Down to a Sunless Sea – Mathias B. Freese

January 16, 2009 Reading Nook, Review 24

Title: Down to a Sunless Sea
Author: Mathias B. Freese
Date Finished: Jan 15, 2009 #2
Published: 2007 Pages: 134
Rating: 2/5

From the Back 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.”

I knew going into this book that the material is on the darkish side–maybe even a little depressing. What I wasn’t prepared for was how uncomfortable some of the stories would make me feel. Re-reading the blurb from the back of the book made me think that this was done on purpose–but I’m not sure for what purpose. The stories range from all different topics–from friendships, parent-child relationships, Holocaust survivor, troubled student, obsessive worrier–topics that in some way or another we can find a little bit of ourselves in.

In the collection there are 15 stories, mostly very short in length. One of the difficulties that I often have with short stories is that the author does not have room to develop the characters fully, but that isn’t the case with these stories. Focused more on the character than the plot (you know I love that!), even in the shortest of the stories, we get a really intimate look into the characters’ thoughts and feelings. Yes, many of them are uncomfortable–ranging from suicide to inadequacy to rage to lunacy, etc etc, but they all leave the reader with something to think about and muse over.

So you’re thinking: You love character-driven books, Trish. What’s with the rating? First, I think it is worth mentioning that this is a work of literature. There is something very poetic about Freese’s writing style. But on the other hand, the language often felt stuffy and unnecessarily complex. I feel like a philistine as Stephen Dedalus would surely call me (although I never really liked Joyce anyway), but I found myself re-reading sentences and passages to figure out exactly what Freese was trying to say. For instance:

“One of padded felt and thick, lush carpeting, Clare had a voice that made you attend. It was deeply textured, had a surface gravity to it that was entirely alluring, irresistible. It was a resilient voice; it could incorporate when pressured only to rise once more, project. It was Clare’s one attribute, and not unattractive in a svelte woman so vigorous in her opinions. One attended to her because of that voice. Neither seductive nor sensuous, it had a convincing nature, very much there, as if an original flow of magma, now firm and fundamental” (129).

Yes, it is such poetic writing, but by the end of the paragraph, I am lost. I read it again and finally figure out what exactly the author is getting at. Nearly every paragraph in the book is equally rich, and given the wide cast of characters, the language began to feel stilted and unauthentic. Philistine? Maybe–especially given the fact that so many others have truly enjoyed this slim collection. I think poetry lovers, especially, would appreciate this one. Not recommended to those looking for a light read.

Kim L.; Jeane; CJ; Terri B.; Bookfool; Literary Feline; Gautami ; Bellezza; Tanabata (if I missed yours, please let me know)

24 Responses to “Down to a Sunless Sea – Mathias B. Freese”

  1. Debi

    Interesting review, Trish! I’m actually reading this right now. Okay, very slowly. I’ve only read the first two stories so far, and I just can’t figure out what I think yet. Actually I didn’t like the first at all…just thought it was sort of boring. But the second one left me truly unsettled. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but I think I need to get more of them read before I can really figure out my feelings overall. Sorry you didn’t enjoy it more. Good news is that it’s a short book, so you didn’t waste too much time, huh? :)

  2. Amanda

    I dont’ think you’re a Philistine. I think that paragraph example suffers from some extreme overwriting. And I thought *I* overwrote! ;)

  3. Nicola

    Sorry to hear you didn’t like this one much. I enjoyed quite a lot but must admit I didn’t “get” a couple of the stories.

  4. verbatim

    Makes me think of The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard, which I loved but didn’t understand about 10% of the vocabulary. If you like character-driven stories, Trish, check out “Remainder” by Tom McCarthy. I just finished it and was mesmerized! (Or maybe you got there before me?)

  5. Nymeth

    I don’t think you’re a philistine either, though I’d almost be glad to be one in Dedalus’ books. My own opinion of him isn’t very high :P

    I’m all for poetic, rich language of the kind Arundhati Roy uses, for example. But I’m not so fond of writing that almost seems to be going for intentional obscurity :P So yeah, judging by that passage I’m inclined to agree with Amanda.

  6. Trish

    *Debi – Yes, very short! The first story I read twice and didn’t understand either time. The second story gave me the same reaction. After that they mostly get better in terms of subject. I think my favorite of the bunch is “Alabaster.” I really look forward to hearing what you think overall.

    *Amanda – Haha…I don’t really think I’m a philistine either, but a lot of people have really liked this one and it makes me wonder what I’m missing. I never keep tabs of vocabulary words, but I did for this one–my favorite was Thoreauvian.

    *Nicola – Other than a few of the stories–such as the one about Arnold Schwarzenegger, which I didn’t get at all–the stories themselves didn’t bother me as much as the writing did. I’m glad you liked it better than I did!!

    *Verbatim – Thanks for the suggestion! I haven’t heard of Tom McCarthy, but I’ll be sure to check him out. I do really like character-driven books rather than the plot-driven ones.

