Lessons from Human Thriller

I’ve recently begun rereading and re-collecting books by an author I used to love as a teenager.

V.C. Andrews. Her most popular book is called “Flowers in the Attic”, which is the first in a series of 5 books that tells the saga of a family line. At the core of this saga is a family trait that has the seemingly uncontrollable urges for incestuous marriages. At its counterpoint are influential, dominant family members who are religious fanatics who have strange methods (bordering on evil) of enacting punishment.

In “Flowers in the Attic”, 4 siblings are locked in a room with an attic for several years — locked in by a selfish mother and a sadistic, vengeful grandmother. You can just imagine what that scene would be like. A teen girl and guy locked in a room for several years at the peak of their growing sexuality…. I personally shudder and grimace at the thought of ever having anything more than a completely brotherly relationship with my siblings… and I’m quite sure most people on earth feel the same way.

But then, that’s why it’s called fiction.

As a teen, I voraciously read V.C. Andrews’ books (she has about 70 titles!). I still can’t properly categorize her genre… her books are always a mix of horror, thiller, drama and goth. It’s not about clear-cut crime, or horror in the supernatural sense of the word. Her books are not the type of books one can easily forget about. I always find myself still reeling for days after reading every book. Her themes border on the extreme and disturbing, because what she does is paint a picture of the human soul at its blackest and darkest. She does epitomize “the things you only read about in books”.

I don’t quite know what drew me to her books as a teen. Maybe it fits well with the angsty, emo teenager that I was.

Nowadays, I’m no longer angsty and emo. In fact, for many years I found myself staying away from heavy reading (and even heavy movies) since I wanted to fill my life with lightness & beauty in the quest for a more positive outlook in life. Why I choose to go back to my teen favorite Goth writer at the peak of my general distress at life, I’m still trying to figure out.

But I have a theory.

Lately I’ve been feeling that life is generally heavy on many fronts. With dad’s illness, our financial troubles, our less than perfect domestic situation, and everything else… occasionally I find myself feeling lost and simply drained. Sometimes I veer towards wondering if this kind of life where many things that go wrong need to be put to right, and I’m the only one who can put it to right — will be the way everything else unfolds for the rest of my life.

At times when life just seems too heavy to bear, a book like “Flowers in the Attic” and all the horrors within in – make me feel like the luckiest person in the world compared to these kids locked in an attic by their own flesh and blood. It’s just fiction, I know. But it’s not unlikely that the extent of human evil can make something like this actually possible.

Sometimes in moments of vulnerability when we feel our entire world is just crashing down around us, it helps putting things into perspective. To every horror story, there are other worse horror stories out there. Maybe at the end of it all, what matters is how we’re able to tear ourselves away from self-pity so we can move on and continue trying to make things better.

On Serenity and Reacquainting with Old Friends

Serenity

When all the world aspires to be great, to be remembered, to be significant and not drown in mediocrity, here I am in my early thirties with my entire life before me, wanting nothing more than to quietly and peacefully fade away into the serenity that seems to be eluding me for most of my life.

To say that my life so far has been very eventful is an understatement. Ever since I was a young child, my very first memory has been one of adversity. A shallow adversity on hindsight, but adversity no less.

I used to envy friends who seemed to have the perfect life. And by perfect, I only meant that they had the freedom to live their life the way they wanted to, of course with it the consequences of mistakes they’ve made (hopefully not irreparable mistakes).

As a married adult with a full-time career in a job that gives me more problems lately than assurances, I’ve been desperate to find my own quiet little corner of serenity and temporary reprieve.

To be realistic and honest about it, there’s no physical place where I can easily find it now.

My desk in the office is hardly one that lends privacy, for right beside my desk is the all-in-one multifunctional photocopier (courtesy of Canon).

I could go down to the smoking promenade area (a fancy way of saying the entrance of our building), but that’s hardly peaceful nor quiet, not when every now and then there are mobs of people rallying and angrily demanding to remove oil price hikes.

Going home could be a reprieve, but not all the time. When one is married, total and complete privacy and time for rest and recuperation (especially for a wife) is a rarity, if at all.

While I’d love to go out with my best girl friends for a cocktail or two to enjoy a quiet, slow and steady night – sometimes I avoid these because I simply don’t want to talk nor remember the things that I would normally prattle on about to those I trust.

A reprieve, an escape — is the hardest thing to find for a lifestyle like mine.

But lately, I’ve rediscovered and gotten reacquainted with an old friend.

It seems this has been my unexpected reprieve. While I’ve tons of other things to possibly occupy myself with to “escape” that are far more flattering to my overblown intellectual ego, I nonetheless do proudly declare that these old friends of mine have been the only thing that have gotten me through many nights when temporary escape from real life and the real world was all I needed.

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It’s been awhile since I’ve indulged in the guilty pleasure of chick lit.

I discovered Judith McNaught when I was still in High School. I spent many nights laughing and crying, staying up til the wee hours of the morning with just a flashlight hidden under my blankets to finish reading these books.

Among all romance book writers, I’ve always had a partiality to my old friend Judith. Unlike other romance books (especially those featuring a couple in the throes of passion, with the lady dressed with almost no clothes on), Judith’s characters have always had depth, enough to make me really feel what her characters feel. So when they cry, I feel teary-eyed myself. When they’re happy, I feel happy too.

