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July 2017

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#FoylesFave: Theft by Finding
19th July 2017 - Meg Schadl

#FoylesFave : Theft by Finding

Meg from our web team discusses her love for all things Sedaris as his first volume of diaries is published.

 

Theft by FindingDavid Sedaris essays meander. Tangent after tangent amuses with deadpan observation and self-deprecating charm. Then the essays end, often where they began, except the laughter has faded and oh wait, what’s that in my eye? You rarely notice the careful way Sedaris structures his narrative to build this visceral response. Many funny people publish books of essays, but few do so with the flare and discipline Sedaris has honed over three decades of writing.

 

That honing began long before the much-lauded collections of published essays, in the daily journal Sedaris has kept since 1977. His latest book Theft by Finding assembles 25 years’ worth of these diary entries. Sedaris edits them down into a story as compelling as Bridget Jones or Adrian Mole. Unlike a straightforward memoir, written from the security of the “happily-ever-after” present day, these diary entries feel urgent as Sedaris slouches through years of drugs, odd jobs, and self-loathing. Year by year, you track the exact moments where Sedaris steps tentatively toward the happiness of long-held dreams realised.

 

Theft by Finding is not a Sedaris book for new readers – go read Me Talk Pretty One Day, or When We Are Engulfed in Flames immediately. Once you’re familiar with the eight members of the Sedaris clan, the Santaland Christmases, and David’s minor obsession with taxidermy, traveling through his most mundane thoughts is an inspiring trip. If he can turn his life around day by day, word by word, there may just be hope for the rest of us. 

 

 

Marian Veevers on Why No Woman is Simply a Product of the Time in which She Lives
18th July 2017 - Marian Veevers

Why No Woman is Simply a Product of the Time in Which she Lives

 

Marian VeeversMarian Veevers lives in the Lake District, just five miles from Grasmere, and works for The Wordsworth Trust. As Anna Dean she is the author of the Dido Kent series, which is set in Bath and Hampshire in the late 18th century. Her new book, Jane and Dorothy, compares the upbringing and education of Jane Austen and Dorothy Wordsworth - born just four years apart in teh 1770s - home lives and loves and, above all, their emotional and creative worlds. Original insights include a new discovery of serious depression suffered by Dorothy Wordsworth, a new and crucial discovery about Dorothy and William's relationship, and a critical look at the myths surrounding the man who stole Jane's heart. This is the first time these two lives have been examined together. Below, exclusively for Foyles on the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's death, Marian Veevers explains why no woman is simply a product of the times in which she lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cover of Jane and DorothyWriting about the lives of women in the past is hard for a feminist. The past – we are frequently told – was different; people didn't have the same attitudes; the past should not be judged by modern standards. Good advice up to a point, but it leaves unanswered the question of what standards should be applied. And are we simply to assume that women didn't notice the injustices which restricted their lives?

 

Of course women notice when they are treated unfairly. For my period – late Georgian – the best evidence for this simple fact lies in Mary Wollstonecraft's 1792 work  A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Not all women accepted with equanimity the influential male view encapsulated in Daniel Defoe's belief that 'the great use of women in a community is to supply it with members…and keep up a succession'.

 

At any given time there are on any subject nearly as many opinions as there are individuals who have considered it; and Public Opinion, that nebulous force which exerts its pressure on all our lives, is not static, but in a constant state of change. If it were not, British women would still be enduring the ducking stools and scold's bridles of Medieval days.

 

So, when writing my first non-fiction book, Jane and Dorothy: A True Tale of Sense and Sensibility, I decided to start by acknowledging that no woman is simply a product of the time in which she lives. We are all – as Jane Austen herself says – 'rational creatures'. We are all able to make judgements and take decisions for ourselves.

 

By bringing together the stories of two talented women – Jane Austen and Dorothy Wordsworth – who never met but who lived through the same times, who endured the same restrictions and who faced the same difficult decisions, I found I was able to highlight the choices that those two individuals made about their lives – the very different ways in which they sought meaning and fulfilment.

