‘A Man Lies Dreaming’: Imagining Hitler as a low-rent private detective


Is the world ready for a hard-boiled Hitler? “A Man Lies Dreaming,” Lavie Tidhar’s stunning alternative take on the Holocaust, audaciously imagines the 20th-century demon as a middling private detective named Wolf.

It’s November 1939, six years after Germany’s Communist Party trounced Wolf’s National Socialists in the country’s election. The disgraced and debased Wolf (his name a nod to the German meaning of Adolf) has fled to England, like many other refugees. There he has hung out a shingle in London’s seedy Soho, among the whores and corrupt coppers, and a serial killer who is seeking to frame him. One day, a beautiful young Jewish woman comes to Wolf, asking for help finding her sister.

“I looked at her face. She was nothing but trouble and I knew it and she knew I knew,” Wolf writes in a voice icy as that of any classic gumshoe. “I had no business hunting for Jews in the year of our Lord 1939. I once had faith, and a destiny, but I had lost both and I guess I’d never recovered either. All I could see was the money. I was so cold, and it was going to be a cold winter.”

Wolf’s search quickly leads him to a slaver’s den run by Hermann Göring, once a fellow leader of the National Socialists, now a wealthy pimp. But before you can say Philip Marlowe, Tidhar’s narrative abruptly shifts.

Now we’re in Auschwitz, and a man named Shomer lies dreaming the noir novel we are reading. Before his imprisonment, Shomer was a successful writer of shund, pulp fiction. His wife and two young children have been exterminated in the camp. He spends his days digging graves and his nights lost “in that murky half-world which was once his novelist’s mind.” He fights against any memory of the world that’s been destroyed, as well as that murky half-world he inhabits when he sleeps.

“Stories, stories, he is sick to death of stories! Yet they are all he has.”

Tidhar, who was born in Israel and is now based in London, lost most of his family in Auschwitz. In this novel, as in earlier ones, he uses his impressive talent to create brilliantly subversive alternate histories. His 2011 novel “Osama” features Osama Bin Laden as the renegade antihero of a popular series of novels within a novel, and his 2013 novel “The Violent Century” imagines a world where superheroes are as common as soldiers and accountants.

Numerous historical figures appear in his new book: the British fascist Oswald Mosley, Diana Mitford and her sister Unity (the latter as besotted with Wolf as she was with Hitler in real life), Rudolf Hess, Ian Fleming, Christopher Isherwood, Evelyn Waugh. Shomer himself is inspired by a late 19th-century writer whose pen name was Shomer.

Despite its dark subject, “Man Lies Dreaming” can be very funny, as in a scene where Wolf runs into Leni Riefenstahl, who is starring in an unlikely sequel to “The Great Gatsby.” It is also remarkably poignant. Once Mosley’s Brownshirts come into power, the diminished, Jew-hating Wolf faces a Jew’s fate — and, ironically, perhaps an insight of what it means to be a Jew. He remains reprehensible, but Wolf is not a monster: frightened by the sight of rioting refugees, “he saw himself bared, ugly in the mirror of their suffering.”

Set during the election of a demagogue who battens on the fears of an underemployed populace threatened by thousands of foreign-born refugees, “A Man Lies Dreaming” feels disturbingly prescient. Tidhar holds up a mirror not just to Wolf, but to ourselves. In doing so, he reminds us that even — especially — under the most terrible of circumstances, stories are all we have. And in the right hands, they can be a formidable weapon.

Originally published on WashingtonPost.com.

'Leena Krohn: Collected Fiction' yields writing of strangeness and beauty


In the 11th century, the German historian Adam of Bremen wrote that the Finns “are to this day so superior in the magic arts or incantations that they profess to know what everyone is doing the world over…. All this is easy for them through practice.” Their command of words and sorcery is so legendary that modern Swedes who consult a fortuneteller say that they are “paying a visit to the Finns.”

Yet why is it that only a few Finnish writers — among them Tove Jansson, Elias Lönnrot (compiler of the “Kalevala”), Johanna Sinissalo and the Estonian Finnish Sofi Oksanen — are known to American readers?

