In honor of SK’s 70th Birthday — Repost: A Thank You Letter to Stephen King

Dear Mr. King,

I ‘m writing you (what turned out to be) a long thank you letter. I guess, because I’m thinking about life and loss, and watching my daughters get older, I’m looking back across my life. And you seem to have been around as much as anyone. You’ve seen me through a lot, although you don’t know me.

But I feel like you should know me.  I feel like you’ve been there with me for years.

It’s 2017. I just turned 51. So seriously, I’ve been reading you all of my reading life.

I started reading you in second grade, when I got a copy of The Shining off of my mom’s bookcase. I got about half way in, and was having really bad dreams, when my mom caught me with it (paperback, bright, shiny silver reflective cover that was somehow compelling and creepy at the same time) under my covers. She took it away immediately.

It was even freakier for me because of the Colorado connection. See, we lived in Northern Colorado, and I grew up heading to Estes Park when the need for the mountains called. We skied quiet a bit, and Hidden Valley (outside of Estes, closed now) was our main mountain at that time. So, although you never named Estes, I knew where Sidewinder was, at least in my mind.

I’m sure at that point my mom hid the book, but I remember worrying about Danny for few years. He was always in the back of my mind. Finally (I’m not positive of my age, but it must have been around 12) I was granted permission to finish the book.

Although he was safe, I cannot say I was heartened by his fate.

A little sidenote: My 14 year-old makes fun of me when, at hotels, I check behind the shower curtain for Mrs. Massey or someone similar. I’m relieved when we stay at hotels with just showers, no tub.

I’m not going to go step-by-step through my Stephen King reading list, but I do want to tell you about reading The Stand for the first time. It may have been what cemented my fate as a King reader for life: It’s a surreal tale of fiction meeting reality.

As I said, I grew up in Northern Colorado. My brother and I were competitive swimmers, so our mom drove us to many meets throughout Colorado and Southern Wyoming. As a Colorado native herself, she knew most of the towns in which the meets were held, but, for some reason, Boulder was not a city she knew well. (My parents were seriously conservative, and I remember many discussions about ‘hippy’ Boulder.) And there weren’t many meets there, so we just didn’t need to go to Boulder very often.

But the summer when I was 13 (almost 14) we were going to a meet in Boulder.

And I was reading The Stand.

I was reading about Harold’s neighborhood, and it was either his burial committee time OR when Larry Underwood and Leo go to Harold’s house to bring him wine and chocolate Paydays (yes, I’ve read this book a few times). At any rate, they were talking about the dead bodies in the houses on specific streets.

And my mom got lost. On those specific streets. As I was reading about plague-dead bodies rotting on those streets. (And the streets were quiet, as it was an early morning in the summer).

Thank God for my mom’s cussing and losing her mind, otherwise I may have had a hard time believing there weren’t dead bodies behind the drawn window shades.

(I did go to school in Boulder for a time, and have spent quite a bit of time there as an adult, but I still relate certain landmarks with The Stand.)

None-the-less, after the experience I was pretty much hooked. The Stand has become kind of a touchstone for me; I find myself returning to it in times of stress and heartbreak. I’ve read it (and listened to it) too many times to count.

I’ve read nearly every book you’ve written. Some I’ve loved beyond belief, some I don’t love quiet as much. But that’s okay. Reading is subjective.

Okay, to this year, Mr. King. It’s been something, to say the least, for my family. But you helped, in your own way.

See, this past year my mom died in the spring. She was strong and feisty and willful, but cancer got her. She was young when she had me, so I kept thinking we had years. We didn’t. And I miss her like crazy.

After we got through her memorial services, at the end of this summer, my husband had scheduled surgery, a routine surgery pretty much. But, because it’s 2017 and the year I want gone, he developed every complication available, allowing him an extra three weeks to get to know the nurses at the hospital. He’s home now and doing well, but was a little reminder of how fragile everything in this life can be.