 

Hilary Mantel has recently criticised some women writers of historical fiction for 'falsely empowering' female characters, endowing their subjects with anachronistic ideas and behaviours. And, as a writer of historical fiction, I know how difficult it can sometimes be to balance my desire for accuracy with editors' insistence on 'strong' 'sympathetic' central characters. Editors (and, by extension, I suppose, readers) certainly like female protagonists to be 'feisty', a word I distrust since it is almost exclusively applied to women – and occasionally animals. They should also be appealing, of course. One American editor objected that a heroine of mine was just not likeable enough; the character in question was Lady Macbeth and I felt I had done everything I could to make her sympathetic, considering the constraints of history!

 

But, as I turned from fiction to fact and began to trace the Austen and Wordsworth stories, I began to wonder whether the difficulty might lie in how we define 'strong' or 'empowered'. In the Georgian world women's smallest victories were hard-won.

 

Jane and Dorothy, born just four years apart, both faced a world in which it was almost impossible for genteel women to live independently; a world which expected women to marry; a world which ridiculed the spinsters they both chose to be. Neither of them made a fortune as a businesswoman or harangued her menfolk on feminism – as they might have done had they inhabited the kind of fictional world which Hilary Mantel dislikes. But there was rebellion, there was subversion. Neither life was a passive acceptance of injustice.

 

Theirs were quiet, small, but deeply significant acts of independence which deserve to be recognised. Whether it is Dorothy's 'unladylike' determination to walk long distances in order to save the coach fare, or Jane's quiet writing on subjects of which her family must have disapproved; whether it is Dorothy's running away to live with a slightly disreputable but dearly loved brother, or Jane's integrity in refusing to commit her life and body to an advantageous but loveless marriage, we should not underestimate the courage and determination which lay behind those actions.

 

But sometimes Jane and Dorothy's decisions brought pain and heartbreak. Jane's empty life as an unmarried daughter in Bath affected her mental health. Comparing her letters and the recollections of her relatives with modern medical analysis of depressive illnesses suggests just how much it cost such a brilliant woman to live the dull life of 'moral rectitude' and 'correct taste' which her nephew would celebrate in his memoir. And Dorothy's relationship with her brother was a troubled one. The talk of incest which began in her own lifetime resurfaced in the mid-twentieth century, much to the discomfort of some scholars who chose to take refuge in Thomas De Quincey's derogatory dismissal of Dorothy as 'unsexual'. But there is no evidence to support this denial of Dorothy's sexuality, and when I set recent research into the sexual attraction of siblings alongside certain known, but rarely discussed, facts about William Wordsworth, I found a heart-breaking narrative.

 

Jane and Dorothy were born into similar circumstances, but their decisions took them along diverging paths. For both there was a degree of fulfilment, for both there was a measure of pain.

 

Were they 'strong'? Yes, they most certainly were. Were they 'empowered'? Perhaps not in the way we would wish them to have been. They had little political, economic or legal power. But they were not entirely powerless when it came to doing what they believed to be right and in shaping their own lives.

 

 

#FoylesFive: Poetry
16th July 2017 - Jay Moran

#FoylesFive: Poetry 

 

Jay from our Birmingham branch shares with you five collections that have changed his perspective and made him a huge lover and advocate of poetry.

 

Poetry rarely makes a good first impression, especially if that first impression took place in a classroom. Unfortunately, like most first impressions, your initial dislike for poetry has probably stuck and it will take a miracle to change your opinion. I'm the head of the poetry section in our shop in Birmingham now, but a few years ago, I hated poetry. I was under the impression that poetry just wasn't for me. It was too stuffy, too strict, and it was far above my comprehension. I'd never be able to get it. Obviously this has changed and every month or so, I'd like to share with you five collections that have changed my perspective and have made me a huge lover and advocate for poetry.

 

Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals by Patricia Lockwood 

Surreal yet grounded in reality, disturbing yet funny—it's hard to describe this book in words that don't contradict one another. I find Lockwood's style incredibly addictive as the sound and rhythm of her prose is magnificently powerful. The one poem from this collection you may have already heard about is 'Rape Joke', which became a viral sensation, and, while it is probably the best in the collection I'd also highly recommend the poem 'List of Cross-Dressing Soldiers'. This is about her brother's painful struggle with PTSD, it's immensely moving and I urge you to read it. Crass, absurd and an absolute delight to consume, I highly recommend this collection.

