Category Archives: Humorous fiction

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

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 Geoffrey Chaucer,

 The Canterbury Tales


The Canterbury Tales

Who knew you’d be one of the main muses responsible for helping me structure and start my next novel? I haven’t read your Canterbury Tales since 1960, my sophomore year in college. Back then it was on the syllabus of The History of British Lit, a required course for English majors. Students each had to memorize and recite the first eighteen lines of that work’s Prologue in Middle English. While dutifully repeating your alien-sounding introductory words over and over again, I gradually began to decode them. I was amazed. You describe how nature’s spring rebirth moved some medieval Brits to make, not love, but religious pilgrimages. I knew nothing of such pilgrims or pilgrimages. They sounded pretty fishy to me. At 20, I found most poetry remote from mundane matters that concerned me, such as snaring a husband and passing organic chemistry. But I wanted to know what those pious tourists were really up to, so I read on.

            Your wayfarers are a colorful crew with lots to say about finding not just husbands, but lovers too. Among your pilgrims are a butcher, a merchant, a monk, a nun, a knight, an oft-married seamstress,  and a miller to name just a few. To my sophomore’s delight their tales included more descriptions of sex than any other work I’d read, including my well-thumbed copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

The Wife of Bath

The Wife of Bath

And all of these narrators as well as the raconteur of the Prologue, talk of the most mundane matters imaginable: their work, their faith, their clothes, food, and housing, and the rambunctious love lives of their friends and acquaintances. It was a revelation to me to learn that medieval English people even had such familiar, ordinary concerns and the ordinary vocabulary to discuss them. You opened my mind to the possibility that a poet might speak to me and that I might hear and relate to what he was saying. Even in Middle English, your realism was a welcome relief to me.

Assassination of Thomas Becket

Assassination of Thomas Becket

The other thing I appreciated then and hope to imitate now is the way you framed The Canterbury Tales. In a roadside inn en route to Canterbury to pay homage to St. Thomas Beckett, your travelers agree to entertain one another with stories. Each of them has a distinctive voice and world view. The miller tells a ribald tale about a cuckolded carpenter in commoner’s language appropriate to a dirty joke shared in a bar while the knight offers his story of chivalry and courtly love in genteel phrases fit for kings and queens.

The other day I was listing the various characters in my as yet unwritten mystery/thriller and trying to figure out how to organize their activities and relationships. My story features a disparate group of Jews who come together at a hotel in Eastern Washington to perform a religious ritual. There are other guests as well. I was as frustrated as that proverbial cat herder. Then, while pondering, I flashed on a familiar group of religious folks talking and drinking in a medieval English inn. I could see them clearly.

Story Time at the Inn

Story Time at the Inn

As abruptly as it had surfaced, this image vanished, eclipsed by an idea, a question really. Could I structure my novel as a series of stories told by each character

Writer at Work

Writer at Work

and book-ended by a prologue and an epilogue? With The Canterbury Tales as a model, my book could reveal the comedy of tragic errors that is modern American life! The potential of this idea excited me for a mere moment before a host of doubts dampened my mood. Would your frame work for a novel? Would today’s wired travelers stop texting and tweeting to tell stories let alone listen to those of strangers? Could I write the different voices and points of view convincingly? For a moment these doubts drowned my excitement, but I pushed them aside. This strategy just might work. And even if it doesn’t, I’ll have something to revise, a beginning. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under Humorous fiction

Dear Shalom Auslander,

Foreskin's Lament

Foreskin’s Lament

After reading two books by and about women who left Hasidic communities, I wanted to read a male’s account of forsaking that way of life, so I read your memoir, Foreskin’s Lament. I expected your perspective to be different not just because you had the chutzpah to title your book thusly, but also because you are a riotous humorist whose outbursts in Tablet, The New York Times, and The New Yorker have often made me grin.

I wasn’t disappointed. Your account of your introduction to God in the Orthodox Jewish community of Monsey, New York where you were raised is a

God

God

carnival ride of blasphemy. There you were taught early on by your parents and teachers that God was a strong and powerful man who liked the people only when they obeyed him. “But when we didn’t obey what he had commanded, he hated us. Some days he hated us so much he killed us; other days he let other people kill us. We call these days holidays. On Purim we remembered how the Persians tried to kill us. On Passover we remembered how the Egyptians tried to kill us. On Chanukah we remembered how the Greeks tried to kill us.”

You illustrate God’s disproportionate punishments for disobedience by reminding us that he punished Sarah, “a woman who would giggle,” by making her barren. And he severely chastised Job, because, on a bad day, the poor man dared to ask, “Why?” Then, after Moses escaped Egypt and searched the desert for forty long years to find the Promised Land, God killed him at the border because four decades ago Moses had “hit a rock.” For a smart and sensitive little boy, all this was hard to digest. What you took away from it was that the “people of Monsey were terrified of God, and they taught me to be terrified of Him too.”

Scared Child

Scared Child

Not Kosher!

Not Kosher!

