Fat Books & Thin Women


#Longreads : David Segal’s “The Dark Art of Breaking Bad
October 12, 2011, 6:02 pm
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Check back every Wednesday for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

Anyone who has had to speak to me in the last few months knows that I have fallen completely and irredeemably in love with Breaking Bad. In my ever-shifting list of Greatest TV Shows of All Time, which Friday Night Lights‘ soulful Tim Riggins has occasionally disrupted with his shaggy hair and love of beer, Breaking Bad has rudely pushed aside The Wire for the top position. This is the best TV show that’s ever been made. I find it impossible to believe that there will ever be a show that will take a closer or more daring look at the disintegration of the moral fiber of a man, or that will do a better job of exploring the power struggles behind the drug scene through the lens of that fallen character.

Maybe you noticed, though, that it’s only in the last few months that I’ve started watching the show. I’d only heard of Breaking Bad in passing until I went home over the summer for the Fulbright conference and took a copy of The New York Times Sunday Magazine to the gym with me.* As I wheezed away on the elliptical I started reading David Segal’s “The Dark Art of Breaking Bad,” which focuses on Vince Gilligan and some of the formative ideas behind the show. All I could think was: I need to watch this. Now.

Segal visits the Breaking Bad crew as they shoot for season four, but writes about the development of the show as a whole. It’s this description that got me interested in watching the series:

The story and setting [of the first season] were an update of the spaghetti Western, minus the cowboys and set in the present.

But it was soon clear that “Breaking Bad” was something much more satisfying and complex: a revolutionary take on the serial drama. What sets the show apart from its small-screen peers is a subtle metaphysical layer all its own. As Walter inches toward damnation, Gilligan and his writers have posed some large questions about good and evil, questions with implications for every kind of malefactor you can imagine, from Ponzi schemers to terrorists. Questions like: Do we live in a world where terrible people go unpunished for their misdeeds? Or do the wicked ultimately suffer for their sins?

Segal does a fantastic job pointing out those things that make Breaking Bad best, and so much more daring than its counterpats; namely, that “Walter White progresses from unassuming savant to opportunistic gangster — and as he does so, the show dares you to excuse him, or find a moral line that you deem a point of no return.” More and more with each season, Gilligan pushes the viewer to find a new moral line for Walter; is [ ] acceptable if he is protecting his partner? his family? his money?

“The Dark Art of Breaking Bad” is a better read once you’ve watched the show – but the Times includes a primer of main characters (including Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman!) that can only pique your interest in watching. And if you’re looking for more on Breaking Bad, Newsweek ran their own Breaking Bad article over the summer, “TV’s Most Dangerous Show.” It hits many of the same notes as Segal’s article, but may help to curb your withdrawal as you wait for season five.**

* Going to the gym having become an alluring activity now that I don’t have that option.

** WHICH CANNOT START SOON ENOUGH.

Read David Segal’s “The Dark Art of Breaking Bad

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#Longreads : “Exercise in a Pill”
October 5, 2011, 3:37 pm
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Check back every Wednesday for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

Michael Behar’s “Exercise in a Pill” hits some hot-button issues (obesity, daily exercise to counter obesity, drug use among professional athletes, drug marketing) surrounding research of a “miracle drug” to turn couch potatoes into endurance athletes. Pretty much from the start, Behar expresses his belief that these claims are dubious, writing:

I first heard about Evans on the NBC Nightly News, shortly after slogging through a 40-minute treadmill run at my gym. When a smirking Brian Williams flashed the onscreen headline exercise in a pill, my bullshit meter redlined.

My bullshit meter redlined too, when I started this article. It was still redlining at the end, but Behar’s look at Ron Evans and his efforts to produce a drug to boost physical endurance in humans is so interesting that it doesn’t much matter where you land on the bullshit to awesome scale. In effect, what Evans is striving to do is to reproduce the effects of exercise (see: exercising increases the number of slow-twitch fibers in your muscles, which then increases your endurance – aka, the reason we can’t hop off our sofas and run a marathon with no training) through drugs, which can then be marketed to all the people (I mean, really, all. the. people. – as Behar points out, who wouldn’t want this?) who are interested, for reasons of health or laziness, in becoming better athletes without actually having to exercise.

So many weird things here. First, as Behar writes, Evans’ research may well come to nothing:

the list of prototype miracle drugs that performed spectacularly in mice, and then failed catastrophically during human clinical trials, is long and sordid.

