Sunday, January 16, 2022

Great Snowbound Weekend Reading: Books by Penelope Lively and Marian Thurm


The first winter storm of 2022 dumped 14 inches of snow - just like the snows of wild winters past, before global warming.  I'm cozily reading this weekend and recommend two excellent books:  Metamorphosis:  Selected Stories, by Penelope Lively, and The Blackmailer's Guide to Love, by Marian Thurm.

Penelope Lively's Metamorphosis:  Selected Stories. Penelope Lively, who won the Booker Prize for Moon Tiger,  is one of my favorite English writers, and her new collection of short stories,  Metamorphosis, which spans 40 years of her career, is superb.

 Lively's voice is detached yet sympathetic, and the distance increases the effectiveness of her style. She also takes chances.  In the whimsical story, "The Purple Swamp Hen," the last days of Pompeii are described by a purple swamp hen who lived in the garden of of rich family and meticulously observed their decadent life-style.  In  "A Long Night at Abu Simbel," a tour guide abandons her party of querulous travelers, who hardly notice she's gone. In "Marriage Lines," a couple unites over a counselor's misunderstanding.  In "Abroad," an English couple are held hostage by Spanish peasants in the country when their car breaks down:  the two artists must work for the family until the costly repairs are finished.

 I especially admired the novella-length title story, written in 2019.  In the 20th century, cool-minded Harriet defies gender taboos to carve out a career in a man's world.  She becomes a formidable editor at a prestigious publishing company and later a nonfiction writer who takes her inspiration from transformed objects, like the ribs of her mother's old parasol (from a humpback whale). Unexpectedly, she is transformed in middle age by falling in love with another writer.  Their marriage is happy, but it is not the last metamorphosis.

Overall,  I preferred the longer stories, where there is more room for Lively to develop one of her perfect narratives, but then I am primarily a reader of novels.

2. The Blackmailer's Guide to Love, by Marian Thurm.  This delightful novel is told from two main points-of-view, that of Mel (Melissa) Fleischer, an aspiring writer happily married to Charlie, a psychiatrist; and that of Julia, an unstable former patient who seduces Charlie and begs him to leave his wife.  Mel is tranquil and happy, writing stories at home and working at a glossy magazine on Madison Avenue. It never occurs to her that Charlie is unfaithful.  She and Charlie celebrate when she sells  her first story to The New Yorker.  But Julia, as you can imagine, is a trouble-maker, and Mel finds out about the affair. 

This novel is also a roman à clef about the New York publishing scene in the late '70s and '80s.  Thurm herself worked at Esquire when Gordon Lish was editor, and, like Mel, she sold her first story to The New Yorker.

Have a good weekend!  Happy reading!

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