Swimming in a Sea of Death
 
Swimming in a Sea of Death
By David Rieff
192 pages. Simon & Schuster
 

David Rieff's Swimming in a Sea of Death (Simon & Schuster), about his mother, Susan Sontag, and her final and unsuccessful battle with cancer, grapples with her denial in the face of death as well as his own. So informed and eloquent on the subject of illness, so accustomed to beating cancer—as she had twice before, against all odds—and so ferociously and powerfully attached to life, she appears to have “died as she had lived: unreconciled to mortality.” “Viscerally,” Rieff writes, “I do not believe that my mother could love a world without herself, much as the moralist in her would have despised herself for not doing so.” Rieff offers a deeply intimate portrait of the brilliant and formidable Sontag, celebrating a far more vulnerable side of her than she revealed in her own books. Weaving memories, entries from Sontag's journals—”My earliest childhood decision: by God they won't get me”—and scores of quotations from authors both he and his mother admired, Rieff writes from a place of conflict, grief, respect, and love for a mother who taught him both the richness and limitations of living a life almost entirely of the mind.

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