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Dear J. D. Vance,

Dear J. D. Vance,

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy

Thank you for Hillbilly Elegy. Your writing is so accessible and straightforward that as I read, I felt you were talking to me. But if you had been talking to me, you’d be the first Scots-Irish Rust Belter I’ve ever had the opportunity to converse with. I’m one of those coastally oriented urban liberals who doesn’t know many folks who don’t share her politics. So your book was an opportunity for me to hear from somebody who might help me understand all those angry unemployed white men I heard so much about during the recent presidential campaign. You gave a voice to a group of people I would otherwise never meet.

But I read your best-selling memoir not only to learn about you and others from the Rust Belt. I also read it to learn about memoir writing because I’d like to write one. I was immediately struck by the way you introduce yourself and your story: “My name is J. D. Vance, and I think I should start with a confession. . . .”  You don’t “sound” like a hillbilly. You sound like an extremely reliable and smart narrator who’s taking me into his confidence from the get-go. Your professed openness and your simple vocabulary prepared me to read a memoir that is both credible and unpretentiously written.

Next you assure readers that you’re not telling your life story to chronicle something “extraordinary” that you’ve achieved. This was immediately reassuring to me because my life has not been extraordinary in either achievement or debacle, factors which, separately or together, fuel many memoirs. Instead, you explain that you are using your life story to illustrate how a kid from a poor and very screwed up family in a decaying steel town achieved something “quite ordinary” for many American

Yale Law School Logo

Yale Law School Logo

young people. You went to college, graduated, and got yourself accepted to Yale Law School in spite of obstacles neither I nor most of your classmates faced. You had considerable support from your less than perfect mom, your tough old-time grandparents and your sister. Their love fostered your aspiration to join the white collar work world which meant getting an education. So in that way you differed from many of the other kids in Middletown, Ohio. But even so, your path to college and grad school wasn’t easy.

Vance and Grandmother

Vance and Grandmother

You claim that you were able to accomplish what you did not because you are especially brilliant, but rather because this “handful of loving people rescued” you. These “loving people,” most notably your hillbilly grandparents, were hardly poster people for parenting a homeless teen. But those grandparents saw that you could not flourish in your mom’s care. She was addicted to pain killers and attracted a series of stepfathers each of whom you had to learn to love and then lose. So Mamaw and Papaw, stepped up and did the best they could. And you acknowledge that four years in the marines between college and law school helped too.

U. S. Marine /corps Logo

U. S. Marine /corps Logo

You mention the “spiritual and material poverty” of the community you grew up in. To contextualize this sad state, you trace the history of the Scots-Irish migration from Appalachia to the Midwest and the remarkable persistence of the values they brought with them such as loyalty and patriotism. But there are others, equally persistent. One of these is a historical preference for whiteness. Along with that goes a distrust of outsiders and/or those who appear different from themselves. Introspection is not highly prized, but being tough and willing to fight to defend one’s family is. You point out that a man will battle fiercely to defend the honor of his mom or his sister, and then, after marrying, he’ll cheat on his wife and joke about it with his buddies. At the recent Women’s March in Seattle, I thought of those wives.

Unlike many, you don’t think that having more manufacturing jobs is the silver bullet that will bring back the good times before the local steel mill closed. Rather you show how over the generations various factors, especially drug use and the resulting breakdown of families, contributed to the failure of many Scots-Irish to embrace the work

Closed Steel Mill

Closed Steel Mill

ethic they profess to hold dear. Unaccustomed to self-examination, when they are fired for not doing their jobs, they blame their bosses. “How could he fire me? I have a pregnant girlfriend!” Or they blame “outsiders” or the government. You comment on how a man has energy enough to sire eight kids, but not enough energy to work to support them.

Parents appear oblivious to the effect of their neglect, instability, and poverty on their children. You illustrate through your own story how difficult it is for a youngster to do well in school with no one to make him do his homework, let alone help him with it, with no quiet place in which to study, and with hunger and high level domestic drama as constants. And you note again that there persists also a stubborn refusal to examine one’s own behavior, accept responsibility for it, and try to change it.

