A Thinner Elevation

When I finished Stephen King’s latest novel Elevation the other day, I couldn’t help but think of it as being related to another one of his earlier works writing under the pen name Richard Bachman: Thinner

Thinner is about a successful lawyer named Billy Halleck who is severely overweight. Driving home as he and his wife are engaging in a little hanky-panky, his car strikes and kills an old Gypsy woman. The charge of manslaughter is dropped by the judge (a personal friend of Billy’s) and as he’s leaving the courtroom, the elderly father of the woman he ran over caresses his cheek and whispers “Thinner.” I wish someone would whisper “Billionaire” or “Bestselling novelist” at me. Without the caress. It would really make my life easier, you know?

Soon, Billy begins to shed weight. At first, it’s all good because he’s morbidly obese. But he can’t stop losing weight. He begins to realize the old man cursed him. With the help of a former client with ties to the mafia, Billy tracks down the old man at a gypsy camp to ask him to lift the curse. Taduz, the old man, refuses, saying Billy has to pay for his wrongdoing. Before they leave the camp, Taduz’s great-granddaughter shoots Billy through the hand. Richie fixes him up with a mafia doctor who takes care of his hand.

Richie then goes back to the gypsy camp and goes all Godfather on them. Billy returns and Tazduz agrees to break the curse. He has a strawberry pie and has Billy drip his blood into the pie. Taduz says the curse can be lifted if someone else eats a piece of the pie. A transferred curse. The ending of Thinner is not a happy one but that’s what makes Stephen King….well, the king of horror.

King’s latest offering, Elevation, starts out with Scott Carey visiting his old doctor who retired years ago. Scott shares a wondrous and horrifying secret: even though his clothes remain the same and he doesn’t look like he’s losing any weight ,each time he gets on the scale he sees he’s lost weight. His old doctor is skeptical until Scott tells him to get a scale and he’ll make the doc a believer. Fully clothed, Scott steps onto the scale and waits for the doctor to do his thing.

Way over six feet tall and on the hefty side, Scott tells the doctor he’s losing about two pounds a day without the loss ever showing up on his body. The doc is still skeptical and tells Scott he needs to go to see a practicing doctor, get tests done, the whole she-bang. Nowhere on this planet is someone who loses weight and has nothing to show for it. Scott refuses. He’s not scared, even when the doc brings up the possibility of cancer. In fact, he’s never felt so wonderfully alive and eager to do things. He swears the doc to secrecy.

Down the block from Scott a couple moves in. They run a restaurant which is slowly tanking because they happen to be married to one another. As one kid puts it they’re “Lesbean.” One of them is a sweet heart while the other has a giant chip on her shoulder. They jog past Scott’s house and allow their dogs to use his lawn as a bathroom. And they don’t pick it up. Scott decides to confront them and does so politely. They take offense at being accused of letting their dogs poop on his lawn. They’re frosty towards him and change the path of their jog so they don’t go by his house. The small town is ripe with gossip about the female married couple. Many put their two cents in, declaring such a thing as two women married to each other an abomination. Soon, their  restaurant loses business and is on the verge of going under all because the town is not comfortable with their “lifestyle.”

Going on about his business, Scott weighs himself every day and night and sees that he’s still steadily losing weight but it still doesn’t show on his body. He’s still not afraid and in fact enters into euphoria as he gets lighter and lighter. He does the math and calculates how long he has left as his weight crumbles. He marks his calendar for when he believes he’ll cease to exist. He forms a close bond with the doc and the couple (after they patched things up and the chip falls off that woman’s shoulder) and he asks them to care for him as the pounds melt away. The due date on his calendar is counting down the days until….what? What will happen if he keeps losing weight? Scott has an idea of what’ll happen to him and decides to prepare himself.

I know many of you are Stephen King fans (I’m his number one fan) and drain his books dry as soon as they come out, but Elevation was unlike any other King book I’ve read. The story felt old and somehow familiar like catching a whiff of perfume and not recognizing the scent even though it’s on the very tip of your tongue. This tiny book can be finished in one sitting. However, after reading it you’ll wish the story had no ending and just kept going.

