Book Review: And Then I Am Gone-A Walk with Thoreau by Mathias B Freese

and-then-i-am-gone-book-cover-200x300

There is one thing people realize once they come to their “twilight” years. They have more of a past than a future. This is a time when they often take stock of their lives – good, the bad and the ugly. Writer, teacher and psychotherapist Mathias B. Freese is one these people, and now he shares his journey in his thoughtful memoir And Then I Am Gone: A Walk with Thoreau.

Thoreau, of course is Henry David Thoreau author of the classic Walden Pond, which many of us probably read back in high school. For Freese, Thoreau is a muse who guides him during his journey of self-examination. Ultimately Freese is asking himself, not the cliché “What is the meaning of life?” but “What is the meaning of my life.”

And Then I Am Gone is divided into two parts. Part one sets up the tone for the book and provides several chapters focusing on moving to Alabama, finding happiness with Nina, a past love affair, his relationship with his children and his own childhood, his thoughts on Trump, writer Norman Mailer, the movie Citizen Kane, and Thoreau as therapy. Part two focuses on Freese’s new life in a new home, his journey with Thoreau and coming to grips with his own mortality.

Born and bred in New York City, Freese is a secular Jewish man now living in Alabama with his southern belle, Nina, an Irish-American Roman Catholic. Not surprisingly, Freese finds country life below the Mason-Dixon line a complete cultural shock and often has difficulty navigating a world so different from the hustle and bustle of city life. However, it does force him to come to grips with his past. Freese has had success with his professional life, but his personal life was often in shambles. Childhood was difficult with a mother suffering with mental illness. Freese has been married and divorced a few times, and is also estranged from his daughter but is closer to his son Jordan.

Okay, Thoreau. Just what is life all about, hmm? Freese wants to know, You wrote a damn book about it. Surely you’ve got the goods. Now pony up!

Freese has questions and Thoreau provides answers, which often leads to Freese having more questions. Needless, say this can be quite maddening, which often leaves Freese feeling downright pessimistic.

But as I kept reading And Then I Am Gone, I thought to myself. Well, maybe we’re not always meant to have all the answers to our questions after we ask them, whether we ask Thoreau, our best friend, a therapist, our horoscope or a stranger on the street. At times those answers will leave us not exactly happy or more confused than before. Or sometimes we will find clear, concise advice or wise counsel in a time of confusion (especially in one of the most messed times in our nation’s history).

I found Freese’s book to be a true inspiration as I go through my own journey of self-exploration and after year of great difficulty, self-care. There are times I look for answers and feel nothing but despair and at times I feel true joy. We’re not supposed to solve the mysteries life and just accept things are going to be murky. At times we live life to the fullest and at times we are slackers on the couch. we should just live our lives the best we can before we are shuttled off this mortal coil.

I also appreciated Freese’s vivid style of writing. He can be a curmudgeon but he’s also wise, funny, a true storyteller. And Then I Am Gone is a treasure of a book.

Now if only I had kept that copy of Walden’s Pond….

 

 

Book Review: Startup-A Novel by Doree Shafrir

The workplace always has a way to inspire a good book, and it definitely inspires author Doree Shafrir in her spot-on satirical release Start Up: A Novel.

Startup is about a collection of driven and talented millennials and how they are making their way in the world of social media, work culture, and high tech in the world of startups in New York City, a culture where often you’re only as good as your last tweet and a text read by the wrong person can ruin people’s careers. However, it is also a novel that examines the complex relationships between men and women, both professionally and personally, and all too relatable no matter what generation you got slid into (FYI-I’m a card-carrying member of Generation X).

The world of startups is one that both baffles me and intrigues me even though I’ve spent some time in newly formed entrepreneurial organizations. Sometimes I hear the word “startup” and I feel my blood turn into icy cold rivers. A lot of the startup culture seems to be about making something out of nothing valuable or meaningful to our society. Yet, at the same time one of my favorite shows is Startup on PBS, which examines new companies and entrepreneurs who are creating products and/or services that are creative, useful, and add value to their communities.

Sadly, the latter doesn’t seem to be the startup in Shafrir’s novel, but does it make for a fun and witty read.

