This Mobius Strip of Ifs

This Mobius Strip of Ifs by Mathias B. FreeseAuthor: Mathias B. Freese
Publisher: Wheatmark (2012)
Number of Pages: 164
How long it took me to read: About two months, reading sporadically
Where I got this book: Uncustomary Book Submission
ISBN: 978-1-60494-723-6
Awards: Winner of the 2012 National Indie Excellence Awards in the category of non-fiction

Like a Moth to a Flame

This book was sent to me by the author, via the Uncustomary Book Review. I was so pumped because it was the first time I was asked to review a particular book. I was also a little bit apprehensive, because I don’t usually read books unless I’ve heard good things about them first—here, I was diving into totally unknown territory. Also, the author was going to eventually be reading what I wrote—talk about pressure to read closely, understand nuances and give the book the respect it deserves! In the end, it took longer to read than expected because life derailed me a little bit, but I looked forward to writing the review, thinking of it as a little bit of a conversation with the author.

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Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “I continue to write to explain me to me, hoping in so doing that you will see in that something of you.” (p.6)

4. “The school indoctrinates the sheep and the shepherd. Any teacher will admit to this if he is in touch with who he is. However, you are not helped to decondition yourself. You learn to fit in, adjust, adapt, to go to college, to go to work. You leave school as a fixture of society, one more 100-watt bulb screwed into a subway ceilings.” (p.18)

3. “There is a Nazi in each of us, and we must ever be vigilant as to his existence…” (p.61)

2. “It is the writer’s task to be perched outside and away from his society, to translate the telling societal hum beneath his furred talons as he squats on telephone wires outside of town. He remains off the grid if at all possible.” (p.7)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “Yes, we write to grasp, to understand, to feel, but I believe we also write repetitively about constant and similar issues in order to make sense of them, to rub them smooth like worry beads in our hand, like turning snow into good packing for that snowball that flies through wintery weather with directionality.” (p.49)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: mobius strip (noun)

Definition (Source: a continuous, one-sided surface formed by twisting one end of a rectangular strip through 180° about the longitudinal axis of the strip and attaching this end to the other
Synonyms: Mobius band
Origins: 1900–05; named after A. F. Möbius
As in: This Möbius Strip of Ifs (title)

New Word: evince (verb)

Definition (Source: 1) to show clearly, make evident or manifest, prove; 2) to reveal the possession of (a quality, a trait, etc.)
Synonyms: display
Origins: 1600–10; Latin ēvincere ‘to conquer’, ‘overcome’, ‘carry one’s point’, equivalent to ē- e- + vincere ‘to conquer’
As in: “Rejections never stung after the Foley encounter (I was fed well early on in the nest) unless they had that tinge of bitchy rancor some editors evince.” (p.4)

New Word: puerile (adjective)

Definition (Source: 1) of or pertaining to a child or to childhood; 2) childishly foolish, immature or trivial
Synonyms: 1) youthful, juvenile; 2) juvenile, silly
Origins: 1650–60; Latin puerīlis ‘boyish’, equivalent to puer ‘boy’ + -īlis -ile
As in: “Beneath their puerile minds is a vacuity that appalls me.” (p.15)

New Word: labile (adjective)

Definition (Source: 1) apt or likely to change; 2) Chemistry (of a compound) capable of changing state or becoming inactive when subjected to heat or radiation
Synonyms: unstable
Origins: 1400–50; late Middle English labyl; Late Latin lābilis, equivalent to Latin lāb ( ī ) ‘to slip’ + -ilis -ile
As in: “Americans, unfortunately, think that we are continually progressing down the road (Manifest Destiny) which is a labile fantasy that I reject.” (p.71)

New Word: parvenu (noun)

Definition (Source: a person who has recently or suddenly acquired wealth, importance, position, or the like, but has not yet developed the conventionally appropriate manners, dress, surroundings, etc.
Synonyms: nouveau riche, upstart, arriviste
Origins: 1795–1805; French past participle of parvenir ‘to arrive’, ‘reach’; Latin pervenīre, equivalent to per- per- + venīre ‘to come’
As in: “However, I recall memorizing the definition of “parvenu,” as applied to the main character, Julien Sorel, and that word has stayed with me up to this paragraph.” (p.82)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“How cool—I’m getting to know something about someone (the author) that I will likely never meet. I know about his childhood pains, his parenting faults, his loves, his philosophies about education, school and humanity. Because this isn’t an autobiography or a memoir, you get to know the author through snippets—essays he’s written in the past, lists he’s made, thoughts he’s had…it’s an interesting, piecemeal way to learn about someone’s life. And it’s a very examined life.

“You get the sense that Freese doesn’t do anything irrationally or without forethought. He may have, in his younger years, but I bet if you asked him a question, he would pause, think for a while, and then answer carefully. It’s something I think of doing, but never really get around to—I usually plunge into an answer, and while the sentiment might not change if I thought about it for a while, the articulation could very well be much better. It seems that kind of deliberate evaluation of one’s response is something Freese hasn’t come to easily, but he’s there now, after much faltering and looking inward.”

“Most people’s thoughts about education are pretty run-of-the-mill. You may have had a teacher you hated, one of those people who seemed to be in the teaching profession to get summers off along with the ability to inflict pain and suffering on young minds; you probably had a teacher you loved, who inspired you and taught you how to critically think without you even realizing you were learning. You probably went through school completing assignments, hanging out with friends, questioning some of the authority imposed on you but accepting the inevitable fact that you were stuck in that building for about eight hours a day, for most of the year, for the duration of your formative life.