The challenge of translation is one reason — Finnish is a notoriously difficult language for nonnative speakers to learn, with gender-neutral pronouns and grammar. The Finns’ often unconventional way of looking at the world may be another — think of Sibelius’ yearning symphonies, the quirky films of Aki Kaurismäki, Alvar Aalto’s undulating buildings, Jansson’s endearingly amorphous Moomins.

Cheeky Frawg, a small press specializing in the literature of the fantastic, often in translation, is publishing an omnibus volume of the brilliant, visionary modernist Leena Krohn — think Jorge Luis Borges intersecting with Isak Dinesen, Flann O’Brien, Milan Kundera and Italo Calvino.

The comparisons help put Krohn’s body of work into context but do nothing to capture the ineffable, melancholy strangeness and beauty of her writing. This is great literature: Shame on us for only now discovering it.

Krohn has written more than 30 books for adults and young readers. A variety of works published between 1976 and 2009 are collected here, including six short novels and novellas, short stories, critical essays and novel excerpts, some of which have been difficult to find in the U.S.

The volume opens with “Dona Quixote and Other Citizens. Portrait (Tales of the Citizens of an Unusual City).” The book consists of a series of chapters, most only a page or two in length, which can also be read as individual stories — a technique similar to that of Lydia Davis and a hallmark of nearly all of Krohn’s fiction here. The “unusual city,” never named, is recognizable as modern Helsinki but a Helsinki at once as commonplace and marvelous as Gabriel García-Marquez’s Macondo. Here is the narrator’s first meeting with the eponymous protagonist:

“I was sitting on the pedestal of a statue when something passed me by. It was as long and thin as a piece of straw, and it moved so lightly that it seemed to slip along above the dust of the road. It had a pair of binoculars at its neck and it stopped by the railing and began to look out at the sea.”

The piece of straw is an old woman known as Dona Quixote, and so odd yet acute are Krohn’s descriptions of the city and its denizens that a reader is at first not quite certain whether the story is set on Earth or indeed if the narrator (or Dona Quixote) is human. It’s as though the story was told by a member of another species, amazed by even the most mundane things.

This sense of mingled strangeness and recognition reverberates through all of Krohn’s work, most clearly in “Tainaron: Mail From Another City.” The narrative is framed as a series of letters, never answered, written by an unnamed woman to her distant lover, describing the city where she now lives — where the residents are insects.

Many of them are human-sized and possessed of human speech, their behavior a distorted mirror held up to that of Homo sapiens. In a vast, teeming beehive, the narrator has an audience with the immense queen, who, ceaselessly giving birth to her offspring, shrieks, “But what is a mother? … She from whom everything flows is not a someone …”

Later, at a funeral parlor, the narrator is shown the exquisite coffins that hold only “a single organ, often an eye or antenna [or] part of a wing, a part with a beautiful pattern.” Told that there is no crematorium in Tainaron, she insists on knowing what happens to the rest of the bodies. The funeral director takes her to an underground chamber, where she is at first sickened and then exalted by the sight of dung beetles devouring the dead. “And here, then, was their work: to distill pure nectar from such filth, to extract from the slimy liquid of death health, strength and new life.”

This singular vision of a transcendent connection between species also shines in “Datura,” where ingesting the seeds of the titular poisonous plant subtly changes the way a woman perceives the world, and “The Pelican’s New Clothes,” in which a pelican befriends a lonely boy named Emil. Only children recognize him as a pelican: dressed in human clothing, the pelican calls himself Mr. Henderson. He gets a job taking tickets at the opera and is enthralled by “The Magic Flute.” (He especially likes the birdcatcher, Papageno.) Reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s work, it’s a book that deserves to be called a classic.

As do nearly all of the extraordinary tales collected here. “Beauty is the universe’s most enduring quality,” Krohn, now 68, states in her afterword, “it is repeated in atoms and galaxies, numbers and relations and the way a tree grows.” This is a writer whose work can rewire your brain, leaving you with an enhanced, near-hallucinatory apprehension of our fragile planet, and of all the beings that inhabit it.

