Books

four takes

Location, location, location

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Fifty years ago this month, with what looked like an over-starched flag, Americans turned the moon into their own backyard sandlot. Yet back here on Earth, any number of places can rival the moon’s all-in-the-family strangeness – a truth for which writers give unceasing thanks. 

Consider Oklahoma City. It may not top most lists of must-see destinations, but Sam Anderson can assure you it is “one of the great weirdo cities of the world.” As “a laboratory for unavoidable American problems,” he proposes, it is also a worthy case study.

A staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, Anderson developed an outsider’s affection for the city when, thanks to considerable maneuvering, it acquired the professional basketball team now known as the Thunder. His Boomtown – The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, its Chaotic Founding, its Apocalyptic Weather, its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis attempts to explain everything in its subtitle and then some.

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The 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building still unfortunately dominates most people’s conception of Oklahoma City. Anderson argues that the Thunder’s arrival 13 years later, and the team’s unexpected brilliance, have been essential to the community’s healing. 

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The city abruptly sprouted with the land run of 1889, an event Anderson recounts in lively detail. (At times he can seem like the desperate-to-amuse guy on the next barstool, but bear with him.) Although the sections on the Thunder may be a little too much inside basketball for some readers, Anderson balances his account with wonderful historical and cultural nuggets (my favorite: the museum devoted to free enterprise). He also delivers a powerful reconstruction of the bombing, as well as an indelible portrait of Gary England, a meteorologist venerated for his life-saving tornado forecasts. 

If Oklahoma City almost never came to be, Los Angeles was at least as improbable. Gary Krist’s The Mirage Factory – Illusion, Imagination and the Invention of Los Angeles illuminates the city’s rise through three notable figures: William Mulholland, the architect of its water system; D.W. Griffith, the master filmmaker who helped bring a fledgling movie industry west; and the wildly popular evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.

Krist’s scrupulously researched history shows how three intersecting dreams created the unlikely fact of LA, as well as its illusion-loving soul. (“Whether you like it or not,” Charlie Chaplin once tellingly told McPherson, “you’re an actress.”) 

At the turn of the last century, Los Angeles was smaller than Fall River. Mulholland’s scheme to poach water from the north, and the 1913 completion of his aqueduct, proved vital to attracting investment. 

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Griffith was drawn by the promise of sunny days and virtually year-round shooting. McPherson, she would attest, arrived on instructions from the Lord. At 28, she quit the East Coast and, with her mother and two children, headed to LA, driving most of the way herself. In California, she drew thousands with her upbeat gospel of salvation and, not incidentally, reports of faith healing. Followers soon donated enough to erect a lavish million-dollar temple, with seating for 5,300. 

In the years when Los Angeles was coming of age, Pittsburgh had already reached maturity.

The Pennsylvania coal capital is probably best known as the stamping ground of Andrew Carnegie, and other Gilded Age titans. But in Smoketown – The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance,” Mark Whitaker unearths a second, lesser-known city. Much like Harlem, Pittsburgh was home to a vibrant black community that flourished from the 1920s through the 1950s. Its newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, played an outsized role in shaping black opinion across the country.

Like Sam Anderson, the Courier’s editors understood the power of sports to lift the profile of a community. The paper was an early champion of Joe Louis, presenting the Alabama fighter’s rise as a vindication of black flight from the South. Pittsburgh’s integrated school system and rich musical culture helped produce several jazz greats, including Billy Strayhorn, Billy Eckstine and Erroll Garner. The city also molded August Wilson, one of the postwar era’s greatest playwrights.

Family ties encouraged Whitaker to bring this lesser-known history to light. But as Anderson demonstrates, it sometimes takes an outsider to bring a place fully into focus. As a visitor to the deep South, the British travel writer Richard Grant was so entranced that he impulsively purchased a grand plantation house. Dispatches from Pluto — Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta is his mind-blown account.

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Arriving from New York with his girlfriend, Grant discovers nature in all its summertime fecundity (snakes, clouds of mosquitoes and armadillos that need killing). He quickly takes on his own prejudices, among them a dim view of gun culture and weed killers, and is entertainingly humbled. Questions of race assume an equally humbling complexity. Full of outlandish stories, eccentrics and lessons in neighborliness, Grant’s report from the Mississippi swampland washes down like sweet tea.

M.J. Andersen is an author and journalist who writes frequently on the arts.