.

            This ending, involving, among other things, second chances, reinvention, and ethnic diversity is thoroughly American and thoroughly contemporary. And food plays

Fast Food Signs

Fast Food Signs

a big part in it as it does in the entire book. But this is not primarily a novel about food replete with lo-fat recipes. Food is only one of the lenses through which you let us look at our lives today. I say “our” lives because who among us has not struggled with addiction, either a relative’s or one’s own? And who among us has not wondered how our suburban landscape became a series of strip malls full of fast food joints pushing their poison on us and our kids? And who among us has not regretted a disastrous first marriage or career choice?  Or not looked ahead to a shortened life span with friends gone missing, a body gone creaky or worse and then felt a new appreciation for this life, however imperfect? So the story you tell is a familiar one, but the way you tell it, from the perspective of each of Edie’s relatives, young, old, alive, and dead, is what makes it both heartwarming and insightful. You make sure that we come to know these Middlesteins. And each of them is human with flaws and virtues unique to him or her and yet again, familiar to most of us. All these changes of perspective could be confusing but they aren’t. In my next book I hope to shift from one perspective to another as effectively as you do here.

Greek Chorus

Greek Chorus

There are two perspective shifts I especially enjoyed. The first is near the end when Edie and Richard’s old friends describe the b’nai mitzvah. They’re like a Greek chorus, commenting on the action from the sidelines, bearing witness to the coming of age of the youngest Middlesteins while mourning the seemingly inappropriate divorce of the oldest along with the many changes in their once beloved Edie.  The second is earlier when Robin, their alcoholic single daughter, a lapsed Jew who fears the love she feels for Daniel, her neighbor and boyfriend, reluctantly attends

Family Seder

Family Seder

a Seder at his parents’ home. It’s a fairly typical, crowded, jovial Seder with children participating, too much food, and only Manischewitz to drink. The sole sign of tension comes at the end of the evening when Robin overhears Daniel’s parents arguing loudly in the kitchen and gets upset. On the way home, Daniel reassures her that occasionally his parents fight but that their fights do not lead to divorce. His family’s benign dynamic contrasts with the fraught one of the Middlesteins.

            Part of what enables you to make this tragic story go down so easily is the conversational nature of much of your prose. Often I felt as if I were chatting with you rather than reading. This tète á tète we were having began right on page one under the chapter title, Edie, 62 pounds. “How could she not feed their daughter? Little Edie Herzon, age five: not so little. Her mother had noticed this, how could she miss it? Her arms and legs, once peachy and soft, had blossomed into something that surpassed luscious. They were disarmingly solid. A child should be squeezable. She was a cement block of flesh.” The questions and the informality of much of the grammar give your words the drama of shared confidences and, to me anyway, a trace of an inflection I associate with folks who grew up around Yiddish speakers.

            I was sad when our chat was over and I put the book down. Thanks for a great read and an important lesson in writing voices.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

Leave a comment

Filed under feminist fiction, Jewish fiction

Dear Shawn Vestal,

Godforsaken Idaho

Godforsaken Idaho

Godforsaken Idaho became my primer on Mormonism as practiced by folks not running for president. Your stories of missionaries, marriages,

Idaho Potatoes

Idaho Potatoes

ranches, rehab, relatives, robbers, and religion also introduced me to Idaho, a part of the Northwest I’ve never visited. In fact, Idaho itself was once so remote to this New Jersey native transplanted late in life to a Seattle suburb as to seem beyond godforsaken. Sorry, but your native state was never on my radar except when I was buying potatoes.

And Mormonism? I’m a secular Jew with a carefully cultivated ambivalence towards people of any faith who seek to evade modernity, and I was shocked to see how prevalent the followers of LDS are in the Northwest. But their prevalence didn’t

make them interesting; your stories do. Those same stories also took me inside the psyche of midlife males, a species I’ve neglected in much of my own writing.

Aging and often out-of-work Boomers, they didn’t interest me all that much before I read Godforsaken Idaho. Now thanks to your wild imagination, your keen sense of humor, and your accessible, powerful prose, I’m making room in my head for all of these phenomena.

Take Idaho. It’s huge and empty compared to New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the Union. Nobody goes to Jersey for the solitude. But a lot of folks come to the Northwest because they crave seclusion, and many of these wannabe hermits find their way to Idaho. Others are born and raised in The Gem State and, like

many of your characters, feel quite at home driving those long highways from farm or ranch or mine to small town and on and on to forest or mountain. I want to

Middleage 2013

Middleage 2013

write a novel set in Eastern Washington, and it will feature at least one such character from Idaho. He wasn’t from Idaho before I read your book, but now he is. He may even be a lapsed Mormon, a literally godforsaken midlife white guy whose own less than perfect parents and bad habits along with the changing times have conspired to strip him of all that he feels entitled to, a good job, a tolerant family, a paid for house, the possibility of a gracious retirement, and, of course, a fulfilling afterlife.

Your original vision of an unfulfilling afterlife in Godforsaken Idaho’s lead story, “The First Hundred Years Following My Death” opens that tale.  “The food is excellent. The lines are never long. There’s nothing to do with your hands.” This is how the lapsed Mormon who has predeceased his estranged son greets this son when he arrives in the hereafter. This description did not impress the dead son, but it hooked me at once and for good. “It turns out that the

Gates of Heaven

Gates of Heaven

food is meals you order from your life,” presumably meals that you enjoyed. You stay the age at which you died and eat with those your own age from many historical periods. There is no peace in this odd heaven except what you can find by reliving favorite moments from your own life. Like those meals, these moments don’t always hold up to such close and repeated scrutiny. In fact, “…you find it hard to land in a single untroubled moment.” There is much wit and plenty of pathos here and not a trace of angels or saintly gatekeepers or fire and brimstone. How refreshing! And as a bonus, we meet several of the characters who turn up later in stories all their own.

Rulon, a young vet just home from World War I, suffers guilt for having killed enemy soldiers and for having had sex with a prostitute on his return. Mormon teachings do not guide him through or shield him from the sins inherent in war and prostitution and even masturbation. Killing and all sex outside of marriage are sinful in The Book of Mormon and his guilt gives him no peace. Rulon’s story is narrated by a long dead lapsed Mormon fighting to protest a law forbidding the then polygamous Mormons to vote in Idaho and he was killed by a posse as he fought. This dead man attempts to soothe the younger man’s conscience and guide him to a more active and aggressive stance, but cannot reach him at first. The ending is dramatic and meaningful, especially in view of the troubles we know returning vets face today.

Looking at the Northwest through Mormon eyes changed my perspective on the place and many of the people. Just as not all of us east coast natives share the values and life styles of Manhattanites, so not all Northwesterners embrace the liberal politics, advanced technology, good beer, and better coffee that many Seattleites do. In your stories, characters recall how the early followers of first Joseph Smith and later Brigham Young gradually made their way west fleeing persecution. It’s fascinating to look at America as they see it, as a place like the Middle East where ancient sacred biblical texts can be unearthed, translated, and interpreted, where miracles can occur, where credos can be changed, and where, if you go back far enough, all people are connected by blood.

Pocket Dog

Pocket Dog

Your characters talk like, I suspect, real Idahoans talk. Here’s your dissolute womanizing drunkard in “Pocket Dog” describing an attractive gal shedding her clothes before entering a hot tub.  First he tells us, “I believe firmly in watching such a woman.” And then he treats us to this: “She stepped out of that skirt and bent over, ass up like an autumn doe. . . . and something started flopping inside me like a fish on a riverbank.” “Pocket dog” is not a happy story, but the narrator, telling it after rehab, enlivens it with lines like these. They make me like him even while I disapprove of his drinking, drug use, and cavalier attitude towards women including his grandmother who is determined to get him into treatment. How can you hate a guy who sees the miniature dog belonging to the woman described above and says, “She held a purse in the crook of her arm and from the purse emerged the tiny head of a creature with a furious puff of Einstein hair. Like a rat being born. The rat barked and hung a tongue the color of a pencil eraser. Out here, we’re bound to feel a dog like that is just wrong.”

The next book I write will pry me a little further out of my coastal comfort zone, and, after savoring your wonderful stories, I may be empowered to venture into yours. Thanks for such an inspiring read.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Dear Naomi Alderman,

The Liars' Gospel

The Liars’ Gospel

Thanks for reminding me that fiction is a pack of lies and that we fiction writers rank among the most accomplished liars out there. I loved your reimagining of the life of Jesus in The Liars’ Gospel told from the point of view of three of its central figures, Mary, Judas, and the Temple High Priest.  Your very first sentence─ This was how it happened.─ contradicts what we think we know. In other words, the life and death of Yehoshua, Hebrew for Jesus, and the rise of Christianity didn’t happen that way, the way we’ve been taught. No. It all really went down this way, the way I will lay out for you. That same understated first sentence also refers to the ongoing occupation of Judea by Roman soldiers which is the complex and bloody backdrop for Jews and early Christians alike. One of the major accomplishments of your novel is that you move this political and military reality to the front and center of the lives of all your characters.

Roman Coins

Roman Coins

What immediately follows is the ritual sacrifice of a lamb. Your description is so visceral that it could serve as an instruction manual. Such realism

The Lamb for an Offering

The Lamb for an Offering

tells me that you really know how things were done during biblical times. Then there’s an equally vivid description of a battle between Jews and Romans for the Temple treasure. Citizens of an occupied people live in a state of preoccupation with their occupiers who regulate their subjects’ activities, spy on their meetings, and punish severely those who disobey or who even appear to disobey. The fact that this occupation resonates with the state of affairs in today’s war torn Middle East adds a layer to an already resonant story.

Mary Mother of Jesus

Mary Mother of Jesus

  Once you’ve hooked your reader in this short untitled opening section, you introduce the first “liar,” Miryam, Hebrew for Mary. Unlike her familiar New Testament counterpart, this Miryam knows Yosef to be the biological father of her beloved firstborn Yehoshua as well as of his six siblings. She had hoped this oldest son would marry, beget her grandchildren, and till land nearby. But the adult Yehoshua is a big disappointment to Miryam. He leaves home to wander the hills preaching. She thinks he’s deranged even while she mourns his departure and the fact that he spurns his family of origin in favor of his new family of followers. When he claims to be the Messiah and King of the Jews, she fears for his safety

Jesus King of the Jews

Jesus King of the Jews

and, later, mourns his death at the same time that she complains about his disloyalty. Finally she lies about him to Gidon, an admirer of Yehoshua’s who has come to her to learn about his dead hero’s birth and childhood. She “filled him (Gidon) full of stories. . . .Some have a measure of truth to them. And some are things she hoped had happened, she wished had happened.” Miryam’s maternal wishful thinking becomes part of “what happened next,” part of the legacy of stories, written down in books like the Torah and the Gospels. Your Miryam, a Jewish mother abandoned by her son in favor of his disciples and divorced by her husband in favor of a trophy wife, is a woman of her time and place, living a life that has not turned out as she wished.

            I’m a humanistic secular Jew, so I have little difficulty seeing Mary as Miryam. In fact, Miryam seems entirely credible to me as do your other characters. That’s because they are all─ Jews, Romans, Christians─ recognizably human and react to things the way I’d expect real people living in Judea under Roman rule to behave. And I don’t think Yehoshua/Jesus’s teachings, particularly about loving our enemies and turning the other cheek, become less valuable and original because he does not manage to heal the lame or the blind. Likewise Iehuda/Judas’s role in his leader’s crucifixion is not less critical because it is motivated by a complexity of conflicting impressions. The Jewish High Priest’s significance is not diminished because he is preoccupied by his wife’s possible infidelity at the same time that he struggles to serve god, guard the Jews hard earned treasure, and pacify the Romans who demand it in tribute.

Your reimagining of this familiar and, to some, sacred story is arresting not only because it encourages us to question the credibility of scraps of ancient texts frequently translated and interpreted and reinterpreted but also because your prose itself is downright biblical. I don’t mean “biblical” in that you imitate the wording of any of the familiar translations of the Gospels or the Torah but rather that your words and phrases flow harmoniously with a clarity, repetitiveness, and decisiveness that make questioning them seem unnecessary even though you warn us, “Every story has an author, some teller of lies. Do not imagine that a story teller is unaware of the effect of every word she chooses. Do not suppose for a moment that an impartial observer exists.” Your title juxtaposes liars, generally thought to be a bad lot, with the word gospel which has come to be synonymous with truth, often a kind of holy truth. It’s a daring juxtaposition highlighting the questioning of conventional beliefs within.

Good news!

Good news!

On the next to last page of The Liars’ Gospel you recap your version of Jesus’s life, beginning with the familiar words, “Once upon a time there was a man . . . .” and after you tell how, not long after his death, the Romans destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem and forced the exile of the surviving Jews, you add , “And a book walked those same ways, from synagogue to synagogue at first, telling a tale of how miraculous one man had been and how evil those who rejected him were, and therefore bringing good news for some and bad for others.” The interesting image of this walking book is powerful as is the phrase “good news,” often used to describe the Gospels. When you end with a slightly different version of how you began, your words and your story come full circle and leave no doubt in this reader’s mind that your version of this moving and important story rings true. “This was how it ended. And all the sorrow that came after followed from this.”

You’re a terrific liar and I hope to read more of your lies soon. They inspire me to make up my own lies, in other words, to begin writing a new book.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

4 Comments

Filed under feminist fiction, Jewish fiction

Dear Blog Readers,

The Bones and the Book

The Bones and the Book

Exciting news! The Bones and the Book has won Women Writing the West’s Willa Award in the category of soft covered original fiction! Phil and I will travel

Women Writing the West Logo

Women Writing the West Logo

to Kansas City, Missouri in October to Women Writing the West’s 19th Annual Conference where I will actually receive my trophy, read from The Bones and the Book, and celebrate. If any of you live in the Kansas City area, the reading and signing portions of the conference on Saturday, October 12 are open to the public, and I’d love to meet you.

I’ll post a note to another muse later this week after I’ve calmed down a little.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

18 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Dear Annie Proulx,

Close Range Wyoming Stories

Close Range Wyoming Stories

The New Yorker seemed an odd place for me to discover a “country” writer like you, so back in the late Nineties when I came upon “Brokeback Mountain” rubbing right up against reviews of East Village eateries and ads for high end urban condos, I felt disoriented, but in a good way. Finding grungy gay

Marlborough Man

Marlborough Man

cowboys in a New Yorker short story enlarged my perception of westerns. East coast born and bred, until then, I didn’t see cowboys as appropriate subjects of “literature” unless they were feeble minded enough to be mercifully put down by their best friend or sang and danced on Broadway. Stories about cowboys were the stuff of pulpy paperbacks and oaters, the movies I watched as a kid. Like the Marlborough Man, cowboys were handsome, brave, and heterosexual and they lived out their heroic Technicolor lives against scenic backgrounds erected in Hollywood studios.

Shipping News

Shipping News

So to meet an aging gay Ennis Del Mar, scratching his “grey wedge of belly and pubic hair” and urinating in the sink of his trailer, on the first page of your story was a jolt. Even when young, neither Ennis nor Jack Twist is exceptionally handsome nor especially heroic let alone prepared for the dangerous love they discover and share. Intrigued, I became a fan of yours and read The Shipping News and several of your earlier works. It’s easy to see why you have been honored with a Pulitzer and other prestigious awards. I returned to your Wyoming stories recently because like me, you’re an Easterner born and raised, writing the west.

