Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan: A Book Review

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“We are all powerless in the face of evil. No, no, that’s not true. We are powerless when we wait for other people to act on our behalf. Yes, that’s it. The truly powerful man is the man who stands alone.”

I had never yet read such a mystery/ crime novel in Filipino, so I  must join my fellow  Filipino readers celebrating and heralding  this book  as the first ever Filipino crime novel.

I am even drawing a theoretical conclusion  that its being the first crime novel  could have been  one of the reasons leading the panelists of the Carlos Palanca Grand Prize ,  National Book Award , and Madrigal-Gonzalez Award  to give the award . Nevertheless, I would have mulled over the two reasons if I had been one of those respected panelists: It is well-written and timely and relevant to the present state of the country.

In my book, crime novels are blood-curdling and nerve-racking in my imagination. I can’t stand pages scattered with horrendous, horrible, hideous, and heinous scenes. They are so intense that I could collapse with cardiac arrests as though I were a witness to a crime committed by a killer, trembled with fear that I might be the killer’s next victim. I would say that one of the best examples of such novels   is Native Son by Richard Wright. Read it! I promise you. At the same time, crime novels are   unpredictable, puzzling, and brain-bashing to the extent that they would tax my stamina, and I would be at the end of my wits. But, in the end, you would let go of the breath you would have been holding for a long time. Therefore, Smaller and Smaller Circles, however, did not meet those characteristics or elements I have been borne upon. It is not that extremely arresting in that a faint-hearted would die of it. I would just remember the cliché that curiosity kills the cat. In fact, I did not even give a fig about who the criminal is, nor did I feel that there is a case the sleuths have to resolve. Rather, what I felt were the deeper and compassionate   friendship between Father Saenz and Father Lucero – Could I assume it a bromance if I were malicious? – the dog-eat-dog atmosphere in the National Bureau of Investigation, and  the powerful hierarchy of Catholicism in the Philippines. The crime case is finally emphasized in the climax, but not that revealing as what I had expected. My reaction was just that I nodded in agreement with both Father Lucero’s and Saenz’ final whodunit conclusion. In fact, anyone could guess the identity of the criminal.

Like the other writers in general, it took the author many years to finalize it. The first time she wrote it was in 1996 when she was still in her mid-twenties; the second one was in 2013 when she was in her forties. As a matter of fact, her desire to continue writing it was inspired by her deep-seated anger toward the miserable state of the Philippines due to callousness, complacency, and corruption as she put it in her acknowledgments. Consequently, the book is steeped in simply beautiful   sentences with a profound impact. They are not jaw-breakers to assimilate. There is no such feeling as “stuck in between the lines”. Rather, reading the next lines is unruffled. However, the author may have come to the point that she was at loss for any ideas. I guess it is somewhere in her first book. So, it could be obvious that she may have patched this part with her second part. Nevertheless, it’s neither here nor there since such situation happens to all writers. It is just a matter of creativity.

The most important thing that would lead me, as a panelist, to consider it deserving of those literary prestigious awards above is how the author thought about the characters. The characters represent each unit in society such as the two Jesuits who happened to be liberal and crusader against   hypocrite priests in the Philippine Catholicism, the incorrigible   director of the NBI surrounded by sharks in the institution, the reporter who is hungry for factual information, the poor families of the criminal’s victims: All simply paint the real political, economic, and social state of the Philippines as what the author must want to convey to her readers. Therefore, the recurring themes are pivotal rather than its whodunit concept.

This novel was published in 2002.It has been reprinted four times since the book was, needless to say,  hyped up by the  literary award-giving  bodies, not to mention some  book club sites like Goodreads. No wonder it has still been one of the best-sellers in some prime book stores in the country.

 It occurred to me that:

*Another interesting thing about this novel is that both protagonists are priests and forensic experts by trade. It’s a common perception in the Philippines that priests only say homilies and prayers.

*I didn’t like the ending. I have read and watched it many times.

* Could anyone tell me where in the world psychopaths don’t exist? Hahaha

Rate: 3/ 5 stars ( I liked it.) 

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The Man Who Could Not Kill Enough by Anne E. Schwartz: A Book Review

1919345_10206221091788031_3040929295635042686_nYou are on the balcony, taking some rest   after studying for an exam when you notice out the window that there is a man standing beside the light post in front of the building. You will get terrified when you witness him killing a girl. You will get in a panic more when you see him deeply staring and snickering at you. It occurs to you that the man could be a serial killer just the like of the characters you watch in movies. Then, your hair will stand on end when you notice that he points his finger at the ground floor of the apartment building where you stay in. What do you think the man is doing with his finger?

