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Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir by Peter Balakian – Highly recommended

April 22, 2020 16 comments

Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir by Peter Balakian (1997) French title: Le chien noir du destin.

Today, I had decided to write my billet about Balakian’s memoir, Black Dog of Fate. Coincidentally, I also listened a radio program about Charles Aznavour today, and he’s a very famous member of the Armenian diaspora and I first heard about the Armenian genocide through him.

I could write a lengthy billet about this book that tells the story of the Balakian family and of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. It would be too long and wouldn’t entice you to read the book. And it would be a pity because it’s worth reading, really.

Balakian opens his memoir with his childhood in New Jersey. He was born in 1951 and he talks about his grandmother, his parents and his family life in suburban New Jersey. His family customs are different from the WASP boys around him in his bourgeois neighborhood. This part of the book reminded me of American Pastoral and The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. The two writers describe a different way-of-life between them and the WASP children. They had formal meals, the relationship with between parents and children were different. The fathers especially have a different way to raise their sons, their vision of masculinity is less macho, I should say, for lack of a better word. Balakian says it quite well:

In the world of my friends’ dads, my father stood apart. No backslapping or hearty handshakes, or greetings of “old buddy” or “man.” No polo shirts or khaki pants or slip-on canvas sneakers, or buddies for gold on Wednesdays, when doctors were supposed to be riding the fairways in orange carts and lime-green pants and white visors. No weekend cocktails with the McKays or the Wheelers. Nor did my father joke with me about macho ideals, the kind that Hemingway and John Wayne embodied. He made no jokes of the kind my friends’ fathers would tell, in sly moments when mothers were out of the room and fathers and sons bonded. Because he was 4-F in World War II owing to high blood pressure, something he never mentioned, he had no war stories either.

This very attaching part of Balakian’s memoir is a testimony of growing up American with immigrant parents and trying to fit it, to be as American as the others. While his family kept some family traditions, they also immersed themselves in the American way-of-life.

Balakian never heard anything about the Armenian Genocide of 1915 until he was in his twenties. His awareness of the massacre didn’t come from his family and at home, it was total silence about these events. Slowly, he will investigate and research his family’s past, describe the genocide and work for its recognition.

Part of his memoir comes back to historical facts, describing the Armenian people, where they lived, what was their status in the Ottoman Empire. He describes the genocide and it’s absolutely awful. 1.5 million people were eliminated in appalling circumstances. It is comparable to the Nazi methods (Balakian said that the laissez-faire of other countries and the Turkish methods inspired Hitler) The refugees became stateless. And even worse than the crime is the fact that for a long, long time, no country acknowledged this genocide.

As Charrey and Lipstadt have written, the denial of genocide is the final stage of genocide; the first killing followed by a killing of the memory of the killing.

I also loved the part when Balakian visits Lebanon and Syria, going back to the places of the massacres and on the trail of his grandmother’s stay in Syria before emigrating. It’s a very moving passage, chilling too.

At first, he didn’t understand why he’d never heard of the Armenian traumatic past before reaching adulthood. But his journey through history helped him understand his family better.

At some place in their minds my parents must have found the real issues of being Armenian too hard, too painful, too absurd. As my aunt Gladys had put it, “It was a pill too bitter to swallow, a pain too bad to feel.” In affirming the American present, my parents had done their best to put an end to exile. In the suburbs of New Jersey, they found rootedness, home, belonging. Yet, the past was a shadow that cast its own darkness on us all. The old country. I realize now that it was an encoded phrase, not meant for children. Spoken by numbed Armenians of the silent generation. It meant lost world, a place left to smolder in its ashes.

Reading Balakian memoir is a way of resisting against those who would like to erase this genocide and keep going as if it never happened. It happened and we, European countries, should be ashamed of the time it took us to acknowledge it.

Highly recommended.

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym – Meet Belinda, the clever spinster

April 19, 2020 26 comments

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym (1950) French title: Comme une Gazelle apprivoisée.

