Better Read Than Never: Stephen King’s CELL

My review of Stephen King’s novel Cell got a little long and breathless — much like an SK novel — so I cut it in two. The first part was my experience reading Der Horrormeister and sometimes preferring him as a teacherHere, I punch the buttons of the fictional Cell, which I found an agreeable and often compelling read.

There are gorier covers, but my son's paperback version looks like this.

There are gorier covers, but my son’s paperback version looks like this.

Here’s the deal on Cell: for reasons that are never fully understood (by characters or by us), everybody speaking on a cellular phone at a fatal moment are slammed by some kind of electronic probe, later called the Pulse, which instantly erases from them most of what we typically think of as individual humanity. They lunge for available throats and entirely forget how to drive or otherwise conduct everyday jobs, let alone the conventions of civilization. Chaos ensues, of course, and life suddenly becomes a savage, primitive contest of survival between “normies” and “phoners”.

We watch as this happens via Clayton Riddell, a young Dad separated from his wife and young son. He’s a struggling artist, and (as did King) he has daylighted as a school teacher, but on the day the world goes violently sideways, he has just sold his graphic novel, Dark Wanderer, and its sequel for a dizzying amount of money. He’s bought a gift for Sharon, estrangement be damned. He’s thinking of what comic book might thrill his little Johnny. Things are looking up. Seems like a good time to buy some ice cream.

Uh-oh. None of this helps at all six pages in, when the power-suited, ear-pieced woman ahead of him in line for soft-serve, yacking loudly, suddenly stops, drops her phone, gazes blankly, and then tries to drag Mister Softee out of his truck.

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Better Read Than Never: On Stephen King

SK back when, perhaps about the age of Clay, the artist/teacher protagonist of "Cell".

SK back when, perhaps about the age of Clay, the artist/teacher protagonist of “Cell”.

I’m something of an agnostic when it comes to Stephen King, but I still attend the Church of Steve occasionally. I recently read his 2006 novel Cell, not a decade too soon, and enjoyed the ride; we’ll get to that soon. However, I’m sure I’m not alone, though as usual I’m well outside the best-buying mainstream, in preferring King’s non-fiction to his ever-popular novels and shorter stories.

Danse Macabre, his query into the attractions of the dark and haunting tales he likes, charmed me long ago with its range, its sense-making and its humility. I know what I am. I’m a hack, though I try to be a good one. Not long after, reading Misery — this must have been late ’80s, early ’90s — I was abducted (partly) against my will by that tale of a writer haunted by the insanity of fan-dom. I was often knocked out by his word-smithing, too,

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Better Read Than Never: Albom’s TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE

Reviewed, in the usual not-even-trying-to-be-timely way:

Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson by Mitch Albom

Morrie Schwartz was good medicine, and he still is.

I was late hearing the news about the killing spree at the University of California at Santa Barbara, blessed in part by our cultural distance in China, to some degree by immersion in another project, and otherwise by finishing my re-read, on a recent Tuesday, of Mitch Albom’s 1997 publishing phenomenon. There aren’t many better prophylactics against the infections of toxic dismay, rampant disillusion and untargeted anger than this slender, absorbing memoir.

Adjusting the adjustor, guiding the guide.

Adjusting the adjustor, guiding the guide. Morrie’s study, and an especially famous hibiscus plant.

I’d been pretty quick, for a chronically tardy retro-reader, in getting to Tuesdays With Morrie the first time around. I was a high school teacher and basketball coach back then, and even best-sellerdom couldn’t discourage me from picking up a book with a subtitle like that.

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Better Read Than Never: COURTENAY’s The Power of One

The Real Nelson Mandela, being sworn in. (Not Morgan Freeman.)

Sometime during the weeks following Nelson Mandela’s death, I started thinking of The Power of One, a novel that had meant a lot to me in the early ‘90s. (In a fit of bad poetry, I once wrote, “The loneliness birds are croaking…” and feared and heard them often that decade. I still do, sometimes, though I now remember that those birds were inspired, if not stolen, from the novel’s narrator.) Among the many articles and tributes that I read to Madiba, there were references to his enjoyment of boxing as a young man, and the things that he had learned from it. Right! And The Power of One is set in South Africa, centred on the boxing obsession and exploits of a white boy, and wait, wasn’t there a black man in prison who inspired his fists and his mind? I went looking, and found a free on-line torrent (okay, my wife did), but I didn’t really get into this second reading until I was holding a paperback copy. I could say it was an unconscious desire to respect author’s rights, but it was mainly a bibliophile’s bias. I like the feel of 500 pages between my fingers.

The Power of One was a first novel by Bryce Courtenay, an Australian advertising executive who wrote the book as a mid-life challenge¹, setting his adventurous and spiritual and polemical – and, I wasn’t surprised to discover, highly autobiographical – story in his native South Africa. This rambling tale, which he’d planned as a “practice novel”, sold millions. I liked it.

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Better Read Than Never: FALLING MAN

Got DeLillo? Here he is, somewhere in New York City.

