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 ...

Milkshakes and Morphine: A Memoir of Love and Loss by Genevieve Fox review – a lonely past and a painful present

An absorbing account of growing up as an orphan and struggling with cancer in adulthood is, happily, free of self-pity

It is Genevieve Fox’s misfortune – not ours – that she is joining the ranks of those writing about cancer. As an accomplished journalist, she could write about anything and make it interesting. This exceptionally involving memoir doubles as a narrative about growing up as an orphan. And the strands dovetail – she lost her mother to cancer when she was nine years old (her father died of a heart attack when she was younger still). Her book considers orphans in literature (Harry Potter, Jane Eyre, Caliban) and she reflects upon this theme partly because, as a mother, she is steeling herself against history repeating itself. In her narrative, a ramshackle past and fraught present collide. Her account of her outlandish upbringing (to the limited extent that she was ...

‘Every poem is political’: Danez Smith, the YouTube star shaking up poetry

Smith’s dear white america was a viral phenomenon. Launching a new collection, Don’t Call Us Dead, the poet is in polemical mood about the black experience in the US

If you watch Danez Smith’s poem dear white america on YouTube – where it has racked up more than 300,000 viewings (not the sort of figures poetry usually attracts) – it is easy to see why Smith is becoming a phenomenon. The video is a powerful introduction to the collection Don’t Call Us Dead (a finalist in the US’s National Book award for poetry), which is about to be published in the UK. Smith has a colossal gift for performance. You are moved – shaken – as if you had been involved in an argument you couldn’t win. And, in a sense, if you are white, that describes the position. The poem – set out like prose – is a ...

Picture books for children reviews – tinselly tales for a child’s Christmas

From Quentin Blake’s Scrooge to Judith Kerr’s new cat Katinka and beyond, picture book present ideas abound this Christmas

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, illustrated by Quentin Blake (Pavilion £14.99), is an uplifting version of Dickens’s classic, bound in scarlet, with which to get Christmas off to a festive start. Dickens and Blake turn out to be a canny pairing – what they have in common is boundless imaginative energy. Blake’s Scrooge is first encountered bent double over his desk. Everything about him and his environs is greyish save for the pile of golden coins upon which he is dolefully focused. The first ghost in the story is rendered as comic and alarming – a mix Blake has down to a fine art. Hair standing on end, desperate mouth – the ghost is chaos on the move. But the most appealing picture is of Scrooge transformed – a ...

An Almost Perfect Christmas by Nina Stibbe review – pass the frozen turkey

Stibbe’s miscellany of tall tales, advice on unapologetic gift-giving and remembrance of botched Christmases past is a rustled-up delight

There is no disguising it – at least that is what you think at first. This book is a potboiler – or, given its subject, a turkey brick. You can almost hear the publishers – or Nina Stibbe herself – calculating: how about following the success of Love, Nina (her memoir about being a nanny to LRB editor Mary-Kay Wilmers’ sons) and a couple of amusing novels with a festive bestseller? I opened An Almost Perfect Christmas preparing to be underwhelmed, only to find myself chuckling at every other page. By the end – or, actually, not long after the beginning – I was a convert. This book is the seasonal garnish we all need. There is no subject upon which Stibbe could not entertain.

Having said that, it’s startling ...

On Balance poetry review – an imagination that never closes

Sinead Morrissey’s Forward-winning collection is a breathtaking feat, blending fiction, memoir and history

Sinead Morrissey’s On Balance, which has just won this year’s Forward prize, is a collection that keeps extending itself and that shares many of the satisfactions of fiction, memoir and history (there is an especially arresting poem about a model of Napoleon’s horse, another fine poem about the aviator Lilian Bland and an astounding poem based on a garish photograph of tsarist Russia). Even the poems that cross the finishing line with a flourish are open-ended, leaving one with the sense that there will always be more to say, and this is because Morrissey is possessed of her own invigorating brand of Irish fluency and an imagination that never closes.

On the subject of balance – there is always the likelihood that the world is about to tilt. The Millihelen (the poem that launches the collection) ...

Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi review – a striking initiation

The Zambian-born British poet proves himself much more than ‘another brother who can rhyme’ in this assured debutI first came across Kayo Chingonyi at the Coronet – once a seedy cinema in Notting Hill Gate, now home to the Print Room and a bohemian den of unexpected charm where, once a month, a trio of poets reads aloud. It is a wonderful destination for poets, and Chingonyi has the huge advantage of being a natural performer. He reads his poems with an immediacy that gives each one to you like a present (sample his extraordinary performance at the South Bank with dancer Sean Graham). His delivery is the opposite of the wistful singsong that has become chronic at poetry readings (so many poets would benefit from the attention of a really good theatre director). My particular pet hate is the way poets meaninglessly turn the last words in each ...

Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi review – a striking initiation

The Zambian-born British poet proves himself much more than ‘another brother who can rhyme’ in this assured debutI first came across Kayo Chingonyi at the Coronet – once a seedy cinema in Notting Hill Gate, now home to the Print Room and a bohemian den of unexpected charm where, once a month, a trio of poets reads aloud. It is a wonderful destination for poets, and Chingonyi has the huge advantage of being a natural performer. He reads his poems with an immediacy that gives each one to you like a present (sample his extraordinary performance at the South Bank with dancer Sean Graham). His delivery is the opposite of the wistful singsong that has become chronic at poetry readings (so many poets would benefit from the attention of a really good theatre director). My particular pet hate is the way poets meaninglessly turn the last words in each ...

Hunger by Roxane Gay review – one body’s lessons for everybody

This memoir of suffering and survival subtly questions not just how we judge ‘fat’, but how we dare to judge at all Fat is more than a feminist issue – as this extraordinary memoir by novelist and essayist Roxane Gay reveals. Gay’s last book, Bad Feminist, became a New York Times bestseller and revealed her to be a writer unfazed by inconvenient truths and a champion of women – especially gay and black women. Hunger tells a story that must have been as hard to write as it is disturbing to read. She does not duck from telling us, early on, that at 6ft 3in tall, she weighed, at her heaviest, 577 pounds: “That is a staggering number, one I hardly believe, but at one point, that was the truth of my body.” She does – and does not – know, she says, how things got so out ...

Hunger by Roxane Gay review – one body’s lessons for everybody

This memoir of suffering and survival subtly questions not just how we judge ‘fat’, but how we dare to judge at all Fat is more than a feminist issue – as this extraordinary memoir by novelist and essayist Roxane Gay reveals. Gay’s last book, Bad Feminist, became a New York Times bestseller and revealed her to be a writer unfazed by inconvenient truths and a champion of women – especially gay and black women. Hunger tells a story that must have been as hard to write as it is disturbing to read. She does not duck from telling us, early on, that at 6ft 3in tall, she weighed, at her heaviest, 577 pounds: “That is a staggering number, one I hardly believe, but at one point, that was the truth of my body.” She does – and does not – know, she says, how things got so out ...

Picture books for children reviews – from old hats to new homes

Neil Gaiman’s mute, pearl-eyed princess and a magical tale of moving house are among the best illustrated reads for kids this summerIt is summer – the season in which mad dogs and Englishmen are said to go out in the midday sun. A better idea might be to stay in the shade and read Raymond, by Yann and Gwendal Le Bec (Walker £11.99, ages 3+). Even before you have opened the book, you will be won over by the brilliant sunshine-yellow cover and Raymond – a little dog with big dreams – standing on his hind legs, looking perkily assured, with a cup of what looks alarmingly like coffee in his left paw. Raymond’s big dream is to be more than one of the family – he wants to “act more and more like a human”. He becomes a celeb journo on Dogue magazine – and it ...

Will You Walk a Little Faster? by Penelope Shuttle review – an ode to London

On the occasion of her 70th birthday, Shuttle reflects on the city, contemplates her place in it and leads us to see it with fresh eyesPenelope Shuttle need not walk any faster – as this, her 14th collection, demonstrates. It is the gentle pace that captivates in her poems. And what a phenomenal poet she is (she has recently celebrated her 70th birthday). She has an unbossy, contemplative, unmistakable voice. She leads you quietly and helps you see things – London especially – afresh. There is nothing stale about the way she writes, although she is thinking about what it means to be older. She reflects on the city, its present moment and history – its bones. The past is there, almost palpable, and the dead, too – only just beyond touch and sight. She salutes London while resisting its metropolitan speed. Once part of a celebrated working duo ...

