In this brisk and perceptive intellectual history, Bakewell (Masters of Studies in Creative Writing/Kellogg Coll., Univ. of Oxford; How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, 2010, etc.) focuses on a diverse cast of men and women who, beginning in the 1930s, worried over questions of freedom, authenticity, anxiety, and commitment, creating the movement that came to be known as existentialism. Their antecedents were Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, who “pioneered a mood of rebellion and dissatisfaction, created a new definition of existence as choice, action and self-assertion, and made a study of the anguish and difficulty of life.” Dominating Bakewell’s narrative are Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, lovers and “compulsive communicators” of every detail of their work. Sartre, appealingly fun-loving (he played piano and sang jazz hits) in his youth, became “monstrous” as he aged: “self-indulgent, demanding, bad-tempered. He was a sex addict who didn’t even enjoy sex, a man who would walk away from friendships saying he felt no regret.” Bakewell was surprised at how much affection she felt for him despite his faults. Certainly he was more likable than Martin Heidegger, who “set himself against the philosophy of humanism and…was rarely humane in his behaviour.” As the author reveals historical context for the philosophers’ work—prewar Paris; the Nazi occupation; postwar debates among internationalists, pro-Americans, and communists—she explains the significance of cafes: “they were the best places to keep warm” for those who lived in cheap, unheated hotel rooms. Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, Iris Murdoch (Britain’s first popularizer of existentialism), James Baldwin, actress Juliette Gréco, and Emmanuel Levinas are just a few featured in this well-populated book, whose hero, Bakewell writes, is phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “the happy philosopher of things as they are.”
A fresh, invigorating look into complex minds and a unique time and place.
A striking collection of essays that will leave readers wanting to reimagine our contemporary environment.
In his first work of nonfiction, Cole (Every Day Is for the Thief, 2015, etc.) crafts an anthological book of reflections divided into four parts: “Reading Things,” “Seeing Things,” “Being Here,” and “Epilogue.” Without much warning, readers are immediately thrown into the current issues that punctuate the news, social media, and the literary community. Acclaimed as both photographer and art theorist, Cole uses short essays to communicate fundamental ideas about his craft: “a photograph is…a little machine of ironies that contains within it a number of oppositions: light and dark, memory and forgetting, ethics and injustice, permanence and evanescence.” The author discusses James Baldwin and Jacques Derrida, and he analyzes the works of various photographers and poets throughout the years. The result is a compilation of essays that call to mind what Walter Benjamin did in his Illuminations: taking cultural works and applying them critically and politically to the now. “The black body comes prejudged, and as a result it is placed in needless jeopardy,” writes Cole. In fact, questions of race identity and justice are paramount for the author. “History won’t let go of us,” he writes. “We’re pinned to it.” What’s clear is that Cole perseveres in breaking away from historical tropes, offering to his readers differing perspectives that emerge from wide-ranging areas of study. “What always interests me—indeed obsesses me—is the way we engage in history,” he writes. “Except there is no ‘we.’ Americans do it differently and, often, irresponsibly and without particular interest.” Moments like these will make American readers stop to think, question the population they belong to, and find ways to make it better. The hope that Cole infuses in his prose is mirrored with poetically entrancing sentences: “We are not mayflies. We have known afternoons, and we live day after day for a great many days.”
A bold, honest, and controversially necessary read.
An engaging, sympathetic portrait of the writer who found the witchery in huswifery.
Critic Franklin (A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, 2010) ably captures both the life and art of Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) in this sharp biography. Franklin presents her as the classic square peg: a woman who didn’t easily fit in to midcentury America and a writer who can’t be neatly categorized. Jackson was the ungainly, rebellious daughter of a socialite mother who never stopped nagging her about her weight or appearance. Later, she would be the neglected wife of an esteemed critic and teacher, Stanley Edgar Hyman, who all but flaunted his adulteries under her nose. It was an anxiety-ridden life, but she had the imagination to put it to good use. Her stories and novels involved people fighting losing battles with either themselves or society, whether they are usurped by the big city or run up against the barbarism of cozy small-town life—as in her classic story “The Lottery.” She wasn’t a witch, although she let people think so; rather, she was a harried domestic goddess who also wrote children’s fiction, bestselling chronicles of life with Hyman and their children, and—further resisting pigeonholing—a masterpiece of horror fiction (The Haunting of Hill House) and a curiously comic novel about a young lady who poisons her parents (We Have Always Lived in a Castle). Jackson’s life was both disciplined and devil-may-care; she ate, drank, and smoked like there was no tomorrow until finally, at the age of 48, there wasn’t. Franklin astutely explores Jackson's artistry, particularly in her deceptively subtle stories. She also sees a bigger, more original picture of Jackson as the author of “the secret history of American women of her era”—postwar, pre-feminist women who, like her, were faced with limited choices and trapped in bigoted, cliquish neighborhoods.
A consistently interesting biography that deftly captures the many selves and multiple struggles of a true American original.
Accomplished biographer Harman (Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, 2010, etc.) returns with a lively account of the life of Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855).
After the deaths of her two older sisters in 1825, Charlotte, at age 9, was the eldest of the four surviving Brontë children. Isolated in the parsonage at Haworth on the Yorkshire moors, they built for themselves a fantasy world centered on an imaginary African kingdom; their sojourns there over the years resulted in a torrent of related prose and poetry, written solely for each other in matchbox-sized books. As they matured, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne directed their literary talents to the depictions of more realistic topics, resulting in Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and the other novels for which each ultimately became famous. Groundbreaking in many ways, their works were driven by fury at the constraints on occupational and social choices available to Victorian women and, upon their pseudonymous publications, aroused reactions ranging from astonished enthusiasm to disgust. Neither deferential nor awestruck, Harman clearly feels strong affection for these reclusive, dysfunctional siblings. She confidently makes sympathetic characters of Charlotte and her sisters, even while conceding that they were by all accounts difficult and generally unpleasant company. The author remains focused on her subject's life story, expending little space on general information about the historical setting and explaining just enough of the content of Brontë's novels that readers unfamiliar with them can understand their significance, the public’s reactions to them, and the extent to which Charlotte drew upon her own experiences in their production. She vividly portrays a life of loneliness, anguish, tragedy, and suppressed rage in serene and elegant prose with frequent flashes of ironic humor; the underlying scholarship is extensive but never obtrusive.
A delightfully engaging biography of a highly talented but deeply troubled prodigy of English literature.
What are we? That question informs the author’s fertile inquiry into mind, brain, and imagination.
Taking the perspective of “a perpetual outsider who looks in on several disciplines,” Hustvedt (Psychiatry/Weill Medical School; The Blazing World, 2014, etc.) gathers recent essays and talks on the intellectual topics that have long occupied her: art and perception, the mind/body conundrum, madness, consciousness, memory, and empathy. She organizes these pieces into three sections: “A Woman Looking at Men Looking At Women,” which considers the works of Picasso, Koons, and Louise Bourgeois; an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs curated by filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar; Wim Wender’s homage to choreographer Pina Bausch; and the author’s experience teaching writing to mental patients and undergoing psychoanalysis herself. The second and third sections, “Delusions of Certainty” and “What Are We?” consider more directly issues of mind and consciousness: “What is a person, a self? Is there a self? What is a mind? Is a mind different from a brain?” Hustvedt feels decidedly unsatisfied by the results of fMRI investigations that map brain activity during such events as reading or looking at art. That research, she maintains, “reflects a simplistic correspondence between a psychological state…and its neural correlates, without much thought about further meanings or the philosophical issues involved.” Nor does she have patience for the assertions of neo-Darwinists—Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker comes in for repeated criticism—who “justify why things are the way they are” by privileging nature over nurture and insisting that certain traits (men being better at mathematics than women, for example) are “rooted in biology.” Hustvedt draws upon—and presents with sharp clarity—a prodigious number of sources, including Kierkegaard (whom she first read when she was 15), William James, Kant, George Lakoff (for his investigation of metaphors), physicist Niels Bohr, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, and 17th-century scientist Margaret Cavendish, “an adamant materialist” who took issue with Descartes’ mind/body dualism, as does Hustvedt.
A wide-ranging, irreverent, and absorbing meditation on thinking, knowing, and being.
A vivid account of Claude Monet (1840-1926) facing his greatest artistic challenge in the last years of his life.
