COLUMNS

  • Terry Castle

    Benjamin Moser’s Sontag: Her Life and Work (Ecco) succeeds as it does—magnificently, humanely—by displaying the same intellectual purchase, curiosity, and moral capaciousness to which his subject laid so inspiring and noble a claim over a lifetime. Susan Sontag was a difficult, galvanic presence in American arts and letters for half a century, and her biographer takes her measure with unfailing intelligence, honesty, and sympathy.

    So far, so blurby. (Yet heartfelt.) But there was a glaring problem with Sontag, of course: the fantastical scarecrow unpleasantness she could turn on anyone—friend,

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  • Pamela M. Lee

    How to model kinship when Jim Crow demands otherwise? What constitutes intimacy for the legatees of race slavery and social death? The “revolution in a minor key” of Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Stories of Social Upheaval (W. W. Norton) is not led by the proper names of history—traditionally a mythomaniacal retread of a heroic actor across the world’s stage. Instead, Hartman elaborates a counternarrative centered on young black women and genderqueers living in New York and Philadelphia at the turn of the twentieth century and forging their errant paths. For

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  • Gary Lutz

    I’ve been swooning over the gusto and graces of Peter Schjeldahl’s prose ever since his days at the Village Voice, so in my estimation, Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light, 100 Art Writings, 1988–2018 (Abrams) is a gift for anyone alert to the sorts of miracles that can be wrought within the span of a single thrillsome sentence. Whether working as a miniaturist within the paragraphic confines of the Goings on About Town section of the New Yorker or dilating into the larger space of the essay (with a word count often not much higher than that of the average op-ed tantrum), Schjeldahl, a virtuoso of compressed,

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  • Imani Perry

    I held Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House (Grove Press) tenderly in my hands even before I knew the subject matter. After I read the first section—a narrative map that leads to the yellow house, her family’s home—I wept. You might not know how rare it is to see Black living laid out on paper, but it is. When it is done, and done beautifully, you have a masterpiece. Think Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Edward P. Jones’s The Known World.

    See what you have been trained not to see, and you will understand much more about life and the world. The yellow house sat in New Orleans East, which held and

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  • Douglas Crase

    Timothy Donnelly’s new collection, The Problem of the Many (Wave Books), arrives with one of its constituent poems already a classic. “Hymn to Life,” which appeared as a chapbook in 2014, praised life by singing a hymn to extinctions instead, especially those that have occurred while humans were intent on self-referential trivia. The question has been whether Donnelly could live up to his masterpiece; the thrill is that he clearly has. And then some. The title of his new book derives from an issue in philosophy (some say metaphysics) that arises in the case of an object, such as a cloud or even

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  • Harry Dodge

    A jolt of pleasure runs through my chest each time I look through Stephen Gill’s monograph The Pillar (Nobody Books), which consists of 120 photographs mostly of birds in various moments of liftoff and landing. (A separate pamphlet proffers a short, stirring essay titled “Birdland,” by Karl Ove Knausgaard.) Gill attached a motion-sensor camera to a rural fence and for three years captured images of creatures who might come to rest on a nearby post (the titular pillar). The results are chaotic and riveting.

    Shot mechanically, bodilessly, the photos exude a goopy, persistent extrinsicity. Rarely

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  • Elvia Wilk

    A Ted Chiang story is easy to recognize and impossible to imitate. Seven of the nine comprising his new collection, Exhalation (Knopf), have been previously published, but taken together they are enlightening. Each piece feels invented from scratch, as Chiang masterfully moves between references to, say, steampunk, classical mythology, and Black Mirror–esque corporate dystopia on a single page. And yet he resists inhabiting any genre, instead retaining his own voice and distinct aesthetic sensibility throughout.

    I’m not the only one obsessed. Chiang has a cult following, due as much to his writing

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  • Mac Wellman

    I would like to briefly mention a new and splendid novel by Helen Phillips, someone whose writing I first encountered when she was a student at Brooklyn College some years ago. Her newest work of fiction, The Need (Simon & Schuster), has recently been published, and it is, in my opinion, quite a strange and wonderful book. Strangely wonderful, I should say!

    The story concerns the family of a young woman named Molly and her two children, the toddler Viv and the infant Ben. Phillips describes in a graphic yet unpredictable way the joys and difficulties of being a young mother: breastfeeding, changing

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  • Zeynep Çelik Alexander

    How to speak when misinformation threatens the legitimacy of speech itself? W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America (Princeton Architectural Press) is an account of how the great American sociologist provided an answer to that question when he prepared the “Exhibit of American Negroes” for the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900. With the help of students and alumni from Atlanta University, Du Bois set aside contemplative prose, his usual weapon, and instead produced a series of colorful infographics that relayed his message to contemporaneous audiences with the force

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  • Marina Vishmidt

    In a social order held together by the bones of those who didn’t survive it, cancer can act as a lenticular tool to hold our fates in high resolution. The uninsured and underinsured suffer, decline, and die quickly, mostly; the insured suffer, decline, and undie, ideally. But to undie is not quite the same as to live, even if the terminal shadow takes on iridescence with every day that marks your distance from it. Anne Boyer’s The Undying (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), her concatenated memoir of undergoing treatment for aggressive breast cancer, has at its core “the most optimistic form of

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  • Marwa Helal

    As the [art] world makes room for the displaced within its spaces, The New Nomadic Age: Archaeologies of Forced and Undocumented Migration (Equinox), edited by Yannis Hamilakis, is a necessary read for those interested in digesting and constructing our respective stories with integrity. As Hamilakis writes in the introduction, “[The texts] are not just about migrants: they concern everyone, as the migration phenomenon reshapes the contemporary world overall.”

    An incredible transdisciplinary and transcultural study of the global phenomenon of migration, the collected texts cover a wide range of

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  • Morgan Bassichis

    Last winter, Gregg Bordowitz, ever the yenta, gave me and Douglas Crimp a copy of the Bible, because neither of us had read it. (For the sake of “Best of 2019,” let’s call it Robert Alter’s The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary [W. W. Norton]. In our shared ignorance—Douglas’s because of his devout skepticism of religion, and mine because of an evangelical loyalty to television—we started where it literally all began, in the Book of Genesis. We took turns reading to each other about humans trying and failing to be better, shouted at the misogyny of blaming Eve for everything, tried to

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