Across the Page: May 2011


This was a good month for my TV to break as the three books featured here provided plenty of entertainment: Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag by Sigrid Nunez; Annabel by Kathleen Winter; and Who is Ana Mendieta? by Christine Redfern and Caro Caron.

Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag by Sigrid Nunez (Atlas & Co.)

Sigrid Nunez’s captivating memoir Sempre Susan provides a thoughtful and surprising look into the life of American author, intellectual and political activist Susan Sontag. As an aspiring writer, Nunez dated Sontag’s son, David Rieff, and the three lived together in New York City during the 1970s.

Sontag provided valuable mentorship to Nunez, who would go on to become a successful writer herself with books such as Naked Sleeper and The Last of Her Kind. In Sempre Susan, Nunez focuses primarily on the time she spent living with Sontag and Rieff—a time of both inspiration and disruption.

An infamously dynamic and domineering personality, Sontag exposed Nunez to new literature, art, food, ideas and public figures—“This had become a familiar exchange: ‘You’ve never seen The Marriage of Figaro?’ ‘You’ve never eaten sushi?’ ‘You’ve never been to the New York Film Festival?’ Each time I said no, Susan would say, ‘Ah, you have a treat coming.’ And it was always so.” Nunez moved out of the shared apartment when she and Rieff began to drift apart, but she and Sontag kept in distant touch.

Published six years after Sontag’s death of cancer in 2004, Sempre Susan is an unsparingly honest and thorough look at Sontag’s life from many different perspectives: her writing (“Susan’s own writing was stirring, dramatic … but her style — she didn’t have a beautiful style”); her feminism (“She was a feminist, but she was often critical of feminist sisters … for being naïve, sentimental and anti-intellectual”); her relationship with her son (“for all her pride in motherhood … she was not maternal”); and her bisexuality, including her relationship with photographer Annie Leibovitz.

Sontag was a multifaceted woman and Nunez reveals her achievements and weaknesses with empathy, insight and humor. Sempre Susan provides an intimate look at one brilliant mind influencing another brilliant mind. A fascinating read for Sontag fans and critics alike.

Annabel by Kathleen Winter (Black Cat)

Kathleen Winter’s debut novel, Annabel, is a haunting and powerful tale of identity. Taking place in the isolated blue-collar town of Labrador, Canada, in the late 60s, it is the coming-of-age story of Wayne, a mixed-gendered child.

When Wayne is first born, his parents decide to raise him as their son. Assigning a gender is particularly important to Wayne’s father, the quiet and thoughtful Treadway, who believes that this is his child’s best chance at survival. Treadway has high expectations for his son, but quickly learns that managing his child’s layered identity is not as easy as paying for expensive hormone treatments or controlling Wayne’s interests and friendships.

Wayne’s mother, Jacinta, and the midwife who performed the delivery, Thomasina, encourage Wayne’s feminine qualities. When Wayne becomes fascinated with synchronized swimming, Jacinta allows him to buy a woman’s bathing suit. Though Thomasina spends much of her time traveling around the world to study, she calls Wayne “Annabel,” the name of her daughter who died in a drowning accident years before.