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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Dear Jami Attenberg,

The Middlesteins

The Middlesteins

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

Kale

Kale

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

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

Fast Food Signs

Fast Food Signs

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

Greek Chorus

Greek Chorus

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

Family Seder

Family Seder

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Shawn Vestal,

Godforsaken Idaho

Godforsaken Idaho

Godforsaken Idaho became my primer on Mormonism as practiced by folks not running for president. Your stories of missionaries, marriages,

Idaho Potatoes

Idaho Potatoes

ranches, rehab, relatives, robbers, and religion also introduced me to Idaho, a part of the Northwest I’ve never visited. In fact, Idaho itself was once so remote to this New Jersey native transplanted late in life to a Seattle suburb as to seem beyond godforsaken. Sorry, but your native state was never on my radar except when I was buying potatoes.

And Mormonism? I’m a secular Jew with a carefully cultivated ambivalence towards people of any faith who seek to evade modernity, and I was shocked to see how prevalent the followers of LDS are in the Northwest. But their prevalence didn’t

make them interesting; your stories do. Those same stories also took me inside the psyche of midlife males, a species I’ve neglected in much of my own writing.

Aging and often out-of-work Boomers, they didn’t interest me all that much before I read Godforsaken Idaho. Now thanks to your wild imagination, your keen sense of humor, and your accessible, powerful prose, I’m making room in my head for all of these phenomena.

Take Idaho. It’s huge and empty compared to New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the Union. Nobody goes to Jersey for the solitude. But a lot of folks come to the Northwest because they crave seclusion, and many of these wannabe hermits find their way to Idaho. Others are born and raised in The Gem State and, like

many of your characters, feel quite at home driving those long highways from farm or ranch or mine to small town and on and on to forest or mountain. I want to

Middleage 2013

Middleage 2013

write a novel set in Eastern Washington, and it will feature at least one such character from Idaho. He wasn’t from Idaho before I read your book, but now he is. He may even be a lapsed Mormon, a literally godforsaken midlife white guy whose own less than perfect parents and bad habits along with the changing times have conspired to strip him of all that he feels entitled to, a good job, a tolerant family, a paid for house, the possibility of a gracious retirement, and, of course, a fulfilling afterlife.

Your original vision of an unfulfilling afterlife in Godforsaken Idaho’s lead story, “The First Hundred Years Following My Death” opens that tale.  “The food is excellent. The lines are never long. There’s nothing to do with your hands.” This is how the lapsed Mormon who has predeceased his estranged son greets this son when he arrives in the hereafter. This description did not impress the dead son, but it hooked me at once and for good. “It turns out that the

Gates of Heaven

Gates of Heaven

food is meals you order from your life,” presumably meals that you enjoyed. You stay the age at which you died and eat with those your own age from many historical periods. There is no peace in this odd heaven except what you can find by reliving favorite moments from your own life. Like those meals, these moments don’t always hold up to such close and repeated scrutiny. In fact, “…you find it hard to land in a single untroubled moment.” There is much wit and plenty of pathos here and not a trace of angels or saintly gatekeepers or fire and brimstone. How refreshing! And as a bonus, we meet several of the characters who turn up later in stories all their own.

Rulon, a young vet just home from World War I, suffers guilt for having killed enemy soldiers and for having had sex with a prostitute on his return. Mormon teachings do not guide him through or shield him from the sins inherent in war and prostitution and even masturbation. Killing and all sex outside of marriage are sinful in The Book of Mormon and his guilt gives him no peace. Rulon’s story is narrated by a long dead lapsed Mormon fighting to protest a law forbidding the then polygamous Mormons to vote in Idaho and he was killed by a posse as he fought. This dead man attempts to soothe the younger man’s conscience and guide him to a more active and aggressive stance, but cannot reach him at first. The ending is dramatic and meaningful, especially in view of the troubles we know returning vets face today.

Looking at the Northwest through Mormon eyes changed my perspective on the place and many of the people. Just as not all of us east coast natives share the values and life styles of Manhattanites, so not all Northwesterners embrace the liberal politics, advanced technology, good beer, and better coffee that many Seattleites do. In your stories, characters recall how the early followers of first Joseph Smith and later Brigham Young gradually made their way west fleeing persecution. It’s fascinating to look at America as they see it, as a place like the Middle East where ancient sacred biblical texts can be unearthed, translated, and interpreted, where miracles can occur, where credos can be changed, and where, if you go back far enough, all people are connected by blood.

