Courage And Curiosity: The Best Heroines Of 2012

1.3by Parul Sehgal, NPR, December 27, 2012

The most dangerous trait a woman can possess is curiosity. That’s what myths and religion would have us believe, anyway. Inquisitive Pandora unleashed sorrow upon the world. Eve got us kicked out of paradise. Blight on civilization it may be, but female curiosity is a gift to narrative and the quality my five favorite heroines of the year possess in spades.

These women come to us from history, from a novel, from the pages of a diary and from an ancient poem. They’re women who want to know things, who want to devour the world. Refreshingly, they aren’t primarily defined by their desire to love or be loved — or even to be especially lovable — these are sublimely stubborn women, frequently at odds with themselves and always at odds with their times. They’re on quests. Which isn’t to say that these quests are necessarily successful (the heroines of one particular book were flamboyant failures). The outcome is immaterial; the wanting is all.

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Sophie Calle: The Address Book

By Sophie Calle • Hardcover, 104 pages

In 1983, the French artist Sophie Calle found a lost address book on a street in Paris. She rang up the people listed and asked about the owner of the book, whom she calls Pierre D. (“I will try to discover who he is without ever meeting him.”) She published her findings in a newspaper — to the outrage of the real Pierre, who threatened to sue. Calle agreed to hold off republishing the pieces until after his deathPierre died in 2005, and this book is now available in English. I’d foolishly worried that there would be something self-consciously whimsical, something Amelie about the project. But from the outset, Calle’s inquiry is too serious and strange and plain difficult. A few people refuse to speak to her. Others agree to meet Calle, but can’t recall Pierre. The testimonies add up; our quarry comes into focus then blurs again: He lives alone. His hair went white the week his mother died. He has conventional sexual fantasies. He wears ill-fitting clothes, like a clown. Assembling a personality from these shards is intoxicating, a bit like solving a mystery, a bit like falling in love. But whom are we falling in love with? Is it Pierre? Or is it our guide? The book includes photographs of the people, paintings and places dear to Pierre. The most arresting portrait is of a young woman — could it be Calle? — in profile, hiding her face behind long dark hair, inscrutable to the last.
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As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals & Notebooks, 1964-1980

By Susan Sontag and David Rieff • Hardcover, 523 pages

The second volume of Susan Sontag’s posthumously published journals picks up in New York in the ’60s with the writer’s reputation established and romantic life in shambles. It’s a book in fragments: the “hot exhalations of the mind,” images that gave her pleasure (the “pale pinkish brown color of stone houses” in Corsica), and some scabrous self-criticism. We see Sontag lie to herself (“I’ve constructed a life in which I can’t be profoundly distressed or upset by anyone”) and arrive at painful personal realizations. Most of all, these journals are a portrait of a woman who was the custodian of her intellect. “I’ve got this thing — my mind. It gets bigger, its appetite is insatiable,” she writes, and these pages — rife with lists of books to read, films she’s seen, and words to learn — record how she fed it. The critic Daniel Mendelsohn wrote that Sontag burst on to the literary scene, “a cultural-critical Athena, armored with a vast erudition, bristling with epigrams”. This book reminds us of the daily diligence this display required. “Buy a dictionary the size of an elephant,” she ordered herself. “A writer, like an athlete, must ‘train’ every day. What did I do today to keep in ‘form’?”
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All We Know