Before I read Hillbilly Elegy, I assumed that many white Midwesterners in the Rust Belt were Evangelical Christians. But the folks you describe have drifted far from organized religion of any kind. You say that the churches they once attended were more judgmental than supportive, so when times got hard, their members turned to drugs or booze. But what unchurched Rust Belters have in common with many fundamentalists of any stripe is the almost inchoate realization that modernity─ globalization, diversity, feminism, technology, new jobs requiring new skills ─ threatens those enduring values they brought with them from Appalachia and which still seem to be the bulk of their belief system. And it is this culture that you expose and yet still identify with. For although you have gotten that education, the white collar position, the lawyer wife and the cherished kids who will never wonder where they are sleeping or who is the daddy of the month, you identify still as a hillbilly.

As a would-be memoirist, I envy you your underexposed background. Perhaps because not too many hillbillies write memoirs, your upbringing seems exotic and makes me almost wish my own tribe, Jews descended from immigrant Eastern European Jews, had not been chronicled quite so extensively. While Scots-Irish avoid self-examination, many of my landsmen (and women) have filled library and bookstore shelves with lengthy accounts of neuroses caused by their overly protective Jewish moms, by poverty or affluence, by immigration, or, of course, by antisemitism. I’ll have to find something unique in my own background or an especially intriguing way of describing it to justify my desire to leave behind yet another story of yet another nice Jewish girl.

J. D. Vance

J. D. Vance

In Hillbilly Elegy you explain why so many American white men feel left behind, forgotten, and frightened by the whirlwind of changes in our country and our world. Since their migration north, they seem incapable of taking any action of their own to adapt. They remind me a little bit of those Jews who refused to believe that the Nazis would invade the countries where these same Jews held respected positions and led gratifying lives. So they ignored the warnings of their relatives abroad and stayed in Europe until it was too late to leave. I hope Hillbilly Elegy inspires many of your friends and relatives to prepare themselves and their children for the world as it really is rather than for the one they would like to revive. This book is a great gift from you to them and to those of us seeking to understand them. It took great love of kin and country as well as great courage to write it.  Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Anne Frank,

Early Edition

Dear Anne Frank,

Thank you for The Diary of a Young Girl. Born in 1940, I was only two when you began your diary and ten or eleven when my mother gave it to me. By then you were dead and I had a little trouble processing this sad chronology. I’d paid no attention to the drone of Sunday school teachers and rabbis and I don’t recall my parents ever sitting me down and explaining the Holocaust. So I don’t think I knew about concentration camps where millions of Jews were worked to death, starved, or gassed. In retrospect, it occurs to me that maybe my mother gave me your diary as a way of informing me of this historical horror, just as she’d given me a book featuring diagrams of tubes and circles to explain sex. So you not only introduced me to the Holocaust, but you also taught me about diary-keeping.  Like your many other readers, I was hooked by your oft-quoted opening line, “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.” Your voice, youthful, urgent, and full of hope and your desire for a nonjudgmental ear spoke for and to me.

Photo of Anne

I identified with you at once. We even looked alike. A photo of you in my copy of your book could have been a photo of me. We had the same thin faces, long bumpy “Jewish” noses, mostly straight brown hair, prominent dark eyebrows and eyes and wide mouths. If it had been deemed safe for you to venture out of hiding to see an eye doctor, you, too, would have been prescribed glasses. We both had elderly grandparents who moved in with us and we both went to birthday parties, were expected to do well in school, read a lot, and were eager to be “popular.” Yet again, like you, I was a daddy’s girl and very aware of my parents’ fear of antiSemitism. Unlike you though, I didn’t share my parents’ fears. In fact, in the early Fifties, I thought my mother’s preoccupation with being perceived as “too Jewish” was totally uncalled for. After all, The War was over, we won, and in America one was free to worship as one wished.Red Leather Diary and Key

