The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

pittsburgh restaurants, toddler-friendly

Restaurants in Pittsburgh are generally pretty bad, but there are a few that defy that tendency. So the wife and I--restaurant people both, having lived in blue-state kinda places like LA, NYC, Portland, Minneapolis, Austin, etc., where the restaurant standards are high--were brainstorming the other day about good restaurants--those to which we could take out of towners without feeling like we had to tender explanations ("um, yes, the french fries and cole slaw go on the sandwich; yes the french fries also go on the salad"). We came up with a partial list, and as we have a toddler we categorize everything by how toddler-friendly it is:

Point Brugges in Point Breeze: very good Belgian food including mussels and crispy fries, slow service.

Enrico's in the Strip: great Italian food, but only open Saturdays and there are very few, very small tables.

Old Europe on the South Side: heavy Eastern European food; pretty fast service, big tables, fishtank for entertainment.

Tram's Kitchen in Friendship/Garfield: the best pho in town, little English spoken (although I think Mr Le speaks fluent
French as well as, of course, Vietnamese), owner who is very charming with little kids.

Green Mango in Edgewood: takeout only, but good Thai.

Typhoon in Shadyside: fancy nouveau Thai. I wouldn't take the boy.

Trilogy: excellent downtown restaurant, but probably not kid-friendly.

The Church brewpub in Bloomfield/Friendship: nice big room (room? it's a deconsecrated church!), fantastic pizza, pretty good beer. Quick service. With a toddler, get the corner booth tables. Under no circumstances order the vegetarian wrap.

Abay in East Liberty: adequate Ethiopian. Fresh-tasting but with almost no spice. Makes me wonder how one can get the fare authentic-ized. But the remarkably mild food is quite amenable to toddlers.

Kassab's on the South Side: good Lebanese/Middle Eastern, good for kids.

Cafe du Jour on the South Side: good, creative bistro food. Not a place for a two-year-old.

Cafe Zinho in Shadyside: great little place in a cute corner of Shadyside, across from a tile store. Especially pretty in the summer. "Romantic" place, so not a toddler joint.

La Feria in Shadyside: tiny Peruvian place on Walnut. Excellent ropa vieja. A nice place for a little one unless your little one is barely under control--there are a lot of small, fragile, brightly colored objects within arm's reach.

Hot Metal Grille on the South Side: it tries to be a businessman's lunch place, but I don't think there are enough businessmen in that part of the South Side, so I've never seen it all that crowded. It's good, not great. Manly. Not so kid-friendly.

Sharp Edge in East Liberty/Friendship: a beer-snob bar with pretty damn good food--Belgian-influenced. Why are two of the best restaurants in this town Belgian?

What's missing here? Mexican. There's no Mexican I'd recommend in Pittsburgh. The Taco Loco, late of 17th and Carson and now relocated, had pretty good tacos (chilango style) but was quite overpriced--to the degree that we just didn't go back. There was a taqueria on Murray Ave. in Squirrel Hill, that was good, but just overpriced enough that we haven't gone back. (We've stopped going out to eat in Squirrel Hill after realizing that everything--Cucina Flegrea, Mineo's, Pamela's, etc.--is okay but not as good as it probably should be.) Cozumel in Shadyside was much like El Coyote on Beverly in Los Angeles: that's all I'm going to say. There was a place--El Campesino maybe it's called?--with several locations, the one in Monroeville was the one we hit--that was also pretty below average. La Fiesta in Oakland is probably the best, but the regular menu items are unremarkable; the only reason I know they can perform is that I went to a function there geared at Spanish speakers and the food was extremely good. I know there's a place downtown but I haven't tried it yet. And I'm not going to bother with Mad Mex.

Because of this--not exclusively because of this, but in surprisingly large part of this--we are out of town this coming week for ten days in Guanajuato, Mexico. I sometimes lull myself to sleep thinking about it... chilaquiles, tamales, tacos al pastor, tortas de quesillo, jalapeños y zanahorias en escabeche, micheladas, sangrita, helado de tamarindo... unfortunately I won't have access to the world's greatest tacos al pastor, which are only served at one of two small stands outside of the first-class bus station in Oaxaca city, but I'm sure the fine guanajuatenses have good tacos of their own.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

sinclair lewis and the nobel prize

It's hard to take particularly seriously the complaints about the Nobel Prize for Literature for being "politically correct" these days. Yes, the writers the Swedes immortalize these days do tend to be leftist--Dario Fo, Harold Pinter, Toni Morrison, Wole Soyinka, Gunter Grass--but they're at least good writers. Look back at the older laureates, say from the first twenty years of the prize. I've heard of--not read, not loved, but HEARD OF--exactly five: Kipling, Sienkiewicz, Tagore, Prudhomme, and Hamsun. I've read ONE: Kipling. I have an interest in reading only two others (Hamsun and Tagore).

