Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Flash Fiction: The Last Thing He Hears

The Last Thing He Hears

(Al Dimalanta)

The man sits sweaty and half-naked on the floor of his room amid strips of copper wire, rolls of electric tape, pungent slabs of clay, empty mineral water bottles, crumpled yet unopened letters from his wife and kids, and dead cockroaches. In spite of his efforts to keep his nerves at bay, he trembles violently. And it’s 32 degrees centigrade outside.

He looks at his watch.

In exactly one minute it will come to pass, he says to himself half consolingly, half accusingly.

Still shaking, he reaches to his side for the radio but stops and pulls his hand back.

Don’t. You wouldn’t really want to know.

But he will. Inevitably.

The man whimpers uncontrollably, even ridiculously, as he counts down the seconds, wishing he could have had the will and the fortitude to just say no and walk away. But he was weak. He was a pushover.

I hope I fail.

But no, he is too much of a professional to fail in such a simple task.

He slowly closes his eyes as his thoughts turn to his wife and kids who he has not seen in several months. But as soon as their happy faces flash vividly in his mind, he opens his eyes in an effort to distract himself.

It’s done.

How many could it have been?

He reaches again for the radio and flicks on the power switch. The news. A bomb exploded in the Congress building.

The man closes his eyes again, says a silent prayer then finally gets up and walks casually to his bed. He reaches under the creaky mattress for an old 9mm pistol. No longer quivering, he disengages the lock and points the barrel to his temple. The last thing he hears is the crack of the gunshot.

The sound is deafening, but nobody else hears.

The radio blares on.

Nobody died. Nobody was injured.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

A short story: There's No Such Thing

There’s No Such Thing

A storm rages outside as I lie in mid-sleep sometime between midnight and dawn. I have always found it difficult to sleep during thunderstorms and tonight is no exception. I listen as rain scratches violently against my bedroom window; the branches of the old tree just outside my room scrape against each other seemingly eager to be liberated from their captor and go wildly free with the wind. Suddenly, and strangely, three successive flashes of lightning illuminate the room and penetrate even my closed eyelids. Almost immediately, three successive cracks of thunder follow in increasing volume, adding to the already maddening cacophony of storm sounds.

A chill, brought about not by the damp air that pervades my room nor by anything physical at all, suddenly courses through my body as I suddenly recall something that I thought I have already forgotten: it was on a night like this, on this very same house, that I saw a ghost for the first and only time in my life. That ghostly encounter changed my life in more ways than one.

As if in a sudden dream, I find myself recalling vividly what had occurred that fateful stormy night.

The storm had just started when my family and I arrived home late from a family reunion. I was ten years old at the time, twenty years ago. I recall that during the four-hour trip from my uncle’s place up north, winds were already ominously bending palm trees on the roadside – a sign that the coming storm would be really nasty.

My mom, who had always been a stickler for pre-bedtime personal hygiene routines, had asked me to go to the bathroom, wash my face and brush my teeth before going to bed. That was something she had always done for as long as I could remember. She added that since it was already way past midnight, I should hurry about what I was doing and immediately go to bed.

As I was walking in the dim hallway of the second floor on my way to the bathroom, I suddenly heard three cracks of thunder. It stopped me on my tracks. It was weird, I thought, for I had never heard such a thing in my life before. Three successive thunderclaps. I waited for a few seconds for it to happen again. No such luck. I waited for a minute or so more. Still, no thunder, just the sound of rain loudly pounding on the roof and the silent flashes of distant lightning.

It seemed that I was standing still waiting for something to happen for minutes. Then, as if in generous response to my wish, it happened.

As I was about to resume my walk to the bathroom, I noticed a shadow in front of me. It was my own, but it was cast by a bluish light coming from behind me. It wasn’t the fleeting kind of shadow cast by strobe-like lightning flashes, it was the kind of shadow produced by a seemingly continuous source of faint light. However, my shadow, which started out long and a bit faint, was starting to shorten slowly and become more distinct, which meant that the light source was moving and coming closer. I turned around and saw the seemingly luminescent ghost of a man heading slowly towards me. Surprisingly, I did not feel the least bit afraid. If anything, I was curious about who this ghost was—where he came from, how he died, and why he was haunting me. Although I knew that I was mildly shaken by the unsettling event that was unfolding, I also knew that I wasn’t really frightened of that thing, that apparition, that specter.

He was cautiously walking while looking at me with eyes and mouth wide open, apparently in shock. The funny thing was, this ghost seemed to be as surprised to see me as I was to see him. I thought then that maybe he was just the ghost of someone who recently died and was doing his very first haunting. That incident was probably the first for both of us – he was my first ghost and I was probably his first human. And if I hadn’t known any better, I would have deduced from the look on his face that the ghost was actually more afraid of me than I was of him. That thought almost made me laugh.

I found myself walking towards the newbie ghost who by that time was already standing still, apparently not knowing how to react to being in the presence of a living person.

My surprising audacity in the presence of an eerie specter stemmed from the fact that I had never believed in ghosts. Well, my father had always told me that ghosts didn’t exist; that they were mere figments of our imagination. I grew up believing this. Whenever my classmates would tell ghost stories, which I knew for sure they had made up, I would just laugh and tell them off. There’s no such thing. I would always say.

“Are you a ghost?” I asked.

He opened his mouth to say something but either the rain was hammering too loudly on the roof thus drowning out his ghost voice or he actually produced no sound at all. I then thought that he probably was a pure spirit and did not have the right equipment, like vocal cords and such, to produce anything audible. Still, I fervently wanted to communicate with him, so I pushed on.

