The National Book Critics Circle’s decision to break with convention by nominating Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf; paperback, $20) in two categories, criticism and poetry, testifies to the book’s boundary-bending potency. Part protest lyric, part art book, “Citizen” is a dazzling expression of the painful double consciousness of black life in America. The illustrated book features an extended meditation on the career and public profile of tennis star Serena Williams, whom Rankine describes as being “trapped in a racial imaginary . . . as hemmed in as any other black body thrown against our American background.” Powered by poetry that decries the contradictions and repressions of institutionalized racism, of the pressure on those who are “fighting off / the weight of nonexistence,” the book is an innovative amalgam of genres.
Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation (Graywolf, $24) is a philosophical look at the history and practice of vaccination that reads like Joan Didion at her best. If you are yourself a nonfiction author, your initial response to this book might be to decide immediately on another line of work; Biss is that intimidatingly talented. Amid the current debate about vaccination, Biss describes herself as “uncomfortable with both sides, as I had seen them delineated.” And yet, she concludes, “refusing immunity” is structurally equivalent to the actions of “a privileged 1 percent who are sheltered from risk while they draw resources from the other 99 percent.” This is cultural commentary at its highest level, a searching examination of the most profound issues of health, identity and the tensions between individual parenting decisions and society.
As a novelist who also writes software code, Vikram Chandra has a distinctive perspective on language. In Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty (Graywolf; paperback, $16), Chandra, the author of a story collection and two highly acclaimed novels, alternates between user-friendly explanations of the basics of computer languages and examinations of the linguistic and poetic history of ancient India, particularly the development of Sanskrit. His unusual dual identity allows him to make connections and draw parallels that elude other thinkers, to trace “how the effects of a language can escape language itself,” and the result is an illuminating and graceful synthesis.
Moving along to the non-Graywolf Press portion of the criticism finalists brings us to What Would Lynne Tillman Do? (Red Lemonade; paperback, $16.95), a book whose author is described in Colm Tóibín’s introduction as “the coolest person alive.” Tillman, a New York critic borne of the downtown scene, is known for her prickly integrity and charm. The collection indulges the eclecticism of her interests, which range from film to art and popular culture; the centerpiece is an extraordinary essay on Edith Wharton, whom Tillman identifies as “a poet of oppression and repression” with “her very sharp pen, held high, dipped in the ink of ambivalence.” It’s a description as apt of its author as its subject.
The first pop music critic of the New Yorker and a co-founder of Redstockings, a groundbreaking feminist collective, Ellen Willis was a passionate, often acerbic critic of American culture and politics and a keen-eyed analyst of the mechanisms of power, both personal and collective. The writings collected in The Essential Ellen Willis (University of Minnesota; paperback, $24.95), many of which first appeared in the Village Voice during its bohemian heyday, are intellectually rigorous and often bracingly personal. Praising a time-spanning collection for continued relevance may be weak tea, but the essays here — some of them three decades old — are germane to today’s debates about free speech, gender identity, reproductive freedom and gender bias. (I was especially amused by a well-placed sneer, in a 1984 essay, at “the inspiring example of a ‘nurturing father’ who expects the Medal of Honor for doing what mothers have always done.”) Brief sectional introductions by contemporary writers such as Ann Friedman and Sara Marcus provide useful context and underscore the vitality of a book whose author died in 2006.
Michael Lindgren is a writer and musician in New Jersey.