The Dark Interval: Letters for the Grieving Heart – review

Rainer Maria Rilke’s letters of condolence reveal how the process of mourning can make us whole

Rainer Maria Rilke had written 14,000 letters by the time of his death in 1926, aged 51. This slender book, a selection of letters of condolence, available for the first time in English, is a treasure. The solace Rilke offers is uncommon, uplifting and necessary. He was drawn to the idea, expressed in his poetry, that difficulty in life is essential, that we should not attempt to evade it, that it contributes to achievement, fulfilment and self-knowledge. Rilke recognises that the death of people we love is the greatest challenge but sees that death is insurmountable. He never tells bereaved correspondents that time will heal nor falls into the common trap of trying, with the best intentions, to demote death. He is as unplatitudinous as it is possible for the author of letters of ...

In My Mind’s Eye review – Jan Morris’s remarkable staying power

The daily musings of the travel writer and historian are a fascinating look at ‘how to soldier on in your 90s’

This book is a writer’s constitutional. For 188 days, Jan Morris, now 91, has written a page or more of whatever comes into her head. These are short outings, limberings up; she does not overdo it. They are mentally equivalent to the walk she takes daily: 1,000 paces up and down the lane, singing different songs as she marches – she learned to march at Sandhurst. For this is a woman who started life as a man, who made her name as a journalist, James Morris, reporting for the Times on the first ascent of Everest in 1953. She admits now with chagrin (taking herself to task for unthinking presumption) that she had hoped she might be invited as a reporter to accompany astronauts on the first trip to ...

Sebastian Faulks: ‘I always feel that the glorious thing is just beyond my reach’

The novelist talks about alter egos, his place in history, and the differences between French and English patriotism

Sebastian Faulks, 65, was born in Newbury, Berkshire and is best known for his bestselling historical novels set in France – The Girl at the Lion d’Or, Birdsong, Charlotte Gray. In his new book, Paris Echo, the narrative is shared between an American post-doctoral researcher and a Moroccan teenager.

Your novel gives a foreigner’s eye view of Paris. How much time have you spent there?
I first went there at 17, for three months. I was living with an old lady off the Avenue de la Grande Armée, a continuation of the Champs-Élysées. It was a lonely, intense time. I read a lot and went to galleries and films in the afternoon. I loved the city but felt too young and poor to get plugged into its main artery. In ...

The House With Only an Attic and a Basement by Kathryn Maris – review

Maris’s detailed, hyper-fast poems wittily bridge the gap between the genders

This is the house that Kathryn Maris built: it has “only an attic and a basement”. What does it signify to have a bodiless house? The title is typical of this crisp, funny, lightly disturbing collection. Maris is a mistress of fragile structures. A wit informs her sometimes painful, mannered poems – their affectation a coping strategy. What Women Want is formed by layered futility: the woman’s superstitious initiative rendered null by the husband’s incurious loftiness. It plays with the pointlessness of its subject until the poem becomes the point. The charm of the book is that it is the poems themselves that offer stability. It is they that bridge – where a bridge is possible – the gap between the sexes (“The man in the basement wrote stories about heroin/ the woman in the attic read stories with heroines”). ...

Feel Free by Nick Laird review – glimpses of elsewhere

Nick Laird’s acute eye and shades of meaning make these poems a gift to read

Feel Free is an ambiguous title. You could be taking an empty chair with Laird’s permission and helping yourself to his poems, or it might be an imperative on how to live your life. (The title proved so tempting that Zadie Smith, Laird’s wife, poached it for her recently published essay collection; they now find themselves in the engagingly absurd situation of having published two books under the same name, a form of literary marriage, you could say.)

Throughout this outstanding collection, there is the sense of an elsewhere, at once tantalisingly close and unreachable. The opening poem, Glitch, describes a fall and the unshakable sense that follows, “of being wanted somewhere else”. It recalls Emily Dickinson’s line: “Life is over there – Behind the shelf…” Yet Dickinson’s lonely oddity could not be ...

Ongoingness and 300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso – review

Haunted by one book she may never write, the American essayist has instead written two volumes of edited highlights

For anyone who has ever kept a diary, Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness (first published in the US in 2015) will give pause for thought. The American writer kept a diary over 25 years and it was 800,000 words long. She elects not to publish a word of it in Ongoingness. It turns out she does not wish to look back at what she wrote. This absorbing book – brief as a breath – examines the need to record. It seems, even if she never spells it out, that writing the diary was a compulsive rebuffing of mortality. Like all diarists, she was trying to commandeer time. A diary gives the writer the illusion of stopping time in its tracks. And time – making her peace with its ongoingness – is Manguso’s obsession. ...

Jericho Brown: ‘Poetry is a veil in front of a heart beating at a fast pace’

The US poet on tensions between religion, sexuality and race – and why writing has saved his life

Jericho Brown was born in Louisiana and teaches English and creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He has won several fellowships including, in 2016, the Guggenheim. In an early incarnation, he worked as a speechwriter for the mayor of New Orleans before gathering momentum as a poet. His first collection, Please, won the American book award. His second, The New Testament, written in a spirit of tense lamentation, urgently addresses what it is to be gay, black and living in the US today.