"Who are you?”

Again, he tried to speak but, again, I couldn’t hear anything.

Despite the fact that the glowing apparition was transparent and rather blurry, I could make out his face. And what I could read from his facial expression was mild confusion and utter frustration—the exact same things I was feeling at that moment. It seemed that he wanted as much to know more about me as I wanted to know more about him. This silence, this inability to communicate, however, prevented us from really knowing what was going on.

“What are you doing here? Do you live here, too?” I remember asking.

Once again, his lips moved but still the only sound that I heard was the slightly easing rainfall and the rapid thudding of my heart. I took my boldness a level higher and decided to inch nearer, desperately wanting to know more about this otherwordly visitor. But as I took my first careful step he started to vanish, and quickly, like smoke being diffused by a sudden gust of wind.

As the apparition disappeared, the hallway started to dim again and I was left with an odd feeling of emptiness—the sort of void that’s left with the unexpected departure of a friend. It was strange that the short two-minute experience left a tremendous impact on me. Then again, I was just ten years old at the time.

Now, twenty years and 15 best-selling ghost novels later, I suddenly think of my old friend to whom I owe a great deal. It was he who started me on the path to ghost story writing. It was he who effectively sparked my interest in the unknown, in the fourth dimension, in the twilight zone. It was he who I suddenly miss terribly. I have never seen him since that stormy night. Come to think of it, I have never seen any other ghost since then.

I had kept on wishing for him to reappear one night. It was for this reason that I held on to this house, in the hope that one stormy night, he will find his way back to my hallway. But, dozens of storms have come and gone. Still, no ghost. I have married and separated and have a ten-year-old kid that I raise alone. Still, no ghost.

As I lay waiting for the downpour to pass so I can go to sleep in the still and cool of the afterstorm, my attention is drawn by light seeping into the room through the narrow gap under the door. It doesn’t seem to be the kind of light produced by strobe-like lightning flashes, but the kind that is produced by a consistent, although faint source.

I get up and walk slowly to the door. My heart races as I realize the possibilities waiting for me outside. Could it be him? Could this be the moment that I see my long-lost friend again? Would he be able to talk to me this time around? There is one way to find out. I open the door and step outside.

What waits for me outside is not the ghost of two decades past, but something else. Someone else. Even though he is facing the other way, apparently unmindful of my presence, I know nevertheless that he is not the same ghost who visited me twenty years ago. He is much younger.

Taken aback by this new and not entirely expected visitor, I inch closer.

I am a grown man who makes a living fabricating tales about ghosts, vampires, werewolves and other less-than-pleasant beings for the purpose of scaring the wits out of my readers. Writing horror stories empowers me for I become the source of fright, the purveyor of fear and, as such, I myself become immune to terror. Weaving together tales of the supernatural allows me to rise above petty fear and trepidation. But now, faced with the kind of being that haunts the very pages I write, and for only the second time in my life, I tremble uncontrollably.

He turns around and sees me. His young face, blurry like the image from an improperly focused camera, shows signs of surprise, as if he does not expect any human being to see him in his haunting. Then again, I am no longer totally surprised by this reaction, for it was the same reaction of my past visitor.

Burdened by an uncomfortable mix of fear and disappointment, I resolve to find out more about this young specter. I know that talking to him may be a futile effort, but I still want to try, hoping that this time around, he will be able to respond audibly.

“What’s your name?” I ask.

Just as I expect, he opens his mouth to talk but he does not produce anything audibly perceptible at all. Not even a whisper or a gentle murmur. I suddenly recall the same disappointment that I felt twenty years ago; the frustration of wanting to know but not being able to.

“What are you doing here? Are you lost?”

He speaks. But silently. Again.

I try a couple more times and in both instances he tries to communicate but to no avail. It’s as if a wall, a sound barrier, stands between the two of us. All I can hear is the steadily softening patter of raindrops on the roof. The storm is easing up and the wind is starting to weaken, as is my hope of learning anything more about my silent young friend.

A few more seconds elapse and I am still face to face with the blurry apparition, not knowing what else to do and what else to say. It’s both funny and sad that I have been waiting for twenty years for something like this to happen again; yet, now that I am experiencing the very thing I have been wishing for for quite some time, I am at a loss for action.

What persists for sure, however, is a strange feeling of déjà vu. The three successive thunderclaps. The very same hallway. The same time of day. The same feeling of helplessness.

Then a sudden realization hits me. An urge to talk to him again to confirm this creeps in but as I open my mouth to speak, another realization hits—I know that I would never ever know. Then, a bit expectedly, my young friend starts to fade like smoke diffused by a sudden waft and I am left with a familiar sadness.

I turn around and head back to my room tired and dejected. I know now that I would never see this apparition nor the one I saw twenty years ago ever again. In fact, I don’t think that I will see any ghost for the rest of my life.

I lie on my bed with the thoughts of what has just transpired. I suddenly feel that I have had enough of ghost story writing. In the morning, I will go to my son’s room and tell him that there is no such thing as ghosts.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

A short story: One Way or Another

This is a short story I recently wrote and which will appear in the latest issue of TOMAS, the literary journal of the University of Santo Tomas Center for Creative Writing and Studies. I'm sharing it here in advance to those who care to read. I hope you like it. Anyway, the story is actually speculative fiction, something that I have always been into (well, my reading has always been in "phases" -- realistic fiction, speculative fiction, non-fiction, and back).