There you have it. Two Stephen King books about inevitable change and living with what you’ve dreamed of even if it doesn’t go the way you’ve planned.

Star Trek, Soccer, and Ancient Persian Kings

From the opening pages of Adib Khorram’s brilliant debut Darius the Great is Not Okay, it is painfully clear how much truth there is in the title. Darius Kellner, the sweet and immediately endearing teenage narrator, is struggling. For starters, Darius is a target at school. His taste in pop culture gravitates towards the nerdy, he is somewhat obsessed with tea (provided it is properly brewed and unsweetened), his medication makes him gain weight, and he is half-Persian, exposing him to the lamest and cruelest Islamophobic taunts the bullies at school can concoct.

Darius-the-Great-Is-Not-OkayIf these problem aren’t enough, Darius is also feeling isolated from his family. His mother’s side lives in Iran and while his mom and little sister speak Farsi, Darius’s language skills are undeveloped. Whenever they gather around the computer for a video chat, Darius can’t help but feel like an outsider. He also fears that he perpetually disappoints his father. Darius seems to have inherited very little from him: not his fair all-American looks, his math skills, nor his ability to blend-in and “be normal.” They only have two things in common, clinical depression and a love for Star Trek. As the gulf between father and son widens, Darius sadly reasons that his younger sister is his replacement – a chance for his parents to get things right.

When his grandfather’s health takes a turn for the worse, Darius’s parents decide it is time to travel to Iran and meet his mother’s family. Darius is apprehensive about this trip but also eager to discover connections to his family and his people’s history.  In Yazd, the city his family calls home, Darius continues to struggle to find acceptance. His grandfather and uncles tease him about his weight and are puzzled that a healthy young American boy would need medication (antidepressants) to be happy. In Yazd, Darius also makes a friend, perhaps his first best friend, a teen named Sohrab who lives down the street. Sohrab has had his own struggles with intolerance and oppression and he seems to understand Darius and embrace his individuality. His friendship with Sohrab allows Darius to see himself in a new light – as someone who might belong. But he is aware that their time together is running short and he must figure out how to reconcile the version of Darius he has discovered in Iran with the life waiting for him at home.

This is a special book on several levels. Khorram notes in the book’s afterword that he “wanted to show how depression can affect a life without ruling it” and he strikes that balance masterfully. I appreciated that it is just one small part of who Darius is. It does not define him. Novels that deal with mental illness often focus on diagnosis and characters’ struggles to win their lives back. Many of these works are compassionate, essential works for young readers, but it is also important for youths to have books like this one where depression is a detail in the story, not the story itself.

Khorram also skillfully weaves family history and Iranian cultural heritage into his book without ever distracting from Darius’s powerful struggles with identity and self-worth. Like real relationships, those in this book are nuanced, weighed down by past hurts, miscommunications, and words left unsaid. But this book is also about a loving family, determined to reconnect and support each other despite sometimes not knowing how to do so. Rooting for Darius as he bonds with his grandparents and navigates Iranian customs, family politics, and traumas big and small is incredibly rewarding. Darius is a character you won’t want to leave and won’t soon forget.

Spot-Lit for November 2018

These titles – from established, new, and emerging authors – are some of the most anticipated new releases of the month, based on advance reviews and book world enthusiasm.

Click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2018 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction

Wheel in the Sky Keeps on Turning

Philip Tonkin is healing. Fast. It should be impossible, no, it IS impossible because he was smashed flatter than a proverbial pancake. Nearly every single bone in his body shattered and he was in a coma for six months and yet he’s awake now and beginning to move. But waking only fuels Philip Tonkin’s nightmare.

In Josh Malerman’s Black Mad Wheel it’s the 1950s and Tonkin and his band The Danes have had a brush with fame with one of their songs. They’re in a studio helping to produce another band’s music. The Danes met and formed while serving in WWII. They didn’t consider themselves soldiers, just musicians serving Uncle Sam. One day while sitting in a bar in between songs, they’re approached by a man with the government who tells them about a sound emanating from the Namib Desert in Africa. Officials haven’t been able to pinpoint the sound’s exact origin, not even after sending in two other teams who came back empty-handed.

