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?
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.
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.
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.
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. . .