The Square Circuit

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

Sunday, January 28, 2007

decisions, decisions

Ever since he first said it, back when he was saying that Don Rumsfeld would keep his job until the Second Coming, I've been fascinated by Bush's statement

"I'm the decider, and I decide what is best."

And just last week:

"I'm the decision-maker."

There's so much there that's so telling about Bush's character. The petulant child, always overlooked in favor of his smarter and more responsible brothers, insisting on the validity of the position he earned (but not fully through his own merit or efforts); the wishfully thinking child; the man reduced to reminding everyone of the powers of his position because nobody takes him seriously anymore; the President stripped of whatever rhetorical powers as "everyday guy" he once had and reminding us that the flip side of "everyday guy" is "guy not equipped for positions of huge power and responsibility." I suspect there's a little message in there for Bar and Daddy, too.

But what keeps running through my subconscious, because it's just so obvious that it doesn't even need to reach my conscious mind, is this: the idea of Bill Clinton saying that, in response to criticism or questioning of his policies, is so absurd as to be laughable.

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prime suspect

I just finished working my way through all six installments of the British TV series PRIME SUSPECT that are available on DVD here. (A seventh installment aired late last year on Masterpiece Theatre and should be available soon.) As most people know, it stars Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison, a high-ranking detective on the London police force, and for all of its superficial resemblance to a procedural like LAW AND ORDER it's of a much higher quality. The writing isn't brilliant, but it's better than most American cop TV shows (except for THE WIRE, which is in a category of its own); the acting is great, with the exception of Mirren, who is just brilliant as always. I first saw her in THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE, AND HER LOVER back in that film's theatrical run, when I was in college in Portland and used to go to the KOIN Center Cinemas downtown and catch two, three, four movies in a row. It's a Greenaway film, which means that it's much more about the visuals than the acting, and so her performance wasn't one that demonstrated her talents. She's just won a Golden Globe and will probably win an Oscar, and many critics have said that she has never been better than in PRIME SUSPECT. I haven't seen enough of her work to know. (A good profile of her appeared in the NEW YORKER last year.)

Anyway, PRIME SUSPECT is great. Of the six installments I've seen, I think the best are the first and the sixth, and the fourth is the only one that isn't really essential. But they're all quite good. I now want to see THE QUEEN to see how she does in that role.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Lawrence Wright's THE LOOMING TOWER made most of the "Best Books of 2006" lists, although much of his book consists of material that's available elsewhere. What I suppose made so many book critics swoon over it was that it gave audiences a history of al-Qaeda that undercut the oversimplified understanding of the group that intellectuals assume MOST AMERICANS have (viz. that they are a bunch of evildoers, motivated by nothing more complex than maleficience, who seek, bogeyman-like, to hunt and haunt us time without end). Instead, THE LOOMING TOWER contextualizes the anger of al-Qaeda, arguing that most of it came from Egypt and not the American presence in Saudi Arabia as many assume. The book's great strength is its narrative, which I'm not the first one to say; it doesn't read like academic history, and actually doesn't have any pretensions to be academic history, but I did come to distrust Wright a little way into it. Although certainly the influence of Sayyid Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was strong in the initial formulation of al-Qaeda, I've read other accounts of the group's philosophy that stresses other strains of radical Islamism. Wright, writing as a narrative historian, tends not to even deal with those. I'd like to hear more about how he came to the judgment that the Egyptian radicals were THE philosophical fathers (through Zawahiri) of al-Qaeda.

Because I managed to get a lot of reading in last summer and even in the fall term, I realized that I read more of critics' "top 10" than in almost any recent year. My evaluations:

THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN: ummm, fair. The plot a little contrived, the characters well-constructed but a little unaware (as is the author?) of the level of privilege they take for granted, the style really really irritating.

THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA: great. Read it. Clever conceit, clear writing, vivid.

THE PLACES IN BETWEEN (Rory Smith): Fascinating, but I've actually read a better book on the same topic (travelling on foot through Taliban and post-Taliban Afghanistan).

THE ROAD (Cormac McCarthy): next to the bed, waiting.

AGAINST THE DAY (Pynchon): ditto.


Saturday, January 20, 2007

bye, Berube

Michael Bérubé has retired his blog. Sad. It was one of my favorites. Hope he continues to hold his place among America's most dangerous professors.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

politics and the English language

From an exchange between Condoleezza Rice and Sen. Chuck Hagel on Thursday:

HAGEL: I think this speech, given last night by this President, represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it's carried out.

RICE: I think that I don't see it and the President doesn't see it as an escalation. What he sees...

HAGEL: Putting 22,000 new troops, more troops in, is not an escalation? Would you call it a decrease? And billions of dollars more?

