Monthly Archives: March 2013

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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5 Comments

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

Dear Maria Semple,

Where'd You Go Bernadette?

Where’d You Go Bernadette?

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

Pill Popper's To-Do List

Pill Popper’s To-Do List

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

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

Windows Icon

Windows Icon

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

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

Gray Cloud over Seattle

Gray Cloud over Seattle

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

Take Out

Take Out

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

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

Blackberry Vine

Blackberry Vine

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

Thanks for a wonderful read.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

6 Comments

Filed under feminist fiction, Humorous fiction, Uncategorized