Monthly Archives: April 2012

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

Dear Val McDermid,

The Torment of Others

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

A Place of Execution

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

Spider and Web

Police Dog Tracking in UK

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

Brando in On the Waterfront

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

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

Not Resting in Peace

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

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

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under feminist fiction, mystery, Uncategorized