The Square Circuit

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

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Six Penn Kitchen

FINALLY! A restaurant I can recommend without reservation, without equivocation! We went to Six Penn Kitchen last weekend and were genuinely impressed. We were not able to get reservations for the same day, even though we're willing to dine on parents-of-small-children-time (5pm, 5:30), but we did get in at the bar. The beer selection was small but astute; the service was neither surly nor incompetent. So we were already ahead of the game before we even had any food.

And the food was excellent. I was in the mood for a good Emilia-Romagna style pasta, so I was pleased to see that they had a tagliatelle with lamb ragĂș sauce. It was almost perfect--almost no tomatoes, lots of lamb, and cream. I didn't love the sprouts they put on top of it (a strange choice), but the sauce and pasta were great. The wife had a very good pizza, and we shared their red oak, pomegranate, pear, gorgonzola, candied pecan and maple vinaigrette salad. Everything was fresh and--bonus--the chef is a locavore, and much of the food came from local sources. I think it's my new favorite place.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Roberto Saviano's GOMORRAH is a nice remedy for the current American fascination with the Mafia, and especially its teddy-bear de Niro and Gandolfini faces. In the book, which was a very big hit in Italy, Saviano spews out what he knows about the Camorra, the Neapolitan organized-crime system that calls itself "the system" and that Saviano calls "the clans." "The system" is both petty and unimaginably powerful, he asserts, and it controls not only picturesque old central Naples but also the hideously ugly and inhumane suburbs that sprawl through the Campania region. While Saviano's book is in no way systematic, it is quite well-informed, and like an amateurish Eric Schlosser Saviano examines not just the public face of The System but its hidden tendrils--the ways that it has facilitated the commerce in drugs, guns, sex workers/slaves, and all kinds of other contraband from Eastern Europe to Western Europe. (Unlike Schlosser, though, Saviano has written a book more like the angry rants of a man who knows an enormous amount and just needs to UNLOAD and less like the systematic storytelling-as-argument of which Schlosser is a master.) The System, though, is also benefiting from and expediting the rapid expansion of the global market for Chinese-manufactured items. Controlling the Port of Naples, through which a significant percentage of Chinese exports enter Europe, the System is able to "tax" these transactions, bring contraband in, evade taxation, and enable the distribution of counterfeit goods (such as "Made In Italy"-labeled apparel).

What's certainly earned Saviano the anger of the System is his happiness in gossiping about the crimes of the Camorristi: the murders and gang wars, the beat-downs, the extortion. He names names, gleefully. He grew up in these godforsaken towns north of Naples, managed not to get sucked into the System or to emigrate to northern Italy, and he wants the world to know what it's like to live here, in this fundamentally dysfunctional political and social system.

The book isn't systematic, but it doesn't try to be, and thus can't really be faulted. But the choices made by the translator--Virginia Jewiss--are unforgivable. I know that journalistic Italian works differently than journalistic English, and that the sentence fragment is acceptable. But Jewiss has decided to translate this almost word-for-word, apparently. The prose is abysmal, with sentence fragments in almost every paragraph. Look, I realize that that's Saviano's voice: angry, conversational, pointed. But, as I tell my students, this choice JUST DOESN'T WORK in this forum. A few fragments might have gotten the tone across; the thousands that we do get just make the book seem sloppy and underscore the impression that it was written in six caffeine-fueled nights.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

1950s intellectuals

Richard Pells' 1985 THE LIBERAL MIND IN A CONSERVATIVE AGE has become a classic of intellectual history, but I found it less than engaging. It is, as the jacket copy calls it, a "synthesis" or an overview of the stances of most of the arguments of the leading intellectuals of the 1950s in the US. Divided into predictable chapters on McCarthyism, economic thought, social conformity, and peace and totalitarianism, the book does provide a very valuable survey of what the most important thinkers were saying about the most important issues of that time. All of the usual suspects are here--Hannah Arendt, Paul Goodman, Irving Kristol, James Burnham, Daniel Bell, David Riesman, C. Wright Mills--and the format is convenient, but I missed what I think could have been Pells' opportunity to make a larger argument about the "liberal mind" in the 1950s. Certainly, some of the set pieces here--such as the one on Arendt's ORIGINS OF TOTALITARIANISM or Riesman's LONELY CROWD--do a great job of summarizing complicated arguments, and I wouldn't hesitate to point graduate students to Pells as a model of how to respectfully and comprehensively summarize arguments. But as a unified argument about what the liberal intellectuals of the 1950s really meant, I thought that there was a central thread lacking, for all of Pells' amazingly comprehensive overview.

Appearing frequently in Pells' book, of course, is the great intellectual Dwight Macdonald, and after finishing Pells I picked up AGAINST THE AMERICAN GRAIN, which is just great. Its leadoff essay on "Masscult & Midcult" is a classic, and although he didn't come up with the term "middlebrow" he defines it better here than almost anyone ever did. His "reviews" of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible and of Webster's Third New International Dictionary are also well-known; basically, the take on each is that they dumb down the original and enshrine as acceptable what authorities would once have condemned as incorrect. (Should linguists be prescriptive or descriptive? Macdonald is very much on the side of the former.) Praising Macdonald's style for being erudite, funny, and combative all at the same time is pretty commonplace, but when you compare his to the style of someone today who gets praised for exactly the same combination (I'm thinking of you, Christopher Hitchens), almost makes it necessary to agree with Macdonald that the language is in a bad way, and getting worse.


Tuesday, December 04, 2007


For this Immigrant Experience in Literature class I'm teaching next term I've decided to include two Pittsburgh-centered texts: the classic OUT OF THIS FURNACE and the very recent THE LAST CHICKEN IN AMERICA by Ellen Litman. I learned about Litman's book from a NEW YORK TIMES review (it hasn't received much pub here in the city--odd, since any crap movie or TV show filmed here or even set here even if it has not the vaguest feel for the city gets front-page treatment in the POST-GAZETTE), and read it in an evening. It's a short-story cycle, a series of stories with recurring characters and a constant setting: Squirrel Hill, especially the Russian Jewish immigrant community based there. Few of the stories stand out; they're largely about character and setting and tone, not plot, and so that's not surprising. She clearly knows Pittsburgh inside and out, and I appreciate that. And although my only experience with the Russian Jewish immigrant community came from my years as a member of the Squirrel Hill JCC, where I played pickup ball with at least one ceaselessly obnoxious member of that group and worked out alongside several other much more pleasant ones, I think she's nailed them. Not because I understand them, but because they are fully fleshed characters, alive and real and believable. Litman blogs about her book abnd book tour and in that blog alluded to the hostile reaction that at least one reviewer had to her book on It's a first collection, with the typical faults of a first collection/first novel, but it's also full of her promise: in addition to the features adumbrated above, she's also got a real mastery of short description and striking metaphor.