The band agrees to give the sound a listen and back in the studio they watch the GI man put earplugs in. Never a good sign. The reel to reel is set up and PLAY is pressed. The sound begins as nothing at first and then comes out as almost more of a feeling than a sound. The band members begin to vomit and curl in on themselves with pain. The reel to reel is stopped and as the band struggles to recover physically and mentally from the eerie sound, the government man says they’ll each get $100,000 to travel to the Namib Desert and find the sound’s location. They have 24 hours to decide. After that, the deal is off the table. After mulling it over, the Danes decide to do it. If anyone can do it, a group of musicians should be able to hunt the sound down.

Sounds easy peasy, yeah?

No.

They endure the journey to the desert, flying in a military plane. Getting nearer the sound the men begin to sicken, the noise a squeezing thrum of a physical presence. The GI man sets them and all their recording equipment in the desert along with a historian, an old drill Sargent from boot camp who has been mysteriously turned out of the military. The GI man says he will be back to collect all of them in exactly two weeks, he says, and leaves them in the desert.

Then the ‘Black Mad Sh*t’ begins to hit the fan.

A band member is taken by a strange creature that leaves goat like hoof prints in the sand. They begin the search for him but he’s vanished.

In between recounting the band’s mission, Philip Tonkin wakes from his long coma in an Iowa hospital. Ellen, a nurse, has been caring for him for six months and has grown attached to him. He’s shot full of painkillers around the clock and she’s shocked that someone whose body has been nearly obliterated has not only survived but, upon waking, slowly begins to move.

His body is in ruins and his mind scarred from the desert, but he knows the rest of the Danes are still alive somewhere in that desert. But the hospital he’s in is no ordinary hospital and his doctor is ‘off’ in a way no doctor should be. Ellen does as she’s told but has begun to question the doctor’s motives. So has Philip. Something dangerous is happening. And something even worse is about to go down.

Black Mad Wheel is full of shadowy government dealings, a heavy and palpable supernatural presence, and the paranoia that the unknown is going to be weaponized before the ‘good’ guys can find it. Put your earplugs in if you don’t think you can handle it. I bought mine in bulk from Costco.

More Adventure Awaits

I am sorry to say I haven’t read anything by Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS to scholars, Louis to his friends), but I’ve come close by reading Brian Doyle’s The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World: a novel of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Doyle, an extreme fan, acknowledges in the preface that his book is a celebration of the man whose writing he admires above all other writers in the English language. Then, writing in Louis’ voice, Doyle goes about conjuring up the four months Louis spent in the winter of 1880 in San Francisco. It was a difficult time for Louis, having left behind a comfortable life of wealth and privilege in Scotland to make his way to California and the woman he intended to marry.

His health is bad and he has very little money. He waits out the impending divorce of Fanny Osborne, who is living across the bay in Oakland with her two children. He rides out the four months staying at a boarding house on the corner of Hyde and Bush streets. This part is all true. The rest is Doyle’s writing skill.

The story is primarily one wild tale after another as told by retired sea captain John Carson and recounted by Louis. Each day Louis, if he feels well enough to get out of bed, gets to know the city and returns to a roaring fire in the fireplace of his boarding house. Just as his host Mr. Carson is getting to the good part of each story, however, boarding house owner and cook Mary Carson calls everyone to dinner in no uncertain terms.

The other character in this tale is the city itself. You will feel the fog on your face and feel the muscles in your legs ache when climbing the stair-stepped slopes of San Fran along with Louis. You’ll feel Louis’s generosity of spirit and the love he was heading toward in marrying Fanny. And you will just feel beautiful writing enveloping you.

