Category Archives: American classic

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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Filed under American classic, Humorous fiction, Jewish fiction, Uncategorized

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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Filed under American classic, Children's book, Memoir, Uncategorized, Western novel

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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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, feminist fiction, Immigrant story, Western novel

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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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, Native American Novel, Uncategorized, Western novel

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 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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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 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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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction, Uncategorized

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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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, Memoir, Uncategorized

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