As King (Leonardo and the Last Supper, 2012, etc.) poignantly shows, neither failing eyesight, frail health, nor a raging war on his doorstep could stop the beloved painter. In the spring of 1914, with France on the cusp of World War I, Monet had fallen into depression after the deaths of his wife and, later, his son, but it was seemingly unthinkable that he would put away his brushes. Fortunately, his friend Georges Clemenceau, a politician and newspaper owner, convinced him to work again. In his 70s, Monet, esteemed for his paintings of haystacks, the Rouen Cathedral, and poplars, all “evocations of an essential Frenchness,” began to work on his last and most ambitious project, a series of water lily paintings that continued to obsess him until his death at 86. The collection included “forty-five to fifty panels making up fourteen separate series” (the total length was more than 200 meters), and many are now exhibited in museums worldwide. It was the apotheosis of “Monet’s decades-long obsession,” and he sometimes worked “on multiple canvases simultaneously,” rotating them to capture a particular quality in the moment. Indeed, the novelist Proust described Monet as a painter of time. King effectively puts readers at the painter’s side as he rails against the impossible task he set for himself, suffering the “tortures” of painting and slashing canvases. As in his superb The Judgment of Paris (2006), about the rise of impressionism, the author sets this fascinating portrayal of the larger-than-life artist—known equally for his “obstreperous temperament” and warm hospitality, for his love of gardening, family life, fast cars, and gourmet food—against a backdrop of the raging war, politics, history, and changing tastes in art.
King elegantly reveals the soul of a great artist, the last impressionist standing at the end of one of history’s most remarkable art movements.
In a perfectly titled memoir, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist chronicles her efforts to learn and write Italian.
Lahiri (The Lowland, 2013, etc.), who wrote and published her text in Italian in 2015, now presents an English translation (by Goldstein) with Italian and English on facing pages. For Lahiri, Italian was her third language—her mother spoke Bengali—and she relates in engaging detail the reasons she felt drawn to Italian, her many difficulties learning it, her struggles with writing, and her move to Rome to write. As she acknowledges near the end, and suggests elsewhere, her work is thick with metaphor; continually, she tries to find effective comparisons. A swim across a lake, an avalanche, a mountain-climb, a journey, a map, a bridge, maternity—these and numerous others describe her learning and her difficulties. A most affecting later chapter, “The Wall,” deals with a discomfort felt (and caused) by many: Lahiri doesn’t “look” Italian, so Romans and others treated her oddly, even insultingly, at times. She notes that similar experiences happened in the United States. Even though she’s known English since childhood—and has written award-winning novels in the language—some Americans look at her with a kind of mistrust. Lahiri does not ever get too detailed about the specifics of her learning, although there are paragraphs about vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. She is more interested in the effects of all of this on her writing and on her identity. Her memoir is also chockablock with memorable comments about writing and language. “Why do I write?” she asks. “To investigate the mystery of existence. To tolerate myself. To get closer to everything that is outside of me.” At the end, she returns to America but wonders if she will now write again in English.
An honest, self-deprecating, and very moving account of a writer searching for herself in words.
Radiant essays inspired by “slivers and bits” of real women’s lives.
The Dreamland was both a real dance club that burned down in 1923 and a dreamscape, where Livingston (Creative Writing/Univ. of Memphis; Queen of the Fall: A Memoir of Girls and Goddesses, 2015, etc.) reunites women as disparate as activist Susan B. Anthony, tightrope walker Maria Spelterini, artists’ model Audrey Munson, and poet Adelaide Crapsey. The author calls her startlingly original essays literary nonfiction, but some read more like historical fiction, spun as they are from documented sources; and some—a brief evocation of Virginia Dare, for example—read like lyrical prose poems. Livingston is taken with wild women: daredevils and rebels who do not “stick to crosswalks and curfews and submit to regular cholesterol testing.” Human wildness, she writes, “is a precious and fleeting thing,” worth celebrating. Among the subjects in her panoply are schoolgirl Alice Mitchell, who fell in love with Freda Ward and proposed that they elope, Alice dressed like a man. Freda’s family quashed the plan, leaving Alice so bereft that she cut Freda’s throat. Insanity was the verdict at her trial: her love for a girl, in turn-of-the-century Memphis, “was considered more outrageous than the act of murder.” Based on scanty correspondence given to Livingston by her mother-in-law, she revives the mysterious Manuela Grey, who sailed on the Saturnia for Bologna, to be treated at an orthopedic hospital for arthritis in her hip. It is 1935, and Livingston pictures her as Claudette Colbert, a fashionable sophisticate who reads Edna St. Vincent Millay. In portraits of 15-year-old May Fielding, a white slave; Krao, a girl exhibited as Charles Darwin’s missing link; and a shunned Filipino classmate, the author displays uncommon empathy: “Aren’t we all looking for something to connect us to others while locating the truth of who we are?”
