Saturday, April 04, 2009

Gallant Link

Oops. Sorry, folks, for the broken link. You can download the Mavis Gallant story here. Enjoy!

Saturday Story Hour: Mavis Gallant

With "Saturday Story Hour," Fosco provides you with some of his favorite selections from the world of contemporary short fiction.

Fosco is going to stretch the meaning of the word "contemporary" today, in order to bring you an absolutely beautiful story from the Canadian expatriate Mavis Gallant. Mavis Gallant is one of those short story writers who is beloved by other short story writers, but who is much less well-known by the reading public at large. As a Canadian, she is also somewhat in the shadow of Alice Munro (as if Canada were allowed to have only one contemporary master of the short story...). She was born in Montreal in 1922 and has lived in Paris since the 1950s.

The story we're reading today is an absolute jewel. It's called "The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street." It was originally published in The New Yorker in 1963 (hence the stretching of the term "contemporary"). If you are a New Yorker subscriber, you can access the story here. If you are not a New Yorker subscriber, do not fear: Fosco has procured the story as a .pdf file. You may download it here. It can be opened by any .pdf reader (including Acrobat).

The couple at the center of "The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street" are Peter and Sheilah Frazier. They are living the good life, traveling the globe, depending on the generosity of their friends and families--all the while, dragging two dull children behind them. They are charming and they are hapless. Neither of them wants to grow up, to become responsible adults. They wear silk kimonos from Hong Kong at breakfast and consider their one great fortune to be Sheilah's Balenciaga gown. If you think these people sound horrible, well you're right; but they are also sympathetic and psychologically nuanced. As they move from absurd scheme to absurd scheme, you can't help rooting for them: after all, the alternative, as Peter thinks to himself, is to be one of the "white-hot Protestants," living "with a load of work and debt and obligation" (and who wants that?).

There are some amazingly delicate explorations of marriage and love in this story. Consider this bravura passage, as Peter and Sheilah arrive at a cocktail party in the Geneva snow:

She was born in an ugly city, and so was Peter, but they have this difference: She does not know the importance of the first snow--the first clean thing in a dirty year. He would have told her then that this storm, which was wetting her feet and destroying her hair, was like the first day of the English spring, but she made a frightened gesture, trying to shield her head. The gesture told him he did not understand her beauty.

"Let me," she said. He was fumbling with the key, trying to lock the car. She took the key without impatience and locked the door on the driver's side; and then, to show Peter she treasured him and was not afraid of wasting her life or her beauty, she took his arm and they walked in the snow down a street and around the corner to the apartment house were the Burleighs lived. They were, and are, a united couple. They were afraid of the party, and each of them knew it. When they walk together, holding arms, they give each other whatever each can spare.
I think that last sentence is absolutely exquisite.

What provides the dramatic conflict in this story is a mole-like young Canadian woman named Agnes, who becomes Peter's boss. Agnes comes from a hard-working poor family and finds herself increasingly repulsed by the Fraziers and the expatriate community in Geneva. Agnes is a fascinating study in the Protestant work ethic and Gallant is surprisingly sympathetic to a character that could have been nothing more than comic relief. Agnes's speech of accusation to Peter, after a particularly iniquitous party, is remarkably insightful and sad:
She said, "I'm from a big family. I'm not used to being alone. I'm not a suicidal person, but I could have done something after that party, just not to see anymore, or think or listen or expect anything. What can I think when I see these people? All my life I heard, Educated people don't do this, educated people don't do that. And now I'm here, and you're all educated people, and you're nothing but pigs. You're educated and you drink and do everything wrong and you know what you're doing, and that makes you worse than pigs. My family worked to make me an educated person, but they didn't know you. But what if I didn't see and hear and expect anything anymore? It wouldn't change anything. You'd all be still the same. Only you might have thought it was your fault. You might have thought you were to blame. It could worry you all your life. It would have been wrong for me to worry you."
This lament is impressively complex: it's pathetic, yes, but also quite funny--as much as she hates Peter and the other pigs, she still can't bring herself to "worry" him by killing himself. The mix of resentment and consideration is extraordinary. As someone who has had a somewhat similar upbringing to that of Agnes, Fosco can assure you that there is psychological verisimilitude here (note to Agnes: just give in and become one of the pigs--trust me, it's the only way out...)

And so, I hope you enjoy this story as much as I do. There is just something about it that seems strangely appropriate to our times. I hope you agree.

You can purchase Mavis Gallant by following these links:

submit to reddit
submit to reddit

Friday, April 03, 2009

Rounding Up Food, Because Why Not?