Some tame gazelle or some gentle dove or even a poodle dog – something to love, that was the point.

For April, our Book Club chose to read Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym, thanks to Jacqui’s recommendation. It is my second Pym after Excellent Women. What a delightful read it was!

We are in a little village in England, probably in the 1930s, as it’s before WWII et rather far from WWI.

Harriet and Belinda Bede are two spinsters, both over 50. They live together near the vicarage. Harriet is the most outgoing of the two. She’s friendly, cheerful and loves to socialize. Her pleasure in life is to take care of the curates of the village. She loves to have people at diner and share good food. She gets along well with Count Bianco, who regularly proposes to her and gets refused.

Belinda, our narrator, is quiet and has been in love Archdeacon Henry Hoccleve for thirty years. They met at college, bonded over poetry and she was heartbroken when he married Agatha instead of her. She now lives with her unrequited love and gets a bit bullied by Henry’s wife.

Some Tame Gazelle tells the story of the village over the span of a few months during which several events occurred. A new curate arrived, much to Harriet’s delight. Agatha went away to heal her rheumatism, freeing Belinda from her looming presence. An old friend from college, Dr Parnell came to stay at the vicarage with his colleague Mr Mold. This setting reminded Belinda of their youth. And then Agatha came back, accompanied by Bishop Theodore Grope, in charge of a diocese in Africa. All these visits and arrivals disturbed the usual course of Harriet’s and Belinda’s lives.

Harriet is bubbly and seems to have decided to make as much as possible of her life, within the constraints of country life. She enjoys nice and fashionable clothes, she cares for good food and good company. Pym says about her that Harriet was still attractive in a fat Teutonic way.

Belinda tries not to delve into the past and succumb to melancholy but living so close to Henry is like constantly pouring salt in a wound that never has time to heal to be painless at last.

Belinda is humble, probably because she doesn’t think of herself as loveable and worth of any attention after being rejected by Henry. Besides, Harriett always shines more in company and Agatha picks at her, chopping at her self-esteem.

Henry is a disagreeable pompous man but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. He’s not fit for the life of a clergyman and I wondered how he came to this career, suspecting that Agatha roped him into it, as she is the daughter of a bishop. Henry seems only interested in poetry, a love he shares with Belinda. His sermons are full of literary references that fly over his parishioners’ heads:

The congregation suddenly relaxed. It was just going to be one of the Archdeacon’s usual sermons after all. There had been no need for those uncomfortable fears. They settled down again, now completely reassured, and prepared themselves for a long string of quotations, joined together by a few explanations from the Archdeacon. He began at the seventeenth century. Belinda reflected that if he had gone back any further, the sermon would have assumed Elizabethan proportions.

He neglects his duties as a clergyman and it’s hard to say whether he’s lazy or simply can’t be bothered with them because he doesn’t have the calling that should go with his position. He lacks the necessary people skills, the empathy and the ability to find the right comforting words at the right time. He sounds selfish and irritable but I thought it might come a deep unhappiness and dissatisfaction with his life. He sounds like he wishes he has married Belinda.

Under Pym’s writing, Belinda is a delightful middle-aged lady who casts a lucid and funny look at her life and her fellow villagers. She sees a lot and is quite astute in her perception of people and the meaning behind their actions. She’s benevolent, sees the good in people and tolerates their little flaws and quirks as everyone has theirs. She’s not blind about Henry’s shortcomings but loves him anyway.

Men in Some Tame Gazelle aren’t great people. They see women and wives as convenient co-workers and caretakers for old age. A most distinctive skill for a woman is her ability to knit a good pair of socks, well-shaped and of the right size. Dear, no wonder Harriet stays single. Dr Parnell sums it up in a blunt statement: After all, the emotions of the heart are very transitory, or so I believe; I should think it makes one much happier to be well-fed than well-loved.’ A way to a man’s heart is his stomach and his well-socked feet.

