Book Review: Sempre Susan, What You See In The Dark, Between Shades of Gray A memoir of living in close quarters with Susan Sontag; a novel set in the world of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho; and a young-adult novel that covers the very adult themes of labor camps in 1941 Lithuania.

What We're Reading, March 29-April 4

Mito Habe-Evans

A memoir of living in close quarters with Susan Sontag; a novel set in the world of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho; and a young-adult novel that covers the very adult themes of labor camps in 1941 Lithuania.


Sempre Susan

A Memoir of Susan Sontag

by Sigrid Nunez

Susan Sontag may have been a genius — a master of the essay, a woman whose prose has been rivaled by only a few — but she was not an easy woman to live with. Writer Sigrid Nunez got the experience close-up; she had just finished her M.F.A. at Columbia and was looking for work, when a friend at The New York Review of Books set her up with a job as Sontag's assistant. Soon, Nunez had fallen in love with David — Sontag's son, whom the writer treated almost as a sibling — and the three ended up living together in Sontag's Upper West Side apartment for years. During that time, Sontag had recovered from her first brush with cancer, and she was still smoking excessively and working on a new book. Nunez found Sontag fascinating, glamorous and brilliant — but also overbearing, opinionated, odd and judgmental. Sempre Susan looks at one of the 20th century's best thinkers at close range, exploring the difference between the public perception of an intellectual and the daily reality of a life.

Sempre Susan is a wee little book — it fits almost in your palm, the kind of mini-tome that they sell at Urban Outfitters and gift shops — but it packs a punch in its few pages. Nunez had the rare chance to really get to know Sontag — something so many people who have read her work would love to have done — and she is both reverential and unmerciful in her portrait. Sontag was a woman who did not compromise; she demanded excellence, not only from herself but from everyone else around her. These expectations could be maddening, but, as Nunez writes, it was impossible not to learn from Sontag's example. She was magnetic, powerful — a force. Sontag's casual pearls of wisdom and clever asides, dropped around the house (some which make her sound downright batty) are worth the price of admission alone. For instance: "She said it was a mistake to care too much if others liked or disliked you. To be despised in certain circumstances, or by certain people, could be a high compliment." And: "Once, on St. Mark's Place, she pointed out two eccentric-looking women, one middle-aged, the other elderly, both dressed like gypsies with long, flowing gray hair. 'Old bohemians,' she said. And she added, jokingly, 'Us in thirty years.' "Rachel Syme, books editor
Hardcover, 140 pages; Atlas & Co.; list price, $20; publication date, March 30


What You See In The Dark

By Manuel Munoz

Jealousy, longing and two murders drive the plot of What you See in the Dark. One of the murders takes place on-screen in Psycho, and the other is set in late 1950s Bakersfield, Calif. Manuel Munoz's first novel re-envisions Janet Leigh and Alfred Hitchcock as unnamed characters known simply as "Actress" and "Director." They come to Bakersfield to shoot one scene and by happenstance come across Watson's Inn, which serves as physical inspiration for the Bates Motel. The second-person narrative jumps back and forth between the movie and life in the Central Valley where a lethal love affair grows between Dan Watson and Teresa Garza.

This book knotted my stomach. What you See in the Dark made me tense, and I mean tense, like the very first time I asked a girl out on a date. The tension wasn't born of fear, though, or anxiety. Rather, the novel screams restraint; perhaps, too much. The noir atmospherics are as thick as winter fog and parts of the novel read like a shy love letter to Alfred Hitchcock. Fittingly, the novel refers more than once to Patsy Cline's "Walkin' After Midnight." Finish reading this book and you might have the same creepy/crazy/cool sensation you get when you hear Patsy sing "And as the skies turn gloomy / Night winds whisper to me / I'm lonesome as I can be." -- Luis Clemens, senior editor
Hardcover, 272 pages; Algonquin; list price, $23.95; publication date, March 29


Between Shades Of Gray

By Ruta Sepetys

Young-adult author Ruta Sepetys has a story she doesn't want you to forget — and it's most likely one you've never heard. In Between Shades of Gray, she brings you Lina Vilkas, a bold 15-year-old girl, an artist whose passion and vigor are stifled by the Soviet secret police. It's 1941. The Soviet Union has occupied Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. And Lina's family is on the list of presumed anti-Soviet people — those who must be deported. We travel with Lina as the police take her in her nightgown, through the packed train car carrying her mother and her brother and many others to Siberia, and finally, to the labor camp where they're forced to work for a daily bread ration. All the while, Lina draws the faces of her family and fellow deportees, hoping to one day make it out and tell their story — the story of those 300,000 Lithuanians — the one so few have heard, until now

Ruth Sepetys doesn't want you to forget, and she makes sure you won't, giving you graphic details: an infant starves to death and its grieving mother is shot in the midst of her cries of grief, a stuttering man freezes to death on the Siberian coast. It's details like these that make me believe the book may be too much for the "young adult" audience for whom it's intended. But for those who are mentally and emotionally prepared, please read this small window into a tragedy. The novel's driving force — Lina — will make it accessible. She's that character who holds your attention through a story that would otherwise be far too tragic to take. Because in the same way that Lina records each and every moment with her drawings, the images of her journey have lingered in my mind. And it's those lingering images that mean I won't soon forget. -- Theo Balcomb, production assistant
Hardcover, 344 pages; Philomel; list price, $17.99; publication date, March 22