Category Archives: feminist fiction

Dear Blog Readers,

Portland, Oregon radio host Ed Goldberg interviewed me about The Bones and the Book for Author! Author! and here’s the link: http://www.allclassical.org/author-author/jane-isenberg/

Ed’s a very skilled interviewer, so it was fun chatting with him.

I’m working hard on a new book now, so I post blogs less frequently, but you’ll see another note to a muse soon.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under feminist fiction, Historical mystery, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction, mystery, 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 Joan Leegant,

Wherever You Go

Wherever You Go

Thank you for Wherever You Go, the first selection of my synagogue’s newly formed book group. According to the book jacket your novel is about three American Jews who venture to Israel: Yona seeks forgiveness from her sister who is living on a settlement, Mark, a recovered drug dealer turned Orthodox but now losing his faith, is after spiritual renewal, and Aaron, a college dropout with serious daddy issues, yearns for acceptance. I’ve never visited Israel, so I hoped to learn a lot about that country and its place in the mental landscape of assorted American Jews, and I did.

You open the book with Yona’s arrival in Jerusalem’s airport. Your description is so vivid I can visualize the “sea of Hasidim in inky black hats as if a

Jerusalem Airport

Jerusalem Airport

flock of crows had swooped down and settled on everyone’s heads.” I can hear the loudspeakers “blaring in five languages” and the security officer’s clipped bark, “You. Miss. You.” Later with Yona as my guide, I visit one of the infamous settlements I read about in the newspapers, the ones built by Israelis in defiance of reason, peace prospects, and law. Again you make me see this immaculate and grassy oasis of gated and guarded security, an American-style suburb, a theme-park-like in-your-face place plunked down in the desert. But what Yona finds inside her sister’s house is not so idyllic. She “made out a front room stuffed with furniture and toys and

Israeli Settlement

Israeli Settlement

mounds of laundry. The shutters of the back doors had been closed against the sun. Somewhere a fan cranked loudly. The smells of garlic and cooking oil hung in the air, and then Yona picked up another odor, more pungent, human. Diapers. Unwashed. Ripening in the triple digit heat.” Although I have not yet and probably never will set foot in these places, I feel as if I know them.

And I know your characters too, especially Yona who made a big mistake years ago and seeks her sister’s forgiveness and her own redemption in Israel. She interests me because I’m researching a book in which the central character, another contemporary American Jew about Yona’s age, also made a grave mistake years ago. She has never been forgiven by the family she wronged or forgiven herself but, when the occasion arises, she sees the possibility of redemption. My as yet unnamed protagonist will leave her home as Yona does. She will travel not to Israel but to a place right here in America that, like Israel, has a certain biblical resonance, a bloody history, and its fair share of violent extremists.

So as I read your account of Yona’s quest and the characters she encounters, I paid attention to how you brought them together, how you kept me turning pages, and

Fairy Dust

Fairy Dust

how you fabricated a meaningful and satisfying ending. I also appreciated how you allowed for Yona’s maturation as she lives out her story. When we meet her she is an assistant in an art gallery fresh from a trip to St. Martin in the company of the most recent in her string of wealthy married lovers. At the end she sees the possibility of a more meaningful job and relationship. I’m not sure how realistic her new romance is, but everything else in the book is so ripped from the gritty grim headlines that I welcomed a little fairy dust in the love life department. I say Bravo! And bravo too for the meaningful names you give your characters and for reminding us just how far-reaching the consequences of poor parenting can be.

Your novel raises many significant questions. Can a democracy survive its violent extremists?  How does a country atone for a history of blood

Oklahoma City, After

Oklahoma City, After

and betrayal? Can an individual human being find redemption and forgiveness for her or his own errors of diligence and/or judgment? These are the same questions I am wrangling with in my head as I research my next book. Thank you for showing me that they can be the undertow that powers a gripping and important story.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Virginia Woolf,

A Room of One's Own

A Room of One’s Own

Thank you for A Room of One’s Own which I read as a freshman in college in 1958 and didn’t fully appreciate. The scaffold on which your brilliant series of lectures on women and fiction balances so solidly is “— a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction . . . .”  Simple, right? What’s not to understand? Even with your witty encapsulation of women’s history and astute critiques of the work of women writers you admire, I still didn’t get it, didn’t see how your edict applied to modern middle-class only-child, eighteen-year-old freshman me. Then I graduated, married a grad student, took a teaching job that paid $4,850 a year, acquired debts, and had kids anyway.

I responded to my students’ papers at a small “ladies” desk in a corner of the dining room in our apartment or, more often, at the kitchen table.