Startup focuses on several characters, who are both infuriating and intriguing. There is Mack McAllister, the CEO of the startup Slack who is having an affair with Isabel Taylor, one of his employees. There is Katya Pasternack, a tough reporter for a high tech media publication and her boss, managing editor Dan Blum. And then there is Dan’s wife, Sabrina Choe Blum, back to work at the startup, trying to fit in and get back to speed after several years as a stay at home mom.

Mack may seem to be on the top of the world as CEO, but in reality he is lonely so he hooks up with Isabel. Isabel is initially fine with the casual hook ups she has with Mack but is now at the point where she wants their sexy time to stop and get back on track to focusing on her career.

Katya, sees several texts sent from Mack to Isabel on Isabel’s phone at a networking party. Three of these texts feature Mack’s fully-engorged member saying, “don’t tell me u don’t miss this.” Katya wonders if she should she ignore the texts or should she publish the photos and write an exposé that could blow up the entire world of Slack, not to mention the careers of both Mack and Isabel. Gee, which option do you think she’ll pick? I bet you can figure that out.

Meanwhile, Dan is at this tether at both the tech magazine and with his marriage and home life. He just figures he is worth of more respect by both his colleagues, especially Katya and his wife Sabrina.

And poor Sabrina feels in over her head at her new job; she feels a bit out of the loop when it comes to her tech savvy, eternally smart phone watching and social media updating co-workers and questions how she measures up.

Furthermore, she’s got a shopping addiction and the credit card bills to show for it. She tries to hide this addiction (not to mention the bills) from her hubby Dan. To pay for her bills, Sabrina starts selling her dirty undies on-line and actually gets a nice cash flow coming in. Yes, it sounds disgusting but everybody has their kinks and Sabrina is just providing a product some people are willing to buy.

From the opening line of Startup to the last closing line, I found myself caught up in the whirlwind of these characters’ lives both professionally and personally. Though a lot of them made some bad decisions, I truly had their best interests at heart. I wanted things to work out for all involved, and I could relate to a lot of their problems. Yes, even Sabrina selling her unmentionables. Nope, I’m not going to sell my dirty dainties on Craigslist, but I have been told more than once I should make extra money via phone sex due to having a “hot and sexy” speaking voice.

But I digress…

In the hands of a lesser writer, these characters could be written in broad non-dimensional strokes, the men all douchebro cads, the women all overly ambitious shrews or weak milquetoasts. But all are fully-dimensional. You both root for them while at the same time shake your head in disgust.

Plus, I could totally relate to this novel even though I’m a generation older than the characters and live in Milwaukee, not the Big Apple. I’ve worked in the world of media and newly formed organizations. But I also dealt with these issues while working in older companies and retail establishments. It seems like the more things change , the more they stay the same. From Mad Men to the mad world of startups, Startup: A Novel is both timely and timeless.

Book Review: I’ll Take You There by Wally Lamb

I first became familiar with Wally Lamb when I read his novel She’s Come Undone many moons ago. It was an Oprah’s Book Club pick, and though I’m usually not subservient to the Big O’s charms, I decided to read Mr. Lamb’s novel and really liked it. I was delightfully surprised a man could write a female character with such understanding, richness and depth. Now years later, I am not surprised a male writer can do this, just as I’m not surprised a female writer can write a male character with the same talent and skill. All it takes is some common sense and some empathy, which are traits of good writers.

But I digress…

Now Lamb is back with his latest novel I’ll Take You There, which features one Felix Funicello, who was first introduced in Lamb’s early work Wishin’ and Hopin’.

Felix Funicello (yes, he is related to the late Annette Funicello) is a film scholar. He has an affable relationship with his ex-wife Kat and is quite close with his daughter Aliza who is a feminist-minded writer for New York Magazine.

On Monday nights, Felix hosts a Monday night film discussion group at an old vaudevillian theatre where he shows films from Hollywood’s earliest days.  There are tales that old film legends haunt the dusty nooks and crannies of this old theater, but Felix figures that just a bunch of silliness until one night he is visited by the ghost of silent movie director Lois Weber and film star Billie Dove.