Actually, this is a psychopath test, quite   popular among my Korean students, to determine if you have what it takes to be like Jeffrey Dahmer. (laughs) Read your answer later.

In the past, to determine if one had the tendency to be a criminal was through the shapes of the skull. Cesare Lombroso, the founder of the Italian School of Positivist Criminology and considered as the father of scientific criminology, argued that criminality was inherited and that the “born criminal” could be identified by physical defects, which confirmed as criminal as“ savage,” or “ atavistic”. According to him, you were cut out to be one if you have the following traits: large jaws, forward projection of jaw, low sloping forehead, high cheekbones, flattened or upturned nose, handle-shaped ears, hawk-like noses or fleshy lips, hard shifty eyes, scanty beard or baldness, insensitivity to pain, and long arms relative to lower limbs. (http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Cesare_Lombroso)However,Lombroso’s theory is considered as a pseudo-science. In short, it has no scientific basis.

When   American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer made an earth-shattering headline across the globe in 1992, the people were flummoxed how they could know if someone they met on daily basis had the tendency to be like him. They could not get around the fact that someone quiet, reserved like him would be able to bestially kill more than 17 people, mostly Blacks, and preserve them in his own house in that no one in the neighborhood had had the idea of his heinous crime. So, many self-proclaimed experts from different   scientific fields bombastically expressed   their   views ad nauseam until the   people got cross-eyed to whose expertise they had to defer. Eventually, there is one thing they were in common- no one can guess whether a person is a psychopath or not because there are many   behavioral patterns. However, Dahmer’s behavioral patterns were unfairly used as the bases, particularly by parents, to preclude a child’s psychopathic tendency. So, you have the tendency to be Jeffrey Dahmer  if you did or do all of  the following :

  1. You  made fun of animals by torturing them when you were still as young as in elementary because you were amazed at the internal organs of a living species. Besides, you wanted to collect their bones and skeletons.
  2. You barely got along with anybody.
  3. You started  drinking   scotch at early age.
  4. You started to read porn magazines as well as porn videos at early age, so you jerked off many times in a day.
  5. You always had financial problem.
  6. You cannot express your sexual preference because of your conventionally filial atmosphere, so you are in the habit of frequenting at gay bars.
  7. You fantasize people whom you want to sleep with.
  8. You were a drop-out student.
  9. You come from a broken family.

Although I was teeming with prejudice, I understood, with the help of my background in clinical psychology, that Jeffrey Dahmer was both a victim and suspect. He was a victim of what is so-called ‘naked existence’ as how Victor Frankl put it in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, when  his parents did not cater to him the  atmospheric LOVE he wanted to feel and  be exposed to. The divorce and conjugal misunderstanding between his parents also added to the fuel of his emptiness. In other words, Dahmer grew up in a world that he was ALONE, where no one guided and admonished him for his delinquent behaviors. Therefore, whatever the   bad foundation built at his early age was the trunk of his life later on in that he became a serial killer. So, who should have been responsible for Dahmer’s life? Himself  or his significant others, particularly his parents?

I am not a true-crime votary, but I had interest in Dahmer’s life story when my best friend kept on telling me about him. His name became immortal when I found out that American novelist Joyce Carol Oates wrote Zombie   based on him. Fortunately, I found this biography

All I would say is that this book is perfect. First, the author is a known and trusted journalist who happened to be the first one to be   tipped off when Dahmer’s skeleton in the closet was found. Second, it is full of  clear but blood-curdling accounts of  how and why Dahmer became a serial killer- from the time he showed latent  behavioral patterns to the time when he was killed. Finally, in all fairness, it knocked my socks off; I could not sleep at that night while reading it. I made sure that I heretically locked my door and windows as what I usually did when I was young whenever I watched crime stories.

The only thing that I cringed at is the author’s nettlesome partiality for the policemen who were said to be incompetent in their job because they missed the fact that the man they were supposed to take over to the authority turned out to be Dahmer’s victim. She argued that policemen were not perfect   and had no any idea of what a serial killer’s behavioral patterns are. Also, she reasoned that it was not easy to be in that line of duty since they stay up late to monitor around the city  at nights.

These are the answers to the   psychopath test above. You are normal if your answer is that he memorizes your face. You are a psychopath if you think that he counts what floor you live in.

Rating: 4/ 5 stars ( I  was terrified by  it.)

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins: A Book Review

thegirlontetrainThe winner of the 2015 Goodreads Choice Award for the Best Mystery and Thriller.  It narrowly defeated Stephen King’s Finders Keepers and  J.K. Rowling’s  Career of Evil under her pen name Robert Galbraith. I have not read the latter ones yet, but I am aware that Stephen King is well- known for writing such genre. How about Rowling’s skills in captivating her audience with her magic spell?  So I cannot comparatively but subjectively criticize it if this is deserving of the award. Don’t take umbrage at me, Ms. Hawkins.