Pocket Dog

Pocket Dog

Your characters talk like, I suspect, real Idahoans talk. Here’s your dissolute womanizing drunkard in “Pocket Dog” describing an attractive gal shedding her clothes before entering a hot tub.  First he tells us, “I believe firmly in watching such a woman.” And then he treats us to this: “She stepped out of that skirt and bent over, ass up like an autumn doe. . . . and something started flopping inside me like a fish on a riverbank.” “Pocket dog” is not a happy story, but the narrator, telling it after rehab, enlivens it with lines like these. They make me like him even while I disapprove of his drinking, drug use, and cavalier attitude towards women including his grandmother who is determined to get him into treatment. How can you hate a guy who sees the miniature dog belonging to the woman described above and says, “She held a purse in the crook of her arm and from the purse emerged the tiny head of a creature with a furious puff of Einstein hair. Like a rat being born. The rat barked and hung a tongue the color of a pencil eraser. Out here, we’re bound to feel a dog like that is just wrong.”

The next book I write will pry me a little further out of my coastal comfort zone, and, after savoring your wonderful stories, I may be empowered to venture into yours. Thanks for such an inspiring read.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Naomi Alderman,

The Liars' Gospel

The Liars’ Gospel

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

Roman Coins

Roman Coins

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

The Lamb for an Offering

The Lamb for an Offering

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

Mary Mother of Jesus

Mary Mother of Jesus

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

Jesus King of the Jews

Jesus King of the Jews

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

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

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

Good news!

Good news!

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

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

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Blog Readers,

The Bones and the Book

The Bones and the Book

Exciting news! The Bones and the Book has won Women Writing the West’s Willa Award in the category of soft covered original fiction! Phil and I will travel

Women Writing the West Logo

Women Writing the West Logo

to Kansas City, Missouri in October to Women Writing the West’s 19th Annual Conference where I will actually receive my trophy, read from The Bones and the Book, and celebrate. If any of you live in the Kansas City area, the reading and signing portions of the conference on Saturday, October 12 are open to the public, and I’d love to meet you.

I’ll post a note to another muse later this week after I’ve calmed down a little.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Annie Proulx,

Close Range Wyoming Stories

Close Range Wyoming Stories

The New Yorker seemed an odd place for me to discover a “country” writer like you, so back in the late Nineties when I came upon “Brokeback Mountain” rubbing right up against reviews of East Village eateries and ads for high end urban condos, I felt disoriented, but in a good way. Finding grungy gay

Marlborough Man

Marlborough Man

cowboys in a New Yorker short story enlarged my perception of westerns. East coast born and bred, until then, I didn’t see cowboys as appropriate subjects of “literature” unless they were feeble minded enough to be mercifully put down by their best friend or sang and danced on Broadway. Stories about cowboys were the stuff of pulpy paperbacks and oaters, the movies I watched as a kid. Like the Marlborough Man, cowboys were handsome, brave, and heterosexual and they lived out their heroic Technicolor lives against scenic backgrounds erected in Hollywood studios.

Shipping News

Shipping News

So to meet an aging gay Ennis Del Mar, scratching his “grey wedge of belly and pubic hair” and urinating in the sink of his trailer, on the first page of your story was a jolt. Even when young, neither Ennis nor Jack Twist is exceptionally handsome nor especially heroic let alone prepared for the dangerous love they discover and share. Intrigued, I became a fan of yours and read The Shipping News and several of your earlier works. It’s easy to see why you have been honored with a Pulitzer and other prestigious awards. I returned to your Wyoming stories recently because like me, you’re an Easterner born and raised, writing the west.

            Ennis and Jack meet and fall in love when they herd sheep together for a summer on Brokeback Mountain. This wild and beautiful place, an Eden

Eden's Snake

Eden’s Snake

in Wyoming, turns out to be a real Eden complete with a spying snake. For the rest of their lives, these two lovers are powerless to protect themselves from the brutal homophobia that haunts them both and eventually kills one of them. Ennis and Jack are not only powerless against homophobia, but are also powerless against the changes taking place in late twentieth century Wyoming, changes that make their skill set─ riding, roping, and working a rodeo or a ranch─ obsolete. Both are “high school dropout country boys with no prospects, rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life.” Until he marries a relatively wealthy girl, Ennis lives from job to job, with no savings. Once he marries, he must work in the family business, endure sex with his wife, and, later on, find male lovers where he can, usually in Mexico. He is free from most financial worries, but he is not free to leave his wife and kids and make a life with Jack. He knows two men living together would be brutally killed, has seen such a victim. Jack continues to live hand to mouth, taking whatever rodeo or ranch work he can find, and, although his wife leaves him, he is not free either. He cannot meet up with Ennis often because he must work.

