Sunday, 31 March 2013

Mostly plants: Part One

Back in January I wrote about food, and how sometimes things that we assume are awful for us aren't as bad as things that are positioned as "healthy". In writing that, I mentioned Michael Pollan's maxim on how to eat healthily: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

I've been thinking about it since writing that post, and my thinking has intensified over the last few weeks, after I bought Tim Ferriss's 4-Hour Body on Kindle (as well as his latest book, the 4-Hour Chef). Specifically, I've started thinking about self-experimentation, and how to make some changes to my diet, so I've decided to go vegetarian for a week.

Tim Ferriss does have a section on going vegetarian in 4HB, in which he recommends doing it gradually, but I've decided to do it now, because I've just come back from a week in Italy, where I mostly lived like a vegetarian anyway (and on calorie restriction, although that's another story). Part of my thinking was to just get started, while I'm not necessarily in training for anything.

Also, my usual pattern is to start back on the junk food as soon as I get back from Italy; in previous years, my first meal back has frequently been McDonald's or Burger King (sometimes I haven't even waited to leave the airport before hitting the nearest Burger King). Naturally, one benefit of trying to go meatless now is that I break that pattern, which can only be good for me.

Another key reason is that I always worry what I'd eat if I did stop eating meat, so this is the perfect opportunity to find out. It's helped that my sister is around, and given that she was a vegetarian for a while, she's been helpful in giving options for what to eat since I announced it to her earlier today. Just as importantly, I'm hoping it'll give me more ideas on cooking meatless dishes, which is clearly lacking from my repertoire.

As for how I'm defining "vegetarian", I've gone for a relatively strict interpretation, without going vegan. Specifically, in addition to cutting out beef, chicken, pork, etc, I'm not eating fish or eggs this week, but I will be eating dairy. This will allow me to keep having my normal breakfast when I'm in the office of a bowl of cereal. Also, where it can't be avoided, I'll eat something like fish - lunch today was a bowl of udon with bean curd, which included those weird little flat fishcakes that frequently appear in Japanese soups. Of course, I'll be avoiding sushi and other dishes where fish is the main component, but I don't think this will be too much of a problem.

I'm not expecting massive changes in my health over the next week, although I figure my energy levels might be a little off. Seven days isn't really enough to make lasting changes, but for the moment the idea is really to gain ideas for the next time I'll try it (which will be for longer, probably two to four weeks). I'll be keeping a diary of what I eat, and plan to log anything out of the ordinary, preferably as it happens.

Of course, given that it's Easter and everything, including supermarkets, is shut today, my experiment might not get off to the greatest start, if I end up ordering a pizza from Domino's. While a cheese or even a vegetable pizza fits the strict definition of what I can eat this week, it doesn't exactly conform to the spirit of what I'm doing. But if there aren't any options, then so be it.

Wish me luck, and I'll report back in a week!

Monday, 25 March 2013

Please Wait While We Resume Normal Service

A cold and a trip to Oxford with the family have conspired to keep me off the blog this weekend, but I'll be back next week, over Easter.

In the meantime, and to further delve into the capabilities of writing this blog on my iPad, I'd like to point you toward a new podcast I discovered recently, called Speculate! It features Bradley P Beaulieu, author of the Winds of Kalakhovo, talking with author and academic Greg Wilson about what's going on in the world of SF. It features book reviews, author interviews and discussions about an author's writing style, all of which are pretty entertaining. So far I've listened to their review of Red Country, and interview with Joe Abercrombie, as well as their interview of DAW editor in chief Betsy Wollheim - all full of interesting insights. Check it out, and then check in here again next week.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

You Have To Be Realistic

Joe Abercrombie is one of my favorite fantasy authors of the last few years, as anyone who's followed this blog would probably be unsurprised to hear. I picked up his first book, The Blade Itself, back in 2009 and have been hooked since then. More than that, I created another fan - my dad - when I gave him my copy of the book; after reading that one, he bought the two sequels, Before They Are Hanged and Last Argument of Kings, for himself. I've received each of Abercrombie's subsequent books for Christmas from him since then, including his latest, Red Country, which I just finished this afternoon. Out of courtesy, I'm going to signpost now that there are spoilers in this post, so read on at your peril.

The Man Himself

With each book, though, my dad and I have diverged in our opinions of Joe Abercrombie's storytelling. It's probably a truism to say that his books fall under the "gritty fantasy" subcategory that's gained in popularity since George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, as they tend to depict violence and depravity to a degree that some have started to find objectionable. My dad happens to be one of those who find it all a bit much.

