Monthly Archives: December 2011

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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Filed under feminist fiction

Dear William Faulkner,

The Sound and the Fury

            That first time is always memorable, right? That’s why I remember very clearly the first time I read a novel I couldn’t understand. I was a freshman in college, and my English prof assigned The Sound and the Fury. I didn’t understand a word. No, that’s wrong. I understood the individual words, but not the way you strung them together. Even the Appendix, which in my Modern Library copy serves as a kind of backward-glancing forward, was mysterious. The way you paired incompatible words like American and king in a sentence fragment followed by a long seldom punctuated procession of other words, English and French, chasing each other over the page intrigued me. Where were the sentences? Who the hell was narrating? When? I was frustrated because even though I didn’t get the who, what, where, when, and why of your story, I wanted to know what was with that American king. So I persisted, but without much success until I got to class. There, with the patience of a gallery docent escorting a nun through a Maplethorpe exhibit, my marvelous prof, Julia McGrew, walked us through those first few pages.

Cotton Planation

            She also explained your use of the stream of consciousness to narrate the story of the decline of the Compsons, a once aristocratic Southern family. The audacity of telling part of their story through the disjointed and fragmented internal monologue of Benjy, a severely mentally challenged adult male Compson, both moved and fascinated me. I’d always felt sorry for people who were what we used to call “mentally retarded.” Such a person, Joan, a little girl in a woman’s body, lived around the corner from me when I was growing up. My sympathy for her blinded me to the possibility that she or any “idiot” might have thoughts and perceptions of interest to anyone, might have a world view, a tale to tell that was, Shakespeare to the contrary, not only reliable, but significant.

And suppose an author did choose to give such a character voice. How would this daringly original writer manage it? I reread Benjy’s section of The Sound and the Fury, marveling at the power of his recurring sense-memory of his beloved sister: “Caddie smelled like trees.” Benjy’s version of people and events, filtered through sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures and through his never-abating sense of loss, reveals the true nature of each of his relatives even as their family disintegrates around him. No wonder you won the Nobel Prize!

Yoknapatawpha County

  And no wonder your work inspired me to write one of my most important pieces:  my senior thesis, a requirement for English majors at Vassar. I knew I would spend considerable time on this project, so I wanted a topic that could compete for my attention with my job search, weekends with my fiancé, and late night gab sessions with dear friends from whom I’d soon be separated. I chose you. That’s how I got to spend my senior year in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi , the fictional setting you populate with gothic grotesques lost in the fallout from the wars and “progress” that are American history.

C Student's Guide

My thesis, cribbed from your Nobel acceptance speech, was that in spite of the grimness and despair that haunt your work, you feel people are capable of compassion, that mankind has cause to hope, and that it is the duty of writers to tell of the struggles of the human heart. I wish I could tell you that I aced that paper, but I got a C- on it. Even though I had immersed myself in your books, I had not made a similarly thorough study of the rudiments of English grammar, spelling, documentation, or even typing. And in spite of my immersion, some of your writing still remained mysterious to me. I suspect I passed partly because I chose to tackle such a challenging writer.

Girl Reading Faulkner

You challenge me still which may be why, half a century later, I reread your marvelous books to revisit the streaming consciousnesses of the people you invent, to become, literally, a mind reader. Maybe someday I’ll move closer to becoming a mind writer like you. Meanwhile, thanks for all these decades of inspiration.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story