    *Nymeth – I’m glad you got my reference. When we were reading A Portrait a few years ago for a class, I mentioned that I wasn’t a big fan of Joyce or Stephen and my teacher jokingly called me a philistine–kind of stuck since then. :) I do love rich language, and when I was writing this review I thought about Lolita and the writing in Lolita. But Nabakov’s language is so readable. I think maybe some of it had to do with the vocabulary Freese used–very erudite choice of words a lot of times.

  7. C.B. James

    This has been making the rounds for the last year. I think I’m going to request a copy from my library and try a few stories. Just to satisfy my curiosity and maybe get a few posts for Short Story Sunday….

    Are there one or two you think I’d like?

  8. Natasha @ Maw Books

    I have heard both extreme ends of this book. Some people love it and I’ve heard that others hate it. I do have this in the house so I suppose I should read it to figure out where I stand on it.

  9. Jeane

    I found them quite unsettling. And sometimes very hard to understand. Poetic, yes, but in a rather convoluted way that took a lot of wrestling in my mind.

  10. Krystal A.

    My background is in counseling/psychology, so it would be fun to take each character and try to “diagnose” him/her. I’d definitely have to be in the right mood for that though.

  11. Laura

    One big positive of reading this book is that you learned some new words, right? :) I learned something from your review too! (Who Stephen Dedalus is).

  12. Lisa

    Hmmm. I gotta say, that’s not really going to be my cup of tea. I like my beautiful language to flow over me. I don’t mind thinking occasionally (though you couldn’t tell it by my recent reading) but this sounds like WORK. Thanks for the honest review.

  13. cj

    So, I agree with you about the stories being difficult to read but I’ve got to admit that, overall, I enjoyed the book. I’m not much for short stories so I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

    cjh

  14. Bookfool

    I had mixed feelings about this book. Like a lot of people, I didn’t “get” a couple of the stories and there was one that I thought was revolting. But, there were some that really moved me. And, I thought the one about the obsessive-compulsive was kind of funny, even though I’m pretty sure that wasn’t supposed to be the result! I really think he was aiming to get across how those who are not necessarily “normal” in the traditional sense feel about life, to place you in their shoes for a time. And, yep, that’s definitely unsettling.

  15. Trish

    *Samantha – I think this one is best read for pleasure of words rather than just pleasure of reading.

    *Joy – Although many people have liked this one, I think you’d feel the same way that I do.

    *CB – I hope you enjoy this one! My favorite story was Alabaster with Echo being a close second. All the stories are interesting in their own right.

    *Bellezza – Of course it matters! I use google reader to search for reviews and sometimes they miss some! Drives me batty but other than going to everyone’s blog and doing a search I can’t think of a better way. And thank you thank you thank you for your very sweet award. I’ll pop by soon!!

    *Natasha – I didn’t realize until recently how polarized the opinions were for this one! I hope you end up enjoying it–many really have. Either way I’ll be interested to hear what you think.

    *Jeane – :) Exactly my thoughts. I had a really tough time with the writing–maybe more so than the actual subject matter.

  16. Trish

    *Krystal – It would be interesting to hear a diagnosis of some of the characters. There’s one story in particular about stealing the hands of a political figure from his grave–definitely a lot going on there.

    *Lit Feline – I’m really glad that you and some of the others enjoyed this collection.

    *Laura – Yes, I did learn some words, but I can’t remember them now. :P Except for the phrase “vampirically ravished” and the term Thoreauvian. :) Probably not as ubiquitous as “deft” and “macabre” though.

    *Lisa – You could probably read this on the surface and still get something out of it, but I think the way it was meant to be read does take a lot of work and re-reading. So, I’m with ya!

    *CJ – there are a few things about these stories that I felt made them more readable than regular short stories. I thought they were well-developed for their length and that Freese really got into the mind of the character. I didn’t feel like I was left with a completely open ending, which is something I generally don’t like about short stories.

    *Bookfool – I mainly had the same reaction. Have you read Springtime on Mars by Susan Woodring? I think if you liked this collection you would like hers as well. Kind of similar stepping into others’ shoes type of stories but not quite as unsettling.

  17. Melody

    Great review, Trish! I do find this book dark and depressing, but like you said there’s something very poetic about the writing style so I think it makes an interesting literary read.

  18. tanabata

    I had mixed feelings about the book too. There were some stories that I quite liked, I thought they really captured human nature, but then there were a couple of stories that I just didn’t get at all.
    My review is here.

  19. Anna

    I agree with much of your review. I enjoy character-driven novels and stories, but I wanted more. I’ll be reviewing this one hopefully today, but since my little girl is still sick, my plans might change.

    –Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

  20. mathias b. freese

    Dear readers:
    I’ve apparently written a series of Rorschach stories, and for that I am grateful; parenthetically, why should a story be read only once –or twice? “Herbie” was worked on for almost a year and I was fortunate to have it listed in “Best American Short Stories of 1974.”Yet some careless readers overlook the toxicity of the mother in that story. I take writing very seriously and I try not to write fluff; the reader has to meet me half way. Here and there I may have erred by not following an old writer’s admonition: Be unclear if you have to be,but be unclear clearly, My stories, like you, like me, are works in progress. Thank you for struggling with them.
    Kind regards,
    Matt Freese
    http://www.mathiasbfreese.com

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