Dear J. D. Vance,

Dear J. D. Vance,

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy

Thank you for Hillbilly Elegy. Your writing is so accessible and straightforward that as I read, I felt you were talking to me. But if you had been talking to me, you’d be the first Scots-Irish Rust Belter I’ve ever had the opportunity to converse with. I’m one of those coastally oriented urban liberals who doesn’t know many folks who don’t share her politics. So your book was an opportunity for me to hear from somebody who might help me understand all those angry unemployed white men I heard so much about during the recent presidential campaign. You gave a voice to a group of people I would otherwise never meet.

But I read your best-selling memoir not only to learn about you and others from the Rust Belt. I also read it to learn about memoir writing because I’d like to write one. I was immediately struck by the way you introduce yourself and your story: “My name is J. D. Vance, and I think I should start with a confession. . . .”  You don’t “sound” like a hillbilly. You sound like an extremely reliable and smart narrator who’s taking me into his confidence from the get-go. Your professed openness and your simple vocabulary prepared me to read a memoir that is both credible and unpretentiously written.

Next you assure readers that you’re not telling your life story to chronicle something “extraordinary” that you’ve achieved. This was immediately reassuring to me because my life has not been extraordinary in either achievement or debacle, factors which, separately or together, fuel many memoirs. Instead, you explain that you are using your life story to illustrate how a kid from a poor and very screwed up family in a decaying steel town achieved something “quite ordinary” for many American

Yale Law School Logo

Yale Law School Logo

young people. You went to college, graduated, and got yourself accepted to Yale Law School in spite of obstacles neither I nor most of your classmates faced. You had considerable support from your less than perfect mom, your tough old-time grandparents and your sister. Their love fostered your aspiration to join the white collar work world which meant getting an education. So in that way you differed from many of the other kids in Middletown, Ohio. But even so, your path to college and grad school wasn’t easy.

Vance and Grandmother

Vance and Grandmother

You claim that you were able to accomplish what you did not because you are especially brilliant, but rather because this “handful of loving people rescued” you. These “loving people,” most notably your hillbilly grandparents, were hardly poster people for parenting a homeless teen. But those grandparents saw that you could not flourish in your mom’s care. She was addicted to pain killers and attracted a series of stepfathers each of whom you had to learn to love and then lose. So Mamaw and Papaw, stepped up and did the best they could. And you acknowledge that four years in the marines between college and law school helped too.

U. S. Marine /corps Logo

U. S. Marine /corps Logo

You mention the “spiritual and material poverty” of the community you grew up in. To contextualize this sad state, you trace the history of the Scots-Irish migration from Appalachia to the Midwest and the remarkable persistence of the values they brought with them such as loyalty and patriotism. But there are others, equally persistent. One of these is a historical preference for whiteness. Along with that goes a distrust of outsiders and/or those who appear different from themselves. Introspection is not highly prized, but being tough and willing to fight to defend one’s family is. You point out that a man will battle fiercely to defend the honor of his mom or his sister, and then, after marrying, he’ll cheat on his wife and joke about it with his buddies. At the recent Women’s March in Seattle, I thought of those wives.

Unlike many, you don’t think that having more manufacturing jobs is the silver bullet that will bring back the good times before the local steel mill closed. Rather you show how over the generations various factors, especially drug use and the resulting breakdown of families, contributed to the failure of many Scots-Irish to embrace the work

Closed Steel Mill

Closed Steel Mill

ethic they profess to hold dear. Unaccustomed to self-examination, when they are fired for not doing their jobs, they blame their bosses. “How could he fire me? I have a pregnant girlfriend!” Or they blame “outsiders” or the government. You comment on how a man has energy enough to sire eight kids, but not enough energy to work to support them.

Parents appear oblivious to the effect of their neglect, instability, and poverty on their children. You illustrate through your own story how difficult it is for a youngster to do well in school with no one to make him do his homework, let alone help him with it, with no quiet place in which to study, and with hunger and high level domestic drama as constants. And you note again that there persists also a stubborn refusal to examine one’s own behavior, accept responsibility for it, and try to change it.

Before I read Hillbilly Elegy, I assumed that many white Midwesterners in the Rust Belt were Evangelical Christians. But the folks you describe have drifted far from organized religion of any kind. You say that the churches they once attended were more judgmental than supportive, so when times got hard, their members turned to drugs or booze. But what unchurched Rust Belters have in common with many fundamentalists of any stripe is the almost inchoate realization that modernity─ globalization, diversity, feminism, technology, new jobs requiring new skills ─ threatens those enduring values they brought with them from Appalachia and which still seem to be the bulk of their belief system. And it is this culture that you expose and yet still identify with. For although you have gotten that education, the white collar position, the lawyer wife and the cherished kids who will never wonder where they are sleeping or who is the daddy of the month, you identify still as a hillbilly.

