An America That Never Was: Norman Rockwell's Vision

Norman Rockwell's studio in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Photo by    Carol M. Highsmith.

Norman Rockwell's studio in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith.

American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell

Deborah Solomon

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30.00 (cloth)

Seventy years after the appearance of the Four Freedoms sequence, among Norman Rockwell’s best-known works, the artist continues to be derided as an assembly-line purveyor of sentimental kitsch, a victim of his own popularity and of the changing tastes of the late twentieth century.

But that judgment isn’t damning. An American Art Museum exhibition recently featured his paintings from the collections of George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg. And on December 4, seven of his paintings went on the block at Sotheby’s, where his Saying Grace netted $46 million, tripling the previous record for a Rockwell sale.

Today viewers can admire Rockwell’s humor and eye for detail while dismissing the end result as saccharine and self-consciously folksy, embodying a mid-century patriotism and optimism that most Americans no longer feel or even recognize. For instance, nearly all of the figures in his pre-1960s work were white. His masters at the Saturday Evening Post, the magazine whose covers he illustrated from 1916 until 1963, refused to let him depict African Americans in anything but subservient roles.

It was a situation Rockwell attempted to remedy with his most influential and perhaps greatest work, The Problem We All Live With. Run as a two-page spread in Look magazine in 1964, after Rockwell had left the Post, the painting was inspired by Ruby Bridges, the first African American to enter an all-white grade school in New Orleans after court-ordered desegregation. Rockwell’s painting shows the first grader, escorted by federal marshals, determined and staring straight ahead. She ignores the concrete wall beside her, painted with the word “nigger”and the letters “K.K.K.,” and she ignores the unseen, ugly crowd that stands where we, the viewers, stand. The marshals are seen only from the shoulders down, emphasizing the girl’s solitude, and courage.

Five decades later the painting retains its power. Yet at the same time it demonstrates what the U.K. critic Mark Hudson calls “a peculiarly American approach to external conflict: the idea that it is what is being defended that counts; what is being fought about and against is almost irrelevant.” It is an acute insight into Rockwell’s work. His gaze nearly always focused not just on the home front but also on an idealized representation of home and comfort. His were not so much reflections of our country’s innocence as visions of an America that never was.

As Deborah Solomon writes in her expansive yet oddly superficial American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, “Rockwell’s art, however accessible, keeps his deepest inspirations hidden from view.” And they remain hidden, even as she takes readers on a long journey from Yonkers, where Rockwell’s maternal grandfather painted domestic chickens and game birds such as grouse and quail; to New Rochelle, where he lived alongside successful illustrators and artists such as Joseph Leyendecker (creator of the Arrow Collar Man) and Coles Phillips; to Arlington, the Vermont village where his flinty neighbors posed for myriad Saturday Evening Post covers; to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, another quaint New England town.

Rockwell began drawing when he was six or seven years old, copying cigarette cards. Other childhood influences were books illustrated by Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth. And his father used to read Dickens aloud to his children, which suggests young Norman would also have seen the work of George Cruikshank and John Leech, noted illustrators of Dickens’s novels and stories. Gangly and unhappy with his appearance, “a bean pole without the beans,” as he wrote in his 1960 autobiography My Adventures as an Illustrator, Rockwell left high school at sixteen and entered art school. His work became his life.

“I put everything into my work,” he wrote.

I feel that I don’t have anything else, that I must keep working or I’ll go back to being pigeon-toed, narrow-shouldered—a lump. When I was younger I used to work night and day, possessed by a sort of panic that I’d lose everything if I didn’t drive myself. . . . the drive is still in me. People ask me why I don’t take vacations or retire altogether. I can’t stop work, that’s the long and short of it.

The panic never went away. Despite the domestic warmth captured in his illustrations, the adult Rockwell was emotionally reticent, depressive, and plagued by near-constant anxiety. He had years of therapy with the famed psychologist Erik Erikson, who came up with the term “identity crisis” to describe a critical stage in human development when an adolescent grapples with various “identity fragments” and attempts to integrate them into a healthy psyche. It is a condition that Solomon’s Rockwell seems to embody. He wed three times, twice impulsively; none of his wives appears to have been a love match. Summing up his first marriage, which lasted fourteen years, he said, “It wasn’t particularly unhappy, but it certainly did not have any of the warmth and love of a real marriage.”