But more than this, I think I escape to my old friends because voraciously reading them gives me the temporary illusion of the promise of happily ever afters. I surmise many other avid female readers of romance books feel the same.  It was the escape into a temporary make-believe world when after all the scars and pains, every heroine would find her own paradise and piece of heaven.

I’m no longer naive enough to believe in happily ever afters. Not in the way romance book and fairy tales paint them.

But just being able to escape for a few hours and revel in the story of a fictional character who finds her own serenity… is my serenity.

The Pillars of the Earth

imgThe pillars of the earth3I think I knew from the moment I started this blog that I need to dedicate this one post to the one book that has left an impression on me as far back as the time when I was still in high school.

I developed a love of reading ever since I was a kid. I started with comic books that ranged from Archie comics, to Beetle Bailey comics, to the Chinese comic sensation Lao Foo Tse. I eventually graduated to every teenage girl’s romantic fantasy of Sweet Valley High and Sweet Dreams.

It was this book: Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, that got me started on bestsellers and adult fiction.

My brother, who is himself an avid reader of fiction as well, got me started to read this book.

By page 1, I was already hooked.

Set in England in the 12th Century, the book’s centerpiece is the building of a cathedral in a little town called Kingsbridge. The story does not teach you how a cathedral is built. It tells the story instead of the journey of a builder in bringing to life the cathedral of his dreams, and the journey of the other people in his life who somehow affect how things in his life unfold, that somehow has an effect on whether his cathedral gets built or not.

His story is not unusual and nothing out-of-the-ordinary — unless you factor in the 12th Century setting. But his life story and life journey is not something unfamiliar to most of us. We all know the dichotomy of a life filled with both joy and pain, and how each one contributes to making each other more potent. And then there’s the story of how sometimes the concept of right and wrong are compromised for the sake of the greater good. And then there’s the tragic stories of how injustice can destroy the lives of the undeserving.

Aside from its authenticity and depth, what I’ve always loved about this book is that it poignantly shows human frailty at its best and worst. It portrays the weaknesses, vulnerabilities and insecurities of people — whether they’re rich and powerful aristocrats; Bishops and Cardinals whose ambitions betray even their own conscience; common everyday people who struggle on a daily basis just to survive; or even humble and forthright builders who only want to create the grandest masterpiece in their lifetime.

It is very well-written, and in the grand tradition of what makes stories fascinating and gripping, it makes for the perfect curled-up-in-your-couch reading afternoon.

The Twilight Phenomenon

I’ve always wondered about what made the “Twilight” series of books so popular.

A couple of years ago, before “Twilight” became the “Twilight” of unforeseen (and undeserved, in my opinion) epic proportions, a fellow fiction-lover lent me her copy of the book.

I finished reading it in a weekend, and couldn’t wait to finish it. Not because it was such an enthralling, engaging read… but because by page 3, I was bored out of my wits. I just didn’t have the heart to not finish the book, I have this thing about not reading books that are lent to me.

Naturally, after returning “Twilight”, I declined the offer to borrow and read the other books in the series. I forgot about it and lost myself instead in other books that were more deserving of my time.

Much to surprise a few months later, I started seeing copies of the book on desks of officemates… officemates who don’t even take up reading as a hobby.

twilight-book-coverThis was the first time I heard avid praises about the book. People would say that the premise and plot were ingenious — a human falling in love with a vampire — so unique, so they said. And the story so well-told — again, so they said.

Far too many times I’ve passionately explained why I don’t agree with both rave reviews.

The story is not unique. Hundreds of books have been written about humans falling in love with vampires; vampires falling in love with humans; and even vampires who fall in with werewolves.

You don’t even have to look far. I take personal offense for the genius that is Joss Whedon, the Director who created pop culture sensations like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, the vampire with a soul.

The story and the premise are nothing new.

This is itself, if quite forgivable though. I’m a believer that no ideas are completely new. Somewhere, somehow — after generations of ideas that flourish into literature, art and film — there’s no such thing anymore as a completely novel and unique idea. Every story already has hints of elements and flavors from here and there.

Now on the second point, the story was not well-written at all. In the tradition of a great story with a great build-up, a breathtaking climax, and an ending worthy of applause — this book had none of any of this. It was flat and monotonous from beginning to end. How lethargic the tone of the book was at the start was still how lethargic the book ended.

Even her writing style left much to be desired. Short, clipped sentences that evoked no emotion, no excitement, no build-up. All she did was narrate the day in the life of a girl named Bella. And if my days went by the way the narrative of Bella’s story went, I would have lived a very flat, uninteresting life.

But I can shrug off a bad book. I never regret reading any story, good or bad.

I only started reacting violently when I began hearing of interviews with the author, who, when confronted about how critics echoed my own sentiments about her ho-hum writing style, said that “I’m not a writer. I’m a storyteller.

And again, the only thing I can say about that statement is – well, she also kinda sucks as a storyteller.

But I do salute her for getting many people to start reading again. Whether it’s a good book or not, I guess doesn’t matter as much when you consider that the literacy rate in the Philippines probably went up for a while because of Stephenie Meyer and “Twilight”.