The author asked me to read and review this book, which he described as “a kind of Bildungsroman of my psychological life as a writer, psychotherapist, spiritual seeker, and teacher”. Intrigued, I agreed.
The book is a collection of short essays in three parts. The first and longest part is indeed about the life described above. The essays in the brief second part are mostly about films and actors, while those in the third part are mostly about members of his family. Contrary to my expectations, I found the latter two parts the most interesting. The often stilted prose of the first part smoothed out and became more natural. I also felt that the author was actually trying to convey something to me, to the reader.
This blog of mine grew out of the reading journal I kept where I noted what I as a writer learned from books that I read. What I learned from this book is how important it is to revise with the reader in mind. By that I don't mean write for the market—vampire books are selling well, so that's what I'll write—but take at least one editing pass through the book reading it as your reader will. Even better, have someone whose taste and honesty you trust read it. My writing group gave me invaluable assistance in this regard, telling me where I had not provided enough information or left the reader adrift after a flashback.
In the first essay in the book, Freese recounts how an early short story of his was published in The Best American Short Stories of 1975 under another author's name, an error he was unable to correct. From this experience he “learned a remarkable truth”: that he had worth as a writer and that he did not need “the fruit” of publication or public approval. In another essay he says, “Because I need to explain myself as I sojourn, I write not to entertain (shush!). I write not to sell, convince, or massage, much less condition. I write for the only audience that counts and that is me.”
He several times quotes Krishnamurti saying that every society is corrupt and refers to himself over and over as an outsider who has “de-conditioned” himself from the expectations of other people. That's fine, but at some point a writer must consider his reader, if he expects to have one. In his book On Writing Stephen King advises writers to close the door and write the first draft for themselves, but with the second draft, open the door and think of the reader.
In the essays in the first part, I found many opinions but little information to substantiate or give context to them. I also found almost no one besides the author. A few times he mentioned others—a student he felt sorry for; a wealthy mother and daughter at an auction; a blogger who wrote a savage review of his book, making him feel he “was being tortured by a Nazi”—but he says this student is just like the ones before and after him; the mother and daughter were as disgusting as all rich people with their conspicuous consumption during a recession; the blogger is just as vain, incompetent and ignorant as all bloggers. Perhaps this says more about my taste as a reader than about the book, but I was thrilled to get to the second part and read a whole essay about Buster Keaton. Then one about Peter Lorre! Or perhaps I just preferred reading what Freese admired about these artists rather than his contempt for our corrupt society and the Yahoos that populate it.
The best books, for me, are conversations. I was relieved to finish the first part where I felt someone was talking at me and move on to the second part where I felt someone was speaking with me. The third part, about Freese's family, moved me. I will long remember his Grandma Fanny, a free spirit, sometime seamstress, and surprising woman. Echoes of the young enchantress still hover around the elderly gypsy dragging her colorful hoardings from one garret to another. I love the vision of her tearing at a herring and gnawing on a piece of hard pumpernickel with her few remaining teeth. This lesson, too, I will take from the book: how effective sensory details can be in presenting a distinctive and astonishing life in just a few pages.