Leena Krohn: Collected Fiction
Leena Krohn
Cheeky Frawg Books: 850 pp, $36.99

Originally posted on LATimes.com.

You’ve seen the new ‘Star Wars’ movie — should you read the book tie-in?


If you can’t get enough of the new “Star Wars” movie, Obi-Wan Kenobi is not your only hope. Use the Force — of a book.

Alan Dean Foster has dozens of novels to his credit, as well as a formidable number of media tie-in works for major franchises such as “Star Trek” and “Alien.” Foster penned the first “Star Wars” novelization (credited to George Lucas), as well as “Star Wars” expanded-universe novels. Now he has written the novelization for “The Force Awakens,” which just broke the U.S. box-office opening weekend record with $248 million in ticket sales. I loved J.J. Abrams’s movie, and Foster’s book does it proud: It’s fast-moving, atmospheric and raises goose bumps at just the right moments.

Novelizers typically don’t see the film before they write the book. They’re given a screenplay and some still photos, and they work from that. So it’s a testament to Foster’s skill and professionalism that he not only evokes entire onscreen worlds but that he also gives us glimpses of an even more vast, unseen universe that has arisen from his impressive imagination.

“Hmm! Adventure. Hmmpf! Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things,” Yoda advised Luke Skywalker. But “Star Wars” fans do. Thank the Force that Foster delivers. (The e-book was released Dec. 18; the hardback version will arrive Jan. 5.)

Snobs may dismiss such books as an attack of the clones, but for as long as humans have had media, we’ve had media tie-ins. Our ancestors no doubt provided narrative accompaniment to the cave paintings in Lascaux, France. Flash-forward 17,000 years to the dawn of the motion picture industry. Novelizations — books based on screenplays and illustrated with photo stills from films — became popular with such classics as “The Perils of Pauline,” “The Ten Commandments” and “Metropolis,” as well as movies now lost or forgotten. In 1918, even Jack London penned one based on a romance called “Hearts of Three.”

Since then, myriad well-known authors have adapted their work or that of others. The very long list includes H.G. Wells, Louis L’Amour, John Steinbeck, Orson Welles, Graham Greene, Arthur Miller, Pearl S. Buck and —Zut alors! — Jean-Paul Sartre. Although novelizations are often regarded as a phantom menace, most of the authors just named were working writers and, I suspect, disinclined to turn down a paying gig. As Samuel Johnson said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

My introduction to novelizations came in 1995, when my agent asked whether I would be interested in adapting the screenplay for Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys,” a flick inspired by one of my favorite films, Chris Marker’s sublime 1962 short “La Jetée.” Gilliam’s screenplay was by David and Janet Peoples; David had co-written the screenplay for “Blade Runner,” another of my favorite movies.

I am not a blockhead. I said, “Yes!”

But I had no idea how to adapt a 110-page screenplay into a 213-page novel. I had no still photos, no set designs, no information about the cast, other than that it starred Bruce Willis and a relative newcomer named Brad Pitt. So I called my friend Terry Bisson, a Hugo and Nebula Award-winning writer who had done novelizations for “Virtuosity” and “Johnny Mnemonic.” His advice, rendered in a thick Kentucky drawl:

“This is all you need to know: If the script says the character ‘sits in a chair,’ he doesn’t ‘sit in a chair.’ He ‘ambles thoughtfully across the thick oriental carpets that covered the wooden floor of his expansive, tastefully furnished living room, and settles slowly and with a prolonged sigh into a large, overstuffed, red-velvet armchair.’ ”

Lesson learned. After I turned in my manuscript, David and Janet Peoples called to say I had done a great job.

I had two small children to support, and I write my own “serious” fiction very slowly. But this novelization work was fast and fun, and good money for the amount of time it took. I went on to do a half-dozen tie-ins, including one based on Chris Carter’s “X-Files” movie, “Fight the Future,” and the pilot for his TV series “Millennium,” which I had to write in five days.

A few years later, Bisson provided my entry to more media work, this time in the “Star Wars” universe. He had done two “Star Wars” young adult novels starring the 10-year-old Boba Fett and wanted to know whether I would like to carry on with the series. I loved “Star Wars,” and my 10-year-old son was a huge fan. He had a Boba Fett helmet! How could I say no?