Even as I identified so strongly with you, I was a little disappointed in your diary because contrary to your expressed wish to fill it with confidences, it seemed you had no secrets, let alone shameful ones, to share, whereas I did.  For my twelfth birthday, my parents gave me a diary of red leather with gold trim and a lock and key. I kept this little book and the key in a drawer in my desk in my room and unburdened myself on its pages every night. I treasured my diary and considered it the big sister I didn’t have. To my horror, one Sunday afternoon when I was at a movie with friends, my father opened it, read it, and then confronted me with what I’d written about myself, myJudge Daddy classmates, our neighbors, and him and my mom. None of these outpourings upset him but I’d also penned a rather lurid entry listing things I wished to do with certain boys I knew. Alas, my dad believed I’d actually done them, or feared I might do them. It took me a long time to convince him otherwise and a lifetime to get over the dreadfulness of having my own secrets exposed to my beloved, but notoriously stern father. Did I mention that he had served as a municipal judge? His intrusion and his reaction to my fantasies put a heavy and durable damper on my urge to write down stuff I made up. It’s no co-incidence that I didn’t really begin writing for publication until after both of my parents died.

Definitive Edition

It was not until 1995 that I read The Definitive Edition of your diary. In the preface to this book, edited by your dad, Otto H. Frank, and Mirjam Pressler, I learned that the edition I read back in the early Fifties had also been edited by your father not long after your death. He had expunged all references to your sexuality and all of the disparaging remarks you made about your mom and the others with whom you had shared the Secret Annex. So it wasn’t until I was forty-five with a teenage daughter of my own that I finally came upon all your girlish confidences I’d hoped to find in the earlier version. That’s when I understood that your biggest secret was really the one you struggled to keep from the Nazis, the fact that you all were hiding in an attic in Amsterdam to avoid being sent to the death camps.

 

The Secret Annex

Secret Annex

But even on my very first reading of your edited diary, I’d been aware that while I had been safe in Passaic, New Jersey learning to skip, dunking Oreos in milk, and taking care of my dolls, you had been imprisoned for years in a small secret annex with your family and some other folks you didn’t know and hadn’t chosen. There you all shared chores, money, food, and bath and bedrooms, and gave up much of your treasured privacy. Even as a child I’d noted how your affinity for reading enabled you to pass the time constructively, keep up your spirits, and write clearly and expressively. I doubted that I would have been able to handle the privations and unremitting proximity and dread that you describe so memorably. And without your detailed recording of the trials of your years in hiding, I doubt that I would have been able to begin to comprehend the series of events we call the Holocaust. Even in your teens you were a writer and you recorded your experiences for posterity. That would include me.

Thank you for keeping this diary under such duress. I’m glad that in your too-short life you did what journalists do. You wrote history as it happened, so when you died at Auschwitz, the world lost not only a young girl, but a clear and compelling witness and writer.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Geraldine Brooks,

The Secret ChordDear Geraldine Brooks, Thank you for The Secret Chord. Your retelling of the life of King David interested me because I was eager to see how you, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist http://geraldinebrooks.com, would portray David, already the subject of many bios. My own next project will probably be a memoir, and I suspected that your treatment of David’s life had much to teach me about how to describe my own. I was right. Your use of Natan the prophet as storyteller is a brilliant way of capturing David’s exploits in words. The way you made Natan himself not only a trusted narrator but a full-fledged character in the drama of his king makes the story of David’s life credible and gripping.Natan and David

According to Natan, voicing the future in the name of God is painful and tiring work. When he is about to deliver a message from the deity he experiences crippling nausea and headaches and often loses consciousness. His body and voice are, it would seem, no longer his to control. To keep himself fit to serve his king and his god, Natan lives a life of celibacy, vigilance, and moderation. So our narrator is not a warrior or a lover or an aspiring king but rather a prophet, a teacher, a scholar and a diligent and thorough biographer. David trusts him and so did I. As I read, Natan’s voice was the one I cared about most. It occurred to me that I need a Natan to help me tell my own story! Otherwise how can I make readers heed my voice and care about me and my life which, compared to David’s, was and is uneventful.