At first, Felix thinks he’s going a bit nuts as most of us would if ghosts visited us. But soon Lois Weber is taking him on a nostalgic journey of both the heartbreak and bliss of Felix’s childhood.
It is during this celluloid journey where Felix relives memories that at times are trivial and silly. But he also comes to grips with one memory that seared the very psyche of the Funicello family.

One of Felix’s earliest memories is of watching the Disney move Pinocchio with his older sisters Frances and Simone. From this moment, Felix is hooked on movies and everything related to cinema and Hollywood. And somehow just knows the movies will impact him long before the final credits of Pinocchio scroll on the movie screen before him.

Another early memory for a wee Felix is the Rheingold Beer search for a spokesmodel. Now remember, this is 1950s Brooklyn. You can’t vote for your favorite Rheingold Beer candidate via social media and the company’s website. You have to vote via a ballot box, and the winner gets a host of goodies and the possibility of fame and riches, how exciting! The Funicello children take it upon themselves to hustle up some votes for their favorite candidate Dulcet Tone, who they know better as Shirley Shishmanian, a local neighborhood gal. Miss Shishmanian changes her name because Shishamanian is way too ethnic, too Armenian. I have to admit this made me giggle considering today it’s a Kardashian world, and we just live in it.

But darker times loom for Felix and his family. Frances develops a serious eating disorder that throws the Funicello’s into a distressing episode of confusion, despair and hopelessness. Felix also learns the truth about Frances’ birth, which involves a ne’er do well uncle and a fallen southern belle.

And then there is Felix in the present. Just as his past is unfolding before him, his daughter Aliza is dealing with pressing issues, both professional and personal. One issue includes writing about the Rheingold Beer model search, a topic she finds rather unsettling as a committed feminist. However, the feature she does write is not one of self-indulgent finger-wagging. It is well-researched and nuanced and I really enjoyed reading it. She also makes decisions regarding her personal life that will bring true joy to both herself and her parents.

Once again Wally Lamb has written a novel that is both thought-provoking and just a satisfying read. I’ll Take Your There, does just that, takes you there, which means in my case, reminds me why I love books so much.

Book Review: The Art of Eating In-How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove by Cathy Erway

A few years ago Cathy Erway made a decision — for two years she would not eat out in any of New York’s 41oh732dmhl-_sx330_bo1204203200_five boroughs. Instead, she would discover the pleasures of cooking and eating at home, and she’d keep a blog called Not Eating Out in New York, tracking her culinary adventures.

Her foray back into the kitchen is now chronicled in the book The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove.

I can’t imagine never eating out in New York, one of the best restaurant cities in the world. I was intrigued on how Erway was going to accomplish this monumental task. Cooking can be a lot of fun, and there is something very satisfying about eating a meal you made yourself. At the same time, cooking large meals with lots of ingredients can be time-consuming and costly, and constantly trying new recipes that are both delicious and nutritious can be a challenge.

The Art of Eating In started out strong. In the beginning, Erway gives a brief history of restaurants — the first of which began in the Middle East during the late tenth century. The first known restaurants appeared in the Western world in Paris (where else?) in 1766. Today, we have our pick of everything from fast food joints to high-end eateries anywhere in the world. Needless to say, this is having a huge impact on both our wallets and our waistlines.

Dollars and pounds aside, what Erway really wanted to do was start a blog about her project (ah yes, the blogging-your-way-to-fame tactic). She tried her hand at freeganism, dumpster diving for food restaurants and shops just throw out. She was appalled by the amount of food she found, many of it still safe to eat. Erway also foraged for edible plants at a local park.

Eventually, she got involved with New York’s supper clubs, underground clubs where people share all kinds of meals. Before long, she became semi-famous in these circles, both for her blog and for her dishes, even winning an award for her no-knead bread.

But as the book went on I found myself getting irritated, not inspired. Rarely does Erway mention a mishap in the kitchen or a recipe gone awry. Even the most seasoned gourmands make a mistake. Furthermore, despite being just out of school and nebulously employed, she seems to have oodles of money for supper club fees, exotic and expensive ingredients and fancy cookware. Never does she really break down a budget for her two-year experiment, so there’s little commentary on the economic side of the project, which would have been helpful.

