Benjamin Moser's "Sontag: Her Life and Work" is a sweeping biography that reveals personal, political, and cultural turbulence.
Drawing on some 300 interviews, a rich, newly available archive of personal papers and abundant published sources, biographer, essayist and translator Moser offers a comprehensive, intimate — and surely definitive — biography of writer, provocateur and celebrity intellectual Susan Sontag (1933-2004). Sympathetic and sharply astute, Moser recounts the astonishing evolution of Susan Rosenblatt, an impressively bright and inquisitive child of the Jewish middle class, into an internationally acclaimed, controversial and often combative cultural figure. Even as a child, Sontag — she changed her name after her mother’s second marriage — saw herself as exceptional: smarter than her classmates, so widely read and articulate that she astonished her professors. Nevertheless, although certain that she was destined for greatness, she was tormented by an abiding fear of inadequacy. Moser recounts Sontag’s education, friendships and sexual encounters; her realization that she was bisexual; and her wide-ranging interests in psychoanalysis, politics and, most enduringly, aesthetics. He offers judicious readings of all of Sontag’s works, from her 1965 “Notes on ‘Camp,’ ” which, according to Nora Ephron, transformed her from a “highbrow critic” to “a midcult commodity”; to the late novels of which she was proudest. Her private life was stormy. At 17, she married her sociology professor, Philip Rieff, after they had known each other for 10 days, and within two years, she was a mother. Neither marriage nor motherhood suited her. Devoid of maternal instinct, she was unable to care about anyone, said Jamaica Kincaid, “unless they were in a book.” Instead, among her many lovers — Richard Goodwin, Warren Beatty, Joseph Brodsky, Lucinda Childs, Annie Leibowitz, to name a few — she sought those who would care for her: publisher Roger Straus, who sustained her “professionally, financially, and sometimes physically”; and women who kept her fed, housed and clean. Difficulties with basic hygiene, Moser notes, “suggest more than carelessness” but rather a persistent sense of alienation from her body — and exaltation of her mind.
This is a nuanced, authoritative portrait of a legendary artist.
(Moser will speak and sign copies of his book at 7 p.m. Wednesday at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd. Information: bookpeople.com.)
Magic and history meet
Ta-Nehisi Coates, the celebrated author of "Between the World and Me" (2015) and "We Were Eight Years in Power" (2017), merges magic, adventure and antebellum intrigue in his first novel, "The Water Dancer."
In pre–Civil War Virginia, people who are white, whatever their degree of refinement, are considered “the Quality” while those who are black, whatever their degree of dignity, are regarded as “the Tasked.” Whether such euphemisms for slavery actually existed in the 19th century, they are evocatively deployed in this account of the Underground Railroad and one of its conductors: Hiram Walker, one of the Tasked who’s barely out of his teens when he’s recruited to help guide escapees from bondage in the South to freedom in the North. “Conduction” has more than one meaning for Hiram. It's also the name for a mysterious force that transports certain gifted individuals from one place to another by way of a blue light that lifts and carries them along or across bodies of water. Hiram knows he has this gift after it saves him from drowning in a carriage mishap that kills his master’s oafish son (who’s Hiram’s biological brother). Whatever the source of this power, it galvanizes Hiram to leave behind not only his chains, but also the two Tasked people he loves most: Thena, a truculent older woman who practically raised him as a surrogate mother, and Sophia, a vivacious young friend from childhood whose attempt to accompany Hiram on his escape is thwarted practically at the start when they’re caught and jailed by slave catchers. Hiram directly confronts the most pernicious abuses of slavery before he is once again conducted away from danger and into sanctuary with the Underground, whose members convey him to the freer, if funkier environs of Philadelphia, where he continues to test his power and prepare to return to Virginia to emancipate the women he left behind — and to confront the mysteries of his past. Coates’ imaginative spin on the Underground Railroad’s history is as audacious as Colson Whitehead’s, if less intensely realized. Coates’ narrative flourishes and magic-powered protagonist are reminiscent of his work on Marvel’s "Black Panther" superhero comic book, but even his most melodramatic effects are deepened by historical facts and contemporary urgency.
An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.