I'd argue, though, that Abercrombie focuses on that side of fantasy fiction for more than just titillation or "showing things as they are". Gritty fantasy has become the dominant paradigm in the genre, to the point that it's getting to be something of a cliche - everything's dirty, smelly, bloody, encrusted with shit and offal and so on. You can  rely on the good guys to be just as bad as their enemies, and for the bad guys to be harboring a lust for violence that frequently verges on the sexual.

However, ironically, I wouldn't call Abercrombie the worst for this kind of thing. Strange as it is to say for an author whose main characters are either torturers or bloodthirsty maniacs, I never find the bloodshed in his books to be gratuitous. Sure, he doesn't flinch from gore, but it's always pretty clear that the people causing the bloodshed aren't to be admired.

Case in point is Logen Nine-Fingers, also known as the Bloody-Nine, one of the protagonists of Abercrombie's opening trilogy, the First Law. Logen is effectively a split personality - usually he's a good POV character to follow, but when the bloodlust comes over him, the Bloody-Nine comes out and becomes a threat to his allies as well as his enemies. The first time the Bloody-Nine comes out in The Blade Itself, you're rooting for him, because he's just dispatched half a dozen or so bad guys on his own.


But then he comes out again in the subsequent books, and he slaughters indiscriminately, even to the point of killing children because they happen to be in his way. It gets to the point where instead of hoping the Bloody-Nine comes out again, you worry about what kind of atrocity you're about to read. And some of it can indeed be tough to read.

I was thinking about this while reading Red Country, which happens to be Logen's first appearance since Last Argument of Kings. As I mentioned in a previous post, this fact was spoiled for me, so I spent the book in anticipation of the big reveal. But it hit me that the reason Abercrombie writes this way is because he's writing about the consequences of violence, rather than because he really likes decapitations.

You can see this theme running through each of his standalone books, from Best Served Cold, which is about the corrosive effect of seeking revenge, to The Heroes, which is about the consequences of two enemies not being willing to back down, even when their confrontation is over something completely irrelevant.

Thinking back over the other "gritty fantasy" authors I've read, none of them - including GRRM - takes this approach. I'm not taking shots, as books like Game of Thrones and its sequels are amazing; but it was actually in reading A Feast for Crows that I started to weary of all the sociopaths and deviants crowding Westeros. And while my dad sees only nihilism in Abercrombie's approach, I'd argue he's way more willing to let his characters find redemption than GRRM is - witness the final confrontation between Logen and Caul Shivers, contrasted with the fact in Game of Thrones that the only truly honorable characters, like Ned Stark, end up with their heads on pikes.

"Wait, what happens to me at the end?"

And in the end, I think Abercrombie's stories end up being more true to life because of that. Depictions of life being nothing but nasty, brutish and short end up being just as unrealistic as those suggesting that heroes are always perfectly virtuous and villains always irredeemably bad. It takes a brave writer to show us that a person can choose to stop making bad choices and act altruistically, much more so than reveling in how flawed that person is.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Age Ain't Nothin' But a... What Was I Saying?

I've recently had two separate conversations with friends - one on Skype and the other on Twitter - where I've had it suggested to me that I'm not young anymore. The one on Skype was particularly funny, because I mentioned that I was making long-term plans, and my friend responded by saying something to the effect of, "Hang on, we're not getting any younger." The other one just suggested that at 33, we can't really be considered young anymore.

Hang on, what?

But is this really true? I'm not suggesting there's no difference between me in 2013 and me in 2003 - I've aged physically, of course, and my outlook is (hopefully) more mature than it was back then. But if I'm not young, that invites the suggestion, rightly or wrongly, that I've become old. Or, if you argue, as my friend did, that we aren't old either, does that make us middle-aged?

I think two factors are at work here. One is the fact that my friends and I, like generations before us, have starting noticing certain things after we passed thirty. Things start to creak a little more, and we recover less quickly from things like injuries or hangovers than we used to; a few of us have lost hair, and all of us are finding that we don't really need or want to shovel as much junk down our gullets as we did in our twenties. If you're of a particularly morbid mindset, like me, you may have started worrying about aging and what your life will be like in ten, twenty, thirty years. It's a truism, but no less accurate, that fear of death and aging doesn't quite start to hit you in the gut until your thirties. That's my experience, at any rate.

At the same time, it looks kind of like society's getting more and more youth-obsessed; at least, it is in the US and (I'd say) in the UK. Again, this is nothing new - but it's interesting to think that I'm on the wrong side of that now. It's almost guaranteed that I'll be older than any up-and-coming actors or singers, of either sex.

For instance...

When you add to that the fact that the 18-24 demographic is the most sought-after for the entertainment industry, it's even more interesting - I'm of less interest to advertisers now than I was ten years ago, even though I'm more likely to have more disposable income to actually buy the crap they're foisting on us.

