Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What the hell is up with A Pale View of Hills

OK, I finished A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro last night, and am completely disturbed. I need to talk about it. If you haven't read this book and plan to in the future, click away, click away. This post will be full of spoilers. If you have read the book, please chip in.

I started to provide a plot summary, but stopped because I'm really directing this at people who have read the novel. You can find one here. What I want to talk about are the two main interpretations of the novel. There are more than two ways to read A Pale View of Hills, but these are the two basic branches, I think, with variations.

Interpretation 1: Etsuko is Sachiko; Keiko is Mariko. Etsuko is unwilling to accept her past behavior (Sachiko is a terrible mother and frequently leaves her daughter alone for hours at a time, allowing her to wander around by herself even though there has been a spate of child murders in the area; she also hasn't enrolled Mariko in school, and plans to take the child against her will to America with her boyfriend, whom Mariko hates), so she invents a "friend" to project her disapproval onto. This explains the parallels in Etsuko's and Sachiko's lives: Both leave Japan with a daughter for an English-speaking country (though in fact it's unclear in the novel whether Etsuko ever makes it to America). Mariko is a lonely, unhappy child who doesn't want to leave Japan; Keiko is described similarly and never adjusts to life in England, hence her withdrawal and eventual suicide. As far as I can tell, this is the more common interpretation of the novel.

Interpretation 2: Etsuko is the child murderer. She murders Mariko, among other children, but has blocked it out. Her method is hanging, which calls into question whether Keiko in fact committed suicide or was murdered.

I favor the second interpretation, for these reasons: Etsuko repeatedly expresses concern for Mariko's whereabouts and well-being. The child is wont to run off, and Etsuko goes out looking for her on several occassions, though Sachiko always says there is nothing to worry about. On one occasion, she has gotten a rope caught around her ankle when she finds Mariko, and Mariko appears afraid of her. Later, in the crucial scene where Etsuko finds her by the river and speaks to her as though she were Sachiko (saying, "If you don't like it in America, we can come back" -- leading many readers to believe that Etsuko is Sachiko), she is again suddenly holding a rope. The child asks why she is holding it, and she says again that it just got caught around her ankle, and that she's not going to hurt the child. In the memory, Mariko runs away, but in Interpretation 2, Etsuko in fact kills the child. This explains her premonition earlier that day, and her recurring dreams, in England, of a little girl "swinging" (not on a swing, but by a rope). Etsuko has merely confused Mariko with her own daughter Keiko, since she would later have a similar conversation, convincing her to move to England. The stuff about the child murders and the rope doesn't make sense if Mariko is Keiko, because Keiko doesn't die until much later.

A third interpretation, I suppose, is that Etsuko is both the child murderer and Sachiko, and that she killed her first daughter and had another while still in Japan. Or, in a fourth version, she is both the child murderer and Sachiko, but doesn't succeed in killing Mariko/Keiko, although she has killed other children in the past. Or, fifth, she is not the murderer at large, but she does have a "killer inside" and considers killing Mariko/Keiko, but does not succeed, in which case the vision of Mariko hanging is more of a wish than a memory, though in fact she does hang herself many years later.

Also entirely possible: The story is intentionally ambiguous, all interpretations being valid.

For those who have read it, what do you think?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Lately Game

What I've been reading: I finally finished Special Topics in Calamity Physics last week. Although, after 500 pages, I had become marginally attached to the implausible characters, I'm glad that "chapter" in my life is over. Now I'm reading A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro, which is the perfect antidote: utterly clean, spare, with Ishiguro's trademark perfect pacing and sense of foreboding. With STICP, I wanted to know what was going to happen, but in a cheap way, like when you get sucked into a bad TV show. APVOH is suspenseful in a more intellectual way. Either way I realize I'm being manipulated by plot lines, but I appreciate the more subtle form of seduction.

What I've been watching: The Voice (on Hulu, not live, no spoilers). Last night I watched All About Eve. This weekend, I was hanging out with a group who all wanted to see some nouveau horror flick at the Brattle, and I don't really do horror, indie or no, so I went and saw The Art of Getting By instead. This was interesting: it's a teen movie, not a comedy but a straight romance, and clearly marketed to hipster types. It was like, sponsored by Urban Outfitters. It's predictable on every possible level (there's even a scene where you know, from the beginning, that the protagonist is going to vomit on somebody's shoes before it's over; turns out it's his own shoes), but I still kind of liked it. Who doesn't like watching pretty people walk around New York?