Even though it's the first week of a new academic quarter... And even though Fosco is still groggy from Wednesday night's Springsteen concert... "Foodie Friday" must go off without a hitch. But it may be a bit uninspired...

Forgive me for doing a "roundup" post today. However, there are some things about food that you should know:

  • Fosco's delightful college roommate Jeremy is currently in Hong Kong, eating better than anyone could imagine. He has recently discovered some fascinating fruits that Fosco has never heard of. While the langsat sounds appealing (because it is a member of the soapberry family, after all), the sugar-apple sounds best to Fosco. How can you go wrong with a fruit that, as Jeremy describes it, tastes like
    a milky, sweet egg custard or ice cream. Eat it cold. Beware its high sugar content, and be prepared to have sticky fingers for a while even after washing.
    Beware the high sugar content? Not in this lifetime.

    This makes me wonder why Americans are so stuck on the same old fruits. There are only like seven fruits that appear regularly at the supermarket and in restaurants. While Fosco has nothing against the lowly apple or the stolid banana, wouldn't you like to eat more fruit that tastes like "milky, sweet egg custard"? And how can you resist eating something that is called a "soapberry"? I don't know--I guess Fosco just has a thing for Asian fruits.

  • The redoubtable Maggie offers this excellent meditation on Mark Bittman's Food Matters. From her description of the book, I'm actually quite fascinated by Bittman's argument. As I understand it, he suggests a non-dogmatic way to eat healthier and more eco-consciously (while still reserving plenty of room for delicious things like meat). As Maggie glosses it:
    To improve your body, you have to improve your diet, which means long-lasting change, not just abstaining from sugar until your next weigh in. Bittmans' approach is interesting - essentially you bulk up on the veggies and plant matter, remaining vegan (or so) until dinner, when you can eat as you will.
    As someone who is habitually struggling with his weight, Fosco finds this idea to be pretty appealing. Imagine feeling virtuous about yourself and the planet for most of the day and then enjoying a normal meal in the evening (although as Fosco noted last week, "normal" no longer includes fast-food). I think I need to pick up this book. (Once again, Maggie tells me what to read!)

  • Some San Francisco-related food news. First, the (soon-to-be-history?) Chronicle reviews Absinthe, the restaurant of "Top Chef" contestant Jamie Lauren. You remember her: she's the lesbian who always cooked scallops. Strangely enough, the Chronicle found Lauren's scallops to be completely repulsive:
    When the scallop dish was placed before us I thought someone had an accident and tried to reshape the presentation because the sunchoke puree was smeared and the four quarter-size grilled scallops were unevenly spaced around a pile of wilted chard, fennel and artichokes. There was a glaze over everything that reminded me of leftovers from a photo shoot. It unfortunately tasted like that too. The scallops didn't even pretend to be warm and the vegetables tasted tired.
    Yuck. Even though a few other dishes were fine, on the whole, this was not a good review. Sorry, Team Rainbow.

    Second, the extraordinary No Salad As A Meal has reviewed Charles Phan's new Chinese restaurant in SF. You may know that Phan is the culinary wizard behind Fosco's beloved Slanted Door. The review is kind of lukewarm about the new place, but Fosco would much prefer to focus his attention on the name of Phan's new restaurant: Heaven's Dog. Is it me, or is this a terrible name for a Chinese restaurant? (Although it is better than the name Fosco misremembered when he told this story to David: "Dog Heaven.") After all, "Heaven's Dog" sounds like nothing so much as the name of something on a Chinese menu (in China at least).

  • Thanks to the BeeMaster for this tip: a Grand Rapids, Michigan minor-league baseball team is offering a 4,800 calorie burger. Yes, that's the geographical region of Fosco's early life--is it any wonder that Fosco's genes and eating habits have conspired to produce a tendency toward heaviness? But back to this burger:
    The 4-pound, $20 burger features five beef patties, five slices of cheese, nearly a cup of chili and liberal doses of salsa and corn chips, all on an 8-inch sesame-seed bun. That's a lot of dough!

    The Grand Rapids Press reports that anyone who eats the entire 4,800-calorie behemoth in one sitting will receive a special T-shirt. Saner fans can divide it up with a pizza cutter and share.
    Umm, sign me up? Sure, eating one would probably mean certain and immediate death, but... wow. Just wow.

    Wait until you see what it looks like:

    Of course, Mark Bittman would be appalled by this burger for several different reasons. But even recognizing that it's probably edible evil, aren't you just a little in awe of it? I mean, haven't you ever thought what it might be like to eat something like this? I just can't look away. But, does it need a warning label?

