Critical Mass

Maureen McLane, What Are You Looking Forward to Reading in Spring 2007?

By Maureen McLane

Five books I'm looking forward to reading this spring:

Susan Sontag, “At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches” (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, March): This may turn out to be a grab-bag of posthumous Sontagiana, but among the only essays I found worth reading after 9/11 was her infamous piece in “The New Yorker,” which brought down on her head five thousands pounds of calumny, and which is republished here. Guess what? Sontag was right. She wasn't always “right,” and she wasn't about being right: she was about being passionately, rigorously engaged, and as such she remains a model for American cultural criticism, enervated as it tends to be in these days of chattering pseudo-analysis. I want to see how her last essays read now, and to get that jolt of stimulation and exasperation Sontag inevitably provided. For those who haven't read Terry Castle's astute, hilarious appreciation of the irreplaceable grande dame, I highly recommend her 2005 essay in the London Review of Books, “Desperately Seeking Susan.

William Dalrymple, “The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857” (Random House, March): published a few months ago in the UK, and already awarded the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize for History and Biography, Dalrymple's “Last Mughal” looks to be a tremendous act of historical imagination and research. Approaching the infamous events of the so-called “Sepoy Mutiny” of 1857 through previously underexamined archival materials, Dalrymple offers a history-cum-biography of Bahadur Shah Zafar II and re-imagines this confrontation between the weakened remnants of the once-glorious Mughal Empire and the ascendant, consolidated power of the British.

Roberto Bolaño, “The Savage Detectives” (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, April): this long-overdue translation of “Los Detectives Salvajes,” Bolaño's breakthrough novel, by Natasha Wimmer, has generated enormous buzz: this is the book that opened up new vistas for writing in Spanish, as Bolaño moved in wholly other directions than the luminaries of the so-called Latin American “Boom” (e.g. Fuentes, Vargas Llosa). I've read two books in translation by the Chilean Bolaño, who died in 2003 in Spain (where he had lived for some years): “By Night in Chile” and “Distant Star.”Both were extraordinary, taut, scarifying, riveting: absolutely surgical diagnoses of charismatic and sick souls moving in an ethico-political abyss. And for all that, they were horrifically, bleakly funny in an absurdist key. What remained was the exhilaratingly bitter taste of a vertiginous, dark imagination.

Henri Cole, “Blackbird and Wolf: Poems” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, March): Cole's sixth book is just out and promises to sustain his gorgeous lyricism, his acute sensitivity to the passing of the seasons and his own life. Cole's work is both accessible and delicate, packing a punch amidst its lovely caresses. Mixing erotic and religious preoccupations, his work is both celebratory and self-critical, self-lacerating – an unusual combination. After his first books of exquisite but slightly distantiated lyrics, Cole got down, elegantly and surprisingly and sexily, to brass tacks in his last book, “Middle Earth” (2003), even as he donned a series of masks “à la japonaise.” After that stunner, I am eager to see this poet's latest.

“Jeff Wall: Selected Essays and Interviews,” by Jeff Wall (Photographer), Peter Galassi (Foreword) (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February): Perhaps it is non-standard to propose a book accompanying an artist's exhibition, but the brief excerpts I've seen of Jeff Wall's writing are almost as arresting as his large-scale photographs, color transparencies mounted in electric lightboxes, now up until May 14, 2007 at MOMA in New York. Over the years, I'd seen individual works of this Canadian artist at exhibitions; this major retrospective is astonishing, and his own meditations on his practice and thinking promise to be very worthwhile, if the extracts on the MOMA website are any indication. Immersed in art
history as well as the movies, alert to uncomfortable social encounters, the look of a building's decay, the drama of underground places and the urban landscape of Vancouver, Wall's work once seen is unforgettable; it is also enigmatic, and I look forward to illumination (however idiosyncratic) from his essays.

— Maureen McLane, NBCC Board Member