As a would-be memoirist, I envy you your underexposed background. Perhaps because not too many hillbillies write memoirs, your upbringing seems exotic and makes me almost wish my own tribe, Jews descended from immigrant Eastern European Jews, had not been chronicled quite so extensively. While Scots-Irish avoid self-examination, many of my landsmen (and women) have filled library and bookstore shelves with lengthy accounts of neuroses caused by their overly protective Jewish moms, by poverty or affluence, by immigration, or, of course, by antisemitism. I’ll have to find something unique in my own background or an especially intriguing way of describing it to justify my desire to leave behind yet another story of yet another nice Jewish girl.

J. D. Vance

J. D. Vance

In Hillbilly Elegy you explain why so many American white men feel left behind, forgotten, and frightened by the whirlwind of changes in our country and our world. Since their migration north, they seem incapable of taking any action of their own to adapt. They remind me a little bit of those Jews who refused to believe that the Nazis would invade the countries where these same Jews held respected positions and led gratifying lives. So they ignored the warnings of their relatives abroad and stayed in Europe until it was too late to leave. I hope Hillbilly Elegy inspires many of your friends and relatives to prepare themselves and their children for the world as it really is rather than for the one they would like to revive. This book is a great gift from you to them and to those of us seeking to understand them. It took great love of kin and country as well as great courage to write it.  Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear A. A. Milne,

Dear A.A. Milne,

Winnie-the-Pooh

Thank you for Winnie-the-Pooh! And, of course, thank you also for all the other Pooh books that followedhttp://www.biography.com/people/aa-milne-9409137#synopsis. Seventy some odd years ago, my mother took special pleasure in introducing me to your stories, so I’m grateful on her behalf as well as my own. Their popularity among her friends and in the press and her own Anglophilia drove her to purchase them and read them to me two decades after their publication in the 1920s.

Bedtime Stories

Bedtime Stories

An elementary school teacher for ten years before my birth, my mother had shared with me picture books, fairy tales, and poems. But your stories combine the virtues of all of these without the condescension of many picture books, the gore of Grimm, and the fancy language of poetry.  Without understanding why, I took to them right away. I cherished my mom’s bedtime readings because although she was not an especially affectionate person, she sat close to me so I could see the pages and hear her softened voice, and she rewarded my interest with smiles and nods of approval. She wanted me to read early and well. But I didn’t like the thought of learning to read if it meant losing those moments before sleep when she sat beside me on my bed and gave me her full and approving attention. I was an only child and she was what we now call a stay-at-home-mom, so I had no rival for her attention. In fact, I got a lot of it, because she closely supervised my toilet training, eating habits, personal hygiene, grooming, wardrobe, manners, and social life. But my performance in these areas often failed to win her approval whereas my learning to read earned smiles.

My Sandals

My Sandals

I loved your stories and Ernest Shepard’s illustrations. At first I was a bit disappointed because all the characters were male, but in one of the early drawings in Winnie-the-Pooh, Christopher Robin wears sandals similar to some I had, so I knew he was not like the boys on our block, sneaker-wearing ruffians all. And in that same now iconic drawing, he is dragging Pooh down a flight of stairs, clearly determined to keep his teddy bear with him. I easily identified with that long-haired little boy because I too had a teddy bear I liked to have around and with whom I conversed on a regular basis.

Christopher Robin and Pooh

Christopher Robin and Pooh

I don’t remember my mom reading any other stories with the animation she brought to yours. She sang the songs Pooh makes up with great gusto and delighted in explaining English customs and expressions and the words Pooh fabricates. She also made sure I saw the drawings as they appear and appreciated the foibles of each of Pooh’s associates in the forest. I especially appreciated her woeful delivery of Pooh’s predictable post-predicament insistence that he is a “Bear of Little or No Brain at All.”  I enjoyed giggling over the antics of Pooh and his gang and suspect that the idea that one’s mistakes can be humorous and also make good stories stuck with me. Pooh was really my first anti-hero.

Winnie-the-Pooh

Winnie-the-Pooh

When I did learn to read, I reread your books and at times almost forgot that I was alone. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Anne Frank,

Early Edition

Dear Anne Frank,

Thank you for The Diary of a Young Girl. Born in 1940, I was only two when you began your diary and ten or eleven when my mother gave it to me. By then you were dead and I had a little trouble processing this sad chronology. I’d paid no attention to the drone of Sunday school teachers and rabbis and I don’t recall my parents ever sitting me down and explaining the Holocaust. So I don’t think I knew about concentration camps where millions of Jews were worked to death, starved, or gassed. In retrospect, it occurs to me that maybe my mother gave me your diary as a way of informing me of this historical horror, just as she’d given me a book featuring diagrams of tubes and circles to explain sex. So you not only introduced me to the Holocaust, but you also taught me about diary-keeping.  Like your many other readers, I was hooked by your oft-quoted opening line, “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.” Your voice, youthful, urgent, and full of hope and your desire for a nonjudgmental ear spoke for and to me.