He had three children with his second wife, Mary, an alcoholic who was repeatedly hospitalized for depression. A major impetus behind the family’s move to Stockbridge was the presence there of the Austen Riggs Center, a well-known psychiatric hospital where Mary and Tom, one of the Rockwell’s three sons, had spent time. According to Solomon, Rockwell believed Mary “had trouble harmonizing with anyone besides psychiatrists.” It is something that might have been said of the hypochondriac Rockwell, who made a point of surrounding himself with doctors, going so far as to rent a garage apartment to an Austen Riggs psychiatrist and his family.

His late-life marriage to a retired schoolteacher, like him a septuagenarian, appears to have been content.

• • •

Rockwell took pains to refer to himself as an illustrator rather than a fancy-schmancy artist.

“The story is the first thing and the last thing,” he said in a taped lecture at the Art Center School in Pasadena in 1948. To gauge a painting’s success, he’d observe a viewer’s reaction to it.

If you came in, I would just wait to see if you laughed or not. I just love that. That isn’t what a fine-art man goes for. I don’t care whether it is art or not. And by the way, I always say that, and then I have to put in an argument that it is art.

While Rockwell’s artwork is often dismissed as kitsch, most of it lacks the most distinctive feature of kitsch—pretentiousness. An exception is the set of illustrations he did for Look in the 1960s and early 1970s, presidential portraits and attempts to illuminate serious social issues of the day, with titles such as How Goes the War on Poverty?, The Peace Corps (J.F.K.’s Bold Legacy), and The Right to Know. Few of these have anything like the power of The Problem We All Live With.

That power may have emerged from Rockwell’s association with child psychiatrist Robert Coles, a colleague of Erikson’s who witnessed Ruby Bridges being escorted to school. Coles volunteered to counsel Bridges during this period. In 1963 he published a study of the psychological effects of desegregation on African American children, and went on to write Children of Crisis: A Study of Courage and Fear. Solomon notes that Rockwell probably read Cole’s 1963 study, and it’s easy to imagine that he was deeply affected by it (he illustrated Coles’s 1968 Dead End School, another book about desegregation). Bridges didn’t model for Rockwell’s painting, but he captured the self-assurance and dignity of the little girl.

Solomon is rightly dismissive of those who refuse to see the artistic merits of Rockwell’s paintings. Yet American Mirror engages in more pop psychology than it does serious analysis of Rockwell’s work or its influences upon American popular culture. It is less mirror than telescope, peering through gaps in the curtains for glimpses of the unsavory in the artist’s life. The book suffers from le vice americaine, that tendency to reduce every life to childhood or sexual trauma or dysfunction or, ideally, all of the above. In Rockwell’s case, there were mother issues (she, too, was a hypochondriac), an ineffectual father, and an older brother who was a star athlete, “a real boy’s boy” whom Rockwell grew estranged from.

Most of all, there is the question of Rockwell’s sexual identity: Was he a repressed homosexual? And did he have a secret thing for young boys?

Solomon isn’t the first to explore sexual undercurrents in Rockwell’s work. In 2006 Richard Halpern’s Norman Rockwell: Underside of Innocence made many of the same points that Solomon does. John Waters’s late films gleefully explode Rockwell’s vision of a more innocent America. He told Solomon, “That painting he did about the little black girl walking . . . inspired Lil’ Inez in Hairspray.” Pecker, the innocent savant obsessively photographing his friends and neighbors (including male and female strippers) in Waters’s eponymous film, could be a sweetly perverse shutterbug stand-in for Rockwell. David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks can be seen as sexualized subversions of Rockwell’s golden age vision of small-town America, just as Lynch’s The Straight Story is a Disney-produced homage to the Rockwellian ideal. “Norman Rockwell meets Hieronymus Bosch,” as Lynch’s sound mixer described Blue Velvet. “I love his work,” Lynch told Solomon in a 2008 interview.

Solomon presents a great deal of anecdotal evidence for Rockwell’s repressed homosexuality. She makes much of a 1934 fishing trip the forty-year-old Rockwell made with his studio assistant Fred Hildebrandt, five years his junior. The two shared a bunk in a remote Quebec camp, with their guides in the upper bunk. In his diary Rockwell writes, “Fred is most fetching in his long flannels” and later, “We paddle to portage near a waterfall. I strip and frollick about—see photos.”

“All of this,” Solomon writes, “is suggestive material, up to and including the ‘lick’ in his spelling of ‘frollick.’”