What I've been eating: Not much. I finally bit the bullet and admitted to myself that I've developed a variable intolerance to nightshades. I figured out a while ago that eggplant was a no-go, but that was no major tragedy. I like eggplant, but it was hardly a staple of my diet. Much, much harder was admitting that tomatoes are problematic, particularly in condensed form, as in sundried tomatoes or a thick sauce (the latter being their most delicious incarnation). See also potatoes, again to varying degrees. See also peppers, all forms.

I've felt sick many times after eating, say, lasagna or enchiladas, but convinced myself that gluten must have gotten in there somehow. But in my heart I knew there wasn't any, because I made them myself. In fact I think gluten is just a subset of the things that make me sick. I was carrying around a list of problematic foods in my head, and I believed they were all unrelated. (What does gluten have to do with eggplant or tofu or sundried tomatoes?) Then at some point I ran across a list of foods that contain high amounts of lectin, and there were all those seemingly unrelated foods: all grains, not just gluten grains (I gave up on oats, quinoa, sorghum, etc. months ago); nightshades (eggplant, potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes); and legumes, especially soybeans. Tofu has been on my shit list for a long time too, taking all fake meat off the table. (Quorn is made from a fungus, but almost all the Quorn products contain some gluten too.)

The other night, I had a reaction from eating peanut sauce (peanuts are a legume); this has forced me to contend with the lectin theory. Now, I seem to more or less tolerate some of the items on the lectin list, but if I suck it up and stop basing meals around nightshades, that wipes out most of my favorite vegetarian meals (i.e., anything with tomato sauce, and most Mexican food: enchilada sauce, whether red or green, is pretty much lectin city). So I'm trying to figure out if it's even worth trying to further restrict my diet, to see if that gets me 100% back to normal, as in feeling as good as I did before the onset of gluten intolerance. Cutting out gluten got me 80-85% of the way there, but I've never been able to figure out what was causing the remaining 15% of the trouble, if not simple cross-contamination.

Anyway, in an effort to at least cut back on the nightshades (and eat something other than gummi candy), I've been eating non-vegetarian meals, such as a variation on this kimchi fried rice (with more vegetables and the eggs scrambled in), seared tuna steaks with chimichurri sauce (I had been craving tuna steaks forever but held off until they fell under $20 a pound, which happened on Father's Day), and sushi salad, which I made up. Recipe below. All ingredient amounts are approximate/to taste.
Sushi Salad
Sushi rice, cooked and cooled
Smoked salmon
Asparagus, cooked and cooled
Pickled ginger
Nori (toasted seaweed)
Cilantro (optional)
Rice vinegar
Soy sauce
Salt & pepper

Chop or tear everything into bite-size pieces and throw in a big bowl with the rice. Make a vinaigrette with rice vinegar, salt, pepper, a good dash of sugar (the rice in sushi is slightly sweet), a small splash of soy (you don't want to turn the whole dish brown) and oil. I used olive because that's the only kind of oil we had around, but use peanut oil or something if you're a purist. Toss the vinaigrette with the other ingredients. Voila, it's Nippon in a bowl.
B.T. Dubbs, so far I have no problems with soy sauce, provided it's the wheat-free kind, probably because it's fermented and consumed in small quantities.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Going down?