Photo of Anne

I identified with you at once. We even looked alike. A photo of you in my copy of your book could have been a photo of me. We had the same thin faces, long bumpy “Jewish” noses, mostly straight brown hair, prominent dark eyebrows and eyes and wide mouths. If it had been deemed safe for you to venture out of hiding to see an eye doctor, you, too, would have been prescribed glasses. We both had elderly grandparents who moved in with us and we both went to birthday parties, were expected to do well in school, read a lot, and were eager to be “popular.” Yet again, like you, I was a daddy’s girl and very aware of my parents’ fear of antiSemitism. Unlike you though, I didn’t share my parents’ fears. In fact, in the early Fifties, I thought my mother’s preoccupation with being perceived as “too Jewish” was totally uncalled for. After all, The War was over, we won, and in America one was free to worship as one wished.Red Leather Diary and Key

Even as I identified so strongly with you, I was a little disappointed in your diary because contrary to your expressed wish to fill it with confidences, it seemed you had no secrets, let alone shameful ones, to share, whereas I did.  For my twelfth birthday, my parents gave me a diary of red leather with gold trim and a lock and key. I kept this little book and the key in a drawer in my desk in my room and unburdened myself on its pages every night. I treasured my diary and considered it the big sister I didn’t have. To my horror, one Sunday afternoon when I was at a movie with friends, my father opened it, read it, and then confronted me with what I’d written about myself, myJudge Daddy classmates, our neighbors, and him and my mom. None of these outpourings upset him but I’d also penned a rather lurid entry listing things I wished to do with certain boys I knew. Alas, my dad believed I’d actually done them, or feared I might do them. It took me a long time to convince him otherwise and a lifetime to get over the dreadfulness of having my own secrets exposed to my beloved, but notoriously stern father. Did I mention that he had served as a municipal judge? His intrusion and his reaction to my fantasies put a heavy and durable damper on my urge to write down stuff I made up. It’s no co-incidence that I didn’t really begin writing for publication until after both of my parents died.

Definitive Edition

It was not until 1995 that I read The Definitive Edition of your diary. In the preface to this book, edited by your dad, Otto H. Frank, and Mirjam Pressler, I learned that the edition I read back in the early Fifties had also been edited by your father not long after your death. He had expunged all references to your sexuality and all of the disparaging remarks you made about your mom and the others with whom you had shared the Secret Annex. So it wasn’t until I was forty-five with a teenage daughter of my own that I finally came upon all your girlish confidences I’d hoped to find in the earlier version. That’s when I understood that your biggest secret was really the one you struggled to keep from the Nazis, the fact that you all were hiding in an attic in Amsterdam to avoid being sent to the death camps.

 

The Secret Annex

Secret Annex

But even on my very first reading of your edited diary, I’d been aware that while I had been safe in Passaic, New Jersey learning to skip, dunking Oreos in milk, and taking care of my dolls, you had been imprisoned for years in a small secret annex with your family and some other folks you didn’t know and hadn’t chosen. There you all shared chores, money, food, and bath and bedrooms, and gave up much of your treasured privacy. Even as a child I’d noted how your affinity for reading enabled you to pass the time constructively, keep up your spirits, and write clearly and expressively. I doubted that I would have been able to handle the privations and unremitting proximity and dread that you describe so memorably. And without your detailed recording of the trials of your years in hiding, I doubt that I would have been able to begin to comprehend the series of events we call the Holocaust. Even in your teens you were a writer and you recorded your experiences for posterity. That would include me.

Thank you for keeping this diary under such duress. I’m glad that in your too-short life you did what journalists do. You wrote history as it happened, so when you died at Auschwitz, the world lost not only a young girl, but a clear and compelling witness and writer.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Geraldine Brooks,

The Secret ChordDear Geraldine Brooks, Thank you for The Secret Chord. Your retelling of the life of King David interested me because I was eager to see how you, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist http://geraldinebrooks.com, would portray David, already the subject of many bios. My own next project will probably be a memoir, and I suspected that your treatment of David’s life had much to teach me about how to describe my own. I was right. Your use of Natan the prophet as storyteller is a brilliant way of capturing David’s exploits in words. The way you made Natan himself not only a trusted narrator but a full-fledged character in the drama of his king makes the story of David’s life credible and gripping.Natan and David

According to Natan, voicing the future in the name of God is painful and tiring work. When he is about to deliver a message from the deity he experiences crippling nausea and headaches and often loses consciousness. His body and voice are, it would seem, no longer his to control. To keep himself fit to serve his king and his god, Natan lives a life of celibacy, vigilance, and moderation. So our narrator is not a warrior or a lover or an aspiring king but rather a prophet, a teacher, a scholar and a diligent and thorough biographer. David trusts him and so did I. As I read, Natan’s voice was the one I cared about most. It occurred to me that I need a Natan to help me tell my own story! Otherwise how can I make readers heed my voice and care about me and my life which, compared to David’s, was and is uneventful.

King David

The David Natan reports on was not the one I learned about in Sunday school. That David was a sheep-herding boy-poet skilled with a lyre and a slingshot who grew up to be a fearless warrior, a gifted psalmist, and a beloved king. No. Natan tells us of a David, outcast and abused as a child, who becomes a shrewd and ruthless general, and an ambitious and wise but sometimes folly-prone human king not unlike some of the leaders we admire or deplore today.

