Friday, May 19, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

Summary: The captivating first novel by the best-selling, National Book Award nominee George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War

On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body. 

Set over the course of that one night and populated by ghosts of the recently passed and the long dead, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, the powers of good and evil, a novel - in its form and voice - completely unlike anything you have read before. It is also, in the end, an exploration of the deeper meaning and possibilities of life, written as only George Saunders can: with humor, pathos, and grace.

My Review: One of the first places I heard of this book was from the podcast “Kirkus Reviews.” I had heard mention of it before, seen a few friends who had read it, but it was largely off of my radar. After heaving George Saunders interviewed on the podcast, I knew I had to check it out. Originally I began reading it, as one does when, you know, reading a book. However, I heard mention of it again and how the audio version was incredible—famous narrators including Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, George Saunders, Carrie Brownstein, Miranda July, Lena Dunham, and a full cast including over 120 characters convinced me that this was a book I had to listen to.

Now, just so you know, I rarely listen to books. Like never. My audio time is devoted to podcasts, which I also love. The nerdier the better. The only other book I can remember listening to was Elizabeth’s Smart book that she reads herself. I found it very powerful. However, I actually like reading as opposed to “reading.” I really enjoy it. There are definitely books on my list that I will probably listen to, the Harry Potter series being one of them because I’ve heard they’re incredible, but most books—99% perhaps—I will read. However, I am so glad I listened to this book for several reasons. First off, there are a bajillion characters. Remember how there is a full cast including over 120 characters? That is no joke. Some make only one appearance, and a few you only hear from once or twice, but that makes it super confusing for reading. However, with it being read it made it more understandable. In some ways it is actually written very play-like, and having readers helped it flow and made it really interesting. The book itself (which I began reading before switching over to the audio version) looks very choppy, broken into small chapters with each character saying maybe one sentence or a small paragraph and then their name written under it. I can see how it would take a lot of concentration to read this book and get out of it what I think the audio version has to offer. Not to mention that I really enjoyed the readers. There were a lot of readers I recognized and have enjoyed in other places and so it was fun to have them be a part of this book as well.

The book itself is super weird but also awesome. It’s a mix of reality and fiction. I loved how Saunders incorporates first-hand accounts of what Lincoln was like, what the White House was like, and just in general had a lot of reality interwoven with the fictional goings on at the bardo. One of the things that struck me when I heard about this book on the Kirkus Reviews podcast was that the editors receive dozens of Lincoln biographies every week, but this one was different. It’s a biography but it isn’t. I felt like I came to understand Lincoln more than any other thing I’ve read (and I haven’t read a lot, admittedly), but the first-hand accounts as well as were arranged in such a manner that many different viewpoints were offered—some contradictory—and it made for a weirdly complex and complete picture of a very deep, iconic man.

Now for the bardo. Oh, what a weird and wonderful creation. Saunders has masterfully created very real characters in an obviously confusing (for them) situation. This allows for all kinds of discussion of life and death and what it all means in the end. What matters most. What we leave behind and what we can take with us. What we would do in the next life to be able to go back and fix in this life. The confusion of it. It really is quite brilliant. It’s hard to explain, really, because it is a very complex book that is surprisingly clear in its confusion.

I think this is a great read. It’s not a light read, necessarily, and it certainly has some language and content. Two of the ghosts in the bardo have exceptionally bad language and so for that reason I would caution those who are sensitive to such things.

My Rating: 4 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some sexual content and a few instances of very bad language.

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