King David

The David Natan reports on was not the one I learned about in Sunday school. That David was a sheep-herding boy-poet skilled with a lyre and a slingshot who grew up to be a fearless warrior, a gifted psalmist, and a beloved king. No. Natan tells us of a David, outcast and abused as a child, who becomes a shrewd and ruthless general, and an ambitious and wise but sometimes folly-prone human king not unlike some of the leaders we admire or deplore today.

I keep telling myself that even though I am not a warrior or a queen or a best-selling writer, I too, have lived through tumultuous times, the second half of the Twentieth Charleton Heston as MosesCentury as well as the beginning of the Twenty-first. Natan used David’s epic story to make us see what life was like for women and men in biblical times. The phrase “biblical times” once made me think of robed people in the desert either getting a tablet of instructions from Charlton Heston or being crucified. Likewise I associated the word tribalism with certain outdated cultural practices and the current United States Congress. In David’s era, each tribe was an extended patriarchal family whose men were expected to defend it from attack and attack others to extend its reach. The king’s power was absolute. He inspired rivals including his own children. Thanks to your research, I now understand how and why fratricide, incest, infanticide, rape, murder, adultery, and theft all figured in David’s life.

Such a life should not go undocumented, right? You see to it that Natan convinces David to leave behind a written account of his story and, of course, the king chooses the prophet himself to write it. You also see to it that David gives his biographer the names of people to interview about his early years and grants them permission to speak the truth. Natan takes us on these interviews and so we “see” David’s mother, his oldest brother, and his first wife, through Natan’s eyes and “hear” their stories through his ears.

BathshebaNatan also hears from David’s other wives. According to Batsheva she is not the siren I learned about in Sunday school. She bathed on her roof not to tempt the king but to escape the leers of injured veterans her husband had invited to their home and given work. David sent soldiers for her, repeatedly and brutally raped her, and tossed her aside. She lived in fear of being stoned to death should her first husband, one of David’s generals, discover that she had dishonored him. David goes so far as to have that first husband killed. Batsheva also offers insight into how self-serving Natan’s attempt to defend David is, thus making the prophet human too. After calling David a monster, she tells Natan that “…you choose to look away from the truth. You let your love for him blind you.” So much for our “reliable” narrator!

Because I am considering how to credibly present the significant people and events in my own life, I especially appreciate how you created a seemingly unbiased narrator only to expose his bias in the end and add yet another layer to your rich story. Can I be unbiased in recounting my own life story? Or, better yet, can I devise a different way or voice to reveal it? And is my comparatively mundane life worth documenting in the first place? Will it have meaning to others? Does that matter to me now?

So many questions!

Not so much. Lately scenes from my own life are replaying in my head. I usually put the characters and scenes that persist in my head into books. So now I find myself eager to capture my own memories on the page. Years ago, near the end of my teaching career, I wrote Going by the Book, a memoir about my seven year apprenticeship as a teacher. So now as my seventy-sixth birthday approaches, it seems appropriate to describe my lifelong apprenticeship as a writer. Like David, I need a plausible perspective, narrator, or voice to help me do this. And, Ms Brooks, your story reminds me of that. You made the relationship between David and Natan become part of your narrative and by doing so gave both men the depth they need to be interesting and credible. Thank you.

Pulitzer Price Winner

Pulitzer Prize Winner

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear William Shakespeare,

William ShakespeareDear William Shakespeare,

Thank you for all your plays. There is a special place on the bookshelf in my heart for some writings I’ve shared with students. Prominent in this space is a volume of your complete works, pages dog-eared, passages underscored, and margins crowded with comments and questions. It’s the same copy of the Cambridge Edition published in 1942 that I used in 1960 as a sophomore in the Shakespeare class of Vassar’s incomparable Professor William Gifford.  He re-introduced me to your plays, several of which I’d slogged through in high school during the 1950’s. My High School BrainBack then I didn’t know what an Elizabethan was nor did I understand Elizabethan English. The foibles of long dead Roman politicos, suicidal teens, and British monarchs did not interest me. Neither did poetry. Scarlett O’Hara interested me. Marjorie Morningstar interested me. The denizens of Peyton Place got my attention too. So although I’d always read a lot, I wasn’t a versatile or particularly adventuresome reader.