Plus, every one of Erway’s friends seems to be a hipster “foodie” and completely bowled over by every single dish. This seemed highly unrealistic to me. Surely someone must have turned their noses up at something.

Furthermore, it doesn’t help that Erway’s writing is rather dry and not very engaging. After a while, I just didn’t care about her little experiment, and ordered Chinese food in protest. I would have liked to read some of her initial blog posts to compare to the actual book. Even the recipes interspersed throughout left me rather cold.

In the end, The Art of Eating In is like fast food meal — you feel stuffed, but you won’t feel satisfied.

Retro Review: Slaves of New York by Tama Janowitz

slaves-of-new-yorkHas it really been thirty years since Tama Janowitz’s collection of short stories Slaves of New York was released? I read it a several years after its initial release, and to me, a young girl who grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, Slaves of New York and Janowitz just defined the Big Apple to me, the way her WASPy peers Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney and their literary offerings never did. But then again, as a dorky, most definitely non-WASPy kind of girl, this shouldn’t surprise me.

Imagine a Pre-Guiliani New York of the 1980s. This was before Times Square was completely cleaned-up and Disney-fied, Donald Trump was just a loud and tacky business man, not the GOP candidate for president (yes, a much kinder, simpler time), “greed is good” was the mantra of every yuppie sporting slicked back hair and suspenders, the World Trade Center defined the Manhattan skyline and “Sex and The City” and “Girls” weren’t notions in the heads of Sarah Jessica Parker and Lena Dunham.

Slaves of New York is a collection of intermingled stories of struggling and hustling painters, designers, performance artists, writers, and other creative types. One creative type we meet is Eleanor who is in her late twenties and trying to make it as a jewelry designer. She lives with her boyfriend, Stash, who is a graffiti artist, temperamental and only fleetingly devoted to Eleanor, sometimes going for days without speaking to her for some minor infraction on her part.

As a jewelry designer, Eleanor feels she is a failure and is frustrated by her lack of artistic and professional success. Furthermore, she desires more of a commitment from Stash, marriage, but that is isn’t about to happen any time soon.

And even though Eleanor knows she should fully break free from Stash, find someone better and concentrate more on her jewelry designs she doesn’t. Her relationship with Stash isn’t just about love; it’s also about having a place to live. Eleanor can’t afford to pay rent all on her own; yes, the rent is too damn high!

Another slave of New York is Marley Mantello, the protagonist of five of Janowitz’s tales. Marley fashions himself of a genius painter, on the verge of being the “next big thing.” What he lacks in actual talent and skill, he makes up in sheer bravado and being a legend in his own mind. He pays no mind to those who merely orbit his universe. Yes, Marley is unbelievably obnoxious and best to be ignored if one runs into him. But there are times when tragedy befalls him, and he shows a true humanity that makes you feel a smidge of compassion, like when his sister commits suicide.

Other stories between the covers of Slaves of New York include a man who claims to be rich and takes unsuspecting women “jewelry shopping “at Tiffany’s. Why he does this, he can’t quite explain. Maybe it’s just easier to pose as an eccentric man of considerable means, rather actually be the poor guy he actually is.

Other tales told include one of man, Victor, who suffers from a cocktail of ailments, neuroses and acid reflux being just a couple of them. Cora gets involved with Ray, not for love, but through him she can a cop a decent meal now and then and some free furniture for her new apartment. She should feel guilty, especially considering she’s graduate student of women’ studies; but hey, she’s just trying to survive. And in another tale, a spoiled, rich girl, after getting expelled from college and enduring a brief marriage, dabbles in prostitution and heroin (haven’t we all?).

But for me, Slaves of New York, is Eleanor’s story. Like me, Eleanor is from a small town, both befuddled and in wonderment the city and all it has to offer. She’s desperate to fit into the artistic, creative, madcap world that surrounds her, but finds herself coming up short. She’s such a naïve lass that she doesn’t realize a fashion designer she has coffee with is gay, which reminded me how shocked I was the first time I saw two guys making out at a party even though I had no problem with gay people. And I can only imagine the look on my face when I saw some ladies snorting coke in at a dance club bathroom; I’d seen Scarface on cable, for goodness sake! And aside to my mother, I have never done coke, okay?