Lady's Desk

Lady’s Desk

When we moved to Hoboken, I continued to teach and did my paperwork on a desk made of a door bridging two metal

Writing at Kitchen Table

Writing at Kitchen Table

file cabinets in a corner of our bedroom. Sitting there listening to a husband’s snores, I recalled your pronouncement. You were right. I didn’t begin writing for publication until my first husband died, leaving life insurance sufficient to send our kids to college and my parents died leaving me enough money to pay debts, stop teaching extra classes, and even contemplate my eventual retirement. By this time I was fifty years old and in grad school myself.

I installed my first computer in the corner of the middle room on the bedroom floor of our row house. This room boasted no windows but offered a lovely view of the bathroom immediately to my left and a front row seat at the practice sessions of my son, who was learning blues guitar in the adjacent bedroom. My nook was also a great spot for overhearing my daughter’s phone conversations and the footsteps of our exuberant upstairs neighbors. It was in this shared space that I wrote Going by the Book.

Woman Writing in Closet

Woman Writing in Closet

Once both of my kids were in college and stopping home only occasionally, I moved my PC into a reconfigured closet in my daughter’s room. Emboldened, I replaced her bed with a pullout sofa bed and an end table and lo! An office! And most of the time it was all mine. Here I wrote the first three Bel Barrett Mysteries. And here I came to truly understand and appreciate your marvelous insights into women and fiction. We need money and rooms of our own, yes indeed.

Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway

In grad school, I elected to take a course focused entirely on your fiction and met the memorable British matron Mrs. Dalloway, protagonist of your novel named for her. After reading just a paragraph, I felt Clarissa’s experiences and her inner life resembled my own. We shared a zest for hostessing and for morning air. Like me she reflected on the friends and suitors of her long-gone youth. But our ruminations are not all about the past. From her window she sees her own grim future in the bedtime routine of the very old lady across the street just as I had read my future in the lines of my late mother’s face.

Woman's Lined face

Woman’s Lined face

Clarissa and I both enjoyed walking in our respective cities. In London on her oh-so-genteel errand, buying flowers for her party, Clarissa confronts the sounds, smells, and sights of a metropolis full of folks recovering, or not, from World War I while I, walking  the streets of Hoboken and Manhattan, came face to face with the homeless and dislocated. Clarissa and I are distressed by our confrontations with present realities as well as by thoughts of the future.  Clarissa’s daughter’s liaison with a foreign female tutor as well as Clarissa’s own recollection of her attraction to a childhood girlfriend, remind her that, for better or worse, it is the Twentieth Century and all the frocks, good crystal, and obedient servants will not stop Big Ben from inexorably marking the passing of time.

Big Ben

Big Ben

            Into Clarissa’s day of reunions, reminiscences, and party preparations you weave the day of Septimus Warren, a misdiagnosed veteran of the War suffering from what we have come to know too well as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. While Clarissa muses on her old boyfriend, her choice of husband, and her penchant for party-giving, Septimus hears terrible voices which evoke nightmarish visions of bloody battle scenes and irreparable loss. To your credit, news of Septimus’s death intertwines seamlessly with Clarissa’s life when, to her dismay, a party guest mentions it. “Always her body went through it first . . . ; her dress flamed, her body burnt. . . .”  At the time I read Mrs. Dalloway, a member of my writing group was working on her dissertation, a study of PTSD experienced by nurses who had served in Viet Nam, and like Clarissa, I was moved by their war-caused suffering.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

Like Joyce’s Leopold Bloom and Faulkner’s Benjy Compson, Clarissa Dalloway lets the reader into her head, makes this reader privy to her feelings and the thoughts they inspire, half-formed, fleeting, and unedited. But unlike Leopold Bloom and Benjy Compson, Clarissa Dalloway is a woman, a full-grown upper-class female whose reflections on love, aging, marriage, motherhood, patriotism, and war moved me while also adding to my understanding of women of her time and place. And, as you taught me, understanding women who came before us enables us to figure out our own place in the world and, if necessary, to work to change it.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Jami Attenberg,

The Middlesteins

The Middlesteins

I pushed away a container of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate-covered almonds before I got to chapter two of your terrific novel The Middlesteins.  It’sMorbid Obesity Help! a wrenching read, an up-close and personal look at four generations of a Midwestern Jewish family, the decisions they made, and the choices that remain to them. I loved ex-attorney Edie Middlestein’s wit and warmth, and the kindness she extended to friends and the less fortunate, but I didn’t want to be her. That’s because she deals with losses─ her beloved father, her faith, her role as do-gooder, her law career, and, finally, her husband─ by bitching at said husband and overeating until, at sixty, she is a full-blown fat lady needing vascular surgery twice in one year. If this sounds like I think your book is a late-night commercial for diet pills or gastric surgery, I don’t. In this novel you join the exalted ranks of authors who chronicle the Jewish mother’s metamorphosis from overprotective immigrant Sophie Portnoy to the very American morbidly obese, diabetic Edie Middlestein.