Still, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Belinda and Henry. They seemed well-suited for each other and Belinda’s life is a waste of her talents. She could have been so much more but her crushed hopes put her in a shell she never went out of. And Henry is probably living the wrong life, with a career that was not his calling.

A Tame Gazelle is a great study of characters, being in Belinda’s head was charming. Pym also shows a society full of social constraints, of etiquette and habits. We see it in passing when Belinda muses “Also, it was the morning and it seemed a little odd to be thinking about poetry before luncheon.” How can there be a rule about when to think about poetry?

As a French, I also had a lot of fun with the food. It is of much importance to Harriet’s well-being and Pym shares about the various menus. I wondered what sardine eggs, cauliflower cheese, a tin of tongue, potato cakes, Belgian buns, trifles and rissoles could be. And I found this discussion most puzzling:

What meat did you order?’ ‘Mutton,’ said Belinda absently. ‘But we haven’t any red-currant jelly,’ said Harriet. ‘One of us will have to go out tomorrow morning and get some. Mutton’s so uninteresting without it.’

What has mutton to do with red-currant jelly?

Mother of All Pigs by Malu Halasa – a missed opportunity

March 17, 2020 9 comments

Mother of All Pigs by Malu Halasa (2017). French title: La mère de tous les cochons. Translated by Benoîte Dauvergne.

Mother of All Pigs by Malu Halasa was our Book Club choice for February. (Yes, I’m late again with the billet). Set in Jordan, it features the Sabas, a Christian family who lives in the suburbs of Amman. They all live under the same roof. We follow Hussein and his wife Laila, Mother Fadhma, Hussein’s step mother and Samira, Hussein’s step sister. Muna, a cousin from the family branch who emigrated to the USA, is coming over for a vacation. We also get to know Abu Za’atar, Mother Fadhma’s brother and one of the richest entrepreneurs in town. He’s a master as smuggling merchandises across borders.

Hussein runs a butcher’s shop and sells pork. Abu Za’atar perceived that it would be a big competitive advantage to sell pork to Christian families and be the only one to do it. They imported oum al-khanaazeer, the Mother of all pigs through the black market and she was the sow they use to breed piglets. Hussein and Abu Za’atar run the farm together and make the chops, ham, etc. that they need for the butcher’s shop.

With the war in Syria, there are a lot of refugees in Jordan and their settling in Hussein’s town changes the fragile dynamics between the communities. Hussein had a consensus on opening hours: a time for Jewish customers, a time for Muslims and a time for Christians. Everyone can buy what they want without seeing each other. This consensus is shattered by radical Muslims coming from abroad and fed by ISIS.

Through Mother Fadhma, Laila and Samira, Malu Halasa explores the fate of women in Jordan. The old Mother Fadhma has been exploited all her life. She has raised twelve children, not all her own. She was treated as a commodity by her family and of course, couldn’t choose her husband. Of all of her children, only Hussein and Samira remained in Jordan. The others have all immigrated to America and rarely come to visit. Mother Fadhma made a lot of sacrifices and her lifer never belonged to her.

Laila didn’t choose Hussein as a husband but considers herself lucky that he encourages her to keep working as a teacher. She had ambitions but they were trampled by real life: small town, three children, a teacher job and a husband who does his best to make enough money to support his family.

Samira is single and she found a new meaning in her life: she joined a group of women who help Syrian women refugees who suffered from the war. She secretly goes to political meetings and hangs out with women who help her win a bit of freedom.

And Muna, the American cousin? She arrives in Jordan to see how life is near the Syrian border. She has no idea of the actual culture of her father’s country: she brings clothes to Samira and Laila that they will never wear because they’re inappropriate in Jordan. I wondered what she was doing there, except being a plot instrument, the candid eye, the pretext to explain to Western readers things that are obvious for the locals.

I had high hopes for Mother of All Pigs. I was curious about this story of the only butcher selling pork in the area and about the women’s fates.

