Sarah Gerard is a writer and a bookseller at McNally Jackson Books. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Bookforum, the Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Slice Magazine, and other publications. She holds an MFA from The New School and lives in Brooklyn.
I’m only going to talk about one book in this first BTBA blog post. Okay, maybe two. Okay, maybe three. But first, the one: Christa Wolf’s City of Angels (FSG). Oh my God (as it were). This book. This book, you guys.
Not that I’m surprised. Admittedly, I’ve only read one of Wolf’s other books, Cassandra, a retelling of the Fall of Troy in the first-person from the point of view of Cassandra, the cursed soothsayer. It’s completely devastating and oh-so-complex, grappling with issues of patriarchy and violence, and language and…well, anyway. Highly recommended, but that should go without saying because Wolf, I’ve come to realize, is (was, R.I.P.) a complete genius.
I’ve read a lot of great books this year, but City of Angels is by far the most rewarding. I’m halfway through and the marginal notes are getting a bit out of hand. Wolf’s ability to create layers of meaning in a peripatetic structure across three, sometimes four, different time periods is astounding. Set in Los Angeles around the time of Clinton’s first election, she manages weave in the Holocaust, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the LA. riots, architectural and anatomic metaphors, particle physics, Communism, Capitalism, Buddhism, Greek mythology and so much more in order to investigate the further themes of loss, grief, surveillance, secrecy, self-examination and identity, translation, documentation, etc. I could go on. I really could. And she does this with utmost grace and fluidity.
Speaking of translation, Damion Searls has done a knockout job here. The prose is lovely but invisible in the reading, which is exactly what it should be. Wolf often hints at subtle connections between events by ordering them back-to-back, but never (never, this would be a sin to her, I think) states the connections overtly. Searls knows, though. He’s on it, and he’s done his job deftly. Systems of meaning rise to the surface like bubbles in a glass. So refreshing.
My favorite part of this book so far is the connection Wolf draws between political bureaucracy and architecture, using anatomical language to describe states of sickness or health as they occur in a population living under a functional or dysfunctional government, and the way architecture changes under those systems, directing bodies. The Berlin Wall is probably the biggest example of this. Again, Searls has handled this beautifully.
Wolf’s use of pronouns (I & you, most particularly) is also absolutely brilliant and I applaud Searls’s very elegant handling of them, but I would need a lot more room if I were going to talk about that in-depth. One blog post is not enough. I suggest you just go out and buy the book already.
But hey, there are other books, right? Firefly by Severo Sarduy – this is definitely another longlist contender for me. The book is a bildungsroman following the namesake young man through a series of sad and hilarious encounters with quasi-fabulist doctors and officials, the owner of an orphanage, and a young woman whose fate is bittersweet to say the least. Sarduy’s language is colorful and shapely, and his ability to frame tragedy in a humorous context is definitely one of his many strengths. Likewise, Mark Fried’s ability to relate Sarduy’s complex meanings in a way that remains childlike and playful is very impressive, and makes reading Firefly at once a fun and intellectually stimulating experience.
The last book I’ll mention is maybe not (or maybe is, we’ll see) a longlist contender for me, but I really think it merits attention because its story is so interesting and because (who knew?) Ursula K. Le Guin translated it. Squaring the Circle by Gheorghe Săsărman (Aqueduct Press) is “a book of brief descriptions of imaginary cities.” Sound familiar? It’s basically the Romanian Invisible Cities, and was published roughly around the same time, although the introduction to this edition suggests that Calvino and Săsărman were unaware of each others’ work. Calvino’s enjoyed greater success largely because Săsărman’s book was banned while Calvino’s had wide distribution. If I can speak honestly here, I actually have no preference for one over the other – I was completely enraptured by Squaring the Circle and would only, maybe, not suggest it for the longlist because I have mixed feelings about the translation. Maybe I’ll write more about this in a later post. In the meantime, I must say that, in spite of these mixed feelings, I really loved this book and think you should, too.
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .
Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .
Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .