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.

Spot-Lit for May 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.

(And remember, the links below the cover gallery will take you to some of the best fiction of the year so far along with great new novelists!)

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

Spot-Lit for April 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

Fame Adjacent

Something weird happened to me when I was a kid. I was on a TV show, and afterward, everyone on it became famous except for me.

This is how Fame Adjacent by Sarah Skilton begins. What appears to be a monologue in front of a live studio audience slowly reveals itself to actually be Holly Danner’s introduction in group therapy. Like many former child actors, as an adult Holly has found herself in rehab. She’s an addict, but it’s not what you think. Holly isn’t addicted to painkillers, alcohol, or gambling.

Holly is an internet addict.

That’s right. Internet addiction is an acknowledged and treatable problem in this book. Patients’ phones, tablets, laptops, and smart watches are locked up upon arrival. There’s no television, because television is likely to remind patients what they’re missing during their internet withdrawal. Patients are encouraged to participate in group therapy, play board games, and generally relearn how to unplug, connect with other people, and most of all get a good night’s sleep. There are no devices, and no online connections.

Withdrawal symptoms can be difficult to conquer. There’s the paranoia that the whole world is going ahead without your knowledge or permission. Swiping on unswipable things, like the view out a window, are common causes of crying breakdowns. Restless hands don’t know what to do with themselves, so talismans like stones are offered as a way to keep busy hands occupied.

And patients’ focused addictions are varied. One patient is addicted to popping videos–that would be YouTube videos of pimples being popped, cysts being lanced, etc. Another patient is obsessed with comparing her life to other moms’ seemingly perfect lives on Instagram, to the point of extreme depression and withdrawing from her real-life family. These addictions all got so huge they ruined the patients’ lives and make them take refuge in rehab.

Holly isn’t just addicted to surfing the internet, or using a specific app. She has recently become obsessed with her former castmates’ lives and telling the world that she was a part of their success, even if no one has ever heard of her. Best known for her role in the early 90s kids’ show Diego and the Lion’s Den, Holly was never able to replicate that success. She eventually faded into insignificance while everyone else went on to be super-huge mega stars.

What sent her into this tailspin was the announcement of a 25th anniversary reunion show with the entire cast. Everyone, that is, except for Holly. You see, Holly wasn’t invited–and something inside of her snapped. No one ever uses the phrase “psychotic break” but I read between the lines. After she lost her job, Holly’s family staged an intervention, which is what gave her the wake-up call she needed to seek professional help. But the timing is perfect. She figures she can go to rehab for the recommended six weeks, “get cured,” and still make it back to San Diego in time to crash the reunion show to set the record straight and give her former best friends a very large piece of her mind. On national television. Why not?

Then she starts making a connection with a fellow patient, Thom. He’s the whole reason she staged her introduction as a nightclub act. He tells every new patient in group therapy, “Pretend it’s your nightclub act,” but she’s the first person who actually took him up on it. He won’t tell Holly what his specific internet addiction is, but she realizes it truly won’t make her think less of him if she finds out what it is. That’s because she’s starting to realize she cares about him as more than just a fellow patient.

Thom completes his rehab and is released at the same time Holly discovers that the date for the reunion show got changed. Now she’s got less than three days to get from Ohio to NYC with no car, no credit cards, and no prospects. Except for Thom, who refuses to take her–or does he?

What starts out as a fascinating look into the world of internet addiction, mega-celebrity, and friendships gone wrong takes a drive into romance and that great American favorite–road fiction! Yes readers, we have ourselves a book that’s one part rehab, one part road trip, and 100% hilarious, heartwarming, and introspective.

Choices will be made. Hearts will be broken. But one thing is uncertain: will Holly get to the show on time? And if she does, what is she actually going to tell her former BFFs and the millions of people watching live at home?

I sadly identified with Holly a bit. Like Holly, I went through a period after high school where I broke it off with some friends who I felt only used my friendship when it was convenient for them. Holly and I are also the exact same age, so all of her cultural touchstones really hit home with me. And then there’s her voice. The snarky comedian who tends to put others before her. Sound familiar? I became emotionally invested in seeing Holly through to the very last page.

If you want to find out how Holly handles being on the sidelines of stardom, you’ll want to place a hold now so you can read Fame Adjacent when it comes out on April 9th.

Until then, I’m going to try to cut back on my internet time and increase my face-to-face time with the people I love. After all, no amount of Reddit AMAs or YouTube videos can ever come close to in-person conversation and making memories.