Really? Given Rockwell’s reticence, would he truly have left a written record of anything that would suggest physical impropriety with another man? Whatever Rockwell’s predilections might have been, Solomon seems almost comically off the mark here. Her speculations take a somewhat darker turn when she discusses Before the Shot, a 1958 Post cover. It shows an eight-year-old boy holding up his pants so that part of his bare backside is exposed. The doctor behind him prepares a needle as the boy stares suspiciously at the doctor’s medical diploma hanging on the wall. The painting is meant to be funny—it is funny, if you can put any thoughts of pedophilia from your mind, which Solomon believes is almost impossible to do in twenty-first century America.

Solomon also sees latent homoeroticism in The Runaway, in which the same young model, hobo’s bindlestick on the floor beside him, is painted sitting in a diner with the kindly cop who is buying him lunch before taking him home to his parents. The diner’s amused owner leans expectantly on the counter, presumably waiting for the boy to decide what he wants to eat.

“The officer represents the warm arm of the law,” Solomon writes:

authority at its paternal best; he’s the quintessential Officer Friendly. On closer reading, however, the cop can be seen as a figure of tantalizing masculinity, a muscle man in a skintight uniform and boots. There is something sensual about the expanse of his massive back, the sharp creases in his shirt formed where the fabric pulls.

Solomon also raises an eyebrow over Rockwell’s long affiliation with the Boy Scouts of America, first as a longtime illustrator for Boys’ Life, and later as illustrator of the Boy Scout calendars, which he drew nearly every year between 1925 and 1976, two years before he died.

Solomon’s suggestion that repressed homosexuality was the dark wound that bled into Rockwell’s work is not necessarily wrong, but who knows? And who cares? It is a blinkered view, and her zeal to unearth hidden meanings contributes to some odd readings of individual paintings, a with her analysis of Saying Grace, the Thanksgiving-themed 1951 Post cover and record-seller. The painting shows a grandmother and grandson, formally if not expensively dressed, saying grace in a crowded restaurant to the bemusement of other, more casual diners. Solomon eloquently describes the work as “a ballet of gazes, a delicate interplay of actions and reactions that together affirm the power [of] . . . the act of looking.” She goes on to note:

A smattering of backward, Cubist-style lettering on the window—“TNARU”—spells the end of the word restaurant while containing the anagram UN-ART and suggesting the self-mocking message U R an ANT.

Well, okay, maybe. Whether or not Post readers saw a coded reminder of their own cosmic insignificance, in 1955 they voted Saying Grace their favorite Rockwell cover.

• • •

The Norman Rockwell of American Mirror is a cold fish, clinically anxious and emotionally detached from those closest to him, dependent on psychiatrists and pharmaceutical amphetamines to combat panic attacks. He sounds more asexual than anything else. His third wife lived with another woman before she wed him, and afterward didn’t share his bed. “At last, he had found his feminine ideal,” Solomon writes, “an elderly schoolteacher who was unlikely to make sexual demands on him.”

Yet the golden glow that clings to his images of young boys (and girls) doesn’t strike me as a haze of latent sexual desire. It is a more complex and intense longing: for childhood, for family, for human connection. And it is one that Rockwell himself was acutely aware of.

“Maybe as I grew up and found the world wasn’t the perfectly pleasant place I thought it to be,” Rockwell mused:

I unconsciously decided that, even if it wasn’t an ideal world, it should be and painted only aspects of it—pictures in which there were no drunken slatterns or self-centered mothers, in which, on the contrary, there were only Foxy Grandpas who played football with the kids, and boys fished from logs and got up circuses in the backyard. If there was any sadness in this created world of mine it was a pleasant sadness. If there were problems, they were humorous problems. The people in my pictures aren’t mentally ill or deformed. The situations they get into are commonplace, everyday situations, not the agonizing crises and tangles of everyday life.

In his introduction to Norman Rockwell: 332 Magazine Covers (1979), Christopher Finch writes:

Every image interlocks with half a dozen others. In a sense they are all part of one massive work. Each takes on a greater significance because of those that have preceded it and those that will follow it. . . . We should not judge Rockwell by any individual work, nor even by a selection of his finest paintings, but rather by the cumulative effect of his total output.

Viewed like this, Rockwell’s century-spanning American panorama isn’t nostalgia or kitsch. Nor is it the “social document” that Solomon memorably calls “America before the fall—a world devoid of pollution, drugs, and violent crime.” It’s something richer and stranger: an alternate history of the United States, one as Rockwell wished it had been. Even his autobiography is a kind of alternate history. “His memory,” his son Tom told Solomon in 1999, “was the Norman Rockwell version of his life.” Most of Rockwell’s work is not even illustratio in the purest sense of that word—images designed to elucidate an individual text—but invention.