 

Portraits by Elaine Feinstein 

I'm always intrigued when writers talk about other authors and their books; the love and enthusiasm is palpable and perfectly infectious. Feinstein's prose is easily absorbed too, so it's not as though she's hurling multi-syllable words at you for the sake of it; if she can say it simply, she does and I find this endearing. She covers Akhmatova, Raymond Chandler, Siegfried Sassoon but my favourite poem is 'Dickens Considers Fagin'. The flow of the writing is jagged and conversational, zigzagging off the tongue, and it doesn't hurt that it features one of my favourite authors with one of my favourite of his creations. If you're a fan of classical literature, 'Portraits' is for you.

 

The Way The Crocodile Taught Me by Katrina Naomi 

Naomi's second collection deals with her own fraught childhood, which included violence, death and severe isolation. Yet as you can probably tell from the bizarre cover, it's not a collection that leaves you emotionally bludgeoned. In fact there's a lot of light in these poems. A lot of love, wry smiles and dark humour, so that we as readers never lose hope. Naomi captures the pains and ecstasies of childhood and growing up immaculately here, without ever giving way under sentimentality or bleakness. My favourite poem is probably 'Another Planet', simply because I find the experience of reading it overwhelmingly beautiful and acutely painful.

 

Room of Thieves by Angela Cleland 

If you can't already tell, I enjoy the dark and the bizarre, so it is probably no surprise to you that I love this collection. Each poem is unique; there is no blending here, and I feel that's one of the reasons it works so well. It offers a variety of forms, topics, and tones so, if you're not quite sure what you're looking for with poetry, you can of work out what you like and what connects with you. My favourite poem is probably 'At The Science Museum', which features a six toed cat skeleton. It's weird, funny and a bit creepy and overall, fantastic.

 

Bear by Chrissy Williams 

“Everyone could use a bear sometimes”. So very true. In here you'll find silly, giggly poems such as 'Bedroom Filled With Foam' and 'Where Have You Put The Wine?', as well as poems that give your heart a nudge such as 'Bear of the Artist' and 'The Invisible Bear'. It's very human this collection (which is very strange considering it revolves around and is literally called 'Bear'), and I think it will connect with a lot of people. It works on your emotions and will speak to you regardless of how confident you are with poetry. 

 

 

Healing Through Stories
14th July 2017 - Carmen Marcus

Healing Through Stories

 

 

 

Carmen MarcusCarmen Marcus lives in the Victorian spa town of Saltburn-by-the-Sea. She is in much demand as a performance poet and has appeared at the Royal Festival Hall. Recently she has been commissioned by BBC Radio 3's Verb New Voices. How Saints Die is her first novel, and as a work in progress it won New Writing North's 'Northern Promise' Award. Ten year-old Ellie lives with her fisherman father, Peter, on the wild North Yorkshire coast. It's the 1980s and her mother's breakdown is discussed only in whispers. Steering by the light of her dad's sea-myths, her mum's memories of home across the water and a fierce spirit all her own, Ellie begins to learn - in these sudden, strange circumstances - who she is and what she can become. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Carmen introduces her novel and talks about the healing power of stories and the imagination.

 

 

 

 

 

Cover of How Saints DieIt was the summer of 1984 and Lady Di was just about to marry my toy gorilla, Gogo. My mum was standing watching the rain and then she did something extraordinary. She put her hands through the glass of the back door. Then my dad grabbed Lady Di’s (Barbie’s) long wedding train (pillowcase) to bind my mum's wrists. Then the ambulance came and my mum was taken away and Di’s broken head was left on the floor. 

 

Children don't have a word for ‘suicide attempt’ or ‘mental breakdown’. When an event like that detonates in your childhood there are so many aftershocks that ricochet throughout your life; so many choices that you can make, such as:

 

You can try to just keep growing up. 

You can kiss the feet of brass-Jesus three times before you leave the house everyday to stop it from happening again.

You can get terrifying panic attacks at Mass and think it's because God blames you for your mother's illness.

You can become a school refuser because you're afraid to leave your mum at home, occasionally bunking off to the library for books and peace.

You can stop eating, like saints seeking redemption.

You can waste your love trying to redeem bad men.

You can go from a council estate to the University of St Andrews just to prove to them that you're not damaged. Look!

You can find yourself in the lovely Professor Douglas Dunn’s office as he recommends you read Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness because he has noticed, the whole brilliant department have noticed, that you are burning this incredible opportunity and they don't want to punish you, they want to help. 