But by my sophomore year in college, I was learning to read in a different way. Perhaps that was not only because I had a marvelous English teacher freshman year, but also because, as I understand now, I finally had a brain more mature and so more hospitable to abstraction and subtleties. And I really wanted to emerge from college as a “cultured” young woman. So I was ready to try to connect with you again. Without judging us, Professor Gifford helped me and my classmates to understand the context in which you wrote, the language you used, and the theatrical conventions of your time. And most important, he also taught us to see your characters as people not unlike ourselves, our parents, and our own political leaders.

Murder of Caesar

Murder of Caesar

I have always been timid and was once diagnosed by a credible psychologist as a “catastrophizer,” so I recognized the fear-filled souls Caesar describes when he tells Calpurnia that “Cowards die many times before their death.” To a girl of nineteen who had always feared everything from snakes to the possibility of her parents divorcing or dying, Caesar’s observation was a stomach punch, swift, sharp, and unforgettable.

One of the many things I feared was doing wrong, but my fear did not always stop me, so I was also no stranger to guilt. Had Macbeth’s crimes not been so terribly heinous, I might have empathized with him and with his enabler, Lady Macbeth. When he seems to waver in his resolve to kill the king, she questions his manhood and paints a powerful word picture of her own willingness to murder. “I have given suck, and know how tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me; I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done to this.” Later when he has done the deed and she has rearranged the crime scene, they both suffer terrible guilt. His makes him see Banquo’s ghost and keeps him awake, forcing him to offer a perfect description of sleep as that which “knits up the raveled sleeve of care, the death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, chief nourisher in life’s feast.” Her sleep is troubled too. Thanks to her nocturnal rambling and lamenting, we revisit the crime scene with her when she asks, “Who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?” She tries to wash this blood from her hands. “Here’s the smell of the blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”

Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth

When he learns of her death, Macbeth voices his own despair.  With his queen dead and his own defeat and death imminent, he compares life to a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” In college as I read your powerful and poetic lines to myself, I understood them. A few years later, as I read them aloud to my own students, I came to appreciate poetry for the first time.

And you, William Shakespeare, fed my newly acquired habit of rereading. After I figured out who was doing what to whom in one of your plays, I wanted to dwell with your characters, to savor and analyze their words, thoughts, and deeds. So I read every play we covered in that two-semester class twice. At one point during that same sophomore year, I was grounded for a weekend. Awash in self-pity, I whined about how bored I would be as practically the only person in our dorm for two whole days. On that Saturday morning with my roommate away, I was, indeed, isolated in our room rereading Antony and Cleopatra.

Cleopatra

Cleopatra

When I got to the passage in which Enobarbus  insists that even married to Caesar’s sister, Anthony will never give up Cleopatra because “Age cannot wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety. Other women cloy the appetites they feed, but she makes hungry where she most satisfies . . . .” I was dumbstruck by how you made this smart and powerful but long dead siren live on the page. It came to me that I was a lucky girl to be free to read about this intriguing monarch (about whom Rhett Butler would surely have given a damn) at my leisure and in comfort. It was the first time that, without parental prompting, I truly appreciated my own privileged lot. Since that year, the only thing I enjoy more than reading your work is rereading it and discovering fresh insights.

This affinity for rereading your dramas worked out well because I reread each play I taught before I introduced it to a class and then again as we discussed it. I knew that my students would appreciate a little contextualizing, as had I. But I also thought they might “get” your meaning better if they heard some of your more memorable lines read aloud. And how I enjoyed persuading my spouse to kill, mourning my dead sweetheart, and laying a guilt trip, in Latin yet, on my false friend while his knife still twisted in my gut. I encouraged my students to read their favorite passages aloud at home. I felt doing this would help them appreciate how while your rulers, rogues, and, of course, lovers are, in fact, like us and like people we all know the words you gave them to say are like no one else’s.