Kale

Kale

Like a skilled tightrope walker, you go backward and forward in time, showing the reader how each of Edie’s relatives copes with her refusal to reform her eating habits. We see Edie’s adult kids struggling with her legacy of addiction and the burdens of taking care of someone in its grip. We see her daughter-in-law as another version of the modern Jewish mom, force-feeding her family kale and carrots in lieu of chicken soup. We see Edie’s husband Richard who opts for self-preservation and a search for love and life rather than for staying the course with Edie. We meet their twin grandchildren preparing for their slightly over-the-top b’nai mitzvah while their family is in chaos. We also see Edie and Richard reaching out for the love they no longer feel for one another and we know the deep satisfaction of an ending that is both unexpectedly nuanced and inevitable.

            This ending, involving, among other things, second chances, reinvention, and ethnic diversity is thoroughly American and thoroughly contemporary. And food plays

Fast Food Signs

Fast Food Signs

a big part in it as it does in the entire book. But this is not primarily a novel about food replete with lo-fat recipes. Food is only one of the lenses through which you let us look at our lives today. I say “our” lives because who among us has not struggled with addiction, either a relative’s or one’s own? And who among us has not wondered how our suburban landscape became a series of strip malls full of fast food joints pushing their poison on us and our kids? And who among us has not regretted a disastrous first marriage or career choice?  Or not looked ahead to a shortened life span with friends gone missing, a body gone creaky or worse and then felt a new appreciation for this life, however imperfect? So the story you tell is a familiar one, but the way you tell it, from the perspective of each of Edie’s relatives, young, old, alive, and dead, is what makes it both heartwarming and insightful. You make sure that we come to know these Middlesteins. And each of them is human with flaws and virtues unique to him or her and yet again, familiar to most of us. All these changes of perspective could be confusing but they aren’t. In my next book I hope to shift from one perspective to another as effectively as you do here.

Greek Chorus

Greek Chorus

There are two perspective shifts I especially enjoyed. The first is near the end when Edie and Richard’s old friends describe the b’nai mitzvah. They’re like a Greek chorus, commenting on the action from the sidelines, bearing witness to the coming of age of the youngest Middlesteins while mourning the seemingly inappropriate divorce of the oldest along with the many changes in their once beloved Edie.  The second is earlier when Robin, their alcoholic single daughter, a lapsed Jew who fears the love she feels for Daniel, her neighbor and boyfriend, reluctantly attends

Family Seder

Family Seder

a Seder at his parents’ home. It’s a fairly typical, crowded, jovial Seder with children participating, too much food, and only Manischewitz to drink. The sole sign of tension comes at the end of the evening when Robin overhears Daniel’s parents arguing loudly in the kitchen and gets upset. On the way home, Daniel reassures her that occasionally his parents fight but that their fights do not lead to divorce. His family’s benign dynamic contrasts with the fraught one of the Middlesteins.

            Part of what enables you to make this tragic story go down so easily is the conversational nature of much of your prose. Often I felt as if I were chatting with you rather than reading. This tète á tète we were having began right on page one under the chapter title, Edie, 62 pounds. “How could she not feed their daughter? Little Edie Herzon, age five: not so little. Her mother had noticed this, how could she miss it? Her arms and legs, once peachy and soft, had blossomed into something that surpassed luscious. They were disarmingly solid. A child should be squeezable. She was a cement block of flesh.” The questions and the informality of much of the grammar give your words the drama of shared confidences and, to me anyway, a trace of an inflection I associate with folks who grew up around Yiddish speakers.

            I was sad when our chat was over and I put the book down. Thanks for a great read and an important lesson in writing voices.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Naomi Alderman,

The Liars' Gospel

The Liars’ Gospel

Thanks for reminding me that fiction is a pack of lies and that we fiction writers rank among the most accomplished liars out there. I loved your reimagining of the life of Jesus in The Liars’ Gospel told from the point of view of three of its central figures, Mary, Judas, and the Temple High Priest.  Your very first sentence─ This was how it happened.─ contradicts what we think we know. In other words, the life and death of Yehoshua, Hebrew for Jesus, and the rise of Christianity didn’t happen that way, the way we’ve been taught. No. It all really went down this way, the way I will lay out for you. That same understated first sentence also refers to the ongoing occupation of Judea by Roman soldiers which is the complex and bloody backdrop for Jews and early Christians alike. One of the major accomplishments of your novel is that you move this political and military reality to the front and center of the lives of all your characters.