The sun had completed its descent into the horizon and the lower part of the sky was cast with a warm tangerine afterglow vanishing upwards into deep purple and then dark blue. The evening tide rolled in, gently lapping the shore, alternately blanketing and revealing seashells, weeds and bits of trash which the last high tide had left. It had been 12 hours since I received the phone call that changed my whole day and, most probably, my whole life as well.

As I sat facing the sea on one of the concrete benches lining up the sidewalk, as I had for the last four hours, one thought kept racing through my mind: I must make a decision pretty soon.

It was going to be the biggest decision in my life—the life-altering kind that might just spell the difference between rags and riches, between obscurity and popularity, between merely living alone in a drab middle-income, two-room bungalow somewhere far north of the nearest metropolis and living it up with any woman of my choice in a posh 400-square-meter air-conditioned condo unit overlooking lights coming from affluent houses and buildings at night. Admittedly, the difference in those scenarios seemed too huge to even merit second thoughts. Then again, such decisions, especially those concerning criminally easy windfalls, always come with certain risks. Sometimes they even prove fatal, especially since this forthcoming decision of mine might also spell the difference between an utterly mundane and unluxurious but relatively safe life and a lonely and miserable life in prison. I had to think it over carefully.

The instructions were clear enough. Tomorrow morning at eight, I would discreetly stroll to the cubicle of our senior loans supervisor, who at the time would be conveniently called to the room of an accomplice, and use his computer to approve an otherwise unworthy loan application worth sixty million bucks. Then, I would as discreetly hurry back to my own cubicle at the far end of the room. Simple. Too simple, in fact. I would be receiving a cool six million for the deed the very next day.

The gig was so easy that it was terribly tempting. The senior loans supervisor, Mr. Fall Guy himself, the unwilling and unknowing accessory, already had previous charges of dishonesty, although they were relatively petty ones—creating padded expense vouchers, maintaining unliquidated representation allowances, and reimbursing fictional expenses. Fortunately for him, none of these had ever been proven. Still, his performance record was far from being spotless. The company had merely been keeping him in his job because he had been working there for twenty years, and besides, nobody wanted his risky job. Chances were, he would get the blame for my deed and nobody would even believe his claims of innocence. Poor fellow. When I get my money, I will send his wife a hundred grand anonymously. That will just about cover her husband’s inconvenience, I thought. That would also just about cover any remorse or guilt that I might feel afterwards.

I wasn’t really pressured into doing it. My real accomplice said that if I wasn’t up to it, he would simply ask someone else to do the task. However, I needed to make a decision right away and call him up at nine that evening. That gave me three more hours to decide. Three short hours too soon.

I was relieved that the sun had set, which meant that the sky above the horizon before me would soon be totally dark and the absence of distracting details in my field of vision would help me focus my thoughts on the matter at hand.

The tranquil view of a dusk-veiled seascape had always helped me think. That particular time, however, was different. No matter how hard I tried to focus my thoughts and weigh the pros and the cons of the plan, I remained frustratingly irresolute.

I needed something to help me decide. I needed guidance. I needed Divine Intervention even. But then, if God really intervened in my dilemma, He would definitely tell me to stop thinking about this bullshit and go on with my life totally guilt-free (although still hopelessly destitute). So that wouldn’t help either.

Like Mr. Fall Guy, I had never been a saint. I used to regularly bring home office supplies and gave them away as presents on Christmas or used them for my own personal purposes. I had always thought that such supplies were merely there for the taking and would not be missed. Besides, the company wouldn’t go broke because of a few missing Mongols and reams of “Best-buy” bond paper.

I also used to tamper with my time card to show that I was at work on a day when I was actually at home enjoying a good, naughty DVD and a few bottles of pale pilsen. There were also times when I, like Mr. Fall Guy, would slightly pad an expense report for a client meeting so that I would be reimbursed an amount a bit more than what I actually spent. The difference between me and my clueless associate, however, was that I had never gotten greedy and had done my thing sparingly. I knew how to stay under the radar. He, in turn, was voracious.

Despite all these small instances of mendacity, which had been a constant source of guilty pleasure for me, I had never been involved in something as big as what was to go down the next day.

As my thoughts wandered to the pros and cons of living inside a prison cell, I felt a presence on the bench to my right. A ragged man in his fifties or sixties, who had seemed to come out of nowhere, was seated next to me and was gazing at the quickly darkening seascape. Oh great. A distraction, I thought to myself.

“Too bad I didn’t catch the sunset,” he said a little meekly, brushing his purple overcoat which was full of holes and tears and reeking of a lethal mix of alcohol, sweat, and sewer.

“You didn’t miss much,” I said flatly. “It was the same as yesterday and the day before.”

Everyone loves to watch the sun set. I myself used to go out of my way at times to just catch a glimpse of the sun proudly breaking downwards from the hovering clouds and silently settling into a darkening sea as if to bid all whose eyes are upon it goodnight. That evening’s sunset was no different. It was beautiful.

“Nothing today is the same as yesterday or the day before, my friend,” he said. “Today, everything is different, as all the coming days will be.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” I snapped back, trying to avoid a superficial discussion and end the conversation quickly. Whatever was on his mind, it was something I didn’t particularly care for. I had something to think about; something I needed to resolve and I didn’t need a rather pointless conversation to divert my attention.

“Makes one think about whether tomorrow will be the same as today, doesn’t it?” The man seemed intent on carrying on so I started straightening up my tie to leave and find another place where I could be alone in my thoughts.

When I faced him to politely say so long, something odd struck me and left me seemingly paralyzed for a second or so. On his left ring finger, he was wearing a silver band, plain except for a small, solitary bluish crystal gem right smack in the middle. It was the exact kind of ring that I was wearing on the exact same finger of my left hand. That was weird.

