02 December 2010

Home Again

Vacation is when I have time to read, especially when vacation takes place on the slow-moving isles of Aloha. Tony, you say, you are retired and all, so what are you talking about, “vacation”?

Since the late 14th century English has used the word “vacation” to mean “freedom or release from some activity or occupation.” This kind of freedom is difficult to maintain, I’ve found. Leave the back door unlocked and Life walks in with jobs of work that no one gets paid to do. Get the groceries, clean the garage, fill the driveway potholes –  “do the do” as Joselyn says.

I prefer to visualize the underlying Latin word “vacare” which translates to “be empty, free, or at leisure.” That I can do. As long as I don’t join another non-profit Board.

When in the state of “vacare” I have uninterrupted time to read big books for big pleasure. On this “vacare-ation” I spent quality time with several such, all worthy of your precious time.

I started with “Night Soldiers” by Alan Furst, then moved on to Steven Pressfield’s “The Afghan Campaign,” and finished with the new Bill Bryson brick, “At Home: A Short History of Private Life.”

“Night Soldiers” was a great place to begin. It took me away from the sighing waves and basking green sea turtles to a more difficult world, a world about to suffer World War. When I arrived at the final pages I sighed with an audible “wow” of pleasure, relief, excitement, satisfaction; wishing, of course, that the book could have gone on much longer than 456 pages.

Furst calls “Night Soldiers” “a panoramic spy novel” probably because it covers many pre-war years and a vast swath of territory, from Siberia to Brooklyn. The first sentence:

“In Bulgaria, in 1934, on a muddy street in the river town of Vidin, Khristo Stoianev saw his brother kicked to death by fascist militia.”

The ensuing story takes Khristo from his village on the Danube to Moscow, where he is trained by the Soviets to be a spy and a soldier. He fights in revolutionary Spain, is captured in France, finds perilous freedom in Paris, and finally arrives in America. We share consciousness with Khristo as he gradually figures out his place in the world.

Early in the book a Soviet recruiter befriends Khristo: “He was quiet for a time. Somewhere out on the river, in the distance, was the sound of a foghorn. When he spoke again, his voice was sad and quiet. ‘...Do not waste your time with grief. It is a great flaw in our character, our Slavic nature, to do that. We are afflicted with a darkness of the soul and fall in love with our pain... Here, in this town, it will go on. You will not survive it. They murdered your brother; they must now presume you to be their mortal enemy, very troubling to keep an eye on...”

“Night Soldiers”, first published in 1988, may be the best of the uniformly excellent Alan Furst novels. It’s not as singularly focused as some of his others. This book goes to more places, with more characters and more adventures, than most of his other books. There is time here to consider the old Ottoman empire and postwar America, too.

If Alan Furst sounds interesting, you could well start with “Night Soldiers.” It’s the first of Furst’s spy/intrigue/historical novels, setting up the qualities of time, tone and place for the dozen or so that have so far followed. Happily for readers, some of the characters introduced here reappear in later books.

As for Bill Bryson and Steven Pressfield... well, I’m back from vacation, or vacare, and I’ll get around to these guys in future essays.


The Online Etymology Dictionary

Alan Furst’s “near history” novels:

Night Soldiers (1988) Random House paperback $15. ISBN 9780375760006.
Dark Star (1991)
The Polish Officer (1995)
The World at Night (1996)
Red Gold (1999)
Kingdom of Shadows (2000)
Blood of Victory (2003)
Dark Voyage (2004)
The Foreign Correspondent (2006)
The Spies of Warsaw (2008)
Spies of the Balkans (2010)

1 comment:

mycall gee said...

Tony, you could be a foreign correspondent to the nation of Bookland. When you're on your travels, I'd like you to contact the locals and dig out the stories of what and how and when and who and especially why they read. As you vacate you could go into bookshops in Italy or Iceland and find out how their interactions with books compare to ours. I see you in an inkstained pith helmet exploring how people read (or don't), buy (and sell) books of all kinds in all places. What do people in Scotland think about e-book readers? Is there pressure upon young Chinese to learn the western alphabet? Does Alan Furst translate well into other languages and do Russians find him engaging?

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