Alan Furst and ‘the death of Europe,’ readers’ reactions to Joseph Campbell and Frances Glessner Lee, and a podcast recommendation:newsletter, September 27, 2019

September 30, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, newsletter, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,6xx) on Friday, September 27, 2019.


Without giving it too much thought, I seem to have shifted my main medium this week with lots of pen and ink drawings showing up in my sketchbook, on my art table, and in this newsletter. Sometimes that happens, and when it does, it’s lots of fun to see it work. I’m drawing more and painting less, and we’ll see where that takes us.

The book projects continue for the Friends of the Blount County Library — I’ll say more about those soon — and so does the relentless heat in East Tennessee and elsewhere.

There’s more good news: baseball’s regular season is coming to a close, and the playoffs are about to start. Don’t be surprised to see baseball-related/inspired art in October. Have a great weekend.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,669 subscribers and had a 28.2 percent open rate; 2 people unsubscribed.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement, and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

Alan Furst writes about ordinary people in extraordinary times

Since the late 1980s, Alan Furst has been writing one long novel, in his own words, about the “death of Europe” — that dark time in the late 1930s and early 1940s when the old Europe was killed off my Fascism, venality, and war.

His ability to capture this period with spare, evocative prose has made him one of the best espionage novelists of the age and has gathered for him a world-wide audience that launches him onto numerous best-seller lists.

None of this came easily.

Furst, born in New York City in 1941, went to Oberlin College and then knocked around between New York, Europe, and Seattle, trying his hand at graduate studies, teaching, writing magazine articles, and writing comic and mystery novels. He published several novels, but none of them did very well, so he decided to move to Paris. There he made a change, getting interested in writing about Europe on the edge of war, and got Houghton Mifflin to publish the first of his Night Soldiers series (the name of the novel and the series) in 1988.

The first three of the series, Night Soldiers (1988), Dark Star (1991), and The Polish Officer (1995), sold only modestly but gathered some excellent reviews. When the sixth novel, Kingdom of Shadows, was published in 2001, the editor decided to change the cover and use an atmospheric photo of a Paris street taken in the 1930s by the French-Hungarian photographer Brassaï. Furst’s earlier novels were re-issued with similar covers.

From that point, sales took off, and today critics and readers view Furst as the modern-day Eric Ambler. Others compare him to Graham Greene. His novels are regulars on the New York Times best-seller lists.

Furst’s novels don’t depend on clever plots. Rather, it’s in the details where Furst creates the world of foreboding that permeates his work. Furst researches his times and settings carefully so that when he mentions the type of vodka being served in an obscure cafe in a dark part of Budapest, you’re pretty sure that it’s all accurate.

Furst, in a 2004 interview with the New York Sun with Brendan Bernhard, said:

“I write entertainment novels,” said Mr. Furst. “I write what I call novels of consolation for people who are bright and sophisticated. I expect that my readers have been to Europe, I expect them to have some feeling for a foreign language, I expect them to have read books – there are a lot of people like that! That’s my audience.” Source: Our Best Thriller Writer

Furst writes about ordinary people during a time when extraordinary nerve and courage was called for — and in short supply.

A newsletter reader’s encounter with Joseph Campbell

My good and very longstanding friend Glynn W. wrote this week about his encounter with Joseph Campbell (per a previous item in the newsletter):

I got to know Joseph Campbell personally just after Star Wars came out. At the time I am on sabbatical from American University and have incorporated a training gig at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) as part of my sabbatical plan. That plan included a weekly seminar for members of the foreign service who were about to take on their new assignments in South Asia.

I really didn’t know who Campbell was at the time, for my research and academic studies had focused on things contemporary, not on Sanscrit literature. However, my predecessor had regularly scheduled Campbell for two hours of lecture whenever Campbell was available. In addition, the library at FSI included eight hours of Campbell’s lectures captured on four videotapes, which my predecessor had used when Campbell wasn’t available.

I checked out just one of those tapes to see what Campbell had to say, and I was hooked! Over the next 10 days I watched all four hours!

Then I call up Campbell, and he is delighted to return to FSI. He then became a regular lecturer for the rest of my year at FSI. During his lectures (performances?), Campbell never told a story in quite the same way, and every story contained a moral lesson for anyone planning to work in South Asia.

The Moyers’ series would follow, and we all now know that he was as successful with PBS listeners like us, as he had been with my captive foreign service officers.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

Frances Glessner Lee: a reader’s reaction

Newsletter reader Frank C. had this reaction to last week’s piece on Frances Glessner Lee:

You say she was denied an education but also say she was educated at home. It sounds like she was given an expensive education far better in all probability than most men or women of her generation received. 

I doubt her father was her jailer. That would have been illegal. What seems to have been the case is that she followed his wishes so she could inherit a large fortune she had done nothing to earn. This was her choice and her privilege. Many men and women would be glad to have that opportunity.