So why write about this? I'm reading (and teaching) one of the best-known novels of another early Nobel laureate, Sinclair Lewis. BABBITT is a novel about a classic American character, the go-getter, booster, Rotarian Republican businessman of a medium-sized city. It's a fine novel, a nice period piece with a good (although perhaps overdone) sense of slang and language of the time. But it's not a novel that you'd expect from a Nobelist in his prime. It's barely plotted; in fact, it's largely a character sketch. Babbitt's great change of heart is somewhat unbelievable, and he doesn't really go anywhere. If this is one of the great works by one of the great writers of world lit, it leaves a lot to be desired.

And that's my problem with anyone who complains about today's Nobel Prizes for Literature these days. I'd take the novels of Naguib Mahfouz, Kenzaburo Oe, Gunter Grass, Toni Morrison, J.M. Coetzee, or V.S. Naipaul--all of which I've read--over any of the winners up to 1947 (Gide). After that, the committee seems to have hit its stride for several years: Eliot, Faulkner, Pasternak, Jimenez, Camus, it's hard to argue with any of them. The 1970s were a good time, as well. And frankly, although the winning writers tend to be leftists, unlike winners like Eliot or Saul Bellow or Solzhenitsyn, I think they're generally pretty good choices.

I still don't know who the hell Elfriede Jelinek is, though.

Monday, February 20, 2006

santorum's house

THE AMERICAN PROSPECT currently has a very interesting investigation into the finances of Pennsylvania's junior senator, the self-proclaimed man of modest means Rick Santorum. Although he reports an income not much over his Senate salary of $161,100, he seems to live beyond that stratum. But, as Will Bunch points out,

"Santorum’s exurban lifestyle is financed in ways that aren’t available to the average voter back home in Pennsylvania -- namely a political action committee that lists payments for such unorthodox items as dozens of trips to the Starbucks in Leesburg, a number of stops at fast-food joints, and purchases at Target, Wal-Mart, and a Giant supermarket in northern Virginia. Although a Santorum aide defends those charges as legitimate political costs, good-government experts say the expenditures are at best unconventional, and at worst a possible violation of Senate rules, and the purchases appear to be unorthodox when compared with other senators’ filings. Santorum’s PAC -- a “leadership PAC,” whose purpose is to dispense money to other Republican candidates -- used just 18.1 percent of its money to that end over a recent five-year period, a lower number than other leadership PACs of top senators from both parties."

What Bunch uncovers that's even more iffy is Santorum's house--a nice, three-quarters-of-a-million dollar place that was financed with a mortgage coming from a new private bank called the Philadelphia Trust Company--whose directors gave $24,000 to Santorum's campaign.

This from the guy who the Republicans have named to head their ethics housecleaning project. Oy.


I don't know if the hippies are dirtier and sweatier in WOODSTOCK or in this recent FESTIVAL EXPRESS documentary. It's a very interesting film, actually using many of the same techniques as WOODSTOCK (split-screen shots) but also done in retrospect, having some of the principals give interviews about what happened 35 years ago. Great grungy footage of the Grateful Dead, the Band, Janis Joplin etc. on a train crossing Canada in the summer of 1970.

Monday, February 13, 2006

David Horowitz and Rigoberta Menchu

Yes, I know this is dated, but that's the problem with teaching. I'm having my class read Rigoberta Menchu's autobiography (and also having them read Stoll's investigation of Menchu's story), and while doing some prep for class I ran into what is just about the most loathsome piece I've ever read in David Horowitz--yes, the desperate publicity-seeker, Marxist-turned-reactionary, academic witchhunter--wrote a piece savaging Menchu for her 'lies.' Yes, Stoll did turn up a lot of evidence that Menchu's stories were in large part exaggerated or patently untrue. But Horowitz's take is to tear into Menchu and utterly ignore what went on in Guatemala in those days. He says:

"The fictional story of Rigoberta Menchú is a piece of Communist propaganda designed to incite hatred of Europeans and Westerners and the societies they have built, and to build support for Communist and terrorist organizations at war with the democracies of the West. It has become the single most influential social treatise among American college students. Over 15,000 theses have been written on Rigoberta Menchú the world over -- all accepting her lies as gospel. The Nobel Peace Prize committee has made Rigoberta an international figure and spokeswoman for "social justice and peace.""