Roman Coins

Roman Coins

What immediately follows is the ritual sacrifice of a lamb. Your description is so visceral that it could serve as an instruction manual. Such realism

The Lamb for an Offering

The Lamb for an Offering

tells me that you really know how things were done during biblical times. Then there’s an equally vivid description of a battle between Jews and Romans for the Temple treasure. Citizens of an occupied people live in a state of preoccupation with their occupiers who regulate their subjects’ activities, spy on their meetings, and punish severely those who disobey or who even appear to disobey. The fact that this occupation resonates with the state of affairs in today’s war torn Middle East adds a layer to an already resonant story.

Mary Mother of Jesus

Mary Mother of Jesus

  Once you’ve hooked your reader in this short untitled opening section, you introduce the first “liar,” Miryam, Hebrew for Mary. Unlike her familiar New Testament counterpart, this Miryam knows Yosef to be the biological father of her beloved firstborn Yehoshua as well as of his six siblings. She had hoped this oldest son would marry, beget her grandchildren, and till land nearby. But the adult Yehoshua is a big disappointment to Miryam. He leaves home to wander the hills preaching. She thinks he’s deranged even while she mourns his departure and the fact that he spurns his family of origin in favor of his new family of followers. When he claims to be the Messiah and King of the Jews, she fears for his safety

Jesus King of the Jews

Jesus King of the Jews

and, later, mourns his death at the same time that she complains about his disloyalty. Finally she lies about him to Gidon, an admirer of Yehoshua’s who has come to her to learn about his dead hero’s birth and childhood. She “filled him (Gidon) full of stories. . . .Some have a measure of truth to them. And some are things she hoped had happened, she wished had happened.” Miryam’s maternal wishful thinking becomes part of “what happened next,” part of the legacy of stories, written down in books like the Torah and the Gospels. Your Miryam, a Jewish mother abandoned by her son in favor of his disciples and divorced by her husband in favor of a trophy wife, is a woman of her time and place, living a life that has not turned out as she wished.

            I’m a humanistic secular Jew, so I have little difficulty seeing Mary as Miryam. In fact, Miryam seems entirely credible to me as do your other characters. That’s because they are all─ Jews, Romans, Christians─ recognizably human and react to things the way I’d expect real people living in Judea under Roman rule to behave. And I don’t think Yehoshua/Jesus’s teachings, particularly about loving our enemies and turning the other cheek, become less valuable and original because he does not manage to heal the lame or the blind. Likewise Iehuda/Judas’s role in his leader’s crucifixion is not less critical because it is motivated by a complexity of conflicting impressions. The Jewish High Priest’s significance is not diminished because he is preoccupied by his wife’s possible infidelity at the same time that he struggles to serve god, guard the Jews hard earned treasure, and pacify the Romans who demand it in tribute.

Your reimagining of this familiar and, to some, sacred story is arresting not only because it encourages us to question the credibility of scraps of ancient texts frequently translated and interpreted and reinterpreted but also because your prose itself is downright biblical. I don’t mean “biblical” in that you imitate the wording of any of the familiar translations of the Gospels or the Torah but rather that your words and phrases flow harmoniously with a clarity, repetitiveness, and decisiveness that make questioning them seem unnecessary even though you warn us, “Every story has an author, some teller of lies. Do not imagine that a story teller is unaware of the effect of every word she chooses. Do not suppose for a moment that an impartial observer exists.” Your title juxtaposes liars, generally thought to be a bad lot, with the word gospel which has come to be synonymous with truth, often a kind of holy truth. It’s a daring juxtaposition highlighting the questioning of conventional beliefs within.

Good news!

Good news!

On the next to last page of The Liars’ Gospel you recap your version of Jesus’s life, beginning with the familiar words, “Once upon a time there was a man . . . .” and after you tell how, not long after his death, the Romans destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem and forced the exile of the surviving Jews, you add , “And a book walked those same ways, from synagogue to synagogue at first, telling a tale of how miraculous one man had been and how evil those who rejected him were, and therefore bringing good news for some and bad for others.” The interesting image of this walking book is powerful as is the phrase “good news,” often used to describe the Gospels. When you end with a slightly different version of how you began, your words and your story come full circle and leave no doubt in this reader’s mind that your version of this moving and important story rings true. “This was how it ended. And all the sorrow that came after followed from this.”

