Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Book 8: Cell

by Stephen King (2006)

Like Charles Burns’ “Black Hole”, this was a totally spontaneous read. Next up was supposed to be “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle”, but Olman excitedly acquired Stephen King’s latest after being on the library waiting list for 3 weeks. With my inherent mistrust of mass fiction, I was skeptical at first. But Olman informed me of the story’s premise: on a certain day, a strange signal is broadcast. Anyone who uses their cell phone turns into a blathering, rage-filled lunatic who's only purpose is to kill every living thing in sight. In the blink of an eye, civilization is reduced to pure mayhem and soon afterwards, burning stinking rubble. We then follow a rag-tag bunch of survivors and see how they fare amidst the post-apocalyptic desolation and teeming “phone-crazies” who’ve now become zombie-like drones with a strange hive-like mentality…

I knew then I had to see what this post-apoca-zombie book had in store for me. Luckily, Olman has been so immersed in his bande dessinee serials that I was able to jump into “Cell” immediately after finishing “Bee Season”. I had my share of art-house literature, time for some serious kickass horror action!

And boy, “Cell” really delivers. Within a couple of pages, death, destruction and gore are already in full swing, boyee! King wears all the old and new horror movie influences on his sleeves: One Missed Call, Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, War of the Worlds, and Land of the Dead. He doesn’t even wince with those post-9/11 references. But he gets away with it because he’s so damn good at what he does. Most importantly, he’s able to build characters that are ordinary, identifiable and compassionate folk who also possess reasoning, intelligence and a good dose of survival instincts. Although the characters are from a range of age, sex and background, my only beef is that they’re all caucasian. But I should’ve known better. King wields total authorial control and every element of his story is accounted when, towards the end of the novel, one of the protagonists remarks, upon witnessing a fair ground full of nearly all-white phone-zombies, that “this is New England after all”.

The novel’s packed full of everything and there was never a dull moment; a real page-turner that kept me up until 3am on Sunday night. There was a section where I didn’t like the way the zombies were going in their “developments”, just a bit too far-fetched for me. But I soon got into it and accepted it as a new twist in the zombie genre. Anyway, I don’t believe I need to say much more. Go and read it, it’s a lot of fun!

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Book 7: Bee Season

By Myla Goldberg (2001)

When I was a kid, I secretly fantasized about being a champion speller. Unfortunately, spelling bees are not granted the same stature and prevalence in Canada as they are in the U.S. It just ain't in our culture. Thus whatever pullulating spelling talents I may've had as a child went forever untapped. So now I spend my adult days vicariously devouring definitive ‘spelling bee’ classics such as the documentary “Spellbound” and Myla Goldberg’s debut novel “Bee Season” (I'm joking really).

I initially thought “Bee Season” was going to be a charming, coming of age tale about an unremarkable Jewish girl who finds her true calling as a spelling bee champion. But Eliza’s sudden, unexpected rise to spelling stardom occurs early on in the novel, and serves as a catalyst for the gradual disintegration of her close, but precariously balanced, family unit.

The author thoughtfully explores the themes of human relationships and spirituality. The spelling bee becomes a metaphor for life’s double-edged sword as each family member embarks on a self-fulfilling search for spiritual meaning… or is it really an inexplicable psychological need to fill their emotional and existential emptiness? In this way, the book was much darker than I anticipated, but it’s nevertheless a fascinating and lyrical portrayal of a contradictory and eccentric family of outsiders.

However, what I enjoyed best about the novel is its portrayal of behind-the-scenes spelling bees. In a single paragraph, Goldberg conjures up the fleeting microcosm of the national championships with elegance and humour:

" The press arrive on Friday morning. In each press kit, spellers are listed by number, their names and vital statistics printed below their photos. They come from Neptune, New Jersey; Gallup, New Mexico; and Kokomo, Indiana. They come from Fairbands, Alaska; Naples, Florida; and Rome, Georgia. Their local papers featured them in last Sunday’s human interest column. Between them they have 276 siblings, 89 dogs, 54 cats, and 108 fish. Sixty five have dreamed of accidentally attending Friday’s competition in their underwear. Forty four have churches praying for them. Twenty nine have been constipated for the past two days. Twelve are afraid of vomiting onstage. Five have been wagered upon by overconfident parents.
One will win."

Then there are the wonderful passages describing Eliza’s innate gift, from upstart speller to jedi knight, as her kinship with letters goes beyond mere rote memorization. With her father’s guidance as a Judaic scholar and his library of sacred texts, Eliza learns to decode language itself as her study and encantations of the alphabet take her deeper and deeper into the realms of cabbalistic mysticism. It’s pretty heady stuff.

I end this with one of my favourite excerpts from “Bee Season”:

"Paging through the dictionary is like looking through a microscope. Every word breaks down into parts with properties – prefix, suffix, root. Eliza gleans not only the natural laws that govern the letters but their individual behaviors. R, M, and D are strong, unbending and faithful. The sometimes silent B and G and the slippery K follow strident codes of conduct. Even the redoubtable H, which can make P sound like F and turn ROOM into RHEUM, obeys etymology. Consonants are the camels of language, proudly carrying their lingual loads.

Vowels, however, are a different species, the fish that flash and glisten in the watery depths. Vowels are elastic and inconstant, fickle and unfaithful. E can sound like I or U. –IBLE and –ABLE are impossible to discern. There is no combination the vowels haven’t tried, exhaustive and incestuous in their couplings. E will just as soon pair with A, I, or O, leading the dance or being led. Eliza prefers the vowels’ unpredictability and, of all vowels, favors Y. Y defies categorization, the only letter than can be two things at once. Before the bee, Eliza had been a consonant, slow and unsurprising. With her bee success, she has entered vowelhood. Eliza begins to look at life in alphabetical terms. School is consonantal in its unchanging schedule. God, full of possibility, is a vowel. Death: the ultimate consonant."