Thursday, July 31, 2008

Down to a Sunless Sea by Mathias B. Freese

Down to a Sunless Sea by Mathias B. Freese
Copyright 2007
WheatMark Fiction/short stories
134 pages
Author's blog

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.

Still reading:

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)


  1. Gah! I can't wait to read Down to a Sunless Sea now. It's on the TBR somewhere (must dig). I am sort of blue at the moment, so I'll hold off, but I'm excited about it!

  2. Andi,

    It's draining, so I would either hold till you're in an up mood or just read one story a day -- that's what I did. It took a long time to finish, but I usually read short stories like that, anyway. I like to let them roll around in my brain a bit. :)

  3. Anonymous6:22 PM

    dear reviewer, no bookfool, you:
    what a delight to read such a well-expressed, insightful and extended review of my book which only took three decades to finish. And I agree about the introduction written by Jane Holt -- my girl and friend. I would love to have you read The i tetralogy if you are willing to go on meds for awhile, as it is my magnum opus. I am into readership, not money. So I will forward a signed copy of either book for a giveaway if you are so inclined to read the tetralogy. If not, just terrific to have had my stories break into your brain.
    Kind Regards,
    Matt Freese\n.b. reviews and interviews are on my site.

  4. Hi Matt,

    It is kind of "extended", isn't it? That's why you see the word "babble" in my header. LOL about the book only taking you three decades!

    It's very possible I already need medication, so what the heck. I'll write to you privately. I know where to find you. :)

  5. Wow--a lot of good reading and a lot I want to comment on, but I'll keep it short. The Robert Service poetry sounds really nice and I guess if I check him out I'll have to check out John Muir as well. I'm such a bad Canadian!! I've seen Matrimony a lot lately--I guess maybe I'll have to check it out afterall.

    We're melting here as well. 105 yesterday. Hubby and I had a big discussion about it while we were at Sonic. I said, 105 in the shade! He said, that's how you take the true temperature: in the shade, one foot off the ground. Trish: What difference does taking one foot off the ground make? Is it hotter if you have both feet on the ground? Hubby: Really? Think about it Trish. Trish: Ooooooh, one foot distance off the ground. Guess I am blonde afterall. He got a pretty good laugh at that. :)

  6. Anonymous11:02 PM

    I love Robert Service.

    I'll have to read Matt's book, it sounds like he has a lot of stories about people I know. I completely agree with him on The Chatham Bear. And he was nice posting. Always a good sign.

  7. I've been seeing little hatchling lizards too lately :) Cute...Lots of brown lizards here as well due to the heat wave. I was actually hoping that this tropical storm would come our way and dump some rain and cooler air on us, but it didn't...We did get a bit of a breeze though. Back to the nineties tomorrow!

    I'm glad that you warned me that Down to a Sunless Sea is such a downer! I figured it was. I tend to like books like that, but I don't think I'm in the mood for that right now...too much going on in life for more depressing stuff. But it's definitely one that I'm looking forward to reading.

  8. Anonymous7:03 AM

    Thanks for the heads-up about Colleen Gleason's webcast. I'll see if I can get the family settled early to attend. :)

  9. Fabulous review! I've been so wanting to get this book as it was, but now I know I MUST!

    Your sweet little lizard buddies are just as cute as can be no matter what color they're sporting, aren't they?

  10. Trish,

    I am really enjoying Robert Service. We've had this book of poetry I'm reading for probably 20 years -- hubby is the one who bought it because he loves Dangerous Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee (which he had to memorize, at some point, for school). I enjoyed those, but it's also been nice to find Service has further depths, beyond the fun poetry. :)

    John Muir is my hero. He could survive and camp anywhere in a 3-piece suit with just bread and tea.

    LOL on the "one foot off the ground" thing! Sounds like something I'd say!!!