Let's leave the spurious "15,000" number out; that's clearly garbage. Here's where he ultimately takes his argument:

"Ultimately, the source of the violence and ensuing misery that Rigoberta Menchú describes in her destructive little book is the left itself. Too bad it hasn't the decency to acknowledge this, and to leave the third world alone."

Wow. Is there anyone around anymore--Dick Cheney? Rumsfeld? Otto Reich?--who still makes the argument that the "left" did the killing in Guatemala in the 1970s and 1980s? The Guatemalan government's own Commission for Historical Clarification concluded that army and government forces committed 93% of the violence. Even the U.S. Department of State's page on Guatemala essentially grants that the military and the government were largely at fault for the "200,000 deaths."

Okay, okay, this is old news. I just think it's vital to remember who David Horowitz is and what he argues at a time when he is trying to have an influence on Pennsylvania higher education and state politics. The strategy: bluster loudly, make outrageous claims, refuse to provide documentation, and, when called on his lies, retract as quietly as possible.


I'm having a David Brooks problem. The problem? I can't dislike him, but I can't like him either. He is what I'd like conservatives to be: principled, intelligent, willing to listen. He doesn't join the dumbass Republican demagogueries like Terri Schiavo or the Swift Boaties or the "sanctity of marriage," and when he does the dueling-talking-heads thing with E.J. Dionne on NPR he seems absolutely reasonable. (Yes, I know it's NPR and he'd be thrown off otherwise.) In fact, he generally seems to take the "I'm embarrassed at what my fellow conservatives do and say, but we really do have a coherent and viable philosophy" tack. (Of course, that's not tough these days, what with the Bushies taking ever more bizarrely extreme and antidemocratic positions and demanding absolute loyalty from their Republican troops.) I like his NY TIMES columns ("like" in the sense of enjoy reading them, not in the sense of agreeing with them).

And now I'm reading his 2001 book BOBOS IN PARADISE, his anatomization of the new "bourgeois bohemians" who use their high income levels to commodity-fetishize the kinds of products that the upper classes of earlier days would have seen as garbage--peasant-inspired Italian food, butcher-block tables, natural fibers, etc. It's a damn smart book, engagingly if a bit smugly written, and Brooks wears his learning pretty lightly. He brings in the important sociological works of the 1950s and 1960s without seeming like a namedropper, and even provides the best short introduction to Pierre Bourdieu's ideas that I've seen. He's unashamed to point out that he's a charter member of this class while still maintaining his slightly superior detachment. And yet the book just doesn't work for me. I guess that no matter what a reasonable conservative he is, he's still a conservative, unwilling to grant that there might be genuinely serious problems with our society--problems stemming largely from the unequal allocation of resources. Yes, it's funny to see how the bohemian hippies of the 1960s became earnest shoppers at Anthropologie and Whole Foods and how radicals like Chomsky do the same green-room dance as Bob Novak and Pat Robertson and every other "public intellectual" who is willing to do TV.

But that just feels like a cheap argument to me, and I think that's really my problem with Brooks. It all feels cheap, and like he's just ignoring the elephant in the room. Because a conservative columnist has got to deal with the fact that the far right really has control of essentially everything, with the possible exception of academia, and that life just isn't getting better for most people besides these "bobos" (who really are living in paradise, at least a materialistic version of it). It just doesn't work for me to pretend that DeLay and Norquist and Perkins and Rove and Cheney and Santorum and Scalia and Thomas and Brownback and Coburn are the embarrassing black sheep of the party. David, these guys ARE your party.


Monday, February 06, 2006


Yesterday afternoon, while waiting for the Steelers to come on, I finally finished Orhan Pamuk's SNOW. The book jacket copy (I had the Faber edition from Britain) said something about Pamuk coming from a place "with a storytelling tradition quite as rich as our own" or something like that, and first of all that's the thing that comes out--Pamuk is eminently confident in what he's doing, and as many critics have mentioned he dips in and out of all sorts of model texts. Boccaccio, the Thousand and One Nights, the dervish folk tradition, etc.