I was disappointed and struggled to finish it. Apparently, The New York Times reviewed it and said “’It has always been the same ― what men enjoy, women endure.’ So says a character in this microcosmic portrait of the contemporary Middle East, where the generational shifts among the members of one Jordanian clan showcase a patriarchal order in slow-motion decline. Halasa’s pungently witty novel contrasts the ways in which the women of the Sabas family embrace or push back against tradition.”

It’s true even if I obviously missed the pungent and witty part. The structure and writing didn’t do it for me. It was too much of a patchwork and I never engaged with the Sabas the way I did with the families in Naguib Mahfouz’s books. I never managed to understand what the writer really wanted to say. The novel seemed to be too much of a patchwork and I saw the small pieces, found them lacking and never managed to sew them together in a way that showed me a coherent story and picture. And I hated the chapters with the sow’s stream-of-consciousness. What was the point of that?

Malu Halasa is American, and like Muna, has a Jordanian father and a Filipino mother. She doesn’t live in Jordan and the reader feels it. She has probably been there quite a lot but not enough to sound like a local writer. I also felt that her novel, written in English was intended for Western readers. In the end, it doesn’t have the same authenticity as a book written by a Jordan writer.

For me it was a missed opportunity.

PS: I’m not sure I understand the English cover. Who is that supposed to be? Samira?

Something Will Happen, You’ll See by Christos Ikonòmou – a trip to a Greek working class neighborhood

January 12, 2020 43 comments

Something Will Happen, You’ll See by Christos Ikonòmou (2010) French title: Ça va aller, tu vas voir. Translated from the Greek by Michel Volkovitch.

Something Will Happen, You’ll See by Christos Ikonòmou is our Book Club read for January. It’s a collection of short stories published in 2010 by a young Greek writer. According to the afterword from the French translator, Michel Volkovitch, most of the stories were actually written before 2008 and the subsequent Euro crisis in Greece.

All the stories are set in a blue-collar neighborhood of Athens. The characters are employees, factory workers, dockers or unemployed. They all struggle to survive in a world with a slow economy. Jobs are scarce, several characters have just been laid-off and they don’t have much hope to find something else soon. Even when they work, money is tight because they are in low-paid jobs (one works in an ice factory) and sometimes, their employer doesn’t have enough cash to pay everyone. They come home without pay.

Ikonòmou describes a country whose working class walks on the edge of a financial abyss. Several characters haven’t paid their rent for a few months, others couldn’t afford their mortgage. The ghost of eviction is at their door and steals their sleep. In several stories, the protagonists can’t sleep and invent various stratagems to keep insomnia at bay or survive the night. We all know how a small worry can become a huge issue after nightfall. They smoke, they stay on the stairs outside their building to monitor the street, they tell each other stories. A man talks to his spouse all night to lull her into sleep.

We see people who can’t afford food. We see a country where its senior citizens spend the night on the pavement in front of the community clinic because they want to be the first in the waiting line when the clinic opens the next day. A woman dies in the hospital because the person who brought her to the ER didn’t know her name and they couldn’t check whether she had insurance.

All the stories are bleak, the country seems to be about to crumble and indeed, it did a few years after Ikonòmou wrote these stories. Basic public services like drinkable tap water are not a sure thing.

We see a country with deep differences between the rich and the poor and no security net, which is common for a US reader but shocking for a European reader.

All the stories are bleak because of the characters’ circumstances but they are lit from inside by people’s love for each other. Spouses stay close, comfort and love each other. Friends take care of friends. Families try to help with small jobs or loans. The times are hard but the family unit stays strong and close-knit.

The people we meet here are breathless, holding their breath for what is yet to come or trying to catch their breath after another fortnight without wages. Their fear of tomorrow suffocates them. Some are hungry. A lot are nostalgic of the past. Most of them underwent forced changes in their lives: they had to move out of their house, to change of neighborhood, to accept a job only to make ends meet and pay the bills.