IMG_6424Even though I love theater, I’d rather read your plays than see them on film or on the stage. I want to interpret your words and imagine your people myself rather than get an impression filtered through the sensibilities of a director and an actor. I’m sure that the close attention I learned to pay to how aptly you word the conversations and asides of complex characters has made me a better writer.

But, Mr. Shakespeare, I worry about your legacy. Let’s face it, you are a dead white man, and there is much to be said for adding more works byBlack Woman Reading women and writers of other colors and ethnicities to our literature curriculums. I do hope your plays remain on stages, on film, and, most importantly, on syllabi. Here in Washington State where some college curriculums have been especially slow to embrace inclusiveness, students are demanding more works by women and writers of color and of diverse backgrounds. I hope the students prevail, but I also hope an expanded canon continues to include your plays. Although you were white and male, and are, sadly, dead, your dramas are alive and, especially in this post-Brexit era, still have much to teach us all.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg.

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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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Dear James Joyce,

Dear James Joyce,
portrait_20of_20the_20aritst_20as_20a_20young_20man-_20james_20joyce_20copy_originalThank you for writing Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Portrait_of_the_Artist_as_a_Young_Man#Reception. It was the first book on the syllabus of my freshman English course at Vassar in 1958. An avid reader, I’d found my high school English classes unsatisfying and looked forward to a challenge. I rushed to the bookstore to buy the books for English 101 and arrived in class on the first day clutching my green paperback copy of Portrait. I’d hoped to get a head start on the reading, but the epigraph was an untranslated quote from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, another book I’d never heard of in a language I’d studied for only two years and mostly forgotten. As you well know, Portrait takes place in your native Ireland, a country I’d never visited and whose idioms, history, and customs were foreign to me. The only Irish person I actually knew was a friend of my dad’s. I also knew that Scarlett O’Hara’s dad and St. Patrick are Irish.
Your iconic opening- written in the third person from the child Stephen’s point of view and with no quotation marks to lead me to and through what dialogue there is, and with little deference to chronological progression, left me befuddled. My sixty-year-old copy of Portrait, open beside me today as I type, is revealing. Its pages are covered with explanatory notes, definitions, and translations provided by Professor Julia McGrew.marginalia
She pointed out how even as a child, Stephen uses language to understand, navigate, and endure his world. He plays with sounds, smells, sights, tastes, and touches and uses words to convey his many, many sensory impressions. “Suck was a queer word. . . . But the sound was ugly. Once he had washed his hands in the lavatory of the Wicklow Hotel and his father pulled the stopper up by the chain after and the dirty water went down through the hole in the basin. And when it had all gone down slowly the hole in the basin made a sound like that: suck. Only louder.”sink drain
So thanks to you and Professor McGrew, I began to learn to read in a whole new way. This was timely because other writers like William Faulkner, another author on our syllabus, were writing in a whole new way. I pored over your text and my notes and asked questions in class and on my second reading of Portrait, I reaped the rewards of all this unaccustomed effort. I was able to feel for the tormented Stephen, trapped in a family that didn’t “get” him, in a body that drove him to “sin,” in a religion that demeaned and threatened him, in a school where he was often bullied, and finally in an island country where he felt like a prisoner.prison bars
I’d never before reread a book from cover to cover. But that second reading enabled me to understand Stephen better, and I even began to identify with him. Like many adolescents, I’d often felt that my parents were clueless, my body was a travesty and a trap, my hometown an intellectual and cultural desert, my religious education farcical, and my peers cruel. And while I didn’t feel imprisoned in my country, I checked out Ireland on a map and saw how tiny it was and understood how easy it would be for a person living there to feel like a captive of both church and state.
A state religion that governed one’s most private thoughts and feelings seemed strange to me. Growing up Jewish in Passaic, New Jersey, I did have a few Catholic friends, but most of my friends were Jewish and so I didn’t really know too much about Catholicism when I left for college. Thanks to Stephen Dedalus though, I learned a lot about the Church’s prohibitions against masturbation, sex before marriage, and even sexual urges. Stephen describes a trip to the confessional, and also reiterates a priest’s sermon describing the punishments reserved for those whose sexual sins doomed them to hell.hellfire As a Nice Jewish Girl reared in the Fifties, I knew I wasn’t supposed to get pregnant before I married, so I wasn’t supposed to have sex. If I did have sex, the guy I had it with would probably dump me for a more virginal bride. And if I got pregnant, well, that would be just awful. I might have to have an abortion, secretly arranged by my parents. Or my baby might have to be put up for adoption. I would live out my life in disgrace. And, worst of all, no one would want to marry me. Ever. But these punishments were rarely mentioned and quite tame compared to those Stephen contemplated every time he felt a little horny. I do wonder what he (and you) would make of the many child molesters outed among the Catholic clergy in recent years. I wonder if that sort of thing was going on in the schools Stephen attended.
I can’t close without telling you that I have reread Portrait twice more since 1958. In graduate school I was taking an exam on modern British writers as part of my work for an MA in English and had the pleasure then of reading Ulysses and rereading Dubliners and Portrait. I’ve taught some of the stories from Dubliners. And when I finally visited Ireland, like so many of your fans, I often enjoyed imagining it through the eyes of both Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. Soon I’m going to begin to write a kind of memoir and so once again, I reread Portrait to reexamine how you used Stephen to give voice to the events that influenced the development of your own artistic sensibility. And, like you, I will write and rewrite until I hear the voice I need to articulate the events that influenced my own literary development. Reading Portrait was one of these events.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Francine Prose,