Not everybody gets Don DeLillo. If you don’t pay attention to the contemporary art of the novel, you may not have even heard of him. Presto! That’s why I’m here today! Mr. D. is in the pantheon of current American fiction writers. Literary fiction, that is – this is not a “page-turner”, and he’s no Dan Brown. (That would be like comparing Vincent Van Gogh to the guy who makes the blue outlines for the old “paint by numbers” craft sets.) And I’m no DeLillo expert: of his major, and often hefty, acclaimed novels – White Noise, Mao II, and the famous Underworld – I have read precisely none. I tiptoed into his work with a comparatively slender novel called The Body Artist. It was clever, admirable stuff, a bit morose, and I don’t remember much about it. It left me cold, or maybe I was there to begin with. I may, however, need to read it again.

My recent second voyage into DeLillo Country was his 2007 novel Falling Man, the post-9-11 book he hadn’t intended to write. I found it on a remainder shelf in a mega-bookstore back home in Canada, next to a non-fiction book by Martin Amis in the same historical vein: The Second Plane. I was trawling for all-things-I-can’t-get-in-China, and not only were these two volumes a few cultural steps higher than the Harvey’s burgers and Baskin-Robbins cones I’d been gorging myself on last July, they also seemed fated together to increase my lugging for the next month’s return trip to China. And here’s why The Body Artist might deserve a second look: Falling Man is a novel I’ll be thinking about for a long time, one that I immediately started re-reading once I’d finished. How did he do that? It’s brilliant, but also an accessible introduction to a challenging writer.

See those towers? On the left, the back jacket, peeking through clouds.

We later find that one of the central characters is Keith Neudecker, a thirty-something lawyer and lover of games. We first meet him, though, as he staggers down a New York street. The novel opens like this:

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Better Read Than Never: THE ALCHEMIST

It’s just a short stroll. Painless, really.

There was a year, back there somewhere in the early oughts, when it seemed everybody was reading Paulo Coelho’s short novel, The Alchemist. First published in Portuguese in a small late 1980s print run, it became first a Brazilian and then an international literary phenomenon. More copies were sold than live in my country (my home country Canada, that is, not China!). Perhaps it was the contrarian in me, maybe it was just a case of distraction, or it is conceivable that something in the breathless reaction some people were apparently having (and the frenzy with which it was bought) that put me off it. Sometimes ignorance and bias aren’t all bad.

I should’ve liked it. It is a story that speaks unabashedly of spirit, of living simply, of pursuing extraordinary dreams, and while I’m no great exemplar of them, I can enthusiastically get with these ideas.

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Read, However: The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder

I can’t say this one was “better read than never”, which faithful readers of this site expect my book reviews to be (sub)titled. I don’t really know why I read it, although I did like the cover photo of a summery small girl leaping into a river, even more than I disliked the magenta cast of the author’s name – REBECCA WELLS – on the front and the full-back-jacket glossy of the writer. The dust jacket of the book fairly screamed Back away now, Howdy, this ain’t meant for the likes o’ you, but it was in my bedroom (ah, the price of marriage is a sometime surprise!) and I was tired and I never meant to actually finish it and besides I’d heard of Ms. Wells’s Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and thought I’d do a little slumming in the bestseller swamp. Arrogance is bliss, too.

By the way, the book is called The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder, 

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Better Read Than Never: Hessler’s RIVERTOWN

“This isn’t a book about China,” claims author Peter Hessler about the first of his three books set far from his American upbringing. “It’s about a certain small part of China at a certain brief period in time.” And Rivertown: Two Years on the Yangtze is certainly that, though his disclaimer is among the first evidences of the clear-minded humility that is one of the book’s greatest recommendations. It is a first-person account of a young man’s two-year immersion in the life of western China, and it is many things: a wide-open window into a place and a time, a travelogue, a coming-of-age tale, and a teacher’s diary.

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Better Read Than Never: THE HELP

Amid the pampered comings and leavings in the lobby of a Chiang Mai hotel, and here on a sunny balcony overlooking the baking tourists by the pool in Krabi, I try to pretend I am not one of them. When I can’t simply enjoy warmth and leisure and good food, I am guiltily soured by this tourist business, and am too (self) conscious of the real “tourist trap”: the detachment from the serving class, the presumption that the too-visible disparity between their fortune and mine is at it should be. At its worst, it becomes a bland but bitter-edged condescension at the quaintness/ignorance/pathos/inconvenience of “these people”. These people. What a simple and toxic phrase – surely better than “these brutes”, “these savages”, but not so much different. These thoughts gain traction in a slippery tourist mind that is still digesting a jet-set reading of The Help.

Now, gentlemen! Don’t turn away, I’m talking to you,

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I’m a fan, but I still haven’t read the best known books. His Wonder Boys sold well and was turned into a box office success with Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire at the wheel, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the Pulitzer Prize for Michael Chabon. Yes, and there was The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, too, which won the double-crown of speculative fiction, the Hugo and Nebula awards. My first awareness of him might have come in buying a hardcover version – on clear-out from Books on Beechwood, a great little Ottawa bookstore – of his young adult novel Summerland, which had a superbly whimsical dust jacket to go along with its super-nifty title. (Mini-review: if you like any two of children, baseball, goodness, and fantasy-without-swords-or-dragons, you’ll like Summerland. Three or more? Home run. I went four for four.) Then came what made me a Chabon fan, the marvellous non-fiction of Manhood for Amateurs, but that’s not the subject of this review, either. (Real quick? Men who can read, should. He thinks heartily about many things needful for males. Funny, too.)  He’s good, alright.

I write, though, of Chabon’s first novel, published when he was 24, started before and completed during his M.F.A. tour of writing duty In California.

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