The Square Circuit

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

Thursday, August 31, 2006


Rory Stewart has been getting a bunch of press recently for his almost simultaneous publication of two fairly remarkable stories: PRINCE OF THE MARSHES, recounting his year as the British administrator of the southern Iraqi region of "marsh Arabs," and THE PLACES IN BETWEEN, telling the story of his solo walk across Afghanistan right after the U.S. invasion in 2001. I just finished PLACES and found it a little sad but, more interestingly, nowhere near as enlightening about Afghanistan as a relatively obscure albeit very similar book from several years ago, Jason Elliot's AN UNEXPECTED LIGHT. Both tell of the lone man's travel on foot across Afghanistan, where he encounters a country that in many ways lives precisely as it did centuries ago except with Kalashnikovs, both are narrated by people who seem to fall in that netherworld between eccentric and dangerously deluded, and both give some time to discussing how the warlordism that still dominates Afghan politics looks like on the ground. But Elliot's book, I felt, had far more to say about Afghanistan. This is interesting, because Stewart clearly was more comfortable interacting with ordinary Afghans: he speaks most of the languages, and he does a nice job talking about some of the customs of daily life that he relied upon (such as the sacred host-guest relationship). Elliot, though, took more time both to elaborate upon the historical roots of the ethnic divisions that characterize the nation (Stewart tends to view these through the lens of an ancient travel narrative by a bygone king named Babur, which is itself kinda cool) and how those divisions determine the politics of the nation.

Both of these books pale in comparison to my all-time favorite travelogue/historical discussion of a relatively obscure (for us) part of the world, Rebecca West's brilliant, overstuffed BLACK LAMB AND GREY FALCON. That book--almost 1200 pages--is a narrative of West's travels in Yugoslavia in the late 1930s. Although its politics are a little disturbing (she hates the Nazis, but doesn't have much good to say about several of the South Slav ethnic groups), it's got that encyclopedic thing I so love.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

gearing up for the next war

The Pittsburgh TRIBUNE-REVIEW reports that Senator Santorum is now calling Iran, as the leader of "Islamic fascism," "the greatest enemy we will ever face. This is the enemy of our generation. It is the challenge of our time." I thought that was Bin Laden. Or Saddam. It's pretty clear that Santorum is trying to distract public attention away from the fiasco in Iraq (interestingly, just on the same day that Rumsfeld continues to insist that any questioning or criticism of his or Bush's handling of, well, anything is appeasement and borderline treasonous) by creating yet another enemy. I've gotta think that the third time won't be the charm, though--I'm not sure that any amount of saber-rattling is going to persuade Americans to get involved in ANOTHER war over there.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Beckett's ENDGAME at PICT

On our first "date" in a long time--since we were a three-person family--we went out to dinner at Kaya and then saw Beckett's ENDGAME at Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre. Kaya was surprisingly good, and with a cool Strip District location (it'd be fun to have lunch there on a Saturday). The appetizers--we had crab cakes and spicy Yucatan bean dip--were fantastic, and the entrees we had (a Cuban sandwich and a pulled-pork quesadilla) were also quite good. I think it'd be fun to go there for drinks and appetizers rather than for a big meal. It's part of Pittsburgh's Big Burrito restaurant group, whose concept restaurants could seem pretty insipid and tiresome if this city wasn't so lacking in decent places to eat.

The production of ENDGAME was really quite interesting. The audience sits on risers in the backstage area, the performers perform on the stage, and the backdrop for the set are the seats in the theater itself. I've never seen or heard of anything like it, but that certainly doesn't mean it isn't common. I've seen the famous San Quentin Theatre Workshop production of this play, and the PICT production sticks quite close to Beckett's intentions (he was adamant about directors sticking to the exact wordings of his plays, dialogue and stage directions both, and would sue producers that violated his dicta). None of the performances blew me away, but they were all quite good. Again, I'm not sure that Beckett's plays lend themselves well to various interpretations by performers. He tended to write for particular people (Roger Blin and actress Billie Whitelaw) and the plays seem to work best when performers stick to those models. But again, it's probably too early to say anything for sure. Maybe in 50 years there'll be a tradition of people reinterpreting Beckett, setting GODOT in a basketball arena or something.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


Philip Roth's 1961 second novel, LETTING GO, was actually his first full-length novel; GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, the book that won the National Book Award in 1960, was a story collection dominated by the novella-length title story. I've been reading Roth for the majority of my life now, and I think that (as with many other people) PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT was the first "adult" novel I actually read (either that or Irving's WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, I can't remember). LETTING GO, although it doesn't precede PORTNOY by many years, has none of that book's exuberance and vulgarity, although it does share with it, and with essentially all of Roth's other books, an obsession with the question of the assimilation of essentially secular Jews.