Reading Like a Writer

Reading Like a Writer

Thank you for Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. I like to think that after writing ten books, two of which have won awards, and teaching writing myself for about forty years, I already do read like a writer. But I bought your book when it first came out to see what a highly respected novelist and writing teacher has to say and how she says it. With a book of my own in progress, I didn’t read yours until this past week after I finally completed a first draft of my next mystery. Now it’s time to edit that draft, and you offer excellent advice on how to do that.
You encourage your readers to read the works of many other writers and learn from their examples which you generously provide. You also advise us on how to read and edit our own work. That has always been hard for me. Let me confess. I’m one of those writers who, at first, believes that each word, sentence, image, paragraph, and chapter I put on paper is just right. That’s why I wrote it. When I read a passage aloud to my patient husband or my forbearing writing group, I’m usually awestruck by the freshness of my descriptions, the tempo of my sentences, the aptness of my word choice, and the credibility of my dialogue. My eyes fill with tears and my voice catches over my characters’ problems. You get the idea. I don’t read my own work especially analytically. Instead I read it as if I were a brand new mom gaping at that slimy, screaming lump of flesh and seeing perfection.
I should clarify by adding that for me writing is rewriting and my inner editor is active as I compose. And when pressed by my agent or an editor or my writing group, I’ve been known to line edit, cut, and modify characters. But Reading Like a Writer has revived my weary inner editor and revealed additional possibilities. I was especially taken by your suggestion that we avoid having our characters’ gestures be trite. Rather we should observe and find some gestures that actually reveal character and aren’t especially familiar. Another issue you discuss is one that has come up often in my writing group: the likeability of the protagonist. When one of us creates a main character who is less than endearing, let alone who is despicable, there’s pushback. But you cite extremely fine authors who have put some nasty folks on the pages of their work, and so you remind us that the “rules” that are said to define good writing don’t always do that.
I’m intrigued by the clear organization of your book, each chapter focusing on a different way we can improve our writing. I savored reading it from beginning to end, but have marked places to return to for help with specific changes. It’s daunting to approach altering something we’ve struggled to produce and hard to know where to start. I used to suggest that my students, most of whom juggled families, jobs, and classes, put off rewriting sentences and paragraphs they might eventually eliminate entirely, along with a character or a scene. Instead I suggested that they first make sure they’re satisfied with their characters and their stories and then make stylistic changes. For many of them revising was a new concept, a luxury or a burden they hadn’t bargained on. Maybe I was wrong to try to streamline this crucial process for them.Courage
In Reading Like a Writer you don’t mention working with a writing group. As a midlife doctoral student at NYU, I found myself in a dissertation support group and that was my first writing group. We were, I think, quite helpful to one another, especially with regard to “courage,” a matter you take up in Chapter 11. “…most people who have tried to write have experienced not only the need for bravery but a failure of nerve as the real or imagined consequences, faults and humiliations, exposures and inadequacies dance before their eyes and across the empty screen or page.” You suggest that the reader turn to literature for “courage and confirmation. The reader and beginning writer can count on being heartened by all the brave and original works that have been written without the slightest regard for how strange or risky they were, or for what the writer’s mother might have thought when she read them.”
As you can tell by this blog, I find literature inspiring, but I also find a writing group invaluable. Perhaps that’s because I’m an

