Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory

A writer notorious for the quote "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible" was bound to produce an opinionated memoir. That's what readers get in Still Pictures by Janet Malcolm (Nobody's Looking at You), who died in 2021. Malcolm's daughter, Anne, notes that "it seems entirely fitting... that when my mother turned her hand to a kind of memoir, it should be built around a series of images." In this book, Malcolm, a former photography critic for the New Yorker and an accomplished photographer, uses family pictures and other images to write about her upbringing and career, and she doles out plenty of the biting and entertaining wit one would expect from a writer of her caliber.

In an early chapter, Malcolm shares a photograph of herself, almost five years old, on a train with her parents as they leave Prague in 1939. This is one of many essays about Czech Jewish refugees like her family who fled the Nazis and came to New York. Other chapters focus on her maternal grandmother, Klara, who "looks like a generic mother figure in a child-rearing manual"; her all-girls junior high school; her Saturdays at the movie house; her early crushes; and much more. Even in a memoir, Malcolm displays her gift for the cutting remark, as when she admires the "toughness and self-containment" of today's young women before adding: "Of course, beneath the surface, they are as pathetic as everyone else." The result is a caustic, idiosyncratic trip through a singular life of letters. --Michael Magras, freelance book reviewer

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