Nearly all of the work he is best known for—the 332 covers he did for the Saturday Evening Post—depicted vivid scenes and characters, executed in photorealist detail, that were sprung from his own imagination. They are scenes and characters from a movie playing in Rockwell’s head, cast with his neighbors in Arlington and Stockbridge, a film that he projected onto canvas for an audience of millions.

Or, perhaps, his works constitute a deck of magically resonant tarot cards, Major and Minor Arcana depicting the distinctly American, numinous world echoed in their titles: “Contentment,” “Springtime,” “A Temporary Setback,” “First Flight,” “The Critic,” “Fleeing Hobo,” “Armchair General,” “Ticket Agent.” Shuffled and reshuffled, they can be arranged in countless patterns, avatars creating a narrative of hopeful yearning that still manages to move us, even as the imaginary world they inhabit remains forever just beyond our reach.

Originally published on BostonReview.net.

Was glam any different from pop? Simon Reynolds has the answer in 'Shock and Awe'

David Bowie in May 1973; a year earlier, he'd memorably performed "Starman" on "Top of the Pops." (Associated Press)

David Bowie in May 1973; a year earlier, he'd memorably performed "Starman" on "Top of the Pops." (Associated Press)

Myriad books have been written about the birth of punk, its cultural godparents in the Warhol Factory and Detroit, and distaff cousins in the United Kingdom, where Margaret Thatcher was punk’s evil stepmother. 

Yet with a few exceptions, punk’s gold-sequined older sibling, glam rock, has mostly been ignored by the critical establishment. Simon Reynolds’ “Shock and Awe” goes a long way to fill that void. If David Bowie’s death inspired more writers to tackle the subject, they’ll be hard-pressed to surpass Reynolds’ work. 

The best music criticism comes from equal parts love and obsession, often cut with a modicum of grief — the dissolution or slow decline of a once-great artist can break your heart as much as a great love song. Reynolds' behemoth (the book is 700 pages) grew from his exposure to Marc Bolan on "Top of the Pops" when Reynolds was 8.

Still—700 pages devoted to a self-consciously superficial musical phenomenon that blazed at the dawn of the '70s, then fizzled out in just five years? Reynolds states that his book has been cooking since 1985, which is a long time to contemplate what seems like a simple question: "What is it that makes the glamorousness of glam different from the standard-issue razzle-dazzle of pop music?" The answer can be summed up in two words: David Bowie, whose career runs through "Shock and Awe" like real gold thread among all the rhinestones and Lurex.

Glam was music for kids (mostly white) weaned on the Beatles, whose 1970 breakup opened a chasm between 1960s rock and whatever would come next. This rising generation of young teenagers formed a huge audience eager for a music to call their own. In the U.S., we called it glitter rock, and our exposure was mostly limited to scattershot AM/FM airplay and the occasional, much-anticipated appearance of a band like Slade or T. Rex or Mott the Hoople on the biweekly TV series "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert." The Brits, on the other hand, had weekly shows like "Top of the Pops" and "The Old Grey Whistle Test" that regularly introduced new acts to a mass audience.

Enter Bolan, whose platform shoes stomped all over the last remnants of the '60s. Formerly a member of the gonzo-styled band John's Children, Bolan went on to form the winsome folk-rock duo Tyrannosaurus Rex. After penning twee, occult-tinged songs ("She Was Born to Be My Unicorn"), Bolan ditched his acoustic guitar and picked up a white Fender Stratocaster, whereupon Tyrannosaurus Rex morphed into the hard-rocking T. Rex.

T. Rex's self-titled debut contained a few hippie holdovers, but glam finally made its entrance when Bolan sashayed onto the set of "Top of the Pops"  in 1971, bedecked in satin and his wife's glitter makeup, and warbled "Hot Love." The album "Electric Warrior" appeared soon after, riding on the success of monster hit singles "Get It On" (in the U.S., "Bang a Gong") and "Jeepster."

Meanwhile, Bowie, Bolan's brilliant frenemy, was struggling through a series of hitless albums, despite (or because of) his knack for relentless self-invention, leapfrogging from Anthony Newley-styled cabaret songs to the horrors of "The Laughing Gnome," finally penning the melancholy "Space Oddity," which became his first hit.

