Originally posted on my blog Guiltless Reading
Reflect, ruminate, feel, re-read. Repeat.
My two cents: I have been reading this slim book of essays on and off for two months. I couldn't rush through it. It is one of those books that you read a few pages a time, ruminate upon, reread, and then potentially regroup. If you're looking for a diversion or some escape, this isn't it. If you're looking for a something with some real meat, and want to be challenged, provoked ... and you want to feel, then consider picking this up.
At times I admit I felt a little embarrassed as I felt that the author was baring his soul, as many of the essays are so deeply personal -- from this thoughts on losing his wife, his reminisces of fatherhood, to his beliefs on how education conditions us, to religion, to his favourite movies ... and even to his skirmishes with book bloggers!
The essays are diverse as is Freese's style. He can be succinct, delivering his blows in a few quick strokes, or he can meander on a bit then make his point, if at all. The book has three main sections:
-"Knowledge is death" comprised of 19 essays drawing from his years as a therapist, an educator and a writer, and his thoughts on religion, on being Jewish and the Holocaust;
- Metaphorical Noodles comprised of 7 essays, dealing mainly with movies and books; and
- The Seawall comprised of 10 essays mainly about family life and recollections.
If you have read Freese's Down to a Sunless Sea, in this book he refers quite a bit to some of the short stories, lending a bit more insight on those short stories. (I also highly recommend you check these stories out!)
Whatever the essay, he is uncompromising on his thoughts and beliefs that have taken him a lifetime to ruminate upon and to verbalize through his writings. What strikes me most is that he obviously does not write to please the reader, he writes to please himself. He could definitely piss people off. (And warning: don't expect politically correct language - he calls it what it is!) But then, that is what is so good about this book!
You become Freese's reader, student, confidant. He obviously doesn't need you to agree, but he does want to provoke you.
As I was reading this, I started remembering conversations with my grandfather where he would say what he wanted to about a life lived. A simple man of few words, the truths that he revealed in those talks still remain with me. Yes, expect some warm fuzzies.
And as quickly as I started to warm up to Freese, he turned devil's advocate and transformed into one of my former professors -- someone who challenged me to challenge my beliefs -- making me uncomfortable at the least, even angry, or sheepish as the case may be. On some occasions I agree, on others, it not an agreement without a fight. Other times, it's just a total rejection.
You'll feel like you've picked Freese's mind after having finished this! He'll get some reaction from you, I can assure you!
The essays that most resonated with me dealt mainly with Freese's family life.
Self-examination about his life and growing old in "At 67":
I don't feel, or I don't believe, that my core self is any different than it was at forty. Inside I am still me, narrow here, expansive there, emotionally stingy for that, largesse for that. I am still impatient with others, aging has not moderated that. I ask myself here, what is it I want from aging? Does it provide solace or sorrow, or should I experience some kind of generativity which Erik Erikson spoke of, the capacity for giving one's wisdom, the whole ball of wax and human lint we accrete from a lifetime's living? - p.8
I felt immensely sad when he talks about his daughter, her battle with Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome ("About Caryn"), and how he lost her to suicide and ("I Had a Daughter Once").
Coming from a family of educators, I also found the essays on being an educator fascinating. "Teachers Have No Chance to Give Their Best" examines what the education has done to dull, rather than sharpen minds, to encourage conformism rather than vision. I found myself nodding to many of his points and am passing it along.
The essay "On Reading Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great" struck a chord in me. Freese subtitles this "How Religion Poisons Everything" and looks into some very touchy territory (you have been warned):
Hitchens repeatedly makes the telling comment --and obvious one, at that -- that all religions are man-made. Once you creep into that, see its merit, you then can see that religion is the cause of crusades, jihads, circumcision, resurrection, the three Magi, the Virgin Mary, Mohammad fling away on his horse, the Conquistadores, ghettoes, and forevermore. I once had a conversation with a close friend who I connected to because he was open and fairly liberal. We spoke about religion. I felt free to do that with him. I asked if he believed in ghouls. No response required. he chuckled. I went on, How about vampires? Witches? Flying carpets? Dragons? Ghosts? Finally, he asked me to get to the point. I did. And yet I told him, you believe in a preacher about 2,000 years ago who is a conflation of myths and never existed, actually rose and was resurrected [..]
And lastly, if you're a book blogger (read: me), "At Personal Posturings: Yahoos as Bloggers" may be of interest as Freese as an author tells it like it is. It made me laugh out loud. But it also made me realize that book bloggers and authors do a very strange little dance and regardless, are simply human. You'll get nice bloggers and some not-so-nice bloggers ... and vice versa.
These thoughts spring from a mere first reading. I am sure that I will be rereading the essays once again and will find some more nuggets in there -- because this is one of those books which you can read and re-read and come out with even more great finds.
A challenging, provoking, and entertaining read that will get you thinking and examining your beliefs. An immensely satisfying read if you decide to stop and ruminate. What comes to mind is the old adage: An unexamined life is not worth living. I envy Mathias Freese as he is obviously living and living well.
First line: I was casually informed a year after the fact by the editor of Grafitti that my short story "Herbie" published in that magazine was listed in Martha Foley's The Best American Short Stories of 1975 under "Distinctive Short Stories of 1974."
Last line: I advocate you rummage for yourself after forty years.
This book is a keeper. Full review on my blog soon!