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.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Banned from Berkeley Campus: "They said I was making verbal threats."

I don't usually have problems with strangers trying to talk to me. I attribute it to a combination of 1) being Asian and thus quiet, humourless, unlikely to banter, and possibly non-English speaking*, 2) looking naturally hostile when I don't smile. Don't get me wrong. Human beings are indeed wonderfully wrought creatures made in God's own image...I just don't feel like making small talk with them all the time.

Not everyone feels this way. Some are "Chatters." Their interest in strangers' affairs and in sharing their own affairs and opinions, I'm sure, stems from a passion for knowledge, a desire for human communication, a deep appreciation of everything and everyone. They just love life too much!!! But that doesn't mean that they aren't annoying.

When you're sitting next to a Chatter on a plane, you can usually nip a lengthy and boring conversation in the bud by plugging yourself into the music channel or the in-flight movie, or even pretending to sleep.

When you're in a cafe, it's a lot harder. Especially if you didn't bring your headphones. I was in a Starbucks in San Francisco yesterday, waiting for my sister to finish trying on clothes at a nearby store. There were no empty seats to be had, so I settled myself on the wide window-ledge near the condiment stand, set my hot drink beside me, and cracked open Forster's A Passage to India.

Presently an elderlyish man (late forties, early fifties) wearing a rain poncho and carrying an empty duffel bag stationed himself at the condiment stand and began adding sugar to his drink. And then he showed no signs of departing for anywhere else in the Starbucks interior.

Please don't be a Chatter, I thought to myself.

--Passage to India
, huh? Good movie. I've never read the book.

--Mmmm. Damn.

--Have you watched the movie?


--You should. It's a good one. By Merchant-Ivory.

--Didn't they do Howards End as well?

--Yup, that was them. But I liked this one better.



--You probably want to get to get back to your book, huh?

--Yah, kind of. Sorry.

--No, no. Perfectly understandable.


--I'm not a literature guy myself. I'm more a math-science type. I did a Ph.D. at Berkeley in math. Statistics and such.


--Are you a student?


--In lit? Undergrad?

--I'm in the English Ph.D. programme at Berkeley.

--Oh, yeah? So they making you teach and stuff?


--Academia is really just about finding your little niche and churning out papers.

--Yup. Pretty much.

--I find that really detestable. Really detestable. The real useful math just gets obscured.


--But I can see that you want to get back to your book. I won't bother you anymore.

--Okay, thanks.

--You know, that's why I left the academe. I'm still doing math and stuff, but just on my own.


--But go ahead and read. I'll stop now.


--You know, I'm banned from going on Berkeley campus ever again.

This actually sounded interesting. So I put down my book.
--Really? Why?

--I don't know! No reason! I was just trying to visit my old advisor, Steve. Now Steve's a guy that you want at your back. When they had me teaching Statistics II semester after semester, and it was sucking the life out of me, Steve stuck up for me.

--So you were just trying to visit your advisor, and they kicked you off campus?

--Pretty much. Well, they said I was making verbal threats. Getting violent. That's what the police report said anyhow. I read the police report, you know.

--What did you say?

--I don't think I said anything. I was just trying to get in there to see Steve, and the admin girl was like, "He's not in." Just stuff like, "I'm just trying to see my advisor. Why are you back-talking me?" If they'd read the dedication in my thesis, they'd see that I'd dedicated it to Steve. I said he's a guy you always want at your back.

--So they said you were making verbal threats?

--I think it was more the hand-gestures than anything else. I didn't say anything threatening.

--Oh. Uh. Bummer, man.

(My sister calls.)

--So my thesis is housed in the library in Evans...

--I have to go.

--Oh, right. You gotta do what you gotta do.

--Um. Good luck.

--Yeah. I'm going to stumble on it one day. Some big discovery. You'll hear about it.

--Well, hopefully. Bye.

--Yeah. Bye.

