Girl, Balancing and Other Stories by Helen Dunmore review – her final work

This posthumous collection from the much-loved author, focusing on motherhood, war and women under threat, is an act of tender commemoration

When Helen Dunmore died a year ago this month, at the age of 64, it seemed unlikely there would be more of her work to come. After a lateish start as a novelist (she was in her 40s when Zennor in Darkness came out in 1993), her output was prolific: around 50 titles in around 20 years, including novels, poetry and short story collections, children’s books and fiction for young adults. The work kept coming right to the end. Even last year, there were three new books: a novel, Birdcage Walk; a poetry collection, Inside the Wave (winner of the Costa book of the year award); and an illustrated children’s book, The Little Sea Dragon’s Wild Adventure. Her career may have been cut short but, ...

The Shadow in the Garden by James Atlas review – what it is like to write biography

Atlas is best known for his study of Saul Bellow, written while the novelist was still alive. It was an unequal, fraught relationship and the biographer feels (a little) guilty

“You should write a book about writing this book,” Saul Bellow told his biographer James Atlas during one of the many meetings they had during Atlas’s research. Decades later – 18 years after the biography and 13 since Bellow’s death – he has done just that, recalling the ups and downs of their relationship, exploring his “agonised” ambivalence about the job he did, and reflecting on the dilemmas of the life writing trade, especially when the person you’re writing about is alive. “There will be tears before bedtime,” Atlas was warned about his Bellow project, and there were. Hence the motivation for this book – part mea culpa, part self-exoneration, part memoir.

Atlas dates his fascination with biography back to ...

Waiting for the Last Bus by Richard Holloway review – reflections on death and how to live

The former bishop of Edinburgh considers old age an opportunity for self-examination, in a book enriched by its breadth of cultural reference

Richard Holloway had his first taste of mortality in his 20s, when he started going bald. Though no narcissist, he hated the hair loss, and tried to reverse it with pills, then disguise it with an artful comb-over, before cropping the whole lot off. As he says, baldness is not a terminal disease but he thinks of it as “good preparation for ageing and death, the skeleton being the ultimate baldy”. Just as he grew to accept his baldness then, so now, at 80, he has come to accept that he won’t be around for ever.

For most of us, such acceptance doesn’t come easy. Humankind cannot bear very much reality: don’t ask for whom the bell tolls and maybe it won’t. What Holloway acronymises as AAPD – ...

Up in smoke: should an author’s dying wishes be obeyed?

Harper Lee never wanted Go Set a Watchman brought out, Sylvia Plath’s diary was burned by Ted Hughes – the controversial world of literary legacies

When a writer is born into a family, the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz said, that family is finished. Yes, but when a writer dies that family’s troubles have only just begun. Wills may be contradictory and instructions to literary executors confused. Works left behind on computers or in desk drawers may be of uncertain status: were they intended for publication or not? And if the writer is famous enough, there’ll be biographers to deal with: can they be trusted to paint a kindly portrait? In their lifetime, authors have a measure of control. Once they’re gone, it’s left to others to guard their reputations.

The vigilance can be fierce, with the appointed custodians (whether spouses, children, lawyers, agents, editors or friends) not so much keepers ...

Yorkshire by Richard Morris review – England’s greatest county?

This fragmented history contains a wealth of fascinating information and is at its best when the author gets personal

Is Yorkshire England’s greatest county? With an area of nearly 12,000 sq km, much greater than Sussex, Surrey and Kent combined, it’s certainly the largest. Thanks to conurbations such as Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford, it’s also the most populous outside Greater London. And none can match its claim to heavenly dispensation (“God’s own country”). But other aspects of Yorkshire are less great. The proverbial wisdom associated with Tykes – “’Ear all, see all, say nowt; / Eat all, sup all, pay nowt. / An’ if ivver tha does owt fer nowt – / Allus do it for thissen” – celebrates parsimony, narrow-mindedness and self-interest. And then, if you are a remainer, there was Brexit. In June 2016, only three out of 21 Yorkshire districts voted remain; Hull, for instance – once famous as ...

The Minister and the Murderer by Stuart Kelly review – should a killer be allowed into the church?

