Monthly Archives: August 2012

Dear Cynthia Ozick,

The Puttermesser Papers

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

Woman Molding Clay

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

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

Golem and Woman

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

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

Breck Shampoo Poster

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

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


Jane Isenberg


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

Dear Robert B. Parker,

Hugger Mugger

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

occasions be mistaken for the proverbial teddy bear

Teddy Bear

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

Jon Stewart

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

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


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

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

Boston Map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Jane Isenberg

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Filed under feminist fiction, Humorous fiction, mystery, Uncategorized