Adventures in Reading

Michael Chabon’s Final Solution

“A boy with a parrot on his shoulder was walking along the railway tracks.”

Michael Chabon has always been one of those authors and I think: “I’m going to love him. He will be one of my favorites. Now I just need to get around to actually reading him.” I’ve always categorized him, without reading him, with the likes of Eggers, Foer, and July. All youngish, newish, hipish authors and ones I’ve always looked forward to reading. For my clearing shelf project I finally got around to picking up Chabon and pleasantly made my way through his novella Final Solution.

Escaping the Nazis, Linus and his parrot come to England to stay out the war. But the string of numbers the parrot chatters in German becomes too tempting for some and a man is killed and the parrot goes missing. Belonging to an era reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, an elderly, retired, bee-keeping detective becomes involved in the case of the missing parrot without being particularly concerned over the murder.

The Final Solution was my first piece in a long time where I had to write down the character’s names to keep them straight. A habit I started out of necessity and carried through much of college as a beneficial study method. While the names themselves were not particularly difficult, I did at times find Chabon’s writing style cumbersome and confusing. I recall an NPR interview with him and Chabon’s vocabulary is immense (perhaps he read Plotnik’s Spunk and Bite too?). For a 131-page story I found myself turning to my electronic dictionary with regularity, but perhaps so much that I found it difficult to be dazzled by Final Solution.

It is a fun “who done it” story, which does not necessarily provide all of the answers the reader might like by the end. Which I prefer. As things are not laid out clearly, I confess the temptation is strong to reread the book. But as I’m currently still slugging my way through Nelson Algren’s Never Come Morning and Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune there must be a rain check for now on Chabon.

For another take on Final Solution as well as Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union, visit Steve over at Jewish Literary Review.


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.