My wife asked me, when I hit the halfway point of the novel, what it is about. I couldn't really answer, except to muse that it was more a collection of character sketches. The book follows a typical Roth character, Gabe Wallach, as he attends graduate school in Iowa and then lands a job teaching humanities at the U. of Chicago, but more importantly as he figures out his relationship to his father, to a trio of women in his life, and to his friend Paul, another New York Jew with family troubles. As always, Roth makes great use of narrative point of view. In books like AMERICAN PASTORAL, Roth starts with the voice of his Zuckerman character but then narrates the vast majority of the book in the voice and from the POV of another character. He doesn't do that here; in LETTING GO he switches point-of-view between Wallach and almost all of the other main characters, although Wallach is the only character who gets first-person narration. Unusual for Roth, much of the plot of the book centers on children, and unfortunately (in my opinion, and keep in mind that this is coming from the father of two small children) Roth seems to be using them cheaply for emotional effect--the tragic death of a young boy, an orphan in uncertain custody, for instance. Roth's books always move along, and his insight into his characters is always incredible, but LETTING GO felt to me a little meandering.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

boy 2 smiles!

boy 2 smiles!
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
Six weeks old now, and the smiling has started!

sleeping on his books

sleeping on his books
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
Two nights in a row he fell asleep on the book he was reading.

conking out with curious george

conking out with curious george
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
I've got to admit, it warms the heart of this English professor to see his two-year-old insist on reading after lights-out and fall asleep on his books.

shawnee ballpit

shawnee ballpit
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
The ballpit at Shawnee Play Place was the boy's favorite. Both his mother and I were buried in these balls at some point, playing with him. This bodes well for Ikea trips in the future (there's a ballpit at the Pittsburgh Ikea).

talking to his aunt

talking to his aunt
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
He's very strange about talking to the family, or talking on the phone in general--but if you can catch him on the right day, he'll not only talk, he'll harangue.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

two books in the Poconos

So we had a successful weekend in the Poconos, renting a garage apartment from someone and just exploring a little. Saw a Scranton-Wilkes Barre Red Barons game, hit the outlet mall, even took the boy to the water park. I also managed to read two books: David Lodge's classic academic satire SMALL WORLD and Edmund Wilson's even more classic lit-crit study AXEL'S CASTLE.

Lodge's book is very funny and very of its time--the early 1980s, when the theory wars dominated the academy. Basically, it chronicles a bunch of jet-setting theory academics over a summer. They're all positioning themselves to nab a UNESCO chair in literary criticism. It's more the story of academic superstars than the usual academic novel (THE GROVES OF ACADEME, say, or my personal favorite STRAIGHT MAN), which tends to deal with people in a small backwater school.

AXEL'S CASTLE I read in preparation for my upcoming graduate seminar and also because I've never really read much Edmund Wilson. It's a good overview of Wilson's view of the Symbolist tradition in literature and what he sees as its ultimate bankruptcy. Written in the early 1930s, the book embodies the growing drive for literature to perform a social function, and came at a time when Wilson was attracted by the Soviet Union and by Popular Front-style cultural movements here (as were so many writers and critics in the 1930s).

gap closing

I'm extremely concerned about the narrowing lead Casey holds over Santorum. It was 18 points, now it's 6. This isn't good.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

two books and a vacation

We are off on our first trip as a family of four tomorrow. It's the Poconos for us. When I tell people this, if they are from the East Coast they give me a knowing look, but because I'm not from the east I don't quite know what they are referring to--I don't know what kind of cultural meaning "The Poconos" carries. New York honeymooners? Cheesy family theme parks? The Delaware Water Gap? Dunno. We'll see tomorrow what it's like, after a stop in Hershey. That, I do know what it means.

In preparation for the term I read two of the books that I am going to assign but that I haven't read before. Virginia Woolf's JACOB'S ROOM, a short one, only her second novel I think, was the first one I tackled. It feels like an experiment in form rather than a full-fleshed novel, although the extensive notes in the Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition make the argument that the book was really about Thoby Stephen, Woolf's brother who died of typhoid in 1906. Jacob certainly bears a resemblance to him, but I found that less interesting that Woolf's use of a kind of snapshot version of narrative--little pieces, from various points of view, that add up to an almost-comprehensive version of a life.

Fitzgerald's THE BEAUTIFUL AND DAMNED, on the other hand, is a second novel with an almost vehement drive and sense of irony. Generally understood as Fitzgerald's fictionalization of his contentious and sodden marriage to Zelda, the book tells of a privileged Ivy Leaguer whose main struggle is to keep from having to work. He marries a beautiful Kansas City debutante, and the two of them drink their way through several years of marriage (including the protagonist's year stationed Stateside during World War I). Like BLEAK HOUSE, which I just finished, the plot centers on a contested will; Anthony Patch, the main character, is disputing his plutocratic Prohibitionist grandfather's disinheritance of him (resultant from gramps stumbling in on a drunken party). Although it was a quick and enjoyable read, it felt as if it would have made a better shorter book--like GATSBY, which really moves along. I've gained new respect for Fitzgerald as a stylist, though.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Abay in East Liberty