            Ennis and Jack meet and fall in love when they herd sheep together for a summer on Brokeback Mountain. This wild and beautiful place, an Eden

Eden's Snake

Eden’s Snake

in Wyoming, turns out to be a real Eden complete with a spying snake. For the rest of their lives, these two lovers are powerless to protect themselves from the brutal homophobia that haunts them both and eventually kills one of them. Ennis and Jack are not only powerless against homophobia, but are also powerless against the changes taking place in late twentieth century Wyoming, changes that make their skill set─ riding, roping, and working a rodeo or a ranch─ obsolete. Both are “high school dropout country boys with no prospects, rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life.” Until he marries a relatively wealthy girl, Ennis lives from job to job, with no savings. Once he marries, he must work in the family business, endure sex with his wife, and, later on, find male lovers where he can, usually in Mexico. He is free from most financial worries, but he is not free to leave his wife and kids and make a life with Jack. He knows two men living together would be brutally killed, has seen such a victim. Jack continues to live hand to mouth, taking whatever rodeo or ranch work he can find, and, although his wife leaves him, he is not free either. He cannot meet up with Ennis often because he must work.

            In a desperate attempt to figure out how and where they might safely make a life together, Ennis asks Jack, “This happen a other people. What the hell do they do?” Jack’s reply is telling. “It don’t happen in Wyomin and if it does, I don’t know what they do, maybe go to Denver.” Escaping to Denver seems impossible to these lovers, so mired are they in their unhappy marriages, their compromising jobs, and their familiar brand of “Wyomin” misery. As if to emphasize this special meld of defeatism and perseverance that characterizes many of your Wyoming cowboys, Ennis says, “If you can’t fix it, you got a stand it.” That line is repeated twice in this tale and appears in several others in Close Range, Wyoming Stories the collection in which “Brokeback Mountain” is published.

Herding Sheep out West

Herding Sheep out West

            I don’t think I’ve ever met a real cowboy, but if I did, I wonder if he’d talk the way yours do in Wyoming Stories. I hope so because your cowboys come out with the best images I’ve come across in a long time. “Brokeback Mountain” is a cowboy story narrated by a cowboy who gets inside the heads of the characters. That’s why the foreman on the sheep herding job Ennis and Jack take on Brokeback Mountain, tosses Ennis a watch “as if he weren’t worth the reach” and then privately sizes up his two new hires as “Pair of deuces going nowhere.” It is this narrator who tells us that the entourage of Jack, Ennis, their dogs, horses, pack animals, and herd of a thousand ewes and lambs, “flowed up the trail like dirty water through the timber and out above the tree line into the great flowery meadows and the coursing, endless, wind.” When at summer’s end, the lovers ride off in opposite directions, Ennis feels “like someone was pulling his guts out hand over hand a yard at a time.” Your cowboy story eventually became a film and a good one, but I missed your images, many of which did not make it to the screen.

            You remind me that with talent and research, an easterner can write novels set wherever her story takes her. As I struggle to begin writing a new novel, this message is very inspiring. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Dear Geoffrey Chaucer,

 The Canterbury Tales


The Canterbury Tales

Who knew you’d be one of the main muses responsible for helping me structure and start my next novel? I haven’t read your Canterbury Tales since 1960, my sophomore year in college. Back then it was on the syllabus of The History of British Lit, a required course for English majors. Students each had to memorize and recite the first eighteen lines of that work’s Prologue in Middle English. While dutifully repeating your alien-sounding introductory words over and over again, I gradually began to decode them. I was amazed. You describe how nature’s spring rebirth moved some medieval Brits to make, not love, but religious pilgrimages. I knew nothing of such pilgrims or pilgrimages. They sounded pretty fishy to me. At 20, I found most poetry remote from mundane matters that concerned me, such as snaring a husband and passing organic chemistry. But I wanted to know what those pious tourists were really up to, so I read on.

            Your wayfarers are a colorful crew with lots to say about finding not just husbands, but lovers too. Among your pilgrims are a butcher, a merchant, a monk, a nun, a knight, an oft-married seamstress,  and a miller to name just a few. To my sophomore’s delight their tales included more descriptions of sex than any other work I’d read, including my well-thumbed copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

The Wife of Bath

The Wife of Bath

And all of these narrators as well as the raconteur of the Prologue, talk of the most mundane matters imaginable: their work, their faith, their clothes, food, and housing, and the rambunctious love lives of their friends and acquaintances. It was a revelation to me to learn that medieval English people even had such familiar, ordinary concerns and the ordinary vocabulary to discuss them. You opened my mind to the possibility that a poet might speak to me and that I might hear and relate to what he was saying. Even in Middle English, your realism was a welcome relief to me.

Assassination of Thomas Becket

Assassination of Thomas Becket

The other thing I appreciated then and hope to imitate now is the way you framed The Canterbury Tales. In a roadside inn en route to Canterbury to pay homage to St. Thomas Beckett, your travelers agree to entertain one another with stories. Each of them has a distinctive voice and world view. The miller tells a ribald tale about a cuckolded carpenter in commoner’s language appropriate to a dirty joke shared in a bar while the knight offers his story of chivalry and courtly love in genteel phrases fit for kings and queens.

The other day I was listing the various characters in my as yet unwritten mystery/thriller and trying to figure out how to organize their activities and relationships. My story features a disparate group of Jews who come together at a hotel in Eastern Washington to perform a religious ritual. There are other guests as well. I was as frustrated as that proverbial cat herder. Then, while pondering, I flashed on a familiar group of religious folks talking and drinking in a medieval English inn. I could see them clearly.

Story Time at the Inn

Story Time at the Inn

As abruptly as it had surfaced, this image vanished, eclipsed by an idea, a question really. Could I structure my novel as a series of stories told by each character

Writer at Work

Writer at Work

and book-ended by a prologue and an epilogue? With The Canterbury Tales as a model, my book could reveal the comedy of tragic errors that is modern American life! The potential of this idea excited me for a mere moment before a host of doubts dampened my mood. Would your frame work for a novel? Would today’s wired travelers stop texting and tweeting to tell stories let alone listen to those of strangers? Could I write the different voices and points of view convincingly? For a moment these doubts drowned my excitement, but I pushed them aside. This strategy just might work. And even if it doesn’t, I’ll have something to revise, a beginning. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

7 Comments

Filed under Humorous fiction

Dear Art Spiegelman,

Maus I

Maus I

 If my mother and father were still alive I think your Pulitzer Prize winning Maus books recounting your father’s life before, during, and after the

Maus II

Maus II

Holocaust would astound them more than the ten-dollar movie ticket, a black president, or cell phones. It’s not your subject matter that would dumbfound them, but your chosen format. Maus I: My Father Bleeds History and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began are what my parents disparaged as comic books and forbade me to read or buy.

Forbidden Fruit

Forbidden Fruit

My mother, a former school teacher, was sure that reading comics would instantly deplete my vocabulary and distract me from reading “real” books. My father refused to allow even one thin dime of his hard-earned money, including my allowance, to be squandered on “that trash.” Of course, my curiosity was piqued, and I devoured the adventures of Archie, Betty, Jughead, and Veronica at the home of my next-door neighbor with that furtive lust kids reserve for the forbidden.

            So why didn’t I read Maus I when it came out in 1986? It got great reviews, earned you a Pulitzer, and was responsible for the transformation of the much-maligned comic book into the graphic novel. I’m not sure what kept me from your book, but I suspect that I didn’t think I would assign it to my students, almost none of whom were Jewish or European and, after reading The Diary of Anne Frank and Sophie’s Choice, I didn’t care to read Holocaust stories. Even as an adult, I found them terrifying and depressing in spite of the fact that back in 1986, I thought anti-Semitism was over.

Jews as Mice

Jews as Mice

Now, a quarter of a century later, I know anti-Semitism lives on and I decided to read your Maus books. I found them fascinating and am so grateful to you for making the effort you describe and for being so forthcoming about your own thorny relationship with your dad. I’m also very grateful for those black-and-white drawings. You are an acclaimed visual artist and by depicting Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs, you somehow condense our stereotypes of the animals and the humans and remind us of them without having to constantly reword or qualify them. You are not afraid to evoke those stereotypes either, and the fact that they’re politically incorrect does not detract from their effectiveness.

Thus your medium leaves you free to concentrate on what happens when your characters converse and what is going on in the background. Your

Yinglish Word

Yinglish Word

father’s speech with its overtones of Yiddish and Polish is familiar to me even though my parents’ English was uninflected. It becomes clear in your dad’s transactions with you that his life experiences have left their mark on his everyday acts: eating, sleeping, talking, managing money, and relating to those he loves. To be a survivor is no cakewalk. So it follows that to be, like you, the offspring of two Holocaust survivors, one of whom killed herself, isn’t either.

Although I am very glad I read Maus I and II, I am also glad it didn’t take me too long. I didn’t want to linger in those trains and trucks or at Auschwitz or even in your dad and Mala’s kitchen in Rego Park or their cabin in the Catskills. Reading your books is a little like looking at scans of one’s broken bones or a suspicious cluster of cells. One wants to know the worst and yet one doesn’t, so one looks quickly. I did not dwell on your illustrations but scanned them as I read the dialogue in the balloons and in the rectangular spaces enclosing your dad’s narrative interjections.

While reading I was very aware of your scribbling notes or taping your dad’s answers to your questions. I share with you the desire to preserve the past, especially the Jewish past, as it was actually experienced by those who lived it. That’s why I relied heavily on oral histories of Seattle Jews archived by the Washington State Jewish Historical Society at the University of Washington when researching material for The Bones and the Book.

Pulitzer Prize

Pulitzer Prize

I suspect that my parents would have to admit that by telling your father’s story so graphically, you have done us all a great service. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

Leave a comment

Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction, Uncategorized

Dear President Obama,

Dreams from My Father

Dreams from My Father

To celebrate your winning a second term in the White House, I read your memoir Dreams from My Father. I enjoyed it very much not only because I’m a supporter of yours or because you’re president, but because your family history and early adventures make a great American story and you tell it clearly and with grace. Your book is subtitled A Story of Race and Inheritance, and in the Introduction you explain that you opted to tell the story of your life rather than to compose an essay on race relations and civil rights. I’m grateful you made that choice. I’ll take a story over a lecture any time. Part of what makes your memoir moving is your candor and insight into how you were shaped by seemingly random events in the lives of your grandparents and parents. Their experiences took place long ago and far away and you learned of them through stories and, in turn, they sparked the longer story that you embrace as your inheritance.

Stories glow throughout this book, sometimes as brightly as my halogen desk lamp and other times dimly in the background like distant stars. You learn ofHalogen Desk lamp

Halogen Desk lamp

your mostly absent father through stories that were “compact, apocryphal, told in rapid succession in the course of one evening

Distant Star

Distant Star

then packed away for months, sometimes years, in my family’s memory.”  The story of your mom and dad’s interracial romance and marriage is another one you weave into an heirloom American tapestry. And so it goes. Everyone in your family, everyone you meet, has a story and you share these so your reader comes to appreciate your ability and willingness to listen to and understand other people. Contradictory as it seems, your own story is not all about you.

I admire your dogged efforts to know your elusive father and to include him in your life and your life story even though you discover him to be less than perfect. Your attention to the stories of others, especially your relatives, makes me wish I’d paid closer attention to stories my mother told and probed her for details before it was too late. She rarely discussed her family history or her own early life except to say that on hot summer nights she and her brother slept on their Newark, NJ fire escape, that this brother died in WWI,

Poppy in Flanders Field

Poppy in Flanders Field

and that after their mother died, their father remarried and this stepmother was also dead. When I was about ten years old, I asked what these women died of, and my mother replied tersely, “He worked them both to death.” This Simon Legree was hard for me to reconcile with the devoted grandfather, or Beanpa as I called him, who lived with us. He was my Monopoly and Canasta opponent, the man who walked me to and from school until I was old enough to go by myself, the same benefactor who bought me a white organdy party dress embroidered with baby blue flowers. I deeply regret not ever pressing my mother for details even if they threatened my little-girlish world view. I might have understood her better.

You make complex concepts and experiences vividly accessible without oversimplifying or condescending to your readers. For example, when you describe your early inattentiveness to the fact that you are biracial, you say, “That my father looked nothing like the people around me ─that he was black as pitch, my mother white as milk─ barely registered in my mind.” When, a few paragraphs later, you introduce the term miscegenation, the reader is prepared to follow your one paragraph history of interracial marriage in America. This ability to express complexity clearly and interestingly to a wide audience is crucial to presidents, and they don’t all have it.

Black Writer

Black Writer

Your communicative competence helped during your tenure as a community organizer, another part of your life I especially enjoyed learning about. Reading of how you struggled and occasionally failed and how you admitted each failure and learned from it made me more tolerant of my own struggles as a teacher and, more recently, as a writer.  Those same communication skills and your Kenyan ancestry enable you to feel at home in a variety of international settings and in several languages. You are truly a man of the world, the whole world.

You self-identify as a black American, so it’s fair for me to compare your coming of age story with some others I’ve read by other talented black male writers who came before you and before

March on Washington    1963

March on Washington 1963

major civil rights legislation in this country: Frederick Douglas, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Malcolm X, and Claude Brown. Like their prose, yours occasionally reflects the references and rhythms of the black preacher. But, you are not enraged, hungry, addicted, or given to religious extremism. Your fleeing father did not leave you without family, and your mother, stepfather and grandparents did not mistreat you but nurtured you instead. You hardly feel invisible or unmanned. On the contrary, your bicultural, biracial, multilingual, splintered extended family and somewhat nomadic upbringing have made you strong and given you the perspectives of both outsider and insider wherever you happen to be. And you’re a terrific writer.  I can’t wait to read the books you write when your term as president ends. Meanwhile, thank you for this one.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

Leave a comment

Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, Memoir, Uncategorized

Dear Jamaica Kincaid,

See Now Then  A Novel

See Now Then
A Novel

I didn’t exactly enjoy reading your controversial book See Now Then: A Novel, but I’m glad I read it and glad that you persevered for the decade it took

Trophy Wife

Trophy Wife

you to complete it. Some reviewers panned it as a purely personal fusillade of fury aimed solely at exposing and humiliating your socially prominent ex-husband after he dumped you. I see it differently. To me, your book is fueled by the pain and rage of all the powerless, and who is more powerless than the middle-aged wife and mother, dumped in favor of a younger woman? I’ll tell you who: the brown-skinned, middle-aged, immigrant wife and mother who lost the love of her own mother and is dumped in favor of a whiter, younger woman. Such a dumpee is the epitome of powerlessness─ unless she’s a really good writer. And you are such a writer.

You’ve always been able to express scathing sentiments in the perfect, grammatical sentences of the English schoolgirl, a reflection of the British education you received on Antigua when it was Briton’s colony. My students, many from islands in the Caribbean, and I used to marvel over how brilliantly you skewered Brits and Antiguans both. You attacked the former for displacing Antiguan culture with Anglican mores, books, and history and the latter for keeping the worst aspects of colonial rule after the colonizers were long gone but letting their excellent library and educational system decay. You even managed to work your distaste for colonialism into your books on gardening such as My Garden (Book). Who else would look at a hollyhock growing in Vermont and recall harvesting cotton as a child in Antigua?