I also noticed that his left hand had creepy linear burn marks and his other fingers, except for the one with the ring, were scarred and grotesquely twisted and most probably useless.

“Where did you get that ring?” I asked curiously, pointing to the band.

“Oh this,” he said nonchalantly. “My mother gave it to me.”

“That’s odd. I have one exactly like it and it was given to me by my mom as well. Wow. What are the odds.” I showed him my left hand but he seemed not even slightly intrigued by the coincidence.

At this point, I was getting a bit curious about who this person was and where he came from. I thought that my ring was the only one of its kind, considering that mom had it made-to-order as some sort of a wedding gift for her sister. The wedding didn’t push through so mom decided to keep it. When I first saw the ring when I was 14 years old, I was struck by its simplicity and decided to just wear it without her permission. When my mom saw me wearing the ring a few days later, she explained to me what it was and told me that I could keep it. She died of a heart attack the very next day and I’ve been wearing the ring ever since.

The man beside me was wearing the same ring, or something very much like it. The only difference was that his was a darkened silver of neglect and suffering. Mine was bright and shiny with hope and potential.

“That means yours was not the only one of its kind, my friend,” the stranger said, seemingly reading my mind.

“Yeah, I guess so,” I replied, trying hard to sound casual and unaffected. “So what happened to your hand?” I immediately asked while painfully glancing at his distorted fingers, all the while feeling my cheeks violently twitching.

“A few overly zealous friends in my community decided to test the barbecue grill with it,” he said, almost matter-of-factly.



“Oh.” I started picturing in my mind prisoners in government-issue orange overalls grilling his ringed left hand and taking turns taking ravenous bites out of it. That should hurt. I suddenly felt sorry for the old man.

Without really noticing it, I was already engaged in a mildly interesting conversation with this stranger. We talked about, well, mostly him—his experiences inside prison and the kind of people he met there. I suddenly wanted to know what life was like in jail for it occurred to me that in the next few days, I might just find myself beginning to spend the rest of my life inside it. I figured it would be helpful to get the inside scoop from someone who had been there. From what this stranger had told me so far, prison life was indeed not unlike being in hell. But I knew that. I always had.

As he told me stories of his twenty-year stay in prison, he kept on looking at me with eyes obviously made dry and lifeless by years of waiting—perhaps for another chance at freedom, or for some sort of redemption. They’re the kind you see in terminally ill patients who know that their time is at hand but are still hoping against hope for a miracle to happen.

His face, which was strangely familiar, was deeply creased and seemingly worn out by years of doing forced labor, sleeping in dank, dry cells, and consorting with unpleasant and overly zealous members of his community.

His voice was soft and almost pleading. It was as if he was trying to convince himself that whatever he did that sent him to prison was wrong. I found this rather bizarre. For someone who had already endured his sentence and was already free, he still seemed bent on telling himself that what he did was wrong, as if he still wanted to change what had already happened. It was as if it would still make a difference.

“The thing is, my friend,” he said, “I shouldn’t have gone to prison in the first place. If I only did the right thing. If I was just strong enough to avoid the temptation of big bucks. If only I got good advice.”

Yeah, right.

“But isn’t that what they all say?” I retorted. Surely, all those who go to prison, except for insane serial murderers and rapists, regret the crime they have committed, although in differing degrees. This stranger wasn’t any different. I suddenly wondered what he was in for.

Before I could ask the question, however, he suddenly grabbed my hand, looked at me straight in the eye and said, “There will be times in your life when you will need to choose between two things, my friend. The right thing and the wrong one. Oftentimes doing the right thing will lead you to a life that you don’t want—boring, routinary, and plain. The wrong one promises big things but if it gets out of hand, as it often does, consequences could be tragic and you might end up living a life worse than the one you wanted to get away from.”

I thought that preachy speech was off-key but I brushed it off as something that ex-convicts normally rant about and decided to humor him. “But life does have its risks, doesn’t it? No pain, no gain.”

“Yes, but can you handle the pain?”

“If the risk promises things that I can otherwise not have any other way, then I might be willing to give it a shot.”

I knew that in spite of its simplicity, what I was planning to do was also terribly dangerous. The stakes were high and if the caper didn’t go as planned, I would lose my job and would surely go to prison. But that was a long shot. I knew I would get away with it. Nobody would ever suspect me—an honest, good-looking, and trustworthy employee with a spotless record. And by the time the company could figure out what had happened, the money would have been safely transferred to a dummy account and I would have my posh condominium unit. Maybe even an SUV. Oh but that would be a dead giveaway to the authorities. The car would have to wait.

“I thought that I would get away with my crime, too,” the stranger said, once again seemingly clairvoyantly, snapping me out of my thoughts. “But things got out of hand.”

“Think of it this way—you’ve already paid your dues. You’ve done your time. You’re out,” I said, still trying to find a way to put an end to the conversation politely.

“I’m still trying to work my way out, my friend,” he answered, again rather enigmatically.

“But you’re already out.”

“Not yet.”

The conversation had turned from strange to absurd. It was hard to determine whether this man was merely perceptive or plain crazy and I didn’t have the time to figure out what it really was. I decided to stand up and leave.

“Well, it was nice talking to you,” I said. I only had a couple of hours to arrive at THE decision. I desperately needed to be alone. I needed to decide on my own. After all, it was my life that was on the line. Not his.

“It was nice talking to you, too,” he said, in a soft, sad voice. “But could you please stay for five more minutes and listen to an old man’s prattle? Please? It would mean the world to me.” The way he said that last sentence was as if my staying actually meant the world to him, literally. So despite myself, I sat down again.

