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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  • 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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  • Socialist Media

    AGENTS OF ABSTRACTION, BY ANA OFAK. Sternberg Press, 2019. 389 pages.

    BLAME IT ON THE SPOMENIKS. All asymmetrical concrete stems, rippling aluminium wings, and bold swooping bodies, these massive monuments read more like Starfleet spaceships, crash-landed amid the forests of former Yugoslavia. Often sited in remote rural areas, these abstract memorials were commissioned primarily in the 1960s and ’70s as part of a nationwide push—yes, one fronted by charismatic president Josip Broz Tito (who tends to get the sole credit for “Tito’s monuments”), but, in keeping with Yugoslavia’s signature emphasis

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  • Notes on Cant

    Composed over the past decade, Masha Tupitsyn’s Picture Cycle (2019) is a book of essays that considers the shift from analog to digital as an analogy for the psychic turn to binary, reactive, accelerated, and impatient spectatorship. Expanding the style of her 2007 book, Beauty Talk & Monsters, Tupitsyn combines criticism, philosophy, and autobiography to create pathways out of our current melancholic replay and media narcissism. Deftly recording the cultural loss of the cinematic sensibility in culture, she simultaneously confronts lost time, lost desire, and lost love. Tupitsyn’s singular

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  • GHOSTS IN THE MACHINE

    Haunted Bauhaus: Occult Spirituality, Gender Fluidity, Queer Identities, and Radical Politics, by Elizabeth Otto. MIT Press, 2019. 296 pages.

    THE TANTALIZING TITLE of Elizabeth Otto’s new book brings to mind the maverick scholar Mel Gordon’s Voluptuous Panic (2000) and Horizontal Collaboration (2015), pictorial studies of the sexual countercultures of Weimar Germany and occupied Paris, respectively. Published on the one hundredth anniversary of the school’s founding, Otto’s book isn’t as wiggy as those precursors, but it does humanize what she calls the “paradigmatic movement of rational modernism”

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  • FAST COMPANY

    Robert Williams: The Father of Exponential Imagination, by Robert Williams. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2019. 484 pages.

    THERE’S NO SUCH THING as a “popular imagination,” but some artists do access and describe localized dreamworlds comprising popular icons, histories, and lore shared if not by an entire populace then by sizable groups. Robert Williams is one such mythologist, his devotion to the arcana of twentieth-century culture suffusing narrative paintings indebted as much to 1950s Benzedrine-powered cartooning as to classicism. Like other practitioners of a hyperbolic figuration whose perversions

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