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November 14, 2016

Book Notes - Derek Palacio "The Mortifications"

The Mortifications

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Derek Palacio's epic debut The Mortifications is one of the finest novels of the year, a sweeping exploration of family and home.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"The narrative may operate on a grand scale, but Palacio is just as gifted a miniaturist, able to distill the unbearable ruptures in a family down to a single image."

In his own words, here is Derek Palacio's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel The Mortifications:

With music, I tend to be pretty monogamous. I only add a few new albums or bands to my playlist every year. Yet when I do find someone or some group to love, I tend to grab up as much of their work as I can and listen to it on repeat. I also don't listen to music while I write, so these are the songs that filled the spaces in between composition. They helped me think and reflect on my work when I was away from the page. They're also the songs I keep returning to, some of which I discovered while writing The Mortifications.

"Heartbeats" by José González
My favorite kind of music turns the voice into an instrument, and hearing the lyrics isn't so important. I love the up-and-down of González's voice in this and in all his work. His words aren't so distinct, blending together into a sort of echo that resonates beautifully. It's almost like another string to the acoustic guitar, and this music was perfect for when I had to break from the page and just meditate on what was going on in the story or where the characters needed to go next. The song feels big or wide or spread-out, and that was a helpful feeling when working to grow the novel.

"Kettering" by The Antlers
This song is all anguish from the very first note, a piano key that then pulses throughout the rest of the piece like a desperate heartbeat. I got to see this band play in Columbus, OH, when I was in grad school and working on the novel, and I don't know of a song or sound that so quickly connects me to all the worst pains of my life. I listened to this especially when thinking on the mother in my novel, Soledad, who always seems to be in the process of losing someone (husband, daughter, son, self). Like one of the characters in the song, she also suffers from cancer, and the book certainly drew from this music a sense of how that disease can be a slow and sad wasting away.

Bach: Sonatas & Partitas by Christian Tetzlaff
I don't really listen to classical music except for this album, which I only discovered after reading a profile in The New Yorker about Christian Tetzlaff. At one point in the article, he said, "Beauty is the enemy of expression," and that resonated with me, because when writing I tend to value narrative potential more so than sentence-level beauty. To be honest, though, the album is beautiful, and Tetzlaff's violin aches exquisitely. Like José González above, this made for wonderful meditating music. Listening to it shifted me out of my own patterns of thought, and in that removed space I could see new potential for the novel's storyline.

"Take Five" by The Dave Brubeck Quartet
This song has less to do with the novel and more to do with my writing process in general. If I've had a good day at the computer, I love to leave the page with the next section just started, which I hope gives me an easy start the next day. This means forgetting what I worked on that day as soon as possible, cooking dinner and listening to some jazz. The album that "Take Five" is from, Time Out, feels like "evening" to me, that sometimes pleasant blue space where I can slide out of my professional self. Brubeck brings on the night, and he makes it seem like it could go on, as if it's the part of the day I've most been waiting for. An added bonus is that my wife hates jazz, so I put this on whenever I want to annoy her.

"Don't" by Seu Jorge
Despite some of the serious matter The Mortifications engages with, there are—at least in my reading—a few instances of playful and sincere love in the novel: I'm thinking of Soledad and Henri's first kiss, Ulises and Inez at the Chinese restaurant, and even Soledad and Uxbal reconnecting in Cuba. This song feels like those moments. It's slow and quiet, sometimes whispered, and the lyrics suggest a deep earnestness regarding the speaker's love. And for me, the stripped-down quality of the song only magnifies the clarity of that sentiment.

"Santa Fe" by Beirut
This band always gets me tapping out a beat, and their music—this song especially—embodies a crescendo-ing urgency. And I love the way they use brass, which is to say triumphantly. This song makes me think of the travelling sections of The Mortifications, where the characters are moving forward in time at a good clip, headed for the next major moment in their lives.

"Atlantic City" by Bruce Springsteen
Nothing to really say about this song except how much I love the refrain: "Well now everything dies, baby, that's a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back." It is wistful and longing and hopeful and tragic all at once. I also love the guitar in this song, and how, when it pairs with Springsteen's voice, absolutely yearns. No sense of redemption, either, in this song, just recognition of blind hope, of a spirit after something it probably won't get. That about sums up my novel, so if you don't have time to read it, take four minutes and listen to this classic.

Derek Palacio and The Mortifications links:

the author's website

BookPage review
Boston Globe review
Kirkus review
New York Times review
NPR Books review
Publishers Weekly review

Fiction Writers Review interview with the author
The Ribbon interview with the author
Salon interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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List of Online "Best Books of 2016" Lists

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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