Back to the spring, though. After my mom’s first memorial service in Arizona, I started listening to The Gunslinger, and then had to listen to the whole Dark Tower series. I work from home, so I could keep listening while working. I had read the first three in the series many years ago, but hadn’t come back to them. I started from the beginning and made it all the way to the end. I have not gotten to see the movie (I love the idea Idris Elba as Roland) –it came out right as my husband developed complications.

(I’m a huge fan of reading, but listening to a book – letting someone read to me – is incredibly soothing and perfect. Most of your books have great narrators. Frank Muller was brilliant. George Guidall did a superb job as well).

Then I went back and listened to all the books related or semi-related. I’m still working my way through those, but I’m done with the majority.  There’s something about connecting your work to another world that makes this real world seem bearable.

I listened to The Shining on our drive to Colorado for my mom’s second memorial service. And then Dr. Sleep. It seemed fitting to revisit Danny for a trip to Colorado, although, while driving through Nebraska, I was (and always will be) looking for Hemingford Home.

So, I guess at this point I’ve rambled on enough. I really just wanted to take this moment to say thank you. Most people don’t thing of Stephen King books as comforting, but they have been to me. You’ve gotten me through a seemingly steady (but actually tumultuous) childhood, an obviously unsteady young adulthood, the divorce of my parents and the end of our family business. You were there for my marriage (pretty good, all things considered) and the births of two daughters 14 months apart — with the second girl surprising us by not only coming along so soon after the first but also by being born with Down syndrome (shocking at the time, but after a few weeks it seemed like that’s what we expected, and now, after nearly 13 years, I can’t imagine that other road).

You’ve gotten me through those seemingly never ending toddler years and a move from Colorado to Central Ohio. You were there during my many drives from Ohio to New Jersey when my mother-in-law got cancer and died, as well as trips to New Jersey when my father-in-law passed away.

You were there in those seemingly uneventful times before my mom got sick. And, as I’ve said, you’ve been there this year.

Your books comfort me in their own eerie way. I guess you’re kind of my Dark Tower, pulling and steadying me, keeping me on the path of the beam (please just keep the Crimson King at bay for awhile).

Okay, enough rambling. I just really want to say thank you.

So thank you.

Sincerely,

Kyle Anne Uniss aka Constantly Reading Momma

 

 

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Audiobook review: “My Absolute Darling” by Gabriel Tallent

My Absolute Darling

Gabriel Tallent

Narrated by Alex McKenna

August 29, 2017 | Penguin Audio

Literary Fiction | Coming of age

 

 


 

Turtle Alveston, given name Julia, also known as Kibble. At 14, she’s spent most of her life living in isolation in the woods along the Northern California coast with only her tortured, survivalist father Martin to care for her.  She roams the woods freely, claiming tide pools, creeks, craggy islands, and the coastline as her playground.

But the outside world confounds her. She refuses to make friends or to ask for help, turning away anyone – teachers, students, administrators – that dare attempt to get to know her.

All this changes one day, as she wanders through the woods and creek beds, and she comes across two lost high school boys, and she’s instantly drawn to one of them. Jacob is funny and smart, lives in a large house with his successful parents and sister, and looks at Turtle like she could do anything. Suddenly Turtle sees her world clearly: her life with Martin is precarious and unsafe, and she starts to imagine escape.

When escape becomes the only answer, Turtle uses the survival skills Martin drilled into her to save not only herself, but others she’s come to care for, maybe even to love.


 

Before embarking on the My Absolute Darling audio journey (I used Audible for it, spending one of my precious monthly credits), I had read quite a bit about the book. I wasn’t sure if it was the kind of book I wanted to read right at that point in my life.

And then Stephen King said I should give it a try (not in person  – duh!), and, since I’ve been on an SK roll, I gave it a try.  I’m glad I took the chance.

Before I get into the book, however, I need to talk about Alex McKenna, the narrator of Gabriel Tallent’s novel.

