Heartwood 9:4 – Nocilla Dream by Augustín Fernández Mallo

If it could be said to have one (and it doesn’t), a lone shoe-covered tree standing along the loneliest road in America (US Route 50 in Nevada) would be the polestar of Augustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Dream. If you choose to go down this road, you’ll travel with truckers and prostitutes, artists and veterans, rock climbers and bomb defusers. You’ll check in periodically with a man who has lived for years in the Singapore airport, and a man who designs manhole covers. You’ll read about micronations, Chinese surfers, extreme ironing, transhumanism. You’ll learn that Che Guevara faked his death and was amused to find his own visage on tourist T-shirts in Vietnam.

As the above indicates, the 113 very brief chapters in this globe-hopping novel seem to be about almost everything, and they are remarkable for their fluency and concision.  Some condense a complete story into a page or two, others read like highlights from conference papers, and others indeed do draw from the writings of scientists, critics, journalists, poets, and more which have appeared in a variety of magazine articles, newspaper columns, and books. Elements in particular chapters resurface later on in seemingly unrelated chapters and otherwise intersect or overlap in surprising ways. And Fernández Mallo, like an expert juggler, keeps adding more characters (whose separate-though-sometimes-conjoined story lines are revisited periodically) to the mix.

Given the author’s background in physics, I’ve been trying to identify a physical model that best represents the structure and content of this unusual and addictive piece of writing. Is it the fractal, with its intricate repeating patterns? The atomic detritus scattered by particle accelerators in a Hadron Collider? Or maybe something from the world of art, as the book does dabble in such subjects as Land Art, conceptualism, the Situationists, and surrealism? But maybe I’m trying too hard. The model that best captures what happens in Nocilla Dream is the glowing screen that teases me with an inexhaustible hyperlinked world of connection and distraction as I attempt to write this review (and which will likely seduce you away during your reading of it).

Fernández Mallo, a poet as well as a physicist, began writing this book when he was hospitalized in Thailand after breaking his hip. He completed the novel within a matter of months when he returned to Spain, and went on to write two more in the Nocilla Trilogy (Nocilla Experience and Nocilla Lab) in quick succession (Nocilla is a Spanish knock-off of the popular hazelnut spread, Nutella, and the subject of the song “Nocilla, que Merendilla!” by the 1980s punk band Siniestro Total). The books caused a sensation in Spain when they were published in 2006 and 2007, helping to spawn a literary movement now known as The Nocilla Generation.

If you’re in the mood for a wide-ranging, collagist, ensemble novel that mixes high and low culture, the sensual and the theoretical, the scientific and the aesthetic, this will keep you entertained and perhaps slack-jawed. And it will let you know if you’re a candidate for the rest of the trilogy. It’s likely, anyway, to be more rewarding than the hours you’d spend otherwise clicking around on the internet.

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Some more detailed reviews of the Nocilla books can be found at:

The Nation
Los Angeles Review of Books
Music & Literature
Harpers

Spot-Lit for August 2019

These titles – from established, new, and emerging authors – are some of the most anticipated new releases of the month, based on advance reviews and book world enthusiasm.

Click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2019 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction | 2019 Debuts

Spot-Lit for July 2019

These titles – from established, new, and emerging authors – are some of the most anticipated new releases of the month, based on advance reviews and book world enthusiasm.

Click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2019 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction | 2019 Debuts

Heartwood 9:3 – Empty Words by Mario Levrero

Uruguayan novelist Mario Levrero’s Empty Words is a deceptively appealing little book, in large part about a most unlikely subject: penmanship. The unnamed narrator is hoping that his self-imposed handwriting-improvement exercises will relieve his anxiety and improve other aspects of his life. This proves to be a tall order and one that is frequently stymied.

But this is only one half of the book. The other half is what Levrero calls The Discourse, which has the rather nebulous goal of discovering its real subject matter beneath the simple flow or rhythm of what he describes as an apparently empty form. This is something that can’t be forced. As the narrator describes it:

I need to be alert, but with my eyes half-closed, as if I were thinking about something else entirely and had no interest in the discourse taking shape. It’s like climbing into a fish tank and waiting for the waters to settle and the fish to forget they had ever been disturbed, so they move closer, their curiosity drawing them toward me and toward the surface of the tank. Then I’ll be able to see them – and perhaps even catch one.

The ritual of practice is the main force that binds the two parts of the book together, but it is an embedded variety of practice that loses itself in the activity and has no concern for anything outside itself. This indifference to outside matters is critical. For the handwriting exercises to be successful, the protagonist must focus simply on forming appropriate letters without the typical concern in writing with expressing meaning – in fact, if he drifts into emotion-laden topics or areas of personal concern, he loses sight of his task and his penmanship goes to hell. In other words, the narrator’s handwriting is an outer manifestation of his inner state and its success is largely dependent on him not focusing on substantive matters. The Discourse, conversely, seeks to engage in an activity (in this case, a kind of half-willed psychological probing), that requires practice and attention but that remains outside of the narrator’s control. For the goal of the Discourse to be met, the narrator must keep his psychic antennae alert but cannot attempt to influence whatever it is they may pick up. He must simply be open and attentive to see if the real nature of the discourse might emerge.

Of course, the world intrudes on his practice with regularity, and both parts of the book braid through each other with the details of the narrator’s domestic existence – his wife whose habits and temperament are quite different from his own; his ever-curious son who interrupts him at every opportunity; interruptions from the telephone or buzzing electrical equipment; his concerns about needing to tie up his books and arrange for moving house; and not least, his role as primary caretaker of the family dog and a newly adopted cat.