*I've never encountered the "talking stranger" problem in Asia, where it seems pretty much understood that nobody wants to talk to, or even cares about, anyone he/she doesn't know. Or as a high-school friend recounted to me after his attempt to make small-talk on an MRT subway train with someone:
"I asked her how she was doing. And she said, 'Can you please stop talking to me?'"

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Speaking of Locusts (Untitled.)

Here is a purposely pretentious poem contemplating the killing of locusts sent to me by Jo Hunter.

locust exoskeleton
The big question
I ask myself
is, "can I justify murder
so that I can send this little exoskeleton,
where it will stay
preserved (in ethyl alcohol 75% and up)
for posterity
with jiejie?"
As I ponder this difficult question
I find myself amongst the hopping
(with purple and red spots)
and ask smaller questions:
"Locii, why haven't you died of natural causes
"Why has your brother who died of natural causes
had his head eaten"
by ants?
the locusts stare back
not knowing the big question in my mind
or the sharp safety pin
in my pocket

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Yet Another Quoteworthy Statement

From a strange, strange man, reflecting upon the realisation of his abnormality:

"I've realised that I can never lead a normal life."

Monday, March 13, 2006

Award-Winning Experiment Involving Locusts Watching Star Wars

In an experiment partially funded by Volvo, locusts were shown edited extracts from Star Wars to determine whether or not they could detect imminent collisions! Click here for the full article.

From the article's comments section:

But did the locusts prefer the original trilogy to the prequels? Is there a locust somewhere wearing a tiny t-shirt saying 'Han Shot First'? Enquiring minds want to know!
Antony Shepherd, Croydon, UK

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Quotable Quote of the Day

"Bali may be as small as a bird, but as you know, bird flu can kill a strong man, " he warned.

(Context: In light of recent moves from the Indonesian government to put anti-pornography laws into effect, many have protested that the definition of pornography is too ill-defined and will lead to the impositional of morality and the suppression of free expression in Indonesia. Bali--which is primarily non-Muslim, and which is famous for the sensuous aspect of its cultural arts--is trying hard to oppose the implementation of the law.)

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Sixteen Things to Read Before "They" Finally Take You Down

As per request from the best flatmate with whom I have ever resided, here is a list of my personal top sixteen favourite reads. I've excluded plays and short poems because Mr. Winkles (of all the voices in my head, he's the scariest one) told me to exclude them.

After no. 1, they are in no particular order of fabulousness/importance.

1. The Bible by God
(But of course! I realise this is the obligatory Christian literary pick, but when the author of the universe writes something, it's probably a good idea to crack it open and take a long, hard look.)

2. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
(Fantastic sweets, wild and crazy chocolate manufacturer, golden tickets, and repulsive children. What's not to adore?)

3. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
(For some reason, I am not very fond of any books I had to read in middle- and high-school. This is the lone exception. Like Gloria Gaynor, it's a survivor!)

4. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
(Beautiful, and sad, and I couldn't put it down until I finished. And then I went to the surgeon who had to amputate my hands so that I really could put it down. I then learned to type with my toes, but have since found that it's much easier to type using literate slaves imported from India.
The book was up for National Book Award in 1961, along with Catch-22 and The Moviegoer (which won). But both the book and the author subsequently drifted off into obscurity. There's been a recent revival of interest for Revolutionary Road though.)

5. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
(The same guy who penned Remains of the Day. Nominated for the 2005 Booker Prize. It's a haunting story set in a future where cloning is put to...uh...controversial use. It has been compared to Huxley's Brave New World, but it's much better.)

6. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
(You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll tear your hair out because you're frustrated and angry at the behaviour of certain characters. For the record, I was already planning to read this over the summer of 2004 before Oprah tapped into my brainwaves and made it her book club summer pick.)