    Of course you do. You have fabulous taste. :)

    "The Chatham Bear" is great. I thought he did an excellent job of getting the point across using a minimum of words. Excellent story. And, so true -- it's always nice when the author drops by to comment!


    It's so nice to "see" you! Hope you guys are hanging in there.

    I was hoping Edouard would turn our way, too. Even a few hours of breeze and cooler temps are appreciated.

    Oh, you're seeing hatchlings! Aren't they darling? We've got a bit of green, since the weekend storms, so maybe they're out there dashing around in green, now. Either way, I think they're just the cutest little fellas.

    Yep, I'd hold on Down To a Sunless Sea until things even out. Sometimes you just need to read a good upper. Have you gotten Colleen's latest? It's fun, as always. I'm going to slot in a YA, soon, for a little light reading break, but I'm having a blast following Victoria around London. :)

  11. J.Kaye,

    I wish you luck! My family isn't good at settling in early. We annoy each other far into the evening hours. Have fun!!!


    There've been a lot of good reviews of Down to a Sunless Sea floating around, haven't there? I hesitate to use the word "enjoyed" because the book is tough reading, emotionally, but I think most of the stories were pretty amazing and it's definitely worth a read.

    Yes, my lizard buddies are just the coolest, regardless of color. I love that they pose so nicely. As long as you don't move too quickly, they're so curious they tend to hang around to watch you. I think they're peachy keen.

  12. I have Down to a Sunless Sea, but have put off reading it as I have been afraid of just what you mentioned.

  13. Jenclair,

    I think it's the kind of book that you have to read with something light going on the side -- and certainly not during a time when you're already blue. I'd just take your time and get to it when you feel like you can handle it. :)

  14. Anonymous11:20 AM

    To Jenclair and others --
    I understand your hesitancy but the stories are not radioactive; what comes to mind are these lines from Nikos Kazantzakis, "Overdraw me, Lord, and who cares if I break!"
    Be brave.
    Matt Freese

  15. Great review Nancy! I admit there were a couple stories that baffled me a bit too, but there are several that still rattle around my brain from time to time. Always the sign of a good book I figure. I'm waiting to read i Tetralogy for when I'm in the right mood.
    I'm going to start When Twilight Burns tonight. Can't wait! :)

  16. Nat,

    Thanks. I'm glad you felt the same. Some of those stories have really stuck with me, too. I've declined the i Tetralogy until I can cope. August and Nazis and school . . . well, some would say they go together, but I think it would just be a bit too much. So, I'll read the book later. You do have to be in the right mood!

    I'm just about to finish When Twilight Burns. This has been a bad reading week. I'm back to chauffeuring, but I don't have the poolside reading time and we have a lot of gathering of supplies, filling out of papers, etc. Busy week. I love Colleen's books. I'm going to try to finish up as soon as I drop the kids off at the pool!

  17. Anonymous7:11 PM

    I love how different readers can have different feelings about the SAME book that they read! In my case, I found "Little Errands" really disturbing and touching (probably as I have personal experience with a schizophrenic and OCD person)

    Just like you, I also didn't understand some of the stories, esp the title one. Would definitely hop over to Mr. Freese's blog to ask him some Qs.

    In case you'd like to know what I think, here's my review Will be back :)

    P/S I was thinking of adopting the numerical system and you're thinking of dropping it? LOL

  18. Kittycat,

    That is definitely interesting! I don't have any experience with OCD or schizophrenia, so I can see how if it means something to you it could be more disturbing.

    The title story baffled me. Share with me, please.

    I'll go peek at your review in a minute. I did drop my numerical system. Very few books get a thumbs down from me and I've always felt kind of icky giving books a numerical rating. I guess it really doesn't matter. Either way you're recommending or not, right? And, if a book is average, I say so.

  19. Kittycat,

    I cannot view your URL and can't get a full-screen image of your blog. Ack! What is the full name of your blog? Maybe I could look it up that way. BTW, thanks for visiting me!


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