Books are cheaper than heroin, but they DO add up....

Amy, Carrie, Chanin and Sarah buy (and read and review) their own stuff. They've been known to shop around from dealer to dealer looking for the best price. If you're interested in slipping them something to try out, just contact us.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

If you're confused about me posting a book review, take heart.  You're not alone.  I, too, am equally confused as to how I managed to finish a novel AND feel compelled to write a review.  It's been so long, I'm not sure I'm actually doing it right.  What are these buttons before me?  Hark!  Lo, I tap one a letter doth blink into existence on the screen before me!  What magical wizardry exists in this place.

(cough) Anyway, moving along.  There are times in which I fall in love with an author.  I lament the end of a particular book and it causes me to search out all their published works.  I did that with Christopher Moore, Stephen King, David Sedaris, Toni Morrison, Douglas Addams, and Alice Walker.  Hmmm.  My Fantasy Author Team is going to be quite the eclectic mix.  However, the opposite of sorts is true with Lincoln in the Bardo.  I have read other pieces by George Saunders before reading this particular book.  And while I believe him to be masterful with the turn of a phrase, I found his tone a bit off-putting.  PLEASE NOTE! I AM FULLY AWARE THAT IT IS NOT HIM, IT IS ME.  So please save any comments of the "Well, don't you just think you're the greatest and who are you to put down a great American literary genius?!" ilk in the have-not-hit-SEND ether.  Mmmmkay?! I'm just saying the first thing written by Mr. Saunders that I encountered made me think of snooty literati and self-congratulatory academics.  Therefore, I was not interested in reading more.  Today I am here to say I was wrong.  If my husband is reading this (he's not: he's all non-fiction all the time), I'm going to give him a moment to pick himself up off the floor before explaining.

Yes, I was wrong.  This novel is moving and weird and sad and tragic and lovely and hard to put down though it's not always easy to read.  It's got a permanent spot in my "willing to re-read" rotation, and I am so glad I read the description before I noticed the author.  If I had done it the other way around, I might have missed out of this great book.  The central story belongs to that of Willie Lincoln, son of Abraham and Mary Todd, recently deceased of typhoid.  But he is not alone, the cemetery in which his remains reside is its own community existing on the fringes of time and leftover emotion.  The spirits there have all made the decision to Stay rather than Go, and have actually had to work at it from time to time.  Not everything is initially revealed to the reader though, and you will need to figure out narrative voices as the story moves with and through the different spirits in this cemetery.  This is where the term bardo comes in.  For anyone not in Religious Studies 134 with me at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the year 1998, bardo is the place between two existences.  For those believing in reincarnation, bardo is the state that one finds after death and while waiting for rebirth.  Willie and the other spirits are in the bardo as they either confront or avoid the thing that makes them decide to Stay or Go.  It is a hard decision to make.  All that they ever knew before has a solid connection to this place where their bodies remain.  Their families, friends, living humans in general, validate their former existences when they visiting and that's difficult to leave behind.  But eternity is a long time to just hang out, and the lightness that one becomes after being so solid in life is a disconcerting state in which to exist for all of time.

Willie Lincoln is no exception.  His short life and his father's palpable grief make it seem like remaining in the bardo is the best option.  The ill-fated president makes an appearance at the cemetery in the dark of night and in the depths of loss.  At a time when there are only gaps and divides, the weight of all that strife and loss under the helm of a wayward national spirit, weighs heavily on a man who has to mourn the loss of a son in stride.  As a lover and teacher of history, the inclusion of primary sources (so many of which were contradictory and therefore perfectly matched to a divided nation) was a wonderful choice.  As a parent, the inclusion of Lincoln's thoughts as he remembers his beloved son in full animation rather than the eternal sleep of death was heart-breaking.  I won't tell you what happens, but I will say that I didn't think ahead while reading.  I was perfectly content in the language and imagery of the moment, and that's high praise from me as I tend to ruin all the endings.  I owe George Saunders an apology and now I owe Amazon for his other books which I'm about to order.  Read it!  And hug all your loved ones!  And try not to contract typhoid!

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