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"A Hero of France" by Alan Furst

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A Hero of France will rank as one of the public’s favorite books by Alan Furst, I’m sure of it. It features Paris, everyone’s favorite destination, and a World War II French resistance cell operator, a protagonist of ready appeal for a large number of readers. And as usual, Mr. Furst does an excellent job of rendering the epoch in his details.


Hero recounts a time early in the War, shortly after Germany began its occupation of the northern portion of France, including Paris. The Gestapo and the SS are not yet in charge of the civilian population - this was still the responsibility of the German military police. This arrangement deteriorated when
Hitler decided the French would never join the Axis, which coincided with Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia.

In this narrow time frame, marginally gentler (if you will permit me) than the regime that followed, Mathieu, the nom de guerre of the Resistance team leader, risks his own life and those of his followers, to rescue and evacuate RAF pilots downed over France. A clever police inspector from Hamburg, recruited into the German occupiers’ security apparatus, becomes his nemesis for a time, and forces him into flight.

This is an atmospheric book; it captures the cracks and deep shadows of wartime Paris very well. It illuminates a hard time for Paris and France, that was about to become a lot harder. I didn’t quite get the depth and intrigue I found in The Night Soldiers, but this is a fun read anyway.

"Submergence" by J.M. Ledgard

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A British spy and a scientist-mathematician fall in love over Christmas at a Ritz in the French countryside, and then must go their separate ways. From there they each submerge into depths beyond their previous experience. In this simple framework bloom meditations of a challenging scientific and philosophical nature, such that they pretty well dominate the narrative. This is a contemplative novel, but it sustains a suspense in which life fences with death; and it is a scientific novel in which nevertheless two souls meet and complete each other. It accomplishes all these ends completely and gratifyingly. Deep, thought-provoking, excellent stuff.

We meet James and Danielle independently as they check into the same exclusive hotel on the Atlantic coast of France. We already know however that later on, James, a British intelligence operative, is captured by jihadists in Somalia, and begins many months of a nightmarish existence. Danielle for her part believes the key to life on the planet, and maybe answers to some of the more intractable social and scientific challenges, lie in the deep ocean, where life is chemosynthetic instead of photosynthetic, and where we, as a world and scientific community, have just now begun to scratch the surface of knowledge.

As the story progresses, James wages a constant private battle to keep his life and his  identity as he’s shoved from place to place, beaten, kicked, poisoned, and alternately hectored and ignored. Danielle prepares for immersion into the depths beneath the Greenland Sea, sending letters - written out in felt tip on pages from her notebook - to her lover James. Along the way each story poses its issues and challenges. For James, the immediate imperative of keeping his life leads to thoughts of faith - he’s a British Catholic - and a modern world where young men and boys are radicalized to jihadism by clerical Muslims. These thoughts find expression in some of the worst
conditions in the world - water-starved wadis in East Africa, ruined Italian villas where the water has stagnated, inhospitable jungles where insects rule.

Danielle’s challenges encompass the broader but no less pressing survival issues for the race as a whole. She believes the deep has lessons for surface-dwelling species that could hold the key to accommodating humanity in the narrow band of the surface biosphere. They - the secrets yet to be discovered - could help humankind build and maintain habitable outposts on other worlds, for example, and may hold clues for next steps in evolution that may have to be hurried along with biotechnological advances.

Mr. Ledgard leaves these questions, particularly the planetary-scope questions, open, as of course he must. But herein lies his agenda: the posing of the day’s most topical and pressing quandaries for consideration. However, I fear I may have sold the visual and fictional effects short here because, make no mistake, each step of the way they impress, convince, and compel. This is exceptional: ambitious, deep, heartfelt, magisterial, accomplished. Take it up by all means!

"Harvest" by Jim Crace

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You learn in the first paragraph of Harvest that Jim Crace will be telling his story of an Old English village in a long series of lovely lilting iambs, a sweet rhythm carrying an ancient Anglo Saxon vocabulary of farm and manor and blood and dirt and death. I found myself reading slowly, enjoying the language as though I were reading a long poem written in feudal England. Surely that was the author’s intent, and he’s brought it off with assurance and style. This is a beautiful book.

We’re told in this scop’s tale about an English village so parochial and isolated that no one’s bothered to build a church there - the land has been set aside, but the only thing that’s standing on the site is the cross-shaped pillory. One day as the harvest concludes, strangers arrive, and with them upheaval, never a good thing for country villagers set in their seasonal ways. Once the change starts it rushes to its conclusion, wreaking its paroxysm in the space of only several days. Along the way, we’re treated up close to the ugliness of human nature: greed, jealousy, cruelty, betrayal. A story, no matter where or when its setting, features the fraught interactions of humans, right?

The remoteness of this story in time and place sharpens these interactions and relays their effects through the laconic observations of the Walt the narrator. Mr. Crace does a beautiful job of deploying the Anglo Saxon tongue in his story, but sets one Latinate word out for review, italicizing it when he does so: subterfuge.
It’s a word Walt has recently learned - his literacy matches his lord’s - and he uses it in its fullest sense. For in its roots: subter, meaning beneath, and fugere, to flee, lay its complete meaning: fleeing in secret. People flee in secret and in the open in this story, running before the onslaught of profit and progress, so called.

The charms of Harvest commend it to your attention: the showing-off of Anglo Saxon words to their greatest iambic glory; the glimpses of natures all too human as change sweeps through and destroys a beautiful countryside and a way of life; the homage to English before the Conquest. I don’t mean to harp on the language and diction to the detriment of the story; each of these is reason enough to read Harvest. Recommended in very high terms.