In 1970, he released "The Man Who Sold the World." Its sleeve flaunted a photo of a languid Bowie sporting pre-Raphaelite locks and a long blue-and-white satin gown. Later, an equally androgynous image adorned "Hunky Dory," though more Garbo than fin de siecle damsel.

Then came Bowie's historic April 14, 1972 "Top of the Pops" performance of "Starman." Bowie stood beside guitarist Mick Ronson, both gorgeously attired in outrageous outfits by designer Freddie Burretti. In a gesture that looks tame now, Bowie drew close to Ronson and suggestively snaked an arm over the guitarist's lamé-clad shoulder and then sang the line, "I had to phone someone so I picked on you," and with a sly, knowing smile, stared and pointed directly at the camera, beaming his message across the country.

For a generation awaiting their watershed moment—Elvis shaking his televised pelvis in 1956, the Beatles storming "Ed Sullivan" in 1964—this was it.

Americans missed that broadcast, one reason glam never caught on here the way it did in the U.K. But there were other factors as well, which Reynolds nimbly examines. U.K. glam's camp hearkened to the rollicking, tongue-in-cheek excesses of English music hall and panto dames, rather than the brittle irony of the Warhol Factory. Britain also retained remnants of a once-vibrant dance-hall culture, and unlike that other musical stalwart of the '70s, prog, you could actually dance to glam's 1950s-inflected rhythms.

American glam trended darker, inspired in part by the divine decadence of Bob Fosse’s film “Cabaret,” with Joel Grey as the sexually ambiguous, demonic MC whose Pierrot whiteface looked like a death mask. Lou Reed’s detached, almost funereal litany of Factory drag queens in “Walk on the Wild Side,” its chorus fading into Bowie’s ghostly saxophone solo. And America’s obsession with violence provided fertile, blood-soaked ground for Alice Cooper’s Grand Guignol antics featuring dead babies and boa constrictors, as well as the (literally) self-lacerating performances by the ferocious Iggy Pop, frontman for the Stooges. 

British glam had its high-toned side, represented by Bowie, of course, as well as Roxy Music, with a legendary lineup that included Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Bryan Ferry. 

Still, much U.K. glam was self-mocking and seemingly impervious to embarrassment. "Shock and Awe" encourages YouTube viewing of performances by nearly forgotten bands like the Sweet and Mud, whose deliriously silly "Dyna-Mite" and "Tiger Feet" spawned a dance known as the shoulder jive. A beefy Gary Glitter rolled eyes and hips, lip-syncing "Rock and Roll Part 2," though amusement at his ludicrous prancing is undercut by knowledge of pedophilic crimes that he was sentenced for in 2015.

Indeed, the history of glam is haunted by the faces of the young female groupies, some barely pubescent, who came to be as much a part of a musician's wardrobe as feather boas and teased hair. On the Sunset Strip, Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco drew all the name bands of the day, along with an army of camp followers like Sable Starr and Pamela Des Barres.

By 1975, glam's target demographic was aging out of red satin hot pants and into the monochrome palette favored by the Ramones and Patti Smith. As the decades passed, it seemed little more than the brief interregnum between the 1960s and the long shadow cast by punk. But Reynolds makes a good argument for glam representing an "individualized, privatized form of revolution" and "glamour as a spooky insistence of self."

Its most enduring cultural legacy is glam's open engagement with the fluidity of gender: with gay, bisexual and trans identities. Reynolds cites the mass popularity of Queen's Freddie Mercury, whose Beardsleyesque flamboyance somehow managed to elude the attention of the band's audience, enabling him to enrapture them in "an embrace that hovered somewhere between acceptance and ignorance." As Bowie wrote in 2001, "We were giving ourselves permission to reinvent culture the way we wanted it. With great big shoes."

"Shock and Awe" ends with a chapter noting glam's influences over the last 40 years. Unsurprisingly, it's a Bowie-centric list. Ultimately, "Shock and Awe's" examination of the glam era doesn't solve the mystery of who David Bowie was, or begin to fill the cultural black hole left by his death. "What if there is an afterlife, after all?" Reynolds ponders as he listens to the last track of Bowie's final album, "Blackstar." "Perhaps that's another definition of glamour: lustrous images generated by organic, perishable beings that live on in personal and collective memory, long after their source has withered."

Hand's most recent novel is "Hard Light."

"Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-first Century"

By Simon Reynolds

Dey St. Books: 704 pp., $18.99 paper

Originally published on LATimes.com.

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

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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

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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?

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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.

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

Originally posted on WashingtonPost.com.