Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: May, 2008

The End Is Nigh! (Psst! It’s Actually Over)

I started Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett‘s Good Omens a little over four years ago with almost no expectations about the plot (except that it was about the apocalypse and it was supposed to be funny). Well, I finally buckled down this semester to finish the darn thing–during lunch breaks and in between fuming about the opinion pieces in the student newspapers. For me, I didn’t really start getting into it until the Antichrist turned eleven.

Due to the bungling of a satanic nun, the Antichrist gets misplaced at the hospital. So instead of growing up in a properly malicious environment, the Antichrist, now named Adam, is raised in a perfectly normal human home in a small British town. As the apocalypse draws closer (all omens foretold correctly in The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter), Adam speaks with his friends about the state of the world, unaware that his thoughts and speculations are put into reality (The rising of Atlantis! Trees taking over cities! The disappearance of nuclear reactors! The sudden easing of international tensions!). Meanwhile, the ambiguously gay duo who have been stationed on earth as agents, Aziraphale (an angel) and Crowley (a demon), rush around in their bumbling manner trying to figure out why the apocalypse isn’t proceeding as expected. The Witchfinder Private Newton Pulsifer stumbles upon Agnes Nutter’s descendant Anathema Device and romance blossoms between the two supposed adversaries even while they try to decipher Agnes’ cryptic clues about the end of the world. And after getting significant packages from the International Express, the Four Horsemen head off to wreak havoc…on their motorcycles.

The eccentric characters were funny–like slapstick–but the normal characters were even funnier, because the authors emphasized how oblivious and self-centered they were. Despite all the strange things suddenly happening in the world, most people didn’t even consider that the apocalypse was going on. Instead, they just chalked it up to somebody else messing up somewhere. Or that they were just hallucinating.

It isn’t all comedy, though. There’s an obvious thread showing that nurture triumphs over nature–if Adam had not been raised as a human boy, he might have been the Antichrist as everyone thought the Antichrist was supposed to be. Also, the theme of balance pops up everywhere. Humans have the capacity for both evil and good and one cannot exist without the other–so as Adam probably reasoned, what is the point of having the war to end all wars when the outcome would be so unbalanced anyway? Adam gives the example of the whale. It is evil to kill whales, but without that, how can there be the good of people saving whales? Perhaps a subtler (and also funnier) scene illustrating this is that of a demon devouring a cadre of telemarketers. Now, eating people is definitely an evil thing. But some good came out of that too–people are no longer annoyed by unnecessary telephone calls.

I would recommend Good Omens, with one caveat. Don’t expect this novel to be the funny to end all funnies. In other words, don’t read any reviews if you haven’t read this book (er, it’s probably too late for that warning if you’ve already gotten to this part of the post). Comedy is such a subjective thing–something that would send someone into peals of laughter might only raise my eyebrow (or rather, eyebrows, since I can’t do the one eyebrow thing). That said, Good Omens is funny–dry, British wit funny with footnotes!–but expect to do a little thinking, too.

Crayon Scribblings from a Three-Year-Old

That’s how I feel about Red Bird, the latest poetry chapbook by Mary Oliver. The language is simple, sparse even, and the structure repetitive. I will quite concede the fact that maybe I was not in the right frame of mind when I read this. But many of the poems were permeated with a certain egocentrism–more than other poetry at any rate–and I was wondering if this wouldn’t be better served as a monologue.

The subjects of the Oliver poems are of a naturalistic bent. The collection itself is bracketed by the motif of the red bird which flits throughout the works as a beacon. The poems themselves are rather dark–speaking of night and winter. Even when the setting is spring or summer, it’s in the early morning when the darkness is still clinging with tenterhooks. It’s the inexorable river images of passing time, the mentions of civilization’s disastrous byproducts in the more political pieces, and the dark edges of self-contemplation in the cycle “Eleven Versions of the Same Poem” that emphasizes life as depressing and unpleasant.

The only thing that saves life from being truly depressing and unpleasant is the “red bird”. Sometimes, this symbol doesn’t appear as a red bird at all. It could be aspects of the red bird–like flute players, roses, the coming dawn, the tongue of a panther, apples, berries–which are all vibrant and energetic and as indicated in the collection’s final poem, “Red Bird Explains Himself,” the soul.

It’s not surprising that Oliver writes that the soul is essential for life. With frequent references to God, it is not hard to imagine that perhaps her religious upbringing/beliefs have influenced the philosophy of her work. But whatever meaning she was trying to convey, I was not keen on her style. Red Bird is rather blunt word-smithing that sometimes seem unnecessarily enigmatic. It’s like an adult’s simulation of a child’s drawing of a cat in crayon. Upon first glance, you can’t really tell what it is, but after an explanation (in Red Bird‘s case, the last poem of the collection), it becomes obvious in a strange deliberate way.

A Note About the Haiku on This Site

If you’ve noticed, I’ve started posting some haiku on this blog. I strongly suspect I’m quite bad at poetry (despite my name), but I’ve recently found that this form is a much more succinct way for conveying my thoughts at a particular moment–the essence of which would be diluted with a more long-winded post. Taken literally, my haiku are actual scenes from my life, on the day that it was posted. As for the meaning, the interpretation is up to the reader.

