The Purple Swamp Hen

Courtesy of the party in power, this weekend was brutal – from criminal behavior verified to the Senate majority’s appalling approval of the cruelest, most unfair tax bill imaginable (to date, I don’t suppose they are finished yet). The news is bury-your-head worthy.

I’ve done a fair bit of that in the past few months, not talking about it here, trying to not give in to feeling completely defeated, trying to remember the title of the blog.

And now the season I like best is nigh! In spite of snow falling on WordPress and changing the header to one of holiday comforts, the spirit eludes me. But, for the little people who don’t know what a muck some adults are making of it, I want to try, even if by avoidance, to make the magic of the season of lights happen – and to enjoy.

I felt better this morning when I turned to my notes about Penelope Lively’s 2016 book, “The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories.” I love Lively – all her books – and her presence in this troubled world, her wisdom, her staying power. Lively is in her 80s, has endured the arrows of age, but what imagination and facility in one little volume!

In these stories, Lively plays with narration and narrators, with what people say and what they think: the story “A Biography” is written in a series of interviews as though for a biography, “Point of View” retells the theme of the split pea soup story, and in “License To Kill,” where a 20-something accompanies an 80-something (who used to be a spy) to shop for groceries, the alternating thoughts of each reveal kindnesses and surprises. Using a purple swamp hen as narrator (in a time leading up to the eruption, the hen lives in the garden of a villa in Pompeii) allows Lively to call out comparisons between that “benighted age” and our own.

Oh treat yourself to Lively’s book in these uneasy times – or wrap a copy of this beautiful volume, with its purple bookcloth and cover picture of a purple swamp hen, for a favorite person!

Armchair Series – Writers

It’s a relief to wander the Internet in search of armchairs instead of news. An article  about Hillary Mantel’s writing room (with armchair pictured) appeared in The Guardian back in 2007, when she was “building her new novel about Thomas Cromwell.” Mantel says she writes “…in the main room of our flat, at the top of a former Victorian asylum in Surrey.” “If I feel travel would broaden the mind I take my laptop up a spiral staircase to a little room under the asylum clock.”

And the Wordsmith pointed out this recent interview with Penelope Lively who has a new book, “The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories.” She has an interesting thing to say about birthdays as we age. I love her novels and her memoir, “Dancing Fish and Ammonites,” which she described as a “view from old age.” She’s just finished a non-fiction book about gardening (I’m eager for that) – and she thinks about a new novel. “A writer writes,” Lively says – lucky for us.

Save

Save

Save

Reading and Sympathy

On the plane ride back to the mainland, I read a Jonathan Franzen article in the New Yorker about Edith Wharton – it’s also about reading. Franzen writes that he suspects “sympathy, or its absence, is involved in almost every reader’s literary judgments. Without sympathy, whether for the writer or for the fictional characters, a work of fiction has a very hard time mattering.” It’s an interesting article, particularly Franzen’s exploration of our often puzzling attraction to unlikeable protagonists, and I thought about the books I’d read on the trip.

In Penelope Lively’s “How It All Began: A Novel,” a mugger and a broken hip set up ripples of reaction tangling all the characters in the book. We learn about them in part by the books they read. The main character, Charlotte, teaches adult literacy, children’s books help her Iranian student to learn English, and characters who read “The DaVinci Code” are distinguished from those who do not.

It’s easy to identify with Lively’s heroine: “She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without.” I definitely rooted for Charlotte!

And now a confession: I also read an appalling number of pages in the first book of the George R.R. Martin fantasy series “A Game of Thrones.” It’s a huge sink into book with an almost recognizable landscape and time much like medieval England, a coming winter that might last for decades, and castles full of characters – sympathetic and un – royals, commoners, “direwolves,” and “Others.” Engrossed, I ignored or accepted a lot of violence. I read while holding the firstborn child of my firstborn (you begin to think in the language of the book).

The series appears never-ending, and is beloved by many people and by certain members of my family. It’s fun to share the experience – to surface from the page and ask about an improbable event or person. (And ignore the ridicule of other family members.) Lively writes: “Thus has reading wound into living, each a complement to the other.”

The night we came home I went back to “Middlemarch” – on my bedside table for months as I’ve read a bit each night – glad to encounter Dorothea, irritating but very sympathetic.

Reading – such a privilege – an opportunity to pay attention, to enjoy as Lively says “this good life with all its grits and graces.”