In this fascinating, demanding book, a famous Church of Scotland case from the 1980s takes the literary critic up various personal and intellectual paths

Should a murderer be allowed to serve as a minister of the church? Is such a person suitable to conduct marriages, open coffee mornings and suffer little children to come to them? Such were the questions facing the Church of Scotland in 1984, when a licence was sought by James Nelson, who after his release from prison on parole, having served a 10-year sentence, had studied divinity at St Andrews and taken up preaching. With the tabloids closely following the story (Nelson, not averse to publicity, had given an interview to the Glasgow Herald the year before), the Kirk’s General Assembly knew it would be criticised, whatever its decision. But after a three-hour debate, by 622 votes to 425, with a courage it’s hard to imagine ...

Leonardo da Vinci: The Biography by Walter Isaacson review – unparalleled creative genius

Flamboyant, illegitimate and self taught, he was unreliable and an unashamed self-publicist. He was also one of the most gifted and inventive men in history

In 1501, desperate for Leonardo to paint her portrait, the immensely rich Isabella d’Este employed a friar to act as go-between. The friar met Leonardo in Florence but found his lifestyle “irregular and uncertain” and couldn’t pin him down. “Mathematical experiments have absorbed his thoughts so entirely that he cannot bear the sight of a paintbrush,” Isabella was told. With promises he’d get round to it eventually, Leonardo kept her dangling for another three years. Pushy to the end, she changed tack and asked him for a painting of Jesus instead. Even then, he didn’t come up with the goods.

The story encapsulates contrasting versions of Leonardo that have been in play ever since Vasari extolled him in his Lives of the Artists. On the one ...

The Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young review – what is it like to be a cow?

An organic farmer identifies empathy, happiness and eccentricity in her cattle. Despite the seeming naivety of her narrative voice, she is well aware of what she’s up to

What is it like to be a cow? If Rosamond Young is to be believed, it’s pretty much like being human. Cows are “besotted” by and “dote on” their newborns, and nurture and counsel them as they grow up. They form “devoted and inseparable” friendships with their peers. They talk to each other, discuss the weather, pass on wisdom, introduce themselves to newcomers, go for walks, kiss, babysit, love to be stroked, play hide-and-seek, have running races, take offence, hold grudges, lose their temper, get stressed, and grieve over the death of a parent or child. They also tease, pressurise, question, retaliate against and “show baffled gratitude” towards their keepers. In short, they are the same as we are, though perhaps morally ...

Bravo the BBC for its U-turn on axing Saturday Review

Radio 4’s discussion programme has been reprieved. The arts need professional critics more than ever in the age of Twitter When the Observer film critic Philip French died two years ago, many tributes were paid to the qualities that made him an outstanding reviewer: his breadth of reference, incisive opinions and talent (or weakness) for terrible puns. Less remarked on was his contribution to the BBC’s review coverage of the arts: from the 1960s till his early retirement in 1990, he worked on the weekly radio arts programme The Critics and its successor, Critics’ Forum. The highbrow tone of participants was parodied by Peter Sellers. But the programme’s simple premise – that when three or four people are gathered together in the name of criticism, something informative and entertaining can ensue – guaranteed its longevity. Since 1998 Radio 4’s Saturday Review has ably filled the void left by ...

Bravo the BBC for its U-turn on axing Saturday Review

Radio 4’s discussion programme has been reprieved. The arts need professional critics more than ever in the age of Twitter When the Observer film critic Philip French died two years ago, many tributes were paid to the qualities that made him an outstanding reviewer: his breadth of reference, incisive opinions and talent (or weakness) for terrible puns. Less remarked on was his contribution to the BBC’s review coverage of the arts: from the 1960s till his early retirement in 1990, he worked on the weekly radio arts programme The Critics and its successor, Critics’ Forum. The highbrow tone of participants was parodied by Peter Sellers. But the programme’s simple premise – that when three or four people are gathered together in the name of criticism, something informative and entertaining can ensue – guaranteed its longevity. Since 1998 Radio 4’s Saturday Review has ably filled the void left by ...

