The Square Circuit

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

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

santorum going down

Like the rest of the ruling party, Santorum is being forced to more and more dire and extreme public statements in order not just to gain traction in a race that's slipping away from him but just to get attention from the press. The NEW YORK TIMES ran a front-page story Tuesday on the Pennsylvania race, centering on the tough road Santorum's got in this last week--he's down 16 points in the latest poll out of Temple U.

I'm feeling confident about this race, finally. Man, it'll be nice to see Santorum slink home--or, more accurately, slink over to downtown Washington where he'll cash in big working consulting or lobbying.

the team preparing for their outing

Boy 1, Boy 2, and their friend Baby Z ready for the evening. Although they look beat, this was BEFORE they hit the road.

diego hearts baby jaguar

diego hearts baby jaguar
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
showing off for his parents, perhaps, "Diego" shows the love for baby brother

"baby jaguar"

"baby jaguar"
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
Yes, it's a dog costume--but his big brother, determined to go as Diego (of Dora the Explorer fame), had to have a "Baby Jaguar" accompany him.

Monday, October 30, 2006

fall back

The change from daylight savings to standard time used to be a lot more fun. It was like a free hour of sleep that seemed to carry you for days. What I've learned over the past two years is that with a toddler, this day has almost entirely the opposite effect: a fully awake three-year-old bops into our room at 5:30 ready to roll, but can't be coaxed to bed any earlier than usual.

Monday, October 23, 2006


A wistful farewell to pleasure reading came with my completion of Gary Shteyngart's novel ABSURDISTAN, which I finished this weekend. Things are crazy busy around our house (we are negotiating for "free time" to complete the ironing or fix the drain plug!) with the two children and four jobs between us, and I'll be leading my graduate students in a reading of ULYSSES over the next month, so I realized that there's no more leisure novels until after finals. Sigh. There's always the NEW YORKER.

Where the last novel I read (Claire Messud's THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN) was relentlessly realist and earnest, ABSURDISTAN is neither. It's the story of Misha Vainberg, the morbidly obese son of an assassinated Russian oligarch, educated at "Accidental College" (a funny version of Oberlin, Shteyngart's own school) and in love with a Bronx homegirl named Rouenna. The plot is a shaggy-dog story: after his father kills an Oklahoma businessman, Misha's US visa is revoked and he's forced to remain in Russia. He travels to "Absurdistan," a version of one of those war-torn ex-Soviet republics like Chechnya or Azerbaijan, where he buys a Belgian passport and tries to use that to get to the US, but turmoil in Absurdistan keeps him there.

The plot is messy and increasingly pointless and tedious near the end, but I'm not sure that Shteyngart cares all that much. The novel rests on Vainberg, a hapless hero (his actions are "in vain") who falls a bit into the freaks-of-literature category with Ignatius J. Reilly and Oskar Matzerath. He's an innocent, buffeted about by circumstances beyond his control. Shteyngart also draws upon Russian literature--Gogol and others--in the creation of Vainberg, but he's not melancholic like a standard Russian hero. There's also a lot of Philip Roth in there. A strange combination. It's an exuberant book, full of puns and crude jokes and a running attack on Halliburton/KBR; it just didn't hold together for me.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

drive my car

Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
Aunt J1 loaded us down with great presents--including this car console--when we visited her in Los Angeles.


Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
I don't quite know why he's wearing this headband. Presumably his cousin (whom we were visiting) received it as a birthday gift. His eyes, though, show the daze of being exhausted and jet-lagged.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

oh, bob

it's getting hard to maintain any kind of enthusiasm for Bob Casey in this Senate race. He's up comfortably, so I don't feel all that much urgency (and I'm not particularly concerned about Republican vote-stealing, given that Kerry managed to win Pennsylvania), but every time he opens his mouth I like him less. The first issue is, of course, the abortion one: I don't like voting for a right-to-lifer, and my wife (who still excoriates me for voting Nader--in Texas!!!--in 2000) says she won't vote for Casey because of this. I'm a little tired of abortion as a make-or-break issue, and so I'm willing, if reluctant, to vote Casey. But now, Casey is really getting distasteful.