You’re a terrific liar and I hope to read more of your lies soon. They inspire me to make up my own lies, in other words, to begin writing a new book.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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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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Dear Myla Goldberg,

The False Friend

The False Friend

Thank you for your stunning novel, The False Friend.  I read it while I was in a neck brace recovering from cervical fractures and craving distraction from my initial failure to sleep very long sitting up. The delayed reaction of thirty-one-year-old Celia to her part in the death of her childhood friend Djuna back in the eighties drew me in at once. Djuna and Celia, leaders of their clique of five eleven-year-old girls, mercilessly criticize and/or exclude the other three

Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood

until the afternoon when Djuna disappears. On the way home from school, all five girls take a forbidden road bordered by a woods, a forest primeval right out of Grimm. In the heat of one of her stormy fights with Celia, Djuna stomps off the road into the thicket. Infuriated, Celia follows while the others wait. Celia returns alone. Djuna is never seen again. Has Djuna gotten into a stranger’s brown car as all the girls, including Celia, attest to the police and parents at the time? Or has she fallen down an abandoned well where Celia left her to die as Celia insists after a kind of epiphany two decades later?

Celia’s shocking revelation took me right back to my own long ago girlhood. Were any surprises lurking there? Had I, like Celia and Djuna, once been

Mean Girls

Mean Girls

what today we think of as a “mean girl?” Had I been a victim of mean girls? Had I been part of a close but volatile best friendship like Celia and Djuna’s when I was eleven? I honestly don’t recall ever picking on another kid, but I do recall being ridiculed one endless summer in sleepover camp. The very first night when I stripped down to my undershirt, I learned that my busty bra-wearing bunkmates had no compassion for late bloomers. They taunted me mercilessly. Somehow, I survived even though, in addition to being flat chested, I was neither pretty nor athletic nor adventuresome like Celia. These traits made her a leader in spite of her mean streak. By eleven I had friends, but none close enough to fight with. Besides, my parents fought so much that I became a chronic peace maker.

Peace Maker

Peace Maker

Like many of my classmates at a Passaic High School reunion I once attended, Celia has changed. As an adult it is her kindness and generosity that make it so hard for her loved ones to believe she might have ever harbored a mean let alone murderous impulse. So at thirty-one, her efforts to confirm her new insight into her role in Djuna’s death drive her to reexamine her relationship with not only her childhood friends, but also with Huck, her boyfriend of ten years, her parents and her brother. Inevitably these efforts change her relationship with her adult self and with those she loves. When she dares to face the implications and repercussions of her actions, even belatedly, she can better appreciate and understand who she has become and that may free her to change. Some of us turn to therapists to help us develop fresh insights into ourselves and bring about changes, but Celia does it pretty much alone in one harrowing week, and your account of it is filled with the suspense of a good mystery or adventure story.

Your novel is so rewarding not only because your story of a woman at a turning point in her life is inherently interesting but because you are a superb writer, reconfiguring

No Bully Zone

No Bully Zone

potent archetypes, themes, and settings to keep us pasted to each page. Like that earlier little girl in the woods en route to grandma’s, Celia and her girlfriends are both vulnerable and powerful, their eleven-year-old bodies suddenly playing host to hormones their tween brains have yet to understand. Without once using the word “bully,” you shed light on that age-old archetype too, making readers see it as complex and often subconscious behavior that it is possible to outgrow. I so appreciate your avoidance of psychobabble!

Instead, your prose approaches the poetic, making us experience with Celia the busy urban intersection where, looking at the curb, she has her revelation: “Downtown Chicago streamed around Celia in a blur of wingtips and pumps.” When you want to make clear the appeal Djuna and Celia had for the girls who sought them out, you tell us: “At any given moment Djuna and Celia were a party the others were desperate to attend, or a traffic accident too spectacular to avoid.” Your novel includes many lengthy descriptive passages detailing Celia’s hometown and the house where she grew up and where her folks still live. Had you not described these so brilliantly that they somehow conjure up the reader’s origins as well, many editors would have insisted that you shorten them. But that would have been a travesty. Celia’s relationship with her past is rooted in remembering and these specifics help her and your readers to understand what she recalls. Your use of description as a memory aid will inspire me as I tackle my next book.

Thank you for another superb novel!

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under Coming of age story, feminist fiction, mystery, Uncategorized

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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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

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Filed under feminist fiction, Humorous fiction, Uncategorized