  • Where my girls at? Lately it seems like most of my regular commenters are men (or, at least, they have adopted male pseudonyms). I love and value each and every comment and commenter here regardless of gender, so please do not think I want you, my man readers, to comment less. I'm just wondering: Where my girls at? My Jens, my Farrahs, my Heathers, my Darcies, my Danielles, my Beccas, my Kirstens, my Shannas ...
  • Remember that whole Wikipedia thing? Gregory Kohs just published a followup article to the news that Wikipedia's editors were largely male. Apparently, since Wikimedia Foundation executive director Sue Gardner announced her goal to increase the percentage of women contributing to the site, the ratio has shifted even more toward men. The unfortunate title is "Number of women going down on Wikipedia." As Shamus McGillicuddy (the most Irish person I know) commented when I shared the story in Google Reader, "If you Google this headline, the first 4 results are the actual article, reposted on several blogs. The fifth result is the 'oral sex' entry on Wikipedia."
  • There's this fantastic smell always wafting out of the Hugo Boss store in the Copley Mall. It smells like a fancy luggage store or the inside of a really expensive car that is rarely driven, like sweet leather. I finally went in there to ask what it is. It is not any of the scents that they sell (which makes sense, because the Hugo Boss line of fragrance rather sucks), but a secret, proprietary scent they pump into the air of all their stores. Damn! I wanted to buy it. I guess I'll have to open up a Hugo Boss franchise.
  • There's a review of The French Exit in the new issue of Redivider, which I didn't know until I flipped through the issue at my reading last night. Says Emily Thomas, "Elisa Gabbert makes dream poems sexy again." Thank you Emily Thomas!
  • OK, back to The Voice. (Have you noticed that Carson Daly is turning into Dick Clark?)

UPDATE: Just realized I forgot to include the link to the Wikipedia article. Duh. It's there now.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Fashion tips for the major genders

Seeing as how I'm bleeding style from my tear ducts over here, I figured it was about time I share some of this endless wisdom with y'all. I can't use it all myself. If you have any fashion questions, leave 'em in the comments and I will happily address your concerns, advice column style.

For the gents

Stop wearing t-shirts under your open-collar shirts. This is my #1 tip for looking more like a grownup and less like a d-bag. Are you ashamed of the little notch of skin at the base of your neck? The whole point of a collared shirt without a tie is to show a bit of skin, which looks relaxed and therefore sexy. By covering that skin up with a t-shirt, you're basically saying, "No thanks, I don't care for sex." Sometimes the t-shirt thing can look OK in a hipster kind of way, like if it's a bright red tee under a western shirt or something, but even then it would probably look better without.

Don't wear socks with shorts. I think shorts can look pretty sharp on a man if you have a reasonable physique, but for Christ's sake don't ruin it by wearing them with socks and sneaks. If it's hot enough for shorts, it's hot enough for flip-flops (or some sort of slip-on).

When it comes to layering shirts under sweaters: A shawl-collar sweater looks infinitely better with a dress shirt than a crewneck. A crewneck sweater on the other hand looks better with a crewneck underneath. Like likes like, except with a v-neck sweater you can go either way.

For the ladies

Try wearing a shirt over a maxi dress. The point is not to make it look like you got a new skirt, so it works best if the shirt and the dress have different necklines. For example you could wear a scoopneck top over a halter dress or a tank top over a racerback dress, etc. This is one of my favorite tricks lately, especially for work and travel because a) long skirts are hell of comfortable, b) it looks summery but is not too cold in air conditioned conditions and c) is a little more covered up around the torso, so I don't have to worry about slouching wrong and giving someone a sideshow.

Buy an LBD (little black dress) in a jersey fabric, preferably with some kind of embellishment like ruffles or an asymmetrical neckline. It will be comfortable and easy to throw on when you don't feel like trying too hard, but looks fancier than it is, and can be dressed up or down easily. It's also all-season: wear it with tights and a cardigan in winter, with sandals and a denim jacket in summer.

Buy some cropped pants. They take 10 pounds off (or something, I don't know, this isn't an exact science like gluten-free baking). Cropped pants make you look skinnier because they show off the thinnest part of your leg. If you hate your ankles, obviously, ignore this one.


If you're not all that adventurous, just buy distinctive, colorful accessories (glasses, hats, scarves, shoes), wear them with your regular clothes and everyone will think you are adorable.

Colors can be neutrals. Which is to say, don't automatically buy everything in black or brown because you think it goes with everything. Deep red or navy goes with almost everything, especially if everything else you own isn't brown or black. Charcoal gray and olive green are other good neutrals. I'm thinking especially of coats, shoes and bags but also belts and even pants which you want to be able to wear with lots of different shirts.

Don't buy the same item in multiple colors/patterns. This may go against popular opinion, but I maintain: a) You'll end up loving one more anyway, and b) you're not fooling anyone. Instead figure out what you like about the thing (the cut? the fabric?) and look for similar but not identical items.