Antiguan Stamp 1942

Antiguan Stamp 1942

And you’ve always written movingly and, often angrily, of characters and events that are recognizably and unabashedly autobiographical. You did not spare your mom or your brothers from your acid critiques. So it’s not surprising that the defection of your husband, son of your onetime American benefactor and father of your kids, should inspire a novel that reads like a cri du coeur from your own hurt and hurting heart of domestic and erotic darkness. It took creativity and guts to fashion an unusual novel from the ruins of your abandonment.

Heracles

Heracles

Your use of names and mythology is provocative. Mr. and Mrs. Sweet are often anything but and their progeny, the “young Heracles” and the “beautiful

Persephone

Persephone

Persephone,” have twisted versions of the qualities that make their namesakes memorable. The athletic Heracles suffers from ADD and his affection for the plastic soldiers that come with Happy Meals borders on addiction. Persephone, daddy’s girl, is easy to imagine reigning in the netherworld when, old enough to know better, she curses her mother for doing the writing that helps finance their middle class lifestyle.

Fueled by fury, your novel is powerful, your sentences Faulknerian tirades crammed with surreal snapshots of life as seen through the eyes of your third person narrator and through those of the Sweets. Mr. Sweets envisions his “beastly,” “bitchy” wife decapitated, her severed head greeting him on the yellow Formica counter in their kitchen. Mrs. Sweet envisions her spouse as a balding rodent, scurrying around filled with loathing for her, for their son, and for life in their New England village. She also envisions herself as deformed with a crooked spine, bent shoulders, too-long legs, and flared nostrils resting “like a deflated tent” on her “wide fat cheeks.” You even articulate the adolescent Heracles and Persephone’s hatred of their mom’s writing life so the reader can see how they curse the very vocation which has sustained their family and how much they fear her power to expose them.

Power of the Pen

Power of the Pen

I suspect conjuring up and articulating your own version of the violent imaginings of all these characters required you to call upon your store of writer’s power. This power is not the fleeting edge granted to the young and beautiful, but rather it is the lasting power of the really good novelist. Like many male authors who have fictionalized their relatives in the process of asserting authorial power, you have hung up an imaginary version of your family’s dirty wash to dry in the front yard of your book and in so doing, you too have created memorable fictional characters who live and breathe fire on the page.

Astronomical Clock

Astronomical Clock

And these characters will live on, and that is partly what, I think, your book is about. The present, or Now of your title, eventually morphs into the past and becomes the Then, only a memory, as subjective and fleeting as love itself unless it gets captured and crystallized on the page. Not every dumped ex-wife has the writing chops to do this, but you do. You turn your pain into potent prose images that linger in the hearts of your readers. I will remember your novel and use it as a lesson in how to make a powerful story, a modern Grimm’s fairy tale complete with ogres and witches, out of a lousy situation. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

6 Comments

Filed under American classic, feminist fiction, Immigrant story, Uncategorized

Dear Shalom Auslander,

Foreskin's Lament

Foreskin’s Lament

After reading two books by and about women who left Hasidic communities, I wanted to read a male’s account of forsaking that way of life, so I read your memoir, Foreskin’s Lament. I expected your perspective to be different not just because you had the chutzpah to title your book thusly, but also because you are a riotous humorist whose outbursts in Tablet, The New York Times, and The New Yorker have often made me grin.

I wasn’t disappointed. Your account of your introduction to God in the Orthodox Jewish community of Monsey, New York where you were raised is a

God

God

carnival ride of blasphemy. There you were taught early on by your parents and teachers that God was a strong and powerful man who liked the people only when they obeyed him. “But when we didn’t obey what he had commanded, he hated us. Some days he hated us so much he killed us; other days he let other people kill us. We call these days holidays. On Purim we remembered how the Persians tried to kill us. On Passover we remembered how the Egyptians tried to kill us. On Chanukah we remembered how the Greeks tried to kill us.”

You illustrate God’s disproportionate punishments for disobedience by reminding us that he punished Sarah, “a woman who would giggle,” by making her barren. And he severely chastised Job, because, on a bad day, the poor man dared to ask, “Why?” Then, after Moses escaped Egypt and searched the desert for forty long years to find the Promised Land, God killed him at the border because four decades ago Moses had “hit a rock.” For a smart and sensitive little boy, all this was hard to digest. What you took away from it was that the “people of Monsey were terrified of God, and they taught me to be terrified of Him too.”

Scared Child

Scared Child

Not Kosher!

Not Kosher!

You let the reader know that, since the death of his first born son, your father is perpetually pissed off, and often drunk. Even though, as a kid, you understood the underlying reasons for his rage, you were disturbed and helpless when he routinely hauled your older brother down to the basement and beat him bloody. So was your mom. To keep the peace that always threatened to disrupt Sabbath meals, you did impersonations, staged spills, and posed questions. But when a classmate’s dad died of a heart attack, you regretted that your own father was not chosen by God instead. And when the rabbi reminded your class that until a boy is thirteen, his sins are held against his father, you began to deliberately (and hilariously) violate Jewish laws in secret hoping to do in your own dad by snacking on non-kosher candy bars. Given that your God and your father both have serious anger issues, it’s no wonder that your own rage blazes through the pages of this book.

You leave Monsey with enough anger to fuel several novels. Part of your memoir’s complicated wave of humor and fury arises from the fact that although you have separated yourself from the Monsey community and moved with your wife, son, and dog, to a rural town near Woodstock, New York, you have not stopped wrangling with God. You have not become an atheist or forsworn Judaism and all Jewish customs. I find it amazing that you still believe in the existence of God even though you continue to insist he’s a “prick.” This is a theological compromise I find fascinating. It’s particularly so in your acknowledgements, amusingly entitled, Whom to Kill, where you express concern that God will kill you for writing such a blasphemous book and beg him not to kill you or your wife or son or dog, but instead to focus his homicidal wrath on those who helped you write the book! You are joking here, but throughout this coming of (r)age story, you make it clear that  you believe God exists but you can’t stand him. Likewise you can’t stand those who take the Torah literally. When, after much consideration, you and your wife have your son circumcised, but not ritually, even this most Jewish of acts strikes another blow to the wedge that distances you from your parents. Their faith may be uncompromising but their love is conditional.

The Doctor Is In

The Doctor Is In

Given all your fears, your rage, and your history, I’m glad you see a shrink. Shrinks have it in their power to re-parent us so that we can overcome some of our worst fears

Hope A Tragedy A Novel

Hope A Tragedy A Novel

and avoid repeating some of our biological parents’ worst mistakes. But don’t get too “normal” because all your fears and fury, the lousy parenting and religious mishegas you endured have forged you into a witty and insightful writer. I can’t wait to read your novel, Hope: A Tragedy: A Novel.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

Leave a comment

Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, Humorous fiction, Jewish fiction, Memoir

Dear Myla Goldberg,

The False Friend

The False Friend

Thank you for your stunning novel, The False Friend.  I read it while I was in a neck brace recovering from cervical fractures and craving distraction from my initial failure to sleep very long sitting up. The delayed reaction of thirty-one-year-old Celia to her part in the death of her childhood friend Djuna back in the eighties drew me in at once. Djuna and Celia, leaders of their clique of five eleven-year-old girls, mercilessly criticize and/or exclude the other three

Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood

until the afternoon when Djuna disappears. On the way home from school, all five girls take a forbidden road bordered by a woods, a forest primeval right out of Grimm. In the heat of one of her stormy fights with Celia, Djuna stomps off the road into the thicket. Infuriated, Celia follows while the others wait. Celia returns alone. Djuna is never seen again. Has Djuna gotten into a stranger’s brown car as all the girls, including Celia, attest to the police and parents at the time? Or has she fallen down an abandoned well where Celia left her to die as Celia insists after a kind of epiphany two decades later?

Celia’s shocking revelation took me right back to my own long ago girlhood. Were any surprises lurking there? Had I, like Celia and Djuna, once been

Mean Girls

Mean Girls

what today we think of as a “mean girl?” Had I been a victim of mean girls? Had I been part of a close but volatile best friendship like Celia and Djuna’s when I was eleven? I honestly don’t recall ever picking on another kid, but I do recall being ridiculed one endless summer in sleepover camp. The very first night when I stripped down to my undershirt, I learned that my busty bra-wearing bunkmates had no compassion for late bloomers. They taunted me mercilessly. Somehow, I survived even though, in addition to being flat chested, I was neither pretty nor athletic nor adventuresome like Celia. These traits made her a leader in spite of her mean streak. By eleven I had friends, but none close enough to fight with. Besides, my parents fought so much that I became a chronic peace maker.

Peace Maker

Peace Maker

Like many of my classmates at a Passaic High School reunion I once attended, Celia has changed. As an adult it is her kindness and generosity that make it so hard for her loved ones to believe she might have ever harbored a mean let alone murderous impulse. So at thirty-one, her efforts to confirm her new insight into her role in Djuna’s death drive her to reexamine her relationship with not only her childhood friends, but also with Huck, her boyfriend of ten years, her parents and her brother. Inevitably these efforts change her relationship with her adult self and with those she loves. When she dares to face the implications and repercussions of her actions, even belatedly, she can better appreciate and understand who she has become and that may free her to change. Some of us turn to therapists to help us develop fresh insights into ourselves and bring about changes, but Celia does it pretty much alone in one harrowing week, and your account of it is filled with the suspense of a good mystery or adventure story.

Your novel is so rewarding not only because your story of a woman at a turning point in her life is inherently interesting but because you are a superb writer, reconfiguring

No Bully Zone

No Bully Zone

potent archetypes, themes, and settings to keep us pasted to each page. Like that earlier little girl in the woods en route to grandma’s, Celia and her girlfriends are both vulnerable and powerful, their eleven-year-old bodies suddenly playing host to hormones their tween brains have yet to understand. Without once using the word “bully,” you shed light on that age-old archetype too, making readers see it as complex and often subconscious behavior that it is possible to outgrow. I so appreciate your avoidance of psychobabble!

Instead, your prose approaches the poetic, making us experience with Celia the busy urban intersection where, looking at the curb, she has her revelation: “Downtown Chicago streamed around Celia in a blur of wingtips and pumps.” When you want to make clear the appeal Djuna and Celia had for the girls who sought them out, you tell us: “At any given moment Djuna and Celia were a party the others were desperate to attend, or a traffic accident too spectacular to avoid.” Your novel includes many lengthy descriptive passages detailing Celia’s hometown and the house where she grew up and where her folks still live. Had you not described these so brilliantly that they somehow conjure up the reader’s origins as well, many editors would have insisted that you shorten them. But that would have been a travesty. Celia’s relationship with her past is rooted in remembering and these specifics help her and your readers to understand what she recalls. Your use of description as a memory aid will inspire me as I tackle my next book.

Thank you for another superb novel!

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

Leave a comment

Filed under Coming of age story, feminist fiction, mystery, Uncategorized

Dear Gary Shteyngart,

Super Sad True Love Story

Super Sad True Love Story

You’d think I’d be angry with you for the blast of satire that begins your novel Super Sad True Love Story and forces me to face the elegiac music heralding our nation’s abrupt decline. And I was furious, for as long as it took me to read how Lenny Abramov, your 39-year-old balding and paunchy narrator, the book-loving son of hard working Russian Jewish immigrants like your parents, knows no better than to fall for adorable 24-year-old Korean-American Eunice Park. “Eunie,” whose hobby is shopping, has an abusive father and a degree from Elderberry College where she majored in Images and minored in Assertiveness. Eunie is America’s future on steroids while Lenny is our past.

Serious Shopper

Serious Shopper

I’m grateful to you for writing this offbeat immigrant love story even though it occurs in a future that makes me fear for the eventual health and safety of my five grandchildren. How will they manage in the America you foresee where the very wealthy live forever and the rest of us die young? Where “unimportant” people are wired with electronic “äppäräts’ transmitting information about everything from their innermost thoughts to their life expectancy to anybody interested? My grandkids love printed books which, in your barely literate America are obsolete.

Even the youngest of this bubbe’s babies’ babies has learned to pay his debts or face consequences if he doesn’t. What will he make of our debt to China, so huge that the Chinese refuse to wait any longer for recompense? Of the rioting of Manhattan’s ILNWs (Individuals of Lower Net Worth) during the resulting credit crisis? Of the National Guard policing the Big Apple’s streets in tanks? And how will my sweet moppets feel when they see me and Papa and their other grandparents literally kicked to the curb as “unneeded people?”

I forgave you for making me face America’s grim future when I got hooked on Lenny’s narrative voice as he shares his diary with us. I’ve written a novel partly told by an

Diary

Diary

immigrant Jewish diarist, so I know well the pitfalls an author risks by creating the sort of person driven to chronicle her/his travails and then letting that genie out of the bottle to narrate that author’s precious novel. But you knew what you were doing. Lenny’s very schlubiness makes him easy to identify with and credible too. A guy who admits right off the bat to being a balding, middle-aged man of average height and above average bmi, is both familiar and believable to me. Lenny’s message may be threatening, but as a messenger, he himself is not.

Middle Aged Guy

Middle Aged Guy

How could I be scared by a guy who elaborates on how “unnoticeable” he is? He tells us that to get the attention of the “upper society” clients he solicits for his employer, a corporation claiming to extend indefinitely the life and youth of these well-heeled clients, he “must first fire a flaming arrow into a dancing moose or be kicked in the testicles by a head of state.” Lenny is not only a reliable and unthreatening narrator, but a funny one. So when he falls hopelessly in love with a totally inappropriate woman, I’m further disarmed. His doomed romance with Eunice does indeed make for a super sad true love story.

Or Lenny is a Hamlet for our youth-obsessed and health-fetishizing times, literally deciding not to be, not to prolong his youth and forestall his death by undergoing the treatments his company hawks. Rather he opts to exist as a mortal, a regular human who will die when his time is up. It

Snake  on a Forked Stick

Snake on a Forked Stick

takes guts to embrace life which is, after all, often sad and always terminal. I am reminded of our inescapable mortality by the reams of paper that arrive in my snail mailbox every day. These missives are pleas for me to subscribe to publications endorsed by prestigious university medical schools and purport to be able to help me ward off disease and the effects of aging. There is even one promising to advise me on which modern medications are the “worst.”  These envelopes nest in my mailbox like serpents, ready to strike so their venom can activate my worst fears. It is with an imaginary forked stick that I carry these poisonous pamphlets into our garage and drop them unopened in the recycling bin. When virtual versions of these same serpents slither onto my computer screen, I delete them. I have nothing at all against modern medicine, but, like Lenny, I do not want to make a lifestyle limited to self-maintenance and the hopeless pursuit of longevity and immortality.