(I’ve started a list of haiku here. Also found on the links page.)

Short Pyromaniacs (A Haiku)

Small boys throw fir sticks
Into a sparking bonfire.
The adults stand back.

Cinderella, the Pumpkins Are Inside the Coach (A Haiku)

Three stout girls in glitz,
One clutching a small chic dog,
Get into a truck.

Acquisition of the Lab Building (A Haiku)

In the frisky breeze,
A proud goose sits on the roof
Loudly claiming turf.


Booking Through Thursday: Manual Labor

Writing guides, grammar books, punctuation how-tos . . . do you read them? Not read them? How many writing books, grammar books, dictionaries–if any–do you have in your library?

I read them, occasionally. As for grammar and punctuation, if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. I don’t mean that they’re the same–the execution is different, of course, so reading any of these for pleasure means you’re reading for the author’s style–but the rules are the same. And if all the rules are the same, what’s the point in owning all these books?

Since I write in my free time, one would think that I would have a bunch of writing guides in my possession. In reality, no. I mean, sure, there are the few writing guides like Stephen King’s On Writing or Strunk and White that I would even recommend to non-writers, but on the whole I view most of the offerings in this genre as useless. Writing style is a personal thing, and I’d rather muddle along by myself than follow somebody else’s how-to.

As of this moment, I have on hand one dictionary, one thesaurus, one grammar and punctuation book, and three writing guides (the aforementioned King, Strunk and White, and one on Nanowrimo which I just thought would be cool to have since I’ve been a long-time participant–not that I follow any of Baty’s suggestions). And frankly, that’s probably all I need to have.

* * *
The Thursday Threesome: Fife and Drum?

Onesome: Fife– Barney? …a musical instrument? …the number after ‘four’? What came to mind when you saw this week’s title?

Musical instrument. Specifically, what came to mind was a medieval ensemble playing in a Renaissance fair. Or something like that.

Twosome: and–do you recall a painting of a fife and drum set with a flag? No? Maybe one of our American History majors can link it in…

I vaguely remember the painting. I don’t remember the artist though.

Threesome: Drum–lines? Do you love them? …or do you even know they exist? I’m wondering if this is an “Eastern” thing…

Why is drumming an “Eastern” thing? Sure, there are Japanese taiko drummers, but aren’t there drums in marching bands too? Marching bands solely consisting of drummers? Oil drummers in the Caribbean? There are drums and percussion instruments in every culture.

I like certain kinds of drumming, but it’s not one of those things which I go crazy over or even consider seeking out.

Yet Another Booklist

…containing many books I have not read. The following are “the top 106 books most often marked as “unread” by LibraryThing’s users. As in, they sit on the shelf to make you look smart or well-rounded.” (via Dustbury)

Bold = books I’ve read
Underline = books I’ve read for school
Italics = books I’ve started but haven’t finished/are in the middle of reading
* (asterisk) = books I own but have not started reading yet

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Anna Karenina*
Crime and Punishment
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Wuthering Heights
The Silmarillion*
Life of Pi: a novel*
The Name of the Rose
Don Quixote
Moby Dick
Madame Bovary
The Odyssey
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Eyre*
The Tale of Two Cities*
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
War and Peace
Vanity Fair
The Time Traveler’s Wife
The Iliad
The Blind Assassin
The Kite Runner
Mrs. Dalloway
Great Expectations
American Gods
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Atlas Shrugged
Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books
Memoirs of a Geisha
Wicked: the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
The Canterbury Tales
The Historian: a novel
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Love in the Time of Cholera
Brave New World
The Fountainhead
Foucault’s Pendulum
The Count of Monte Cristo
A Clockwork Orange
Anansi Boys*
The Once and Future King
The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible : a novel
Angels & Demons*
The Inferno (and Purgatory and Paradise)
The Satanic Verses
Sense and Sensibility
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Mansfield Park
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
To the Lighthouse
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Oliver Twist
Gulliver’s Travels
Les Misérables
The Corrections
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time*
The Prince
The Sound and the Fury
Angela’s Ashes: a memoir
The God of Small Things
A People’s History of the United States: 1492-present
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
The Mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake: a novel
Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed*
Cloud Atlas
The Confusion
Northanger Abbey
The Catcher in the Rye
On the Road
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Freakonomics: a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an inquiry into values
The Aeneid
Watership Down
Gravity’s Rainbow
The Hobbit
In Cold Blood: a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences
White Teeth
Treasure Island
David Copperfield
The Three Musketeers


I finally get the software working, but now all my bookmarks on Firefox are wiped out after my last restart. And the two programs aren’t even related to each other…

Well, at least I have all my most important sites saved on an html file.

Just Leave the Phone Unplugged

Rejecting the model in ‘model minority.’ I agree with Angry Asian Man‘s assessment.

Anyways, on an unrelated note: Sometimes when I leave my landline plugged in (most of the time I don’t–people who really want to get a hold of me use e-mail), I get these targeted telemarketing calls in Mandarin. I tell them I don’t speak Chinese, they stammer, and then I hang up. And I totally know why I get those phone calls too. It’s because of my last name.

Of course, if they knew how the English transliteration of my last name came about (i.e. Vietnamization of the Cantonese pronunciation), the last thing they should be doing would be calling in Mandarin.