I'm not saying it should be different, of course - the entertainment industry is what it is (I say from outside said industry), and I think I'd go crazy if I was sitting here railing against it. But at a personal level, I think we can recognize that we ourselves aren't quite ready for the retirement home.

I've been guilty of it myself at various times, including giving older folks a rather skeptical look every time they'd refer to me as "young". But it helps to remember that, logically, at 33 I haven't yet reached the mid-point of my biblical three-score and ten; and more to the point, we're expecting to live longer and longer (I even talked about this changing perception of age in a previous blog post). It also helps to be aware of the fact that, while you will slow down with age, there's nothing that says you have to get more and more decrepit with each passing year (my dad once said he planned to continue downhill skiing until he was 80, at which point he'd switch to cross-country).

So, yeah, I'll continue making long-term plans, for the foreseeable future. I'll stop when I get to 90 - unless, by that time, I can expect to get to 120. Haven't decided if I'll keep running marathons, though.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Two Cities, Two Americas

The Wire, for me, was the greatest show on television ever. While I eventually made my way through the Sopranos, I never really joined that particular cult; Mad Men leaves me a little cold; and Breaking Bad is enjoyable, but not yet leaving me panting for more the way each episode of the Wire did.

What particularly appealed to me was how David Simon and Ed Burns were showing us how people in a large, decaying American city live together. The crime stories and the stuff around the drug trade were good, particularly because you got to see the meticulousness required for good police work (by TV standards, at any rate), but it was everything else that made the show sing.

In fact, I generally get some odd looks when I tell other fans that my favorite season was the one based around the docks. It's the one least concerned with the Barksdale gang and the drug trade, but it's also the best example of the Wire's interest in how urban living has changed since the Second World War. The other seasons I liked best were the ones centering on politics and the schools, which are permeated by David Simon's cynicism about institutions' ability to change, no matter how honest or committed individual people are within those institutions.

Naturally, when I finished the Wire, I went looking for more, and discovered the Corner, Simon's second book about Baltimore and the work that most directly gave rise to the Wire. In both the book and the six-part miniseries, Simon attempted to show how life in Baltimore's drug trade was lived; he and Ed Burns spent a year hanging out on a particular corner with the dealers, talking to them and the buyers and everyone else around there. It also gave him a glimpse of a second America, which is just about as foreign a country to the one most middle class, white Americans live in.

Clearly, the existence of this parallel country troubled Simon. He got involved in the lives of his subjects, helping them and their community out in whatever ways he could. A lot of the actual people he wrote about in the Corner appeared in cameos in the Wire, or were referenced there. When real life caught up with them - like Felicia "Snoop" Pearson or DeAndre McCullough - he wrote eloquent and moving testimonies to them. He even hired some of them to work on the production jobs for the Wire or Treme, his latest show.

Treme is a continuation of this idea of two Americas (I haven't seen Generation Kill, so can't comment). Set in New Orleans just after Katrina obliterated the place, he presents a large cast of characters who moved through the city in those days, trying in varying degrees to rebuild or simply survive.

On first glance it isn't as amazing an artistic statement as the Wire was. It's slightly uneven, possibly because of the amount of characters it follows, and at times it can be a little heavy-handed (such as the scene with the Katrina Tours bus in Episode 3), although for all that, it's not at all off-base. My favorite of these parts is in the first episode, where John Goodman's character, a white university professor living in a beautiful house untouched by the storm, shouts down a phone at NPR, "We're dying out here!" Two episodes later he's discovering YouTube and signing his youngest daughter up for piano lessons.

The two Americas theme is most evident when comparing Khandi Alexander's story arc with that of Kim Dickens. Alexander owns a tavern in the worst-hit area of New Orleans; she has no electricity, her brother is missing and repairs on her place are just not happening. Dickens, meanwhile, is operating her restaurant week by week, losing staff every day... but she has electricity and her patrons include Goodman and his wife. They live in the same city, but in different universes, which connect only rarely.

For all his many faults, former North Carolina Senator and Presidential hopeful John Edwards was right to talk about two Americas. Parts of the Ninth Ward still haven't been rebuilt, and those who lived there are either dead or dispersed elsewhere in America; whereas business apparently continues as usual in the parts of the city that tourists see. Baltimore is much the same, to the point that the Economist had to point out that despite portrayals such as the Wire, the city is actually a delightful place to visit.

I'm sure it is. I'd love to go there, see the waterfront, and try the steamed crabs that it's so famous for. But while we enjoy ourselves, do we really have to close our eyes and ears to the fact that such large parts of these major cities are no-go zones where the residents have all the rules of the America I come from stacked against them?

Whatever you think of David Simon or his work, he's the only person in television looking for these stories that the rest of us don't want to pay attention to, and he should be recognized much more widely for it.