The book is narrated by a first-person narrator, a journalist friend of the protagonist, who is himself part of an old literary tradition (he's piecing together the events in the life of a dead friend), and this is a nice choice--the narrator is mysterious and unobtrusive. The story itself deals with the return to Turkey of "Ka," a great Turkish poet who has fled to Frankfurt several years before. He goes to Kars, a remote town on the eastern border of Turkey, to investigate a rash of suicides among young women who have taken the veil and, as a result, have been kicked out of school; Turkey is, for those who doesn't know, an officially secular Islamic country whose military and political establishment have been historically very hostile to Islamist political movements and Muslim traditions like the veil. While there, he gets embroiled in a complicated set of plots: a long-lost love, a father-and-daughter conflict, a military coup, the last act of a great rural actor, and the persistent conflict between Islamic tradition and the Turkish state. It's melancholy, very atmospheric--the snow plays a big part in the story--and very good. As I read about the protests against the cartoons depicting Mohammed and about the French ban on headscarves in schools, Pamuk's book seems even more timely and, perhaps more importantly, sophisticated as an analysis of the conflicts between the West and the Islamic world as seen by the kinds of Muslims we don't see on the news very often.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

st brigid's day

My blogging cohort Creating Text(iles) hipped me to Reya's Silent Poetry Reading: bloggers post a poem they like. Apparently Reya is "a bodyworker, performance artist, and neo-bohemian princess." Um, okay. The poetry thing is cool, though.

Here's my contribution:

After Reading Tu Fu, I Go Outside to the Dwarf Orchard

by Charles Wright

East of me, west of me, full summer.
How deeper than elsewhere the dusk is in your own yard.
Birds fly back and forth across the lawn
looking for home
As night drifts up like a little boat.

Day after day, I become of less use to myself.
Like this mockingbird,
I flit from one thing to the next.
What do I have to look forward to at fifty-four?
Tomorrow is dark.
Day-after-tomorrow is darker still.

The sky dogs are whimpering.
Fireflies are dragging the hush of evening
up from the damp grass.
Into the world's tumult, into the chaos of every day,
Go quietly, quietly.

Another, longer, and to my mind much superior Charles Wright poem is available at Cary Nelson's great Modern American Poetry site.

more reading

On this weekend's vacation (thanks again to my sister for taking care of the boy) the wife and I spent almost the entire day on Saturday just reading in the cabin we rented. It's such a luxury that we don't have anymore. I re-read Philippe Bourgois' IN SEARCH OF RESPECT, an ethnography of East Harlem crack dealers that's just riveting. (I'm teaching it in an advanced English class where we're talking about the relationship of the writer to the subject-matter in various kinds of nonfiction writing.) I also got through most of a book I knew nothing about when I bought it, Orhan Pamuk's SNOW, a political novel about eastern Turkey that got Pamuk in trouble both with the conservative Islamists of his country and with the conservative elements in the military that have traditionally run the country. I haven't finished it yet, but I do really like it--it's not slavishly realist (my new irritation about contemporary novels is that we seem to be returning to pure realism).

I did finish two books this week. The first was Michel Foucault's brilliant DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH. I won't say I enjoyed it, exactly, but it's amazing and you can't read it--you can't even read just the chapter on panopticism--and see the world the same ever again. I'm sitting in on a graduate philosophy course where I have to listen to philosophy students talk about their interests--philosophy of mind, Merleau-Ponty, Kantianism, and other things I know nothing about--but even at that it's just amazing. I'm not presumptuous enough to think I actually understand Foucault, because before this we read excerpts from ARCHAEOLOGY OF KNOWLEDGE and I was pretty much clueless. To illustrate just how unavoidable Foucault's ideas become once you read them, just yesterday I was talking with my department chair about my university pre-tenure review process and Foucault's discussion of the process of panoptic examinations was pretty much the model for my review. And he's talking about prisoners and hospitals in 19th-century France.

Read yesterday, and taught today, Anita Loos' classic farce GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. I included it in my class because I knew it was the best-selling book of the 1920s, but after reading it, and reading Susan Hegeman's article about it, I realized that it's a pretty sharp piece of social criticism and a nice example for students of narrative irony and the unreliable narrator. I often have a hard time teaching pop fiction in literature classes, and I was pretty apprehensive about this one, but it turned out to be a dream.