Books postsTuesday October 24, 2017
Whose Emerald City is it Anyway?
Here's my odd coincidence of the week.
Two books I'm reading get into (just as asides, really) what inspired L. Frank Baum to create the Emerald City in his “Wizard of Oz” series at the end of the 19th century.
First, from “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History,” by Kurt Andersen:
L. Frank Baum was living [in Chicago] at the same time [as architect Frank Lloyd Wright] when he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the world's fair's White City clearly inspired his Emerald City.
Yes, that's the White City of Erik Larson's “The Devil in the White City.” Andersen's book is about how American fantasy has seeped into and upended (and fucked up) much of our American reality throughout much of our history—but particularly since the 1960s. It's totally in my wheelhouse.
Then yesterday, feeling the need for a little baseball during lunchtime reading, I began Rich Cohen's memoir/history, “The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse.” Early on, amid discussions of how their team nickname went from the presitigious “White Stockings” to the deragatory/Irish “Spuds” to the close-enough/headline-friendly “Cubs,” Cohen writes this about their home ballpark in the days before Wrigley Field:
For two generations, Chicago baseball meant the West Side Grounds. It's where thousands of fans learned that it's thrilling to win but clarifying to lose. It's where Ring Lardner became a sports reporter. It's where Albert Spalding tolled a gong when he wanted his manager to change pitchers. It might even have been a model for the most fantastic landscape of all, Emerald City, capital of Oz. In the late 1800s, L. Frank Baum, author of the Oz novels, was living in Humboldt Park, a few blocks from the West Side Grounds. He could see the pennants above the rooftops, hear the cheers when something went right. Now and then, he bought a ticket. The trip from dreary Polk Street through the tunnel into the great green light-filled bowl, where men in uniforms chased each other around the bases trying to get home, is the trip from Kansas to Oz told another way.
Of course, Cohen qualifies his statment (“might have”), Andersen doesn't (“clearly”), and Wikipedia backs up Andersen, where West Side Park isn't even mentioned as a possible inspiration for Oz. But I like Cohen's spin. Hope that's not too much fantasyland.
West Side Park during the 1906 World Series. Green glasses sold separately.
If He Catches You You're Through
Patricia had bought and liked the Norweigian serial-killer thriller “The Snowman: A Harry Hole Novel”—which has been made into a movie directed by Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) and sadly getting horrific reviews—and, a bit tired of all of my non-fiction, I began it last night.
It's good. It's not literature. It's a thriller, a page-turner, and creepy, and I'm enjoying it. I like how, set in Norway, so much is still set against U.S. presidential elections: Reagan in '80, Clinton in '92, W. in '04. I like how author Jo Nesbo holds back and holds back. He suggests the horror. At the stage I'm at, he's not showing us the shark, we're just getting the du dun ... du dun... I also like how easily he turns a figure of childhood fun, the snowman, into a source of terror.
And I like this bit that I read this morning. Our hero is investigating the disappearance of a mother, and talks with her 10-year old son who had been watching a “Road Runner” cartoon until his stern father returned:
Harry crouched down beside Jonas, who was still staring at the black TV screen.
“So you like roadrunners, do you?” Harry asked.
The boy shook his head mutely.“Why not?”
Jonas's whisper was barely audible: “I feel sorry for Wile E. Coyote.”
That was me as a kid. I'd forgotten I'd ever felt that way.
“That's funny ... but it's not Noel Coward funny.”
After finishing David Thomson's new book on the Warner Bros. (much recommended), I've been having fun with Frank Langella's 2012 memoir, “Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them,” in which each short chapter is a famous person and he describes his encounter(s) with them. It's like candy. Lee Strasberg is a dick, Yul Brynner is imperious (and a dick), Rita Hayworth is touching (and touched), Dolores Del Rio remains untouched. This is from his “John F. Kennedy” chapter, whom he met unexpectedly at a friend's house as he was just starting out. It makes me long for a real president. But then, almost everything does these days:
As the afternoon progressed our napkins would grow increasingly damp with tears of laughter as Noel Coward reached into his bottomless hamper of stories, jokes, one-liners, and character assassinations. And the sight of my President pounding on the table with one hand and holding the other out, palm up, to Coward, begging him to wait while he caught his breath, has never left my memory. To see the leader of the free world so hopelessly convulsed with laughter, wiping his eyes continuously, and to watch his wife genuinely delighted to see him so happy, made a profound impression on me. How glorious it must have been for him. Not a single subject of importance discussed all afternoon. No current affairs, political views, or social commentary. ...
We all trouped out to the lawn to say our good-byes, and before boarding the helicopter the President said to me: “What do you think, Frank? Should I keep my day job?”