            In a desperate attempt to figure out how and where they might safely make a life together, Ennis asks Jack, “This happen a other people. What the hell do they do?” Jack’s reply is telling. “It don’t happen in Wyomin and if it does, I don’t know what they do, maybe go to Denver.” Escaping to Denver seems impossible to these lovers, so mired are they in their unhappy marriages, their compromising jobs, and their familiar brand of “Wyomin” misery. As if to emphasize this special meld of defeatism and perseverance that characterizes many of your Wyoming cowboys, Ennis says, “If you can’t fix it, you got a stand it.” That line is repeated twice in this tale and appears in several others in Close Range, Wyoming Stories the collection in which “Brokeback Mountain” is published.

Herding Sheep out West

Herding Sheep out West

            I don’t think I’ve ever met a real cowboy, but if I did, I wonder if he’d talk the way yours do in Wyoming Stories. I hope so because your cowboys come out with the best images I’ve come across in a long time. “Brokeback Mountain” is a cowboy story narrated by a cowboy who gets inside the heads of the characters. That’s why the foreman on the sheep herding job Ennis and Jack take on Brokeback Mountain, tosses Ennis a watch “as if he weren’t worth the reach” and then privately sizes up his two new hires as “Pair of deuces going nowhere.” It is this narrator who tells us that the entourage of Jack, Ennis, their dogs, horses, pack animals, and herd of a thousand ewes and lambs, “flowed up the trail like dirty water through the timber and out above the tree line into the great flowery meadows and the coursing, endless, wind.” When at summer’s end, the lovers ride off in opposite directions, Ennis feels “like someone was pulling his guts out hand over hand a yard at a time.” Your cowboy story eventually became a film and a good one, but I missed your images, many of which did not make it to the screen.

            You remind me that with talent and research, an easterner can write novels set wherever her story takes her. As I struggle to begin writing a new novel, this message is very inspiring. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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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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Dear Art Spiegelman,

Maus I

Maus I

 If my mother and father were still alive I think your Pulitzer Prize winning Maus books recounting your father’s life before, during, and after the

Maus II

Maus II

Holocaust would astound them more than the ten-dollar movie ticket, a black president, or cell phones. It’s not your subject matter that would dumbfound them, but your chosen format. Maus I: My Father Bleeds History and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began are what my parents disparaged as comic books and forbade me to read or buy.

Forbidden Fruit

Forbidden Fruit

My mother, a former school teacher, was sure that reading comics would instantly deplete my vocabulary and distract me from reading “real” books. My father refused to allow even one thin dime of his hard-earned money, including my allowance, to be squandered on “that trash.” Of course, my curiosity was piqued, and I devoured the adventures of Archie, Betty, Jughead, and Veronica at the home of my next-door neighbor with that furtive lust kids reserve for the forbidden.

            So why didn’t I read Maus I when it came out in 1986? It got great reviews, earned you a Pulitzer, and was responsible for the transformation of the much-maligned comic book into the graphic novel. I’m not sure what kept me from your book, but I suspect that I didn’t think I would assign it to my students, almost none of whom were Jewish or European and, after reading The Diary of Anne Frank and Sophie’s Choice, I didn’t care to read Holocaust stories. Even as an adult, I found them terrifying and depressing in spite of the fact that back in 1986, I thought anti-Semitism was over.

Jews as Mice

Jews as Mice

Now, a quarter of a century later, I know anti-Semitism lives on and I decided to read your Maus books. I found them fascinating and am so grateful to you for making the effort you describe and for being so forthcoming about your own thorny relationship with your dad. I’m also very grateful for those black-and-white drawings. You are an acclaimed visual artist and by depicting Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs, you somehow condense our stereotypes of the animals and the humans and remind us of them without having to constantly reword or qualify them. You are not afraid to evoke those stereotypes either, and the fact that they’re politically incorrect does not detract from their effectiveness.

Thus your medium leaves you free to concentrate on what happens when your characters converse and what is going on in the background. Your

Yinglish Word

Yinglish Word

father’s speech with its overtones of Yiddish and Polish is familiar to me even though my parents’ English was uninflected. It becomes clear in your dad’s transactions with you that his life experiences have left their mark on his everyday acts: eating, sleeping, talking, managing money, and relating to those he loves. To be a survivor is no cakewalk. So it follows that to be, like you, the offspring of two Holocaust survivors, one of whom killed herself, isn’t either.

Although I am very glad I read Maus I and II, I am also glad it didn’t take me too long. I didn’t want to linger in those trains and trucks or at Auschwitz or even in your dad and Mala’s kitchen in Rego Park or their cabin in the Catskills. Reading your books is a little like looking at scans of one’s broken bones or a suspicious cluster of cells. One wants to know the worst and yet one doesn’t, so one looks quickly. I did not dwell on your illustrations but scanned them as I read the dialogue in the balloons and in the rectangular spaces enclosing your dad’s narrative interjections.