Super Sad True Love Story might well be titled Super Sad True Love Stories because Lenny and Eunice’s romance is not the only one you relate. You also tell of the immigrant’s love for his adopted nation and his disappointment when the safe and happy harbor that is America self-destructs and so becomes just another place to flee. Thank you for a powerful read that will stay with me as I struggle to write my own version of what happens when the melting pot that is America boils over.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

Leave a comment

Filed under American classic, Humorous fiction, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction, Satire, Uncategorized

Dear Bruce Holbert,

Lonesome Animals

Lonesome Animals

I want to become a western writer which is, I think, different from a writer of westerns. I’m an urban East Coast transplant to Western Washington with a story I want to tell set in the area around present day Yakima. To tell my tale, I have to learn about Eastern Washington as it was,  imagine how its past figures in its present and then imagine how together, past and present influence people there. Only then will I be able to imagine how area inhabitants will behave in the story I aim to write. All this imagining is easier for me if I get some help from other writers who have experienced Eastern Washington firsthand. So when Seattle Times reviewer Adam Woog listed your new novel Lonesome Animals set in the Okanogan region as one of the best mysteries of 2012  and mentioned that East of the Cascades your own roots tunnel down deep and that your novel’s protagonist is based on your great grandfather, I read your book.

As a timid retired English prof who eschews violence on paper, film, and in real life, I’m an unlikely fan of your grisly story.  But even though, or maybe

Grand Coulee Dam

Grand Coulee Dam

even because, your protagonist, retired Sheriff Russell Strawl, fits my definition of a psychopath, I kept turning the pages. And even though the bleak mountainous Okanogan landscape of the Depression Era where Strawl tracks his quarry is short on tourist attractions except for the Coulee Dam going up, I read on. It was more than just the suspense of a manhunt or even your powerful prose that held me captive. It was the westerness of Strawl, his story, and its setting. This westerness is what kept me up late to finish it in spite of the evisceration, flaying, and filleting of living people that you describe with the predictable frequency of Austen recounting house parties at the manor. I kept trying to figure out what defined this pervasive sense of westerness.

Roy Rogers and Trigger

Roy Rogers and Trigger

Strawl is a far cry from the western hero I grew up watching in the movies, the laconic cowboy in a white hat who outguns the bad guy, rescues the woman, and gallops off into the wide open spaces with her behind him on his white horse. In fact, you announce in your first sentence that this “strong silent man of the West” is a myth. Instead Strawl is a badass whose loveless childhood and violent career have made him a monstrous loner incapable of sustaining family life or any other social life either. His brains and toughness are both feared and venerated even when he hurts innocent people. You explain that men of the vast and still Okanogan country only appear laconic because the silence around them drives them into constant conversation with themselves, so they perceive a greeting or comment as “the jar of another’s words pouring into the torrent of their own.”

When I read that, I thought I might identify with your protagonist because I talk to myself all the time and have since I was a lonely only child. But I’m delighted to be interrupted and have never been accused of being laconic. I don’t identify with Strawl. I don’t even like him. But I admire his smarts and his “western” skill set: horseback riding, camping, shooting, hunting, and easy familiarity with the native flora and fauna.  And because my Yakima-set novel will include several nasty types, and because I’ve never created a protagonist I didn’t like and identify with, Russell Strawl, almost a caricature of a sociopath, is instructive.

Rural swaths of Washington State attract folks who, like him, are looking to lose themselves. But the territory Strawl lives in and polices is changing and its wide openWide Open Spaces spaces are fewer and farther apart. The Coulee River is being damned and the native tribes are retreating to smaller and more remote allotments of land. Religious zealots of all sorts are turning up along with loonies, eccentrics, and survivalists. And these disparate folks mingle with decidedly disastrous results. Strawl adopts an Indian boy who, upon exposure to Catholicism, becomes a self-anointed prophet attracting followers into a mountain encampment that makes Waco, TX look like a Zen spa. Just as the dam subdues the Coulee, cars, trains, and trucks replace horses, and towns form where once there was only a settler or two. Thanks in part to Manifest Destiny, Strawl’s territory, like Huck Finn’s, is “getting civilized.”

Or maybe not so much. In 2003, shortly after I moved here, I heard Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske speak. He was touting the low homicide rate in Seattle compared to the higher rate in the countryside. Extending his arm and pointing, he said, “But out there it’s still the wild, wild West.” Maybe this westerness that I seek to understand and define has more to do with ambivalence towards encroaching “civilization” and the crowds and complexity it brings to those wide open spaces revered by so many early Americans. Maybe the promise of freedom inherent in Manifest Destiny was false. Maybe real westerners see dams and other promises of “progress” as enemies of their freedom which thrives in the wild and resists taming. After reading your gripping and scary story, I have a better idea of what Chief Kerlikowske meant and of how to think about Eastern Washington where urban gang bangers now scrap over turf with skinheads, Aryan Brothers, Native Americans, winery owners, retirees, survivalists, immigrants, farmers, religious folks of all stripes and not many more sheriff’s deputies than policed the vast area in Strawl’s day.  Thanks to Lonesome Animals, I feel better prepared to start writing my own version of a western.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

8 Comments

Filed under American classic, mystery, Uncategorized, Western novel

Dear Henry James,

The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw

Now I’m grateful to you for writing The Turn of the Screw, but I didn’t really understand it the first time I read your short scary novel.  That was way back in

Haunted Manor House

Haunted Manor House

1959 when I was a freshman at Vassar taking English 105 and your creepy ghost story was on the syllabus. I remember reading of an aging governess who recounts how, when young, she was charged with the care and education of Dora and Miles, two adorable orphaned children living in a manor house in rural England. This desolate place makes Thornfield where Jane Eyre was posted seem a hotbed of mirth and festivity.

In 1959 I immediately identified with the governess who, like me, was young, inexperienced, and away from home. She is also under-appreciated by her handsome, wealthy, sophisticated employer. To her dismay, he literally wants nothing to do with her or her charges and refuses to reveal how their previous governess died. So when the new governess claims to see malevolent ghosts of former servants, I felt really sorry for her. Even though I didn’t believe in ghosts, I trusted her, so I assumed the former caregiver and her consort had returned and wished to frighten away the replacement nanny so they could be alone once again with the children. In other words, like most of my classmates, I was fully convinced that the narrator saw what she said she did.

Ghosts

Ghosts

I’ve always been credulous. When I was six, my father, who usually ranted against all things sugary, told me we were making a visit to a candy factory, and I believed him. I still remember how I screamed and struggled when I found myself in our doctor’s office with an ether-soaked cloth over my face. I awakened at home, my throat sore and my tonsils gone. Two decades later when someone phoned alleging to be a doctoral student in Yale’s school of Psychology surveying people about their sex lives for his dissertation, I carefully and fully answered his many questions.  Only after my husband informed me that there was no Yale School of Psychology and chastised me for my gullibility did I realize I’d been hoodwinked.

I swallowed whole just about everything I read, including the governess’s recollections as recounted in The Turn of the Screw. But when my class met, our professor introduced us to the possibility that the narrator, the governess herself, was unreliable, was maybe even crazy. Who knew? What a revelation! The idea that you, a highly respected author, would deliberately devise a narrator who twisted the truth shocked me as had my realization of my father’s perfidy and the lies of the “doctoral student” asking all those personal questions. After class I hurried back to the dorm and reread your book, noting the clues Professor McGrew mentioned and finding a few on my own. Reading so actively engaged my imagination in a new way. I felt I was inside the novel, not merely observing it unfold. Suddenly your “ghost story” became a psychological thriller and/or a case study of a disturbed young woman living in a time not overly kind to lovelorn working class girls.

The ghost of your governess haunts me still, so I decided to include an unreliable narrator in The Bones and the Book.  Aliza, a long-dead diarist writes her own story in her diary and Rachel Mazursky translates it from Yiddish to English. When she finds missing pages and realizes that Aliza hoped her children would one day read what she wrote, Rachel wonders exactly how honest Aliza’s account of her life really is. This adds a whole other layer to the characters of both the diarist and the translator.

It doesn’t surprise me that The Turn of the Screw has been made into a play, movies, TV dramas, and an opera and that it retains its place on syllabi. It’s a winner and

Turn of the Screw Movie

Turn of the Screw Movie

reading it changed the way I read everything else. Now when I begin to read a new book, I ask myself, “Who’s telling the story? Can I trust her/him?”  Not all readers agree that the governess is delusional and has gone over to the dark side herself, but this interpretation satisfies me and fills me with admiration for your layering and complex characterization. You gave new life to the ghost story. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

5 Comments

Filed under American classic, British mystery, feminist fiction, mystery, Uncategorized

Dear Maria Semple,

Where'd You Go Bernadette?

Where’d You Go Bernadette?

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? made me laugh very hard which, at my age often invites involuntary bladder participation, so I didn’t read it on the bus or in

Pill Popper's To-Do List

Pill Popper’s To-Do List

any other public place where I might embarrass myself. But I loved it and am writing to thank you for it.

Reviewers call your tale a “multi-media” novel because it’s comprised of assorted documents including report cards, legal papers, e-mails, medical reports, blog posts, bills, letters, and magazine articles. You tied these together through your gifted 14-year-old narrator Bee Branch who recounts coming of age while Bernadette, her devoted mother, an introverted, narcissistic, agoraphobic, pill-popping architectural genius, comes apart and then pulls herself together. These two live with Elgin Branch, Bee’s dad and Bernadette’s husband, in Seattle where “Elgie” heads a key project at Microsoft.

Windows Icon

Windows Icon

Inspired by Bel Kaufman whose Up the Down Staircase is one of my favorite “multi-media” novels, I wrote my very first mystery, The “M” Word,  in the early Nineties as a compilation of e-mails, faxes, student compositions and other documents crucial to the life of narrator Bel Barrett, a menopausal community college English prof. But my editor felt that mystery readers weren’t up to the “challenge” of a multi-media approach. She insisted that I revise, limiting the documents to a brief e-mail at the start of each chapter. So I’m delighted to see that your editors have more faith in your readership! As one of your readers, I love the multiplicity of voices and perspectives you share. In The Bones and the Book, I use two voices, a diarist’s and another first person narrator’s. Doing so was exciting, especially since one is translating the other and they live in two different time periods. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? has inspired me to use this approach again.

I especially love Bernadette’s wild rants when she skewers Seattle. As a relative newcomer to the Puget Sound area, I also recall shivering in the region’s notorious coolness to strangers, “the Seattle Freeze,” that Bernadette remarks on. I live in Issaquah, but I get the Seattle scene and appreciate Bernadette’s satirical descriptions of the Emerald City’s fashion statements, hair styles (“gray hair and long gray hair”), weather (gray),

Gray Cloud over Seattle

Gray Cloud over Seattle

conversational gambits (weather), traffic issues, obsessional branding, street people, and proximity to both Idaho (Idaho?) and Canada. As a parent, grandparent, and retired teacher, I also get her send up of schools suffering from extreme progressivism. And I recognize Microsoft where “Elgie,” a TEDtalk star, reigns over a kingdom of free candy machines, cubes, and clocks counting the hours until the next product ships.

Take Out

Take Out

But your story is hardly one long giggle. At its heart is a troubled woman, an inventive iconoclast, who makes a few mistakes early on that are compounded by a series of miscarriages and the fact that Bee is born with a defective heart requiring many surgeries to correct. Bernadette suffers a kind of twenty-year-long breakdown that does not prevent her from being a devoted mom but does prevent her from being an effective architect, homemaker, parent volunteer, and neighbor. In fact, her state of mind and inability to relate to anyone besides Bee prevent her from doing very much, so her family survives on take-out and Bernadette secretly outsources all errands, domestic chores, bill paying, and travel planning to a virtual assistant in India! (Who doesn’t occasionally have the urge to do that?)

Bernadette’s misery and social ineptness keep getting her and those around her into serious trouble so that her constant catastrophizing is not

Blackberry Vine

Blackberry Vine

without basis. I’ve been known to catastrophize a bit myself, so I identify with Bernadette’s anxiety about travel and socializing although neither of these activities triggers my terror. I noted with interest that the ills that actually befall Bernadette are not the ones she worries about. For example she’s terrified of experiencing sea sickness on a family trip to Antarctica but, when she gets to sea, she proves quite functional. “Safe” at home, however, her handling of the invasive blackberry vines wreaks havoc on her next-door neighbors, literally rendering the hapless family homeless, ruining a school fundraiser, and scaring lots of little kids. So beneath the hilarious satire of Seattle’s culture and the up-to-the-minuteness of this book is the familiar story of a brilliant but flawed woman struggling to be worker, wife, and mom all at once when none of these realms is going well.

Thanks for a wonderful read.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

6 Comments

Filed under feminist fiction, Humorous fiction, Uncategorized

Dear Blog Readers,

My Cervical Collar

My Cervical Collar

I promised to resume posting notes to my muses in January when I finished promoting The Bones and the Book, so what happened?  Would you believe me if I told you I broke my neck? I did. Early on the morning of November 29, I fell and fractured two cervical vertebrae. Since then I’ve been wearing a neck brace designed by the guy who dreamed up the costumes for Star Wars.

This mishap did more than scare the hell out of me; it interrupted my efforts to promote The Bones and the Book.  It also prevented me from typing more than a line or two even after my daughter jerry-rigged the monitor to accommodate my immobile head. After a few minutes at the keyboard and mouse, my right shoulder and back felt as if an elephant was sitting on them. But I’m feeling a lot better now. And I can type a little longer without a visit from the elephant.

 Sitting Elephant

Sitting Elephant

While my fingers have been idle and my bones knitting, I’ve met new muses/authors and revisited old ones, and you can expect a note to one of them soon. Meanwhile, thanks for your patience and your interest.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

15 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Dear Blog Readers,

The Bones and the Book

This fall finds me in bookstores and libraries talking about The Bones and the Book.  When I’m not actually visiting a bookstore or library, I’m arranging to do so. So I’ll be taking a break from posting notes to my muses until the New Year.

Meanwhile I hope that you’ll read The Bones and the Book. There’s a synopsis of it, some comments from reviewers, and info about how and where to order it on my web site (www.JaneIsenberg.com). If you live in the Puget Sound area, you’ll also find there a list of venues where I’ll be speaking and or signing.

Thanks for following my blog. I look forward to a reunion in 2013.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Dear Anouk Markovitz,

I Am Forbidden

Thank you for I Am Forbidden. It can’t have been easy for you, a born and raised Satmar Hasidic, to write this astonishing saga that spans 70 years and two continents, two worlds really. One is our modern world where, in an orgy of free will, we confront a myriad of choices about everything from what to

GuidingGoodChoices

eat, wear, read, and believe to what to teach our children. The other world is a medieval theocracy where a manipulative rabbi manufactures a convenient miracle and preys on the fears of his traumatized congregants to coerce them into unquestioning obedience to outdated laws. Unlike the critics who have praised I Am Forbidden for its evenhandedness, I see it as a beautifully written and imagined condemnation of the Satmar Hasidism for what amounts to fanaticism fostered by deceit, ignorance, and desperate longing for the families killed in Satmar, Hungary during WWII.  To me your novel is a poignant critique of fundamentalism.

But it’s more interesting than most such critiques because you turn to history to explain the origin and staying power of Satmar Hasidism. And you focus not only on how

Sperm

women suffer in this community, but also on how Satmar beliefs affect the intimate lives of men. You open your story during World War II in Satmar where a devout teenaged boy has a wet dream in spite of having lashed his hands and feet to the bed frame to prevent him from committing this sin. Semen is only for procreation  to speed the repopulation of this community decimated by the Nazis.  A rabbi has decreed that “He who emits seed deserves death.” Decades later this same taboo makes it sinful for another male character to have a test to determine the viability of his sperm after his wife has not conceived during ten years of marriage. Not content with supervising men’s emissions and women’s menstrual cycles, the rabbis mandate positions and sexual pleasure limiting the former to missionary and forbidding the latter.