Do my stylish readers have any additional tips/brilliant ideas to share?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Art Class

  • I'm reading at the launch for the Spring/Summer issue of Redivider this Wednesday, June 15, 7 pm at Sweetwater Tavern (in the alley by Emerson, across from the Common). Also reading is Steve Himmer, author of The Bee-Loud Glade. Come say hi! Buy my book and/or me a drink!
  • Some people rabidly oppose the idea of a guilty pleasure, arguing that no one should feel guilty about what they like. I am not one of those people. Most TV I watch falls under the "guilty pleasure" rubric; if I'm going to bother, I generally want my TV to be mindless and trashy (see Gossip Girl, America's Next Top Model). House is an exception; I actually think House is well-written and -acted for the most part. I also occasionally like to watch stupid romantic comedies, but the pleasure I get from them is almost voyeuristic: I basically just want to look at pretty people in good clothes go on dates. There has to be a distinction between this primitive kind of pleasure and what I would get from something that actually makes me think, and that's what the term "guilty pleasure" is for.
  • I was thinking about this because last week in the gym I watched part of a rom-com called Because I Said So (tragically, my gym no longer appears to subscribe to the Food Network), which was so atrocious it refused to be enjoyed on even this base level. The scene where Diane Keaton follows her daughter on the freeway, yelling at and kicking her GPS while her dog watches mournfully from the backseat, is a travesty. How could Hollywood do that to Diane Keaton? How could she let Hollywood do that to her? Wake me up when someone makes a real movie.
  • Oh, also: I saw that Herzog film about cave paintings. I won't even get into the unnecessary Herzogisms. The truly crazy thing is, why should it be that the art the happens to survive 30,000+ years was by a guy who was like, really good at drawing? It's frankly amazing. You see this ancient cave art, and you're not like, Wow, this connects us to primitive man, you're like, DAMN that is a good horse!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

He bills me, he bills me not

The woman who wrote the Truly Tasteless Jokes books ("writing" a joke book is more of an editorial job) used the punny nom de plume Blanche Knott. I relayed this to John and he realized that Bill Knott has, consciously or unconsciously, been acting out his name in his later years: He gives his poetry away for free.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Our crappy health care system gave me depression

Yesterday I was tweeting a little about this fascinating article in the New York Review of Books about antidepressants. Understandably, this is a touchy subject for a lot of people; if you're not on or have never been on antidepressants yourself, chances are someone very close to you is, and it's uncomfortable to consider the possibility that their effectiveness is overstated. The question is not, however, whether they are completely worthless (they do have a positive effect), but how and why they work, because there's mounting evidence that they don't work as well as previously believed or for the purported reasons.

There's a section in the article about a classic correlation vs. causation mistake: Early researchers noticed that drugs like Zoloft increased levels of seratonin in the brain, so it was assumed that depression is caused by low seratonin levels, but this is a big leap and new research suggests we were totally wrong:
As Carlat puts it, “By this same logic one could argue that the cause of all pain conditions is a deficiency of opiates, since narcotic pain medications activate opiate receptors in the brain.” Or similarly, one could argue that fevers are caused by too little aspirin.
What's really scary is not the fact that antidepressants work only marginally better than placebos (which I've been hearing on and off for years), but the general corruption of drug companies:
If two trials show that the drug is more effective than a placebo, the drug is generally approved. But companies may sponsor as many trials as they like, most of which could be negative—that is, fail to show effectiveness. All they need is two positive ones. (The results of trials of the same drug can differ for many reasons, including the way the trial is designed and conducted, its size, and the types of patients studied.)

For obvious reasons, drug companies make very sure that their positive studies are published in medical journals and doctors know about them, while the negative ones often languish unseen within the FDA, which regards them as proprietary and therefore confidential. This practice greatly biases the medical literature, medical education, and treatment decisions.

Kirsch and his colleagues used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain FDA reviews of all placebo-controlled clinical trials, whether positive or negative, submitted for the initial approval of the six most widely used antidepressant drugs approved between 1987 and 1999—Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa, Serzone, and Effexor. This was a better data set than the one used in his previous study, not only because it included negative studies but because the FDA sets uniform quality standards for the trials it reviews and not all of the published research in Kirsch’s earlier study had been submitted to the FDA as part of a drug approval application.