While reading I was very aware of your scribbling notes or taping your dad’s answers to your questions. I share with you the desire to preserve the past, especially the Jewish past, as it was actually experienced by those who lived it. That’s why I relied heavily on oral histories of Seattle Jews archived by the Washington State Jewish Historical Society at the University of Washington when researching material for The Bones and the Book.

Pulitzer Prize

Pulitzer Prize

I suspect that my parents would have to admit that by telling your father’s story so graphically, you have done us all a great service. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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

Dear President Obama,

Dreams from My Father

Dreams from My Father

To celebrate your winning a second term in the White House, I read your memoir Dreams from My Father. I enjoyed it very much not only because I’m a supporter of yours or because you’re president, but because your family history and early adventures make a great American story and you tell it clearly and with grace. Your book is subtitled A Story of Race and Inheritance, and in the Introduction you explain that you opted to tell the story of your life rather than to compose an essay on race relations and civil rights. I’m grateful you made that choice. I’ll take a story over a lecture any time. Part of what makes your memoir moving is your candor and insight into how you were shaped by seemingly random events in the lives of your grandparents and parents. Their experiences took place long ago and far away and you learned of them through stories and, in turn, they sparked the longer story that you embrace as your inheritance.

Stories glow throughout this book, sometimes as brightly as my halogen desk lamp and other times dimly in the background like distant stars. You learn ofHalogen Desk lamp

Halogen Desk lamp

your mostly absent father through stories that were “compact, apocryphal, told in rapid succession in the course of one evening

Distant Star

Distant Star

then packed away for months, sometimes years, in my family’s memory.”  The story of your mom and dad’s interracial romance and marriage is another one you weave into an heirloom American tapestry. And so it goes. Everyone in your family, everyone you meet, has a story and you share these so your reader comes to appreciate your ability and willingness to listen to and understand other people. Contradictory as it seems, your own story is not all about you.

I admire your dogged efforts to know your elusive father and to include him in your life and your life story even though you discover him to be less than perfect. Your attention to the stories of others, especially your relatives, makes me wish I’d paid closer attention to stories my mother told and probed her for details before it was too late. She rarely discussed her family history or her own early life except to say that on hot summer nights she and her brother slept on their Newark, NJ fire escape, that this brother died in WWI,

Poppy in Flanders Field

Poppy in Flanders Field

and that after their mother died, their father remarried and this stepmother was also dead. When I was about ten years old, I asked what these women died of, and my mother replied tersely, “He worked them both to death.” This Simon Legree was hard for me to reconcile with the devoted grandfather, or Beanpa as I called him, who lived with us. He was my Monopoly and Canasta opponent, the man who walked me to and from school until I was old enough to go by myself, the same benefactor who bought me a white organdy party dress embroidered with baby blue flowers. I deeply regret not ever pressing my mother for details even if they threatened my little-girlish world view. I might have understood her better.

You make complex concepts and experiences vividly accessible without oversimplifying or condescending to your readers. For example, when you describe your early inattentiveness to the fact that you are biracial, you say, “That my father looked nothing like the people around me ─that he was black as pitch, my mother white as milk─ barely registered in my mind.” When, a few paragraphs later, you introduce the term miscegenation, the reader is prepared to follow your one paragraph history of interracial marriage in America. This ability to express complexity clearly and interestingly to a wide audience is crucial to presidents, and they don’t all have it.

Black Writer

Black Writer

Your communicative competence helped during your tenure as a community organizer, another part of your life I especially enjoyed learning about. Reading of how you struggled and occasionally failed and how you admitted each failure and learned from it made me more tolerant of my own struggles as a teacher and, more recently, as a writer.  Those same communication skills and your Kenyan ancestry enable you to feel at home in a variety of international settings and in several languages. You are truly a man of the world, the whole world.