I keep telling myself that even though I am not a warrior or a queen or a best-selling writer, I too, have lived through tumultuous times, the second half of the Twentieth Charleton Heston as MosesCentury as well as the beginning of the Twenty-first. Natan used David’s epic story to make us see what life was like for women and men in biblical times. The phrase “biblical times” once made me think of robed people in the desert either getting a tablet of instructions from Charlton Heston or being crucified. Likewise I associated the word tribalism with certain outdated cultural practices and the current United States Congress. In David’s era, each tribe was an extended patriarchal family whose men were expected to defend it from attack and attack others to extend its reach. The king’s power was absolute. He inspired rivals including his own children. Thanks to your research, I now understand how and why fratricide, incest, infanticide, rape, murder, adultery, and theft all figured in David’s life.

Such a life should not go undocumented, right? You see to it that Natan convinces David to leave behind a written account of his story and, of course, the king chooses the prophet himself to write it. You also see to it that David gives his biographer the names of people to interview about his early years and grants them permission to speak the truth. Natan takes us on these interviews and so we “see” David’s mother, his oldest brother, and his first wife, through Natan’s eyes and “hear” their stories through his ears.

BathshebaNatan also hears from David’s other wives. According to Batsheva she is not the siren I learned about in Sunday school. She bathed on her roof not to tempt the king but to escape the leers of injured veterans her husband had invited to their home and given work. David sent soldiers for her, repeatedly and brutally raped her, and tossed her aside. She lived in fear of being stoned to death should her first husband, one of David’s generals, discover that she had dishonored him. David goes so far as to have that first husband killed. Batsheva also offers insight into how self-serving Natan’s attempt to defend David is, thus making the prophet human too. After calling David a monster, she tells Natan that “…you choose to look away from the truth. You let your love for him blind you.” So much for our “reliable” narrator!

Because I am considering how to credibly present the significant people and events in my own life, I especially appreciate how you created a seemingly unbiased narrator only to expose his bias in the end and add yet another layer to your rich story. Can I be unbiased in recounting my own life story? Or, better yet, can I devise a different way or voice to reveal it? And is my comparatively mundane life worth documenting in the first place? Will it have meaning to others? Does that matter to me now?

So many questions!

Not so much. Lately scenes from my own life are replaying in my head. I usually put the characters and scenes that persist in my head into books. So now I find myself eager to capture my own memories on the page. Years ago, near the end of my teaching career, I wrote Going by the Book, a memoir about my seven year apprenticeship as a teacher. So now as my seventy-sixth birthday approaches, it seems appropriate to describe my lifelong apprenticeship as a writer. Like David, I need a plausible perspective, narrator, or voice to help me do this. And, Ms Brooks, your story reminds me of that. You made the relationship between David and Natan become part of your narrative and by doing so gave both men the depth they need to be interesting and credible. Thank you.

Pulitzer Price Winner

Pulitzer Prize Winner

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear William Shakespeare,

William ShakespeareDear William Shakespeare,

Thank you for all your plays. There is a special place on the bookshelf in my heart for some writings I’ve shared with students. Prominent in this space is a volume of your complete works, pages dog-eared, passages underscored, and margins crowded with comments and questions. It’s the same copy of the Cambridge Edition published in 1942 that I used in 1960 as a sophomore in the Shakespeare class of Vassar’s incomparable Professor William Gifford.  He re-introduced me to your plays, several of which I’d slogged through in high school during the 1950’s. My High School BrainBack then I didn’t know what an Elizabethan was nor did I understand Elizabethan English. The foibles of long dead Roman politicos, suicidal teens, and British monarchs did not interest me. Neither did poetry. Scarlett O’Hara interested me. Marjorie Morningstar interested me. The denizens of Peyton Place got my attention too. So although I’d always read a lot, I wasn’t a versatile or particularly adventuresome reader.

But by my sophomore year in college, I was learning to read in a different way. Perhaps that was not only because I had a marvelous English teacher freshman year, but also because, as I understand now, I finally had a brain more mature and so more hospitable to abstraction and subtleties. And I really wanted to emerge from college as a “cultured” young woman. So I was ready to try to connect with you again. Without judging us, Professor Gifford helped me and my classmates to understand the context in which you wrote, the language you used, and the theatrical conventions of your time. And most important, he also taught us to see your characters as people not unlike ourselves, our parents, and our own political leaders.

Murder of Caesar

Murder of Caesar

I have always been timid and was once diagnosed by a credible psychologist as a “catastrophizer,” so I recognized the fear-filled souls Caesar describes when he tells Calpurnia that “Cowards die many times before their death.” To a girl of nineteen who had always feared everything from snakes to the possibility of her parents divorcing or dying, Caesar’s observation was a stomach punch, swift, sharp, and unforgettable.