Writing Group

Writing Group

extroverted sort and need flesh and blood colleagues to accompany me as I make up worlds and people them with equally imaginary characters. Or perhaps it’s because of my aforementioned difficulty in finding fault with my own output. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been lucky to have especially gifted responders in my groups.
Reading Like a Writer has made me eager to explore your fiction, and I will. But I must deny myself that pleasure until I tackle that first draft. Thanks to your clear and sensible work, I’m better equipped to do that now than I was before I read it.
Sincerely,
Jane Isenberg

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Dear Blog Readers,

Jane Isenberg

Jane Isenberg

Sorry about all the posts, but it’s taken me a while to get it right. I’m doing an on-line interview about The Bones and the Book this Wednesday, November 12 at 4pm west coast time and at 7pm for those of you on the other coast. If you’re in the middle, I’ll be on at 6pm. You can listen and call in and ask me questions! Pam Stack is a terrific interviewer and reader. Here’s the CORRECT link: https:http://www.blogtalkradio.com/authorsontheair/2014/11/13/author-jane-isenberg-discusses-her-books-on-authors-on-the-air.  And here’s the phone number: 347-633-9609. I’d love to chat with you.

Meanwhile, I’m now starting Chapter 11 of my next book! I’m working slowly and enjoying the process.

Again, thanks for your patience and your interest.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Blog Readers,

Jane Isenberg

Jane Isenberg

As you know, I’ve not written to a single muse recently. That’s because we’ve had visitors here and been visiting elsewhere. In between visits, I’ve made a little progress on my new book, but not nearly enough.  I hope July and August will find me hunkered down at the PC writing, writing, writing.

Meanwhile, I was just interviewed by Susan Wingate for blogtalkradio. This interview was a bit different from my last one because Susan, a writer herself, was very interested in all of my books, not only the most recent.  If you’d like to listen to it, here’s the link:

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/authorsontheair/2014/06/26/womens-fiction-author-jane-isenberg-on-dialogue-between-the-lines

Thanks for your patience and enjoy the summer.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

 

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Dear Blog Readers,

I’m almost done with a draft of a draft of chapter five of my new book project and I’m really enjoying writing. So it’s hard to take a break to tell you how much I enjoy reading the next writer I’m going to thank, a writer I came to through research and stayed with because I still have a lot to learn from him about storytelling. Meanwhile, here’s a link to a  recent review of The Bones and the Book from Storysparks, the book/story blog of writer Jane Kirkpatrick who archived it on her rich and interesting website. You have to scroll down a bit to find the review, but it’s there under the title Word Whispers. http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs134/1102964308331/archive/1116500847717.html

And to those of you who have endured the blasts and bruises of a windy, white winter, take heart. Spring is here! And I hope it is also there, where you are, too.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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