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 David Rieff, Sontag’s son and frequent editor, allowed Moser unprecedented access to her unpublished diaries, letters, and ephemera.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.
“Is it an animal? Is it human? Is it an extraordinary freak of nature?” This fascinating biography takes us through all Barnum’s humbugs and hoaxes, from the Fejee Mermaid (part fish, part monkey skeleton), the “little general” Tom Thumb and Jumbo the Elephant, as well as his lectures on money making and temperance reform. He created the ‘greatest show on earth’ but also suffered several catastrophic fires and bankruptcy. Writing with warmth and wisdom, Wilson resists the impulse to editorialize, but his meticulous research speaks for itself. Whatever he was up to, Barnum emerges as complicated and vain, and in the words of one journalist, always “on the best possible terms with himself.”
In this cerebral biography of Le Philosophe, Denis Diderot, Andrew S. Curran deftly captures the intellectual climate of the Ancien Regime and brings the encyclopaedist’s humor, intelligence and creativity to life. Curran argues Diderot was the pre-modern postmodernist par excellence, tackling issues of truth, subjectivity, sexuality, atheism, slavery, democracy and even hyperlinking. As Diderot was ever oriented towards posterity, one cannot but help wonder what he would think of his portrayal as carefree genius with a penchant for philandering, pondering and postulating. Organized thematically, Curran’s book has a certain logic even if it lacks a certain beauty, not entirely unlike an encyclopedia.