One of the many things I feared was doing wrong, but my fear did not always stop me, so I was also no stranger to guilt. Had Macbeth’s crimes not been so terribly heinous, I might have empathized with him and with his enabler, Lady Macbeth. When he seems to waver in his resolve to kill the king, she questions his manhood and paints a powerful word picture of her own willingness to murder. “I have given suck, and know how tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me; I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done to this.” Later when he has done the deed and she has rearranged the crime scene, they both suffer terrible guilt. His makes him see Banquo’s ghost and keeps him awake, forcing him to offer a perfect description of sleep as that which “knits up the raveled sleeve of care, the death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, chief nourisher in life’s feast.” Her sleep is troubled too. Thanks to her nocturnal rambling and lamenting, we revisit the crime scene with her when she asks, “Who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?” She tries to wash this blood from her hands. “Here’s the smell of the blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”

Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth

When he learns of her death, Macbeth voices his own despair.  With his queen dead and his own defeat and death imminent, he compares life to a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” In college as I read your powerful and poetic lines to myself, I understood them. A few years later, as I read them aloud to my own students, I came to appreciate poetry for the first time.

And you, William Shakespeare, fed my newly acquired habit of rereading. After I figured out who was doing what to whom in one of your plays, I wanted to dwell with your characters, to savor and analyze their words, thoughts, and deeds. So I read every play we covered in that two-semester class twice. At one point during that same sophomore year, I was grounded for a weekend. Awash in self-pity, I whined about how bored I would be as practically the only person in our dorm for two whole days. On that Saturday morning with my roommate away, I was, indeed, isolated in our room rereading Antony and Cleopatra.

Cleopatra

Cleopatra

When I got to the passage in which Enobarbus  insists that even married to Caesar’s sister, Anthony will never give up Cleopatra because “Age cannot wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety. Other women cloy the appetites they feed, but she makes hungry where she most satisfies . . . .” I was dumbstruck by how you made this smart and powerful but long dead siren live on the page. It came to me that I was a lucky girl to be free to read about this intriguing monarch (about whom Rhett Butler would surely have given a damn) at my leisure and in comfort. It was the first time that, without parental prompting, I truly appreciated my own privileged lot. Since that year, the only thing I enjoy more than reading your work is rereading it and discovering fresh insights.

This affinity for rereading your dramas worked out well because I reread each play I taught before I introduced it to a class and then again as we discussed it. I knew that my students would appreciate a little contextualizing, as had I. But I also thought they might “get” your meaning better if they heard some of your more memorable lines read aloud. And how I enjoyed persuading my spouse to kill, mourning my dead sweetheart, and laying a guilt trip, in Latin yet, on my false friend while his knife still twisted in my gut. I encouraged my students to read their favorite passages aloud at home. I felt doing this would help them appreciate how while your rulers, rogues, and, of course, lovers are, in fact, like us and like people we all know the words you gave them to say are like no one else’s.

IMG_6424Even though I love theater, I’d rather read your plays than see them on film or on the stage. I want to interpret your words and imagine your people myself rather than get an impression filtered through the sensibilities of a director and an actor. I’m sure that the close attention I learned to pay to how aptly you word the conversations and asides of complex characters has made me a better writer.

But, Mr. Shakespeare, I worry about your legacy. Let’s face it, you are a dead white man, and there is much to be said for adding more works byBlack Woman Reading women and writers of other colors and ethnicities to our literature curriculums. I do hope your plays remain on stages, on film, and, most importantly, on syllabi. Here in Washington State where some college curriculums have been especially slow to embrace inclusiveness, students are demanding more works by women and writers of color and of diverse backgrounds. I hope the students prevail, but I also hope an expanded canon continues to include your plays. Although you were white and male, and are, sadly, dead, your dramas are alive and, especially in this post-Brexit era, still have much to teach us all.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg.

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Dear Roz Chast,

617lsz642XL._AA160_Roz chastDear Roz Chast,

Thank you for your memoir Can’t we talk about something more PLEASANT? After years of savoring your cartoons in The New Yorker http://rozchast.com/index.shtml I expected to be captivated by the story your visuals tell in this book, and I was. But it wasn’t only your cartoons that I enjoyed. I was equally engrossed in the story you share in parallel with your illustrations written in your straightforward prose. While you draw for your readers what was going on in the lives of your aging parents, you also offer in plain words the perspective of their harried caregiver-daughter.

Unlike Atul Gawande, our go-to guru for advice on how to benevolently shepherd our loved ones through their final years, months, and days, you’re not a doctor. Nor are you a clergy person, a social worker, or a shrink. You’re a working artist and writer who is also a mom and wife. And an only child.  As such, you speak and draw for many of us. Like your parents, mine were often difficult and determined to survive their deaths. I too was a working mom and wife. Then, suddenly, I was a widow. And always, I was an only child. The only time I ever wished I had siblings was during the decade of my parents’ declines and deaths.

So I wasn’t surprised to meet your parents returning from the grave on the same page as the Table of Contents of your memoir. In the cartoon you have drawn, your dad is nervous about the column of titled chapters to his left. The hand he points at them trembles. It also extends beyond the frame of the panel, as if to remind us of the link between him and you. This link that was once a bond of flesh is now a figment of your memory and imagination and as such is immortalized in this book. It is here, thanks to you, that he lives on. Your mom too. Her bossiness is untamed by death and right there beside the Table of Contents they quibble their way towards a cup of tea made from a used teabag that has also survived their passing.tea-cup-23197179Roz chast

I know you have a wicked sense of humor that feeds on our foibles, frustrations, and fears. I also know that those of us who have spent as little as an hour taking care of aging parents know that there is much fodder for the satirist in this work. So I’m not surprised at how you make me smile at your mom’s proclivity for hoarding and your dad’s numerous phobias and even at the cloud of dread you draw above your own head when you hear your dad answer the phone instead of your mom.

