Brainstrummings from a Bug-Eyed Bookworm

Tiff is a PhD student in English literature at UC-Berkeley. She takes no prisoners, bars no holds, holds no bars.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"Chair Wars"??!?!?

In a fit of procrastination, I was poking about on the TIME magazine website. Apparently, the BIG news for this issue is "ITALY vs CHINA." Who knew?

One of the main pieces is an article on the ferocious chair-making battle being fought by those two dread and fearsome nations. The sub-heading reads like a publicity piece for a boxing tournament: "What happens when old-world craftsmanship collides with harsh new commercial realities? Welcome to Manzano, Italy's chair-production capital, as it is battered by cheaper Chinese rivals."

I was discussing this with PM sometime last week: nowadays, it looks like every journalist, analyst, and their mothers are making a big hoo-hah over the inevitable rise of China. "The East is Red! Really, it is. This time, we're positive," seems to be the general consensus.

But surely, one can find better (or at least more interesting) evidence for China's unstoppable achievement of success and superpowerdom than the attack of the Chinese Chairmakers. the magnificent Three Gorges Dam China has recently built. Never mind the nation's small problem with female infanticide and an excess of men. Or the somewhat frightening tendency for toxins to find their way into baby milk powder factories. And as a company official said following the tiny accident at one of China's petrochemical plants, "people shouldn't worry about the orange cloud."

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Justin in his unnatural habitat

This is a photo of Justin Hastings. He is my boyfriend and he is also currently in Southeast Asia doing research for his political science dissertation.

This photo was taken by this moth. Very admirable for its first attempt at human-life photography, especially considering its lack of opposable thumbs.

The Wonders of Inter-Insect Communication

Derek Chiang sent me this link to an article on a new BBC documentary series on invertebrates being hosted by Sir David Attenborough. (The documentary series is being hosted by Attenborough, not the insects. Although maybe the insects did manage to wheedle a cup of tea and a crumpet from him.)

Here's an excerpt:

"Caterpillars of large blue butterflies have been shown to communicate with ants, making noises that fool them into caring for the larvae as if their own.

And scientists are now looking into the idea that these sounds are actually overheard by the wasps that seek out such caterpillars to lay eggs in them."

The documentary series is entitled "Life in the Undergrowth" and looks really snazzy!

Monday, November 21, 2005

A Merry, Merry UnTurkey To You!

From the same company that brought you such appetising treats as UnChicken and UnSteak, this "vegan holiday masterpiece" is made "primarily of wheat gluten and covered with a crisp soy skin."

The secret to enjoying this Thanksgiving treat is not to think of it as turkey, but as a huge hunk of wheat gluten.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Moth, Mark, and the Monarchs

Hungry for the same fame that Kerstin and Frank enjoyed when they sent me the photo of the Jerusalem Cricket, Mark Bandstra has sent me a photo of a Polyphemus Moth.

This is Mark Bandstra supposedly gawking at monarch butterflies in flight during the annual monarch migration in Pacific Grove.

Asians Who Hate Asians

When I was back home in Singapore for summer vacation, I had the opportunity to eat lunch with a real, live Japanese-disliking Singaporean. His disdain for the Japanese was not a matter of ignorance...according to him, it was quite well-informed.

"First of all, they were very cruel to us during the war," he said. "Second of all, Japanese are actually very dirty people."

"I thought Japanese were very clean," I said.

He shook his head. "Very dirty. Only in public, they are very clean. I know. I lived there for years. Actually, they are very filthy."

"He doesn't really hate Japanese. He just talks, but it doesn't mean anything," his wife told me later. "If he met a Japanese face to face, he wouldn't hate him."

However, it seems that in area of prejudice, the Japanese are also fending for themselves. Here's an article from the New York Times on two best-selling comic books in Japan which portray Koreans and Chinese as backward and inferior people.

Friday, November 18, 2005

"Di Sebuah Ruang Tunggu" (or "In A Waiting Room")

In an Indonesian course I'm taking this year, we read this poem by Putu Vivi Lestari on the Bali bombings. I found it very moving and so I'm going to try my hand at translation (with help, of course, from going through it once in class with the professor.)

