The Square Circuit

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

Thursday, June 29, 2006


My PGH blogging cohort Anne could probably enlighten me more on the literary resonances of the "Everyman" reference of Philip Roth's latest novel, but it doesn't take a scholar to get what Roth is doing in the book: in this short novel, a narrator describes in excruciatingly plain language every encounter with death and serious illness (his own and close family members') experienced by his unnamed protagonist. Boy, is it a downer, but it's quite powerful. It took me less time to read than AMONG THE THUGS but I wouldn't want to say that "I couldn't put it down."

Baby 2 days late now.


Leonid Tsypkin's SUMMER IN BADEN-BADEN appeared from New Directions Books several years ago and was received with rapture by none less than Susan Sontag, who gushed about it in her introduction. "One of the lost masterpieces of Russian literature," she called it. (The NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS also loved it; the article is here but you have to pay to read it.) It's a very brief book (barely 150 pages) and its narrative switches between a first-person description of the author's train trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg/Leningrad sometime in the 1970s and a third-person narrative of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Anna Grigoryevna's vacation in the German spa town of Baden-Baden, where Dos spent most of his time losing money at roulette. Tsypkin was a pulmonologist by day but was a passionate lover of Russian literature and his book is steeped in Russian literary history. The book's narration is relatively experimental: it's structured in long paragraphs that consist of one sentence each. The sentences are not as periodic as Henry James'; they're more like Faulkner's, but with bunches of clauses set apart by dashes. The reader gets lost in each paragraph, because like Virginia Woolf's (or Faulkner's) they wander around and spiral and take you far away from where they started. Not much really happens in the book, and the connections and parallels between Tsypkin's contemporary first-person sections and the Dostoevsky pieces are at times not at all clear. It's a tough book to read; it requires real concentration. I might not be enough of an expert in Russian lit to really understand what Tsypkin is doing, but I did like the book.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

waiting, waiting...

for the baby to come. The official due date has come and gone.... In an effort to jumpstart something we reprised a ritual from last time (the the baby was 10 days late): spicy Indian food.

Then, it was Star of India on Craig in Oakland, which was average. A brisk jog down the entire Cathedral of Learning didn't bring labor on then, and neither did a fast drive down Regent Square's undulating brick streets.

This time we were equally unsuccessful, although the food was much better. Taste of India on Penn in Garfield/Friendship is great--the best Indian food in Pittsburgh. The more I go to that neighborhood the more I like it. Quiet Storm coffeehouse, Tram's Vietnamese restaurant, the Brillo Box, it's an up-and-coming place. (Kim's Coffee Shop, a strange Vietnamese restaurant near the Quiet Storm, closed earlier this year and just lost its owner.) In fact, several years ago the Feds agreed to an 80% matching grant to spruce up Penn Avenue. But it still hasn't happened, because the city won't pony up its share. Yeah, a lot "needs done" in this city--there's a lot of neighorhoods that "need redded up"--but people are actually getting things done in Garfield, even as the construction of the new Children's Hospital makes the neighborhood even less ped-friendly.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Who Wants to Be Santorum?

Philadelphians (anyone from Philly read this?): here's your chance.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Geno's Steaks

Santorum just gets ickier. But that cyborg Mary Matalin wants us all to know that he really cares about women's issues.

Friday, June 16, 2006


AMONG THE THUGS by Bill Buford was the perfect book to read just before watching the England-Trinidad and Tobago World Cup match. Buford's been getting a lot of press recently for his book about quitting his job and going to work in Mario Batali's kitchen, but he's a writer and editor of long standing--he was the founding editor of GRANTA and up until recently he was the fiction editor of the NEW YORKER. This might make him seem like he moves in rarified circles; that's certainly true, but these two books show a different side of his personality.

AMONG THE THUGS is about Buford's three-year-long involvement with English soccer hooligans, thugs organized into the brutal "firms" that follow club teams around England and Europe. They are absolutely horrifying people, brutal and violent and xenophobic and racist in the crudest ways. He joins up with the Manchester United firm and follows them to Turin for a match against Juventus that turns violent. He riots with Man U fans against West Ham thugs. He makes contact with National Front organizers who are seeking to build bridges with the "supporters."

It's definitely participatory journalism, similar to Thompson's great book on the Hell's Angels, and equally morally compromised. In the end, Buford accompanies a group of English fans to Cagliari, Sardinia in 1990 to see a World Cup match and ends up being beaten up very badly by Italian police and carabinieri who are responding to the English fans' rioting. The reader sympathizes entirely with the Italians--I wanted Buford to get beaten up.

A more depressing picture of English soccer supporters I can't imagine, so I was really pleased to watch yesterday's match--until England scored two late goals. Maybe things have changed--authorities have praised the English fans for good behavior, although there's got to be some real "defining deviancy down" here.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


Well, I finally finished it--all 1168 pages of the "35th anniversary edition." Its appeal to adolescents still eludes me. Yes, it's simplistic, with a "philosophy" that a high-school student could appreciate, but... did I mention that it's 1168 pages long? And not particularly full of action? And the dialogue does that thing, sorta like Joyce and Hemingway, where the narrator neglects to mention who's speaking, so it's hard to keep track of things? On the plus side, there really isn't much that can be called dialogue--but there is sure a lot of speechifying, declaiming, orating, perorating, stem-winding, filibustering, and the like! The conflict is pretty easy to understand: the "evil" "looters" and "moochers" (essentially, liberals who favor social programs, taxation of industry, and charity) finally get their way and, in the process, drive the United States to complete social and economic breakdown. The heroes of the book, the industrialists, go on "strike" (way to use the language of the Man against him!) and retreat to some hidden valley in Colorado where they make really good ranch dressing and, no, wait, I mean where they build up a new society based on unadulterated self-interest. And where they all share one woman, who happens to be the protagonist of the book. But only the alpha-est of those alpha-dog industrialists actually GETS the woman.


Monday, June 12, 2006


Not the book, the movie. It's not great, it's not brilliant, but it's definitely funny.

But that's not why I wanted to post on it. As I was watching the movie I kept thinking about how the screenplay (and, presumably, the novel) make a fascinating argument about rhetoric in America, and about how these lessons would be useful as a very cynical corrective at the end of a college first-year writing class. My class is grounded in very traditionally liberal, Habermasian concepts of a public sphere in which responsible voices express themselves are are considered by an informed and interested populace, but we also use the idea of the rhetorical triangle to discuss how deceptive appeals based in a speaker's credibility and an audience's emotions can be effective. THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, with its lead character (a public spokesman for the tobacco industry), depicts how successful such deceptive appeals can be in the U.S., but its lead character is also quite reflective about the craft of rhetoric and about the nature of argument. In a black-and-white argument, he makes clear, you don't have to prove yourself to be right in order to win--you win when you shift the grounds of the argument and merely prove that your opponent isn't right. (See 2004, when the Bushies didn't bother to defend Bush's discredited character and just undermined Kerry's appeal to credibility.) THANK YOU FOR SMOKING will be an interesting end to my class--after talking all semester about the rules by which public arguments are conducted and judged valid or invalid, we'll finish with a movie about the ultimate success of groundless, amoral arguments.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

stuck in the middle

I'd like to be posting a snappy piece about what I've just finished reading, but I took on a freelance project to write an article on Ayn Rand's ATLAS SHRUGGED and I'm feeling every one of its 1150 pages. Wow, this is not a good book. The dialogue, especially, is just wretched--B-movie exposition level. And I think once I finish it I might post on the creepy/disturbing model of female sexuality here, but I'm waiting to see if the first 400 pages are some big postmodern joke about bad novels and icky portrayals of women. I hope.