7 February 14 | Monica Carter

Sarah Gerard is a writer who used to work at McNally Jackson Books, but recently took a job at BOMB Magazine. 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. Her new book, “Things I Told My Mother,” can be purchased here. She holds an MFA from The New School and lives in Brooklyn.

There’s so much praise out there for fat books, but what about little books that pack a big punch?

Commentary by Marcelle Sauvageot, (trans. Christine Schwartz Hartley, Anna Moschovakis)

Nobody has talked about Commentary, yet, and I just don’t know why. This autobiographical epistolary novel was written in the weeks before Sauvageot died of tuberculosis in a sanatorium on the coast of France, and is addressed to her lover who left her for another woman just days after she admitted herself. On its premise alone, it’s almost too easy to love.

Granted, I’m a sucker for strong first-person voices, but Commentary sucked me in immediately. Sauvageot is fierce and incisive, and seconds away from inevitable death. She has nothing to lose, and says everything with that in mind. She simultaneously pities and despises the other patients in the sanatorium because she can’t escape their coughing. She hates their passive acceptance and scorns the person who betrayed her and left her alone in this place. Her sentences scream with vulnerability and suffering.

Included in the book are a foreword and note by Charles du Bos and an essay by Jean Mouton, from previous French editions, as well as a new introduction by Jennifer Moxley that contains these lines, which I had to copy into my notebook: “We recall here that in Latin, vulgare, meaning ‘of the people’ but also ‘to publish,’ was used as a slur against women who were thought to have made their bodies ‘public.’ Thus a vulgar woman is a woman who ‘publishes’ that which men believe should stay private.”

A note about the book’s design: Ugly Duckling Presse has done a beautiful job. A flesh-tone letterpress cover, clean, geometric cover design, vintage aesthetic. This book feels good in your hand.

The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra by Pedro Mairal, (trans. Nick Caistor)

In many ways, this book is a typical small-town procedural, complete with a cast of colorful local characters, unexpected diversions, and a protagonist who discovers more about his past than he bargained for. Except, in this story, Miguel Salvatierra isn’t looking for a killer; he’s looking for a painting. And in looking for a painting, he’s looking for a missing piece of history. And in looking for a missing piece of history, he’s looking for his father.

The story is constructed elegantly around the metaphor of the scrolls Miguel Salvatierra’s father painted one-per-year throughout his lifetime: their movement from left to right is synchronized with the movement of the story – then reversed, right to left, like the movement of the turning pages of the book you’re holding, or Miguel’s journey into his family’s past. In the end, the story and the scrolls make a circle; we end up where we started. Except now (you know this already), everything is different.

To say that Marial’s setting is vivid is to blanche it. It is warm and earthy, humid and pungent, colorful, and slightly sour. It is old and familiar but not entirely unchanged. It is remote, but civic, with suggestions of encroaching commercialism. I loved inhabiting this place and felt at home among its community.

New Vessel Press was founded in 2012, and The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is one of only six titles they’ve published thus far, and the only one I’ve read. A second New Vessel title, Some Day by Shemi Zarhin, is translated from Hebrew and is also eligible for the award this year.

The Whispering Muse by Sjón (trans. Victoria Cribb)

Several of this year’s BTBA judges have said that they’d love to see Sjón on the longlist, and I agree. The Whispering Muse follows a fish enthusiast, Valdimar Heraldsson, on board a Danish merchant ship occupied by the Greek god, and the ship’s second mate, Caeneus. Each night, Caeneus regales the crew with tales of his travels with Jason and the Argonauts, making this a sort of frame story along the lines of a humorous, Nordic Heart of Darkness.

While Heraldsson is quirky and entertaining, Caeneus is by far the best part of this book, as he brings with him wonder and metaphor, and a cast of characters both mythical and familiar. His story opens up varicolored and metaphysical dimensions out of reach for Heraldsson, whose focus is perpetually on the small, limited to the goings-on of the ship’s crew, in particular their diet. Caeneus: the hero; Heraldsson: the anti-hero. These disparate agents come together in the end, in a delightful recapitulation of the origin of the namesake Muse.


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