Because you share your own take on this experience, your memoir is a record of a passage in the lives of two generations. And you document these journeys not only with your familiar cartoon drawings, but with family photos, including one of you at eleven. This picture, on page 122, is right across from cartoon versions of yourself and this juxtaposition gave this reader insight into the relationship between your drawings and the reality they spring from. Again your willingness to share your inspiration makes me trust your take on your own perilous passage through this time in your own life.

Although your journey, like that of your mom and dad, is perilous it is also not without lessons and laughs. As you escort us through your disposal of your parents’ overwhelming accumulation of stuff, you explain that this experience itself was “transformative” for you and that once we have gone through it, we will view our own stuff differently, “postmortemistically.” The objects in the brightly colored photographs of what your parents saved are both familiar and funny. These pictures document your assertion that your parents, like mine, had a hard time getting rid of things. After seeing their old sunglasses, purses, razors and other “treasures,” I began to look at my own collection of little china shoes and unopened gauze pads from the hospital more critically. As I mentioned, I’m in awe of your ability to make me laugh at your depiction of life’s least enjoyable moments, but I’m not surprised.Roz chast gauze padsil_570xN.741830684_Roz chast

Roz chast momWhat did surprise me and made this book especially meaningful to me is your ability to share your ambivalent feelings about your mom. For many the word family conjures up an almost sacred institution. And what kind of monster doesn’t love her mom, right? No matter what. So your acknowledgement of your lifelong struggle to bond with your mother is daring yet familiar and welcome. Even after she has died, you tell us that you’re “still working things out” with her and, to me, still embarked on a similar project, this book seems part of that effort.

The page titled “The Last Things” details first your attempts to liberate this terminally ill, institutionalized, and sedated very old woman, to let her know it’s okay for her to “go.” You tell her she should feel free to join her dead husband and brothers and that she’ll be taking a trip soon. Each of these clichés is illustrated by a hilarious image showing that suggestion’s absurdity. With a hospice worker’s okay you share with your mother your concerns about her running out of money because she has lived so long. You’re astonished when she cries out for her Papa, perhaps still troubled by not having loved him as much as she loved her Mama. In your last conversation with your mother, a week before she dies, you both acknowledge out loud in words your love for one another.

This same page, “The Last Things” with its nine brightly colored panels contrasts with the black and white page of text opposite detailing in no-nonsense words your mother’s body’s decay and her death. I so appreciate that all the text in this book appears in your familiar but easy to follow printing. By doing this you link the words of the “characters” in your cartoons with your words and, in this instance, it is your words that reveal the starkness of bodily decomposition and death. You animate your final bedside vigil by sketching portraits of your mom.  These are not cartoons. No, these black lines on beige are unsparing yet strangely beautiful. With no balloon of words erupting from her mouth, your dying mom appears both grim and defenseless and also utterly real.

The Chasts are Jewish although not noticeably observant. But it is, I believe, a Jewish contention that the dead live on only in the minds jewish_gravestone_wide-30f27c03a6f2bbd73536ea7e20993bf725a43408-s6-c30 roz chastand hearts of those who come after us. We live on as memories. So George and Elizabeth Chast survive in their daughter’s memory and now, in the memories of those of us with whom you have honestly and brilliantly shared their story and your own.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear James Joyce,

Dear James Joyce,
portrait_20of_20the_20aritst_20as_20a_20young_20man-_20james_20joyce_20copy_originalThank you for writing Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Portrait_of_the_Artist_as_a_Young_Man#Reception. It was the first book on the syllabus of my freshman English course at Vassar in 1958. An avid reader, I’d found my high school English classes unsatisfying and looked forward to a challenge. I rushed to the bookstore to buy the books for English 101 and arrived in class on the first day clutching my green paperback copy of Portrait. I’d hoped to get a head start on the reading, but the epigraph was an untranslated quote from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, another book I’d never heard of in a language I’d studied for only two years and mostly forgotten. As you well know, Portrait takes place in your native Ireland, a country I’d never visited and whose idioms, history, and customs were foreign to me. The only Irish person I actually knew was a friend of my dad’s. I also knew that Scarlett O’Hara’s dad and St. Patrick are Irish.
Your iconic opening- written in the third person from the child Stephen’s point of view and with no quotation marks to lead me to and through what dialogue there is, and with little deference to chronological progression, left me befuddled. My sixty-year-old copy of Portrait, open beside me today as I type, is revealing. Its pages are covered with explanatory notes, definitions, and translations provided by Professor Julia McGrew.marginalia
She pointed out how even as a child, Stephen uses language to understand, navigate, and endure his world. He plays with sounds, smells, sights, tastes, and touches and uses words to convey his many, many sensory impressions. “Suck was a queer word. . . . But the sound was ugly. Once he had washed his hands in the lavatory of the Wicklow Hotel and his father pulled the stopper up by the chain after and the dirty water went down through the hole in the basin. And when it had all gone down slowly the hole in the basin made a sound like that: suck. Only louder.”sink drain
So thanks to you and Professor McGrew, I began to learn to read in a whole new way. This was timely because other writers like William Faulkner, another author on our syllabus, were writing in a whole new way. I pored over your text and my notes and asked questions in class and on my second reading of Portrait, I reaped the rewards of all this unaccustomed effort. I was able to feel for the tormented Stephen, trapped in a family that didn’t “get” him, in a body that drove him to “sin,” in a religion that demeaned and threatened him, in a school where he was often bullied, and finally in an island country where he felt like a prisoner.prison bars
I’d never before reread a book from cover to cover. But that second reading enabled me to understand Stephen better, and I even began to identify with him. Like many adolescents, I’d often felt that my parents were clueless, my body was a travesty and a trap, my hometown an intellectual and cultural desert, my religious education farcical, and my peers cruel. And while I didn’t feel imprisoned in my country, I checked out Ireland on a map and saw how tiny it was and understood how easy it would be for a person living there to feel like a captive of both church and state.
A state religion that governed one’s most private thoughts and feelings seemed strange to me. Growing up Jewish in Passaic, New Jersey, I did have a few Catholic friends, but most of my friends were Jewish and so I didn’t really know too much about Catholicism when I left for college. Thanks to Stephen Dedalus though, I learned a lot about the Church’s prohibitions against masturbation, sex before marriage, and even sexual urges. Stephen describes a trip to the confessional, and also reiterates a priest’s sermon describing the punishments reserved for those whose sexual sins doomed them to hell.hellfire As a Nice Jewish Girl reared in the Fifties, I knew I wasn’t supposed to get pregnant before I married, so I wasn’t supposed to have sex. If I did have sex, the guy I had it with would probably dump me for a more virginal bride. And if I got pregnant, well, that would be just awful. I might have to have an abortion, secretly arranged by my parents. Or my baby might have to be put up for adoption. I would live out my life in disgrace. And, worst of all, no one would want to marry me. Ever. But these punishments were rarely mentioned and quite tame compared to those Stephen contemplated every time he felt a little horny. I do wonder what he (and you) would make of the many child molesters outed among the Catholic clergy in recent years. I wonder if that sort of thing was going on in the schools Stephen attended.
I can’t close without telling you that I have reread Portrait twice more since 1958. In graduate school I was taking an exam on modern British writers as part of my work for an MA in English and had the pleasure then of reading Ulysses and rereading Dubliners and Portrait. I’ve taught some of the stories from Dubliners. And when I finally visited Ireland, like so many of your fans, I often enjoyed imagining it through the eyes of both Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. Soon I’m going to begin to write a kind of memoir and so once again, I reread Portrait to reexamine how you used Stephen to give voice to the events that influenced the development of your own artistic sensibility. And, like you, I will write and rewrite until I hear the voice I need to articulate the events that influenced my own literary development. Reading Portrait was one of these events.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Francine Prose,

Reading Like a Writer

Reading Like a Writer

Thank you for Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. I like to think that after writing ten books, two of which have won awards, and teaching writing myself for about forty years, I already do read like a writer. But I bought your book when it first came out to see what a highly respected novelist and writing teacher has to say and how she says it. With a book of my own in progress, I didn’t read yours until this past week after I finally completed a first draft of my next mystery. Now it’s time to edit that draft, and you offer excellent advice on how to do that.
You encourage your readers to read the works of many other writers and learn from their examples which you generously provide. You also advise us on how to read and edit our own work. That has always been hard for me. Let me confess. I’m one of those writers who, at first, believes that each word, sentence, image, paragraph, and chapter I put on paper is just right. That’s why I wrote it. When I read a passage aloud to my patient husband or my forbearing writing group, I’m usually awestruck by the freshness of my descriptions, the tempo of my sentences, the aptness of my word choice, and the credibility of my dialogue. My eyes fill with tears and my voice catches over my characters’ problems. You get the idea. I don’t read my own work especially analytically. Instead I read it as if I were a brand new mom gaping at that slimy, screaming lump of flesh and seeing perfection.
I should clarify by adding that for me writing is rewriting and my inner editor is active as I compose. And when pressed by my agent or an editor or my writing group, I’ve been known to line edit, cut, and modify characters. But Reading Like a Writer has revived my weary inner editor and revealed additional possibilities. I was especially taken by your suggestion that we avoid having our characters’ gestures be trite. Rather we should observe and find some gestures that actually reveal character and aren’t especially familiar. Another issue you discuss is one that has come up often in my writing group: the likeability of the protagonist. When one of us creates a main character who is less than endearing, let alone who is despicable, there’s pushback. But you cite extremely fine authors who have put some nasty folks on the pages of their work, and so you remind us that the “rules” that are said to define good writing don’t always do that.
I’m intrigued by the clear organization of your book, each chapter focusing on a different way we can improve our writing. I savored reading it from beginning to end, but have marked places to return to for help with specific changes. It’s daunting to approach altering something we’ve struggled to produce and hard to know where to start. I used to suggest that my students, most of whom juggled families, jobs, and classes, put off rewriting sentences and paragraphs they might eventually eliminate entirely, along with a character or a scene. Instead I suggested that they first make sure they’re satisfied with their characters and their stories and then make stylistic changes. For many of them revising was a new concept, a luxury or a burden they hadn’t bargained on. Maybe I was wrong to try to streamline this crucial process for them.Courage
In Reading Like a Writer you don’t mention working with a writing group. As a midlife doctoral student at NYU, I found myself in a dissertation support group and that was my first writing group. We were, I think, quite helpful to one another, especially with regard to “courage,” a matter you take up in Chapter 11. “…most people who have tried to write have experienced not only the need for bravery but a failure of nerve as the real or imagined consequences, faults and humiliations, exposures and inadequacies dance before their eyes and across the empty screen or page.” You suggest that the reader turn to literature for “courage and confirmation. The reader and beginning writer can count on being heartened by all the brave and original works that have been written without the slightest regard for how strange or risky they were, or for what the writer’s mother might have thought when she read them.”
As you can tell by this blog, I find literature inspiring, but I also find a writing group invaluable. Perhaps that’s because I’m an