We now live in very different time that existed in 1986. Business moguls are now rock stars, and rock stars aspire to be moguls. Google is a verb, people don’t want to be artists, but instead they want to be brands, and we let our social media define us. Yet, Eleanor’s tale is eternal. We want to be independent, desire success, express ourselves in a creative matter, and still want the stability and security we think only a marriage will offer. Sure, at times Slaves of New York is sentimental, dated read, but I still found it entertaining and can still relate to Janowitz’s debut.

 

Book Review: Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown

modern girlsIt is New York City in 1935. On the lower east side lives Rose and her daughter, Dottie, two Jewish women living what appear to be two very different lives. Rose is an immigrant, married with four children, Dottie being the eldest. Dottie is a career woman (as much as a young lady could be a career woman in 1935). She works as a book keeper for an insurance company and is about to be promoted to the head of her department and looks forward to attending college. She’s also being romanced by a nice young man named Abe.

As different as their lives seem, Rose and Dottie share a secret. They are both pregnant. And they aren’t exactly thrilled about the news. Now that she’s older and her children are nearly grown, Rose has a huge desire to get back into the activism that captivated her in her youth. Plus, her family is challenged enough with four children. Her childbearing days should be over.

As for Dottie? Well, for one thing, she is unmarried and Abe hasn’t put a “ring on it.” Oh, and there is the pesky fact that Abe is not the father. Dottie has been impregnated by a dastardly rake named Willie Klein, a fledgling journalist who wants to write stories about the turmoil that is taking over Europe, not settling down with a wife and a young mouth to feed.

Each chapter Dottie and Rose trade off, telling their stories in first person. We get their perspectives on their lives, their predicaments they face and the journeys they go through before they reach the final decisions that will shape their futures.

Dottie tries to find a reasonable solution to her unexpected pregnancy. She can’t tell Willie. He’d probably just run off, and besides, they’re not betrothed to each other. It was just one night…a night Dottie remembers was one of deep passion, which aroused an erotic awakening in her that she wonders if sweet Abe could ever muster if he could get past a few virtuous kisses and some chaste hugs.

Knowing she can’t keep her little secret a secret as her body blossoms with pregnancy, Dottie conjures up a plan to seduce Abe when they go on a week-end get away to a place called Camp Eden, a week-end that will rely on a bit of alcohol and a lot of seduction on Dottie’s part. She can’t face the idea of being a single mother to a bastard child. It would be a shandeh (Yiddish for shame or embarrassment to my fellow gentiles). As for abortion or adoption? Dottie also thinks of these two options, but they leave her feeling just as confused.

And then there are Dottie’s dreams for the future. Being a whiz at math, Dottie loves her job as a bookkeeper (despite a few sketchy co-workers) and desires a college education when often women didn’t even make it to high school (my maternal grandmother never did). But thanks to Rose, a college education might be a real option for Dottie…if only she wasn’t facing an unplanned pregnancy.

As for Rose, as much as she loves her family and arises to the challenges of making her small tenement apartment a home, which includes making the Friday evening meal, the shabbes, she knows there is so much out there. She hungers for the life she had when she was younger, the life that included embracing activism and social justice, especially when it comes to her fellow Jewish immigrants. But how can she embrace the passions of her youth if she has another child to take care of? What will she do?

Though Modern Girls starts a bit slow but once it gets going it is truly a compelling read. Dottie and Rose are two very engrossing characters facing huge choices at a time when women’s lives were so much more constricted than they are now. And yet at the same time, I found their options, dreams, fears, ideas and desires to very timely. Women, whether they be traditional “Roses” or contemporary “Dotties” face these enduring issues in 2016 (I’d like to know what they would think of the possibility of female president, which we might just get if Hillary Clinton gets elected and let’s not forget, Bernie Sanders, a Jewish man, also ran for president).

In the end, both Rose and Dottie make two very distinct decisions that are the best for the time and the predicaments they face. And instead of everything being wrapped up in a neat little bow, the reader is left hanging. How will Rose and Dottie’s lives turn out?

