“I have not a desire but a need for solitude,” one entry of Barthes' Mourning Diary reads. That interiority, the desire to be alone, runs through the rest of this singular work of Barthes. In this very intimate work, we see how Barthes suffered through the period of his life that followed his mother’s death. Mourning Diary does not necessarily provide answers about the mysteries of death and grief. What it does provide is a companion to those who are grieving the death of a loved one and is a portrait of a man suffering covered in the shroud of a loved one’s death.
Since her death in 2004, there have been several biographies written about Susan Sontag, each taking a slightly different approach to the life of one of the most important literary critics, public intellectuals, and cultural icons of the twentieth century. While Benjamin Moser’s new book Sontag: Her Life and Work (Ecco, $39.99) is not the first, it is the only authorized account of the critic’s life, as well as the most comprehensive. David Rieff, Sontag’s son and frequent editor, allowed Moser unprecedented access to her unpublished diaries, letters, and ephemera. Moser interviewed her friends, family, former lovers—including her partner, the legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz—and even the hair stylist who created Sontag’s trademark white streak following her first bout with cancer. Meticulously researched and richly detailed, Moser’s work sheds light on the two contradictory sides of Susan Sontag: the deeply insecure writer struggling to overcome self-doubt, and the often arrogant, always chic public persona. Moser’s previous work, Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Sontag is already gaining wide critical attention.
Had things gone according to plan, Harper Lee would have followed To Kill a Mockingbird with a true-crime book called The Reverend, an account of Willie Maxwell, an African American preacher from Alabama accused of killing five members of his family, one by one, in the 1970s. Determined to stick to the facts--unlike her friend Truman Capote, whose In Cold Blood Lee had helped with--Lee spent a year in Maxwell’s hometown reporting the story, but never managed to get the book written. Working from Lee’s notes, letters, and the historical record, Casey Cep, in her powerful debut, has. Furious Hours (Knopf, $26.95) in fact is three books in one. Along with the account of how and why Maxwell committed the murders—including the possible role played by voodoo—Cep examines the relationship between Maxwell and his lawyer, a white liberal who defended Maxwell through several trials, and then, after Maxwell was shot at his stepdaughter’s funeral, defended his killer. Clearly, Lee was on to a great story, and Cep adds to it with a rare inside look at one of our most reclusive writers, delving into Lee’s complicated and often contradictory attitudes to race and the South and correcting the many misunderstandings that have crept into the Lee legend.