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Teens Can Make Anything Evil

Fosco, like pretty much everyone else, is on Facebook. Indeed he feels a small measure of pride that, as a Harvard alum, Fosco can remember when "The Facebook" was actually a book (that's what the annual "Freshman Register" was informally called--it was the way that you got to know all of your freshman classmates, before you even arrived at school). Interestingly enough, copies of these old Freshman Facebooks can go for a pretty penny online. I'm sure Fosco's year will eventually be worth even more when one of his classmates becomes President or Pope or Bono.

But as Facebook the website continues its relentless incursion into all of our personal lives, some new questions are coming to the fore. Like:

  • What's the best way to de-friend someone? (I'm looking at you, Linda.)
  • Should I "friend" my boss/advisor?
  • How many ex-boyfriends/girlfriends on my Friendlist is too many?
  • If I were a Supreme Court Justice, which one would I be?
And, perhaps most importantly: "Should my teenager use Facebook?"

As far as Fosco is concerned, the answer to any question that begins "Should my teenager use..." is always NO. But I guess not all parents are as well-prepared as Fosco. And for those parents who want to consider the possibility that their teens should use Facebook, Fosco would like to recommend this article on HuffPo. The author, Kari Henley, is interested in how the cognitive development of teens may prevent them from using Facebook in an appropriate way. She tells this story:
Jill is a mother of three children ages 10-14, who are fully into the digital generation. All have iPods, computers, Wii games, cell phones, and are addicted to Facebook. They are like most middle school aged kids in America today who have their hands on toys most adults only recently acquired themselves.

One day, a call came from the principal informing Jill and her husband, their middle daughter was being given in-school suspension for creating a Facebook group used to make fun of another student. Called something like, "Eric is a Hairy Beast," the group quickly filled with loads of kids making fun of a quiet Armenian boy, uploading cell phone pictures of him and becoming more brazen by the day.
While this story may seem upsetting, Fosco would like to note that he has actually seen the pictures of Eric the Armenian boy and Eric is indeed a hairy beast (in fact, Fosco has been a member of this group for months).

But seriously, why would supposedly "good kids" do this kind of thing on Facebook? The suggestion is that it has something to do with adolescent brain development, or lack thereof:
Dr. Jay Giedd is the chief of brain imaging in the child psychiatry branch at the National Institute of Mental Health, and an expert in adolescent brain development. His research shows the brain is not fully developed at age 12 as was believed, but reaches full maturity in our mid-twenties. Adolescence is a time of profound brain development, surpassing that of toddlers. The area of the pre-frontal cortex develops last, which is in charge of higher reasoning and understanding consequences. The emotional centers of the brain that control happiness, fear, anger and sadness often over-compensate, and can be 50% stronger during adolescence.
Which means, as anyone who has ever met one knows, teenagers have terrible judgment--all because of their brains. And so, while teenagers certainly have the ability to recognize how repulsively hairy Eric the Armenian Boy is, they tend to lack the ability to understand why it's a bad idea to talk about it on Facebook.

submit to reddit
submit to reddit

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

I'm working on a dream

Even as you read this, Fosco is already in San Jose, waiting in a line for tonight's Bruce Springsteen concert! Tonight is the opening show of the "Working on a Dream" tour, which is kind of a big deal for lowly San Jose. Even better, Fosco's good friend Todd is in town for the show. Look for a concert review from Fosco sometime in the next week. Read a great story of a Bruce fan's journey here.

You know what Fosco would love to hear tonight? "Working on the Highway." A very underappreciated song. Fingers crossed.

Birthday Panda for Jeremy

As Fosco mentioned, today is the birthday of his college roommate Jeremy. Of course, in Hong Kong, Jeremy's birthday was already yesterday. Or tomorrow. I can't quite tell.

At any rate, as a web-based gift, Fosco would like to offer this song by Deerhoof:

Warning: those who hate pandas will not appreciate this song.

"Panda panda panda panda pan. China!"

My Favorite April Fool

Happy Birthday to Fosco's college roommate, Jeremy! Come home from Hong Kong soon--Miss Tabby misses you.

If you don't know where Fosco got this cake, you're missing out.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

"Tastes Like Vanessa..."

You know what I'd like to see today? How about supertan teen star ZacFron eating moisturizer?

Wish granted. Thanks, Do You Like It Like That?.

Autism, Visual Thinking, and Justifying the Humanities

You may recall that Fosco has been interested in the question of whether Ben's cat Isis (and all cats, for that matter) is essentially autistic. Fosco got this idea from animal researcher Temple Grandin, who is herself autistic and finds that her condition allows her to understand animals better than neurotypical observers. (Additionally, Fosco is actually pretty impressed with Dr. Grandin's jaunty style, as seen in accompanying picture.)

