The Square Circuit

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

Saturday, May 30, 2009


The G-20 meeting in September will happen in Pittsburgh. Did the reporters have to laugh when Gibbs announced it?

chicago and bicycles

After spending just a few minutes in Chicago last week, I was amazed at how many cyclists were on the streets. Granted, it was a beautiful day when we arrived, and it was a Sunday, but the place looked like Portland (the most bike-friendly city I know). And Chicago, unlike Portland, isn't all that natural a bike city, I wouldn't think. I was genuinely impressed. Turns out Mayor Daley is a big booster of bicycles, and pledged "to make Chicago the most bicycle-friendly city in the United States." He might not be there yet, but especially on the North Side it's pretty remarkable.

In Pittsburgh, things aren't anywhere near as good. There is a Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator in the mayor's office, and a plan that is underway to make the place more friendly to bikes, but two major culprits, I think, will make things more difficult here even than in car-oriented places like Chicago. First of all, there's Pittsburgh's general yahoo attitude toward bikes. Yinzers don't like bicycles and don't think they belong on the streets. Now this is pretty much a universal attitude in the US, at least outside of college towns and liberal utopias like Portland and Seattle, but that doesn't make it any easier to combat. Second, and this is particular to Pittsburgh, I think that our geography makes it more difficult to designate bicycle spaces on city streets. The streets are narrow and winding and hilly, and it's hard enough to get around here that people would scream and yell if a lane of traffic was taken away. They've done this in various places--Liberty Blvd in Bloomfield, East Liberty Blvd in East Liberty, and Beechwood Blvd in Squirrel Hill--but there's little enforcement of the parking regulations (especially on lower Beechwood). It's a good step. The city also created bike lanes on Forbes between Dallas and Braddock, the stretch through Frick Park where drivers regularly exceed 50 mpg, but on the westbound side the lane disappears at the entrance to Homewood Cemetery, leaving cyclists nowhere to go, and it's even worse eastbound, where the lane is narrow as it nears Braddock and the buses veer right into them. I give Ravenstahl credit for making this a priority, but I still think he can do a better job.

Now when will they extend the bike trail on the left bank of Mon from where it ends short of the Glenwood Bridge past Sandcastle? It's about parking.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Originally uploaded by Mantooth
a belated post from an April trip to Boston for the marathon--the boys at the Public Gardens. Fortunately, Pack was back.

harry potter at the Science and Industry Museum, Chicago

Originally uploaded by Mantooth

millennium park

Originally uploaded by Mantooth

the bean

Originally uploaded by Mantooth
Millennium Park, Chicago: the "Cloud Gate."

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


I went to Colson Whitehead's reading of an excerpt from the then in-progress SAG HARBOR about two years ago, and then like many other people I read another piece that appeared in the NEW YORKER a few months back. I loved both of the chunks, and I think it goes beyond just really thinking I'd like Whitehead personally. I've read all of his previous books and, like most people, my favorite has been his first, the inventive and restrained THE INTUITIONIST. JOHN HENRY DAYS felt like it got out of control, and APEX HIDES THE HURT, I read it just after I read THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE by Jonathan Lethem and it just fades next to that huge novel so I barely remember it. But even in his books that I didn't like I never had the feeling that he was running dry (as I feel these days about Franzen). More like that he was waiting for his Big Novel to come to him, the continuation of the promise he showed with THE INTUITIONIST.

