Utopia Drive: A Road Trip Through America’s Most Radical Idea (Reece)

I have long been fascinated by utopias. I remember taking a class on Utopias and Dystopias in 8th grade (I think) and reading Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy. Now that I know more, I kind of can’t believe we read that, but when I was in 8th grade, we didn’t have the menu of utopian / dystopian novels that are available now. And I’m interested in the trend. I think it has to be more than just marketing. If you believe that arts reflect or respond to society, what do you make of the run of utopian stories, not just at the young adult level but everywhere, even from authors who don’t usually spend time in the area (Chang-Rae Lee, for example)?

In any event, that’s why I grabbed this book. Right away, Reece challenged my thesis that every effort has failed. He doesn’t equate ending with failing, which is a debate I might have with him. Nevertheless, I enjoyed following his road trip through communities, some of which I knew about (in fact, I live in a failed / ended attempt at a utopian community) and others that were completely new to me. At times, the book feels like looking at pictures of someone else’s road trip, but it’s mostly engaging, as Reece moves back and forth between his visit to the community (or what remains of it) and the community’s history.

I have to admit that I was (pleasantly) surprised when he ended his road trip in. . . Cleveland. He cites Ohio Cooperative Solar and Evergreen Cooperatives as evidence that America’s most radical idea is alive and kicking today. I think that’s why I enjoy the notion of utopias. They require such hope.

Ohio Cooperative Solar

Evergreen Cooperatives

Erik Reece

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The Arch and The Butterfly (Achaari)

It started out so well, so promising. I was into it for a while and then it kind of went all over the place, both in form and content. There are some interesting insights – how we are all kind of archeologists of our own life, for example. But the story gets so diffuse, with so much more summary than scene, that I pretty much lost the plot and generally didn’t care. Perhaps it would reward more attention than I gave it, but after such a strong beginning, I couldn’t find my way back into it.

The Price (Miller)

I saw a production of it on Broadway with Mark Ruffalo, Tony Shalhoub and Danny DeVito, and it has been kind of haunting me ever since. I wanted to read it, but I could not find a copy of the script by itself, so I finally went in for the collection of his plays produced for the centennial of his birth two years ago. Despite the dated language – we don’t call each other ‘kid’ anymore – it holds up well; it’s complicated. No one is simple or oversimplified. Everyone has a story. The story they are living, the story they tell themselves to keep living. Time passes. Laugh. That’s all.

A Time to Kill (Grisham)

My commute this year is a bit longer, so I’ve been going the podcast route. I’ve been enjoying John Grisham’s podcast, so I thought I’d give one of his books a try. It made sense to me to start from the beginning, especially after he told stories of how big of a flop this book when it first was published. Grisham is very forthright about his goals and perfectly willing to embrace his success. He apparently, for example, exercised his right to veto an initial casting decision for A Time to Kill. But his ultimate goal, he explains on the podcast, is to keep people turning the pages and, despite many misgivings about the racial and sexual politics of the book, I kept turning the pages. The details here are not Grisham’s strong suit. Most sections read (at best) like useful first drafts. On the podcast, Grisham says that the first draft was around 1,000 pages, and my edition checks in at just over 500. He says the experience turned him into a firm believer in outlines, so maybe the future books are more precise. I don’t know if I’ll give any more of his books a try. I’d always heard this one was a kind of To Kill a Mockingbird-lite, and I can see the basis for the comparison. Based on the way he talks about them, A Painted House and The Innocent Man are possibilities.

Ferguson Interview Project (Birch)

This seemed like such a promising idea. In the spirit of Anna Deavere Smith or, closer to home, the collaborators who created the excellent production Objectively / Reasonable, Ms. Birch went to Ferguson, Missouri to conduct interviews about the Michael Brown incident / shooting / murder / assassination. The choice of words tells you something about the interview subject. On the plus side, some themes emerge, such as the number of municipalities around Ferguson and that their existence creates the need for separate police forces. Aside from the word choice issue and that recurring observation, Ms. Birch generally seems like she was the wrong person for this project.

Just because you can ask questions doesn’t mean you can conduct a good interview. She often seemed like she had a script and was unwilling / unable to vary from it. Her obsession with social media, the arts and her ill-conceived question about heroes revealed her pre-existing and, to my mind, superficial agenda. Though she asks each interview subject to identify themselves, she offers no basic biographical sketches about who these people are and why she chose them. There is no organization of the interviews.  She does not, for example, organize all of the interviews of the local politicians together. Or the clergy. There is just one interview after another. In addition to the lack of introductory or biographical information, there is no reflection. And Birch’s haste does not excuse her extremely poor proofreading.

While there are insights both large and small that can be gleaned from the interviews, I still wish someone more prepared and experienced had conducted them and put the book together. This might be the kind of book that can only be written once. I am glad that it exists, but at $35, I’m not sure how far it’ll travel and how much good it will do.

A People’s History of Chicago (Coval)

It takes a certain amount of audacity to select the title Coval did, but based on his poetry at least, Coval seems anything but shy. His poems, which range from before 1492 to March of 2017, hit some known highlights of Chicago’s history as well as some less commonly known people and events. Many of the poems are accompanied by great illustrations by an assortment of artists. My two favorites are “The Great Migration” and “Two Cities Celebrate Independence Day.” I haven’t lived in Chicago for a while, but it seems to me that Coval hits many of the issues the city is struggling with, including its most prominent one, though one that is likely more of a symptom than a cause – gun violence, including police gun violence.

Coval’s site

Hidden Figures: Young Readers’ Edition (Shetterly)

My school received a donation of enough copies of the book for both students and staff. We are going to hear the Anisfield-Wolf award winning author speak on Friday at Cleveland State University. The Young Readers’ edition is one of the better examples of the form that I’ve encountered. Shetterly successfully intertwines the stories of the four African-American women – Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden – against the backdrop of the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, and the introduction of television. It is to her great credit that she is able to make the moments of space flight suspenseful even though the outcome is already known. There is a particularly lyrical section in the first chapter that sets the context for the experiences of these four remarkable women. I enjoyed the pictures included in the text and wished for more of them. And the explanations of the science and math were within my feeble reach in those subjects.

To reward myself, I watched the movie with my family. It was, in short, awful. Remarkably, Theodore Melfi, a white man who both co-wrote the screenplay and directed the movie (why?) managed to make it a story about Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, in full speech-making mode – Crash still loves making speeches). Melfi reduced the 4 women to 3 and maybe, maybe, the trio as main character made it hard to do much more than paint each woman as a stereotype. And I understand that you sometimes need outsider characters to show change, but for a story that was, by all accounts, a story about African-American women asserting themselves in a racist and sexist society, why does Harrison become the hero for tearing down the sign marking one bathroom being for one race only (a completely fictitious scene in a movie based on true events)? Granted, we do see the women doing math, though Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) has this awful line in response to a patronizing and sexist remark from a would be suitor: “So yes, they let women do things at NASA, Mr. Johnson. And it’s not because we wear skirts. It’s because we wear glasses.”  This is what they came up with for Johnson to articulate her intelligence and independence?!?!?!

Then there’s the troublesome nature, present in both the book and the movie, of exceptionalism. Is it possible to both applaud the telling of a purposely neglected story (though I wish, especially in the movie, that one of the women had been allowed to tell it) and to worry that the book and movie contribute to the narrative present in so many stories featuring people of color, narratives that are comforting to white people, that essentially can be boiled down to — If they can do it, why can’t you? (And therefore if you can’t, it must be due to some flaw in your character.)