It takes just a look at her stage directions to be reminded that Parks is one of our most original writers working today. She is experimenting – in both small and large ways – with the form of plays. Note the musical selections she includes at the back of the script.

This nod to the Odyssey, both in style (note the use of the chorus) and form (journey), is layered and thought-provoking. I also admire its deceptive simplicity. Not much is needed here in terms of staging and props, though the elements that are required are essential. Parks raises questions without belaboring them and leaves the reader / audience to infer parallels and connections. I am looking forward to seeing it.

Father Comes Home from the Wars @ the Goodman Theatre in Chicago

In this perfectly-titled novel, Umrigar presents a nuanced look at the challenges facing a couple whose son has died unexpectedly. In an attempt to revive their lives and marriage, they decide to accept a business opportunity in rural India. At this point, the story only becomes more layered and complex. What does it mean to be an American who runs a business in another country, a business that makes use of natural resources that once were used by the indigenous population. Labor troubles complicate their lives. But it is the presence of the child of their servants, a boy slightly older than the child they lost, that sends Frank Benton spiraling to places he never imagined.

For three-quarters of the book, I think everything is pretty much pitch perfect. Umrigar’s characterizations, from when Frank meets his eventual wife, to their friends and associates in India, to their families (notably Scott, Frank’s brother) are all dynamic and convincing. The decision that Frank makes, which sends the story careening towards its conclusion, is also believable, even Shakespearean in its ambition. And certainly unexpected things happen to ruin the best of plans, but the easily anticipated moments here (a soccer match, a visit from a friend’s relative) did not need to come as a surprise. Taken together, these last minute plot devices as well as an effort to humanize the father of the child Frank has ‘adopted,’ make the ending come off as somewhat forced. Umrigar has one more move to make, and it is a surprising and credible one – the kind of revelation that makes one long for a sequel.

I read about this during a recent trip to Maine, and I wanted to learn more. I thought, perhaps, there might even be a story in it, but Anita Shreve beat me to it. Still, it was an interesting piece of local history. Two firefighters got together to defend their vocational (and, in one case, perhaps familial) ancestors from accusations that they’d mishandled the fire and allowed it to become something larger than it needed to be.

Initially, I thought their profession tainted their efforts, but Daicy and Whitney make for fine historians as well. By using primary sources and pointing out the consistency of the contemporary accounts, they point to the numerous factors, both natural and man-made that caused this conflagration.

I was inspired by not just the pride of the firemen (both then and now), but also of the city during its efforts to rebuild, as well as the support of neighboring cities, as far away as Boston, who helped the city battle the fire and then recover.

Do I give Raoul Peck – the director of the film and the one who put the script together – authorial credit? What about the editor?

I’ve seen the film and thought it was very powerful. I am going to see it again soon, so I thought I’d read this in order to be able to examine it with new eyes.

And I use the word ‘eyes’ deliberately. It was only when I was reading the script that I realized the extent of the motif of seeing and being seen, witnessing, reality vs. fantasy, etc.. Now this may be because Peck was making a movie, but I do think the motif is central to much of what I know about Baldwin. He saw things in ways that were new to many (and still are) and was therefore threatening. He saw it as his job to look, to see, to witness. This made it hard for him to stay in one place. There was, of course, France, but he is constantly talking about being “on the road,” but not being able to stay.

In the spirit of this motif and the fact that it’s a movie, Peck has selected several excerpts that deal with movies, with a particular focus on the roles of John Wayne and Sidney Poitier. Wayne, he says, never really had to grow up. Poitier, he seems to be suggesting, was guilty of a kind of appeasement (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, etc.).

Though there are a few introductory remarks (Peck, the film editor – Alexandra Strauss), but I was hoping for more. Peck refers to a much longer script. I would have liked to have seen more – to read his reasoning behind what he chose to keep and what he chose to cut. I’d also like to read a few pages of Remember This House (Baldwin’s notes for a novel on Evers, Malcolm X & King) for myself.

Ever since I tried (probably ineffectively) to teach about the post-WWI rise of dictators, I have wondered why I didn’t know more about Franco. My mild interest became moderate when I learned more about Frederico Garcia Lorca. So when I discovered that Adam Hochschild (King Leopold’s Ghost) had taken it on, I thought this would be my opportunity.

It really struck me how the non-Spanish volunteers and even Hitler and Stalin realized that this was a kind of a dress rehearsal for World War II, but that FDR didn’t or chose not to. Thuogh he apparently later called his arms embargo “a grave mistake,” that doesn’t really change the outcome of the war, nor how Americans who fought in it were treated upon their return. Would Franco’s defeat have had a ripple effect on what Germany and Russia were doing? Japan? Speculative history always troubles, and Hochschild doesn’t spend much time on it (thankfully), but when he does, he seems dubious that anything would have changed.

Hochschild also asks a good question about a woefully unreported part of the war. Spain was trying to re-make itself at the same time as it was trying to fight off Franco. But that effort, smacking of communism (sometimes, rightly so) was not covered by the (celebrity) press. Did one effort hurt the other? Hochschild makes it clear that none of the anti-Franco groups – Republicans, communists, anarchists, etc. – were innocent of dubious tactics.

Lurking throughout this book is the presence of Hemingway – author, macho man, journalist. He can never be reduced to a bit part. And herein lies my one main objection to the writing. I don’t think Hochschild ever found the center. There are so many narratives here – all worthy – that there’s not really much momentum in any of them. But it’s not a major complaint. I will get to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia one of these days. (He’s in the book, too!)

I know it’s not a trendy thing to say, but I think I am more of a fan of Erdrich’s later work. The Round House is a masterpiece, and LaRose is very good. I was unmoved by Love Medicine, and though there is much to appreciate about The Master Butchers Singing Club, I didn’t connect with it either.

There is a small-town-ness about this book. Everyone knows everyone, and that is both good and bad. A stunning accident occurs in the first few pages of the novel, in a magnificently written section titled (not accidentally) “Two Houses,” which sends all involved reeling, both forward and backward in time, even the character (not coincidentally named) Romeo. The only true outsider, Father Travis, at least has that history in his head.

Initially, because they were not very regular, it was challenging to follow the back story of the people who carried the name LaRose before the current incarnation. But as events of the story unfolded, the clarity and necessity of these flashbacks increased.

Overall, I found the characters to be genuine and interesting, and there are many memorable moments (that I don’t want to spoil).

Erdrich biography

Erdrich’s excellent bookstore

Look, I’m no scientist, and I’m not a researcher, but these two make a credible case that we all have blindspots, often aren’t aware of them, act on them (even as babies), and even have them (also called “mindbugs” here) about ourselves. Thus far, there seem to be things we can do to combat them short-term, but nothing has, as of yet, proven durable.

The book is readable for a non-scientist, but not entirely engaging. I think I accepted the argument before it even began. I have blindspots, some of which I don’t recognize, many of which I act on (including in the classroom which is what I’d like to address), and I have them about myself. I am, I am sure, an “uncomfortable egalitarian.” That makes me who the intended audience is for this book. Do people disagree with their conclusions?

The authors suggest that there may soon come a device that will alert us of our blindspots before we make a decision just as cars now come with similar features to help us avoid accidents. That prospect makes me nervous.

Project Implicit – Take a test! Find your blindspots!