JFK also asked Langella, then in his early 20s, if he was going to attempt to make a living as an actor. Imagine if he could've seen what happened: Langella not only would do just that, but he would wind up playing JFK's 1960 presidential rival in the 2008 movie “Frost/Nixon.” “You see, Mr. President, you'll get assassinated next year, Nixon will win in '68, then he'll discredit himself with the cover-up of a burglarly at Democratic National Headquarters, all of which was inspired in part by his political fear of your brother. No, not Bobby. Teddy. Bobby will be assassinated in June '68, paving the way for Nixon.”
Yeah, it really did go south about the time I was born, didn't it?
'The Hots for Uncle Hymie'
Even though he wasn't highlighted, I thought about Philip Roth as I walked through the first room at the newly created American Writers Museum in Chicago on Saturday. It was because of this photo—a portrait of Arthur Miller as a young playwright:
Quite the looker. And it made me recall a passage in Roth's “Portnoy's Complaint,” but I recalled it wrong. It's where Portnoy is talking about his lust for “the bland blond exotics called shikses” and his corresponding observation that these exotic creatures actually craved them—the nice Jewish boys who underneath it all weren't so nice. Miller and Monroe are mentioned, yes, but only in passing:
...for every Eddie yearning for a Debbie, there is a Debbie yearning for an Eddie — a Marilyn Monroe yearning for her Arthur Miller...
No, the punchline is about another '50s celebrity couple:
Who knew, you see, who knew back when we were watching National Velvet, that this stupendous purple-eyed girl who had the supreme goyische gift of all, the courage and know-how to get up and ride around on a horse (as opposed to having one pull your wagon, like the rag-seller for whom I am named) — who would have believed that this girl on the horse with the riding breeches and the perfect enunciation was lusting for our kind no less than we for hers? Because you know what Mike Todd was — a cheap facsimile of my Uncle Hymie upstairs! And who in his right mind would ever have believed that Elizabeth Taylor had the hots for Uncle Hymie?
That's the line that made me laugh out loud when I first read “Portnoy's Complaint” all those years ago. On Saturday, some part of me was thinking Roth linked Miller to Uncle Hymie, but Roth knew better. So did Monroe, apparently. Miller weren't no Uncle Hymie, that's for sure.
The last few days I was in Chicago to see “Hamilton” at the PrivateBank Theater (more later, obviously), and yesterday, at the recommendation of a family friend, and before the CTA slog to the airport (and it was a slog), I visited the American Writers Museum on Michigan Avenue. Haven't heard of it? It's relatively new. “One month and one day old,” the woman at the reception desk told me, as she was taking my money and checking my bag.
How was it? A bit small but very interactive and very, very diverse. I'd probably say it's diverse to a fault. In the first room you go into, there's a long line of writers, including statesmen from the founding of the republic such as Franklin and Jefferson (but not the man who wrote “like he was running out of time”), and up to the present day. But my wheelhouse is post-WWII Jewish-American writers, and while there were individual posts for Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer, there was nothing in that room for Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth or E.L. Doctorow. Was Salinger there? He must've been. But I don't recall seeing him.
The exhibit is constructed on a circle, and halfway through there's a room where, among other interactive options, you can choose your five favorite works. It's a way for the museum to gather information: not only what people like but who they are and where they live. (If you want a bookmark decorated with your favorites, you include your email address.) For my top 5, I went with books that amazed and that I kept returning to. The five I came up with are to the right: “The Great Gatsby,” “My Antonia,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “The World According to Garp” and The Ghost Writer.“ No, I don't know why they don't have a book cover yet for ”My Antonia,“ other than the fact that the museum is, you know, just one month and one day old.
The bigger problem was when I tried to include one of E.L. Doctorow's novels on my list. You do this by typing the name of the author into the computer terminal and then go from there.
This is what it looked like:
I think I stared at that final screen for a while, wondering what I was doing wrong. Do I include, ”E.L.“ at the end? I tried that. Nothing. I backed up, tried it again. I kept thinking, ”It's not getting me to...“
Then it hit me. They didn't have E.L. Doctorow in their database. They had Cory, who, I'm sure is a fine upstanding citizen of the world, and poet Maureen Doallas, as well as Muriel Dobbin and all of those Doanes. And you certainly can't open a museum to American writers without Margo Dockendorf. But the author of ”Book of Daniel,“ ”Ragtime“ or ”World's Fair“? The National Book Award winner, PEN/Faulkner award winner, three-time National Book Critics Circle Award winner, as well as Library of Congress prize winner? Bupkis.
At this point, some part of me assumed that maybe the Doctorow estate didn't want to be included. You know how you couldn't get his books for the longest time on Kindle? Like that. But when I brought up the glitch with the receptionist, she said, no, that's probably not it. They're just missing some. But they are making a list of writers they need to add, so she took down his name.
”Doctorow,“ I said, ”E.L. He's kind of a big deal."