Why The New Testament? Does the Bible provide your poetry with a holy infrastructure?
I grew up in a religious family – it was a requirement that we knew the scriptures. In 2010, I became very ill with HIV. I had not, for a while, ...

Notes from the Cévennes review – an English writer abroad

Adam Thorpe’s erudite memoir reflects on the realities of relocating to a rustic French idyll

Adam Thorpe’s memoir begins with a quotation from Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat: “I should never be a Frenchman, never be one of them.” This seems to hint at a complicated yearning and a particular sort of book – one in which an English person moves to France but never quite belongs (like Emma Beddington’s We’ll Always Have Paris: Trying and Failing to Be French, or Love Like Salt, by Helen Stevenson, which explains how her children, although bilingual, were never quite accepted as French).

But Thorpe’s memoir is not part of any herd. Nor does it belong in the fast-and-loose category of potboilers about swapping English life for continental idylls, such as Carol Drinkwater’s The Olive Farm or Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. It is erudite, firmly embedded in ...

Now We Can Talk Openly About Men by Martina Evans – poetry review

A pair of contrasting monologues set in 1920s Ireland are witty and humane to an outstanding degree

Kitty Donovan, a dressmaker in the time of the Irish war of independence, arrives on the opening page of this book fully formed. It is 1919. She does not seem invented. You hear her voice in your head – insistent, opinionated, revved up – and long to hear her speak aloud for this poetic monologue is just begging to be performed. Martina Evans’s outstanding book needs to be taken on as a radio piece without delay – or, perhaps, put on stage. Its second half belongs to another Irish woman, Babe Cronin, who, like Kitty, vents about life, but times have now changed and it is 1924. Babe is a stenographer in London who has fallen in love with a young revolutionary and their monologues are intertwined because Eileen, the woman with whom ...

The Kites by Romain Gary review – when resistance began in the kitchen

The first English translation of the author’s work, a romance set during the second world war, is overdue but well worth the wait

It seems extraordinary that Romain Gary, the Frenchman and only novelist (not to mention aviator, film director and diplomat) to have won the Prix Goncourt twice, should be strolling into English so casually and late in the day – and yet this is, according to his publishers, the first English translation of his last novel, The Kites. He was a singular figure in French literature whose non-literary claims to fame include having been married to Jean Seberg. Penguin will shortly be bringing out a new translation of his outlandishly memorable autobiography about growing up as the only child of a questing Jewish mother but in the meantime, as an opening gambit, we have this novel Les cerfs-volantsThe Kites (first published in 1980, the same year ...

Enter, Fleeing review – a man going everywhere fast

It’s a challenge to keep up with Mark Ford’s restless poetic energy but well worth the effort

Nairobi, 1963; Lagos 1967; Chicago 1969; Colombo, Hong Kong, Bahrain, New York… Mark Ford’s poems could – several of them – be organised like an airport departure board. Born in Kenya, he had a peripatetic upbringing. There are sightings here of his mother – telling an unfazed Kenyan servant that President Kennedy has been shot, or chasing a thief in Lagos, unaware of how her own voice will sound, years later, in a poem: “How dare you!” she calls without irony.

There are poems about what it means to take leave of yourself – Mickey Finn describes, at entertainingly floundering length, the after-effects of having had a drink spiked, and your trainers and wallet stolen on a Spanish train. It seems fitting that Ford should, in his intelligent restlessness, turn out to ...

See What Can Be Done by Lorrie Moore review – marvellously nuanced

This wide-ranging collection of reviews and cultural commentary is shrewd and worthy of preservation. Just don’t call it ‘enjoyable’…

Lorrie Moore explains, in her introduction, that her book’s title repeats the form of words used by Robert Silvers (1929-2017), editor of the New York Review of Books, along with books he hoped she might review. She was invariably able to see and do – and in unexpected ways, as this incisive, wide-ranging and enjoyable collection of reviews, autobiographical pieces and cultural commentary shows. “Enjoyable”, by the way, is a word on Moore’s adjectival hit list – banned, one presumes, for laziness or for being insufficiently explanatory (she does not explain).

She is an exacting writer but never a conceited one. She knows what it is to try and write fiction – or, rather, to succeed in writing it: her short stories are singular, witty and, at 61, her writing ...

Amy Bloom: ‘Being a writer is a tremendous privilege but does not always go smoothly’

The US novelist talks about the struggle to write her new book about Eleanor Roosevelt’s secret lesbian affair

Amy Bloom’s new novel White Houses – her fourth – is short and yet has the scope and intensity of a saga. It describes the love affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and journalist Lorena Hickok (“Hick”), a relationship that was unrecognised until a recent biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, by Blanche Wiesen Cook, brought it to view.

Bloom, in her mid-60s, is married with three children and has always described herself as bisexual (her non-fiction book Normal looked at attitudes to sex and gender). She worked for 20 years as a psychotherapist and is now a teacher of creative writing at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She has been nominated for the US national book award and the national book critics’ circle award and feted by fellow American and literary heavyweight Harold Bloom who claims ...