RICE: I would call it, Senator, an augmentation that allows the Iraqis to deal with this very serious problem that they have in Baghdad.

So is it a "surge"? An "escalation"? Or an "augmentation"? Why not an "embiggenment"?

Does Orwell just get MORE RIGHT the farther away we are from his time?

"In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them." ("Politics and the English Language," 1946)


Sunday, January 07, 2007


David Foster Wallace. I admire him, but he troubles me. I finished INFINITE JEST thinking that he was brilliant but that he must be a tremendous bully to get his publisher not to edit this 1200-page behemoth. There's a 700-page classic in there, and even cutting that much you could still get Wallace's voice in there with no problem. (I heard him read from INFINITE JEST at BookPeople in Austin when the book came out and found Wallace to be a very appealing guy--down-to-earth and funny.) His writing, especially at journalism, comes very close to being schtick; I imagine eventually there'll be a DFW imitation contest like the Hemingway contest they have every year in L.A.. Even given that, I do like the cruise-ship essay ("A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again") and read that collection. So, I looked forward to reading CONSIDER THE LOBSTER, but knew that it would be scattershot and memorable for one or two great essays--most likely the title one.

And that was true. He writes on literary topics for a while with no great insight; although I disagree with Jonathan Franzen's views on fiction they are at least distinct and well-argued. But I really wouldn't look to Wallace for literary essays. The journalism included in this collection is the finest work in it, and yes, it is the title essay that stands out.

"Consider the Lobster" was commissioned for GOURMET and it's one of the great acts of chutzpah I've seen in a while--again, not surprising from the guy who could get INFINITE JEST published. Essentially, this foodie-magazine article asks whether it's okay to kill lobsters the way we do. And Wallace, in his just-curious, non-ideological way, makes a very powerful argument that it's NOT, primarily because the stories we tell ourselves about lobsters--that they don't or can't really feel pain--are just bullshit. He does it without hectoring and in a way that makes you always respect his curiosity: he's no PETA mouthpiece (although this site tries to make him out as one).

The other standout, "Host," is a long profile of an LA right-wing talk-radio host, notable both for its willingness to take measured editorial stands and its odd design--think footnotes turned into flow-charts interpolated into the text. Why can't the left explain their views in such clear--and funny, and appealing--ways? the essay asks.


Friday, January 05, 2007

pittsburgh--healthy city?

My wife showed me last night that Cooking Light magazine ranked Pittsburgh #13 in its list of best cities for healthy eating and living. Although I was initially incredulous--our obesity and smoking rates have got to rival Detroit's, Houston's, or Cleveland's--as she explained the criteria to me it began to make a little more sense. We do have farmer's markets with good local produce; we've got a healthy Community-Supported Agriculture movement; our parks are great and the river trail system is really a jewel; and people really do walk downtown and in their neighborhoods. I still wouldn't rank us quite so highly, but I suppose #13 is within the realm of possibility. The top ten (Seattle is #1, Portland #2) list is here.


long break

that was a long blogging break. We had a family vacation to visit the wife's family in strangely "warm" Minneapolis, then I flew from there to Philadelphia for the MLA convention where I was both chairing a panel and interviewing candidates for a job, then back to Minneapolis for a few days. Some snapshots from the last two weeks:

• The Imperial Inn in Philadelphia's Chinatown has fantastic dim sum. And every time I go to Philly I like it--the city, and the Imperial Inn--better.

• I crossed paths with my blogging hero Michael Bérubé twice in the labyrinthine halls of the Marriott but didn't have the opportunity to talk with him--once I was in the middle of a conversation, and the other time he was. I hope to have the chance to talk with him about blogging. I also intend to read his WHAT'S SO LIBERAL ABOUT THE LIBERAL ARTS? soon.

• The "Grand Rounds" trail in Minneapolis is just fantastic, even in the winter. Four lakes, right in the middle of the city, linked by trails? Beautiful.

• I was already loving the Hold Steady's BOYS AND GIRLS IN AMERICA record before going to MLPS, but being there gave me a different appreciation for it. My brother-in-law gave me a significant look and told me that the song "Southtown Girls" is really, really true, but I wouldn't be able to appreciate why. Now I wonder what he meant. Are the Southtown Girls prostitutes, or are they just homely and acquiescent?

• O'Hare Airport, where I came very close to having to spend the night, has really jumped on the creature-comfort bandwagon. And I fully endorse that. I know it's huge, and probably some of the terminals are still crappy, but in my mad 1.5 mile sprint from the American to the United terminal I was quickly persuaded that it wouldn't be the worst place to pass fourteen hours.

• It's better to road-trip with small children in the winter, because the vomit smells less on the second day if the car's been in a freezing parking lot all night.