You let the reader know that, since the death of his first born son, your father is perpetually pissed off, and often drunk. Even though, as a kid, you understood the underlying reasons for his rage, you were disturbed and helpless when he routinely hauled your older brother down to the basement and beat him bloody. So was your mom. To keep the peace that always threatened to disrupt Sabbath meals, you did impersonations, staged spills, and posed questions. But when a classmate’s dad died of a heart attack, you regretted that your own father was not chosen by God instead. And when the rabbi reminded your class that until a boy is thirteen, his sins are held against his father, you began to deliberately (and hilariously) violate Jewish laws in secret hoping to do in your own dad by snacking on non-kosher candy bars. Given that your God and your father both have serious anger issues, it’s no wonder that your own rage blazes through the pages of this book.

You leave Monsey with enough anger to fuel several novels. Part of your memoir’s complicated wave of humor and fury arises from the fact that although you have separated yourself from the Monsey community and moved with your wife, son, and dog, to a rural town near Woodstock, New York, you have not stopped wrangling with God. You have not become an atheist or forsworn Judaism and all Jewish customs. I find it amazing that you still believe in the existence of God even though you continue to insist he’s a “prick.” This is a theological compromise I find fascinating. It’s particularly so in your acknowledgements, amusingly entitled, Whom to Kill, where you express concern that God will kill you for writing such a blasphemous book and beg him not to kill you or your wife or son or dog, but instead to focus his homicidal wrath on those who helped you write the book! You are joking here, but throughout this coming of (r)age story, you make it clear that  you believe God exists but you can’t stand him. Likewise you can’t stand those who take the Torah literally. When, after much consideration, you and your wife have your son circumcised, but not ritually, even this most Jewish of acts strikes another blow to the wedge that distances you from your parents. Their faith may be uncompromising but their love is conditional.

The Doctor Is In

The Doctor Is In

Given all your fears, your rage, and your history, I’m glad you see a shrink. Shrinks have it in their power to re-parent us so that we can overcome some of our worst fears

Hope A Tragedy A Novel

Hope A Tragedy A Novel

and avoid repeating some of our biological parents’ worst mistakes. But don’t get too “normal” because all your fears and fury, the lousy parenting and religious mishegas you endured have forged you into a witty and insightful writer. I can’t wait to read your novel, Hope: A Tragedy: A Novel.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, Humorous fiction, Jewish fiction, Memoir

Dear Gary Shteyngart,

Super Sad True Love Story

Super Sad True Love Story

You’d think I’d be angry with you for the blast of satire that begins your novel Super Sad True Love Story and forces me to face the elegiac music heralding our nation’s abrupt decline. And I was furious, for as long as it took me to read how Lenny Abramov, your 39-year-old balding and paunchy narrator, the book-loving son of hard working Russian Jewish immigrants like your parents, knows no better than to fall for adorable 24-year-old Korean-American Eunice Park. “Eunie,” whose hobby is shopping, has an abusive father and a degree from Elderberry College where she majored in Images and minored in Assertiveness. Eunie is America’s future on steroids while Lenny is our past.

Serious Shopper

Serious Shopper

I’m grateful to you for writing this offbeat immigrant love story even though it occurs in a future that makes me fear for the eventual health and safety of my five grandchildren. How will they manage in the America you foresee where the very wealthy live forever and the rest of us die young? Where “unimportant” people are wired with electronic “äppäräts’ transmitting information about everything from their innermost thoughts to their life expectancy to anybody interested? My grandkids love printed books which, in your barely literate America are obsolete.

Even the youngest of this bubbe’s babies’ babies has learned to pay his debts or face consequences if he doesn’t. What will he make of our debt to China, so huge that the Chinese refuse to wait any longer for recompense? Of the rioting of Manhattan’s ILNWs (Individuals of Lower Net Worth) during the resulting credit crisis? Of the National Guard policing the Big Apple’s streets in tanks? And how will my sweet moppets feel when they see me and Papa and their other grandparents literally kicked to the curb as “unneeded people?”

I forgave you for making me face America’s grim future when I got hooked on Lenny’s narrative voice as he shares his diary with us. I’ve written a novel partly told by an

Diary

Diary

immigrant Jewish diarist, so I know well the pitfalls an author risks by creating the sort of person driven to chronicle her/his travails and then letting that genie out of the bottle to narrate that author’s precious novel. But you knew what you were doing. Lenny’s very schlubiness makes him easy to identify with and credible too. A guy who admits right off the bat to being a balding, middle-aged man of average height and above average bmi, is both familiar and believable to me. Lenny’s message may be threatening, but as a messenger, he himself is not.

Middle Aged Guy

Middle Aged Guy

How could I be scared by a guy who elaborates on how “unnoticeable” he is? He tells us that to get the attention of the “upper society” clients he solicits for his employer, a corporation claiming to extend indefinitely the life and youth of these well-heeled clients, he “must first fire a flaming arrow into a dancing moose or be kicked in the testicles by a head of state.” Lenny is not only a reliable and unthreatening narrator, but a funny one. So when he falls hopelessly in love with a totally inappropriate woman, I’m further disarmed. His doomed romance with Eunice does indeed make for a super sad true love story.