I then noticed that the ring in his injured hand was no longer as darkened as before. In fact, it was a tad shinier. But then I saw that the full moon was out and was beaming down on us and this was probably what gave his ring, and mine, an eerie, almost ghostly shimmer. In fact, the whole surrounding area seemed remarkably luminescent. The stranger was looking at his ring as well. Seemingly satisfied, he looked at me with a hint of a smile in his chapped lips. It was the first time that he wore any semblance of a smile during the whole conversation although I still felt a lingering sadness in his demeanor.

“Thank you,” he said, “for staying a while longer.”

“It’s okay, but I really have to do something so I can only stay for just a bit,” I replied.

“I know. I hope that will be enough,” he said. Again, this man was talking in riddles; something that I wasn’t too pleased about. It was enough that my mind was about to explode with whats, what-ifs, whys and why-nots. I didn’t need to think about other things anymore—like him and his dreary, dead-end life. And this man was puzzling me to the point of distraction. All I learned from talking to him was that prison was like an eternal holiday in Iraq, his community buddies weren’t a particularly amiable lot, and he stunk like hell. I had to leave.

“I’m sorry, but I do really have to go,” I said sharply.

“Yeah, I guess so,” he said in apparent resignation. His face was red and swollen and tears were beginning to well up in his eyes. “Okay, I’ll leave you alone now. I know you hate me for talking out of turn, but I had to do something. I had to try, one way or another. I’m sorry for taking up your time,” he continued, with a smile that hinted of surrender. “But whether you realize it or not, you and I are alike in more ways than one.”

That last remark stunned me. No, it scared the shit out of me. For a few moments, I gazed out into the barely visible horizon and thought that, yes, this man surely had problems which were probably even bigger than my own, but we were not and will never be alike in any way. Not in a million years. Not even in twenty!

I didn’t want to be mean to this man, this stranger, this distraction, who had spent almost half his life in a place he didn’t want to be, but he was already really bugging me. Suddenly, and strangely, everything seemed clear. I hated this man. It wasn’t like I hated him for no reason at all, but there were things about him that I abhorred. I found his way of talking in meaningless statements annoying. I disliked his overly large purple overcoat that was full of tears and holes. I hated his smell. I hated the discomfort of seeing his grotesquely burnt hand. I hated feeling sorry for him. I hated the inescapable thought that I just might end up like him.

I needed to dwell on the plan and make a decision. My life was on the line. Not his. And I hated him more for wasting my precious time.

Before I could do anything else, the stranger got up and brushed his purple overcoat once again before starting to leave. As he finally started to go on his way, I saw by the amber light of the nearby lamp post that his left hand strangely no longer carried burn scars and his fingers were no longer deformed. And his ring, which was exactly like mine, started to shimmer brightly, or was it merely an illusion?

The man slowly walked away and eventually disappeared from view. I had an uncanny feeling that I would never see him again. But the fact was, I knew that whatever would happen to me in the next few hours, I would carry the image of this disgusting, useless old man with me the rest of my life. And I didn’t even get his name.


Friday, October 19, 2007

A small revision...

I just revised my book review on The Rule of Four. I actually lengthened it a bit because the review will be published in Tomas, the literary journal of the UST Center for Creative Writing and Studies. Check it out below. I added a few more details to the essay. So there.

It's the start of the semestral break and I will soon be able to review some new books that I have recently read. Stay tuned.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The ten-month hiatus

Yes, it's been ten long months since my last post. So where have I been? To tell you the truth, I've just been around, keeping busy with efforts to keep my head above water (as well as my sanity, I guess) and earn more than I spend.

At any rate, I am back.

I know that I have not posted any book review in the last ten months, but that didn't mean that I have not been reading. On the contrary, I've read quite a few good books in my absence from the blogging community. Well, I've finally laid my hands on a copy of Good Omens by Pratchett and Gaiman (thanks to Bibliarch Glorietta). It was well worth the search and the consequent wait.

I also tried reading Tim Lahaye's Babylon Rising, with the hope of starting a new series. It was moderately good, although I found the ending a bit disappointing. Several months after I've read that first book (it's supposed to be the first of a series of books about the adventures of Michael Murphy, an expert on Biblical prophecy and a fearless archaeologist), I still haven't actually bought the second book. I guess that means something. Go figure.

However, the best book that I've read in the last ten months was Christopher Priest's The Prestige. I loved the movie although I felt that the cinematic characterization of the two lead characters was a tad too shallow. I wanted to learn more about the inner thoughts and motives of Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier and this was exactly my motivation to read the book that served as the basis of the movie. To say the least, I was pleasantly surprised. I loved the book even more than the movie.

When I find the time, I will write a full-length review on the book. In the meantime here's my take on it: forget the movie, read the book.

Anyway, check out the list of books that I've read recently. It's somewhere in this blog. I have this feeling though that I left out one or two titles. I'll just update the list if and when necessary.

So there.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

In the absence of... humor

Some people have been telling me that they find this blog a tad too serious. I really couldn't figure out why at first, then I realized that, well, maybe it's because people are used to blogs that contain light banter and the occasional rant and rave.

Or maybe it's because I don't put smileys on my posts, like :) and :P.

Or maybe it's because I don't insert the oftentimes irreverent "Hehehe."

Or maybe it's because I don't include jokes every now and then.


I'm just thinking too much.

Anyway, for those who think that this blog is too serious, here's something for you.

Question: GMA, Erap, Cory, Ramos, and all the senators and congressmen take a boat ride, the boat capsizes, who gets saved?

Answer: The Philippines.

Hehehe... :)

(It has actually been a shitty day and I really needed some form of release. Writing this post felt good.)

Saturday, August 12, 2006

"The Rule of Four" hardly rules

Book review: The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

by Al Dimalanta

I have rather ambivalent feelings about this book.

When I first picked up The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason and read the synopsis at the back I was intrigued. It promised to be a historical thriller, something that Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code popularized (no, over-popularized, considering the flood of clones and wannabes at its wake). I had a dilemma, though: which cover color should I choose? It was such a difficult choice. The book was printed in four different colors, an obvious contrivance if you ask me, and I had to pick one. I went for the gold cover.

With the most difficult task over, I bought the book, went home and read.

The funny thing was, as I was reading the first few chapters, I had to keep telling myself to read on, not give up, and stay with the book. It was something that I didn’t really enjoy doing. The plot seemed sufficiently intriguing enough, but why was I pushing myself to read further? Something was amiss, and I wanted to figure out what it was and why.

The story revolves around the lives of four senior Princeton students, particularly focusing on the days leading to their graduation (Princeton is one of the leading research universities and the most outstanding undergraduate college in the world). The two main characters, however, are Tom (the narrator) and Paul, his best friend. Tom is the son of a Renaissance scholar who was one of several people who fervently studied a 15th-century book titled Hypnerotomachia Poliphii (I challenge you to say that four times without stammering). Tom’s father’s life was dictated by his obsession to unlock the mysteries of the book, which proved quite a daunting task even for a scholar of his caliber. It was an obsession that Tom swore he would never have. Paul, in turn, is an orphan and a brilliant thinker who took on the task of unraveling the book's puzzle by choosing it as his thesis subject.

Paul solicits Tom's help in the thesis and the latter finds himself immersed in the very same obsession that dominated his father's life. As Tom and Paul slowly unravel the secrets of the book, they find themselves in the thick of a generation-long struggle for power, recognition and fame, which involves two of Tom's father's associates. Not only did the Hypnerotomachia promise to shed light on the real turn of events in Florentine history (during the time of Italian priest-ruler Giloramo Savonarola), it also hinted on the location of a crypt containing priceless works of art hidden from Savonarola and were supposedly saved from his Bonfire of the Vanities.

As I previously mentioned, the plot seemed interesting enough – four friends in a race not only to solve an age-long puzzle, but also to stay alive. The various conflicts in the story, both internal and external, centered on how the Hypnerotomachia affected the lives of the central characters. There’s Tom’s internal struggle to avoid the same demons that haunted his father’s life, his strained relationship with his girlfriend Kate who initially considered the book as a rival for his attention, Paul’s struggle to merely survive the demands of Princeton (as well as his own idiosyncrasies), and the dangers that surrounded those who knew too much about the book. However, in the first half of the novel, I found the frequent interspersing of uninteresting chapters aimed at character development (and there are more than four characters that needed to be developed in this here story) unnecessary, therefore boring and even irritating -- much like frequent and lengthy commercial breaks during a televised championship boxing match.

Moreover, I didn't enjoy for I never was and never will be interested in countless Princeton trivia which are found in every turn (the authors’ puerile infatuation with Princeton was something I could not identify with). These, I thought, didn't contribute anything to the development of the story and can be considered as mere verbal litter for mere mortals (read: non-Ivy Leaguers).

The second half fared much better in terms of pace and readability although I doubt if many readers would have the endurance to reach this part. The action picks up as the answers to the mysteries behind the book are unraveled and, as such, redeems whatever literary stupor the book initially imposed upon its readers.

Although the whole story is concerned with universal themes of friendship, commitment, and the pursuit of truth, in the end, the story seems to lack a central unifying theme. In the process of reading, I often asked myself what this book is really about. Is it about the friendship of four roommates and the things they do to sustain such friendship? Is it about the commitment (or obsession) of Tom and Paul to unlock the mysteries of a maddeningly arcane book? Or is it simply a giddy narrative on a beloved alma mater? Whatever the central theme may be, it got lost in the muddle of pointless descriptions and narrations.

The book is the debut effort of Caldwell and Thomason, which explains the peremptory tone of the piece. My general feeling was that the authors wanted so much to impress by pulling out all the stops and putting as much as they could into one novel. The result is an intellectually self-conscious and arrogant book (both in language and content) that owes more to its braggadocio than to its ability to provide a totally satisfying, coherent and enjoyable read.

I have always believed that a fiction novel’s main purpose is to entertain the readers, providing a conveniently safe although transitory escape from reality. Everything else is secondary. Although admittedly a good work of fiction both entertains and informs, the informative value takes a backseat to the sheer enjoyment of a vivid and uplifting narrative. Needless to say, our rookie authors seem to have overlooked the need for their narrative to delight.

In the end, however, on the strength of the latter part of the narrative, I liked it, although I still had to convince myself that I did.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Life on a flat planet
(or why can't women be wizards?)

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Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett (1987)

I have always seen Terry Pratchett's books in store shelves but never really gave them any serious consideration. That is, until I came across a collaboration between him and Neil Gaiman entitled Good Omens (which I am still fervently trying to get hold of). All I knew about him then was that he wrote fantasy stories set on his very own fairy-tale world called Discworld. But that was just about everything I knew about the man.

I wondered, then, that if an extremely talented writer like Gaiman, whose books I immensely enjoyed reading, had decided to work with Pratchett, then I guess Pratchett's work deserved closer scrutiny (I know now that that was such an unfair assessment because Pratchett is actually the more senior writer and has received greater recognition in the field than Gaiman).