 

Books had rescued me long before this moment but this was the first time I'd ever been prescribed one. So it was inevitable really that the way to finally understand that moment – that break where my childhood ended so abruptly – would involve a book.

 

My first novel HOW SAINTS DIE takes the reality of adult mental breakdown but generates an imagined world where that reality can be contained and transformed. As a lapsed Catholic I'm drawn to supernatural interventions but as a survivor I know that true transfiguration involves a hard-won sacrifice of innocence.  For Ellie, my ten-year-old protagonist, she must follow and fail a number of fairy-tale-like tasks to try to fix her mother.

 

Her first task is to carry out the Irish ritual of lighting the Halloween light to guide the dead and gone home for one night. But like all good fairytale tasks, it goes bad - and instead of Granny, a wolf breaks into Ellie's world from the sea. This sets in motion the tension between the good, obedient and holy child and the wild, untamed free child; which will Ellie choose to become? Ellie knows holy, she knows that saints suffer and die but they can't explain how to suffer and survive.

 

Ellie’s folk-religious rite doesn't deliver another adult, even a dead one, or a saint. Instead she summons a wolf. It has claws and teeth and is better able to protect her from all she fears, including her mother.  The wolf runs wild in the human imagination because it has the power to save or devour, and Ellie's wolf remains true to that uncertainty.

 

By creating this liminal ground between real and imagined; between faith and folklore I make a place which can fully explore a child’s experience of mental illness as a story she can rewrite and fix. In reality, a child is powerless to change anything; decisions are made without consent, questions are met with silence and yet none of this insulates the child from the trauma. As with my own childhood, and now as a writer, it's imagination that saves and compensates for Ellie’s inability to understand or control the adult world. In the real world, Ellie is suffocated by diagnostic labels like ‘damaged’ or ‘at risk’ and trapped  by  the official story recommending ‘intervention’. Imagination is Ellie’s only form of resistance and so I've made a world out-of-bounds where she can run with her own story.

 

 

 

 

 

#FoylesFave: Spoonbenders
13th July 2017 - Magda Gudmundsdottir

Foyles Fave

#FoylesFave: Spoonbenders

Magda, from our Birmingham shop, tells us why this story of family, growing up and loss is one not to miss.

 

SpoonbendersMeet the Telemachus Family, an eccentric stage act family of psychics. After being humiliated and discredited on television in the 1970s life becomes a challenge and nothing is ever the same again. However, this story begins in the 1990s; the family is still struggling after the death of mother Maureen, and various financial crises loom over them, when fourteen-year-old Matty discovers he may have magic of his own.

 

The strength of this book is in its characters. Each one feels carefully sculpted with details and characteristics that bring them to life and make them relatable. To name just a couple of my favourites, there is Frankie, who is always looking for his next money-making scheme. Then there is Irene, who has stepped into her mother's shoes and takes care of the family, but sometimes wishes someone would take care of her, and, of course, charming and stylish Teddy, who hasn't given up on love and likes a woman who knows how to accessorize.

 

The magical elements of this book are wonderful and unique but ultimately this is a story about family, growing up and loss. The writing is effortlessly original and at times painfully insightful. Whatever you do, don't miss Spoonbenders

 

 

 

 

Elena Varvello
12th July 2017 - Elena Varvello

Ordinary People

 

Elena VarvelloElena Varvello was born in Turin, Italy, in 1971. She has published two collections of poetry and two novels.  She teaches creative writing at the Scuola Holden in Turin. Her latest novel, Can You Hear Me?, translated into English by Alex Valente, won the English PEN Award 2017. It is set in Ponte, a small community in Northern Italy, where sixteen year-old Elia Furenti lives a life so unremarkable that even its moderate unhappiness has been accepted as normal. But when the beautiful, damaged Anna returns to Ponte and firmly propels Elia to the edge of adulthood, everything starts to unravel...

Below, exclusively for Foyles, Elena remembers her father, who suffered from bipolar disorder, explains why no-one is ever 'ordinary' and talks about how he inspired her new book.

Author photo © Federico Botta

elenavarvello.com

 

 

 

 

Cover of Can You Hear Me?In a fragment of my memory, a secret place, my father and I are in his room. He is in his pyjamas, sitting on the bed, his back bent, his hands on his knees, a cigarette dangling from his lips. The room is hot and dark. I’m by the door, my hand on the handle. I’ve got nothing left to say, nothing that can help him, nothing that can soothe his pain or erase – if only – his illness. I am about to leave: I have two children to care for, a husband, a job, a home. I love my father, but I am exhausted. Right now he is depressed, he feels like a loser, he can’t get out of bed; two months ago he was euphoric, invincible – the two sides of bipolar disorder, the two extremes he helplessly navigates.

