Archive for April, 2010

Grumpy Magazine Screed

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

Why is there only one New Yorker? As in, why is there only one general interest magazine in which the writing is reliably strong and the topics consistently both relevant and entertaining?

I’m always trying to find another. I tried Harper’s for years, but a) they’ve never heard of women; and b) they’re interested almost exclusively in politics and war. It’s pretty astonishing: Every few years, I try another issue, hoping that things have changed. They haven’t.

Just look at the TOC! Bylines are men, men, men. Topics are war, war, war. For the record, I’ll say that I recognize that the world is awash in politics and war, and as a responsible citizen I am supposed to have a basic grasp of same. I do. I get it on NPR.

And given that I’m already doing whatever I’m going to be doing by way of activism (i.e., voting, some emailing, and contributing to causes I care about), I humbly posit that more information entering my already-rattled nervous system isn’t going to improve anything for anyone.

Then there’s the Atlantic, which seems like it should be the answer, but never is. Why is the Atlantic so boring? Why are its articles often incoherent? (Did you read the latest OMG OBESITY ALARMISM cover story? Wha?) Why is its fiction—at least in the latest fiction supplement—so grim? There’s something weird going on in editorial there. Something anti-Melissa-y.

I am a fan of The Sun, with reservations. It’s pretty one-noted. I like that one note, which is deeply felt emotional and personal exploration, usually landing at grief/wonder. But issue after issue of that tends to result in a mega-blur.

And, in addition to mockably titled environmental magazines like Home Power and Earth Island Journal, John gets Wired, which we both read cringe-ingly, absorbing the technolust and corporate cheerleading while sometimes being authentically interested in the topic.

Readers, help me out. Which magazines do you read?

Savage Detectives/Mad Men

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

A quick look at two pieces of popular (high-brow-ish) culture:

1) Savage Detectives. I’m only 150 pages in, but I may not get to page 151. Is this book not the Latin American Youth in Revolt? I mean, obviously, Youth in Revolt would be the American Savage Detectives, written 20 years post, but I’m beguiled by the resemblance. And if I hadn’t already read Youth in Revolt, wishing endlessly for something of consequence to happen until finally, 500 pages later, discovering that it never would, I might have more patience for Savage Detectives.

Nothing’s going to happen, is it? You can tell me.

2) Mad Men. I am late to the point of irrelevance here, but I’ve just begun making my way through Season 1. (I’m at ep 8 of 12.) Here’s what I’ve noticed: Jon Hamm sounds exactly like the Moonlighting version of Bruce Willis. I swear. Close your eyes and listen! Also, the writers are frighteningly adept at calibrating Don Draper’s asshole factor. Just when you think you can’t be bothered to care, they crack him open enough to snare you again.

Also, MM seems both unreliably exaggerated and simultaneously very smart about sexism. I keep thinking they’re replaying the same notes and then, no, there’s something new. As in, okay, the women are complicit in their objectification, because it’s all they know; it’s their only form of power, and then—whoah, they’re complicit in their infantilization, too, because nobody gave them a post-marriage narrative. Things like that.

I fear that, as in so many series that start well and veer away from reality, too much plot is shortly headed my way. Let’s hope not.

Young Punks

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

We saw Vampire Weekend! Last night, at the Fox in Oakland. (Thanks to Peter and Kate for selling us their tix!)

Okay, first: a very bouncy good time. Highly danceable music. Swanky light show. Chandeliers with at least five settings. And the irresistible signature neo-yodeling! OH oh OH, WHOAH oh OH, AA-EE AA YA YA!

The band was exactly what you’d expect them to be: energetic, puckish, uber-talented, and either post-ironic or post-post-ironic. Or could they have been post-post-post-ironic? (Sometimes the layers peel themselves, and sometimes . . . they don’t.)

Approximately 65% of hipster Oakland was there. But John and I were undaunted, and I’ll tell you why. We may not have been wearing our ironic t-shirts, but we rested safely in the knowledge that we had quite a few ironic t-shirts back at home.

That’s the kind of confidence that will allow married people from Berkeley to endure an onslaught of hipster fashion. That, and the unshakable desire to periodically inform the band, “You are but children!” At one point the lead singer mentioned that it was their first time at the Fox, and I was like, “Of course it’s your first time at the Fox, you idiot! You’re twelve!”

Anyways, though. It was rilly fun. I’m still bouncing, a little.

New Play: Girlfriend at the Berkeley Rep

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

I know I’ve been grumpy lately. (I have a sick gerbil. It’s a real mood-kill.) Anyways, I’m happy to say that, unlike the previous four posts, today’s isn’t tagged with “Complaint Dept.” Au contraire, it’s getting a “Highly Recommended”!

