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Book Report: We find a new tragedy, Marlena's mystique this week

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Readers and playgoers interested in Shakespeare and those who aren't will find much to enjoy is a new book by Minnesota-born Arthur Phillips.

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When I was a student in Ohio the older folks in the department told about a farmer who was so passionate about the bard that he named all of his daughters after Shakespearean heroines. One was still alive and never missed a Shakespearean play or lecture given at the university.

Her name?

Desdemona Schwartz.

I fall in the other category. I don't mind reading Shakespeare, which means I can have footnotes to refer to. But watching his plays, that's another matter.

I can do "Julius Caesar" because it's simple, but keep me awake during "Macbeth" will be more than most people can handle.

Arthur Phillips' hero is a character named Arthur. His father, a loveable con man, who pops in and out of Stillwater prison throughout the novel, is an inveterate Shakespeare fan.

So is Arthur's twin sister Dana.

Arthur, on the other hand, has no time for the Bard of Avon. He prefers Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

This is all complicated when Arthur's father presents him with a weathered copy of a play purportedly written by William Shakespeare in 1597. It's called "The Tragedy of Arthur."

It falls to the son, a book reviewer, to write the introduction to this never acknowledged play for a new Modern Library edition.

In the course of the long intro, we learn all about the Arthur's father, an accomplished forger; his sister Dana, a brilliant lesbian; his mother, who hails from Ely; and her second husband, also from the Iron Range.

Throughout the introduction, which is even more complicated than the real-life concern about who wrote these plays, there's a kid from Avon, who never went to college, the Earl of Oxford, Sir Francis Bacon, or Christopher Marlowe (he was a likely candidate when I was a kid, a kid who couldn't care less.)

Arthur's sister Dana has her own theory. She figures it was written by a pal of the Earl of Oxford's son, who couldn't use his own name because he was Jewish. (The Minneapolis family is Jewish.)

Once all this gets chewed over, comes the frosting on the cake: Arthur Phillips ends the novel with a play, all five acts of it, including an ornate frontispiece.

It's called "The Tragedy of Arthur," by William Shakespeare. Or was it Arthur's father, the bardophile? Or was it Arthur?

There's something for everyone in this sophisticated novel about literature, including references to well-known Twin City places and Twin Citians, like former District Attorney Gary Flakne (my old neighbor).

Phillips, author of several novels and a five-time "Jeopardy" winner, writes with grace and style and, above all, humor. Let's hope that the appearance of "The Tragedy of Arthur" (Random House, $26) bodes well for American fiction in the 21st century.

*****

"Dietrich," (University of Minnesota Press, $22.95 paper) is a reprint of a 1992 book by the late Steven Bach, who forsook teaching American literature to become head of production for United Artists. His Hollywood connections mean this huge volume about the androgynous Ms. Dietrich is loaded with insider anecdotes and sports all the scholarly mechanisms Bach must have learned during his days as a professor. (The bibliography is 21 pages long!)

There's some very interesting material in the body of the book, along with haunting photographs of Dietrich with her husband, her boyfriends, her girl friends and ends with Dietrich living in Paris and being shunned by old friends because they were afraid she'd ask to borrow money from them.

Dietrich was not an easy person. When it was rumored that her Svengali, director Josef von Sternberg was going to leave his wife for Marlene, he replied, "I'd as soon share a phone booth with a frightened cobra."

For all her unpredictability one thing is certain. Dietrich was unfailingly patriotic when it came to her adopted country. And she was anti-Nazi to the end.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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