You’re generous to your characters when they endure, indeed, demand this way of life because you show how most of them suffer from what,

today, we know as post-traumatic stress. You describe one little boy watching his toddler sister killed with a pitchfork inches from him and hearing his mother’s final screams as she too is killed. A little girl sees her pregnant mother shot down while trying to board a train and finds her father tied to a post and left to die after being tortured by the dreaded Iron Guard. It’s not surprising that these two orphans grow up desperate to believe that if they are very, very good, when the Messiah comes, they will be reunited with their pierced, shot, and castrated relatives who will be whole and healthy once again.  You don’t blame the survivors and this reader doesn’t either.

Well, I do, a little. The small girl, who never forgets watching her parents die at the hands of Jew haters, grows up in the Satmar community where her father arranges her marriage to the young man who recalls seeing his sister impaled and hearing his mother’s dying screams. In spite of the love these two have for one another and in spite of their faith, they run afoul of the regressive Satmar reproductive rules with predictably tragic results. It is not their faith in God that is the problem, but their faith in these rules. This misplaced faith is a kind of mass delusion brought about by the trauma of seeing their parents and community cruelly annihilated. This delusion flourishes in mandated ignorance and fears of modernity and masquerades as faith in God. The Satmar are like children who seek safety under the bed while their house burns down around them. If they don’t look at the fire, it cannot destroy them.

Another of your characters, the young daughter of the nocturnal emitter, suffers a brutal beating from her father, now a rabbi himself, for riding a bicycle on the Sabbath.

Whip

Not surprisingly she grows up to question rabbinic authority, to read forbidden books, and, when she reaches marriageable age, to leave her home, family, and the Satmar community in Paris for the United States. Here she goes to college and becomes a film maker and professor living alone in a New York studio apartment and a country home. Does she miss her family? Yes. Would she return is she were allowed? No. Can she live a rewarding and meaningful life estranged from her family of origin and childless and, perhaps, manless as well? Yes.

It’s scary to think of an entire community of PTSD sufferers just across the bridge from Manhattan and determined to remain separate from the evil influences they think are rampant only in the outside world. At a time when globalization, scientific breakthroughs, climate change, and wars waged in the name of religion are changing the way we all live, these people’s muddled medievalism is ill-timed and even dangerous. Like many other fundamentalists, the Satmar Hasids seem ill-equipped for life in the diverse democracy that took them in. I admire the courage you show in taking readers into the hearts and minds of the Satmar and then taking us out again. You make that journey memorable.

Firecracker Exploding

There is a lengthy, complicated tale I want to tell, and in I Am Forbidden you show me how to make a long, complex story quick and explosive like a firecracker going off in the reader’s head. Thank you!

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

7 Comments

Filed under Coming of age story, feminist fiction, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction, Uncategorized

Dear Amanda Coplin,

The Orchardist

I read The Orchardist because I, too, plan to set a novel in eastern Washington. But unlike you who were raised there, I’ve been there only twice years ago,

Nez Perce Warrior

to visit my daughter at WASU in Spokane. I figured your book would give me a quick tour of the sunny side of my new state before I visit there again. But I got a lot more than I bargained for, and I’m very grateful. Your gripping tale of Talmadge, an orphaned orchardist doomed to mourn his sister Elsbeth who disappears when they are both children took me to a time and place tourists no longer get to visit. Talmadge lives on alone in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains at the turn of the last century. His only visitors are some Nez Perce men who hunt wild horses in the mountains and come each fall to help Talmadge harvest his fruit.

His solitude is disturbed when Jane and Della, two very young, very pregnant, very hungry girls, appear on his property. Their backstory complements Talmadge’s own, and you weave these entangling tales into a gripping narrative which they tell one another only in broken snatches reluctantly shared. These are not chatty people. So yours is partly a story about stories, about controlling narrative, sharing, or not sharing family secrets. You use no quotation marks to indicate where characters do actually speak aloud, perhaps because they do so rarely. Elsbeth has trouble putting her thoughts into full sentences. Cle, a leader of the Nez Perce, stops speaking altogether when his mother is snatched from their tepee by white raiders. Della barely speaks. Even a character’s internal monologues are terse as in “Why are we born?”

Secrets

These are not people of the book, the café, or the salon; they are people of the earth, the forest, and the mountains. Homely, humble, patient, quiet, protective, and content with small pleasures, Talmadge himself seems an unlikely hero. He’s a kind man, an excellent orchardist, and, perhaps, a tragic figure, for he fails in imagination. With a bit more imagination, he might have predicted Della’s behavior more accurately. But maybe not. The local herbalist and midwife Carolyn Middey, a more communicative and worldly character, appears better attuned to the potential for disaster lurking in the many silences in Talmadge’s household. Talmadge, Middey, Cle, Jane, Della, and Jane’s child form a family marked by the blood of birth and the knowledge of death, but a kinship nonetheless.

Apples on the Tree

Talmadge’s mother wanted him to know life on the land was hard and his life certainly is. But it is not without deep pleasures: the joy of hard

Forest and Mountains

work, discovery, and omnipresent beauty. The orchard, surrounding forest, nearby canyons, creek, and mountains are glorious and your prose does them justice. “Then they came through dense forest, and stood on the rim of a valley illuminated as if it was the end or beginning of the world. A valley of yellow grass. Still but for a ribbon of water moving at the bottom of it.”  The characters savor the smells, sounds, and colors around them all the time. When they are in town, they miss the fecund loveliness of the orchard. They lose or find themselves in the forest. Cle and his men materialize from it and Elsbeth literally loses herself there. Jane and Della hide there and Della often chooses to sleep in the woods rather than in the house or the lumber camps where she finds work. When Cle and his band of horse hunters emerge from the woods with their snorting, stomping unbroken herd they seem like vestiges of a forgotten time when wild creatures roamed unfenced peaks and Native Americans, also unfenced, hunted them.

Thanks for this moving and powerful book. I will see eastern Washington more clearly because I have read it.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

2 Comments

Filed under American classic, feminist fiction, Uncategorized

Dear Cynthia Ozick,

The Puttermesser Papers

My favorite of your many books is your surreal novel The Puttermesser Papers. I’m dazzled by how you draw on a Jewish legend born of terror and use it to satirize urban politics, politicians, bureaucracies, and bigots. You use this legend to allow a brainy, nebbishy Jewish single woman in her late forties to enjoy a short-lived but fulfilling triumph. Ruth Puttermesser, an overqualified and underappreciated municipal bureaucrat, returns to her dreary apartment to find the potting soil that sustained her houseplants scattered all over the floor. Instead of reaching for the broom and dustpan, your Puttermesser, whose

Woman Molding Clay

name translates from Yiddish as butter knife, is driven to shape this dirt into a large female form that turns out to be a golem, a fantastic animated super heroine. According to legend, a rabbi in medieval Prague once sculpted clay into a huge male figure, a golem, to protect the city’s Jews. It is Puttermesser’s creation that helps her  run for and be elected Mayor of New York and enables her to transform Gomorrah into Gotham, a functioning, litterless metropolis whose citizens enjoy civility and comfort that even Michael Bloomberg can only imagine.

Not content to perk up your protagonist with a few well-chosen adjectives, a leg up the career ladder, or a sortie into genre fiction, you give Puttermesser a girl golem and make her mayor of New York! So thanks to your authorial daring and knowledge of Jewish history, she morphs into both mother and mayor. I’m embarrassed to confess that until I read The Puttermesser Papers in my late forties, I knew nothing about golems. Your insistence on drawing on and explicating this chunk of our long and troubled past reveals its richness while instructing those who, like me, are ignorant of it.

Golem and Woman

I love reading about Puttermesser’s transformation at least partly because it’s funny. Xanthippe, as Puttermesser dubs her new, oversized offspring, is a shopaholic, a glutton, and a sex addict who exhausts all the men in Mayor Puttermesser’s administration with her urgent demands.  The chapter of this five-part novel devoted to Xanthippe is truly comic, even when Puttermesser must destroy the libidinous golem who has run amok as golems are wont to do and threatens the new civic paradise that is Puttermesser’s great achievement.

Like your Puttermesser, in the Eighties I was a midlife single Jewish woman living in the metropolitan area and working in a corrupt Kafakesque bureaucracy. And like you, I was writing a book about a smart midlife single Jewish woman living in the metropolitan area and working in a corrupt Kafkaesque bureaucracy. So I was struck by your depiction of poor Puttermesser as a bit on the schlumpy side and suffering from hyper literacy and loneliness. And I was saddened when she ended up victim of a brutal killer rather than as the one who brings such predators to justice.

Breck Shampoo Poster

I identify with her. I grew up in the Forties and Fifties when rhinoplasty was a routine ritual for Jewish girls whose well-meaning parents wanted us to assimilate. My mother persuaded me to undergo a nose job by insisting that “no one will marry you with that nose. It’s too Jewish.” She also bought hair straightener to tame my brown kinky tresses. Puttermesser and I shared certain features.  She too had “… a Jewish face and a modicum of American distrust of it. She resembled no poster she had ever seen: she hated the Breck shampoo girl, so blond and bland and pale-mouthed; she boycotted Breck because of the golden-haired posters, all crudely idealized, an American wet dream, in the subway.” Puttermesser’s hair, brown like mine, “came in bouncing scallops” like “imbricated roofing tiles . . . .”  Apt references and wry descriptive gems like these gleam throughout your novel. Decades later Puttermesser’s antipathy towards those poster-ready girls born blond with short straight American noses still resonates with me even though I have long since forgiven them and my mother too.

Inspired by you, I’ve turned to Jewish history to write The Bones and the Book. But I have not yet put upon the page a character capable of creating a golem or doing something else that transcends reality so wonderfully. I still aspire to do so and have set the ingredients to boil in my head. All I need now is the guts to stir the pot. Before I begin to write that novel, I’ll revisit yours to find the courage I need. Thank you for your example.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

3 Comments

Filed under American classic, feminist fiction, Humorous fiction, Jewish fiction, Surrealist novel, Uncategorized

Dear Robert B. Parker,

Hugger Mugger

Boston-based hunk Spenser is your gift to wise-asses and, as a certified wise-ass myself, I’m grateful. He’s the only noir private eye who can on some

occasions be mistaken for the proverbial teddy bear

Teddy Bear

while at other times come off like a tough Hemingway hero channeling Jon Stewart.

Jon Stewart

In Hugger Mugger, Spenser leaves Boston and Cambridge for horse country in Georgia and tracks down a killer there with the help of the local cops. Upon meeting a room full of perfectly tanned southerners, our tourist from New England confides to the reader, “If I were a skin cancer specialist, I’d move right down here.” But like Stewart, Spenser is more than a smart-ass. He’s a top notch PI and a loyal and loving partner to Susan Silverman, his shrink girlfriend. He’s an intellectual who loves sports, a trusted friend, and a good cook too. In other words, you’ve given mystery lovers, feminists, and foodies of both genders a male protagonist we can root for and admire.

That’s all well and good but, as I mentioned, what I’ve always enjoyed most about Spenser is how snide and ironic he is. Since I was a teenager, I’ve used sarcasm as a shield,

Wise-ass

a sword, and a feather to tickle the ribs of students and friends. But sarcasm has definite limits, especially in the classroom where I spent about forty years teaching English. Although I could use irony to illustrate certain literary works ─How do you suppose Lear/Huck/Holden/Magwich felt on Father’s Day?─ skewering my students on the sharp rapier of my wit was not an option. Besides, many of them hailed from other countries, and my snarky comments didn’t often translate into foreign languages or apply to different cultures. My censored inner wise-ass yearned for an outlet until I gave my menopausal sleuth Bel Barrett an acid-tipped tongue. I thought of her as like Spenser with hot flashes, and I had a lot of fun writing in her sarcastic voice, one very close to my own.

In most of your books, Spenser does his detecting on his familiar home turf along the banks of Boston’s Charles River. There he knows the streets

Boston Map

and alleys, the political players and the police, the cafés, the colleges, and the criminals. There he makes his home near his beloved Susan’s. (A man eager to learn how to behave in an egalitarian relationship with a well-educated and attractive professional woman would do well to use Spenser as a model. ) In Boston Spenser has his trusty sidekick Hawk to watch his back as in Double Deuce, a terrific tale of gangs and guns and friendship. You are a master at creating credible settings and intriguing supporting characters.

Another thing I admire about your books is that they are mostly dialogue. You let Spenser tell his story in the first person and he recounts his conversations with colleagues, clients, and friends. Remember this chat he had in the coffee shop with Becker, the local lawman who is his ally in Hugger Mugger?

“Fella outside sitting in his car with the motor running,” Becker said. “Know about him?”

“Yeah. He’s been assigned by Security South to follow me.”

“And by luck you happened to spot him?” Becker said.

“They could have tailed me with a walrus, “I said, “and been better off.”

Spenser’s wit enlivens what without it would be a quick but colorless exchange in the noir tradition.

Yet another thing I find appealing about Spenser as narrator is that he tells us exactly what every character, no matter how insignificant, is wearing and eating!

Breakfast

These details, often amusingly rendered, make Spenser’s account visible to the reader and help us to judge your fictional characters as we often do real ones, by what they wear and what they eat. Whoever designed the costumes for the long-running TV show based on your Spenser novels had only to turn your explicit descriptions into clothes, shoes, and accessories. And, of course, Spenser’s attention to such details, often enables him to figure out who done it.

Thank you for your many highly entertaining novels that have also served this smart-ass as models of story-telling.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

Leave a comment

Filed under feminist fiction, Humorous fiction, mystery, Uncategorized

Dear P.D. James,

Cover Her Face

I’ve recently attended my fiftieth Vassar reunion, an occasion designed to recall memories of 1962 when life waited like an exquisitely wrapped wedding

Reunion!

gift I just knew held something special. At a pre-reunion get-together our hostess got out the obligatory yearbook, and we passed it around, marveling at the fresh-faced girls we’d been. After I relinquished the book, I glanced at my old friends clustered around the coffee table. In that second, I saw us as we’d been five decades ago, our faces yet unmarked by experience, wisdom, or time. Not surprisingly we spent much of the weekend reliving what life was really like for young women in 1962, so it’s no wonder that when I returned home, I sought out my copy of your very first mystery, Cover Her Face, which came out that year.

Wedding Gift

Unwed Mother

You really nailed 1962. In this novel, you dramatize people’s ambivalence about the social changes sweeping England and America. The victim, housemaid Sally Judd, is thought to be an unwed mother and she is not the only woman indulging in premarital sex. Sally’s announcement of her engagement to the son of the landed Maxie family for whom she works heralds class co-mingling of the sort that became more common during the Sixties. Sally herself, described by a former employer as “Pretty, intelligent, ambitious, sly, and insecure” was also something of a drama queen with a penchant for embarrassing the powerful. In the end, it is this leaning that puts her in harm’s way. In fact, it puts her in the path of another woman equally bent on keeping power in the hands of the gentry where it had always been. And so, we end with a young woman dead and an older one going to prison.