On Tuesday we saw the Rep’s new musical, Girlfriend. As we headed into the theater, all I knew about the show was that it was inspired by the 1991 Matthew Sweet album, so I figured it’d probably be high school-y and romantic. It’s both, and in the best possible ways.

What Girlfriend does is what I am always hoping romantic comedies will do: build, very slowly and with all the appropriate fits and starts, a relationship between two people as they begin to fall in love. Rather than leap beyond the awkwardness of early acquaintance with a way-too-soon hook-up, as most romances do, Girlfriend takes its sweet (and deliciously frustrating time) in bringing these two characters together. And that makes the pleasure of their union nothing less than thrilling.

In my experience, coming together with another person romantically is a tricky thing, even when conversation happens easily (it doesn’t, in Girlfriend) and when both people are adults who have some consistency in their senses of self (they aren’t and don’t, in Girlfriend). So to have that truth acknowledged—that coupling is complex—is delightful and cheering.

On top of the preceding, layer this: They’re both boys, and they’re in Nebraska in 1992, and one of them is a jock. Eeeeee! The obstacles pile and pile, yet the boys want what they want. And the show’s two actors, both with beautiful voices and the endearing ability to flit in and out of vulnerability, are excellent.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sweeter show. It’s so sweet it might make your teeth hurt—if it weren’t simultaneously so smart and real.

Millennium vs. Greens: No Contest

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

John’s moms were in SF for the weekend, at a Philosophy of Ed conference, so we joined them for dinner on Saturday and Sunday. First up: Millennium. Second: Greens.

It’s probably not a fair comparison, because the restaurants are doing different things. Millennium may be vegan and Greens vegetarian, but Millennium is much more about the layering of rich, hearty, and pungent flavors with beautifully varying textures, whereas Greens has a much more Chez Panisse-y take on featuring uber-fresh local vegetables in mostly unadorned ways.

Still. As per usual, Millennium shone with some truly breathtaking dishes, whereas nothing I tried at Greens inspired me, except for the raspberry lemonade. And, you know. Lemonade.

Memorable at Millennium: the carrot cake, which featured fluffy patties of cake sandwiched around a creamy center, accompanied by fresh and bright carrot sorbet, a carrot-and-fig compote (divine), and a long drip of caramel down the rectangular plate. John had a tofu curry with scrumptiously flowery accents, less coconut than coconut-jasmine. And I had a juice-mint spritzer that was all the more fantastic for featuring Navarro gewurtztraminer, which you can’t rightly call grape juice, although that’s what it is.

Memorable at Greens: the fact that I paid $23 for an enchilada entree comprising a) mediocre enchiladas with bland flavors b) bare butter beans, and c) a spoonful of acidic slaw. Ew. I am also annoyed that the leek-garlic-manchego potato cakes tasted like masa.

Sigh. I hate to trash Greens. But we can have some more flavor, please?


Sunday, April 11th, 2010

Okay, Chang-Rae Lee. You just lost me.

I made it to page 294, enduring the novel’s relentlessly grim brutality and multiple gruesome tableaux—and engaging in, I admit,  periodic half-guilty skimming—to arrive at two senseless deaths. Fin. I can endure no more.

I hereby add an item to my Literary List of Errors: There can’t be too many tragedies.

I understand that in life, there is no Tragedy Saturation Point. Misery is permitted to pile on without regard for tolerance. But in art, there is a point beyond which additional tragedy, particularly of the violent kind, becomes meaningless. And even, sadly, funny.

Chang-Rae Lee reaches that point on page 294 of The Surrendered.

Why, why, why? These characters don’t have to die—not for the plot, or any other reason I can determine. Where was Lee’s editor? Where was his tuning fork? Where was his bullshit detector?

I issue my cry in the dark.

Surrender: When Do You?

Saturday, April 10th, 2010

When do you give up on a book you don’t like?

It’s been so long since I’ve abandoned a book partway in, I’d forgotten how hard it is. I always worry that I’m missing something by not finishing, or doing a disservice to the author, except in cases where it’s plain the author didn’t invest much herself. (Rare.)

But . . . why suffer?

This week, I’ve already abandoned one book and am on the verge of relinquishing another.

The first, David Whyte’s The Three Marriages, I surrendered at page 105. I love Whyte’s poetry, mainly for its wisdom about being, and I was eager to read this work of nonfiction, in which he sets out to illuminate what he views as our three most important relationships: to a partner, to work, and to the self.

I think I was less shocked by the book’s gender essentialism (Whyte is deeply steeped in classic mythology as well as Victorian literature) than by its incoherence. I mean, it kind of doesn’t make any sense. I don’t even know exactly what Whyte is saying, beyond  a) it’s important to have relationships with a partner, work, and self, and b) a man falling in “love” with a woman at first sight and then whipping up said love into a frothy obsession is somehow not merely literary but also actual and real and right.