As I turn away, my father whispers something.

‘What is it, dad?’

He repeats, ‘Do you know what I am most sorry for?’

I shake my head, shrug my shoulders.

‘No one will ever tell my story.’

I wish I could say I understood what he meant, that day long gone, that I hugged him and reassured him, but I didn’t: I shut the door, leaving him alone, and ran away.

*

Another fragment of my memory, a year later: the intensive care unit in the hospital, my dad is dying. I am standing at a distance; I can’t bring myself to look at him. My mother gives him a kiss, whispers something in his ear, crying, then we go back to the waiting room. We know what we are waiting for.

My brother is there, sitting alone – he went in on his own and he has just come out. We exchange a few words, we even laugh a little because that’s who we are, because my father, on a good day, was the life and soul of the party, always full of laughter.

It’s almost Christmas, and yet I don’t remember it to be particularly cold. The sun is shining.

We look out the window, as my father, a few meters away, frees himself from his euphoria and desperation, from the sense of omnipotence and failure, and takes whatever path we travel on at the end, finally at peace.

My mother, my brother and I go back to the car without a word, squinting in that beautiful winter light, and we drive home.

Outside the car window nothing has changed. The shops, the cars, the fields are still there. People walk by. And yet the world has shifted, I can feel it, in that particular way it does when a person is lost forever – an imbalance of sorts, a lament, a new order to be built.

*

 

And here I am now in the small room I use for my writing. Somehow Christmas has gone by – I can’t remember how. Life goes on, unstoppable. I am sitting in front of my computer, thinking about my father. Suddenly his words on that day come back to me. And suddenly I understand.

A life like mine doesn’t matter to anyone. Nothing particularly important, nothing memorable, I didn’t leave a mark. They say we are ordinary people. Isn’t that what they call us? Do you know what happens in the end? We are forgotten, it doesn’t matter how much we loved or suffered.

But we still have stories, dad. We have stories, and in stories everyone is special and unforgettable. Stories do not tell us what actually happened – that’s just life, for better or worse – instead, they reveal the true meaning of those events, and open a space where everything is still possible. So please listen up, wherever you might be. This is what I will do: in some way, I’ll tell your story. You’ll see.

In that secret space of my memory, I look up and I realise it’s snowing. The room is cold – there’s just a small heater.

I look at the snow and I shiver, and then I think about a hot summer, a stream and a waterfall, a boy running in the night, a man sitting on a swing, lost in his mind.

*

This is how Can you hear me? came to life.

It took me years: writing needs time.

In those pages I write about a father and a son in a village called Ponte, in the summer of 1978. It’s not us, it’s not the life we lived – you didn’t have a van and you never went into the woods, and I am not a boy – and yet we are present. Can you see us?

There you are, smiling, telling a joke, or pulling a prank, laughing hard; there you are as you become a mystery, a man I’m scared of. There I am as I talk to you: can you hear me? And here’s what matters: compassion, love, forgiveness. Truth.

What matters is being able to see the people we love for who they are and carry on loving them. What matters is reopening that door.

We never really leave. We leave a trace behind. Every one of us is important. No one is ‘ordinary’. Every breath, every word, every movement is worth remembering. Stories remind us of that truth: that’s why I write and that’s why I’ll carry on writing.

I hope he knows, too. I hope he is pleased. If he were here, he would get up from the bed, stretch his legs, put the cigarette out and say, ‘Alright. Let’s go get a coffee.’

If he were here we would laugh together.

 

 

Latest Blog
#FoylesFave: Theft by Finding
19/07/2017

Meg from our web team discusses her love for all things Sedaris as his first volume of diaries is published.

Marian Veevers on Why No Woman is Simply a Product of the Time in which She Lives
18/07/2017

On the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's death, Marian Veevers explains why no woman is simply a product of the time in which she lives.

#FoylesFive: Poetry
16/07/2017

Jay from our Birmingham branch shares with you five collections that have changed his perspective and made him a huge lover and advocate of poetry.

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