Men are raised to provide for their families and can’t anymore. They feel useless and it chips at their identity and maybe even at their sense of virility.

People have to survive and make the most of what they have. They live in the Piraeus neighborhood and Ikonòmou takes us there, in its street and by the sea.

Ikonòmou’s prose reflects his characters’ struggles. He alternates long and short paragraphs. Some sentences repeat themselves in a story, like thoughts are played on a loop in someone’s mind when they are sleepless with worry. The rhythm of the sentences mirrors the characters’ breathlessness, the way their financial worries choke them. Their hardship puts their sanity at stake. Ikonòmou shows a people beaten down by capitalism and a poor management of the country. They are bruised and battered by life but there’s still hope in love, friendship and solidarity.

Ikonòmou gives us a vivid picture of today’s Greece and I do recommend this collection of short stories.

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry: I took the French leave

December 21, 2019 13 comments

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry (1991) French title: Un si long voyage. Translated by Françoise Adelstain.

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry was our Book Club read for December. Let’s be honest, I couldn’t finish it. It’s a book set in 1971 in Bombay, just before the war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. It tells the story of a modest family during these troubled times. It sounded fine on paper.

In reality, I abandoned the book because I never really engaged in the family’s fate and I got tired of reading sentences with foreign words I didn’t understand and getting lost in the political undercurrent of the story. I read 187 pages out of 441.

I am miffed that the publisher didn’t include any kind of foreword or footnotes about the political context of the country and the family. Here’s the first sentence of the book:

The first light of morning barely illuminated the sky as Gustad Noble faced eastward to offer his orisons to Ahura Mazda.

Of course, I had no clue of what Ahura Mazda was and I continued reading. After a while and an internet research, I realized that Gustad was Zoroastrian. I imagine that it’s crucial in the novel since the main character is neither Hindu nor Muslim. A footnote would have been welcome.

Then, there were numerous sentences like these ones:

The bhaiya sat on his haunches beside the tall aluminum can and dispensed milk into the vessels of housewives.

Run from the daaken!

The malik says go, sell the milk and that’s all I do.

These poor people in slum shacks and jhopadpattis….

He recited the appropriate sections and unknotted the kusti from around his waist.

Wait, I am filling the matloo.

You see what I mean? And there are no explanations in the French edition and none in the English one either. We don’t even know to which language these words belong to. I’m all for using local words if they are specific to a context but please, explain them to me the first time they are used.

I also guessed that, when Gustad spoke about political issues, there were subtitles for knowledgeable readers that totally escaped my notice. I could live with that if I didn’t have the feeling that writing about this specific political context was a reason for the author to write this book. Another frustration.

It’s all on me, I suppose. Such a Long Journey is rated 3.95/5 on Goodreads, it has won literary prizes and the blurb was promising. In the end, it wasn’t a good match for me. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts about it if you’ve read it.

PS: It has always amused me that in French, to take the French leave is filer à l’anglaise, which means to take the English leave.

Slaves by Kangni Alem – Disappointing.

November 24, 2019 2 comments

Slaves by Kangni Alem Original French title: Esclaves Not available in English.

Slaves is a historical novel by the Togolese writer Kangni Alem. It relates the story of the slave trade in the 19th century on the Slave Coast of West Africa. After a quick foreword, the book starts in 1818 when the king of Dahomey Adandozan is deposed and his rival becomes the King Guézo (1818-1858). Adandozan was trying to oppose to the slave trade. Guézo has an alliance with the Portuguese governor Francisco Felix de Souza and their only aim is to get rich. They sell slaves to Brazilian landowners to have free workers on their plantations.

The master of rituals Sakpatê unwillingly participates to Adandozan’s dismissal. He is seen as unreliable and his wives and children are sent to plantations in Cuba.

