Book clinic: what can I read to get along better with Mum?


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A daughter seeks help, fictional or nonfictional, to patch up a difficult relationship with her mother

Q: I don’t know how to manage my relationship with my mother. Can you recommend any books, fiction or nonfiction, which deal with fraught mother-and-daughter bonds?
Anonymous, 40, Buckinghamshire

A: Kate Kellaway, Observer writer and critic, says:
Reading about dysfunctional mother/daughter relationships can be soothing when struggling with a difficult relationship of your own.

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Emilie Pine: ‘I wrote the essay I needed to read’


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A courageous collection of essays by a drama professor explores alcoholism, mental illness, rape and infertility

Emilie Pine, 41, is an associate professor of modern drama at University College, Dublin. Notes to Self, her first non-academic book, is a personal, courageous and compulsively readable collection of essays about what it is to be a woman; it explores taboo subjects – infertility, miscarriage, menstruation, self-starvation, the rape she experienced as a teenager and the effects of alcoholism in a family.

Your book begins with a gripping account of your alcoholic father who is suffering liver failure in an under-staffed Greek hospital. You and your sister have to improvise as his nurses.
My dad got sick in 2013 – a year of hospitals. The good news is that he is still alive and no longer drinking. But in 2014, I felt the need to get it all out of my head. You ...

Vertigo & Ghost by Fiona Benson review – songs of shock and survival


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Benson’s extraordinarily moving collection is a bold confrontation of violence against women

Vertigo & Ghost is one of the darkest, bravest and most unsettling collections I have read in a while. Its first half turns to Greek mythology to explore violent crimes against women and casts Zeus as he-man, ace swimmer and serial rapist. Yet the opening poem, on the dawning of female sexuality, gives no clue of what is to follow. It describes girls gathering on a tennis court:

and sex wasn’t here yet, but it was coming,
and we were running towards it,
its gorgeous euphoric mist;

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The Flame by Leonard Cohen review – the last word in love and despair


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The songwriter and poet’s final writings are full of youthful spark, beauty and romance

The first time I came across Leonard Cohen – before I had ever heard his songs – I was an opinionated 16-year-old. I was drawn to a volume of his poetry in a bookshop but when I got it home dismissed it as a) too depressed and b) – more snootily – as not literature. Now, decades later, I no longer care whether Cohen’s work is literature. This grand book, The Flame, elegantly and posthumously published by Canongate, includes lyrics of last-gasp beauty from You Want It Darker – his final album with its against-the-odds satisfactions (to do partly with the octogenarian unlikeliness of its existing at all). The Flame is also a selection of the Canadian singer-songwriter’s unpublished work. Cohen’s son, Adam, has been its sensitive custodian. And as for the depression, it has ...

Kamal Ahmed: ‘We find it hard to talk about prejudice’


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The BBC journalist on his new memoir, his Sudanese roots, and why he doesn’t want to leave white people feeling guilty

Kamal Ahmed, the BBC’s economics editor (soon to become editorial director of BBC news), has worked on newspapers (he was political editor of the Observer) and for the Equality and Human Rights Commission. His sparky, accessible and stimulating memoir, The Life and Times of a Very British Man, takes his life as the son of a white, Yorkshire-born mother and a Sudanese father as a starting point for a conversation about identity, racism and what it means to be British.

Your memoir reads as an undertaking to understand prejudice. Why do human beings struggle to accept otherness?
It is only by accepting we all have prejudices that we can start a conversation. The reason we find it so hard to talk about our prejudices is partly ...

Running Upon the Wires by Kate Tempest review – raw revelations


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Kate Tempest’s self-exposing collection of poems, ballads and lyrics pulse with recklessness and vulnerability

This is the most personal collection Kate Tempest has ever written. It is her offstage, in-the-wings, behind-the-scenes book. Intimacy is its strength: the life could not be more private, the scrutiny of love, sex and sorrow will speak to anyone who has suffered a broken heart. Yet, at the same time, the overexposed quality of some of the poems is also its weakness. I sometimes felt voyeuristic as I read – as though witnessing more than I ought (while reminding myself that the decisions about what to include are Tempest’s own).

I wondered about the recklessness of this writing – a recklessness that seems to have grown out of vulnerability. To what extent can pain compromise poetic judgment? And why does the transition from private to public feel so uncomfortable here? It is as if some ...

In the City of Love’s Sleep review – object lessons in midlife romance


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Lavinia Greenlaw’s novel about a museum curator who falls in love after a chance encounter is a treat

The title reads like a bad translation – it has too many nouns – and what does it actually mean? But once past this obstacle, one is in the clear. This is a beautiful, unforced novel about an old subject made new. Lavinia Greenlaw does not spell out what she is writing about until we are at the point where we could say it for her: love at first sight. She writes about the recognition, the second it takes to “know” someone unknown, the stirring of what one might not register as memory. She shows how we respond to the tiniest signals – a syllable, a gesture, a glance. It is love in middle age she describes. The writing is present-tense choreography, as easy to read as gliding across parquet.

Iris is ...

The Dark Interval: Letters for the Grieving Heart – review


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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


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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’


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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


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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


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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


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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’


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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


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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


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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


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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


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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


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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’


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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 ...