The good news for women in Cover Her Face is the realization of loyal and sensible nurse Catherine Bower that she’d rather be single than continue her

Nurse

dubious relationship with the callow Stephen Maxie. For a woman in an English novel to turn away a suitor was still a revolutionary act, more like Brontë’s Jane Eyre than Austen’s Lydia Bennett. But the not very pretty Catherine is a new woman. She has a profession and doesn’t need to tie herself to a loser to live comfortably. And you do reward her with a worthier liaison later on. Cover Her Face is full of well-drawn characters who reflect their time and place very convincingly.

So my post-reunion return to the early 1960s was more than facilitated by revisiting your debut novel. And so was my need to lose myself in a good mystery, a book that would take me far from health concerns, news of our sad world, and my obligations to e-mail and Facebook. In Cover Her Face, you offer a puzzle worthy of Dame Agatha. And to help us solve it, you introduce Scotland Yard’s Detective Chief-Inspector Adam Dalgleish. He is a “tall, dark, and handsome” man who looks before he speaks, views the body and the crime scene before interviewing the family, and is known for his “ruthless” and “unorthodox” approach to bringing criminals to justice. He proved to be a keeper, and I followed his career and personal life with interest in subsequent books. And I followed your career too as you continued to fill your books with issues and characters emblematic of the changing times.

Time to Be in Earnest

Your socially relevant and carefully crafted novels inspire me as I dream up mysteries of my own. And your life as you recall it in Time to Be in Earnest

Working Mom

inspires me as well. For, like me, you were a working mom who came to writing later in life with a healthy respect for genre fiction. And you are still writing today! Bravo, Baroness and thank you!

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

Leave a comment

Filed under British mystery, feminist fiction, Historical mystery, mystery, Uncategorized

Dear Anna Quindlen,

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake

I just finished your memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, and, of course, I loved it. I’ve always relished the way you draw on your own experiences,

Sandwich Generation

strewing your New York Times columns with first-person pronouns: “That’s what makes life so hard for women, that instead of thinking that this is the way things are, we always think it’s the way we are.” I still savor the sharp images you use. A passing jet is “a shining exclamation point in the blue sky” and women sandwiched between nurturing kids and nursing aging parents are “caregivers cubed.” Reading your personal and poignant prose once again took me back to my first encounter with your columns in the early Eighties.

NYT Logo

The New York Times seemed austere, dense, a paper for corporate types and lawyers to peruse over leisurely wife-made breakfasts. A working mom, I seldom had time to skim the front page of my local paper before leaving my kids’ egg-crusted

Man Reading Paper over Coffee

dishes on the table and tearing off to teach my community college classes. Then a female colleague recommended your column, so I read it. To my amazement, it was actually about stuff that interested me, “women’s stuff” like grocery shopping with kids, the amniocentesis dilemma, and working from home with a toddler drooling on your lap and an infant waking from a nap. I recalled a time when my comments on the student essays I read at home were punctuated by yogurt splotches when I returned them to their authors. Who knew this detail of my messy double life mattered? You did. You taught me that certain issues that mattered to me, what we now call “women’s issues,” were actually newsworthy, New York Times-worthy. Thanks to you, when menopause hit, I knew this daunting passage mattered, and I wrote a series of mysteries featuring Bel Barrett, a Kegeling, sweating amateur sleuth who tracks killers in between mood swings.

There’s more to my affinity for your memoir than my appreciation of your style and subject matter though. Your unashamed membership in the middle

Rest in Peace Middle Class

class is both refreshing and validating. In an era of victim-lit, your references to your comfortable, albeit not opulent childhood during which you were neither abused nor addicted is a relief. Your mother’s illness and death saddened you but did not destroy you and neither did being the oldest of five sibs. You went to college, married a lawyer, got several great jobs, had children, and found a way to stay home with them and still write. None of this sounds like gripping memoir-fodder, but it is when you put it out there and describe what you learned from your relatively untroubled life. In Lots of Candles, you refer to your good fortune unabashedly each time you mention your healthy kids, your happy marriage, your two homes, and, of course, your extremely rewarding work. As a result of that work, you,  a woman and a writer, both traditionally underpaid, are able to retain your place among the middle class, a cohort vanishing even as I type. Kudos and thank you for your game-changing columns, your inspiring memoir, and your engrossing novels.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg.

4 Comments

Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, feminist fiction, Memoir

Dear Allegra Goodman,

The Cookbook Collector

I finished reading The Cookbook Collector on the eve of Facebook’s IPO. Normally the workings of the stock market and its boy wonders barely graze the

Irene Rosenfeld, CEO of Kraft Foods

underbelly of my radar. But in your stunning novel, you took me on a dramatic and accessible tour through the tail end of the Nineties’dot.com heyday. Better yet, one of the best, brightest, and most bent on success CEOs is actually wonder woman, Emily Bach, MBA. If that weren’t reward enough for this feminist, by your story’s end, Emily turns out to be a Jewish woman!

Also making news while I was reading The Cookbook Collector was the ongoing struggle of book publishers and independent book sellers to remain relevant and profitable enough to stay in business even as self-publishing and monopolization threaten to displace them. But in your novel, old print books are highly prized items, sought after by the retired Microsoft millionaire, antiquarian bookstore owner George Friedman.

Old Cookbook

Rare old books also intrigue the grad student who works for him, Emily Bach’s younger sister Jess. You see to it that each sister has a love affair born in the context of her work. Emily is engaged to another ambitious and highly competitive dot.com CEO who turns out to be traitorous and whom you severely punish. But you reward Jess and George when they fall in love, their relationship nourished by the beautiful well-used cookbooks they explore. Admittedly biased by the fact that I’m a writer, I interpreted their lovely wedding as your endorsement of books over bucks. Bravo!

Rain

So how do you make a novel about business into a literary triumph and a page turner? It’s partly your scope which is broad enough to include not only the dot com bubble, the events and aftermath of 9/11, two love stories, and a few Bialystok Jews and environmentalists, but it’s also your prose and pacing. You layer precise and often wryly comic insights and images in such a way as to repeat important themes without seeming repetitive. In your opening paragraph you violate the rule cautioning writers not to begin their novels with descriptions of the weather by describing a September rainstorm in Silicon Valley. After a brief lovely word picture of the storm, you add, “Like money the rain came in a rush, enveloping the bay, delighting forecasters, exceeding expectations, charging the air.” The two words, Like money turn your initial paragraph from a beautifully phrased weather report to a reminder of the rush of the quick buck and how, like rain, money can stop coming and give way to devastating drought.  This comparison, unexpected itself, also reminded this reader of the danger of unrealistic expectations. After reading this one crucial paragraph, I was eager to meet the characters who people a world where money rains down and then, perhaps, dries up. And you keep up the pace, firing big ideas at us in few well-chosen words and encapsulating big moments in swift-moving prose-poetry.

Kaaterskill Falls

The Family Markowitz

I look to your books for inspiration and I find it in this novel just as I found it in The Family Markowitz and Kaaterskill Falls. Those two very good earlier works of yours

legitimized my urge to someday write a book centered on specifically Jewish themes and characters. They were among the novels that moved me to write The Bones and the Book.  But The Cookbook Collector becomes an overtly “Jewish novel” only near the end when Emily and Jess discover that their long dead mother was Jewish. This unexpected plot twist illustrates how a writer can integrate Jewish characters and themes into stories that, like modern American Jews, have finally escaped ghettos and restricted neighborhoods and now turn up almost everywhere.

I also appreciate your affectionate and empathic treatment of the Bialystok Jews whom you might have satirized for their messianic zeal, gender bias, and old fashioned get-ups. But instead you focus on their talent for community building and ancestral memory, not to mention fund raising. For it is the Bialystok rabbi who makes his initial investment, not in the market but in Jess, a human being who needs a loan. I found it extremely ironic that his relatively small investment of $1,800, a meaning-laden number in the Jewish tradition, pays off not only spiritually, but financially as well.

The Cookbook Collector is a wonderful read and has already broadened the scope of my next book. Again, bravo and thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

Leave a comment

Filed under feminist fiction, Jewish fiction

Dear Deborah Feldman,

Unorthodox

Oy vey! That’s what I kept exclaiming as I read your moving memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Story of My Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. Thank you for having the guts and persistence to get it published. Remember how you had to hide books under your bed or in your underwear drawer because

Girl Reading Max Hendrick Sketch

Hasidic girls aren’t supposed to read anything but their prayer books? Well, Ms. Feldman, I bet many of those girls are now stashing copies of Unorthodox under their beds or burrowing them among their heavy high socks and panties. For some of these teens, unwitting hostages in a repressive and cloistered community, your memoir will be a validation of their own “unacceptable” perceptions. And for a few of these same girls it will be a road map out.

In Unorthodox, the devil really does show his medieval misogynistic face in the details. Who knew that according to the Talmud, Rachel, righteous wife of renowned Rabbi Akiva, stuck pins in her legs to prevent her skirt from billowing up and exposing those legs?

Marilyn Monroe-Skirt Billowing

Or that girls at your high school are treated to a daily “modesty lecture” where this masochistic act is cited as exemplary? Or that married women, have to prove they are no longer menstruating/“impure” by submitting numerous unstained white cloths to a rabbi for inspection? I found your detailed critique sadly instructive.

Your gift for description sneaks me into the closed world you fled. So I’m with you on that day you’re happy to be sent home from school to modify your dress: “The moment when the spring sunshine hits my face is like the taste of Zeidy’s Kiddush wine, my first breath of fresh air a long slow tingle down my throat.” And your depiction of your relationship with yourself and with God after your flight from Hasidism reads like poetry. “I have come home to myself, and God is no longer a prescription for paradise but an ally in my heart.”

Your family history needs no embellishment to be prime memoir material. Your lesbian mom left the Hasidic world without you, and your dad is developmentally disabled  and mentally ill. Being raised by your ideologue grandfather, your Holocaust-scarred grandmother, and your materialistic and controlling aunt was, at best, a poor fallback position. With no reading of books or newspapers, no TV, little contact with male age mates, and a lot of negative and erroneous information about your body, how were you supposed to be prepared to have sex let alone enjoy it? And those pre-marital sex ed sessions you endured were worse than useless. No wonder you didn’t know where your vagina was and, when your husband proved similarly clueless, no wonder there was literally no there there for either of you. Your frankly clinical account of your efforts to figure out your own body is chilling.

Hasidic Bride En Route to Wedding

In fact, a lot of what you say about life as a Williamsburg Satmar is disturbing. And seeing our stained Jewish linens billowing in the wind feeds my fear of anti-Semitism, an ongoing threat. A modern Reform Jewish feminist, I still feel guilty when writing Jewish bad guys and gals because I hear my mother’s whispered warnings sounding in my ears. Her whispers became shouts when I was writing The Bones and the Book because not all the Jews in that novel behave well. Some are downright criminal. With my dead mother kicking up such a ruckus in my head, it was very hard for me to implicate even those fictional characters, so I can only imagine how difficult it has been for you to expose the community where you grew up. But even my mother would acknowledge that, kept hidden, soiled laundry eventually reeks.

Bravo! You speak for other women rendered powerless in a community of damaged men who see women primarily as breeders and domestic servants. Inspired by you and other female Jewish authors, I’ll continue to mine our rich tradition and tell women’s versions of the stories I find there.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

6 Comments

Filed under Memoir, Uncategorized

Dear Frances Hodgson Burnett,

The Secret Garden

I cannot remember a time when I hadn’t read and loved The Secret Garden, and decades after my mother bought it for me, your book still loomed large in

Impatiens

my consciousness. In my forties and fifties I had a garden, and although it was hardly secret, it always reminded me of the one in your book. Behind our Hoboken row house,  our yard was really more brick-paved patio than garden. But each spring I bought many flats of multicolored impatiens and devoted an entire day to planting them along the back and side borders. Along with the Rose of Sharon trees lining the other side, they created what to this city girl was a charmed circle of blooming color. There, on summer afternoons, I’d retreat to admire my handiwork, think, and read.

When I was in my mid-forties, I began having panic attacks. They followed the illnesses and deaths of my father and my first husband and the mental and physical decline of my mother. Caring for my mom while also raising two abruptly fatherless adolescents and teaching full-time depleted me. Life seemed bleak. One day my therapist told me I was a catastrophizer, a person who looks at a hangnail and foresees an amputated arm. Following that session, I retreated to my garden, seeking the safety of my familiar fenced-in cloister. That afternoon the garden reminded me not of the one you describe so memorably, but of Mary Lennox and Colin Craven, the sad, sour children you created to tend to it. An orphan and a motherless invalid, Mary and Colin are retreating from sheltered dull lives ravaged by loss, neglect, and fear. These two find refuge in your walled Eden where they are restored to physical and mental health. As a lonely only child, I’d identified with them both.

But that day in the garden with my therapist’s pronouncement echoing in my head, I recalled not only the children, but Colin’s father. Now that man was a catastrophizer! This grieving, humpbacked widower took one look at his newborn son and convinced himself that the infant had inherited the hump and was so weak and sickly that he wouldn’t live to reach adulthood. His dire predictions made my conviction that my daughter’s school trip to Greece would end in a plane crash and my son would be mugged on the subway home from school seem quite reasonable. I remembered how, treated like an invalid, Colin becomes one and terrifies himself by imagining his own imminent death. He hasn’t inherited the hump, but he has a catastrophizer’s DNA for sure. Sitting there, I recognized both Cravens as kindred spirits.

Toad in the Garden

Then I reminded myself that Colin is a kid in a kid’s book. Of course he recovers. A little fresh air, sunshine, hard work, and good company are all he needs. And his recovery prompts his father’s. But I was just a few years away from fifty. And my life wasn’t some bucolic British fairytale. My surviving parent wouldn’t recover. My life was an urban disaster and, to prove it, a huge green toad, a refugee from the local sewer system, turned up in my garden. When the local alley cats began to glide along the fence top, the visitor’s prospects seemed as grim as mine.

With the help of neighbors, I rescued the toad. I kept going to the therapist and teaching my students and seeing my kids off at airports and planting impatiens and reading in the garden. My panic attacks became less frequent, even after my mother died six months before I hit fifty. To get through that birthday , I enlisted the help of my kids who, at summer’s end, were actually safe at home. We planned a potluck in the garden and invited everybody we knew, including an interesting man I’d recently met and a new boyfriend my daughter met at her summer job. Contrary to my expectations, it didn’t rain, it wasn’t too hot, people did come, we didn’t run out of food or wine, no one suffered food poisoning or tripped over a protruding brick, and I had a wonderful time turning fifty. Soon afterwards I began to think about writing for publication.

Pot Luck Plenty!

So thank you for writing a book that spoke to me when I was an anxious little girl and then again when I was gob-smacked by midlife losses.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Dear Dame Iris Murdoch,

A Severed Head

You write so well, it’s almost criminal. One of my favorite lines in A Severed Head is on page one when, reflecting on his too-young mistress’s practical nature, Martin Lynch-Gibbons assures the reader, “Only with someone so eminently sensible could I have deceived my wife.” Thank you for A Severed Head, your farcical take on the sexual shenanigans of upper middle class Brits and Americans.