Writing Group

Writing Group

extroverted sort and need flesh and blood colleagues to accompany me as I make up worlds and people them with equally imaginary characters. Or perhaps it’s because of my aforementioned difficulty in finding fault with my own output. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been lucky to have especially gifted responders in my groups.
Reading Like a Writer has made me eager to explore your fiction, and I will. But I must deny myself that pleasure until I tackle that first draft. Thanks to your clear and sensible work, I’m better equipped to do that now than I was before I read it.
Sincerely,
Jane Isenberg

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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

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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

 

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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Dear Jean Hanff Korelitz,

Admission

Broken Heart

Your novel, Admission, turned this law-abiding and respectable retiree into a thief. I was in the local Laundromat when I realized I forgot my crossword puzzle, so I looked around for a magazine. There on the window seat was a lone book, your book. I recalled reading a review of it in The New York Times. I picked it up and read your first sentence: “The flight from Newark to Hartford took no more than fifty-eight minutes, but she still managed to get her heart broken three times.” I was hooked! Who was this woman? And who dared break her heart mid-flight?

Up in the Air to the contrary, flying today is about as romantic as belching but without the accompanying relief. I had to know more about a woman who could get her heart broken while sitting accordion pleated between a mom gently suggesting to her shrieking toddler that kicking the seat in front of him was not a wise decision and a man wearing suspiciously clunky shoes muttering under his breath in a foreign language. Oblivious to the whirling wash, I read on, putting your novel down only to heave my quilt into the dryer. After that machine finished its work, I glanced furtively at the one other person in the Laundromat. She was engrossed in carefully folding an entire load of jeans, so, vowing to return it, I stuffed Admission into my backpack, folded my clean comforter and slunk out.

Laundromat Dryer

That morning I’d been working on a short story and was dissatisfied, particularly with the way it began. Reading and rereading your gem of an opener helped me return to my own work convinced that with more thought and tweaking, I, too, might come up with an engaging start for my story. But it wasn’t only the beginning of Admission that I savored. I was taken by the heartbroken Portia, your novel’s central character, an admissions officer of Princeton University. Her eagerness to sleep with a colleague on a business trip makes her seem, at first, more like a stereotypical guy. But later, her personal history─ being raised by a second wave feminist of my generation only to be dumped, depressed, and canned─ resonates thanks to your exacting portrayal of both women and their times. I admire your ability to weave Portia’s backstory into the novel in a way that adds intrigue to its plot and layers to its themes. It’s not easy to do that.

College Admissions Crapshoot

Your insider’s view of the admission process at Princeton is also detailed and provides perspective on the academy as workplace and on the personal, political, and social issues that affect gatekeepers and applicants to the Ivies. Portia’s job description includes reading and judging the college application essays of thousands of high school seniors, and it is these aspiring youngsters, most of whose essays she must weed out,  who break her heart over and over again. You let us read snatches of these poignant pieces over her shoulder, illuminating the inexact and painful process of creating and/or maintaining the American elite.

Pioneer Valley

Part of your book is set, of course, at Princeton, but Portia’s work takes her also to western Massachusetts where she grew up. My husband and I lived in Amherst for two and a half years, and found the Pioneer Valley’s gentle hills, picturesque farms, and four seasons to be as lovely as they appear on the catalog covers of the five colleges and numerous prep schools located there. Seeing the educational extremes that flourish in this corner of New England through Portia’s jaded eyes was illuminating.

Thanks for writing engagingly and convincingly about a complex woman living, working, and loving in an imperfect world. Now I’ll get your book back to the Laundromat!

Sincerely,

Wanted Dead or Alive

Jane Isenberg

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