Adventures in Reading

Down to a Sunless Sea by Mathias B. Freese

Much to my excitement, Mathias B. Freese contacted me and asked me to read his book. I accepted and I enthusiastically told my partner. And then I thought with dread, “Oh no, what if I don’t like it?” While waiting for my copy of Freese’s Down to a Sunless Sea to arrive, I found myself agonizing over my options. I try to be honest when it comes to my adventures good or bad, but what would I say if I did not like a book an author sent me?

Down to a Sunless Sea is a nice collection of fifteen stories that explores relationships between people, society and self. Reoccurring throughout reviews on this collection are comments of its darkness (dark is an oft used adjective here), deviants, and damaged characters. The foreword implicates “hopeless circumstances” and a “transience of life.” I did not leave the book with such a dreadful sense of chiaroscuro but I did close the book with a smile and promptly read it a second time. These are stories of children and their complicated entanglements with adults, stories of the sometimes disturbing influence of our parents, stories that whisper the influence of history and Hollywood, and at least a few stories startlingly different in style that add a richness to Down to a Sunless Sea.

The title story “Down to a Sunless Sea” is a collection of moments from Adam’s childhood. They explore an almost Freudian relationship with his family and mother in particular. “Herbie” is also a young boy and only son in a family with a proud work ethic and poor communication but enough snobbishness to refuse Herbie to join his friend in a shoe polish business. Adam and Herbie live in worlds where the discovery of masturbation is the great American embarrassment. These boys act out, Herbie as quasi-animalistic and Adam expressing non-existing physical ailments. “Billy’s Mirrored Wall” is the tale of the realization of class distinction when Billy comes home and tells his mother of his friend’s wealth. Billy feels “enhanced” by this relationship but Billy concludes the story as an adult and an ingrained sense of class hierarchy. The stories “Mortise and Tenon” and “Unanswerable” also explore fraught or destroyed relationships between child and parent.

Focusing on Judaism and its history, “Alabaster” is of a woman “liv[ing] only in fragments” and the number on her hand indicates her experience with the Holocaust. She relays her story in a metaphor to a boy concluding that he can’t understand, “How could you?”, and that his shelter and youth potentially limit him from grasping what she explains. Following is “Juan Peron’s Hands,” which details the preparation, thoughts, and actions of the man who breaks into Juan Peron’s mausoleum and steals the ex-president of Argentina’s hands. One of my favorites “Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Father Was a Nazi,” begins with an all too excellent from Roger Ebert and views Arnold’s peculiar relationship with his father and now America.

One of the quirky almost displaced stories is “The Chatham Bear” and my favorite in the collection. In a local feature story-esque manner, a community’s avid response to an unknown bear appearing in Chatham contributes to the lack of response of the appallingly normal report of a dog killing another dog in front of its owner as well as the narrator’s witnessing of an act of domestic violence. “Little Errands” is an obsessive story of a person living with the dread and concern of second-guessing and nearly the entire story puzzles over whether or not a letter was mailed; however, it is an interesting portrayal of what people unquestioningly accept as the truth and circumstance of their lives. In “Echo” “All Jonathan has are reminiscences” and the story is told from a friend watching Jonathan distance himself from everyone because of possible loss. Jon is “insular” and “Echo” retells the story of narcissistic attraction. “For A While, Here, In This Moment” is a disembodied tale like watching yourself from the outside and an existence to “bear witness.” “Nicholas,” written in the style and voice of a student uninterested in school, challenges his environment and academic structure.

I admit that I did not care for “Down to a Sunless Sea” and “I’ll Make It, I Think.” Reading disjointedly, “Down to a Sunless Sea” has some dense word choice and there are awkward moments when Freese tries to evoke an emotion or response from the reader, but it feels like he’s trying too hard. For “I’ll Make It, I Think” it is more a matter of personal taste and style. I admit my first reading was somewhat confused with the nicknamed appendages and the character’s exploration of sexual frustration and deviancy. If for no other reason, I did not feel these two stories were on equal footing with the other stories. However, as these stories open the collection I admit as a more casual reader I may have chosen not bother finishing, but reading to the end of Down to a Sunless Sea is a worthwhile experience.

Currently available on Bookmooch: Down to a Sunless Sea by Mathias B. Freese.

[1] I would not really say “gosh” but I might as well in my writing.

Other opinions: Out of the Blue, J. Kaye’s Book Blog, Melody’s Reading Corner, Book Chase, Booking Mama, Books Love Me, Errant Dreams Reviews, Kay’s Bookshelf, Musings of a Bookish Kitty, Reading Room, and Puss Reboots.


“Center of Gravity” by L. J. Amster

“The railroad yard bull squinted closely at the picture on the card that said I was licensed to box in Illinois.”

Launching the Best American Short Stories of 1965 is L. J. Amster’s short story “Center of Gravity.” At 56-pages, it is one of the longest stories in the collection. I have read “Center of Gravity” three times now and while I can say I have appreciated it I cannot say I really have enjoyed the story. Our narrator is arrested for illegally riding on freight cars, is put into jail though allowed to box, and when he returns to prison is “caged” by the sheriff and his men to be held for what Amster suggests as an indeterminate time to fight when they want him to.

The “rules” that exist within the book’s world are always murky. A barber moonlights as the justice of the peace, the Jewish narrator recently threw a fight, boys are let out of jail to box, the sheriff and his men are drinking, and there’s a stop in at a regularly closed down roadside house. Though I don’t necessarily like comparing short stories and novels, I found “Center of Gravity” to be fairly reminiscent of Nelson Algren’s Never Come Morning or Meridel Le Sueur’s The Girl.

Within these 56-pages there is a great deal happening and Amster appeals to the reader with some beautifully portrayed moments and details: the narrator’s photo looking “as if [he] were wearing a large white flower behind [his] right ear” or the temptation and denial sequence between the turnkey’s bone and a dog, which becomes a central theme of the story.

I suppose part of my disconnection with “Center of Gravity” involves literature and Chicago and literature and boxing: both two areas that have quite tough acts to follow. Amster’s book simply didn’t offer a refreshing or grimy enough appeal. However, I also believe that “Center of Gravity” would be an excellent story to read in a group or for a class and I hesitate to develop any final opinion if only because there is a lot – even much more than I’ve already mentioned – going on in the story. I found it to be a tough one to swallow on my own.

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Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis

“Goldfinch was flapping clothesline, a tenement delirious with striving.”

A few posts back I asked how reader’s decided which book to read next. I forgot to add that an excellent way to discover new writers and titles is asking at readings. Earlier in the year I heard two Canadian authors read. One was Steven Hayward author of The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke (which I still have not read) and the other man I entirely forget (except that a group of us went back to a friend’s house and ate take out sushi). However, both of these authors recommended David Bezmozgis’ Natasha and Other Stories, and ever since then the collection has been sitting in the forefront of my mind as a must buy.

And I did. Buy it, that is, and it definitely tops my list as a favorite purchase and read of 2007. Bezmozgis story collection follows the life of a family of Jewish Russian immigrants in Toronto, Ontario. To paraphrase from one of my favorite television shows Black Books: I laughed, I cried, it changed my life. The book does follow the same family in chronological order, so especially if you are not a fan of the short story format this is one to try.

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