He is sent to Recife in Brazil where he is renamed Miguel. There, he becomes a Muslim under the patronage of another slave and chooses the name Sule. He learns how to read and write.

After a slave upheaval in the plantation, he is sold to another master in Salvador de Bahia. He becomes a respected house slave but he keeps a distant relationship with a man who intends to lead a slave rebellion and take the power in Bahia. The plot is revealed and the repression is bloody. Sule is sent back to Africa and he chooses to go back to the city where Adandozan is said to be buried.

Kangni Alem writes this novel with a purpose: he wants to confront the hypocrisy of the Europeans who benefited from the slave trade and of the African powers of the time who got rich by selling their people or war prisoners. Neither of them can reject the responsibility of slavery to the other’s face. They are accomplices and they knew what they were doing.

I enjoyed the historical side of the book. It is something I was vaguely aware of but I never took time to dig further. I wasn’t so engaged with the Sakpatê/Miguel/Sule, though, probably because the structure of the book felt stuffy and artificial.

The prologue was set in 1841 and it was about a ship leaving England to Sydney, a vessel that was used to transport slaves to Brazil. It is said to be cursed and indeed, it is mysteriously shipwrecked in the Sydney Bay. The rest of the story is split in small chapters with titles similar to the ones you may find in 19th century literature. It fit with the times of the novel but it felt artificial.

The prologue made me suspicious about the book because I suspected anachronisms. One character alludes to the Loch Ness monster, something that became popular in the 1930s. Another mentions Texas as being part of the USA but in 1841, Texas was a Republic. A character hates Lincoln for his abolitionist views. I’m not a specialist of US history but I’m not sure that Lincoln was a famous abolitionist in 1841.

And then there were typos – irritating but it can happen – and grammar mistakes—unforgivable—the worst one being ‘Il surviva’, which is as bad as writing ‘He stealed’ instead of ‘he stole’.

All this went in the way of my reading and while the substance of the book was interesting and pushed me to read a bit about the Kingdom of Dahomey, the form got in the way of its message. Or it belongs to another literary culture and I read it with my biased Western eyes and I’m totally unfair to this novel because I missed the point.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner – life assessment at old age

October 27, 2019 9 comments

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (1987) French title: En lieu sûr. Translated by Eric Chédaille.

I have heard of people’s lives being changed by a dramatic or traumatic event–a death, a divorce, a winning lottery ticket, a failed exam. I never heard of anybody’s life but ours being changed by a dinner party.

This is Larry Morgan’s voice, the narrator of Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. He’s now 64 and he and his wife Sally arrived at the Lang compound in Battel Pond, Vermont. This is the property of Charity and Sid Lang, their long-life friends. (There is was, there it is, the place where during the best time of our lives friendship had its home and happiness its headquarters.) They’re not here for fun, though, but more for a last farewell to Charity who’s losing battle against cancer.

Larry starts recalling their lives and tells us how their friendship started in 1937, in Madison, Wisconsin. Larry and Sid were both teachers in the English department at the local university. It’s the Great Depression and positions are rare. Larry and Sally are poor, they come from the West and from working class. They have to live on Larry’s salary, unless he keeps selling stories and develops his writing.

Charity and Sid come from the opposite side of the country and social ladder: they are a wealthy couple from New England. Sid’s fortune comes from his family’s business and his father was very disappointed when he turned to literature. Charity comes from a family of academics, her father is always buried in a book and in research while her mother runs the house.

On paper, they come from different worlds. In reality, they clicked immediately and bonded over their love for literature. Larry reflects on these early years in Madison, on the start of their friendship and how Sally and Charity took an immediate liking to each other, how it started at this diner party and wonders:

Is that the basis of friendship? Is it as reactive as that? Do we respond only to people who seem to find us interesting?… Do we all buzz or ring or light up when people press our vanity buttons, and only then? Can I think of anyone in my whole life whom I have liked without his first showing signs of liking me?