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy review – short, sensual, embattled memoir

The author describes the end of her marriage and the death of her mother with compelling grace and candour

WH Auden once said that writing about your life was “using up capital”, but this is what makes memoir such a generous form. And Deborah Levy is a most generous writer. What is wonderful about this short, sensual, embattled memoir is that it is not only about the painful landmarks in her life – the end of a marriage, the death of a mother – it is about what it is to be alive.

I can’t think of any writer aside from Virginia Woolf (or, perhaps, Helen Simpson) who writes better about the liminal, the domestic, the non-event, and what it is to be a woman. I always feel, reading Levy (this is her second memoir), that she is a writer with nothing much – and with everything – to say.

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The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy review – short, sensual, embattled memoir

The author describes the end of her marriage and the death of her mother with compelling grace and candour

WH Auden once said that writing about your life was “using up capital”, but this is what makes memoir such a generous form. And Deborah Levy is a most generous writer. What is wonderful about this short, sensual, embattled memoir is that it is not only about the painful landmarks in her life – the end of a marriage, the death of a mother – it is about what it is to be alive.

I can’t think of any writer aside from Virginia Woolf (or, perhaps, Helen Simpson) who writes better about the liminal, the domestic, the non-event, and what it is to be a woman. I always feel, reading Levy (this is her second memoir), that she is a writer with nothing much – and with everything – to say.

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Book clinic: recommended books about the best of humanity

From a redemptive tale set in Norfolk to classic Michael Frayn, our expert selects books that are funny and inspiring

Q: I am fed up with so many books and TV programmes being about horrible people doing horrible things to other people. Can you suggest something funny or inspiring or both, which is also a page-turner and well written, that is about the best of humanity, not the worst? Never without a book, I am in my early 60s, live in London, work on a website and want to feel more cheerful about the world. Anonymous

A: Observer writer and critic Kate Kellaway

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Three Poems by Hannah Sullivan – review

Hannah Sullivan’s debut collection of poems is intimate, experimental and rich in delicious description

Hannah Sullivan is an ambidextrous writer. An associate professor of English at New College, Oxford, she recently published a book called The Work of Revision, in which she argued that the idea of revising as a necessary part of the creative process only began with early 20th-century modernism. Her alluring debut collection Three Poems (who knows how extensively reworked?) travels light, illuminated yet never shackled by scholarship, and investigates the way life does – and does not – revise itself. It is as though she were holding this Polish proverb up to the light: “Everything changes and nothing changes.” She writes freshly about everything, including sameness. She is a sensual conjurer of atmospheres – writing almost as a poet-restaurateur. On a single page: cloves, rainstorm, peanut oil, ozone, brandy, frost, freezing blood and ...

The Peace of Wild Things review – a rich harvest

A new edition of work by the American poet Wendell Barnes draws its slow-moving brilliance from the stillness of nature

This column is usually reserved for new collections, but there is a reason to break this rule for Wendell Berry. It is extraordinary that he is not better known. I was on the verge of saying he should be a household name, but households have never been his thing. His selected verse, in a new edition by Penguin, is the work of an outdoorsman; it aspires to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s idea that nature is, for all the depredations, “never spent”. This is poetry to lower blood pressure, to induce calm.

Berry’s gift, as a Kentucky farmer and as a writer, is to root himself as a tree might – not to commandeer nature but to cherish it. I do not think it fanciful to see these poems as a form of manual ...

Cancer, Clare and me: actor Greg Wise on the death of his sister

A year after the death of his beloved sister, Wise talks about caring for Clare in her last days, and the blog, now a book, they wrote together

It is more than a year since Clare Wise, sister of the actor Greg Wise, died of cancer. She lived just down the street from the West Hampstead house her brother shares with his wife, Emma Thompson, and their daughter, Gaia. As Greg opens his front door and leads the way into his kitchen, one can see, within minutes, why he was such an indispensable carer to his sister during the last weeks of her life. Today, he has organised elevenses with good coffee and patisserie. As an actor, he is routinely cast as a reprobate (Mountbatten in The Crown a debatable exception). In life, he could not be nicer if he tried. And that’s precisely it: he does not appear to ...

Afterglow (A Dog Memoir) by Eileen Myles review – anthropomorphism meets Joyce

This dog’s-eye view of its owner, the world and the canine afterlife is told with great literary flair

You may think, at least if you are not a dog lover, that the dog memoir is for a niche, non-literary readership. But some of the best memoirs I have read have been about dogs: JR Ackerley’s indispensable We Think the World of You soothed my broken heart as a teenager after a beloved dog had died, and Paul Bailey’s A Dog’s Life is a splendid memoir about the collie cross that took over his and his partner’s life. Even Virginia Woolf wrote a book about a dog: Flush (which is also a semi-fictional biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning although, admittedly, not one of her best). But Eileen Myles’s Afterglow belongs in a strange category of its own – it is unlike anything I have read and is a work of Joycean ...