Well, a couple of weeks ago, Fosco picked up (at his local library!) one of Grandin's books, Animals in Translation. Grandin makes some pretty fascinating claims in the book, relying on both her experiences and insights from neuroscience. For one thing, she provides a model of animal perception that can account for some of the stranger aspects of animal behavior (although not all of them--she still can't explain why slowly-moving fans creep out cows).

One of Grandin's claims is that she and animals both think entirely in pictures (this is not a surprise for animals--what else would they think in? Words?). Grandin tries to explain what it is like for her to do complex human cognition entirely in pictures. It all sounds completely horrible to Fosco, who is highly verbal and cannot imagine trying to do justice to Derrida or Levinas without making use of words and abstract concepts. However, Grandin wants to argue that there are indeed benefits to entirely visual thinking:

Other times thinking in pictures is an advantage. During the 1990s I knew all the dot-coms would go to hell, because when I thought about them the only images I saw were rented office space and computers that would be obsolete in two years. There wasn't anything real I could picture; the companies had no hard assets. My stockbroker asked me how I knew the two stock market crashes would happen, and I told him, 'When the Monopoly play money starts jerking around the real money you're in trouble.'
This is a cute story, of course (although maybe not one I would have left in the manuscript were I Grandin's editor). I suspect that Grandin may have profited handsomely from our recent economic troubles as well--there are certainly no good mental pictures that can represent hedge funds and credit default swaps (although: most of this bubble seems to have been based on the housing market and houses are indeed "real" and easily pictured).

But I think this anecdote raises an interesting question: in what ways is it possible to value non-concrete (i.e., not easily pictured) things? Sure, the original dot-com bubble did burst; however, this didn't mean that the web itself is completely worthless. There are still plenty of companies that are "nothing" but office space and soon-to-be-obsolete computers (like Google, perhaps)--and while Google may (or may not) be overvalued, the services it provides are not valueless.

And yet, at the same time, there is clearly an anxiety about the possibility of valuing things like knowledge, information, content, etc.--and not just for autistic people or visual thinkers. As someone who is (supposedly) in the "knowledge business," I think these issues are worth meditating on, especially as the humanities are increasingly called upon to "justify their worth" in the modern world.

You can purchase several Temple Grandin books by following these links.

Fosco will receive a small percentage and will be grateful.

submit to reddit
submit to reddit

Monday, March 30, 2009

Musical Abuse (I just don't argue any more.)

Sometimes "Music Monday" is about obsession.

Several weeks ago, Fosco had some fun at the expense of singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega. However, even writing the title of Vega's song "Luka" was enough to remind Fosco how much he loved listening to that song on the radio in 1987. Well, now "Luka" has had Vega's revenge on Fosco. Last Thursday, Fosco found himself jonesing for the song and had to download it. As of this writing, Fosco has already listened to the song thirty-five times. It's just so good.

Being totally obsessed with a song is not always (or even usually) a pleasant feeling. What makes this worse is that Fosco completely loathes "issue songs" like this. Each of the thirty-five times he has listened to "Luka," he has thought to himself: "Why did this song have to be about child abuse? Why would you write a song about child abuse?" Seriously, I really don't want to be listening over and over to a stupid song about child abuse. But there's just something about the god-damned music and her god-damned voice. And that god-damned mandolin line at the end. Help!

Even worse: an "issue video" to accompany it. Think you can resist it?

I think not.

submit to reddit
submit to reddit

Every Thing That Lives Is Holy

It's "Music Monday" at Fosco Lives! Please enjoy at a responsible volume.

Fosco hasn't yet really talked much about classical music in this feature. Until today.

Thanks to Alex Ross's excellent music blog, Fosco recently learned that the new, improved Boston Symphony Orchestra (under the new direction of James Levine) offers a number of recent recordings for download on their website. The prices are surprisingly reasonable--cheaper than on iTunes, actually.

A couple weeks ago, Fosco downloaded the BSO's disc of William Bolcom works, including his Eighth Symphony and Lyric Concerto for flute. Bolcom is a contemporary American composer who teaches at the University of Michigan. For Fosco, Bolcom runs hot and cold: some of his works are thrilling, but some don't quite hit Fosco's sweet spot. He is particularly good at writing snappy songs, as Fosco learned several years ago when he attended the premiere of Bolcom's opera A Wedding at the Chicago Lyric Opera. As Fosco recalls, there was an amazingly charming song about the city of Tallahassee.