I believe the word for that is: claptrap.

The other book, appropriately enough, is The Surrendered, the latest novel by Chang-Rae Lee. I have a complicated relationship with Lee. Here’s why: 1) Aloft: genius. 2) Native Speaker: solidly good. 3) A Gesture Life: frighteningly vague in its moral compass.

I don’t want to sound drama-queeny (okay, I totally do), but I found A Gesture Life, which involves the stories of the so-called “comfort” women in WWII Japan, actually kind of traumatizing. On the one hand, it’s clear that were meant to experience the horror of the military brothels, in which young Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Philippina women were forced to “service” 10 – 20  men a night.

On the other, the protagonist is a doctor who supposedly shows compassion to the women but meanwhile convinces himself he is in love with one of them (naturally, the “pure,” conventionally beautiful one who is not only a virgin but is also reserved for the head officer and therefore “unsullied” by all that unsightly rape) and then (SPOILER ALERT) ends up having sex with her anyway, when she’s at her most vulnerable.

As if this weren’t enough, we’re also asked to sympathize when, as an older, single man in America, that same doctor adopts a young Korean girl.

It just—how many heebee-jeebees do you have?

So here we are with The Surrendered, and it is also a war novel, and there is plenty of graphic violence and scenes I wish I hadn’t read, already at page 135. Worse, there’s only one character who might be sympathetic, and we left her story a while back.

Time to give up?

Gregoire Fail

Friday, April 9th, 2010

Until Wednesday, I’d never had a disappointing meal at Gregoire. In fact, in the consummate perfection of their potato puffs—mashed potatoes breaded, rolled into mouth-poppable morsels the size of doughnut holes, and deep-fried—they’ve been glowingly consistent.

But, in the immortal words of En Vogue, not this time.

On Wednesday, when my friend Vicky and I went to get our quarterly share of salty, buttery, creamy, deep-fried carbohydrate, we were let down. Because instead of the usual aioli, which is creamy, yes, but—critically—acidic and tangy with vinegar, we were given a different dipping sauce entirely, this one of the creamy-parmesan-pesto variety.

No good. It doesn’t work to dip fried fat into more fat, without any acid to cut the adiposity. It’s too one-noted.

We also had the salad, which is usually a fluffy mess of deliciously fresh baby lettuces and crunchy croutons topped with a creamy vinaigrette. Again, no! There was only one type of lettuce—butter—and the dressing was bland and mustardy.

What happened, Gregoire? Out of vinegar?

In other food fails, we have Trader Joe’s cucumber wontons. Yeah, you read that right. Cucumber. I thought I’d give them a try. Is it ever okay to cook cucumber? Discuss.

Kessler on Overeating

Monday, April 5th, 2010

As promised, I’m here with a review of David Kessler’s The End of Overeating [sic—i.e., this book ain’t gonna end it].

Kessler’s theory, presented with plenty of studies* to back it up, is that sugar, fat, and salt are addictive substances, particularly when grouped together. Because they’re addictive, they cause many people to eat beyond satiety, and then to become trapped in a conditioned cycle of overeating.

*I’m in no position to judge the validity of the science, of course. Kessler’s the former head of the FDA and is respected for his role in challenging the tobacco industry. I don’t know how deeply he looked into the studies he cites.

Kessler is particularly good on the nefarious role that food companies, chain restaurants, and fast food restaurants play in creating “hyper-palatable” food, products and dishes comprising layers of sugar, salt, and fat in combination, over which many Americans have become powerless.

So far, so good. I’ve found all three of those substances to be mood-altering and potentially (or actually) addictive—as refined sugar is my drug of choice, I’ve gone off it before and am considering going off it again—and Kessler’s research is convincing. The problem with TEoO is everything that comes later. Allow me to elaborate:

Kessler goes a long way to portray sugar, fat, and salt as addictive substances, comparing them to drugs and alcohol and pointing toward programs like AA and NA as viable means of recovery. Why, then, no mention of OA (Overeaters Anonymous)? It’s a glaring elision. There must be a reason, but . . . what?

Predictably, based on his essential beliefs about overeating, Kessler recommends removing sugar, salt, and fat from the diet.* Alongside this (drastic) change in behavior, he recommends classic Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques like demonizing the hyper-palatable foods (and the companies who make them), plus placing yourself in a community of people who will do the same.

*Astonishingly, he says that the addicted overeater can add them back in eventually, in small doses. Um . . . isn’t the point of the addiction model that you can’t have just one?

Some problems here.

First, Kessler seems to feel that shaming is a worthy technique—i.e., it’s good to feel ashamed of eating hyper-palatable food, because then you’ll eat less of it. Even without the benefit of science, I think most of us know that shame doesn’t work. After all, who is shamed in our culture more than fat people? And yet obesity, as we hear pretty much daily, is on the rise. And even if shame were to work, I’d hardly recommend it as a tool for healthy living.