“Then there are people like Freese, and my husband. They see education as a tool of indoctrination, a way to turn young minds off, not on, an easy and effective power-grab that most children, adolescents, teenagers and parents accept without question. The critical thinker in me knows this is what education is—a way to indoctrinate ‘the sheep and the shepherd’. (p.18) The critical thinker in me knows that ‘you leave school as a fixture of society, one more 100-watt bulb screwed into a subway ceiling’. (p.18) The nerdy, indoctrinated me thinks that one can love school, love teachers, love ‘the system’ without being indoctrinated, but the critical thinker in me knows that one cancels the other out. If you love the system, you’re already too far gone to see it critically.

“It’s a wonder Freese was a teacher for as long as he was, and it’s a wonder he didn’t get fired. It would be difficult to go to work every day and know that you’re a shepherd, know that you’re training sheep. We think we’re training kids to think for themselves, but we really want them to think for themselves within the framework that we set out for them. It stifles a lot of people (not me—I’m the perfect test case for the kid that gobbled up everything school threw at her) and it takes people like Freese (and my husband, with whom I often talk about this subject), to remind us that we’re all little cogs, and that we should fight against our cog-ness.

“I’d like my daughter to do well in school, but I’d also want her to question authority—not a good recipe for endearing oneself to educators. I can’t imagine Freese was very popular amongst his fellow teachers, because not many of us like to have our belief systems questioned, especially if we think we’re ‘doing good’ (as many educators do). We seldom are able to accept criticism about what makes us who we are, and many of us let our professions define us. Part of me wonders, though, if Freese could have reached out more to his students, to the ones he thought were just ‘light bulbs’—who knows if some of them may have responded well. Did he start out so defeated a teacher, or did years in the system make him that way?”

“How difficult and lonely, the writer’s life. And how much more difficult it is made by asinine editors and bloggers and reviewers who choose to belittle rather than offer real, engaging discussion. Freese is obviously a writer, one of those rare people who writes to write, but then also works damn hard to get his stuff out there, to be read, to get an audience. ‘I am not averse to hawking my books,’ (p.49) he says. It’s interesting that he says he writes ‘for the only audience that counts’—himself—and yet he struggles to not just write, but to publish. I’m still not sure what drives this in him, this need for me, the reader, to read what he’s written. I’m better for it, to be sure, but if one’s writing stays in a notebook, is it any less cathartic? Any less instrumental to the author? Perhaps. Maybe by getting it out there, the writing achieves its goal to teach, to instruct, to make one think. He publishes ‘to share’. I like that.

“Freese writes in the first person because, he says, he is the first person in his life. (p.53) Bold. I love it. He’s not shy about saying what he thinks, and he’s not shy about tooting his own horn, either. He writes. It’s good. Damn straight someone else should read it. There are plenty of people who are either content to let their writing sit in a spiral notebook (or, more likely, in a saved document on their laptop) or wish they could get published, but don’t know how. Freese takes matters into his own hands, self-publishing and self-promoting. It’s admirable. And the fact that his work appeared in an anthology of Best American Short Stories—on the same pages as some of the country’s best-known authors but under a different, wrongly attributed name—is an irony that wounds me, if not Freese. I’d be furious. And yet Freese’s slow, thought-out, punctuated response is how I would wish I would respond. It’s admirable that he writes for the sake of writing, and not for star power or personal gain.”

“There is personal pain here that is almost gnawing. The loss of Caryn, the unsaid conversations, the ambitions he had for her, her struggles, are achingly real. The love for Brett, the changing relationship, the ability to see the mistakes made with Caryn and to rectify them with Brett, are touching. The description of daughters is tender, but it’s also real. There’s no sentimentality here—I hate sentimentality. Life is life. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we wish we had a do-over (usually, we don’t).”

“Freese’s self-awareness, his examined life, his incredible wealth of knowledge about psychotherapy, the books he’s read and analyzed, the movies he’s watched and studied, all make for an interesting look into the life of a stranger. I come out the other end knowing this man, liking some parts of him, disliking others, agreeing with some things, disagreeing with others. His family history, what he’s chosen to show me, is apologetically real. Grandmas, uncles, sons and mothers don’t get a pass. They were flawed, and even in death they are remembered as flawed. I like that—too often, bad people, people who did mean things, people who were grumpy, who were unkind, are remembered in death as angels. Freese paints a picture of his family, and the reader sees parts of his or her own family in them.”

Kate Dubinski


  1. Gareth Long says:

    This is a fascinating review, Kate, and really has me interested in picking the book up (one day, when I reach the end of my current pile!). There is, I find, much in my self that aligns with the ideas set out in both the quotes and your commentary.

    I’m particularly engaged by the idea of writers sitting outside of society. It’s something I’ve considered a lot recently, both about myself but also about a character I’m creating whose role is that of an extremely fearful reporter. Balancing the guilt of near-sociopathy with understanding the importance, and impossibility, of remaining at an objective distance – it’s such an awkward line to straddle, particularly when, everyday, we watch others immerse themselves in the comfort of lives that we are doing our damnedest to pull to shreds, or fall into suffering that we can do nothing to affect, yet believe it is our right to report on.

    It’s always strangely comforting to encounter the experiences of other writers, though, and it sounds as though this book offers much in the way of honest solace.

  2. […] Another wonderful review by Kate Dubinski for Uncustomary Book Review: […]

  3. Dear Ms. Dubinski: A wonderment! Your very close and intelligent review of my book set me back on my heels. Your response was one I might expect from a close companion, yet someone who would tell me the unvarnished truth if it need me be said. Perhaps you best of all might appreciate this epitaph of Nikos Kazantzakis which still inspires me: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”
    What an inspiring review for me.
    Gratefully appreciated.
    Matt Freese

    • Kate Dubinski says:

      Mr. Freese,
      I’m thrilled you enjoyed the review and I am flattered by your kind words. Many thanks!

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