First, it's the "who hates immigrants more" duel: both Santorum and Casey run ads claiming that they are MORE anti-immigrant than the other. Then, just the other day he came out explicitly in favor of the administration's illegal warrantless wiretapping program. Interviewed by lefty Philadelphia blogger MyDD, Casey refused to address this in specific terms, choosing instead to make some meaningless comment about how we need to protect the nation.

I'm still going to vote for him, but can someone tell me how he's going to be any different than Arlen Spector?

Monday, October 16, 2006


Malcolm Cowley's 1934 memoir of the Lost Generation, EXILE'S RETURN, is one of those unavoidable books for those (like me) teaching or reading about the social context of modernism. Like AXEL'S CASTLE by Edmund Wilson, the book ends with an entirely anachronistic (and later withdrawn) call for a Marxist/socialist-realist art, but unlike Wilson's book, which is largely a study of literary technique, EXILE'S RETURN is mostly a collection of anecdotes about being young and artistic in America and Paris in the 1920s. With the possible exception of Kay Boyle and Robert McAlmon's strange, asynchronously coauthored BEING GENIUSES TOGETHER, there's no more vivid portrait of this group of people and the world around them. It's actually a fun read, too; haphazardly organized, full of unsupported generalizations, the book is nonetheless completely believable and persuasive and propelled by Cowley's clear-eyed evaluation of a period that, by 1934, was already viewed in a dewy lens. Cowley, like his buddy and fellow critic Kenneth Burke, was a student at Pittsburgh's Peabody High School, thus providing me with even more evidence that Pittsburgh, not Paris or New York, really is the cradle of modernism.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

october hello

october hello
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
13 weeks old. Smiley.

Monday, October 02, 2006


Claire Messud's THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN appeared last month to rave reviews, many comparing it to Jonathan Franzen's THE CORRECTIONS. In a sense, the comparison is accurate; both are realist novels about educated, upper-middle-class thirty-year-olds finding their way in the world. In simplest terms the novel is about three thirty-year-old Brown grads: the daughter of a famous lefty journalist/pundit who is struggling with her first book; a young gay critic whose bloom is fading and who is going a bit to seed; and a striving documentarian. Circling around them are Murray Thwaite, the "emperor," the journalist, and Bootie Tubb, the journalist's provincial nephew. I'm not quite sure why outlets from the New York Times to Slate raved about it so; one suspicion I have is that it didn't take long for Katie Roiphe, who reviewed it in Slate, to realize that it is about her. Unlike THE CORRECTIONS, this novel is essentially a chronicle (and, to my albeit limited experience, a very accurate one) of the young media/intellectual elite in New York City: and those are the people who are reviewing it.

While I didn't find the novel brilliant, it was definitely a "page-turner," as Roiphe called it. Messud can plot a novel better than Benjamin Kunkel (whose INDECISION is often compared to this book), but she's one of the blessed, with multiple awards and PEN/Faulkner nominations. I might just be getting tired of this relentless realism, but I didn't find the novel anywhere near as exciting as most reviewers did--or even as exciting as THE CORRECTIONS. Give me Richard Ford, with his prickly and unlikeable characters, or Richard Russo, or even Michael Chabon.

More troublesome, though, was Messud's prose. She's got a voice that I'm sure must get called "lyrical" or "stream-of-consciousness," but to me it just got old. Long, baggy sentences that feel like they're aspiring to James but that don't have his architectonic rigidity. I know that with the constant minimal shifts of meaning and perspective Messud is probably trying to mirror her characters' indecision and openness to new impressions. I also suspect that the wordiness, the way the language calls attention to itself, reflects how the hypereducated characters filter their experiences through language and discourse. This style wasn't limited to the narration when it was in these characters' heads, though: it was omnipresent, even in dialogue. A typical sentence:

"Marina the diligent daughter, his right hand, who else could finish his work, even his sentences if need be, and never questioned, never asked, when he might make room for her, because--it was so obvious; how could she have needed Ludo to show her, and even, too, the missteps of poor Bootie Tubb?--to him it was all about Murray Thwaite, always."