The New Yorker staff writer delivers a selective history of the difficult, chaotic, transcendent genius of arts in America.
In this cultural survey, Pierpont (Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, 2013, etc.) takes her title from George Gershwin’s original appellation for what would ultimately be known as “Rhapsody in Blue,” an epochal musical composition that embodies the wild, daring, original qualities of its nation of origin, the uniquely transformative properties that are the messy, exciting result of the American experiment. The author explores this “American-ness” (expressed at one point as “seeking a personal language to express a unique point of view”) as it applies to the arts through a series of in-depth portraits of such quintessentially American creators as Edith Wharton, Orson Welles, and Katharine Hepburn. Each chapter of this literary “rhapsody”—an informally structured sequence of distinct elements—begins in medias res with an instantly engaging significant anecdote regarding that section’s subject, deepening into a superbly researched and elegantly presented full artistic biography that unpacks the various social, political, and economic contexts of the work in question. Pierpont’s approach is neither dryly academic nor ideologically hidebound. She places the emphasis on the history and the work, not identity politics, and her witty but sober and evenhanded voice is a consistent pleasure, her prose is limpid and evocative, and her insights consistently dazzle. Deftly untangling the cultural threads that produce (and inextricably link) such geniuses as Gershwin, Nina Simone, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marlon Brando, Bert Williams, and Peggy Guggenheim (the audaciously spired Chrysler Building also receives a fascinating chapter) with grace and style, Pierpont has composed a refreshingly cleareyed piece of cultural history and an inspiring paean to the American artistic spirit.
As vital and entertaining as the creators and work it celebrates, American Rhapsody is an uncommonly satisfying celebration of the cultural kaleidoscope known as the United States.
How five artists dealt with that carriage that kindly stopped for them.
In this absorbing and affecting book, Roiphe (In Praise of Messy Lives, 2012, etc.) chronicles how Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, and Maurice Sendak dealt with what Freud called the “painful riddle of death.” She chose them because she always “felt some heat coming off their writing.” The last thing Sontag wanted to do was die. She was ferocious in her fights against three cancer attacks. She finally succumbed to cancer of the blood but not before enduring as a last resort great suffering and pain from a blood transfusion procedure using near-lethal doses of chemotherapy. She didn’t die; she just wore out from trying so hard to live. Roiphe notes that her hospital rooms always looked like her office at home. Freud approached his impending death from necrosis in his mouth, brought on by years of smoking his beloved cigars (he never quit), with a scientific stoicism. He finally gave up, and his private doctor performed euthanasia. Updike had been writing about death (and sex) since he was young; he often had death panics. When he accepted the fact that his lung cancer would kill him, he turned to poetry, urgent to finish Endpoint. “If style could defeat death,” writes Roiphe, “Updike would have.” Ferociously alcoholic, Thomas turned his preoccupation with death into ragingly beautiful poetry. His death at 39, Roiphe writes, was “both a great shock and utterly anticipated.” Sendak, who kept Keats’ “original death mask” in a guest room, was also obsessed with death and, Roiphe notes, wrote about it constantly in his books. He died at 83 from a stroke. As he told one interviewer: “I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.” An epilogue about James Salter, who died just before Roiphe finished her book, completes this beautiful and haunting work.
Never overly sentimental, this is a poignant and elegant inquiry into mortality.
A historian and literary critic offers a unique and revealing look at the life of English philosopher John Aubrey (1626-1697), told in Aubrey’s voice in the form of a diary.