Di Sebuah Ruang Tunggu (In A Waiting Room)

dengan sekuntum mawar
dapat kutemu
yang hilang
mungkin mimpi
akan cukup

with a single rose stem
I could find
your lost spirit
maybe dreams
would be enough

Di sebuah ruang tunggu
dengan ratusan kantung
dan ampul
berkali kueja namamu
barangkali terselip
di antara balok-balok es
atau tertindih lalu lalang
orang-orang yang sibuk
memungut kenangan
bersama rintih pilu

In a waiting room
with hundreds of IV bags
and vials
strewn about
many times I spell out your name
which may slipped slipped
between the blocks of ice
or been pinned down in the foot traffic
of people busy
picking up spilled memories
with the piercing whimper
of fireflies

Berkali kueja namamu
meski serpihan es
luluh di bakar
yang selesai
di ujung matahari
tetap saja cuma tinggal
ingatan buram

Many times I spell out your name
although shards of ice
flow around
destroyed in the fire of
which have ended
at the farthest point of the sun
still there are left only
hazy memories

Dengan apa mesti kutawar?
udara memberat
dengan wangi
daging terurai
bercampur harum dupa

What can I use to counter this all?
the air weighs heavy
with the fragrance of
flesh dishevelled
mixing with the smell of incense

dengan sekuntum mawar
dapat kulukis
jejakmu di debu
yang tersapu
tentu tak perlu kubukua
nama-nama dewa
yang beranjak pergi

with a single rose stem
I could paint back
your steps in the dust
by the wind
then I wouldn't have to consult
the records
names of gods
getting up to leave

Sementara Van Gogh
yang jauh
belum juga usai
melukis air mata
bersama pemakan kentang
di tahun yang gelap
dan muram

Meanwhile Van Gogh
far away
also has not finished
painting tears
with the potato eaters
in that dark
and sombre year

Di luar
nampak matahari
remang senja
yang itu juga
aku tiba-tiba teringat
orang-orang timur
dengan batu jadenya
:simbol keberuntungan
(yang kini melingkar
di jari manisku)

the sun rises
an overcast twilight
is that as well
I suddenly recall
the people of the East
with their jade stones
: symbols of good fortune
(like this one encircling
my ring finger)

berkali kuraba
berharap sebuah isyarat
tapi isyarat
cuma minggigil
di pojok ruang tunggu
sambil bertanya
"Apa warna langit
hari ini?"

Many times do I rub it
hoping for a sign
but a sign
only shivers
in the corner of the waiting room
"What colour is the sky

Oktober 2002

Thursday, November 17, 2005

When Bad Book Covers Happen to Good Books: Making Sense of It All.

Sometimes, when you're browsing in a bookstore, you'll come across a really good-looking book.

"Hey good-looking," you'll say to the book. "Let's go have a coffee, and then go back to my place and curl up together on a rainy day."

To which the book will not reply, not so much because you're being a superficial jerk(ette), but because it is an inanimate object.

However, I've been struck in the past few years by some horrendously bad book cover choices. Choices which seem to have been made by the publisher while he/she was either drunk, high, or trying to get fired.

Let's take a look at the top three:

Waverly by Sir Walter Scott. (Oxford World's Classics edition)

Scott's first novel follows the adventures of the heroic Edward Waverly: an English soldier sent to to the highlands of Scotland, where he joins the Jacobites in an attempt to restore Prince Charles Edward Stuart to the throne.

And of course, from the cover-page, we can tell that Edward Waverly is one hot studmuffin of a man: rosy cheeks, ruby lips, and all.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens (Oxford World's Classics edition)

When I purchased this book at Books Kinokuniya in Singapore, it was less than half the price of the surrounding Dickensian novels such as Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities. A veritable steal!

Of course, perhaps it was the unappealing look of the book which had something to do with it. When a book is 900 pages long and has a depressing title like Bleak House, the last thing you want to do is slap a picture of a kid dozing (out of boredom?) on the cover.

The blurb is intriguing: "It is a murder story....It is a murder story, which comes to a climax in a thrilling chase.....And it is a fable about redemption."

The cover is...bleak.

by Samuel Richardson (Riverside edition)

The longest book ever written in the English language, and written entirely in the form of letter-exchanges. This book is about the breathtakingly beautiful and virtuous Clarissa, and the villainous Richard Lovelace who loves her so much that he wants to seduce her, trample all over her virtue, and make her a fallen woman.

"I can think of nothing, of nobody, but my divine Clarissa Harlowe....O thou most exalted of female minds, and loveliest of persons!" Lovelace writes. Can she really be that lovely?

Indeed, she is. Albeit a bit on the stout and manly side. And the wig and the overly-prominent beauty mark just aren't doing it for her. Granted, the picture is probably supposed to be of Samuel Richardson, but seriously, let me ask you. WHY???!? WHY??!? AGGGH! MY EYES!!!