But Brown leaves us guessing, and that’s one of the reasons why I liked Modern Girls so much. It left the futures of both Dottie and Rose up to me, and I wished them nothing but happiness, but I also want a sequel to Modern Girls. Brown is a very talented writer, with a wonderful way of using both English and Yiddish, showing not telling the worlds Dottie and Rose exist, and making Dottie and Rose such multi-dimensional and captivating characters. It’s a great read and one that will inspire much conversation, and ideal pick if you belong to a book discussion group

 

Book Review: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P by Adelle Waldman

NateLIt often amazes me how writers can get into the minds of people quite different from themselves and write about them in compelling and interesting ways. Wisconsin-based writer Jennifer Morales did this with her collection of short stories in Meet Me Halfway: Milwaukee Stories. Matthew Dicks did this with his novel The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs. Now Adele Waldman does this in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

Meet Nathaniel Piven, or Nate to his friends and lovers. Without a doubt those of us of the gentler sex are quite familiar with Nate. We have dated them. Some of us have even married a Nate. Who is Nate? Nate is a thirty-something freelance writer living and loving in Brooklyn awaiting the release of his first novel. A majority of his friends are also writers and other assorted creative types. He is also one of the most maddening man-types—the nice guy/douchebag hybrid—the type of guy who has frustrated womankind since the beginning of time.

The nice guy part is the Nate that chooses to be with women are smart, educated and have their own aspirations and ambitions. The douchebag side rejects basically decent women for minor infractions like jiggly upper arms, professional difficulties or showing the wee bit of anger or sadness. In other words, how dare Nate’s girlfriends being actual human beings. And it doesn’t help that one of Nate’s best friends is the detestable Jason, a total jerk who thinks no women is worth it unless she is supermodel hot and has an IQ somewhere hovering around room temperature. Unfortunately, Nate takes Jason’s so-called counsel way too seriously instead of making up his own mind like a grown man should.

At this point Nate is dating Hannah. Hannah is also a writer and is currently struggling with finishing a book proposal for her own book (often writing a book proposal can be more difficult than writing the actual book. Hannah is bright, engaging and seems to have no problem keeping up with Nate’s coterie of literary friends who they hang out with at parties, coffee shops, bars and local restaurants. Like any other woman, Hannah has her own faults (like jiggly arms—the nerve). And she often lets her lack of self-esteem color her decisions like her relationship with Nate, staying with him for far too long. At times, I said to myself, “Hannah, kick Nate to the curb. You deserve so much better.” Of course, I had to take a hard look at myself and examine my own questionable romantic choices.

But back to Nate. While dating Hannah, Nate muses about the girlfriends he had before Hannah including his girlfriends from high school and college (Nate never fails to remind the reader he went to Harvard) to woman he dated before Hannah. Throughout these passages Nate ponders why he was drawn to these women and dated them while being only too quick to point out the qualities that made them only Ms. Right Now, not Ms. Right. Sure, many of these ladies probably weren’t the type to be the Mrs. to Mr. Piven, but a lot of them seemed perfectly decent and quite lovely. And it’s not as if Nate wasn’t a mere Mr. Right Now to some exes and not Mr. Right. But Nate is a bit too self-absorbed at times to realize that he is part of the relationship equation and he has plenty of work to do to be an ideal husband.

Does Nate stay with Hannah or does he look for greener pastures when it comes to the fairer sex? Well, you’ll just have to read the book. Though at times a frustrating, Nate is an absorbing character. Adelle Waldman expertly writes about a man who at turns is both simple and complex. I also appreciated how she captured the world of freelance writers, publishers, authors and other creative types that populate the Big Apple. And though I live in flyover country I could totally relate to writer scene that makes up Nate’s friends, one of support and competition, pretentious and neuroticism.

And I must admit The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P made me take a hard look at myself and all the time I wasted on the Nates in my life. No doubt female readers of this book will have their own alphabet of Nate Ps. And as for the male readers of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel, I hope this novel makes them examine their own romantic choices and examine them with more maturity and clarity.