Book Bag: ‘Stumbling Through Adulthood’ by John Sheirer; ‘Ice Cream and Me’ by Steve Herrell

Staff Writer
Published: 1/13/2022 11:49:17 AM

Stumbling Through Adulthood by John Sheirer

Janice Beetle Books

Northampton writer John Sheirer has covered varied topics in his work: politics, public speaking, current events, personal memoirs and the joys of dog ownership. A longtime writing teacher at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut, Sheirer also writes a monthly opinion column for the Gazette.

Sheirer has also turned increasingly to fiction over the last several years, including a collection of flash fiction. In his most recent work, “Stumbling Through Adulthood,” Sheirer offers a collection of linked short stories marked by a good sense of humor and warmth and empathy for his characters.

“Stumbling Through Adulthood” is fairly lengthy for a short story collection — over 30 stories, running to 222 pages — due in part to characters who reappear through the book, aging over time and accumulating experience and wisdom — or not! — and crossing paths with each other in often amusing ways.

Like many of us, Sheirer’s characters struggle with relationships, self-doubt, jobs that don’t really satisfy, the problems of physical decline as you age. But there’s also a thread of optimism running through many of the tales — a sense that friendship and love can help see us through the worst of life’s problems.

In “Crazy Kids,” for instance, a middle-age working-class couple from New England, Dan and Becky, go to Florida in March for some relief from winter and to watch a few Red Sox spring training games. Then they discover their beachside hotel is full of college kids, all there for something called Spring Break.

A walk on the beach introduces them to a girl about their daughter’s age wearing “what looked like three postage stamps held together by dental floss.” Their hotel room in the “quiet end” of the building is above a bar; the ongoing party there and its reggae beat make plastic cups in the couple’s bathroom vibrate.

“One of my fillings feels loose,” says Dan.

But he and Becky, who worked their way through college and never experienced the joys of Spring Break, figure they’ll just go with the flow now that they’re here. They toast each other, their kids and more as they sit in the hotel restaurant one morning while all the partiers are still sound asleep.

“If the world ended right now,” says Becky, “I’d say it’s all been worth it.”

On a more serious note, Sheirer traces a character named Jack Shermer through three stories, from his late teens to his 50s. Jack’s had some interesting developments in his life — he marries a woman he’d been friends with in college years later after they reconnect through Facebook — but he’s also declining physically.

In the second tale, “Do You Know You’re Forty?” Jack’s dealing with a badly sprained finger, injured in a basketball game, and other nagging pains. His doctor, amused by Jack’s gallows humor, suggests he take up some less intense recreation — maybe kayaking, like he and his wife do.

“Kayaking?” thinks a skeptical Jack. But in “What Jack Told Himself,” Jack, now in his 50s, is doing just that, with his former-friend-turned wife, Valerie. And it’s agony — something he desperately wants to hide from her.

“If he just got through this day, this hour, this minute, this right arm stroke … he wouldn’t have to burden Valerie with his fleeting frailty. She wouldn’t have to know about his broken tooth or the antibiotics or the ibuprofen he longed for as he patted his empty pocket. He wanted her to continue seeing him as the man she loved.”

But there’s also “Big Little Dog,” a hilarious story told from the perspective of a sporty canine named Ruby who helps one of her “humans” find a way back into the house after the human fears he’s accidently locked himself and Ruby outside.

Ruby offers some interesting reflections on the two-legged species he lives with: “The only time Ruby didn’t bother the humans to go outside was when the two adult humans had the house to themselves and played naked on the bed upstairs.”

“John Sheirer is a master storyteller — and a generous one, too,” says one reviewer. “His characters are decent, funny, and relevant to the way we live.”

Ice Cream and Me by Steve Herrell; illustrations by Allie

Anyone who’s ever gotten a cone, a sundae, or some other treat from Herrell’s in Northampton — and who hasn’t? — will find something of interest in the story of how Steve Herrell, the man behind it all, developed his famous ice cream.

In “Ice Cream and Me,” Herrell tells that tale, not in a formal autobiography but a loosely knit, engaging memoir — he advises readers early on to “skip around wherever you want … there’s no necessity to read this book in order” — in which he explains how he got into the ice cream business, the intricacies of making and flavoring it, and how he came to call Northampton home.

Herrell, who retired from the business in 2014 — his ex-wife (and friend), Judy Herrell, runs Herrell’s today — says he was long interested in ice cream, noting that people on both sides of his family (he grew up in Washington, D.C.) had made it at home for years. After working at Boston’s Children’s Hospital in the late 1960s and then driving a cab for awhile, he opened his first store, Steve’s Ice Cream, in Somerville in 1973.

That store soon became not just a favorite local haunt but a place that attracted national media attention, as Herrell served rich, homemade ice cream and also pioneered the use of “mix-ins” — adding all manner of ground-up candies, nuts and fruits to ice cream, a practice that’s now an industry standard. His store also helped spur the growth of small-scale, gourmet ice cream parlors nationwide.

In telling his story, Herrell touches on things people might not know about him, such as his stint doing piano tuning after selling his first ice cream shop in 1977 and opening Herrell’s in 1980. He once had a visit from two guys named Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, who’d heard about his operation and wanted to see what it was all about — because they were thinking of going into the ice cream business themselves in Vermont.

Herrell also offers some interesting bits of ice cream lore. For instance, he says the father of our country, George Washington, liked ice cream so much he ran up a $200 tab — the equivalent of about $5,300 today — with a vendor in New York City in the summer of 1790.

Above all, Herrell, who’s 77, flashes plenty of humor in “Ice Cream and Me.” Today, with his white hair and beard, he notes that some people think he looks a bit like Santa Claus, especially if he wears a red shirt. He’ll play along, like the time he told a young girl who approached him in a Brattleboro restaurant that he was actually one of Santa’s helpers and that, yes, he could pass along her Christmas wish list to the big guy.

But when the girl asked for a dog, Herrell says he felt he’d better give the girl’s mom, sitting beside her, the option to say “no” to a pooch: “I don’t know about the dog. I’ll have to talk to Santa about that.”


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