Anyway, I firmly decided to go out on a limb and read one of his books.

Being unfamiliar with Pratchett, I found myself in some sort of a bind in choosing which among his numerous books to read first. But then, since he wrote his novels in series (although, as I found out later, each installment can basically stand alone), then it was only logical for me to start from the very beginning. As luck would have it (which was how luck would always have it), the books I was looking for were not available. The first two books in the Discworld series were out of stock, so I had to settle for the third installment entitled Equal Rites.

As it turns out, Equal Rites is a wonderfully funny and witty satire on sexism and gender role expectations. But more on this later.

Now, in order to fully understand and appreciate Terry Pratchett's work, you must understand the workings of the world that he created and which is the setting for most of his novels -- Discworld.

Discworld is a flat planet riding on the backs of four incredibly large elephants who, in turn, stand atop the Great Turtle A'Tuin who undulates endlessly through space. The flat planet is orbited by its own teeny-weeny sun and is the only planet in the "multiverse" (as Pratchett calls it) in which the seawater falls over the edges in an endless "rimfall." It is also a place where humans naturally co-habitate with wizards, witches, trolls, demons, dwarves and so many other strange creatures.

It is also a place where Death takes an assistant and even goes into retirement.

Anyway, Equal Rites starts out with wizard Drum Billet, who foresees his death (in Discworld, wizards know exactly when they will die), setting out to pass on his powers and his wizarding staff to his successor. As a rule in the Disc, the eighth son of an eighth son is destined to become a wizard. There is one problem, though. The eighth son turns out to be a... daughter. Billet, not bothering to check the baby's gender, bestows his magical staff, completes the turnover rite and thus formalizes the dilemma. In Discworld, girls are not allowed to become wizards. Why? Well, it just hasn't been done before.

The baby Eskarina grows up to be a headstrong little girl and decides, at the age of seven, to pursue her destiny against all odds. With the reluctant help of witch Granny Weatherwax, Eskarina travels to the Unseen University in Ankh Morpork where wizards are trained, dead set at being the first girl wizard. (I must note here that Pratchett came up with the idea of a "school for wizards" years before J.K. Rowling wrote her very first Harry Potter book.)

Equal Rites is a hilarious satire on, well, just about everything (with particular emphasis on gender role expectations and societal norms). The plot is promising enough and it doesn't take long for the action to pick up. In fact, Equal Rites is an enthralling ride through much of Discworld as the readers, through the young Esk, meet new and bizarre (but always funny and lovable) characters. The ending, though, is a little off for me. Towards the end of the book, I felt that Esk was totally upstaged by Granny Weatherwax. Then again, the sheer thrill of the reading moved me to forgive this particular flaw.

I must admit that I enjoyed the book not so much because of the story but because of Pratchett's engaging style of writing. He is purposely funny without sounding contrived, witty without sounding arrogant. As such, this is not so much a review of Equal Rites as it is a testament to Pratchett's endearing style of humor. Pratchett has the talent of playing around with language, turning and twisiting words to suit his needs. On many occasions, I find myself rolling on the floor laughing (rolling on my bed, to be exact -- I never read on the floor).

Loyal Pratchett readers say that this is not his best work. They say that his style hasn't quite developed yet in this here book. If this is so, then I should definitely get hold of his later works. Still and all, Equal Rites is a good enough initiation to Pratchett's fantastic Discworld. It succeeded in convincing me to further explore that flat planet on the back of four elephants that stand atop a gigantic floating turtle.

(Note: I just finished reading Pratchett's Reaper Man and thoroughly enjoyed it -- much more so than I did this book)

Monday, July 24, 2006

Civil War: whose side are you on?

No, this isn't an essay about the circus that's Philippine partisan politics. It's a big joke that isn't worth writing about. This one's about a different kind of civil war. A more serious one.

Civil War is the latest seven-issue graphic novel crossover miniseries (I don't want to call it a "comic book" but I will explain that some other time) from Marvel.

The graphic novel starts out when a group of superheroes who star in a reality TV show called New Warriors decides to raid the hideout of a bunch of super villains in Stamford, Connecticut. The reckless bust led by Speedball turns awry and villain Nitro creates a huge blast that flattens a local school, killing 800 people, mostly schoolchildren.

This single incident served as the catalyst for changes that are expected to rock the Marvel Universe.

Public outrage against this incident boils and moves the government to propose an act to register all superheroes as living "weapons of mass destruction" (now where have I heard that term before?). This means superhero training, power evaluation, and accreditation. Oh, I almost forgot, there is also another minor glitch in this: the act also means revealing one's true identity. Ouch.

Expectedly, the superheroes are divided on this issue. A group led by Iron Man supports the registration act while a group led by Captain America opposes it. The others then begin to take sides and this is where the fun starts.

The graphic novel miniseries pits hero against hero as the villains, who temporarily take a backseat in the story, sneer in the sidelines.

Despite the seeming contrivedness of the plot, which is uncannily similar to X3's, it seems to work. I, for one, being a former Marvel fanatic in my younger years, am intrigued by the possible developments in the series. Who will join who? Who will kill who? Who will fight who? Who will betray who?

As of this writing, the series is only up to issue number three. A lot of things will still happen in the coming months. I don't even want to read spoilers about it on the Web, for fear of putting a damper on the whole thing.

I highly recommend Civil War, if only for the fact that it is the only real major event that has happened in the superhero graphic novel world in recent times (that may be arguable but I really don't think Spiderman's change of costume can be considered a momentous event, unless you're a fan of Fashion TV).

So whose side are you on?