Second, CBT may be helpful in the short term, but chances are, not many people will be able to drastically change their diets over the long haul, simply by trying to “re-wire” their neural networks to believe that hyper-palatable food is bad. I mean, doesn’t everyone already try to do that? And end up eating that kind of food anyway? Would you tell an alcoholic that she could stop drinking simply by convincing herself that drinking is bad?

In other words, Kessler promises us a radical new way of understanding overeating, and then he gives us classic dieting techniques that have failed for so many people for so long.

Kessler’s attachment to the concept of “control” is telling, betraying a failure to understand addiction. One of the cornerstones of 12-step programs is relinquishing control, using surrender as a spiritual tool to live from a place of groundedness and reality instead of distraction and addiction. What Kessler is advising overeaters to do is what 12-steppers might call “white-knuckling it,” clamping down on behavior (and therefore feelings, although he can’t see that) with rules designed to override the mind’s and body’s impulses. Which, long-term, sounds to me like a recipe for a compensatory binge.

David Kessler, meet Geneen Roth. Roth has written a slew of books about compulsive overeating, and what she understands is that there’s a relationship between feelings and eating. She also understands that most people who overeat are out of touch with their internal satiety mechanism. In other words, our bodies tell us when we’re hungry and when we’re full. If we eat only when we’re hungry and stop when we’re full, we’re in good shape, giving our bodies enough and not too much.

But many people eat because food’s in front of them, or it’s time to eat, or they’re feeling upset, or, yes, because they’re addicted to certain foods. (Alternatively, others don’t eat when they’re hungry—they’re dieting, or distracted—and mess up their relationship with satiety that way.) Roth has a great program for getting back in touch with your internal society mechanism. She’s interested in a peaceful relationship with food—not a teeth-gritting horror show where food is the enemy and every meal is a struggle.

I wish Kessler had read a little Roth before he wrote his book. In fact, I wish most Western medical practitioners, who seem to believe that behavior can be modified without deep emotional work despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, would look beyond CBT and start learning about somatic means of healing.

Also missing from Kessler’s book: compassion for people of all sizes, plus a recognition that bodies come in different shapes.


Friday in Books

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

Let’s take them in reverse order of how I read them, last first:

1) What Was She Thinking? (Notes on a Scandal), by Zoe Heller. It hadn’t been in my queue (or even on my radar, despite having seen the movie in 2006). But then I read The Believers and decided to read Heller’s other books, sooner or later. In this case, sooner, since a crisp paperback copy of WWST was waiting obligingly on the shelves of downtown Berkeley’s Half-Price Books.

The book reminded me of something Jamaica Kincaid once said about her work—i.e., that she doesn’t write novels so much as monologues. WWST is less a fully fledged novel than a monologue, a singular account of a story from a very particular point of view. I don’t mind: I’m happy to read a brisk, sharply written, deliciously acidic monologue every now and again.

The only issue was that I had already seen the movie, and of course it was impossible to imagine anyone other than Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench in the principal roles. Great performances from both of them, but having been “polluted” (pretentious graduate school term, but not quite equal to the pop-culture concept of “spoiled”) in this way made the novel feel like a script.

Oh, and one real gripe with the book. I wish Heller had chosen less obvious names for her characters. Barbara Covett? Headmaster Pabblem? Even Sheba (from Bathsheba), which I love, is pretty transparent.

2) Joe College, by Tom Perrotta. I took Perrotta’s fiction writing class at college, so I’ve read all his books—or rather, I’d read all his books except for this one, which I found in Half-Price Books along with the Heller. Perrotta was an amiable teacher, a sweet and funny guy, and his books are a lot like him—friendly, companionable, even charming. But . . . they tend toward the simple. And light. And they’re not, um, deep (sorry!).

Sometimes I marvel that one good (Little Children) and one excellent (Election) movie have been made from Perrotta’s books. As in, what has attracted two fine directors (and multiple talented stars) to his work? I wonder if there’s something about the simplicity that lends itself to movie-making. Maybe what Perrotta provides is a few very vivid characters and a plot with definitive action, in a way that more contemplative novels don’t. His books are sort of sketchy, or sketch-like—and maybe that’s what a movie-maker wants.

At any rate, Joe College is one of my less favorite Perrotta novels. There’s some mob-related violence that feels random (although maybe not if you’re from New Jersey) and unnecessary (same), and the main character’s shrugging shiftlessness gets kind of old. And hey—weird to read something that takes place at Yale and is very much about Yale. So many names of streets and buildings flooding back to me all at once.

3) The End of Overeating, by David Kessler. Worthy of its own entry. I’ll try to get it up in the coming days.