The Square Circuit

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

Monday, March 30, 2009

Richard Chen Pittsburgh

Somewhat disappointing visit to the much-ballyhooed Richard Chen location in East Liberty this weekend. It wasn't terrible by any means; it was just not up to our (lofty) expectations. We ended up both getting the prix fixe dinner, which was probably the error: those are never a restaurant's best dishes and (as we all learned from KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL) they're usually a way to dispose of an overstocked item. Anyway, it was a four-course meal for $38, which is really reasonable, and included two appetizers, an entree, and a dessert. The appetizers were the best part: we had a salad that was unremarkable in itself but had a fantastic dressing, with a heavy horseradish bite, as well as a soba-noodle salad that was excellent. The second appetizer was a kind of beef-noodle soup, not really pho but an approximation of it, and quite respectable spring rolls. All quite good. The problem was the main courses; I had a sort of beef and pepper stir-fry and she had salmon, both of which were just fine, and well-cooked, but surprisingly bland. Actually, really bland. The desserts were odd: a chocolate pudding thing and then mine was--literally--Rice Krispy treats made with a Japanese lemon. Disappointing.

two great things I learned today from the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS

1. From Freeman Dyson's review of physicist Frank Wilczek's book THE LIGHTNESS OF BEING: one of my favorite expressions (and inviolable principles for operating in the world), "it's better to ask forgiveness than ask permission," is also known as "the Jesuit Credo." Who knew?

2. From Dan Chiasson's review of John Ashbery's COLLECTED POEMS, 1956-1987:
Cliché was originally a typesetter's term for those plates devoted not to individual letters but to phrases so common that a slug was molded for them.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

and more...

Two short story books: Stuart Dybek's classic THE COAST OF CHICAGO and Mary Hood's HOW FAR SHE WENT--two 1980s classics that are now, according to my MFA friends, absolute staples of the MFA curriculum. In subject matter they couldn't be more different; in style they were quite similar. Hood's collection is set in the small-town South and inevitably it made me think of the canon of Southern women short-fiction writers: Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Bobbie Ann Mason. They combine many of the common concerns of the Southern short story, particularly the conflict between the panoptic nature of the Southern small town and the dark secrets held within a family. The title story, "How Far She Went," is probably the most famous, about a grandmother protecting her slutty granddaughter from marauding bikers, and to my mind it was the most successful.

Dybek's COAST OF CHICAGO also boasts one very famous story, "Hot Ice," which concerns street-savvy kids in Chicago with a friend in jail and a story about a frozen body that they carry around (the story, not the body). Dybek's book felt very of-its-time to me--I read a ton of short fiction in the 1980s and Dybek certainly was influential on many of those writers but I think he was also influenced by them--even Ray Carver, whose subject-matter is quite different.

Monday, March 16, 2009

so many books gone by

and I've blogged about none. Busy few weeks. A return, and very successful, research trip to Fayetteville (no ice storm this time, but a very fun basketball game and eighty-degree temps on the last day), the CCCC convention in beautiful San Francisco, and a two-and-a-half-year old who now sheds his pajamas after bedtime, hoping to be helpful by changing his own diaper. Fortunately he only got as far as smearing himself with diaper cream and didn't succeed in getting that particularly ripe pañal off. Now it's home for about a month; next trip is the Boston Marathon in late April.

I'll start with THE LAZARUS PROJECT by Aleksandar Hemon. This was an purchase, and as I mentioned in my post about NETHERLAND I find the experience of listening to a book to be qualitatively quite different than the experience of reading one. NETHERLAND was particularly odd, as I listened to long stretches of it while freezing in a dark, unheated hotel room in powerless Fayetteville, drifting in and out of sleep, so it all seems a bit dreamy. I've taken, in fact, to putting on the earbuds and turning on an audiobook when I can't sleep. But most of THE LAZARUS PROJECT I listened to fully awake, and in fact it was my companion for almost the entire twenty-mile Spring Thaw race in North Park.

Oddly enough it's got the "historic present" structure that another audiobook I listened to, Junot Diaz's THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO, uses--it switches back and forth between events in the present and events in the past, the connections between which are implicit (that is, the narrator never makes them fully clear). The "present" in this case is present-day Chicago, where Vladimir Brik, a Bosnian refugee who writes a newspaper column, decides to write a book about the killing of Lazarus Averbuch, a Jewish immigrant, by the Chicago chief of police in 1908. Fascinated by the story, Brik decides to use fellowship money to travel (with a friend, a fellow Sarajevan named Rora) to the Ukraine to research Averbuch's story and the history of the 1903 pogrom that sent him to the US. Alternating with Brik's story is that of Lazarus' sister and a friend of his, who deal with the police, the "respectable" Jewish community in Chicago, and the roiling discontent of the city's anarchists as Emma Goldman comes for a visit.

The book was a critical success, and was a National Book Award finalist. But, like NETHERLAND, I thought it was only a partial success. Brik is a much more interesting and appealing character than the similarly dislocated and expatriated van den Broek, and unlike that previous book I didn't feel like the author was trying to write a different story and hang it on his main character. The parallels between Lazarus and Brik are pretty clear without being utterly contrived, and the character of Rora--like Chuck in the other novel--is vivid and energetic, providing a nice contrast with the sluggish, in-their-own-headness of the protagonists. The contrast between the kinetic energy of the flashback sections in LAZARUS and the present sections, set in a Ukraine-Romania of today where everything is rotting both physically and morally--made me want to spend more time in 1908 Chicago.