By Lisa Cohen • Hardcover, 429 pages

Lisa Cohen gives us three stylish, independent heroines for the price of one in her triptych of women, once famous, now forgotten: Esther Murphy, a spellbinding conversationalist who never managed to produce the books her public so eagerly awaited; Madge Garland, a gifted editor at British Vogue; and Mercedes de Acosta, the “first celebrity stalker” who became the lover of the most glamorous women of her time, including Marlene Dietrich, Isadora Duncan and Greta Garbo. The three women, who were intimates, moved in the lively and quarrelsome lesbian circles of early 20th-century New York, Paris and London, and Cohen vividly brings this world to life. She also makes an original and persuasive case for her subjects’ métiers, the fleeting, trivialized forms of cultural production: conversation, collecting and fashion. It’s a gossipy, gorgeous, near-perfect biography that turns the form inside out. “I have wanted to make these three women visible again,” Cohen writes. “But none of them thought herself in need of rescue. Each memorialized herself and colluded in her own invisibility.”
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Carry the One
By Carol Anshaw • Hardcover, 523 pages
Carol Anshaw’s taut novel of how a horrific accident propels three siblings on very different courses has many qualities to recommend it. It’s sharp and wise and manages the impossible: to write about sex in a genuinely sexy way. But most of all, it has AliceAlice is the rumpled, heroic soul of the book — and possibly the year’s most purely sympathetic character. An artist desperately in love with her elusive model girlfriend, jittering with need and trauma, she and her sister Carmen are struggling to save their brother from tumbling further into addiction. (Anshaw, whose own brother struggled with addiction, unsparingly depicts what it means to lose a family member to drug dependency.) Hers is a journey of learning to live productively with great guilt, of the solace of work and art and sisterhood (Alice “pitied everyone who didn’t have a sister.”) Our siblings do much more than merely support us, they hone us, like steel sharpening steel.
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Antigonick
By Anne Carson • Hardcover, 180 pages
In her new book, the poet and classicist Anne Carson remixes Sophocles’ great tragedy, Antigone, with Hegel, Virginia Woolf and strains from her own life. The book is hand lettered, and Bianca Stone’s surreal illustrations tell a story of their own: beautiful girls with cinderblock heads, tottering furniture, a shovel, a ladder, red thread pinioning a horse’s hooves, red thread twining around spoons, red thread unspooling over the pages like a long trail of blood.

Antigone, our heroine, is “a person in love with the impossible.” She is the daughter of Oidipus and sister to Eteokles and Polyneikes (Carson’s own spellings) who have slain each other in battle. She defies her uncle Kreon’s order to leave Polyneikes’ body unburied, risking death by being buried alive. The book speaks to us in our own language — and cheekily references other interpretations of the play: (“Remember how Brecht had you do the whole play with a door strapped to your back” the chorus asks Antigone) — while matching the horror and heartbreak of the original. Realizing death is near, Antigone says:

“You ask would I have done it for a husband or a child my answer is no I would not. A husband or a child can be replaced but who can grow me a new brother. Is this a weird argument, Kreon thought so but I don’t know. The words go wrong they call my piety impiety, I’m alone on my insides I died long ago.”

A World On The Page: Five Great Travel Memoirs

ImageParul Sehgal, NPR.org, July 31, 2012

Sartre was wrong. Hell isn’t other people. Hell is tourists — specifically, other tourists. When traveling, there’s nothing more dispiriting — not exchange rates or dengue season — than coming across a compatriot. Is it because we travel not so much to see how other people live, but to imagine the other lives we might have led? (Me, I’m small and rather rumpled. Naturally, I imagine myself tall and very impressive looking and, inexplicably, tending to an elaborate garden.) And nothing ruins the view like a fellow tourist, with her bellowing voice and billowing map, a reminder of my ineluctable Americanness.

Let’s stay put this summer. Let’s live other lives from the comfort of our couches. Crank the AC and allow these five books to take you to other worlds. But be warned: These are dangerous places, the underbellies of our great cities. You’ll meet unforgettable characters: a future first lady, a one-booted hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail, a young Angela Davis. You’ll encounter beauty, bravery, chilling strangeness — and you won’t even have to take off your Slanket.

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The Doors of Perception: PW Talks with Errol Morris

By Parul Sehgal, Publishers Weekly Jul 08, 2011

The celebrated director of such films as The Thin Blue Line and the Oscar-winning The Fog of War investigates some of photography’s most iconic, enduring, and mysterious images in Believing Is Seeing from Penguin Press.