Those books were a delight to write. David Levithan, my editor at Scholastic and himself a successful Y.A. writer, introduced me to Lucasfilm’s Jonathan Rinzler. They both offered encouragement and very little in the way of restrictions. With each story, I was given a title and a character or place that had to come into play: Aurra Sing; Jabba the Hutt; Mace Windu; the planet Aargau (which existed in the “Star Wars” universe only as a name, so I got to create an entire planet’s history, ecology and culture).

Otherwise, I pretty much had free rein to create the plot, characters and young Boba’s own sensibility. Boba Fett grows up to be a bounty hunter, the nemesis of Han Solo, but as a mom, I felt I had a responsibility to show him as a resourceful, sensitive, sometimes frightened orphan who overcame his fears and even made a few friends his own age.

The best part of writing those stories was the fan mail I received from young boys, some of whom confessed to having read few other books. One shy third-grader named Evan asked whether he could do a phone interview with me for a school project. Afterward, his mother got on the phone and told me that the assignment was a report on a famous American. I was Evan’s first choice. His second? Thomas Jefferson.

Star Wars
By Alan Dean Foster
LucasBooks. 272 pp. $28

Originally posted on WashingtonPost.com.

New books on Salem's trials and modern pagans offer bewitching reading this Halloween season


In “The Witches: Salem, 1692,” a masterful account of the epidemic of paranoia and religious fervor that overcame residents of Essex County in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff takes on “America’s tiny reign of terror,” the Salem witch trials. Most Americans know of the trials only through fictional accounts like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “House of the Seven Gables” or Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible,” which conflated Salem’s vicious persecutions with those of the McCarthy era. Schiff painstakingly reconstructs not just the events of 1692 but the world that birthed them: Puritan New England, where Wabanaki raids and massacres were common, food scarce, and the winter darkness inescapable for months on end.

Her accomplishment is all the more remarkable because there are no records of the court sessions — Schiff sifted through archival material as well as historical accounts written by witnesses years after the epidemic.

All mention of the hangings were omitted or expunged from Salem’s official records; the court transcripts were supposedly destroyed in a 1765 fire. An exception is the evidence of witches, which included accounts of luminous jellyfish coming down the chimney, talking cats, satanic visitors, magic apples, and nocturnal flights over the Essex countryside.

The crisis began in the household of the Salem village minister, 30-year-old Samuel Parris. Salem village (the site of present-day Danvers) consisted of 90 isolated families, at a time when Boston had only 8,000 residents and the entire population of New England “would fit into Yankee Stadium.”

Salem’s villagers were a disputatious bunch, and Parris, their fourth minister, seems to have been unpopular — in 1691, his congregation voted not to collect his salary. Parris had grown up in an affluent merchant family in Barbados; he had no prior pastoral experience when he took the pulpit in 1689, for reasons that remain murky. Providing the incubator for an epidemic of witches was probably not among them.

Parris and his wife lived with their three children in a crowded household that included Parris’ 11-year-old niece, Abigail, and two Indian slaves, Tituba and her husband, John Indian. Sometime near the end of January 1692, first Abigail and then Parris’ 9-year-old daughter Betty began to act out: twitching, babbling, leaping into the air and pretending to fly. Salem’s Puritans had few amusements besides cultivating spite and nursing a grievance — no festivals or holidays enlivened the bitterly cold winters. Within weeks, the antics of the children fulfilled the role of reality TV, with as many as 50 visitors crowding the Parris house to gape at the girls.

A month after the onset of Abigail’s frenzy, Mary Sibley, a neighbor, watched the children while the Parrises were away. In their absence, Sibley decided to employ kitchen witchery to discern who or what had possessed the girls. She ordered John Indian to make a cake, mixing the girls’ urine with rye flour, and fed the resulting mess to the family dog. Parris was understandably enraged when he found out, but the damage was done.

A few days later, Abigail and Betty made the first false accusations of witchcraft. The devil began his rampage through Essex County.