This and the opening quote earlier represent Larry quite well: he’s unassuming. He wonders why Charity and Sid are so fond of them. They graduated from Smith College and Harvard while he went to Berkeley and Sally dropped out of school to support them. They are more worldly than he and Sally are. Even if he doesn’t say it that way, he doesn’t understand what they bring into the relationship that puts them on equal footing.

[Friendship] is a relationship that has no formal shape, there are no rules or obligations or bonds as in marriage or the family, it is held together by neither law nor property nor blood, there is no glue in it but mutual liking. It is therefore rare.

Larry is a gifted writer and he brings the aura of talent into their tightknit group.

Sid wanted to write poetry but neither his family nor his wife support him. He was strong enough to go against his family about literature but not enough to fight Charity on writing poetry. She thinks he needs to have an established career as an academic for him to indulge into writing poetry. He doesn’t think he’s a talented enough and gives up. But it gnaws at him and Larry thinks it’s a shame he doesn’t keep on writing poetry even if he might not be a good poet, as long as it makes him happy.

And sure, why should he stop writing poetry just because he’s not good enough to be published? (Something we are not even sure of) Do amateur painters or photographers stop doing their hobby because they’ll never have an exhibition in a gallery? They don’t, and nobody tells them to stop painting or taking pictures. Why do we expect that a writer should be published or stop writing? Isn’t it what we think, in spite of ourselves?

Charity is a force of nature. She has ambition for the four of them and works to reach her goals. The issue is that Sid needs to publish articles about literature, if he wants a promotion. Stegner makes fun of this obligation that takes precedence over being a good teacher:

You hear what the dean said about Jesus Christ? ‘Sure He’s a good teacher, but what’s He published?

Larry loves to write, for himself first, but also because selling short-stories helps paying the bills. Sally and he have no family money to fall back on. They have no safety net and need the money to keep coming in. That’s his first ambition.

Ambition is a path, not a destination, and it is essentially the same path for everybody. No matter what the goal is, the path leads through Pilgrim’s Progress regions of motivation, hard work, persistence, stubbornness, and resilience under disappointment. Unconsidered, merely indulged, ambition becomes a vice; it can turn a man into a machine that knows nothing but how to run. Considered, it can be something else — pathway to the stars, maybe. I suspect that what makes hedonists so angry when they think about overachievers is that the overachievers, without benefit of drugs or orgies, have more fun.

I love the idea that Ambition is a path, no a destination. In Larry’s eyes, Charity has unconsidered ambition for Sid and that she had to carry him during their hiking on her ambition path because he didn’t quite have it in him to walk this trail alone and succeed. She’s also both generous and stubborn about how things need to be done. She loves control and cannot bear to relinquish it, whatever the cost. Larry and Sally give in because most of the time, they are guests and don’t feel untitled to go against her wishes. Sid does because he knows from experience that he won’t win. He loves her and indulges her.

Crossing to Safety is a celebration of friendship, a scrutiny of its workings, a reflection on two long marriages but it is also an older man looking back on his hardworking life, its ordeals and its successes. Of his marriage to Sally, he won’t say much, probably because it is a happy one. He resents Charity’s micromanaging of Sid’s life, he questions their marriage and the Charity’s domination.

It’s also a novel about old age, on looking back on one’s life and assessing what it was compared to what one imagined when they were young. Larry is on out on the porch, looking and smelling and recherching temps perdu and he tells us:

“Though I have been busy, perhaps overbusy, all my life, it seems to me now that I have accomplished little that matters, that the books have never come up to what was in my head, and that the rewards – the comfortable income, the public notice, the literary prizes, and the honorary degrees –have been tinsel, not what a grown man should be content with.”

Probably because

It is love and friendship, the sanctity and celebration of our relationships, that not only support a good life, but create one.

Highly recommended.

PS: I haven’t read Cicero’s De Senectute and De Amicitia but Larry mentions them. I wonder how they influenced Crossing to Safety.

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