During the early Sixties and before I read A Severed Head, I saw a dramatization of it at a theater in New Haven, CT. Half a century later I remember that production. Every turn of the revolving circular stage revealed a bed occupied by a different twosome from among the play’s five characters! I minored in

Moses with the Ten Commandments

French in college, so I was no stranger to farce. But these highly theatrical couplings ranged from garden variety adultery and homosexual hanky-panky to unthinkable incest. To see people vigorously violating so many of the Commandments was more than liberating. It was hilarious! It was The Sixties! My colleague and I left that Saturday matinee performance guffawing, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the book.

Dead White Males

I wasn’t disappointed. Reading A Severed Head was a vacation from the stresses of introducing works by long dead white men to restive high school kids, for you were a live woman at the top of your game. It was a respite from worrying about poverty and segregation. Martin Lynch-Gibbons and his upper middle class cohort live on inherited wealth and feel entitled to do so. It was an escape from cooking, cleaning and being the “Yale wife” of my grad school husband. Antonia Lynch-Gibbons, the only wife in your book, is unencumbered by household drudgery, children, or a job, and so is free to spend her time screwing around. A Severed Head reads a bit like Updike’s Couples if that solemn tract were written by a winking female wordsmith with a British accent high on speed.

But even in this romp of a read, you include a few caveats, especially for women. The “sensible” one has an abortion and attempts suicide while Martin’s wife ages visibly and, so Martin tells us, unattractively. And then there’s Dr. Honor Klein, an anthropology prof and Jewish half-sister to Martin’s American psychiatrist and longtime friend. Martin speaks often of Honor’s “reptilian” eyes, “oily” hair, dark skin, unattractive “perceptively Jewish” features, and of something “animal-like and repellent” in her stare. These descriptions smack of anti-Semitism on your part until I remind myself that these are narrator Martin’s perceptions and Martin is an idiot. He feels entitled to betray, assault, and coerce women to do his bidding without any awareness that these actions are not right or that the pain he knows they cause matters.

In short Martin is a narrator we can’t rely on. I’d been conned by his kind before, and I relished the idea of a storyteller whom the reader can’t trust but whom the writer can

Unreliable Narrator

manipulate, adding layers of meaning and suspense to her novel. I pictured this omnipotent author creating a genie and letting him out of the bottle to do her bidding. I resolved that someday I’d conjure up my own unreliable narrator.

That day was a long time coming. But finally, in The Bones and the Book, Rachel Mazursky and Yetta Solomon constantly question the veracity of the woman whose diary Rachel is translating. And like the cynical Yetta, Rachel also has suspicions about the truth of what other people tell her. Finally, some wary readers may wonder if Rachel herself, a woman who values keeping and preserving written records of what happens, is entirely

Genie out of the Bottle!

trustworthy.

Thank you for a marvelous read and for all your other marvelous novels as well. Yours was a voice I needed to hear and what I heard was you telling me to make up my own genie and turn her loose.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Dear Blog Readers,

Woman Blogging

Just a year ago I began posting thank-you notes to 70 authors who inspired me to write as a way of celebrating my 70th birthday and I’m really glad I did. Selecting an author to thank is like ordering from an extensive menu at a fine restaurant without regard to cost, nutritional or caloric content, or carbon footprint. This is very liberating to a woman whose reading material was chosen first by parents, then teachers, and then, when she became a teacher and a writer, by curricular constraints or the demands of research. I love choosing what there is about a particular book that nourishes my creativity, my own craft.  What I make out of a book is also influenced by my personal experiences, so when I write to an author, I reflect on what was going on in my life when I read her or his book. Blogging enables me to shape and share these selections and reflections with you and to consider your insightful responses sent via email and comments on the blog site.

Who knew blogging would be so rewarding? I began this birthday blog because psychologists insist learning something new staves off dementia so

Dinosaur Reading

I figured mastering WordPress might stop me from stashing the chocolate gelato over the sink with the Brillo. Also back in 2010, bloggers were cool and hip, and I thought if I blogged, my kids and grand kids would think I was cool and hip rather than Jurassic. Finally, having finished The Bones and the Book, I wasn’t ready to undertake another novel, but I wanted to keep writing, to have readers. And maybe those same readers would read The Bones and the Book when it comes out. Well, I’m still misplacing things and my kids still think I’m prehistoric, and The Bones and the Book won’t be out until October, but I just love writing to authors and blogging for you. So thanks for following Notes to My Muses!  See you in May.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Dear Jean M. Auel,

The Clan of the Cave Bear

Clan of the Cave Bear was like my first date with my second husband, so good that I didn’t want it to ever end. The plight of the orphaned and homeless five-year-old Cro-Magnon girl Ayla gripped me. And the customs, rituals, and beliefs of the Neanderthals who find and adopt the child fascinated me. I read Clan in the early Eighties and got my teenaged daughter hooked on your Earth’s Children series too. But she’s not the only one with whom I shared your research-based stories of Ice Age life.

The others I introduced to your take on our prehistoric ancestors were community college students in a course called “Cultures and Values.” Most had jobs

Neanderthal Man

and/or families competing with college for their time and energy. Imagine their dismay when, after buying the book, they saw how long it was. They protested. I insisted. Of course, by our next class most had read far more than I assigned because, like my daughter and me and a zillion other readers, they were hooked. Ayal’s survival engaged them too, and your detailed descriptions of hunting, healing, mating, cooking, and worshiping astounded them. These descriptions reflect the research you did in anthropology, geology, and paleontology, and make those complex sciences accessible.

Neanderthal Cave-Croatioa

But it’s your storytelling that makes them matter. You make us realize that this tale you tell of a clan in a cave is our story, the human story, a backward glance into our very own family album. And we like who we see there or most of the family anyway. Our Ice Age ancestors weren’t the savage cave dwellers of myths and movies. Rather, most were folks very like us─ caring, familial, hard-working, and status conscious with customs and beliefs rooted in survival, tradition and faith. But like some of our relatives, Neanderthals weren’t all paragons. They were capable of envy and all were condemned by their brains’ structure to an overreliance on historical memory and a corresponding shortsightedness about the future.

Your research-based suppositions about pre-historic male-female relationships─ women are excluded from the Clan’s worship services and must kneel to ask permission to speak to a man, serve as pack animals when the Clan is on the move, care for children, gather and prepare food, AND submit to sex whenever a passing man indicates a “need”─ generated heated discussions. Many of us recognized vestiges of these patriarchal customs in our own families.

Herbs Once Used for Contraception

But my late Twentieth Century students living in the age of AIDs when it was hard to avoid sex education had a really tough time understanding how our ancestors could be so wrong about where babies come from. Clan members worship spirits and at birth each receives a totem, the spirit of an animal, from the Clan’s shaman. This protective spirit is represented by a small sculpted critter worn on a leather strip around the neck to ward off harmful spirits. For conception to happen, a man’s totem must overcome his mate’s. This totally invisible and literally out-of-body battle of two spirits has nothing to do with human biology and everything to do with the totemic spirit’s perceived prowess. Clan members make no connection between a man using a handy woman to relieve his sexual needs and the pregnancies that often result. Students were skeptical until I reminded them of how many “enlightened” and “modern” men and women are surprised to find themselves prospective parents.

Jewish Studies

Clan of the Cave Bear sensitized my students to how environment and human needs shape our culture and determine what we value. Not surprisingly, your work sensitized me in much the same way and was much in my thoughts when I finally dared look into my own family album, something I had resisted doing for at least half a lifetime. My research made me confront factors that influenced Jewish culture in Europe and then in America and see how those same factors shaped the priorities of the two people who raised me. Years later, these revelations about persecution, exile, loss, assimilation, and survival informed The Bones and the Book.  Like Ayla, Aliza Rudinsk becomes an outsider who must adapt to her new surroundings without the support of family and the security of familiar landmarks, language, and customs. And like Ayla, she wears a talisman of sorts around her neck.

Thank you for your important and catalytic research and writing.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

2 Comments

Filed under Coming of age story, feminist fiction, Immigrant story

Dear Val McDermid,

The Torment of Others

I’m writing to thank you for The Torment of Others and The Place of Execution,two novels that are examples of what a dexterous and imaginative writer

A Place of Execution

can do within the grim parameters of the crime novel. We’re familiar with the metaphor of mystery writer as spider, weaver of a web designed to draw in readers and hold us ensnared until, breathless and sleepless, we turn that last page. Well, in The Torment of Others you’re a super-spider, weaving at least two webs, one super-imposed on the other, forcing your reader to straddle strands to see how she missed that clue cleverly concealed in the first web that landed her hopelessly tangled in the second. There seem to be at least two sadistic killers for clinical psychologist Tony Hill and Deputy Chief Inspector Carol Jordan and her team to unmask and arrest. These psychopaths appear to be torturing and killing prostitutes in two different time frames and require two separate but simultaneous investigations. Tony and Carol are admirable with enough personal quirks to be entirely credible, but the team they work with includes a few folks I wouldn’t want to count on to have my back. In another example of your superb plotting, team members turn out to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Their machinations comprise a third web, just as deceptive to the hapless reader as the others. The resulting riddle makes a thrillingly acrobatic read that left me full of admiration for your plotting, your believable characters, and your descriptive prowess. Bravo super-spider! You got me again.

Spider and Web

Police Dog Tracking in UK

A Place of Executionis another of your novels featuring strands of separate crimes interwoven in overlapping webs of complexity that kept this

Brando in On the Waterfront

reader up way past her bedtime. In one especially grim and exacting scene police dogs search for clues that might lead them to Alison, the missing girl. Years ago that scene led an admiring reader at a conference where you spoke to ask, “How many weeks did you spend researching those police dogs?” I was in that audience and I’ve never forgotten your reply. “Part of an afternoon. I’m a fiction writer. We make stuff up.” Your words were a reminder I needed. I was researching homing pigeons and their breeders in Hoboken for Hot on the Trail, but I’d failed to gain access to the xenophobic pigeon aficionados’ meeting place. Pissed off and emboldened by your declaration, in a Martha meets Marlon meets McDermid moment, I made up a clubhouse.

One more thing. Many of your books include gay and lesbian characters, but in The Torment of Others you make a lesbian the sadistic killer. I was raised to believe that my

Not Resting in Peace

slightest lapse in behavior or personal hygiene would reflect badly on all Jews, further endangering us in a world ever ready to believe the worst of us. And I still have second thoughts about making a member of any historically persecuted group, especially my own, serve as one of my criminals. Your example made it easier for me to create a murderous Jew in The Bones and the Book even as my parents, anxious still, flip over and over in their graves.

Thank you for your exemplary and chilling novels and for your succinct reminder of what fiction writers do.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

2 Comments

Filed under feminist fiction, mystery, Uncategorized

Dear Walter Mosley,

Devil in a Blue Dress

Thanks for the memories. Really. Your period PI-based mystery Devil in a Blue Dress always takes me back to the Fifties, back to the Twentieth Century to remind me of how precarious life was for blacks before the Civil Rights Movement. Or, as your hero and narrator, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlings, puts it, “…life was hard back then and you just had to take the bad along with the worse if you wanted to survive.” Easy is my tour guide through the black bars of long ago LA and through that city’s prisons, offices, and neighborhoods. Like you, I’m old enough to remember pre-Civil Rights America, and my memories aren’t pretty. So whenever I hear conservative pundits blame America’s current problems on changes wrought in a utopian US by the Sixties, I want to sit them down with a copy of Devil in a Blue Dress. Your novel inspired me to consider writing my own historical mystery belying the sanitized revision of those “good ol’ days” that many “good ol’ boys” recall so fondly.

Levittown House 1948

The story Easy tells is full of sex and violence, but his voice is well, easy, and his personality cool and, dare I say it, sweet. You leave it to Mouse, Easy’s crazy friend and sidekick, to do most of the dirty work. That way when Mouse shoots a killer aiming for Easy in Easy’s living room, Easy is free to worry about whether the dead man’s blood is staining his sofa. In fact, Easy’s domesticity, his love for his modest home with its little yard where he waters his dahlias, is touching. To earn the bungalow that defines the American Dream, Easy served his country admirably, survived, and then worked in a factory. When a racist manager fires him from his factory job, Easy’s not going to let his mortgage go unpaid and risk losing his house. Instead, he turns his free time, his need for mortgage money, and a highly suspect request into a new career as a private investigator. By the end of the book, Easy’s his own boss, in business for himself. Move over Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade!

Tuskagee Airmen WW II

Easy was raised in Texas and migrated to LA after he returned from military service in a black unit overseas. He and his Texas friends are outsiders in LA and in America too. The devil of the title is also an outsider, a mixed race Texas transplant “passing” as white. As the son of a Jewish woman and an African-American man, you are familiar with issues of American identity that affect us all and reflect our own complex history, a history too often revised by vote-seeking politicians. It’s ironic that it’s left to fiction writers like you to give us facts while many of our candidates for public office spin the past into moralizing myths.

Interracial Couple

One of those myths you use Easy to debunk is that of the African-American male as Willie Horton, a brutish criminal lusting after white women.

Noose

Easy barely has time to lust after any woman before she comes on to him. By the end of Devil in a Blue Dress, he has not only rescued and bedded the damsel in distress, but also saved a child and a friend. And he’s come to terms with those necessary compromises one makes to survive. He’s still an outsider, but he’s shrewd enough to use his considerable resources to stake out, lay claim to, and hold onto his piece of the American Dream. And reading about how he does this always keeps me turning pages far into the night. And then it leaves me wide awake, thinking about how to make up believable characters who are also outsiders trying to hold onto their own homes and to their own piece of that precious American dream. Thank you for Easy and the gripping and gritty stories you tell about him and about those “good ol’ days.”

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

8 Comments

Filed under American classic, Historical mystery, mystery, Uncategorized

Dear Jonathan Franzen,

The Corrections

Who knew I’d ever write to thank you for The Corrections? I almost put your novel down shortly after I started it. Your bleak description of that aging, anxious, and afflicted couple, Enid and Al Lambert, scared the hell out of me. It conjured up memories of my own parents’ sad and slow declines. But even more disheartening, your portrait of Enid and Al mirrored my worst fears for my own future and that of my husband Phil. Like Al, Phil suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, and after ten years his meds were far less effective than they had been, so his symptoms were very troublesome and becoming worse. I imagined the day when my brilliant husband would, like Al, “lack the neurological wherewithal” to cope, when Phil too would pee in paint cans and his occasional naps would “deepen towards enchantment.” As I read, it was hard not to see Phil turning into a less belligerent version of Al while I played Enid. For like her, I find “empty hours a sinus in which

Some Parkinson's Symptoms

infections breed” and live with the “alarm bell of anxiety” always tolling in my head.  Your indelible word pictures confirmed my grim vision of the days to come. I was too upset to be amused when you introduced Enid and Chip’s narcissistic, snotty, and misogynistic son Chip. Only my vindictive desire to see which woman would dump Chip next kept me reading. In spite of myself, I was hooked.