You self-identify as a black American, so it’s fair for me to compare your coming of age story with some others I’ve read by other talented black male writers who came before you and before

March on Washington    1963

March on Washington 1963

major civil rights legislation in this country: Frederick Douglas, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Malcolm X, and Claude Brown. Like their prose, yours occasionally reflects the references and rhythms of the black preacher. But, you are not enraged, hungry, addicted, or given to religious extremism. Your fleeing father did not leave you without family, and your mother, stepfather and grandparents did not mistreat you but nurtured you instead. You hardly feel invisible or unmanned. On the contrary, your bicultural, biracial, multilingual, splintered extended family and somewhat nomadic upbringing have made you strong and given you the perspectives of both outsider and insider wherever you happen to be. And you’re a terrific writer.  I can’t wait to read the books you write when your term as president ends. Meanwhile, thank you for this one.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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

Dear Jamaica Kincaid,

See Now Then  A Novel

See Now Then
A Novel

I didn’t exactly enjoy reading your controversial book See Now Then: A Novel, but I’m glad I read it and glad that you persevered for the decade it took

Trophy Wife

Trophy Wife

you to complete it. Some reviewers panned it as a purely personal fusillade of fury aimed solely at exposing and humiliating your socially prominent ex-husband after he dumped you. I see it differently. To me, your book is fueled by the pain and rage of all the powerless, and who is more powerless than the middle-aged wife and mother, dumped in favor of a younger woman? I’ll tell you who: the brown-skinned, middle-aged, immigrant wife and mother who lost the love of her own mother and is dumped in favor of a whiter, younger woman. Such a dumpee is the epitome of powerlessness─ unless she’s a really good writer. And you are such a writer.

You’ve always been able to express scathing sentiments in the perfect, grammatical sentences of the English schoolgirl, a reflection of the British education you received on Antigua when it was Briton’s colony. My students, many from islands in the Caribbean, and I used to marvel over how brilliantly you skewered Brits and Antiguans both. You attacked the former for displacing Antiguan culture with Anglican mores, books, and history and the latter for keeping the worst aspects of colonial rule after the colonizers were long gone but letting their excellent library and educational system decay. You even managed to work your distaste for colonialism into your books on gardening such as My Garden (Book). Who else would look at a hollyhock growing in Vermont and recall harvesting cotton as a child in Antigua?

Antiguan Stamp 1942

Antiguan Stamp 1942

And you’ve always written movingly and, often angrily, of characters and events that are recognizably and unabashedly autobiographical. You did not spare your mom or your brothers from your acid critiques. So it’s not surprising that the defection of your husband, son of your onetime American benefactor and father of your kids, should inspire a novel that reads like a cri du coeur from your own hurt and hurting heart of domestic and erotic darkness. It took creativity and guts to fashion an unusual novel from the ruins of your abandonment.

Heracles

Heracles

Your use of names and mythology is provocative. Mr. and Mrs. Sweet are often anything but and their progeny, the “young Heracles” and the “beautiful

Persephone

Persephone

Persephone,” have twisted versions of the qualities that make their namesakes memorable. The athletic Heracles suffers from ADD and his affection for the plastic soldiers that come with Happy Meals borders on addiction. Persephone, daddy’s girl, is easy to imagine reigning in the netherworld when, old enough to know better, she curses her mother for doing the writing that helps finance their middle class lifestyle.

Fueled by fury, your novel is powerful, your sentences Faulknerian tirades crammed with surreal snapshots of life as seen through the eyes of your third person narrator and through those of the Sweets. Mr. Sweets envisions his “beastly,” “bitchy” wife decapitated, her severed head greeting him on the yellow Formica counter in their kitchen. Mrs. Sweet envisions her spouse as a balding rodent, scurrying around filled with loathing for her, for their son, and for life in their New England village. She also envisions herself as deformed with a crooked spine, bent shoulders, too-long legs, and flared nostrils resting “like a deflated tent” on her “wide fat cheeks.” You even articulate the adolescent Heracles and Persephone’s hatred of their mom’s writing life so the reader can see how they curse the very vocation which has sustained their family and how much they fear her power to expose them.

Power of the Pen

Power of the Pen

I suspect conjuring up and articulating your own version of the violent imaginings of all these characters required you to call upon your store of writer’s power. This power is not the fleeting edge granted to the young and beautiful, but rather it is the lasting power of the really good novelist. Like many male authors who have fictionalized their relatives in the process of asserting authorial power, you have hung up an imaginary version of your family’s dirty wash to dry in the front yard of your book and in so doing, you too have created memorable fictional characters who live and breathe fire on the page.

Astronomical Clock

Astronomical Clock

And these characters will live on, and that is partly what, I think, your book is about. The present, or Now of your title, eventually morphs into the past and becomes the Then, only a memory, as subjective and fleeting as love itself unless it gets captured and crystallized on the page. Not every dumped ex-wife has the writing chops to do this, but you do. You turn your pain into potent prose images that linger in the hearts of your readers. I will remember your novel and use it as a lesson in how to make a powerful story, a modern Grimm’s fairy tale complete with ogres and witches, out of a lousy situation. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, feminist fiction, Immigrant story, Uncategorized