Altogether, there were forty-two trials of the six drugs. Most of them were negative.
Scarier yet is the fact that antidepressants can have lasting effects on the brain:
When, for example, an SSRI antidepressant like Celexa increases serotonin levels in synapses, it stimulates compensatory changes through a process called negative feedback. In response to the high levels of serotonin, the neurons that secrete it (presynaptic neurons) release less of it, and the postsynaptic neurons become desensitized to it. In effect, the brain is trying to nullify the drug’s effects. The same is true for drugs that block neurotransmitters, except in reverse ... Getting off the drugs is exceedingly difficult, according to Whitaker, because when they are withdrawn the compensatory mechanisms are left unopposed. When Celexa is withdrawn, serotonin levels fall precipitously because the presynaptic neurons are not releasing normal amounts and the postsynaptic neurons no longer have enough receptors for it. Similarly, when an antipsychotic is withdrawn, dopamine levels may skyrocket. The symptoms produced by withdrawing psychoactive drugs are often confused with relapses of the original disorder, which can lead psychiatrists to resume drug treatment, perhaps at higher doses.
Some thoughts:
  • I'm not trying to convince anyone to go off antidepressants. "It's complicated." I know a lot of people who take them. I've also seen antidepressant withdrawal firsthand and it isn't pretty.
  • A friend of mine who shall remain anonymous recently remarked that among a group of close friends, the ones on antidepressants are all doing well in terms of their careers and general life progress, while the ones who are not are semi-flailing. I wondered at the time if this might be a correlation effect, similar to what's been demonstrated through carefully controlled studies with multivitamins: The act of taking vitamins doesn't seem to actually improve health, but being the type of person who takes vitamins does. I wonder if being the type of person who would seek out therapy/elect to take antidepressants helps alleviate depression (it demonstrates self-awareness and a proactive stance toward your happiness)?
  • You've heard me bang my drum about saturated fat and salt intake before (like Stephan Guyenet I think America has been getting nutrition totally wrong for 30-40 years) but there's a bunch of other "common sense" health stuff that we all do blindly even though there's no convincing evidence to support it. Recently I read that it's actually unclear whether we should try to reduce a fever (it's your body trying to kill off an infection). Unless it's high enough to cause brain damage, some people think it's better to let the fever run its course. But there's never been a controlled trial to determine which is better. Some researchers once initiated a trial in which hospital patients with fevers were either treated with fever reducers or allowed to remain febrile. But midway through the trial, some number of the patients who were treated for fevers died. So the researchers panicked and stopped the trial! The upshot of course is that we keep on treating fevers. Now what kind of sense does that make?
  • There was an interesting article in a recent issue of Rice Magazine (my alumni magazine!) about the burgeoning field of "health economists," who research why health care costs are skyrocketing in the U.S. without actually improving outcomes. (Sometimes-nutjob Robin Hanson is also interested in this topic.) Key quote: "Costs continue to rise because doctors and hospitals are rewarded for performing more services, not for improving patient health." (You can read the article online here. Click the image and navigate through the magazine; you can click it again to zoom to full screen.) Am I the only one who finds this stuff endlessly fascinating/enraging?

Monday, June 6, 2011


I have nothing to blog about lately. I feel disturbed, why do I have no thoughts/ideas? Sorry guys. Instead of anything substantial or interesting, here are some silly/offensive jokes. This is one of the cutest jokes I've ever heard:
A pirate walks into a bar with a steering wheel attached to his crotch. The bartender says, "That looks painful. Does it hurt?" The pirate says, "Arrrggh, it's driving me nuts."
Isn't that cute? You have to do the pirate voice, obvs.

Here's one I made up. (SPOILER ALERT: blasphemy, etc.)
Q: How come nobody knew Jesus was gay?
A: Because he had a beard.
Probably I am not the first to think of that joke.

Making up jokes is one of my favorite car games. It's best to focus on a certain genre, e.g., anatomy puns or hinky-pinkies, which are riddles with rhyming answers like "sultry poultry" (fill in your own question). Lately John and I have been focusing on pickle jokes.
Q: Why didn't the pickle succeed in any one area?
A: He was just a dill-ettante.

Q: Which pop star do pickles love most?
A: Britney Spears.
Please leave your favorite pickle/pirate/Jesus jokes in the comments.