Sing, Heron – 30 September 2023

The wrath of Achilles, the fury of the goddesses, the raging of the emperors, vengeance, war, lust, beauty: I’ve consulted with the muse of literature and let me say that she has been working tirelessly. It’s been quite a time.

This week I have joined Achilles in his almighty strop in Emily Wilson’s majestic translation of The Iliad, I have admired Demeter as she stops at nothing to retrieve her daughter, Persephone, from Hades in Natalie Haynes’s Divine Might and I’ve questioned the true power of Roman rulers in Mary Beard’s Emperor of Rome. If you are among those who cannot go a day without thinking about the Roman Empire, this last gives you good reason.

From the music of Homer to the music of Patrick Langley, The Variations focuses on a reclusive composer who can translate into sound the voices of the dead and the harmonies of history. As with phrases in epic poetry or motifs in music, we repeat, retell, reinterpret our memories over time and Langley links and toys with all these processes in marvellous style in this novel.

Once you’ve had your fill of the food of love, The Glutton by AK Blakemore serves up something rather different. Inspired by an 18th-century showman, Tarare, who used to eat staggering quantities of food – not all of it dead when he started it – and many things that were ostensibly not food (nice bowl of corks, anyone?), Blakemore offers a version of revolutionary France centring on an old, hungry cannibal. If Chris van Tulleken’s Ultra-Processed People ruined ice cream for you, let’s just say that you’ll never look at a rat the same way again after reading this book.

From an excess of food to a lack of it, the novella Kibogo by Scholastique Mukasonga tells four variations on the story of its title character, apparently responsible for conjuring the rain that ended the 1940s famine in Rwanda. Among the mythmaking and the lies that the storytellers offer are the cold truths about colonialism and the exploitation of Rwanda. 

In the non-fiction sections, truth and lies are just as much at issue, and particularly so when it comes to espionage. We are very excited for Adam Sisman to reveal The Secret Life of John le Carré. His previous biography of the great novelist and charismatic gentleman is a fascinating insight into a life that feels rather like it belongs in one of le Carré’s own novels. But writing that biography with its subject breathing over your shoulder meant that certain secrets remained uncovered. Until now… You can pre-order a copy (or several) of Adam Sisman’s brilliant new book and do get in touch if you’d like us to arrange a signed copy for you. Because, well, all very hush hush of course but: we know a guy…  Please collect your orders in appropriate attire – trench coats and briefcases mandatory – and remember that the phone lines may be tapped.

On to authors with a different sort of taste for women: Eve Bites Back looks at the lives of eight pioneering women writers including Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Aphra Behn and Mary Elizabeth Braddon for an alternative to the male-dominated history of English literature. Perhaps all the men contemplating the Roman Empire could do with redirecting their thoughts to this too.

Am I Normal? possibly wasn’t a question bothering the women Anna Beer considers. And, as Sarah Chaney shows in her book, even the concept of asking this is only a relatively recent phenomenon. We will be the bookseller at her talk on Monday about the science and history behind this search for normality and why it does not exist – get your ticket here.   

Then on Thursday it’s National Poetry Day so it feels appropriate that this newsletter is framed by poetry and delightful that it is poetry that spans three thousand years. I’ve been reading the brilliant Bath of Herbs by Emily Zobel Marshall and falling in love with the way she connects with landscape and explores identity through that connection. Next week we will be at the free poetry reading by Kim Moore and Alice Oswald (sitting behind a mountain of their books, which will be for sale). And on 21st October, Poetry in Herons returns with performances by Carrie Etter and Emma Jones – absolutely not to be missed; do email us to RSVP.

Look forward to seeing you in the shop and at the events above. In the meantime, may your weekend be brimming with music.

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