Then you’ll wonder more about the real life of Robert Louis Stevenson. And, let me tell you, there is plenty to find out. If you just want a quick but satisfying read with photos of Louis in the South Pacific, I recommend a tiny little booklet in the Northwest room called R.L. Stevenson Poet in Paradise by Maxine Mrantz. Then there is a more complete telling of Louis’ whole life in Claire Harman’s Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson.

To cap it all off, take a quick trip down to the 10th street boat launch road in Everett and stand just a few feet away from what is left of the Equator, the boat that brought Louis to his final destiny, Samoa.

Oh Mother Where Art Thou?

I always enjoy the little surprises that books can provide. Recently, I finished a fantastic book while on vacation. It followed a young man haunted by the disappearance of his mother, grappling with adulthood, identity, and a tumultuous, changing world. It was the kind of book that stays with you, suppressing any desire to begin something new. I needed a book for the rest of my trip but had no idea what I wanted. Luckily I was visiting two friends with strong opinions and great taste. They clued me in to another incredible novel, this one about a young man haunted by the disappearance of his mother, grappling with adulthood, identity, and….you guessed it, a tumultuous, changing world.

Despite this coincidence, these books both feature rich, nuanced characters in very different circumstances. It was a pleasure to stumble into their lives one-after-the-other, and to have the opportunity to discover the links between them as their stories unfolded.

51ru-JNuaDLIn Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Deming Guo is introduced as a boy living with his mother and her boyfriend in the Bronx. Deming’s life is far from perfect- his family has little money, he struggles in school, and he argues with his mother. But they love each other fiercely and seem to have an unbreakable bond. This makes it all the harder when Deming’s mother suddenly disappears without explanation, leaving him shattered and alone. Eventually Deming is put in foster care then adopted by a well-meaning but aloof white couple who take him to live upstate and, hoping to help him fit in, change his name to Daniel.

The narrative follows Deming both as a child, coming to terms with his mother’s disappearance and his strange new life, and as Daniel, a recent college dropout desperate to make a name for himself among the ultra-cool of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. As Daniel’s life begins to unravel, the narrative also expands to include the story of his mother, how she came to America, and the real reason she disappeared from Daniel’s life.

The Leavers is a painful but redemptive story of family, immigration, assimilation, and identity. Ko methodically reveals Daniel’s and his mother’s stories, bringing careful attention to their struggles, their triumphs, and their flaws. Daniel repeatedly finds himself on the outside looking in. In upstate New York he feels too Chinese; among New York City’s hipsters, he feels like an impostor from upstate. When he finally visits China, he feels conspicuously and inescapably American. Ko’s narrative may be at its strongest when Daniel is puzzling through his questions about identity, but through Daniel’s birth mother’s story, Ko also deftly brings attention to the cruelty and inhumanity of America’s militarized immigration enforcement system.

saleemhaddad-guapaOn its face, Guapa, by Saleem Haddad, is a very different kind of story. Guapa follows a young man named Rasa who lives in an unnamed Arab country during and after the Arab Spring. Like Daniel, Rasa struggles to escape his memories of his mother, who disappeared when he was a child. Rasa is also facing a crisis point. His grandmother just discovered him in bed with his boyfriend, who is also about to get married. To a woman. Rasa struggles to salvage this romance while keeping his identity under wraps in a society where knowledge of his sexuality is a legitimate danger to his life.

As Rasa struggles through a truly terrible day, his story shifts through time revealing details of his childhood and the circumstances that led his mother to abandon him, his years as a college student in New York where he struggled to explore his sexuality and not be pigeonholed because of his ethnicity, and his traumatic days protesting during a period of revolutionary unrest in his homeland. Haddad also explores generational conflict in the Arab world. Rasa is one of many young people determined to change their country, but frustrated at every turn by a mix of oppression, extremism, and bureaucracy. On a personal level, Rasa struggles to understand his grandmother’s adherence to traditional values, particularly the idea of shame.

As Rasa’s day lurches towards decisive confrontations with the two largest figures in his life, his grandmother and his boyfriend, he contends with his own past, his country’s future, and the nagging fear that he may not have a place in the world around him. Rasa is a compelling character who seems caught in impossible circumstances, with the oppressive constraints of identity, expectations, and cultural norms bearing down on him with heart-wrenching weight.