As for me, I think that government regulations oftentimes suck. So I guess you know where I stand.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

It was never anywhere

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (1996)

What if one day you wake up and find out that you have been practically erased from the world you know?

People ignore you, your fiancee doesn’t recognize you, your office has been removed, and your apartment has been rented out to someone else. Moreover, you are categorically broke. To make matters worse, you are forced to live in a world you never knew existed — a world full of bizarre contradictions and anachronisms and inhabited by eerie characters who seem to be products of a hyper-active imagination and who, in all probability, would contribute to your creeping insanity.

Your only chance to regain the life that you lost is to embark on a dizzying and potentially disastrous journey to help someone from this underground solve the mystery of her parents’ murder— a dangerous quest which, in all indications, might simply lead to your utter demise.

Such is the plot behind Neil Gaiman’s 1996 novel Neverwhere.

It is the story of Richard Mayhew, an average guy with a dull job, an independent and overly demanding (but beautiful) fiancee and an uneventful therefore boring life. While walking with his fiancee Jessica one night, Richard finds Lady Door sprawled on the sidewalk — bleeding and apparently dying. He helps her, much to Jessica’s dismay, takes her home and takes care of her.

From then on, his life is never the same again.

In Neverwhere, Gaiman takes us to a dark and magical world of nobility, honor, deceit, and incongruities. The plot may be your usual fare in fantasy novels, but the way Gaiman develops it — weaving vivid details over, above, and under oftentimes menacing and depressing but sometimes ridiculous and humorous situations — makes the plot seem fresh and unrehashed.

Another strong point of this ten-year-old novel is the presence of lovable and hateful characters that grow on you as you turn each page. Gaiman’s brilliant unfolding of the different personalities that inhabit London Below keeps you guessing as to the real motives of each, and this makes for an exciting read. You actually find yourself reserving your judgment of a character until after you’ve learned of his or her real intentions. Oftentimes, however, it is too late.

One may actually figure out from the start how the novel will end. As far as fantasy novels go, a happy ending is almost always expected. However, following how one gets there is the biggest part of the fun.

I find that Richard’s life’s crucial turn serves as a metaphor for our own fragile lives which may invariably turn at any direction in one misstep. There are times when we are made to live a parallel existence amid people who used to be among us but who suddenly begin to act like we no longer exist. We then live among strange new acquaintances that we begin to start loving or despising.

I never used to be a fantasy reader. I have always preferred the innate plausibility of realistic fiction. Nevertheless, I highly recommend the book to young readers, even to those who are not really into the fantasy genre. I must say that the novel is brilliant in its simplicity. Tolkien fans might consider the book wanting in description and elaboration. Tolkien is, after all, the acknowledged master of the genre. However, I feel that it is actually the simple elegance of Gaiman’s storytelling which proves to be the book’s appeal.

I have never been to London. This is most probably the reason why I found the journey to London Below sufficiently awe-inspiring. Neverwhere took me to places I have never seen and, in all likelihood, might never ever see. Neverwhere, after all, is never really anywhere.

Note: This is the third Gaiman book that I've read so far. The others are American Gods (which I enjoyed immensely) and Anansi Boys, his latest. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed reading all of them. I recently bought Coraline and am currently looking for his collaboration with Terry Pratchett (of Discworld fame) entitled Good Omens.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Rediscovering an old friend

Walter Savage Landor once said "What is reading but silent conversation?"

Indeed, a book is a friend with whom you can converse silently whenever and wherever you choose. Having said this, I think I have recently rediscovered an old, long-lost friend.

I used to read quite a lot back then... back when the name Brown was associated with the first name Charlie rather than Dan; back when no red-blooded male would ever want to be called Gaiman; and back when Angels and Demons referred to Tomasians and Green Archers, respectively.

It was a time I thought I have totally left behind since the rigors of corporate life (and a dozen other endeavors either financially rewarding or artistically fulfilling) started to take its toll on my idleness.

I simply didn't have time to read.

And my friend, Book, had to take a Sabbatical.

To a certain extent, I owe my return to official bookwormship to, of all people, Dan Brown. I was intrigued by the hype that surrounded his The Da Vince Code and I couldn't help reading the book myself to find out what the buzz was all about. Not surprisingly, I enjoyed reading the novel. Not just a few said that the book might shake one's faith, if it wasn't strong enough. As for me, I didn't feel even a slight quiver. And I guess that's good.

That's not to say, however, that I didn't consider the book a good read. I did and it was. But the best thing that happened to me was that I longed for more. After a few weeks, I've already read his three other books (all of which I liked, I must say, but in differing degrees). And I still longed for more.

Suffice it to say that one book led to another and another and yet another, and I enjoyed reading each and every one of them.

It was then I realized that I have rediscovered the joy of reading.

Now, if only I can discover a way to get hold of good books without having to spend so much.

A life less frightening

"I don't ask for much.
Truth be told I'd settle for
a life less frightening."

- Rise Against, A Life Less Frightening

Sunday, July 02, 2006

In the absence of light...

we become one with the dark.

In the absence of light
our dreams
take shape.

Our thoughts morph into things that
ultimately, inevitably bind
us to what we are

or will be.

In a pitch-black world
our lives begin to take on
a comfortable, almost dreamy,
a soothing peace,
a moving calm

brought on by the juvenile freedom
that only lightless disfocus
can bring.

The darkness is an imperative
that veils the foreordained drudgery
of worn-out days.

The darkness is an aphrodisiac
that heightens the puerile lust
of arrid nights.

In lightlessness,
we begin to hope,
to wish,
to pray.

In the absence of light,

we begin to live.