Took the boys to Abay, the Ethiopian restaurant in the resurgent East Liberty corridor of Highland/Penn/Baum/Center. The wife and I had gone long ago, just after the place opened, and thought it was just okay (although at that point, when we knew so little about Pittsburgh restaurants we once took family to a TGI Friday's, anything interesting or non-french-fry-based was okay by us). Worse, for Ethiopian food, it was actually bland. We had been spoiled by our former proximity to the great restaurants in L.A.'s Ethiopian district on Fairfax and Olympic and D.C.'s Adams Morgan. Tonight, though, Abay was just great. The beef was spicy, the injera was good, the lentils and veggies were excellent. I still wish they had a liquor license, but the scarcity of those things is just another thing I don't get about Pennsylvania. And now, next to the old tuxedo shop on Highland and Baum (which was evicted for delinquent rent, according to the constable's note on the door), there's a coffee place that was filled with hipsters at 7:30 on a Friday. In East Liberty! A good development for an area that needs some life in the evenings.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

PA Academic Freedom Hearings pt. 4

The Select Committee on Academic Freedom, Rep. Gib Armstrong's hobbyhorse seeking to root out "liberal bias" in academia, finally had its fourth and final fact-finding hearing at Harrisburg Area Community College after get-togethers at Pitt, Temple, and Millersville U. in Lancaster. The committee--which was described by one of its own members as "a solution in search of a problem"--was convened ostensibly to investigate the academic climate in PA public universities and colleges, and Armstrong insisted repeatedly that although he couldn't cite any pressing need for such an investigate that he had dozens of private complaints by conservative students that they were being graded down by their lefty profs because of their views.

The Harrisburg hearings turned up precisely the same situation. The CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION reported on June 1 that

"Peter H. Garland, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs at the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education... said that the State System of Higher Education, which enrolls more than 107,000 students at 14 universities, has received 14 formal complaints from students in the past five years. He said that those grievances might have included claims from students that professors had presented extraneous information or represented a certain ideology in the classroom, and that the complaints had been resolved.

State Rep. Dan A. Surra, a Democrat who serves on the panel but who vehemently opposed its creation, said that number averages to 0.2 complaints per university per year. "I just personally don't think that warrants a select committee of the House going around the state taking testimony," he said. He reiterated that he thinks the hearings are a waste of time."

So, yeah. A waste of time and money. The committee will present a report Nov. 30 on its findings, but sadly Rep. Armstrong will not be able to shepherd this witchhunt/panel any longer: he was defeated in his Republican primary, partly (he says) because angry professors at Millersville worked against him.

I'm going to mark this one a defeat for David Horowitz.

Republicans for the Green Party?

A friend alerts me to the fact that the Pennsylvania Republicans are now working to get the Green Party on the ballot for the 2006 Senate election. Obviously, the ploy is to give a potential "alternative" to lefty Democrats who don't like Casey's stance on abortion, gun control, etc., and thus to try to give Santorum a boost. This isn't the first time they've tried this ploy: they did the same thing (for Nader) in Oregon and Michigan in 2004.

UPDATE: TPM reports that every single donor to the PA Green Party's drive to get on the ballot is a conservative Republican.


I've read the following Dickens novels: HARD TIMES, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, DAVID COPPERFIELD, TALE OF TWO CITIES, and now BLEAK HOUSE. And while I am increasingly able to appreciate just why people like Dickens--for the first time, in reading BLEAK HOUSE I really enjoyed those "grotesque" characters he's so often praised for creating--I'm just going to have to admit that I probably will never be a big fan. I'm a modernist at heart, and I've apparently internalized that stripped-down, streamlined aesthetic. And while nobody could mistake ULYSSES or JR or GRAVITY'S RAINBOW for a streamlined read, there's something that differentiates those books from the big Victorian novels. For one, in Dickens the subplots and subcharacters seem to exist for the reader's pleasure, not because they form an integral part of the plot at any of its levels. Victorian readers, we understand, liked that sort of thing; novels had main courses and amuse-gueules and desserts. But I'm less patient.

BLEAK HOUSE will forever remind me of Baby 2's birth, though, because it was the book that I brought to the hospital when my wife was laboring. I stalled on it for a while, as I often do with Dickens (somewhere under the bed is my copy of PICKWICK PAPERS that I gave up on after about 150 pages), but this week I pushed through it and finished it. It's good, of course, with a tone of high moral seriousness and some really interesting critiques of the British legal system. The Penguin edition I had also included a 50-page introduction by arch-deconstructionist J. Hillis Miller, who unsurprisingly reads the novel as a 900-page story of people trying to decipher texts. Oy. I'm glad those days are over. Penguin has reissued this one recently, though, with an intro by the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton, and now I'm curious to read what he has to say about it--I suspect he'd shed some light on how Chancery Court worked, although the press release notes that he primarily talks about the book as an early piece of detective fiction.