We fully see the meaning of David Rieff's little book, Swimming in a Sea of Death, when he writes this about his famous mother, Susan Sontag: "To say that my mother both enjoyed and made better use of the world than I have ever done or will do is simply a statement of fact." On the surface, the book is about the last days of Sontag's life; beneath the surface, it is about Rieff dealing with his smallness and his mother's greatness. Like Sontag, Rieff is a writer; unlike Sontag, his style is dry and simple; unlike Sontag, his life and mind are down-to-earth; unlike Sontag, he is practically unknown. Not only is he aware of a huge creative and intellectual distance between his mother and himself, this awareness also loads on the back of his mind a heavy amount of guilt. At one point, Rieff even wishes he had died instead of his mother. "There are times when I wish I could have died in her place. Survivor's guilt? Doubtless that is part of the story. But only a part." What is the other part? He feels the world would have lost much less with his death, the death of a minor writer.

Rieff deeply (maybe too deeply) admires his mother's work and achievements. She wrote some of the best essays in American 20th-century letters; she had the mental power to transform raw human experience into bold and terrific concepts. She was loved and loved being around people who shared her passion for art and ideas. And the older she got, the more friends she accumulated. "Her apartment was always filled with people," he writes with some sadness, "...[and as] she got older, my mother found it increasingly difficult to be alone (only when she was deep in a piece of writing was solitude even remotely bearable)." Rieff also deeply (maybe too deeply) admires his mother's love of life. She did not want to die; she wanted to persist in a world that had been so good to her—it granted her fame, money, and a position at the top of New York's intellectual life. On two occasions—in the mid '70s and late '90s—death had tried to take this happy world away from her and failed. When Sontag learned she had a condition that would convert into lethal leukemia (MDS) in 2003, she faced the old enemy and fought it with everything she could get her hands on.

In 2004, Sontag came to Seattle for a painful bone marrow transplant. This proved to be her last ditch. "Bedridden in the aftermath of her bone marrow transplant, her muscles soon so flaccid and wasted that she was unable to roll over unaided, her flesh increasingly ulcerated, and her mouth so cankered that she was often unable to swallow and sometimes unable to even speak, she dreamt (and spoke when she could speak, that is) of what she could do when she got out of the hospital and once more took up the reins of her life. The future was everything. Getting back to work was everything." What we see in this passage (and what Rieff saw in University of Washington Medical Center) is a lion that has lost all of its strength. A lion that can no longer roar, run, and terrify its prey. A lion that is toothless and vulnerable.

But why do we want to see such a horrible sight? It says nothing more than exactly what it looks like: the mighty made small by indifferent death. But death, despite all of the pain and suffering it produces, is common; Sontag's life, however, was the complete opposite of death—it was exceptional. Because we can learn nothing new from death, we learn nothing new about Sontag from her son's little book. recommended

David Rieff reads at Eagle Harbor Book Company (157 Winslow Way E, Bainbridge Island, 842-5332) on Sun Jan 27, 3 pm, free; at Elliott Bay Book Company (101 S Main St, 624-6600) on Mon Jan 28, 7:30 pm, free; and at Third Place Books (17171 Bothell Way NE, Lake Forest Park, 366-3333) on Tues Jan 29, 7 pm, free.