I may not be a movie snob, but I believe that this is the agglomeration of the author’s collected ideas she may have drawn from the mystery and thriller movies she has watched, needless to say from the books she has read. I bet my boots Stephen King is one of her influences. So there are some parts in the book which are not new to me any longer: I guess who among the characters the real killer is. It is the kind one who turns out to be the bad one;  the part when another character drowns her baby to death. This sounds Greek to me. Where did I read and watch it? ; Rachel’s episodic-memory  scenes ; and the victim’s husband will be the protagonist’s friend and eventually enemy.

Nevertheless, the author wrote her collected ideas very well. The sentences are light, loose, and expressive which I believe are essential in writing a mystery and thriller. I can imagine the vivid scenes. I can connect to the characters. I can sense the suspenseful parts. However, I notice that there are some parts which enervate and undermine the excitement in reaching the climax such as too many emphases on the protagonist’s abject misery. She does something like this and like that off and on. In addition, the idea of alternate personal accounts among the three characters, notably between Anna and Megan, taxes my interest in and focus on Rachel, the protagonist. I do not care much about both of them; I just want to focus on Rachel. How about playing down to some other characters such as the two detectives? In other words, the author intends to leave us readers hang in the air which I find monotonously dreary and annoying . Ooops! You might find me now harsh, but I mean business. Mea Culpa.

Despite that the book appears lacking  originality, there is one thing that I found somewhat interesting. It is  the main character’s role. She is a divorcee and   dipsomania as well. That is why she loses her job.  In fear of shame, she pretends to go to work   by staying on the train where she forms her   fantasies and in a library where she reads and reads and reads- the settings I have not read yet.

Since Goodreads, the largest book club site in the world, catapulted it to fame, for sure,  Ms. Hawkins will be expected to write something better than this. Congratulations to Ms. Hawkins!  I am sure she takes her hat off to the readers who voted for her. Can I still belong to them? ^_^

Rating: 2/ 5 stars ( It’s OK.)

 

I’m Not Scared by Niccolò Ammaniti: A Book Review

Niccolò+Ammaniti+-+I'm+not+scared+3Niccolò Ammaniti is an Italian writer. This book, I’M NOT SCARED ( Io Non Ho Paura in Italian), said to have redounded his fame and caught the interest of the international mecca of the literati. Me too! Me too! Me too! I want to count myself in them.

The first idea occurred to me while reading the first and second parts of this novel was Mark Twain ‘s The Adventures of Thomas Sawyer;it is sort of a picaresque novel.The main characters are also as young as Thomas Sawyer,so I was expecting that the story was something excerpted from one of the scenes in the book which centers around one concept. The only big differences are that Thomas Sawyer on the one hand,is naughtier,more audacious,has more sense of adventures with the Pollyanna principle.(No doubt children find him amusing.) Michelle Amitrano, the protagonist,on the other hand,is deeper. He bears all the hallmarks of naiveté, a young child full of curiosity about life,faith,family,and so on- a typical child as we used to be.It may be due to his parents’ ignorance of child psychology since his father is busy with his “monkey business ” , and his mother is often petulant.So when you read it,emphatic with him as though regressing to his age,you might jump to the conclusion why he channels his sexual energies into jejune and puerile adventures.I like Michelle. I can relate to him. ^_^

On the brink of finishing the denouement , I opined that I am almost familiar with the story I’m fed up with. TV writers and directors are always adapting this kind of story for TV films and dramas which they may have drawn inspiration from other novels, just the like of this Nicollo Ammaniti’s who himself may have done it likewise since this novel was published in 2001;then translated into English by Jonathan Hunt in 2003.Thus, I may give 1 star if I watch it on TV.
As a matter of fact, it has been adapted for an Italian film and I wonder if it is as interesting as the book. Could I give it 1 star too? Or I could be brainwashed as when I saw the film adaptation of the LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding of which I understood the story more, and eventually it ended up as one of my most favorite novels.

Nevertheless, nothing beats reading such kind of garden-variety story put into a book, written with beautiful sentences,peppered with vocabularies I am almost familiar with, and I could commit to memory more. Then,I was amused,chuckling, snickering,turning my head ;at the same time, I was moved ,holding my breath ,skipping a beat until,at the end of the story, I was cut to the bone as though I could not get over the fate of Michelle- I was screaming bloody murder. Blanketyblank father of his! Whoa, it is readable in one breath.

