- The Washington Times - Friday, July 30, 2010

By Cathie Beck
Voice Hyperion, $14.99
336 pages

When Cathie Beck was a 39-year-old empty nester, newly dumped by her latest boyfriend, she put a notice in the community-events calendar of a Boulder, Colo., newspaper: “WOW (Women on the Way) - to an insane asylum, the bar, wherever. Smart, sassy women’s group forming. Mutual support, networking etc.” Six women turned up for the first meeting, and Ms. Beck knew immediately that one of them was absolutely on her wavelength. That one was Denise Katz, an artist, an entrepreneur, an all-around can-do New Yorker whom Ms. Beck credits with “Showing me the Way. I learned … that putting on blinders, focusing on fun and crafting memories is salvation. That we can transform how we feel merely by changing our circumstances, even if just for an hour or two.”

Denise Katz certainly needed to put on blinders and focus on fun. She had multiple sclerosis - “the good kind” she said at that first WOW meeting. But of course, there is no good kind, and during the four years of the friendship recorded in “Cheap Cabernet,” the disease took its inevitable toll, so, indomitable though she was, Ms. Katz slid from one debilitating stage to the next, and eventually she died.

Ms. Beck was with her - at least most of the time. She was working as a restaurant critic, so they often ate dinners together. They zoomed off to concerts; raised money for women injured by breast implants; finagled ways to get a mortgage; even went to Jamaica on what turned out to be a hair-raising trip from which they returned penniless and not speaking to each other. (Ms. Beck got over her disgruntlement when she realized that her friend had spent the last of their money and considerable painful effort walking to a market to buy her an artwork that she had admired.)

“Cheap Cabernet,” a title that identifies their favorite drink, traces the course of the friendship by weaving a record of it with episodes from Ms. Beck’s early life that help explain why Denise was such an empowering inspiration. The daughter of a couple impoverished by her father’s lackadaisical attitude to work and devotion to drink, she grew up fearful of the landlord banging on the door, demanding his rent. She and her sisters became teenage mothers. When she was 21 and the mother of two, her husband slunk off into the night and was never heard from again. Living in cheap apartments and surviving with the help of food stamps, she managed to raise her children and get herself degrees in journalism. By the time she met Denise, she was living in Boulder, and as her advertisement for WOW suggests, in need of a new social life.

By this time, Ms. Beck was writing a newspaper column on restaurants and taking less-than-inspiring editing jobs. Her editing skills are evident in “Cheap Cabernet.” Each chapter describes an episode in her life and her friendship with Denise. All are sharply focused and grip the reader’s attention. They also raise questions, especially as the book progresses.

One early heart-rending chapter records Ms. Beck’s application for food stamps when she was living in New Orleans. How did she get there from her Midwestern birthplace? This is never revealed, though it is not essential to know. But when we learn that she also lived in Russia at one point and ended up settling in Boulder, a sentence or two explaining those moves would be helpful because they are significant for a single mother whose financial resources are described insistently as limited. Similarly, after her painful descriptions of being abandoned and raising her children on her own, it’s startling when, midbook, she casually refers to two later failed marriages.

Nevertheless, “Cheap Cabernet” is often compelling as both an account of a special friendship and, more generally, of the dynamics of women’s lives and relationships. Indeed, when Ms. Beck published it herself, it became such a success on Amazon that Hyperion/Voice accepted it for publication.

Self-publication has become an increasingly popular way for writers to get their work into print. New Internet technologies enable them to do it, and for that we should all be grateful. On the other hand, these same technologies present considerable challenges to publishers and contribute mightily to writers’ difficulties because they make publishers increasingly risk-averse. Manuscripts that do not conform to what publishers think “the market wants” and therefore might not achieve stellar sales never appear. Unfortunately, the market is a chameleon. Looking back on what sold last year often leads to the publication of same old books and the rejection of anything that doesn’t fit into a neat and highly sellable category.

“Cheap Cabernet” is surely one of these. It is a memoir that often reads like a novel; a book about two women who are usually far from sweet and nice. They are assertive, skeptical, worldly wise, willing to cut corners and to pass by or even trample over conventions and conventional people. Readers may well find themselves distanced by some of the attitudes and events recorded in its pages. But that distancing puts them in a position to consider the hard, affecting and complex situations in which people find themselves. “Cheap Cabernet” thus provides plenty of food for thought on what life can be like and at least some suggestions for how it might be tackled.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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