More adolescent girls and two adult women joined ranks with Abigail and Betty, writhing as they jabbed accusatory fingers at those assembled in the courtroom. Neighbors accused neighbors, family members each other. Under questioning by a bench whose members presumed guilt, 55 people admitted that they were witches. The youngest confessor was 5 years old and spent nine months shackled in jail before her release. Her mother, a bellicose beggar imprisoned with her daughter and a newborn infant, was among the first to be executed.

By the time the epidemic ran its course late that year, 20 innocent people were dead. Among those executed were a highly respected, devout mother of seven, and an engaging minister accused of being a wizard. He recited the Lord’s Prayer before he was hanged, moving onlookers to tears.

Schiff dispels some common misconjectures about the trials, and ferrets out intriguing facts. Those thought to be witches were usually not people of color. Half of the Salem girls who were possessed were refugees or had been orphaned by the French-Indian wars. The median age of the accusers was 19, and well-educated girls were more likely to be major players — they would have read the gruesome captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson, a bestseller of its time, as well as what Schiff calls “martyrdom porn,” literary sources awash in blood, torment and demons.

Longtime border disputes between neighbors seem to be another instigation for the mass hysteria, along with the brutal weather and steady diet of hellfire preaching that provided jolts of lurid energy in an unbearably bleak environment. But ultimately, as Schiff puts it, “Salem is in part the story of what happens when a set of unanswerable questions meets a set of unquestioned answers.”

And only one person taking the stand points out what the exasperated parent of any modern teenager would know: “We must not believe all that these distracted children say.”

Compared with Salem’s punitive, backbiting Puritans, the real-life pagans and Wiccans who populate Alex Mar’s entertaining “Witches of America” are a cheerful bunch, even if they indulge in the occasional blood offering. Mar’s 2010 documentary “American Mystic” followed three devotees of alternative religions. In “Witches of America,” she continues and enlarges upon that quest: “I want to understand the strange confidence necessary to climb onto the roof and sing to the moon, or to write out commands in your own blood … I want to grasp the moment when that confidence becomes conviction …”

Her journey takes her back to one of the documentary’s subjects, a young woman named Morpheus whose practice is centered on a Celtic battle goddess who often takes corvid form. Mar also travels to New Orleans in search of “the heavier stuff” practiced by adherents of Aleister Crowley’s darker strain of “magick,” and to PantheaCon, an annual convention attended by thousands of pagans. There Mar encounters BNPs (Big Name Pagans) with rock star charisma and entourages.

“Do you ever get people you think want to be your new friend,” one BNP wonders, “and then instead you realize they’re just hanging around waiting to ask for an initiation?”

Mar is an often amusing guide to the household altars and henges of 21st century paganism, in which Wiccans conduct classes via Skype and online distance learning. But what will resonate most with readers is her genuine and touching search for transcendence, which leads to a conviction that all of these strands of belief are “strategies for staying alive. Some are simply more elaborate and inexplicable than others.”

The Witches: Salem, 1692
Stacy Schiff
Little, Brown: 512 pp, $32

Witches of America
Alex Mar
Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 274 pp, $26

Originally posted on LATimes.com.

In her memoir ‘M Train,’ Patti Smith opens up about her life and loves


“M Train,” by Patti Smith. (Knopf)This year marks the 40th anniversary of Patti Smith’s groundbreaking debut album, “Horses,” a sonic boom still sending aftershocks through music, literature and fashion. Her new memoir, “M Train,” is a Proustian reverie covering those four decades: a magical, mystical tour de force that begins in a tiny Greenwich Village cafe and ends as a dream requiem to the same place, encompassing an entire lost world in its 253 pages.

In her National Book Award-winning memoir “Just Kids” (2010), Smith took readers on a kaleidoscopic journey through the New York arts scene of the ’60s and ’70s that was the crucible for her poetry, drawing and, later, music. She also depicted in heart-rending detail her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, one of the most influential creative partnerships of the late 20th century.