I wish that Rasa’s New York could bleed into Daniel’s and the two could meet. While they come from very different circumstances, and want different things from their lives, they are both linked by the vacuum left behind when their mothers disappeared. Daniel might understand Rasa’s despair as he navigates his queerness and Arabness in a hostile homeland. And Rasa might understand the way that Daniel feels stretched as he tries to shed his Chinese heritage to please his adoptive parents while remaining desperate to reconnect with his mother and her roots. I, for one, felt lucky to discover these two young men and get lost in the murky, tumultuous years of their youths.

Heartwood 8:4 – People in the Room by Norah Lange

Norah Lange’s short novel, People in the Room is told from the perspective of an unnamed seventeen-year-old girl living with her family in Buenos Aires in the early part of the twentieth-century. The reader senses in the early pages that this is an imaginative narrator eager to escape the stultifying experiences of her family life. She’s afforded an escape of sorts when a lightning storm suddenly brings together the flash of the girl’s reflection in a mirror with her awareness of three women seen through the sheer curtains of their drawing room in the house across the street. This initiates in the girl a sustained obsession with spying on the three women over a period of weeks.

Very little happens – the women seem to always be at home, sitting in the same chairs and doing little more than lifting a cigarette or glass of wine to their lips – but there is palpable tension in the protagonist’s account of what she observes and imagines regarding the women, and she eventually intervenes in their lives by intercepting a telegram addressed to them and is soon paying them daily visits. Some of the more unusual and enigmatic scenes include: the narrator hearing her own voice come from one of the three women who is speaking to a clerk at the post office; watching through the window as a mysterious stranger arrives at the women’s house and is handed a package (presumably of letters) by the eldest only to immediately transfer it to the youngest; and the narrator’s panic when she wakes to a passing funeral procession for three neighborhood children who had died in a house fire, and mistakenly assumes the caskets contain the bodies of the three women.

The narrator at times is quick to assign fault or blame to the women, claiming they didn’t deserve this or that, and she also vacillates between feelings of intense love for them and wanting to see them dead, or imagining them as criminals, as wayward, or as having something to hide. She makes statements that imply she holds a certain agency over the women; that it is her imagination and inventiveness that gives them their lives, gauzy and understated though they are. Particular objects (such as a spider, or a blue dress) can trigger a kind of associative transfer in which the objects take on importance beyond themselves, or are charged with evocative power – for example, causing the narrator to think of faded letters, or instilling in her the urge to travel in the dining car of a train. There are also scenes and expressions of loneliness, anxiety, forebodings of something tragic, and talk of the slit wrists of suicides.

Finally, there is something like a psychic blending or assimilation of the three women who are “collected” and combined with the world of the narrator, as can be seen in this passage in which her mostly inattentive family notices how she has changed: ““It must be her age” others would whisper, while the three faces settled into my own, becoming accustomed to strange conversations, forever leaving their mark on my seventeenth winter.”

Lange has indicated that she started writing this novel after seeing a reproduction of a portrait of the Brontë sisters painted by their brother Branwell, who originally included himself in the portrait but later painted himself out (though leaving a ghostly trace). Given this inspiration, People in the Room could be considered a very imaginative, extended, and daring work of ekphrasis, and it’s interesting to see the protagonist also frequently referring to the three women as lifeless sculptures, or portraits, or even eerie ceramic dolls.

People in the Room, first published in 1950, appears to be the first English language translation of a work by Norah Lange, an Argentine author who was related to Jorge Luis Borges and was influenced by him and other ultraísta writers and poets with whom she associated in Buenos Aires. Readers, however, may well find the influence of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw at least as evident in this atmospheric tale that to some degree resembles an oneiric, gothic, ghost story.

But let’s not limit by comparison a work as captivating, unsettling, and poetic as this. Readers of English will want to discover this long-neglected novel, and we are fortunate now to have access to it in this nuanced translation by Charlotte Whittle.