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Book Report: Read about revolutionaries, get spooked, too

I remember my political science professor telling us naïve freshmen that if you took strip of plastic and bent it into a hula hoop, fascists and communists would end up together at the juncture where the two ends meet.

I've just examined two biographies one from the left, another from the right, that seem to bear out the old prof's metaphor.

First there's "Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary Life," by Joshua Rubenstein (Yale University Press, $25). It tells the story of an implacable, rigid communist, who sort of fell into the party and met his end with an axe in his head in Mexico.

The other is "Hitler's Hangman: The Life of Heydrich," by Robert Gerwarth (Yale University Press, $35). Heydrich fell into Nazism rather by accident when he was thrown out of military school for promising to marry a woman and then backing out.

He joined the party and rose to prominence because of implacability and rigidity, finally becoming Reich minister to Bohemia and Moravia after the Germans took over Czechoslovakia.

Heydrich met his end when the underground blew him to smithereens as he made his way to work at Prague Castle.

On a trip to Czechoslovakia years ago, I remember our guide saying that Czechs could get along with anyone, citing the country's willingness to join the eastern bloc after World War II. He didn't mention the Heydrich affair, but should have. Gerwarth claims that Heydrich was picked as a likely assassination target by premier in exile Edvard Benes because Benes was embarrassed that his countrymen had done so little to harass the Nazi occupants of his former country.

Larry Millett is truly a Renaissance man. The former architecture reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press has branched out with a series of fascinating novels featuring Sherlock Holmes on assignment in Minnesota.

But he hasn't forgotten architecture. That's obvious in "Once There Were Castles," by Millett (University of Minnesota Press, $39.95), a beautiful coffee table book full of pictures and texts of great Twin Cities dwellings that have since been torn down in the name of progress.

One of the most interesting texts is not about the most elaborate house in the book. They are photos of the William King Farm, a showplace of horses and English cattle owned by King, founder of the Minneapolis Tribune.

At one time, its size grew to 1400 acres, the largest piece of property in the city of Minneapolis where Lyndale Park in south Minneapolis is located. The final picture shows it rotting with an old lady, King's sister-in-law, standing out front, in the middle of an unkempt lawn. Shades of "Grey Gardens."

"Haunted Wisconsin," by Michael Norman and the late Beth Scott came out 31 years ago and now it's out again from the University of Wisconsin's Terrace Books ($19.95), having been revised and added to by Norman, a professor emeritus of journalism at UW-River Falls.

Doubters may scoff, but I've come to admire the thoroughness of Norman's research and one specific chapter especially attracted my attention. In one of the most publicized of Wisconsin's hauntings, the Lynch family of St. Croix County takes center stage.

Back in the 1870s, all manner of weird stuff was claimed to be seen by observers of the Lynch family and a pair of scissors that flew around their house cutting up at a quilting bee in the Lynch parlor.

The little town of Rock Elm got into the act and I sat up and took notice. I'd been in that town to write a story about its famous ice cream social. No one could explain why 1,200 people show up every month for the affair from many states of the union.

Many of the people I interviewed spoke in 17th century English. One man who claimed to be a lifelong resident of St. Croix County told me, "I be partial to vaniller."

My wife took many photos. None of them turned out. I went again, photoed again. None of them turned out.

Puzzled, the editor of Wisconsin Trails magazine, my boss, sent its professional photographer Gilbert Tanner to try again. He took several pictures. None of them turned out.

You get my drift.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.