While SAG HARBOR isn't that book it's a very interesting detour. Most writers don't wait until their fourth novel to write the disguised autobiography they profess to avoid but tend to produce; they eject that as their first. Whitehead, though, waited until now to write his personal coming-of-age story. What's more, and what's I think a bit daringly postmodern, is that he chooses to write his coming-of-age novel not as a novel but as a kind of fictionalized memoir. I can't imagine this book appearing in the pre-memoir phase of American writing (let's say before THE LIAR'S CLUB), and I can't help thinking that Whitehead is trying to comment on the prevalence and the growing mannerism of the American memoir. It's also post-Frey: unlike James Frey (who, of course, famously turned his own drug problem into an epic and wrenching conversion narrative that I still like, that I still think loses very little in having been shown to be fictionalized), Whitehead doesn't heighten the tensions and intensity of his autobiography to make it more like good pageturning fiction; instead, he dials it down, making his novel more like aimless reminiscence. It's not plotted, and it's not even particularly character-driven. It's a series of long set pieces about setting, about a time and a very specific place and the consumer products and vocabulary and folkways that typified that setting (a long-established black upper-middle-class section of Sag Harbor, Long Island). The novel's conceit is that this neighborhood is a sort of "green world" for the kids, whose parents often leave them to their own devices during summer weeks while they work their professional jobs in New York City. They get in trouble, but with nothing more serious than a BB gun. The book's strengths are its laid-back yet carefully observed tone and Whitehead's constantly serious and charming concern with language and dialect and the interaction between a dominant language, a dialect of a marginalized group, and the linguistic adventures of a small group of people suspended (by virtue of race, class, and education) between the two.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

richard chen

Richard Chen Pittsburgh closes. They blamed it on the economy. Bland food not mentioned in their explanation.


The first third of Philipp Meyer's AMERICAN RUST is great. Really great. (Even the POST-GAZETTE's editorial page agrees.) The novel begins with the big incident--one of the characters kills someone who is menacing his friend--and the rest of the book recounts the ways that several characters deal with the aftermath of the crime and its discovery. The two central characters (Isaac and Poe) are polar opposites: one (Isaac) a very smart kid who decided, due to tough family circumstances, not to take his sister's route and escape their dying hometown via an Ivy League scholarship; the other (Poe) a high-school football star from a "broken home" who is destined never to amount to anything. The other characters we follow--including Isaac's sister, Poe's mother, the town police chief, and Isaac's father--respond to Isaac and Poe's actions.

As most reviews of the novel have noted, the real main character of the story is the town itself, an invented Monongahela Valley town called Buell. Meyer--whose dust-jacket photo and copy plays up the whole tough-guy writer thing--has certainly done his research and has, at least is the book's acknowledgments are accurate, spent significant time in the region researching. I wouldn't have known the Mon Valley from the Loire Valley until moving here, but after passing through it and meeting many people from there I've learned a great deal. It is one of the great dying industrial regions of the country: today it's a string of smallish towns that used to host massive steel and coke works but now feature mostly boarded-up storefronts and an aging, crime-plagued population. A great deal of publicity, over the last year or two, has come to John Fetterman, the young mayor of Braddock, PA, one of the hardest-hit towns, but it's such a massive area with a relatively large population that one guy with a pretty good idea for revitalizing a bit of one small city can't do it all.

Anyway, Meyer's evocation of the Mon Valley is remarkable. It all FEELS right--but of course, how could I know? The problem is that later in the book the town looms in the background but takes up less of the foreground. Isaac goes on the lam and ends up in Michigan; Poe spends some time in jail. I found the Poe-in-jail sections the weakest portions of the novel, episodes seemingly lifted, unaltered, from that HBO show OZ. There's a huge suspension-of-disbelief problem with the novel, in that the killing that sets the plot in motion could easily be sold as a self-defense act (which it was), but the two characters involved seem never to have thought this through. I think that this is Meyer's way of stressing the fatalism of Poe and Isaac, but I didn't believe that with Isaac (who even before the killing is running away to start a better life).

Structurally, the novel is told in short stream-of-consciousness chapters whose narrative style varies according to the character. The characters' consciousnesses as represented by Meyer's prose lose their distinctiveness as the novel moves on, except for Isaac's: his is so heavily indebted to Joyce's technique in delving into Leopold Bloom's mind in ULYSSES that I kept expecting to hear Isaac think about "Plumtree's potted meat" or little Milly. Meyer tips us off to his recognition of the debt early on, when Isaac's sister picks up a copy of ULYSSES. Although it's a tough feat to pull off, and Meyer does it quite well, in the end I kept feeling like it was an exercise in stylistic imitation--an MFA workshop activity.