Her generous endowment of Harvard was from money others had earned for her.

Would the use of a camera not have been more sensible in recording crime scenes than doing needlework models?

The reference to her learning needlework seems to suggest that she did not choose to do so, but it seems she liked it and that it was a legitimate form of artistic expression, rather than a proper cause of complaint.

Would she have been able to put on seminars without the endowment she made on Harvard? Did she achieve this solely because of her acknowledged expertise? It is interesting that Harvard lost interest in her needlework the moment she died and ceased to be a source of future endowments.

Arthur Conan Doyle predeceased her by several years. I am sure he (and Mr. Magrath you refer to) would be surprised that she had invented the gathering of forensic evidence.

A podcast recommendation: Why Women Kill: Truth, Lies, and Labels

A new podcast that takes a look at female killers has just arrived on the podcast scene, and it is likely to be a hit. It’s Why Women Kill: Truth, Lies, and Labels.

Here’s the official description:

What drives a woman to kill? And why are female killers often labeled as “The Black Widow,” “Jealous Lover” or Bonnie to someone’s Clyde? Join the true crime writer Tori Telfer as she explores the truth behind homicides perpetrated by women. Welcome to “Why Women Kill: Truth, Lies and Labels,” presented by CBS All Access. Source:

I have listened to the first episode, which examines the label “Black Widow,” and found it pretty compelling.

And another note: Keeping up with new podcasts can be daunting. Here’s a site that will help:

From the archives: Ray Bradbury on how to become a writer

My stories run up and bite me in the leg — I respond by writing them down — everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off. Ray Bradbury, science-fiction writer (22 Aug 1920-2012)

Ray Bradbury had a zest for life and a zest for writing, and he never tried to separate those feelings.

“Become yourself, have fun, and then love what you are doing,” he would tell audiences over and over again — especially audiences of writers or potential writers. Bradbury described himself as a “collector of metaphors,” the ones that described his own life. He advised writers to “look for the metaphors that describe your life.”

How do you do that?

“Stuff your head,” he said. Read a short story every night. Read at least one poem every night. Read one essay a night.

“At the end of a thousand nights, you’ll be full of ideas and metaphors,” he said.

This, of course, is good advice for anyone, not just wannabe writers.

Bradbury’s most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451, is classified as science-fiction, but it has crossed over into the realms of Great American Literature. Bradbury also wrote in the horror and mystery genres. For the vast majority of his 91-plus years, he wrote every day. He had his first short story published when he was a teenager, and his first novel, The Martian Chronicles, was published in 1949; the book was actually a series of short stories that he re-worked and strung together at the suggestion of an editor.

So, if you want to take Bradbury’s advice, start reading a short story every night — one of his would be good. For instance: Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales.

Here’s another collection: October Country.

Verse and Vision

An updated list of all of the Verse and Vision videos can be found at this link on I have not produced one for a couple of weeks now but will try to gear up again soon.

Keep asking questions, no matter how simple or obvious the answers appear

I read Shane Parrish’s Farnham Street blog (Farnam Street — A Signal in a World Full of Noise) regularly, cite him occasionally, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter. Much of what he writes is directed at business professionals who want to get ahead–something I no longer have to worry about–but I find his approach to things logical and humane.

Here’s an article on why asking questions, even the obvious, “stupid” ones, is important.

For one thing, the obvious answer may not be the one you get.

Let me share a story that took place in my second-year history class in university. We started discussing the assigned reading. I didn’t really understand it, but I figured I’d get it just sitting there. Then this guy raised his hand and said, “Hey Professor, could you explain [technical term]? It wasn’t clear to me from the article.”
Boom. I had this startling insight. Up until then, I had always been afraid to ask questions like that for fear of looking stupid[read about pluralistic ignorance here]. But this guy didn’t appear stupid. At that moment, he seemed like the smartest guy in the class.

Source: The Power of Questions

Finally . . .

This week’s pen and ink: Baseball at Wrigley

Last weekend, the St. Louis Cardinals won four straight games against the Chicago Cubs at famous Wrigley Field in Chicago, the first time that has happened since 1921. In doing so, the Cards secured a place in baseball’s October playoffs and just about eliminated the Cubs from contention. The series was especially exciting for the Cards fans — and disheartening for the Cubbies — because in three of the games, the Cards were behind going into the ninth inning and still won the game. This pen and ink drawing was executed while I was watching a game at Wrigley in 1998, and the weekend series reminded me of it.

Best quote of the week:

“Everything great that ever happened in this world happened first in somebody’s imagination.” Astrid Lindgren, Swedish writer of children’s books (1907-2002)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: Malcolm Gladwell talks books, banned books, Beatles books, and the godmother of forensic science: newsletter, September 20, 2019



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