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Dear Blog Readers,

The Bones and the Book

This fall finds me in bookstores and libraries talking about The Bones and the Book.  When I’m not actually visiting a bookstore or library, I’m arranging to do so. So I’ll be taking a break from posting notes to my muses until the New Year.

Meanwhile I hope that you’ll read The Bones and the Book. There’s a synopsis of it, some comments from reviewers, and info about how and where to order it on my web site (www.JaneIsenberg.com). If you live in the Puget Sound area, you’ll also find there a list of venues where I’ll be speaking and or signing.

Thanks for following my blog. I look forward to a reunion in 2013.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg.

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Dear Robert B. Parker,

Hugger Mugger

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

occasions be mistaken for the proverbial teddy bear

Teddy Bear

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

Jon Stewart

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

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

Wise-ass

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

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

Boston Map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breakfast

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

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

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under feminist fiction, Humorous fiction, mystery, Uncategorized

Dear P.D. James,

Cover Her Face

I’ve recently attended my fiftieth Vassar reunion, an occasion designed to recall memories of 1962 when life waited like an exquisitely wrapped wedding

Reunion!

gift I just knew held something special. At a pre-reunion get-together our hostess got out the obligatory yearbook, and we passed it around, marveling at the fresh-faced girls we’d been. After I relinquished the book, I glanced at my old friends clustered around the coffee table. In that second, I saw us as we’d been five decades ago, our faces yet unmarked by experience, wisdom, or time. Not surprisingly we spent much of the weekend reliving what life was really like for young women in 1962, so it’s no wonder that when I returned home, I sought out my copy of your very first mystery, Cover Her Face, which came out that year.

Wedding Gift

Unwed Mother

You really nailed 1962. In this novel, you dramatize people’s ambivalence about the social changes sweeping England and America. The victim, housemaid Sally Judd, is thought to be an unwed mother and she is not the only woman indulging in premarital sex. Sally’s announcement of her engagement to the son of the landed Maxie family for whom she works heralds class co-mingling of the sort that became more common during the Sixties. Sally herself, described by a former employer as “Pretty, intelligent, ambitious, sly, and insecure” was also something of a drama queen with a penchant for embarrassing the powerful. In the end, it is this leaning that puts her in harm’s way. In fact, it puts her in the path of another woman equally bent on keeping power in the hands of the gentry where it had always been. And so, we end with a young woman dead and an older one going to prison.

The good news for women in Cover Her Face is the realization of loyal and sensible nurse Catherine Bower that she’d rather be single than continue her

Nurse

dubious relationship with the callow Stephen Maxie. For a woman in an English novel to turn away a suitor was still a revolutionary act, more like Brontë’s Jane Eyre than Austen’s Lydia Bennett. But the not very pretty Catherine is a new woman. She has a profession and doesn’t need to tie herself to a loser to live comfortably. And you do reward her with a worthier liaison later on. Cover Her Face is full of well-drawn characters who reflect their time and place very convincingly.

So my post-reunion return to the early 1960s was more than facilitated by revisiting your debut novel. And so was my need to lose myself in a good mystery, a book that would take me far from health concerns, news of our sad world, and my obligations to e-mail and Facebook. In Cover Her Face, you offer a puzzle worthy of Dame Agatha. And to help us solve it, you introduce Scotland Yard’s Detective Chief-Inspector Adam Dalgleish. He is a “tall, dark, and handsome” man who looks before he speaks, views the body and the crime scene before interviewing the family, and is known for his “ruthless” and “unorthodox” approach to bringing criminals to justice. He proved to be a keeper, and I followed his career and personal life with interest in subsequent books. And I followed your career too as you continued to fill your books with issues and characters emblematic of the changing times.

Time to Be in Earnest

Your socially relevant and carefully crafted novels inspire me as I dream up mysteries of my own. And your life as you recall it in Time to Be in Earnest

Working Mom

inspires me as well. For, like me, you were a working mom who came to writing later in life with a healthy respect for genre fiction. And you are still writing today! Bravo, Baroness and thank you!

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under British mystery, feminist fiction, Historical mystery, mystery, Uncategorized

Dear Allegra Goodman,

The Cookbook Collector

I finished reading The Cookbook Collector on the eve of Facebook’s IPO. Normally the workings of the stock market and its boy wonders barely graze the

Irene Rosenfeld, CEO of Kraft Foods

underbelly of my radar. But in your stunning novel, you took me on a dramatic and accessible tour through the tail end of the Nineties’dot.com heyday. Better yet, one of the best, brightest, and most bent on success CEOs is actually wonder woman, Emily Bach, MBA. If that weren’t reward enough for this feminist, by your story’s end, Emily turns out to be a Jewish woman!

Also making news while I was reading The Cookbook Collector was the ongoing struggle of book publishers and independent book sellers to remain relevant and profitable enough to stay in business even as self-publishing and monopolization threaten to displace them. But in your novel, old print books are highly prized items, sought after by the retired Microsoft millionaire, antiquarian bookstore owner George Friedman.

Old Cookbook

Rare old books also intrigue the grad student who works for him, Emily Bach’s younger sister Jess. You see to it that each sister has a love affair born in the context of her work. Emily is engaged to another ambitious and highly competitive dot.com CEO who turns out to be traitorous and whom you severely punish. But you reward Jess and George when they fall in love, their relationship nourished by the beautiful well-used cookbooks they explore. Admittedly biased by the fact that I’m a writer, I interpreted their lovely wedding as your endorsement of books over bucks. Bravo!