Scurr (History and Politics/Cambridge Univ.; Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution, 2006) has hit upon a compelling narrative device. Although she has traditional introductory and closing chapters, the bulk of the biography deals with the quotidian affairs of Aubrey, who was a friend and/or acquaintance of some of the great early Enlightenment names, including Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke (with whom Aubrey often hung out in coffee shops, new to London), Isaac Newton, Thomas Hobbes, and numerous others. Aubrey also lived during some of the most tempestuous times in English history—Charles I, Cromwell, the Restoration, the Great Fire of London, the ascent of William and Mary, the unspeakable violence practiced upon Roman Catholics: Aubrey wrote about all of it. Scurr also shows us, through Aubrey’s work, the birth and growth of science in England, including Hooke’s contention that Newton had stolen his ideas. As the author notes, Aubrey was obsessed with English history and geography. He did massive, detailed studies of the countryside (including Stonehenge), studies not duly credited until centuries later. But among the delights of Scurr’s account are the practices and beliefs that conflicted with the emerging science of his day—e.g., witchcraft, astrology, and primitive medicine (Aubrey recommended egg white and sugar to palliate/cure gonorrhea). We also witness Aubrey’s struggles with finances (he frequently borrowed from Hooke), his internecine struggles with his brother, his failures in love (one woman he’d hoped to marry took him not to the altar but to court—more than once), his aches and pains, and his moods.
A creative, engaging, and profoundly moving account of a man’s fierce desire to discover, understand, and preserve.
A veteran journalist and travel writer collects pieces dating back to the late 1980s.
Solomon (Clinical Psychology/Columbia Univ.; Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, 2012, etc.), who has won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award, has not assembled these pieces haphazardly. As he notes in a long (44 pages), lovely introduction—and reiterates in the acknowledgements sections—many of the essays required substantial revisions. He also appends to each a short prologue and epilogue, setting the stage, updating us on events and people, and confessing the inaccuracy of some predictions. Arranged in rough chronology, the pieces reflect Solomon’s impressive career. In the early ones, the author deals principally with art and artists (from Russia to China to South Africa), while the later ones focus on issues ranging from economic inequality (Brazil) to sexual identity (Ghana) to autobiography (Romania—his family emigrated in 1900). Throughout, Solomon evinces an intrepid traveler’s confidence, though he sometimes visits places that were life-threatening, from ghettos around the world to Australia, where he nearly lost his life scuba diving. Some essays are very personal, others mostly expository. He tells us early on, for example, that he is gay, but we don’t learn much about his husband (and, later, two children) until late in the text. In between, Solomon globe-trots, interviewing people from all walks of society, from the president of Ghana to impoverished people living in the most distressed circumstances from South Africa to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. The author tried but failed to reach Antarctica, but he did experience an African safari and—in an excerpt from The Noonday Demon, his 2001 book about depression—visited the Solomon Islands to see how some locals dealt with the demon that has periodically tormented him.
Agile, informative, even revelatory pieces that, together, show us both the great variety of humanity and the interior of a gifted writer’s heart.
The lively debut memoir by a Tin House magazine co-founding editor about growing up in West Berlin then returning as an adult to post–Soviet-era East Berlin to find artistic purpose.
In 1964, Spillman’s parents went to Berlin on Fulbright scholarships to study music. When they separated a few years later, they decided that their small son would live with his closeted gay father. Surrounded by reminders of the Cold War—such as the Berlin Wall and a “giant U.S. Army base”—Spillman became immersed in a colorfully creative world of artists who hailed from all over the world. He and his father left only after the latter accepted a teaching position at the Eastman School of Music in New York. A perpetual outsider who felt at home nowhere, Spillman “read…to escape…but also to find myself,” especially after he went to live with his mother in Baltimore. During this period, the author also took up running and experimented with drugs. On the way to figuring out that he wanted to write, Spillman failed out of college once before finishing and survived three major car crashes. In New York City, he met his future wife, Elissa, and embarked on Kerouac-esque travel adventures in the U.S., Portugal, and then the former East Berlin, which had become a “petri dish of creation and foment, a rubble field in which to create a new life with the woman I loved.” Yet for all its familiarity, flaws, and youthful energy, the city never completely felt like home to Spillman, who decided to stop running away from himself and his life only after a brush with near tragedy. Musically and culturally astute, this well-structured book is a delightful coming-of-age story couched within a travel narrative that deftly evokes one of the major historical moments of the 20th century.
A richly detailed and always engaging memoir on artistic discovery.