As Kingfishers Catch Fire by Alex Preston – books and birds

Fascinated by birds since boyhood, Preston has written an astute memoir-meets-anthology, with lush illustrations by Neil Gower
In the middle of writing this book, Alex Preston and his young family moved from north London to a rose-clad, redbrick rectory in Kent. What he found was no simple rural idyll: the mood there, close to the Channel ports, was “a bubbling … rage”, pro-Brexit and anti-immigration. Nonetheless, the move has been a happy one, in part because he can lie awake at night and listen to nightingales. The nightingales don’t stay long – a brief three months from April to July – and it’s impossible, thinking of their perilous journeys from Africa, to forget their human counterparts, on their perilous journeys. Even birds allow no escape from politics, Preston says. For the Russian Anna Akhmatova and the Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish, the nightingale is a symbol of the poet’s struggle against ...

Between Them: Remembering My Parents by Richard Ford – review

The novelist makes no grand claims for this memoir, and it is his unembarrassed love for his mother and father that comes throughWhat ultimately came between Richard Ford’s parents occurred on 20 February 1960, when his father suffered a heart attack. He’d had one 12 years previously but recovered, eased up, seemed (though overweight) relatively well – until Richard heard his mother call out early that morning and came through in pyjamas to find his father gasping for air. He shook him by the shoulders then tried artificial respiration, something he’d heard about but never practised. It didn’t work. His father (Parker) was only 55, his mother (Edna) 50, Richard himself (an only child) 16. A lesser writer would milk the trauma. But Ford studiously avoids the word. Unjust though it was, his father’s early death “surrendered back to me nearly as much as it took away”, freeing him to live ...

Fathers by Sam Miller review – generous memoir of a family affair

A son’s affectionate, grateful book recalls the father he knew – and the footloose, polyamorous one he didn’tKarl Miller used to joke about his hypochondria: “No poor soul was ever iller / than Karl Fergus Connor Miller.” When in his early 80s he really was ill, with cancer, his son Sam, a writer and foreign correspondent with the BBC, returned to the family home in Chelsea to spend time with him – not out of guilt or duty, but from “a selfish longing to be with this man who had done so much to shape me”. At 11 every morning, he and his brother Daniel would gather at Karl’s bedside for coffee, poetry, laughter and reminiscence. Karl found the sessions a tonic and recovered sufficiently for Sam to risk a short trip to India. While he was there, in September 2014, Karl fell down the stairs and died. ...

Deaths of the Poets by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts – the high price of poetry

A thoughtful interrogation of the idea of the doomed poet avoids ghoulish sensationalism Not the lives of poets, which Dr Johnson wrote about, but their deaths – whether early or late, in bed or in battle, accidental or self-inflicted. It’s a great idea for a book but one that could easily descend into ghoulish sensationalism or slick postmortem psychologising. It helps that the authors are poets themselves, whose agenda isn’t to rubberneck or lecture but to interrogate the Romantic myth “that great poems come at a heavy – ultimately fatal – price”. If their previous collaboration, Edgelands, in 2011, was a pilgrimage to neglected corners of the English landscape, this one sends them further afield, to wherever it was (Boston, Vienna or Hull) that a poet’s last hours were spent. The hope is that by being there they can learn something – about the life and work, and ...

4321 by Paul Auster review – a man of many parts

This 20th-century epic, Auster’s first novel in seven years, sees one hero lead four livesThe last thing you’d expect Paul Auster to write is a social-realist novel of panoramic, Dickensian scope. He’s known for his concision, his affiliations with European modernism, his conjuring tricks and sleight of hand. But there’s a telling tribute to David Copperfield halfway through this book, along with a rebuke to Salinger’s Holden Caulfield for badmouthing Dickens in the first sentence of The Catcher in the Rye. More to the point, the opening of the novel – Auster’s first in seven years – is engagingly old-fashioned in spirit, as the genealogy and childhood of one Archibald Isaac Ferguson are set out. Surely it can’t be that simple? And no, it isn’t. Ferguson, it emerges, isn’t the hero of his own life but of his own lives, plural. With 800 pages still to go, any illusion ...

