Posts Tagged ‘Alan Furst’

Jesse Kornbluth here, from HeadButler.com, recalling the summers when I did nothing but read.

A friend suggested I pull together a reading list for the summer. I had a hard time taking her seriously. She’s one of the smartest, best-read people I know — I’d much rather read her list than mine.

But I understand why she’d like mine. Most of the books that you hear about elsewhere do fall onto my desk each week. I read at least a page of each. And then I give them away and look for an old, forgotten page-turner.

So what you’ll get here is balance: some new, some old. What you won’t get are books that take all summer to read; I have had the summer of reading Tolstoy, and while it was life-changing, it was only possible because I was a kid and my bills were small.

What you really won’t get here is rigorous intellectual challenge. New ideas? Yes, I hope so. But if, like me, you find the news close to unbearable, what you want from a summer book is a wallow in intelligent pleasure. And at a length you can handle in a weekend.

So: short books, mostly fiction, masterfully written, satisfaction highly likely. Slather on the sunscreen, pour the iced tea, and have at them.

Mission to Paris: The latest from Alan Furst, again set in France, again in 1938. If you’ve read any Furst, you have reason to hope this will be both delicious and exciting; if you haven’t, you showed up at just the right time.

The Stories of John Cheever
: 700 pages, but they go down like gin-and-tonics on the manicured lawn of a Connecticut hostess.

Defending Jacob: Everyone in this family annoyed me. But the set-up is bullet-proof: A teenager is killed, and it sure looks as if the killer is his classmate, son of the DA who prosecutes homicides.

The Fault in Our Stars: The best book I’ve read this year, and I say that even though it’s a Young Adult novel about kids with cancer. Just do it, for God’s sake.

50 Shades of Grey: Women beaten down in their marriages or limited in their sexual expression will find delight here. I don’t see how anyone else might — the sex is so bad you soon start to skip it. And isn’t that why you bought it?
Better choices:
The Garden of Eden: Hemingway’s surprising novel about a couple on their honeymoon who make it a threesome.
Jules et Jim: The French classic about three in what might be love
Smut: Two Alan Bennett short stories about Brits who step out of the box
A Sport and a Pastime: James Salter’s classic about a lost American man and a French shop girl.

Levels of the Game: In one epic tennis match, we learn everything about Clark Graebner and Arthur Ashe.

Bonjour Tristesse: Francoise Sagan wrote this sophisticated beach romance when she was 18.

The Quiche of Death: A London PR executive retires early to savor the joys or English country life. As if.

Just Kids: Patti Smith’s fevered memoir.

The Kid from Tomkinsville:
A baseball novel. For kids. Maybe, but I read it again every few years.

The Queen’s Gambit: The more I tell you, the more you’ll wonder why. Just buy it. Read it. And pass it on.

These Days Are Ours: 20something New Yorkers, in the months after 9/11. Pitch perfect.

Sharon Olds: Poems that tell stories.

The True Believer: As we move closer to the election, Eric Hoffer’s short book will make more and more sense.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsene Lupin: A note, left in a chateau: “Arsene Lupin, gentleman burglar, will return when the furniture is genuine.”

Radioactive: This inventive approach to the lives of Marie and Pierre Curie literally glows in the dark.

Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World’s Most Coveted Handbag: All the pleasure of finding a treasure, but without spending a dime.

Jesus’ Son: Like your humor black? It doesn’t get blacker.

Dora Lives: Surfing’s baddest boy.

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week taking you to Paris — in 1938.

If you have a deadline looming or even a busy week, the absolute last thing you want to do is crack open “Mission to Paris” and think you’re going to read just a chapter, because you’re not.

You’re going to read when you shouldn’t be reading. You’ll read at lunch. On the street. Deep into the night.

But if you then try to convey your enthusiasm for “Mission to Paris” to someone who has never read any of Alan Furst’s 13 novels, you may have a hard time. These are spy thrillers by category, but the main characters aren’t usually spies; in this book, the hero is a Hollywood movie star who, in 1938, is “loaned out” to a Parisian producer to play the lead in a French film. More and more, in total violation of convention, Furst’s novels feature romance, invariably with women who are not swimsuit models. As for suspense, even before you start a Furst novel set in Europe during the run-up to World War II, you know at least part of the ending — the hero is not going to kill Hitler and save the world.

So why are Alan Furst’s novels so addictive?

Just read the first paragraph of “Mission to Paris.”

In Paris, the evenings of September are sometimes warm, excessively gentle, and, in the magic particular to that city, irresistibly seductive. The autumn of 1938 began in just such weather and on the terraces of the best cafés, in the famous restaurants, at the dinner parties one wished to attend, the conversation was, of necessity, lively and smart: fashion, cinema, love affairs, politics, and, yes, the possibility of war—that too had its moment. Almost anything, really, except money. Or, rather, German money. A curious silence, for hundreds of millions of francs — tens of millions of dollars — had been paid to some of the most distinguished citizens of France since Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933. But maybe not so curious, because those who had taken the money were aware of a certain shadow in these transactions and, in that shadow, the people who require darkness for the kind of work they do.

An immense amount of information is conveyed in those 155 words. The tension between the lively start of the fall season in Paris and the conversation no one wants to have about German money. The way that money compromises the rich Frenchmen who take it. The presence of shady characters. And, not least, the feeling you get when you have fallen under the spell of a master storyteller. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

And that’s just the first paragraph.

The first chapter — click here to read it — follows a French fool who absconds with enough of that German money to live comfortably in another country for years. Think he gets away? Or do you think we see, in brisk, no nonsense prose, the efficiency of the German operation in France — in 1938?

All of that suggests what awaits Fredric Stahl when he arrives in Paris to make a movie. He’s no matinee idol: “He couldn’t punch another man, he wasn’t Clark Gable, and he couldn’t fight a duel, he was not Errol Flynn. But neither was he Charles Boyer — he wasn’t so sophisticated. Mostly he played a warm man in a cold world.”

The Germans, knowing Stahl was born in Vienna, are interested in him. And they want so little: come to Berlin, just to judge a festival of films about mountains. $10,000 for a day’s work. Lufthansa will fly him over and back.

Stahl is less than interested. But then he gets a taste of German commitment to the triumph of the Reich. (As Goebbels’s people liked to say, “We don’t send out press releases. We send out operatives, and then other people send out press releases.”)

Stahl prudently consults an American spymaster.

“You’re not a spy,” the officer tells him. “That takes nerves of steel, and soon enough becomes a full-time job.” A “but” follows: “If, in your time here you, ah, stumble on something, something important, it wouldn’t be a bad idea if you let me know about it.”

And that happens.

Reading rapidly to the end, you could say that the reason you’re so involved with a Furst novel — if you’re new to his books, you may want to go right on to The Foreign Correspondent and The Spies of Warsaw and Spies of the Balkans — is because he writes so well.

True enough. But I see another reason: At the start of a Furst novel, his main characters are not spies. They’re drawn into espionage by circumstance, but also, I think, by character. They see clearly that there are good guys and bad guys, and at some point, you’ve got to decide where you stand. So although these novels are about Europe in the years before World War II, they’re also exquisite little morality plays about right now, right here.

But mostly, damned if they don’t make you think, “I’ve got to get to Paris, and soon.”

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