When you finish the story,you might say the ending is tearfully lamentable. But I would say that the ending as the writer intended is clearly understood. I won’t ask anything more because I have had an idea. He should not have narrated it more. Also, no need to appeal to its sequel. The ending is enough to leave you bewildered,tinged with a wave of painful reactions- anger, pity,and disappointment. It is a tearjerker more than on TV films and dramas I have watched .

Lesson learned: As the hackneyed saying goes,” FEAR IS AN ILLUSION” like what Michelle said to his friend Filippo ,when he was left in the hole,” You are not scared …there is nothing to be scared of .” Oh, poor Michelle! T_T

This book is a good read. The story is rather deeper, more realistic and sensible- something different with the other stories on TV if it had not been for the styles how the writer himself molded the sentences.

Rating : 4/ 5 stars

The Bridge by Iain Banks : A Book Review

TheBridgeWhile I was burying myself in this book, I was vacillating anywhere between 4 and 3 STARS. Every chapter left me to twist in the wind.

4 STARS

Iain Banks is immortal for how he begins his novel just the like of his famous one, THE CROW ROAD. In THE BRIDGE, I liked its opening, describing the bridge with beautiful sentences- something savory, something musical to my ears when I read it aloud, something that is imagined in awe.

“The road cleared the cutting through the hills. He could see South Queensferry, the marina at Port Edgar, the VAT 69 sign of the distillery there, the lights of Hewlett Packard’s factory; and the rail bridge, dark in the evening’s last sky-reflected light. Behind it, more lights; the Hound Point oil terminal they’d had a sub-contract on, and, further away, the lights of Leith. The old rail bridge’s hollow metal bones looked the color of dried blood.”

Notably, with the background in psychology, I enjoyed keeping up with the characters –from John Orr, one of the protagonists to the dour shrinker, along with his two delusional patients. Although feeling a tingle of scare, I absorbed myself in it more; I could not put it down-I just read and read.

Another thing that spiced up my interest is the psychological tests, which were given to the protagonist, I had been preoccupied with. I could not analyze what the relevance of those tests.

Besides, an ignorant atheist may raise a question if NDE (Near-Death-Experience) has something to do with afterlife. But, for sure, a deep-rooted believer might insist so.

3 STARS

Fiddlesticks! I enjoyed the beginning a lot until I reached the part incited me to get annoyed because I could not make out the Scottish accent rendered in phonetic words. I was interested at first, but it took me a lot of effort to decipher the dialogues among the camouflaged entities until I gave up because the story seems to be different since I had been preoccupied with the first story- as though I moved to another dimension in a comatose state I was not familiar with. So I was just trying to be more patient because I knew it was Banks ‘intention.

4 STARS
I found transisting to another dimension more interesting. There was something new. And at this time, I liked Iain Banks more. I can now recognize his styles for writing; he is like a raconteur. There is something about his styles that I tend to read smoothly, calmly despite the fact that his book is steeped in violent and hostile situations. He gave me an inspiration how to be a writer.

1 STAR
I said it! I had expected to pass this nose-bleeding part. I wanted to get furious, with the tears welling up in my eyes. I felt like spitting on Banks- he should not have written such parts. So I just skipped it since I could not figure out the phonetics even though speaking with Scottish accent sounds interesting, but not like this- somewhat stuffy. I had almost been attached to the real story as though I did not like to separate myself from the protagonist. Uh-oh! I was disappointed. So, I was sick and tired of the same situation as though I wanted to get out of that wacky world. I could not wait for what would become of John Orr. But still, I was trying to hang in there.

5 STARS
At last, I appreciated this book a whole lot. I had gone out of that quizzical and mind-boggling world. I had patched every story together. I had understood why everything had been going all along. I could not believe my eyes that I had felt those feelings. I had been carried away by Iain Banks. I was speechless at the end of the story, with some questions niggling in the chambers of my mind. It iss a big WOW! If I did not have too many books on my list to read, I could re-read it beyond the shadow of doubt.

To understand the real concept of the book, I browsed through the Wikipedia. Eventually, I realized that the story centers around the three protagonists: Alex (full name hinted to be Alexander Lennox, but never explicitly named), John Orr and The Barbarian, the character in the “epistaxis “ parts.

Iain Banks thought that of the novels he had written, this is his personal favorite.
“Definitely the intellectual of the family, it’s the one that went away to University and got a first. I think The Bridge is the best of my books.”

No doubt! I have not been able to get over this book yet. I have still been trying to digest and assimilate all the stories. Like the brain-teasing psychological tests given, it is like a whodunit novel. I have still big WHYs?

Rating: 5/ 5 stars ( It is amazing. )