Or Lenny is a Hamlet for our youth-obsessed and health-fetishizing times, literally deciding not to be, not to prolong his youth and forestall his death by undergoing the treatments his company hawks. Rather he opts to exist as a mortal, a regular human who will die when his time is up. It

Snake  on a Forked Stick

Snake on a Forked Stick

takes guts to embrace life which is, after all, often sad and always terminal. I am reminded of our inescapable mortality by the reams of paper that arrive in my snail mailbox every day. These missives are pleas for me to subscribe to publications endorsed by prestigious university medical schools and purport to be able to help me ward off disease and the effects of aging. There is even one promising to advise me on which modern medications are the “worst.”  These envelopes nest in my mailbox like serpents, ready to strike so their venom can activate my worst fears. It is with an imaginary forked stick that I carry these poisonous pamphlets into our garage and drop them unopened in the recycling bin. When virtual versions of these same serpents slither onto my computer screen, I delete them. I have nothing at all against modern medicine, but, like Lenny, I do not want to make a lifestyle limited to self-maintenance and the hopeless pursuit of longevity and immortality.

Super Sad True Love Story might well be titled Super Sad True Love Stories because Lenny and Eunice’s romance is not the only one you relate. You also tell of the immigrant’s love for his adopted nation and his disappointment when the safe and happy harbor that is America self-destructs and so becomes just another place to flee. Thank you for a powerful read that will stay with me as I struggle to write my own version of what happens when the melting pot that is America boils over.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Humorous fiction, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction, Satire, 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

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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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Dear Cynthia Ozick,

The Puttermesser Papers

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

Woman Molding Clay

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

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

Golem and Woman

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

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

Breck Shampoo Poster

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

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

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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

Dear Robert B. Parker,

Hugger Mugger

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

occasions be mistaken for the proverbial teddy bear

Teddy Bear

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

Jon Stewart

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

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

Wise-ass

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

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

Boston Map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breakfast

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

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

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under feminist fiction, Humorous fiction, mystery, Uncategorized

Dear Zadie Smith,

White Teeth

I read White Teeth first at a lovely lakeside resort in Maine where my husband and I used to vacation for a week every summer. There we retreated from the many stresses of our workaday urban lives. There one afternoon I lay prone on a glider on our porch beside the same loon-friendly lake Steven King views from his home. Digesting a fabulous lunch I didn’t make or microwave, I started your novel. I was transported back to 1975 to a heavily trafficked intersection in London similar to countless intersections in the New York metropolitan area we’d just fled. Not exactly my idea of vacation reading. But then I found sluggish post prandial me laughing my head off while bearing witness to the aborted suicide attempt of one Alfred Archibald Jones.  Not only did you make Archie’s failure to self-destruct amusing at the exact same time that it was pathetic, but you also definitively answered a question I’ve often pondered: What Makes Shit Happen?

As I read on, you answered another question for me too. Or maybe I should say you validated my sense of the role of a novelist in our diverse society. I always thought

From Cuban Santeria Museum

it was our job to reflect our vision of the world, not to tailor that vision to what we imagine readers might like. (That’s why I’ve never even been tempted to write about a menopausal vampire!) But that summer I was still writing The Bel Barrett Mystery Series and had submitted a proposal to my editor for what would become Hot and Bothered. The plot depended on the practice of Santeria, the mix of Catholicism and African religion that many immigrants from the Caribbean bring to America and practice. At that time there were still many practitioners in Hudson County, New Jersey where my

East London Anti mosque Protesters

series takes place. I was fascinated by their rituals and beliefs. Alas, my editor found Santeria “too exotic,” and I conceived another plot for the novel. But in White Teeth you reflect the beliefs, rituals, and histories of several immigrant groups and social classes as well as the particular patois of their members. Nothing is ‘too exotic” for you to mirror or skewer, and as a longtime urban community college prof, I recognized the fluid world your Bengali-Brits inhabit. Those characters themselves are plausible rather than exotic. Reassured, I kept your example in mind as I wrote Hot and Bothered and Hot Wired in which Bel ventures into the worlds of strippers and rappers respectively.

Years later when I began The Bones and the Book, I again found inspiration in White Teeth.For in that novel you roam freely throughout world history as

Geneology Book

one must when peopling a novel with descendants of colonials and crusaders. I marveled anew at your knowledge and appreciation of how memory distorts history and affects how the past influences the present. In The Bones and the Book I include characters representing three different generations of Jewish immigrants to Seattle and move backwards and forwards in time as they maintain and/or shed rituals and beliefs some editors would no doubt deem “too exotic.”

Present-racial America

I also enjoyed your next novel, On Beauty. Again, I marvel at your ability to capture the zeitgeist around you, in this case, the “post racial” world of American-Anglo academics in a New England college town. Even more, I marvel at your sense of humor. Jon Stewart aside, it’s not easy to be funny about serious issues like racism, elitism, betrayal, sexism, ageism, and the decline of the liberal arts but, as in White Teeth, you manage it. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under feminist fiction, Humorous fiction, Immigrant story