Monday, November 14, 2005

Staying Fit Inside the Box

Stuck inside a cubicle 8 hours a day, 5 days a week? Perhaps business yoga is the thing for you! (Link sent by May Ng, editor at Ethos Books.)

Gerusalem Crickets and Jerman Physicists

This is a photo of a Jerusalem cricket which was sent to me by Frank and Kerstin Tackmann (see below.) Jerusalem crickets belong to the order Orthoptera.

Frank and Kerstin are graduate students in the Physics department at Berkeley. They are married to each other. They are from Germany. They do not belong to the order Orthoptera and are much larger in size than Jerusalem crickets.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

moth reclining on sofa (taken in Bogor, Indonesia) Posted by Picasa

Prestupidism: The New Postmodernism

"Postmodernism is like, so passe," stated Mirtha Lucensios in her keynote speech for a literary conference in Nantucket last month. Universally praised for her groundbreaking work in Russian-American literature and gender studies, it must have come as a great shock to Lucensios when she was booed off the stage by a great number of the audience. Some conference attendees were so vexed by Lucensios' comments that they began to heatedly debate the possible merits of setting things on fire and "trashing the place in a deconstructive manner."

Defending herself after she had been ushered to a private room by security guards, Lucensios boldly asserted, "Well, it's like, so true. Prestupidism is totally where it's at."

That's right, folks. Just when people were getting used to postmodernism, wobbling around less awkwardly in its skinny high-heeled splendour, the fast-paced and glitzy world of literary studies has left them flat on their faces once again.

"This is terrible," sighed the store-manager of Macy's in New York, Stuart Lintz. "Our theme for the holiday season was going to be 'A Postmodern Christmas.' The window-display designs were all ready, the advertising campaign was good to go. And now? Twelve thousand yards of silk Jacques Derrida ribbon gone to waste!"

Spearheading the prestupidist movement is Bogart Winklebread: Irish literature specialist and young and upcoming star in the great constellation-festooned sky of literary criticism and theory. Author of A Biography of Seamus Heany and the considerably more controversial It May be the Potato Famine but I Haven't Got a Thing to Wear: Re-fashioning Hybrid Melacholia in Irish Literature, Winklebread has achieved most notoriety for his statement, "I try to keep literature real. Keep it real, and keep it fabulous."

"Prestupidism is my small and humble attempt to revive the pathetic state of the literary world as it currently stands," he explained, modestly rearranging his hair in his compact-mirror. "The decline is all reflected in the names. Think about past movements and critical approaches: 'Romanticism,' 'Futurism,' 'Modernism,' 'New Criticism,' 'New Historicism.' Such boldness! Such daring! Such hope for the future! And now? 'Poststructuralism,' 'postcolonialism,' 'postmodernism,' 'postfeminism.' What does that say to us? I'll tell you what it says: 'It's all over, it's all finished, we're winding up, closing shop, kicking the bucket, selling the cow, salting and peppering the baby.'"

With prestupidism, Winklebread believes that he has hit upon the secret to a movement sustainable for the long-term: a perennial classic, if you will. "Think of it as the little black dress of the literary world."

"The secret," he confided in hushed tones, "is in the 'pre-.' The 'post-' has been done to death, let me tell you that. The 'pre-,' on the other hand, hasn't even been touched! It's 'pre-stine'! It implies something on the brink of realisation. Of something wonderful about to spring forth fully formed. And of course, there's the second half: 'stupid.' Such unpretentious frankness in word choice has never been seen before! I'm amazing! Simply amazing!"

Even Winklebread's longtime rival and arch-nemesis, literary theorist Dennis Adrian Wong grudgingly admitted the ingenuity of the prestupidist movement. "It's sheer genius. Sheer, diabolical genius. Anything that comes after prestupidism is fated to be stupid," he said, motioning to the bartender for another beer.

"Winklebread is preying on the greatest fear the literary intellectual has! Most of us have spent the best years of our lives working like dogs to get the world to recognise how smart we are. To topple this movement, it would take a giant among academics, I tell you! A man like no other! Or woman. Sorry, my speech tends to be gender-biased after I've had a few pints. Damn the unconscious hegemonic structure lodged in my being! Damn it to hell!"

The exact content of prestupidism has not been confirmed, except that it is not postmodernism and, Winklebread emphatically states, "NOT post-postmodernism. And of course, not stupid."

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


Need I say more?

Well, obviously yes. But that will come at a later time.