Paul Beatty: ‘Heartbreak is part of doing anything you want to do’

The Booker-winning author of The Sellout on difficult interviews, the joy and pain of writing, and why he shies away from big questionsPaul Beatty was born in Los Angeles in 1962. He studied psychology at Boston University and received an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College. He started his writing career as a poet and has edited Hokum, a study in African American humour. In 2016, he became the first American to win the Booker prize with his fourth novel, The Sellout, a coruscating bestseller about race relations in the US. He lives in New York and teaches creative writing at Columbia University. When you started The Sellout, to what extent did you know where you were going with it?
I started with the idea of rendering segregation in a contemporary context. I was asking myself: how do you segregate something without having any power? I ...

Letters to a Young Writer review – sound advice for novelists

Despite the occasional misstep, Colum McCann’s book of guidance for writers is full of clarity, wit and forceful instructionOscar Wilde once said with characteristic breeziness: “The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself.” Rilke, quoted at the start of Colum McCann’s elegant compendium of advice to young writers, was more discouraging: “Nobody can advise you, nobody.” McCann acknowledges the truth of this, then comprehensively ignores it. As an award-winning novelist and, for 20 years, a teacher of creative writing (now at Hunter College, New York), he has earned his right to advise and is canny – and modest – enough to keep telling his audience they are not obliged to read on. But the truth is that writing is a struggle – often a lonely struggle – and writers and perhaps especially novelists need ...

Helen Dunmore obituary

Poet and novelist with a flair for reinvention and making history humanThe writer Helen Dunmore, who has died aged 64 of cancer, seldom made herself her subject. The author of 12 novels, three books of short stories, numerous books for young adults and children and 11 collections of poetry, she was remarkable in that, although she made an impression from the start, her career evolved in unexpected ways. As she grew older, she knew what to shed, how to travel light, how to pursue questions that occupied her single-mindedly – as if sweeping a room clear of dust. In her 20s, she had written a couple of unpublished autobiographical novels and would imply that these belonged in the bottom drawer – mere staging posts on the road to becoming a novelist, a way of getting herself out of the picture. Continue reading...

Nell Stevens: penguins, paranoia and an old potato on the island of Bleaker

The author of the memoir Bleaker House tells of writing the book in a lonely winter on the Falklands with a meagre diet and a lot of Shakespeare Nell Stevens was not the woman I was expecting to meet after reading her memoir, Bleaker House. This is an entertaining, perverse and singular book about travelling to Bleaker, a rocky, snowy, windswept island in the Falklands (official population: two), thanks to a Boston University fellowship offering all-expenses-paid travel to a place of her choosing to write a first novel. She chose to spend three months in the Falklands in winter 2013. She was lonely and undernourished – she had not packed realistically. She describes her minutely planned regime. She resolved to write 2,500 words a day, fuelled by a meagre diet (1,805 her calorie limit), with the expectation that a novel would materialise. The novel refused to come quietly. She wrote ...

Farewell to the Horse: The Final Century of Our Relationship – review

Ulrich Raulff’s idiosyncratic and wide-ranging study of the horse’s role in human history more than earns its spursAs you pick up the reins of this book – trying to get a sense of what sort of a ride it is to be – it becomes evident within three paragraphs that you have never read a book like it. Its author, Ulrich Raulff, former literary editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, is a one-off. He has an extraordinarily connective mind and it is seldom possible to predict where he is going with it. Just as you are telling yourself this is a book of calm erudition, you will run into a joke: “My first genuine horse book will have to wait until my rebirth as a horse.” His wit tends to be deadpan. Or you will come across a moment of barely concealed emotion. At the end of ...

Farewell to the Horse: The Final Century of Our Relationship – review

Ulrich Raulff’s idiosyncratic and wide-ranging study of the horse’s role in human history more than earns its spursAs you pick up the reins of this book – trying to get a sense of what sort of a ride it is to be – it becomes evident within three paragraphs that you have never read a book like it. Its author, Ulrich Raulff, former literary editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, is a one-off. He has an extraordinarily connective mind and it is seldom possible to predict where he is going with it. Just as you are telling yourself this is a book of calm erudition, you will run into a joke: “My first genuine horse book will have to wait until my rebirth as a horse.” His wit tends to be deadpan. Or you will come across a moment of barely concealed emotion. At the end of ...