Bolcom's Eighth Symphony is about as current as recorded music gets, having been premiered by the BSO in 2008. It's a choral symphony, based on poems by the visionary (and bizarre) William Blake. Each of the four movements of Bolcom's symphony is based on a different prophetic text of Blake's, including excerpts from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and America a Prophecy.

The symphony is pretty remarkable, if uneven. As John Rockwell notes, the symphony is

gigantic and impressive, but to my ears angular and empty.
I think this is a pretty accurate description, particularly of the first movement. The second movement, which narrates a rape, is absolutely terrifying--but not really in a good way. The approximate pitches in the first spoken lines do most of the atmospheric work here. You could probably play parts of this movement in a haunted house.

The third movement, however, is where things start to get interesting. The movement opens with a gorgeous tenor line, from Blake:
This theme calls me in sleep night after night, & ev’ry morn
Awakes me at sun-rise, then I see the Saviour over me
Spreading his beams of love, & dictating the words of this mild song.
Different combinations of the chorus then take up the Saviour's song. The orchestral line is slow and sinuous.

And then we have the fourth movement. It begins with a twelve-tone theme in the strings; however, there is a frisson of excitement in the music. Something big is going to happen--and soon. The text is A Song of Liberty, a story of destruction of nations as a prelude to a new world. After about eight minutes, the movement reaches the height of its drama, and then something strange happens. As the chorus sings the final line of Blake's text, "For every thing that lives is Holy," we find ourselves in the musical equivalent of daybreak. As Bernard Holland notes in the Times:
If the universal calamities of his first three movements keep our attention, “A Song of Liberty” at the end does something more. With “For every thing that lives is Holy” as the text, rising scales and rich counterpoint in the chorus part create a deeply affirmative ending. Loud though it is, its loudness has substance. I was very moved by it.
I agree with Holland. As the chorus repeats the line ascending, accompanied by the brass, I feel like this heavy, powerful beast of a symphony is taking flight. With every repetition the music becomes more grand and the message more insistent, until we are left with nothing but the sheen of brass and the thrum of timpani. It's a heck of an ending, both poetically and musically, and it makes this symphony a welcome addition to the repertoire.

You may enjoy the poetry of William Blake:

submit to reddit
submit to reddit

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Keeps Your Brains Warm?

Sure, most people in San Francisco are now broke or laid off (although things are still better here than in NYC); even so, this city still knows how to have fun.

A few days ago, Fosco erroneously reported that San Francisco had succumbed to a zombie attack and was no longer inhabited by the non-undead. Apparently, Fosco was misled by a performance of the San Francisco Zombie Swarm. Apparently, the Swarm organizes occasional zombie happenings, flashmob-style.

Why are zombies the flavor of the moment? Well, my colleague Ethan has recently written some theoretical reflections on the re-rise of the zombie in popular culture. See, theory can be fun!

But there is even more fun to be had in San Francisco, especially if you like to keep yourself warm. As this article on SFGate notes, Friday night was the first organized Snuggie pub crawl in SF. For those of you who don't watch television, the Snuggie is "The Blanket with Sleeves."TM Apparently, Snuggies (like zombies) have captured the imagination of young urban hipsters (who may also be cold). Actually, to be accurate, Snuggies seem to have caught everyone's attention, as the article notes:

Buoyed by an inadvertently funny and rhyming commercial ("Blankets are OK, but they can slip and slide/ and when you need to reach for something, your hands are trapped inside"), Snuggies have sold more than 4 million units through online orders and Walgreens drugstores, where they go for a mere $14.99. (Blue is the only Snuggie color sold at Walgreens; online, red and green Snuggies are also available.)
The article reports that more than 200 people showed up in Snuggies for this pub crawl, which is pretty amazing when you think about.

Of course, the obvious question is whether these two trends, the Snuggie and zombies, can be combined. As Fosco discovered, it's not pretty. Here, as fodder for your nightmares, is a Snuggie Zombie:

[Shudder.] Stay safe and warm out there, my friends.

submit to reddit
submit to reddit

My Heart with Pleasure Fills

Happy Sunday morning to you. Fosco bought these daffodil stalks at Whole Foods this week. To my mind, nothing says spring like daffodils--just don't drink the water (I've tried it--it's poison).

"When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore & that the little colony had so sprung up--But as we went along there were more & yet more & at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon then over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the Lake to them. There was here & there a little knot & a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity & unity & life of that one busy highway--We rested again & again."

Dorothy Wordsworth, describing a walk she took with her brother William (apparently, the inspiration for his poem)
Grasmere Journal
April 1802