Blake Morrison on the Goldsmiths prize for fiction: ‘There are still things to say that haven’t been said before’

Winner Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones represents all that is innovative in literature Literary prizes are traditionally awarded to the “best” book in a particular category – fiction, poetry or biography, for example. But the “best” is nebulous and subjective: put six books in front of a reading group, a set of reviewers, or a panel of judges, and opinions will diverge. Now in its fourth year, the £10,000 Goldsmiths prize for fiction has a different agenda: to reward and celebrate the new. Is newness any easier to identify than bestness? Perhaps not. But – as I’ve discovered while judging the prize this year, along with Bernardine Evaristo, Erica Wagner and Joanna Walsh – it’s challenging to think about and fun to discuss. Laurence Sterne, who described Tristram Shandy as “something new, quite out of the beaten track”, is the presiding spirit of fiction that breaks the mould and extends the possibilities of ...

In Gratitude by Jenny Diski review – cancer, contrariness and Doris Lessing

Impending death, a troubled childhood, her debt to her mother figure – last thoughts from an outstanding author

When Jenny Diski was told she had an incurable cancer, her first reaction was embarrassment. That wouldn’t be the response of most people, but Diski rarely does as expected. “Contrary-minded” is her own phrase for it, and anyone who has read her over the years will know what she means. Who else would choose as the narrator for a novel a baby born without a brain (Like Mother, 1988)? Or feel a sudden compulsion to go to Antarctica and write a travel book that then turned into a memoir of her mother (Skating to Antarctica, 1997)? As a child she never did as she was told (borderline personality disorder, the experts called it), and as a writer she’s constantly surprising. Sometimes, for all her wit and knowingness, she surprises even ...

Some Rain Must Fall: My Struggle Volume 5 by Karl Ove Knausgaard review – merciless self-exposure

Sex, marriage, self-hatred … and the discovery of his true voice in the compelling latest instalment of Knausgaard’s epic autobiographical seriesIn the four previous volumes of his autobiographical epic, Karl Ove Knausgaard has described various kinds of struggle: with childhood fears, teenage angst, marriage and parenthood; with death and desire; with the legacy of a domineering, alcoholic father. Here the focus shifts to his struggle to become a published author and to the decade or so (from the age of 19 till his late 20s) when little or nothing came right for him. There are generous extracts from the poems and stories he was composing. But none of them have much connection with the life he was leading, as recounted in fanatical detail here. And really that’s the point: his dawning realisation that his talent lay in life writing is what led to his phenomenal success. In most of Europe, creative ...

Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War by Ian Buruma review – a fascinating story of assimilation

Buruma’s grandparents were Jews with family roots in Germany, but considered Britain, where they grew up, the best country in the world – despite encountering its antisemitism As a boy in the late 1950s, Ian Buruma must have been puzzled when he heard his grandparents using the term “forty-five”. Even now he is puzzled about its origins. It had nothing to do with P45s, or Colt 45s, or Rule 45 (the segregation of child offenders in prison), or 45rpm vinyl singles or the year the war ended, 1945. It was the code name for Jewish. “Is he [or she] forty-five?’ his grandparents would ask whenever someone in the family made a new acquaintance. Bernard and Winnie Schlesinger were Jewish themselves, the children of stockbrokers, raised in the same affluent Hampstead milieu and brought together in their teens by a love of classical music. Their family roots were German (their ...

This Is London by Ben Judah review – the truth about a capital city utterly transformed

More than half of Londoners are now immigrants – the city’s variety and its divisions are uncovered in this epic work of reportage Returning home, third-class, after living as a down-and out in Paris, George Orwell fell in with a couple of Romanians and found himself praising his country’s many pleasures, from mint sauce and marmalade to the scenery and architecture. The book he wrote after spending time in London doss houses tells a different story. The utopian myths soon fade if you are poor or Other. Ben Judah’s epic account of contemporary London is similarly motivated by a desire to show our capital in its true (new) colours: as a megacity of global migrants, some of them rich, most of them poor, few of them happy with their lot. Knightsbridge gets a chapter and so does Mayfair’s Berkeley Square, but it’s the people and places further out that really ...