As perceptive and beautifully written as its predecessor, “M Train,” for the most part, eschews the straightforward, linear storytelling of “Just Kids.” Rather, it is a more excursive record of a lifelong pilgrim, illustrated by Smith’s own black-and-white photographs, filled with mementos mori and personal accounts of her travels, her artistic obsessions and inspirations. Like her first memoir, this one probes a deep emotional core, as Smith writes poignantly about her marriage to the incendiary guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, who died in 1994 at age 45.

Smith recounts trips to Mexico; Reykjavik, Iceland; Berlin; Tokyo; London; Tangier, Morocco; and Madrid, alighting back in the Michigan home she shared with Fred, and after his death, her apartment in the East Village. The book loosely plays off its title, with 18 chapters (and a brief prologue) representing stations in her footloose life.

But don’t read “M Train” expecting revelations of rock-star excess. There are myriad hotel rooms here, but they’re temporary havens where a restless soul finds solace in the work of Jean Genet, Haruki Murakami, W.G. Sebald, J.G. Ballard, Roberto Bolaño, among many others, and also in crime series such as “The Killing” (Smith is a huge fan of detective fiction and TV and is adapting “Just Kids” for a Showtime series.)

In fact, “M Train” is a bibliophile’s trove, with striking insights into the books that ignited Smith’s imagination. Of her obsession with Murakami, she writes, “And then, fatally, I began ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.’ That was the one that did me in, setting in motion an unstoppable trajectory, like a meteor hurtling toward a barren and entirely innocent section of earth. There are two kinds of masterpieces. There are the classic works monstrous and divine such as ‘Moby Dick’ or ‘Wuthering Heights’ or ‘Frankenstein: a Modern Prometheus.’ And then there is the type wherein the writer seems to infuse living energy into words as the reader is spun, wrung, and hung out to dry. Devastating books.”

In “M Train,” the path of Smith’s own trajectory is marked by recurring visions of a laconic cowboy, who may remind some readers of Sam Shepard, her former lover and collaborator on the play ­“Cowboy Mouth.” She also describes a series of remarkably lucid dreams and her decades-long, globe-spanning quest for the ideal cafe and the perfect cup of coffee, her drug of choice.

Sometimes, Smith comes across as a modern flaneuse, combining a ­photographer’s ­visual acuity with the boulevardier’s appreciation of the ephemeral, pointillist details that create the sprawling canvas of a peripatetic life. Other times, she is an amused participant-observer, as in her droll account of her tenure in an obscure club whose 27 mathematically and geologically inclined members are identified by their numbers (Smith is No. 23). They meet once a year to honor the memory of the German scientist Alfred Wegener, who proposed the theory of continental drift.

Mostly, however, she comes across as a lover: of literature, of art and music, of her children and late husband; of her parents and siblings, friends and mentors, many of whom have died. There’s an elegiac tone to much of “M Train.” Smith visits the garden of Schiller’s summer house, sets out to channel the final moments in Wegener’s life and lays flowers at a memorial for the filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. She searches for the graves of the writers Ryunosuke Akutagawa and Osamu Dazai, both of whom killed themselves, and then she continues her “run of suicides” with a pilgrimage to Sylvia Plath’s tombstone. “Death by water, barbiturates, and carbon monoxide poisoning,” Smith muses; “three fingers of oblivion, outplaying everything.”In 1997, two years before his death, she visits the elderly Paul Bowles in Tangier:

“‘Paul, I have to go. I will come back to see you.’“

He opened his eyes and laid his long, lined hand upon mine. Now he is gone.”

There is also a heartbreaking account of Fred Smith’s death, followed soon after by that of her beloved brother, Todd. Shortly after, she buys a tiny bungalow in Rockaway Beach in Queens, an area that is then devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Yet despite all of these losses, there is extraordinary joy here, too. Smith’s bungalow survives the storm, and her own journey continues, illuminated by her openness to the world and her compassionate, questing spirit. “The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there,” she writes. “Oh, to be reborn within the pages of a book.”

Readers who share in Smith’s transcendent pilgrimage may find themselves reborn within the pages of this exquisite memoir.

By Patti Smith
Knopf. 253 pp. $25

Originally published on WashingtonPost.com.