Oprah Promoting Reading

Then before I could finish the book, you pulled a Komen and dissed Oprah.  Now, unlike you as you describe yourself in your 02/13 & 20/12 New Yorker piece on Edith Wharton, I don’t usually let a novelist’s extra-literary misbehavior─ “posturing” drinking, using drugs, making politically incorrect slurs, being unfaithful and/or promiscuous, or committing suicide─ influence my literary preferences or experiences. No, for me, what happens outside the books stays outside the books. But for nearly forty years as a high school English teacher and then as a community college English prof I busted my hump to get students to read more and had only limited success. Then, seemingly overnight, Oprah made reading and writers hip. Thanks to her, many of my students did begin reading more, and to this day I remain grateful. So when I read of your gaffe/stunt, I was glad I’d gotten The Corrections from the library instead of buying a copy. I didn’t want a sexist, racist, and classist snob like I figured you must be to profit from my purchase. But because I wanted to find out what happened to the Lamberts, I read on. I was amazed and relieved when you granted most of the beleaguered family and this overwrought reader a fairly happy ending.

But by the time I got to that ending, I was worried about my library fine. As you know better than most, The Corrections is long and took you seven years to write. I was writing one Bel Barrett mystery a year, often while teaching full-time. Later, after I had spent five years researching and writing The Bones and the Book, the still unfinished manuscript was longer than the longest book I’d ever written. I felt as if I were twelve months pregnant. Over and over I reminded myself, “Not to worry. The Corrections is much longer and Franzen spent seven years on it.”

Very Pregnant

Freedomis long too. But, perhaps because I recognized the characters without over identifying with any of them, I got the satire right away, and this time around I enjoyed

Freedom

the wealth of wit and attention you lavish on our world. One of my favorite scenes finds Joey in the bathroom of a hotel room he’s sharing with a beautiful woman who is not his long suffering wife. To rescue his wedding ring, which he’s swallowed and expelled, he gropes for it in the toilet full of his own turds.  The fact that a similar scenario

figured in an episode of Two and a Half Men leads me to believe that maybe Chuck Lorre shares my enthusiasm for scatological fishing expeditions. We’re not alone. A half century ago, J. P. Donleavy wrote The Ginger Man which includes a scene featuring an overworked and under appreciated housewife ironing in the kitchen below a bathroom in which her husband is shitting. When the ceiling gives way, the poor, beleaguered woman is showered by excrement. I find it noteworthy that in our more egalitarian era the shit that so often happens to the married is now shared by husbands as well as wives. This just may be a sign of progress, and I’m not surprised you picked up on it.

It’s really hard to write serious fiction that is also comic, but you are very accomplished at it. Thanks for your provocative and witty books (and for apologizing to Oprah).

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

6 Comments

Filed under American classic

Dear Elizabeth George,

This Body of Death

his Body of Death

This Body of Death is just one of your many absorbing mysteries, but it’s the one I happened to be reading this past December when Colton Harris-Moore, the “barefoot bandit,” was first sentenced. Because you and I both live in western Washington, I know you’re familiar with the exploits of the Camano Island teen who stole cars, airplanes, and boats and burgled numerous homes and shops in several states and the Caribbean. Like the young boys in This Body of Death, Harris-Moore suffered neglect and abuse and by adolescence was a criminal. But he was a thief, not a sadistic killer of smaller children like the British boys whose tragic story, supposedly based on a real case, you weave into your own gripping tale.

Ten-Year-Old Killer

You go beyond the horrifying headlines by forcing the reader to consider what happens to youthful predators after they have served their sentences, grown into men, assumed new identities.  Already claiming remorse, Colin Harris-Moore plans to repay the people he robbed with earnings from a film based on his life story. But how do you repay the parents of a

Taking Medicine

two-year-old you have tortured and killed? How do you come to terms with what you’ve done? Will/can you ever know love? Peace of mind? These are the questions you ask your readers to consider in This Body of Death even while you have us solving a seemingly unconnected murder along with intrepid investigators, Sir Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers. Thus you force us to confront the deadly results of the neglect and abuse of children by their parents and of our failure to recognize and help those children before they become capable of doing harm. We, your readers, are not blameless in your eyes. It takes a superb writer to sweeten this bitter dose of moral censure with intrigue, suspense, and credible characters so that we greedily gulp it down. Dickens and Brontë did it. You do it.

And, like those British writers, you, an American, set your miracles of mystery and morality in England. When I’m engrossed in one of your books, I’m back

Changing of the Guard

in Britain where I’ve visited as a tourist, a student, and a teacher. But I haven’t crossed the pond in well over a decade, so when I need to feed my Anglophilia, I turn to your books. Your Inspector Lynley and his cohort Barbara Havers represent both ends of the still extant British class system, and their colleagues, clients, and suspects fill in the rest. Their England is a place I recognize, diverse and ever changing yet familiar. Your novels feature iconic country cottages and manor houses on one page and urban rooming houses and offices a few chapters later. The details you provide make my armchair tourism possible and the horrific events you recount credible.

Your characters, especially Barbara Havers, are also credible. After watching far too many TV crime shows, I’m used to female detectives like Bones, Beckett, and Benson, beautiful, brilliant women haunted by their dead mothers. So it’s refreshing to meet Barbara who’s neither a knockout nor a neurotic. Instead she’s bright, bedraggled, and brave. She’s loyal but her loyalty doesn’t prevent her from following up on a clue instead of following orders. If chasing down that clue means going without backup, she’s on her way. I’m a committed coward, so I have a lot of respect for Barbara’s guts. And I love her work ethic. She doesn’t give up. Nor does she let her feelings for Lynley, her longtime boss, prevent her from working effectively with him. And when her new female boss, an alcoholic, orders Barbara to improve her fashion statement so she looks “professional,” Barbara reluctantly complies. In the Seventies I had a boss who wasn’t into jeans and peasant blouses and told me and my colleagues to revamp our teaching  wardrobes. No wonder I like reading about a “dowdy” female detective who doesn’t show up at a crime scene sporting stilettoes and mascara.

Believing the Lie

Your first mystery was published just a few years before I retired and while I was writing humorous cozies featuring a menopausal sleuth. Your novels enriched my retirement and served as models when I decided to attempt writing the serious historical mystery that became The Bones and the Book. And now I can’t wait to read Believing the Lie.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

9 Comments

Filed under feminist fiction, mystery, Uncategorized

Dear Zadie Smith,

White Teeth

I read White Teeth first at a lovely lakeside resort in Maine where my husband and I used to vacation for a week every summer. There we retreated from the many stresses of our workaday urban lives. There one afternoon I lay prone on a glider on our porch beside the same loon-friendly lake Steven King views from his home. Digesting a fabulous lunch I didn’t make or microwave, I started your novel. I was transported back to 1975 to a heavily trafficked intersection in London similar to countless intersections in the New York metropolitan area we’d just fled. Not exactly my idea of vacation reading. But then I found sluggish post prandial me laughing my head off while bearing witness to the aborted suicide attempt of one Alfred Archibald Jones.  Not only did you make Archie’s failure to self-destruct amusing at the exact same time that it was pathetic, but you also definitively answered a question I’ve often pondered: What Makes Shit Happen?

As I read on, you answered another question for me too. Or maybe I should say you validated my sense of the role of a novelist in our diverse society. I always thought

From Cuban Santeria Museum

it was our job to reflect our vision of the world, not to tailor that vision to what we imagine readers might like. (That’s why I’ve never even been tempted to write about a menopausal vampire!) But that summer I was still writing The Bel Barrett Mystery Series and had submitted a proposal to my editor for what would become Hot and Bothered. The plot depended on the practice of Santeria, the mix of Catholicism and African religion that many immigrants from the Caribbean bring to America and practice. At that time there were still many practitioners in Hudson County, New Jersey where my

East London Anti mosque Protesters

series takes place. I was fascinated by their rituals and beliefs. Alas, my editor found Santeria “too exotic,” and I conceived another plot for the novel. But in White Teeth you reflect the beliefs, rituals, and histories of several immigrant groups and social classes as well as the particular patois of their members. Nothing is ‘too exotic” for you to mirror or skewer, and as a longtime urban community college prof, I recognized the fluid world your Bengali-Brits inhabit. Those characters themselves are plausible rather than exotic. Reassured, I kept your example in mind as I wrote Hot and Bothered and Hot Wired in which Bel ventures into the worlds of strippers and rappers respectively.

Years later when I began The Bones and the Book, I again found inspiration in White Teeth.For in that novel you roam freely throughout world history as

Geneology Book

one must when peopling a novel with descendants of colonials and crusaders. I marveled anew at your knowledge and appreciation of how memory distorts history and affects how the past influences the present. In The Bones and the Book I include characters representing three different generations of Jewish immigrants to Seattle and move backwards and forwards in time as they maintain and/or shed rituals and beliefs some editors would no doubt deem “too exotic.”

Present-racial America

I also enjoyed your next novel, On Beauty. Again, I marvel at your ability to capture the zeitgeist around you, in this case, the “post racial” world of American-Anglo academics in a New England college town. Even more, I marvel at your sense of humor. Jon Stewart aside, it’s not easy to be funny about serious issues like racism, elitism, betrayal, sexism, ageism, and the decline of the liberal arts but, as in White Teeth, you manage it. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

4 Comments

Filed under feminist fiction, Humorous fiction, Immigrant story

Dear Tony Hillerman,

Coyote Waits

When my own life feels especially chaotic, I reach for one of your Joe Leaphorn mysteries in the hope of restoring a sense of order to my spinning soul. There is something stabilizing about your “legendary” Lieutenant of the Navajo Tribal Police. Perhaps it’s Leaphorn’s sensible, step-by-step approach to nabbing even the most elusive and nasty killer. It could also be his long and happy marriage. Or maybe it’s his resigned attitude towards the NTP’s bureaucracy, his years of experience, or his reasoned way of working with his younger subordinate, Jim Chee. All I can tell you is that when my own life caroms out of control, Joe Leaphorn is my go-to man. A sexy bad boy he’s not. But Leaphorn uncovers and catches killers without my having to worry about him drinking and smoking himself to death like I do when I read about the PIs in noir crime stories.

The lieutenant may not make my pulse accelerate, but your stories about him do. That’s because Leaphorn and Chee are sleuthing in the stunning terrain of the

Black Mesa, NM

Southwest, a vast haunted land full of secrets. Both officers spend hours each day and sometimes each night too in separate cars driving from a crime scene to the Tribal police station or the courthouse or into the desert to interview a suspect or witness or follow up on a clue.  I first set foot in New Mexico in the early Nineties when my husband and I went to a wedding in Albuquerque. Gaping out our car window, I experienced déjà vu. I’d already explored those Anasazi ruins, the Rio Grande, the mountains, mesas and miles of road in your books. So that day in our rented Chevrolet I was riding shotgun with Leaphorn, keeping an eye out for the skinwalkers, shape changers, and ghosts that the Diné believe still haunt the area. I almost forgot the wedding and we came close to arriving late.

Navajo Hogan

Part of my ongoing fascination with your mysteries comes from how you infuse them with traditional tribal beliefs and customs and how those often conflict and/or contrast with the ways of white people. How you use this tension between insiders and outsiders and between traditionalists and modernists makes the familiar mystery format crackle with new vitality and was very much on my mind when I

Navajo Healing Way Sand Painting

began writing The Bones and the Book. So when readers of early drafts told me, “It’s a good story, but it’s too Jewish,” I took solace in remembering how your agent told you your first novel, The Blessing Way, would be a best seller if you’d only “get rid of the Indian stuff.” In the work of a lesser writer that “Indian stuff” might be arcane and off-putting, but in your novels it’s integral to the story and the characters, so it’s both gripping and accessible. I kept your example in mind as I revised.

There’s at least one more thing I really enjoy about your books. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are mentor and sidekick, boss and subordinate, Holmes and Watson.

Holmes and Watson

But those prototypical two are doomed to forever replay their roles of genius and stooge. Not so with Leaphorn and Chee. Their responses to each other run the gamut—rivalry, respect, resentment—and vary day by day, year by year, case by case. Leaphorn and Chee gradually and realistically learn to appreciate and exploit one another’s strengths to forge a satisfying and effective partnership that continues to evolve even after, in Coyote Waits, Leaphorn retires. You knew about male bonding before it became a TV and movie cliché.

So when I write mysteries, yours are still among the models I use. I too want to create believable characters who forge recognizable relationships with one another in a setting rich in cultural conundrums that fuel conflict and challenge my detective. And in The Bel Barrett Mysteries as well as later in The Bones and the Book, I’ve dreamed up amateur sleuths who are, at heart, neither sirens nor shrews, but nice, Jewish girls grown up.

Thank you again for your inspiring stories.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

8 Comments

Filed under mystery

Dear Toni Morrison,

The Bluest Eye

Thank you for your soul-searing books. The Bluest Eyecame out in 1970, the year my daughter was born. I thought of it as one of those new baby gifts that the infant

will one day grow into. She did, but meanwhile I read it over and over. By 1970, Baldwin, Wright, Ellison, and Brown had already taught me what coming of age was

Original Barbie

like for African-American boys. What was it like for girls?  You taught me. In The Bluest Eye I identified with those little girls and grown women who longed to look white because white, not black, was beautiful. You make it clear how this supremacy of whiteness privileges some while condemning others, like Pecola and her mother, to misery. I reread The Bluest Eye most recently after my daughter’s daughter became the delighted owner of Rebecca, the pug-nosed Jewish American Girl doll. I noted (to myself, of course) that in spite of her period wardrobe and her Lower Eastside back story, Becky sure doesn’t look Jewish unless, like me, she had a nose job.

With each book of yours, I learned a lot of other things too. I’m especially grateful for Beloved, set in Ohio shortly after the Civil War and peopled by former slaves haunted by recollections of their years as property. Beloved made vivid and unforgettable to me the often used phrase “legacy of slavery.”  Before Beloved, I’d understood that legacy mostly in abstract terms like “separated families” and “forced illiteracy” and “overseer cruelty.” After Beloved, when I hear or read of this legacy, I envision men and women with iron bits distorting and tearing their mouths as, worked like horses, they haul loads. I see black men in flames dangling from trees and a grown white man forcing a lactating black mother to suckle him before beating her bloody. I see a mother slashing the throat of her own baby girl rather than allowing the child to be captured by slave catchers and returned to captivity. Such memories are the unspeakable legacy of slavery that you, by speaking of them in your books, make your readers confront.

Victim of Slavery

Homeless in USA

But in Beloved as in all your work, I got much more than a history lesson. I also got a lesson in storytelling: how to weave cultural elements, back stories, and symbols seamlessly into narrative, to alternate points of view, to write pitch perfect dialogue and description that matters: “There is a difference between being put out and being put outdoors . If you are put out, you go somewhere else. If you are outdoors, there is no place to go. . . .Being a minority in both caste and class, we moved about anyway on the hem of life . . . struggling to hang on or to creep singly up into the major folds of the garment.”

Toni-Morrison

And Beloved is also a ghost story. Your haunted characters all believe in ghosts, so I suspend my own disbelief to enter their troubled world where a baby ghost and a ghostly teen kick up a ruckus. Inspired, in The Bones and the Book, I created a Nineteenth Century immigrant girl haunted by ghosts from her past who fights the growing conviction that displacement and loss have transformed her into a ghost.

I’m glad you won the Nobel Prize and so grateful to you for telling stories that keep me turning pages even while I face up to some hard facts about American history which is, after all, a legacy all Americans share.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

3 Comments

Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, feminist fiction