Second: isn’t the whole idea of taking a drug to skip over exercise just…bizarre? And even if Evans’ miracle drugs do come through eventually, allowing people to slim down while watching TV and washing down their Hershey’s bars with Coca-Cola, wouldn’t some pretty huge benefits of exercise still be missing? True, I speak as someone who sometimes likes exercise and is dreading super psyched for the reintroduction of regular runs to my life once I move to Tirana, but Evans’ research seems like just one more worrying step in the direction of becoming as lazy as we can be, but still looking awesome and healthy.

Do I overreact? Or am I just behind the times for thinking that it’s weird to be seeking yet another way to best Mother Nature?

Read Michael Behar’s “Exercise in a Pill”

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#Longreads : Paul Theroux’s “The Lesson of My Life”
September 28, 2011, 5:50 pm
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Check back every Wednesday for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

Paul Theroux’s “The Lesson of My Life” is a wide-ranging piece about his experience in the Peace Corps, an encounter with Obama and his hopes for the presidency, the differences between travel and sightseeing, and the ways technology has changed the Peace Corps experience. Theroux’s article isn’t worth reading just by the people considering joining Peace Corps, which is how I think a lot of Peace Corps-centered pieces are viewed, but for anyone attempting to better define why it is important, why it is necessary, to do this sort of work in the first place.

Theroux hits on a couple things that have troubled me during my service. First, internet is so pervasive now that the opportunity to truly “escape” has vanished. Nearly everyone in Macedonia, not just American volunteers, has the internet in their homes, and Peace Corps has changed to such a degree that it’s nearly impossible to function without the internet. During the five or six months I didn’t have internet (either because I was training, or waiting for my internet to be installed at my house, or because I left the router plugged in during a thunderstorm) I missed countless emails from Peace Corps staffers and co-workers in my school, the sort of emails that I needed to see to do my job. But this sort of technology, as Theroux points out, fundamentally changes the Peace Corps by making it possible for volunteers to retreat to the comfort of phone calls with family on a bad day. Over the past few months, which have at times felt crushing (failed projects at school, strained relations with my school’s administration due to the failed project, a need to reclaim my privacy), I’ve been guilty of this.

Theroux also writes of one of the differences between travel with an organization like the Peace Corps and the sort of sightseeing that ends in description of what people do not have: “Out of a guilty, grotesque, almost boasting self-consciousness, these wealthy visitors enumerate the insufficiencies. That’s because they don’t stay very long.” This is something I saw when I was at home, and it was something I kowtowed to when I did presentations on my Peace Corps service, because it’s not just what the visitors see but what the non-visitors want to hear that influences how we describe our travel. People do not want to hear that I’m still awed by how close families here are, how generous the people are, and how much more secure in people’s honesty I often feel here than I do in America (leave your phone in a cab in Macedonia and the driver will call you and tell you which gas station attendant he is leaving the phone with; leave your phone in a cab in America and you’re buying a new one the next day); they want to hear about girls being married when they are sixteen years old and children being taken out of school after the eighth grade, and women doing everything for the men of the family, down to getting them glasses of water when they call for them. These things are true, but as Theroux writes, they do not describe the whole of the experience.

With what sometimes feels like endless criticism of Peace Corps and the work volunteers do (see: in a bar recently, an American traveling through the Balkans describing the Foreign Service: “Look at me, look at me, I’m an American and I’m here to show you I’m a nice person” [exactly what we do in the Peace Corps], so many articles and tv shows over the last year about rape in the Peace Corps, poor agency response to volunteer problems, and reasons why Peace Corps is a poor “aid organization”), Theroux’s essay, which is in part a summation of his time in Africa and in part a defense of the necessary work behind this sort of travel, is a fine response to those who tear apart the Peace Corps without an understanding of the organization or the value of its volunteers’ efforts.

Travel—not sightseeing, but real encounters with real people—has never mattered more in helping us to see how we’re crowding a blighted planet, how interdependent we are.

Read Paul Theroux’s “The Lesson of My Life”

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#Longreads : “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?”
September 21, 2011, 4:29 pm
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Check back every Wednesday for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

“What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” makes an interesting follow-up to last week’s article, “The End of Men”; both deal, in their own ways, with the question of character and what makes a successful man (or, in this case, student/person). Paul Tough (great name for someone writing an article about grit) considers, broadly, the idea of educating for character rather than for academic grades and test scores, and more closely what Dominic Randolph, headmaster of Riverdale Country School (a prestigious private school in New York) and David Levin, co-founder of the KIPP charter schools, are doing to work character development into their schools’ curriculums.