7. Silence by Shusaku Endo
(Simple, yet elegant. Told from the perspective of a Portuguese Jesuit priest who goes to Japan to tend to the local Christian community there, currently facing persecution. As the novel progresses, the priest begins to ruminate more and more on the question of betrayal: what constitutes betrayal and apostasy, what was the nature of Judas' betrayal of Jesus, is Judas so different from Jesus after all?)

8. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
(It looks really big and scary. But extremely engaging once you start reading it. It's 600 pages long, but I ended up finishing it within 3 days. The short of it is that it's about 4 figures caught up in the events of India's 1975 state of emergency. The long of it is that the characters and plot turns and twists are absolutely spell-binding, and that it also made tears stand in my eyes. I don't usually cry, but it was my novel, and I'll cry if I want to.)

9. Bugs in the System by May Berenbaum
(May Berenbaum is my entomologist-heroine! I think she teaches at the University of Illinois Entomology department. It's an engaging and light-hearted book about the roles that insects play in human life, from how many cockroach parts per chocolate bar are permitted by FDA standards to how entomologists suspect that the manna which sustained the Israelites during those 40 years in the desert may have been the honey-dew excretions of a scale-insect native to that area.)

10. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
(The standard favourite of every female reader. And Jane Austen is one funny gal.)

11. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
(The other standard favourite of every female reader. Everyone loves you wonder why the heck must Jane end up marrying whom she does.)

12. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
(Don't Panic. And always bring a towel.)

13. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
(What I found most charming about this novel was the sheer enthusiasm with which Melville seems to have written it. "I'm writing a novel, and by golly, I'm going to put in everything that I really like and enjoy writing about." There's a whole chapter devoted to how scary white things (including white whales) are. There a chapter devoted to bad pictures of whales and good pictures of whales. 'These are not good reasons for liking a book,' you might say. I know. It mystifies me.)

12. Matilda by Roald Dahl
(Having been educated in a British primary school, Roald Dahl was our hero...even after he came to our school to visit and refused to meet the really young children: my class, unfortunately. All of his children's books are great. My particular faves are also "The Witches" and "The BFG". But a story about a book-loving girl-genius mistreated by her vapid, twit-parents? How can one not identify in fits of melodramatic girlish angst?)

13. A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
(Elegantly written with a touch of restrained, dry humour, this feminist essay won my heart upon first read. Published in 1929, Woolf sets out to explore why women hitherthen had not produced as many great literary works as men. )

14. All the Sherlock Holmes Adventures by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (aka "Conan the Victorian.")
(Jolly good stuff! Smashing good read! Embarrassingly enough, during high school I had a bit of a crush on Sherlock Holmes. But those days are gone. He's fictional to me now.)

15. Charlie Dancey's Encyclopaedia of Ball Juggling by Charlie Dancey
(I thought it was impossible to learn new tricks from diagrams and descriptions. And then I bought this book. It has pictures, step-by-step instructions, and silliness and humour exuding from every paperous pore. It also makes learning how to do 'Rubenstein's Revenge' as easy as A-B-D. Uh...C....I mean, A-B-C.)

16. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
(I love this book. There's nothing hugely spectacular about it, nor any event particularly exciting within its covers. It's just about a girl from a working-class Irish-American family growing up in Brooklyn. But I still love to flip through it when I'm back home and read random passages from it. As a result, it is well-worn and has accidentally fallen into the bath-tub many times.)

Friday, March 03, 2006

The British Librarians Have Spoken (Quietly Of Course)

The Museum, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) in England conducted a poll, asking the country's librarians, "Which book should every adult read before they die?"

Here's the list! The American classic, To Kill A Mockingbird, beats out the Bible, and surprisingly, a slew of books by many beloved British writers (Tolkien and Orwell, Dickens, Bronte, and Austen.)

For the article in full, click here

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Bible
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by JRR Tolkien
1984 by George Orwell
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
All Quite on the Western Front by E M Remarque
His Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
Tess of the D'urbevilles by Thomas Hardy
Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
The Prophet by Khalil Gibran
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Middlemarch by George Eliot
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzenhitsyn