Down to a Sunless Sea by Mathias B. Freese
WheatMark Fiction/short stories
From the cover:
Down to a Sunless Sea plunges the reader into uncomfortable situations and into the minds of troubled characters. Each selection is a different reading experience -- poetic, journalistic, nostalgic, wryly humorous , and even macabre. An award-winning essayist and historical novelist, Mathias B. Freese brings the weight of his twenty-five years as a clinical social worker and psychotherapist into play as he demonstrates a vivid understanding of -- and compassion toward -- the deviant and damaged.
That's one of the most accurate cover blurbs I think I've ever read. Down to a Sunless Sea is a collection of short stories about people who are not whole, either in body, mind or spirit. In "I'll Make It, I think," a young man with cerebral palsy talks about his various deformities. In spite of his sense of humor -- he's named his annoying body parts -- his desire to be just a normal person, accepted and loved, makes for painful reading. I don't see how anyone can read, "I'll Make It, I think" without carrying away an understanding of just how horrible it must be to have the ability to reason and love, but to be trapped in a body that simply doesn't work, stared at and mistreated, unable to express thoughts because a mouth doesn't move right or to simply walk down a street unnoticed.
*Warning: The next few paragraphs may contain spoilers, so please skip them if you intend to read the book, right away.*
The first story that really resonated for me was "The Chatham Bear". "The Chatham Bear" describes the commotion stirred up in Chatham, New York, when a black bear is spotted several times, briefly, by residents. Worried that the bear may be deadly, one man shoots into the woods when he spots the bear. Another hides in his truck, honking madly. Nearby, in neighboring Canaan, a pit bull kills a small terrier in the terrier's own yard and nothing is left of the smaller dog but bones. Yet, the pit bull is returned to its owner. A couple fight in a parking lot, the man openly burning the woman and then tossing her into his truck. But, the protagonist, observing, believes that to interfere would be to invite harm. The author concludes that a bear, terrifying to the people who see it when it briefly emerges from the woods, is harmless by comparison with humans and even their pets, both of which are uncontrolled but whose dangers are overlooked.
Another very powerful story is "Alabaster", the story of a young boy who observes a mother and daughter conversing on a bench. Their regular conversations make little sense to him, till one day the elderly mother asks the boy to sit with her. She tells her story, about how when she was not much older than the 9-year-old boy, she was taken away from her life and broken. On her wrist is a number, tattooed permanently into her now-sagging skin. The reader realizes that the woman's childhood was stolen, her hope shattered during her time in a concentration camp. The most telling sentence, in my view: "It must be wonderful just to grow up."
Another story, "Unanswerable," describes the cruelty of a single German man and ends with this amazing line: "The core puzzle, for all of us, is what ignites a human being to hate feverishly, kill wantonly in huge numbers, revel in genocide and final solutions -- that is unanswerable."
My absolute favorite story is "Little Errands", the story of an obsessive-compulsive who is unsure letters placed in a mailbox have really been mailed and feels obligated to open and close the door of the mailbox repeatedly . . . then is compelled to return to open it a few more times. What if the letter has become stuck in the side of the box? What will happen if the protagonist has simply convinced himself that the letter has been mailed but it really hasn't? This is not his only compulsion. Each little action is so overinflated in its importance that the protagonist's time is spent obsessively repeating movements, then backtracking and doing them all over, again. And, yet, he's convinced that he's saving time because if, perchance, the letter really wasn't mailed because he didn't make absolutely sure that it fell into the box just so, or if the radio wasn't, in fact, turned off all the way and the car's battery was drained, then he'd have to spend a lot more time fixing the problems that could have been avoided.
In a way, "Little Errands" is humorous, at least from the point of view of a person who can't imagine feeling compelled to repeat the same actions, much less to think of such actions as "time-saving". Of course he's not saving time. He's wasting time being compulsive, but to that individual it's impossible to fathom simply sliding a letter into a mailbox and walking away without a second thought. In the end, the reader realizes that the anxiety is real and it's not only troublesome in that repetitive actions consume time, but that his actions are also socially detrimental. Just knowing a bill has arrived is such a relief that when a neighbor asks the protagonist to drop something in the mail, he refuses and is unable to express why.
*End of spoilers*
And, therein lies the heart of Down to a Sunless Sea: the realization that each of us is flawed or broken in our own way. But, it's not necessarily possible for others to understand, even if we're fully able to express our pain. I'd be lying if I said I even understood all of the stories. At least two of them baffled me; I couldn't quite unravel what was happening. And, yet, the vast majority made sense. They're harsh, painful, difficult to read. It's the reality inherent in each of the stories that makes this collection meaningful.
I don't know that I can rate this book with numbers and, in fact, I'm once again considering the idea of ditching the numerical rating system permanently. Instead, I'll just say that I recommend it, but be forewarned: the reading is rough. You may be enlightened, but it's going to hurt. Just don't read this book if you're already blue or you're in the mood for sweetness and light. Read it to try to understand your fellow humans. Because the second story has a lot of sexual references/scenes, I'm going to label this one family-unfriendly; I would not hand it to my teenager.
In other news:
The rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated. Okay, there haven't been any rumors. You probably just assumed I had a busy week, right? School began, today, so . . . yes. Busy week, a couple of whopper storms and late nights that made me groggy during the daylight hours. It's still too hot to think straight, so I'm hibernating. But, I've been enjoying my reading.
Matrimony by Joshua Henkin - review forthcoming but in case you're interested, it's going to be a very positive review.
Almost Finished Reading:
High Altitude Leadership -- haven't even managed to add it to the sidebar, but it's a quick read about applying mountaineering principles to leadership in business.
The Words of War by Donagh Bracken - really enjoying this one, although I was having trouble straightening out who fought for which side and decided to look for an atlas of Civil War battles. Then, the storms hit and we huddled for a couple of days. That was fun, actually. At the height of the big storm on Saturday, kiddo was flopped across our bed, reading with a flashlight. Hubby and I were curled up by the headboard, chatting and listening to the storm. The cat was rolled into a ball on the floor, near the foot of the bed.
Sunday, we attempted to go to the park to look for the atlas but had to turn back and take a different route because a huge, fallen tree blocked the road. The tree was so big, we couldn't see the workers on the far side, although I spotted them from the highway. I found and bought my atlas, yesterday, and hope to make some serious progress on The Words of War, this week. It's really quite a fascinating book and the atlas has already helped me to discover that I understood more than I realized.
The Best of Robert Service - Canadian poetry, eh? Also reading this one slooooowly. I'm finding that Robert Service was, in his way, much like John Muir with a sense of rhythm. Sometimes his poetry actually is laugh-out-loud funny. Some of his poems were obviously written in frustration; he had strong moral standards and loose morals bugged him. Apparently, he was lured to the Yukon with the dream of becoming a cowboy, but was inspired and captivated by its beauty.
Set aside, temporarily:
Travels in Alaska by John Muir - because I want to focus on some other reads, but Muir is still by the bed and I'm not quitting. I absolutely adore his descriptions of the scenery and hope to get back to that book, soon.
In the midst of reading:
When Twilight Burns by Colleen Gleason. Oh, yes, and I'll be doing that drawing in a few hours. I am loving When Twilight Burns every bit as much as the first three books.
News flash about Colleen:
She's having a live webcast Tuesday, August 5 at 8:30 pm, Eastern time, to celebrate the release of When Twilight Burns. All you need is an internet connection and speakers. There will be door prizes, including an ARC of As Shadows Fade. Tune in here and log on early because space is limited!
And, finally . . . a photo! Of course! A lizard! What else would it be? Note that he's brown because, till this weekend's storms, we had quite a lengthy drought going and there wasn't a whole lot of green. So, the lizards have been cloaking their little bodies in lovely, matching speckled browns. Here's my lizard buddy:
I also made my first anole hatchling sighting, last week. He was so tiny! Just an inch long in the body, probably no more than 1/8" wide. Unfortunately, I had my hand on a garbage can and no camera nearby. But, trust me, he was adorable.
Hope everyone had a great week!
Bookfool, still melting but now back to chauffeuring (at least till kiddo gets his athletic pass)