McKenna has a raspy, raw voice, and she’s the perfect choice for this book, in my opinion. When listening to a book, the narrator is so vitally important, and a voice can make or break a book. McKenna’s voice perfectly matched Turtle’s isolated, primitive existence.  It’s uncommon raspy timbre enhanced the story for me, adding another layer unavailable with the book. (I don’t say this lightly. I LOVE reading books more than anything. I usually find audiobooks useful as a way to ‘read’ while doing other things, but rarely do I say I listening adds to the book. This is an exception.)

Okay, onto the contents and the story. My Absolute Darling really wasn’t what I would have picked for myself at this point in my life (as you know, it’s been a hard year) if I would have thought beyond an impulse. It’s pretty dark and disturbing at points, and, had I really thought about it, I would have turned away.

But I have to say another thank you to Stephen King. I needed this. I needed dark and disturbing but real and raw. My Absolute Darling is scarier than any horror movies in places, because there is a world out there like Turtle’s, and real people living lives similar to hers.

I’m a firm believer that fiction should sometimes push us out of our comfort zone and take us to other places. Sometimes fiction needs to make us think beyond our contentment.

(But I also believe in feel good fiction more often than not. Go for contentment most of the time, just push yourself outside of it every so often.)

My Absolute Darling definitely took me out of my comfort zone – as a reader, a mother, and a human being. But Gabriel Tallent also told me the story of a true survivor, and that made it all worth it.

Tallent uses bleak, startling language to tell Turtle’s story, and he uses it well. His descriptions of the natural world are so spot on, putting me along the coast and on the craggy islands, walking me through creekbeds and making me watch spiders and scorpions with fascination.

In the beginning, Turtle wants nothing to do with the world outside her own, which makes sense. But, when her grandfather dies, she has to venture out. Seeming like a minor character, his death shows him for what he was: a buffer between Turtle and her father, protecting her from the worst. A person who shows her love (although limited), rather than the control and ownership that passes for love with her father Martin.

It’s after her grandfather’s death that she must start to figure it all out and to venture out. She starts to realize that life can be different. She decides to fight for herself and her own soul, because she realizes her soul belongs to her and no one else.

(A couple of questions that are never answered and would make GREAT discussion questions:

  • What went on between Martin and his father to make Martin hate him so much?
  • What REALLY happened to Turtle’s mother?

If you read My Absolute Darling, please tell my your thoughts!)

What spurs her on, after her grandfather’s death, to venture out into the unknown, to want more than her small life, is the same thing that makes teenagers the world over start to want more than their small lives: it’s love. For Turtle it’s a deep friendship with Jacob, a boy who can see past the rawness of Turtle to the beauty, brains, and grit of her. A boy who thinks she can do anything.

And that shows Turtle that she’s more than just her father’s disciple. It puts a piece of her into place, showing her that love is more than being scared. Because Jacob expects more of her, she becomes more. She stops worrying about only herself and her small world, starts worrying about how her actions – and inactions – can and are affecting the world around her and those she cares about.

My Absolute Darling is a story of survival, but it’s also a coming-of-age story. Turtle’s world is not normal, and her life is one of extremes and violence, one that she has to survive more than live. But, at it’s heart, My Absolute Darling is an age old story of a girl finding her place in the world.

If you do decide to read or listen to this, know that it’s dark and difficult. Don’t listen to it with children around, the story has some very graphic moments and vulgar words (beyond crass into true hateful vulgarity). I had to take a break from it for a few days, it was just that disturbing in a real world kind of way.

But I did come back. The story’s compelling and irresistible qualities won over its more disconcerting and unsettling ones.  Turtle is a commanding protagonist, one demanding your attention, refusing your desire to turn away.  Tallent doesn’t shy away from her dark thoughts and realities, but that makes her triumphs that much more substantive. Turtle is the real deal.

She’s a real survivor.