Rain

So how do you make a novel about business into a literary triumph and a page turner? It’s partly your scope which is broad enough to include not only the dot com bubble, the events and aftermath of 9/11, two love stories, and a few Bialystok Jews and environmentalists, but it’s also your prose and pacing. You layer precise and often wryly comic insights and images in such a way as to repeat important themes without seeming repetitive. In your opening paragraph you violate the rule cautioning writers not to begin their novels with descriptions of the weather by describing a September rainstorm in Silicon Valley. After a brief lovely word picture of the storm, you add, “Like money the rain came in a rush, enveloping the bay, delighting forecasters, exceeding expectations, charging the air.” The two words, Like money turn your initial paragraph from a beautifully phrased weather report to a reminder of the rush of the quick buck and how, like rain, money can stop coming and give way to devastating drought.  This comparison, unexpected itself, also reminded this reader of the danger of unrealistic expectations. After reading this one crucial paragraph, I was eager to meet the characters who people a world where money rains down and then, perhaps, dries up. And you keep up the pace, firing big ideas at us in few well-chosen words and encapsulating big moments in swift-moving prose-poetry.

Kaaterskill Falls

The Family Markowitz

I look to your books for inspiration and I find it in this novel just as I found it in The Family Markowitz and Kaaterskill Falls. Those two very good earlier works of yours

legitimized my urge to someday write a book centered on specifically Jewish themes and characters. They were among the novels that moved me to write The Bones and the Book.  But The Cookbook Collector becomes an overtly “Jewish novel” only near the end when Emily and Jess discover that their long dead mother was Jewish. This unexpected plot twist illustrates how a writer can integrate Jewish characters and themes into stories that, like modern American Jews, have finally escaped ghettos and restricted neighborhoods and now turn up almost everywhere.

I also appreciate your affectionate and empathic treatment of the Bialystok Jews whom you might have satirized for their messianic zeal, gender bias, and old fashioned get-ups. But instead you focus on their talent for community building and ancestral memory, not to mention fund raising. For it is the Bialystok rabbi who makes his initial investment, not in the market but in Jess, a human being who needs a loan. I found it extremely ironic that his relatively small investment of $1,800, a meaning-laden number in the Jewish tradition, pays off not only spiritually, but financially as well.

The Cookbook Collector is a wonderful read and has already broadened the scope of my next book. Again, bravo and thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Deborah Feldman,

Unorthodox

Oy vey! That’s what I kept exclaiming as I read your moving memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Story of My Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. Thank you for having the guts and persistence to get it published. Remember how you had to hide books under your bed or in your underwear drawer because

Girl Reading Max Hendrick Sketch

Hasidic girls aren’t supposed to read anything but their prayer books? Well, Ms. Feldman, I bet many of those girls are now stashing copies of Unorthodox under their beds or burrowing them among their heavy high socks and panties. For some of these teens, unwitting hostages in a repressive and cloistered community, your memoir will be a validation of their own “unacceptable” perceptions. And for a few of these same girls it will be a road map out.

In Unorthodox, the devil really does show his medieval misogynistic face in the details. Who knew that according to the Talmud, Rachel, righteous wife of renowned Rabbi Akiva, stuck pins in her legs to prevent her skirt from billowing up and exposing those legs?

Marilyn Monroe-Skirt Billowing

Or that girls at your high school are treated to a daily “modesty lecture” where this masochistic act is cited as exemplary? Or that married women, have to prove they are no longer menstruating/“impure” by submitting numerous unstained white cloths to a rabbi for inspection? I found your detailed critique sadly instructive.

Your gift for description sneaks me into the closed world you fled. So I’m with you on that day you’re happy to be sent home from school to modify your dress: “The moment when the spring sunshine hits my face is like the taste of Zeidy’s Kiddush wine, my first breath of fresh air a long slow tingle down my throat.” And your depiction of your relationship with yourself and with God after your flight from Hasidism reads like poetry. “I have come home to myself, and God is no longer a prescription for paradise but an ally in my heart.”

Your family history needs no embellishment to be prime memoir material. Your lesbian mom left the Hasidic world without you, and your dad is developmentally disabled  and mentally ill. Being raised by your ideologue grandfather, your Holocaust-scarred grandmother, and your materialistic and controlling aunt was, at best, a poor fallback position. With no reading of books or newspapers, no TV, little contact with male age mates, and a lot of negative and erroneous information about your body, how were you supposed to be prepared to have sex let alone enjoy it? And those pre-marital sex ed sessions you endured were worse than useless. No wonder you didn’t know where your vagina was and, when your husband proved similarly clueless, no wonder there was literally no there there for either of you. Your frankly clinical account of your efforts to figure out your own body is chilling.

Hasidic Bride En Route to Wedding

In fact, a lot of what you say about life as a Williamsburg Satmar is disturbing. And seeing our stained Jewish linens billowing in the wind feeds my fear of anti-Semitism, an ongoing threat. A modern Reform Jewish feminist, I still feel guilty when writing Jewish bad guys and gals because I hear my mother’s whispered warnings sounding in my ears. Her whispers became shouts when I was writing The Bones and the Book because not all the Jews in that novel behave well. Some are downright criminal. With my dead mother kicking up such a ruckus in my head, it was very hard for me to implicate even those fictional characters, so I can only imagine how difficult it has been for you to expose the community where you grew up. But even my mother would acknowledge that, kept hidden, soiled laundry eventually reeks.

Bravo! You speak for other women rendered powerless in a community of damaged men who see women primarily as breeders and domestic servants. Inspired by you and other female Jewish authors, I’ll continue to mine our rich tradition and tell women’s versions of the stories I find there.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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