Is it true you were once a private eye? Has it influenced how you look at the truth? 

It’s true I worked as a detective, but I think the desire to investigate things… either you have it or you don’t. It’s the Dupin or the Sherlock Holmes in me. Almost all of my work has been about this underlying belief that we can figure things out. And every photograph is a mystery. Photographs rip a swatch from the fabric of reality. They decontextualize. But they’re still connected to the world, and they tell two stories: one about our belief about images, but also about one moment in history, of something happening at one moment in front of one particular lens. At its heart, this is a romantic book. To try to figure out—what was that world recorded by James Fenton? Or the world of Amos Humiston and the photograph found in his hands on the battlefield at Gettysburg?

Many of these stories first appeared on your blog at the New York Times. When did you realize you had a book on your hands?

When I realized I could actually write. The first big piece I did was on the James Fenton photographs of the Crimean War. You wouldn’t imagine that it would be the kind of subject matter that would attract a lot of attention, but it did. The piece—and the book—is about photographs as a way of entering history through something very specific. If you pick up any one of the hundreds of histories of the Crimean War, invariably it will start off with a description of the historical antecedents and gradually and chronologically you will enter in the story. Same with biography; you open one and you’re reading about someone’s maternal grandparents. What a photograph allows you to do is to enter history in the middle of everything. As I imagine it, you walk into the photographs and start looking around. That’s the beginning of a mystery.

It was your investigation into Fenton’s photographs—and your team’s attempt to establish what time they were taken by analyzing every stone and shadow—that first made the Crimean War real to me, that persuaded me that it actually happened. So as you say, photographs seem to make history not only specific but material. 

We’re connected through particulars—that’s really our experience of being alive. When I ended up in Crimea, I had a map from 1855 with me. I was standing on a hill that the map called Snail Hill. I looked down, and there were little snails all over the place. Later I read a soldier’s account of being in one of the trenches on Snail Hill, and he was surrounded by all of the little snails. I felt suddenly connected to history, and connected through particulars, through the odd details.

You’re rare in that unlike most people who have written a great deal about photography, you’ve actually worked extensively with cameras. Photography isn’t abstract to you. Has this influenced how you’d read, say, Sontag or Barthes? 

I know that Sontag’s essay on the Abu Ghraib photos in the New York Times magazine influenced me in so many ways, although I didn’t agree with her conclusions. What she didn’t do—and what I have tried to do—is accept that photographs are never a given. We may think we know what a photograph means, we may think we know what it’s of, but we don’t. To me the Abu Ghraib photos are a perfect example of a kind of mystery. What was going on? Were they all taken for the same reasons? Who were the people that took them? Whenever you look at a photograph, you’re looking at what is no longer there. The photograph is there, but what was photographed is transient, is gone. Proust had his madeleines. I have my photographs.

The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence

By Susie Linfield (University of Chicago)

Parul Sehgal, Bookforum, December 2010

The girl in the photograph wears her black hair tucked behind her ears. Her part is slightly crooked, and there is a small mole low on her throat, right above the top button of her blouse. She might be anywhere between five and ten years old. She’s been posed against a wall or a screen. Stripped of its context, this is a lovely but unremarkable portrait of a small, serious looking girl, an image that’s easy to look at and easy to forget.

But let’s restore the context and look again. Pol Pot liked to have his prisoners photographed. Like the fourteen thousand or so others imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge’s “torture center,” this girl slept shackled to the floor or wall, was likely tortured, photographed, and eventually shot—or bludgeoned to death, if the price of ammunition was high that year.

Is there a “right” way to respond—intellectually, emotionally, aesthetically—to such an image? Do we honor her by looking at her photograph or by refusing to? If we look, can we learn anything about how she lived and why she died? What if we can’t help but notice her beauty—or worse, the inadvertent beauty of the snapshot itself? What does that say about us—or photography? Are these considerations offensive: Do we have a right to make sophistries out of real suffering?

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