Life, as we know, largely consists of intrusions and responsibilities and interruptions and interactions. Fiction, too, must hum with the conflicts and messiness of its characters’ lives. Levrero clearly understands this and it is in these disruptions and the details of the narrator’s attempt to improve his inner life that we come to find Empty Words a brilliant and moving tribute to both the mundane and sublime.

That the handwriting exercises both contain and are about the act of their composition makes for an inherently playful dynamic which is further amplified by the narrator’s commentaries on his anxious world of interruptions, domestic responsibilities, and the wish for whatever is behind the blocked or walled-off part of his psyche to reveal itself to him.

We learn about both the narrator’s life and inner life in the course of his diaristic writing but also through the quality of the writing itself. There is a calm and precision in the language that belies his claims of anxiety (which he partly tracks through the number of cigarettes he smokes in a day). We learn that he is a novelist and that he is quite interested in psychology, sharing with us a number of his dreams, and mentioning in passing such figures as Freud and Jung along with comments on the anima, id, ego, and superego.

The narrator is also a bit of a soul-seeker. He mentions favoring a Zen approach to getting things done (in contrast to his wife’s tackling things by sheer willpower). And his handwriting practice is after all a course of self-therapy in the hope of self-improvement. It’s a start-and-stop process, and the results are a bit tenuous, but the execution of these exercises and his open-ended explorations in the discourse do seem to help him “to place himself within himself,” to learn to go with the flow, and to find a more grounded way to respond to circumstances beyond his control. As he says toward the end: “it’s all a question of finding the right balance, by means of a kind of spiritual acrobatics.”

I think I’ve failed here to communicate what a charming and eccentric character Levrero has created in his protagonist. It was a pleasure to step into his mind as it sought (but sought not) the words that became Empty Words.

Read Your Fruits and Veggies

If you’re following along with our annual reading challenge, you’ve likely discovered that so far the challenges each month have been relatively straightforward: read a book by Sy Montgomery, read a poetry book, etc.

This month’s challenge, read a book with a vegetable or fruit in the title, is a little harder to achieve. Yes, you could go straight to the cookbooks, but I’m here to offer up a relative cornucopia of novels that will satisfy both the criteria and your book cravings. Just click any book cover that looks good! You’ll be taken to the catalog record where you can read a summary and place a hold.

 

   

So don’t wait–gobble these up while you can! And don’t forget to enter the monthly contest. Simply post a picture of your book on Instagram, Twitter, and/or Facebook with the hashtag #everettreads for your chance to win a $25 Amazon gift card from the Friends of the Everett Public Library. Be sure to make the post public so we can see it. Easy peas-y.

Spot-Lit for June 2019

These titles – from established, new, and emerging authors – are some of the most anticipated new releases of the month, based on advance reviews and book world enthusiasm.

Click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2019 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction | 2019 Debuts

Heartwood 9:2 – The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

You don’t have to wait for the summer to enjoy The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. This brief novel follows the day-to-day activities of Sophia, a girl of six, and her grandmother, as they summer on a small island off the Gulf of Finland where the family has long had a modest cottage.

Sophia’s mother has recently died, but this is mentioned so quietly that it would be easy to miss. Her father is also with them on the island, but he speaks little (maybe not at all?) and is mostly occupied at his desk, or with carrying out household chores, or with attempting to landscape the challenging island terrain. What fills the pages are the activities and interactions of the mercurial Sophia and her forthright grandmother.

The book is constructed of twenty-two finely honed vignettes, beginning with “The Morning Swim,” in which Sophia expects her proposal to go swimming to meet with her grandmother’s opposition but she gets none; on her part, the grandmother discovers Sophia’s discomfort at venturing into the deeper water. This chapter sets the tone for what’s to come in terms of the jockeying of independence and cooperation between the two characters who are at the opposite edges of the typical lifespan. Their dialogue with each other is generally quite minimal, sometimes crisp and pointed, but full of resonance, laden with feeling. And their conversations don’t always go as they might wish (the turns of which can also surprise the reader), sometimes resulting in tensions that are gradually (or speedily) put to rest.

A few chapters bring them together to accomplish a common task, such as building a miniature Venice, or one where Sophia is shocked to see that she’s cut a worm in half while helping in the garden. After the garden incident, the grandmother tries to calm the girl and tells her how both broken ends will heal, and she coaxes Sophia to work through her feelings. Eventually Sophia, whose writing can’t keep pace with her thoughts, dictates to her a treatise which the girl calls A Study of Angleworms That Have Come Apart. This chapter is a beautiful example of the connection and individuality the characters possess as Jansson melds the shocked realization of the six-year-old with the worldly-wise experience of the grandmother, while silently appearing to acknowledge their surviving the death of Sophia’s mother.

Just as Jansson brings these two characters to life with just a few brushstrokes, she also excels at making the island come alive, with her attention to the topography, the seascape, storms, specific birds, and plants (her line drawings also add to the ambience).

Other chapters involve such things as Sophia’s first experience sleeping alone in a tent, the adoption of a cat, discussions of God and death. Their skerry also has visitors at times, and outings by boat are launched both for pleasure and to get supplies from the village.These chapters add dimension and appropriately fill out the summer season on the island.

Like Sophia, Jansson spent much of her life living in a small cabin on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. And she wrote The Summer Book in the year or two after her mother’s death. This might help explain why the scenes and sensibility in the book feel so authentic.

I am so grateful this book introduced me to the life and works of Tove Jansson who, in addition to writing thirteen books for adults, was also a painter, illustrator, and writer of the children’s Moomin books. The Summer Book is notable for its marvelous handling of character, setting, and what it means to be human, but also for its tone, concision, clarity, insights, and way of capturing mood shifts (you’ll find these traits also on display in her wonderful collection of selected stories, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories).

More about Tove Jansson, the island where she summered, and her artwork can be found here.