What Tough addresses, what Randolph and Levin questioned as they began seeking a way to teach their students character, is how and why so many students succeed academically in high school, but are unable to succeed in college or on the job market. The very idea of an American character, of character traits that bring success and of trying to “train” for those traits, hearkens back to some American ideal of the pioneer, as Randolph acknowledges:

“Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

What, then, is awarding trophies not just to winning teams or awards to the best students, but giving accolades to all students and athletes – great, mediocre, and poor – doing to students as they prepare to enter the Real World? Is it possible to test for or train for true grit (with a nod to Charles Portis), or does attempting to search for and teach certain character traits among students essentially change the value of those traits? Is intelligence the most valuable trait in a student or person looking for work, or is it some less measurable quality, like how long a person will work at a task that seems at times impossible?

After you read Tough’s article be sure to take the “Grit Scale” test developed by Angela Duckworth (the test Tough discusses at length in his article) to determine your level of grittiness from 1 to 5.* And what do you think is more important to success (let’s say, success in one’s chosen career): raw intelligence, which often seems to be what our schools and society push for, or character traits such as grittiness, trustworthiness and curiosity?

* I score a 4.3, which maybe we could label “pretty definitely gritty,” but since I’m currently “earning” $200 a month and was dumb enough to seek a way to spend a third year in the Balkans, it seems too early to say whether my character (which we could describe as more “too dumb to know when to quit” than “smart”) will help me become a big success.

Read Paul Tough’s “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?”

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#Longreads : “The End of Men”
September 14, 2011, 12:26 pm
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Check back every Wednesday for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

Having lived abroad for the past two years, I have a narrow vision of what men in America look like right now, colored by that fact that so many twenty-something men in the Balkans are unemployed, live with their parents, and spend their days drinking coffee or beer, and that of my college friends most of the guys are unemployed (or at best hold temp jobs), live with their parents, and spend their days drinking coffee or beer.

Hanna Rosin’s article from The Atlantic, split roughly in halves, delves into the areas in which women are besting men, the impact opportunities for women have on a nation’s economy and collective ability to innovate, and how the increasing economic power of women impacts men left unemployed by downturns in manufacturing, building and other typically male industries. It’s not just that women are gaining ground, but that they’re doing so with, in Rosin’s words, with “remarkable speed.” What does this mean for men, for families, for the American middle class?

Earlier this year, for the first time in American history, the balance of the workforce tipped toward women, who now hold a majority of the nation’s jobs. The working class, which has long defined our notions of masculinity, is slowly turning into a matriarchy, with men increasingly absent from the home and women making all the decisions. Women dominate today’s colleges and professional schools—for every two men who will receive a B.A. this year, three women will do the same. Of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most in the next decade in the U.S., all but two are occupied primarily by women. Indeed, the U.S. economy is in some ways becoming a kind of traveling sisterhood: upper-class women leave home and enter the workforce, creating domestic jobs for other women to fill.

What’s so interesting about “The End of Men” is the ways it points out that the gains of women are due in part to the failures of men: the failure to pursue higher education, the failure to pursue jobs that have been classed as feminine while women have taken over occupations that were once dominated by men.

The list of growing jobs is heavy on nurturing professions, in which women, ironically, seem to benefit from old stereotypes and habits. Theoretically, there is no reason men should not be qualified. But they have proved remarkably unable to adapt. Over the course of the past century, feminism has pushed women to do things once considered against their nature—first enter the workforce as singles, then continue to work while married, then work even with small children at home. Many professions that started out as the province of men are now filled mostly with women—secretary and teacher come to mind. Yet I’m not aware of any that have gone the opposite way. Nursing schools have tried hard to recruit men in the past few years, with minimal success. Teaching schools, eager to recruit male role models, are having a similarly hard time. The range of acceptable masculine roles has changed comparatively little, and has perhaps even narrowed as men have shied away from some careers women have entered. As Jessica Grose wrote in Slate, men seem “fixed in cultural aspic.” And with each passing day, they lag further behind.

Rosin comes at questions how of men are lagging behind, how their roles have changed in recent years, why and how women have made such professional and intellectual strides in recent years, and how the failure of men to keep up with women impacts relationships. As someone who hasn’t been living in the States for two years now, who doesn’t have a real sense of where men and women stand (apart from what I can see in my own group of friends), I want to know: what do you think of Rosin’s article? Are the issues she addresses ones that you’ve noticed yourself? Do you think there’s value in her discussion of why men are “failing” while women improve their economic standing, or is it more overblown hokum?

Read Hanna Rosin’s “The End of Men”

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