Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

lincolnIt’s an interesting reading summer when Lincoln in the Bardo is not the first, but the second, highly experimental, postmodern novel about a famous American president I’ve read (the other one being, of course, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings). Lincoln in the Bardo landed on my to-read list after numerous recommendations from trusted sources. I found it slow to get into, a novel I resisted being drawn in by at first, but ended up loving it and being deeply moved by it.

Lincoln in the Bardo takes places in the hours and days immediately following the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son Willie. The “bardo” of the title is a Tibetan Buddhist concept of the afterlife, not entirely unlike some conceptions of Purgatory in Christian imagining — not a place of either torment or reward, but a kind of limbo, a waiting-room on the way to whatever the afterlife holds. Souls who don’t or can’t or won’t move on to another plane of existence are stranded in this state, hanging around the graveyard in denial about the fact that they’re actually dead, clinging to this life with its passions and hopes instead of moving forward. It’s this chorus of the only-mostly-dead who narrate and comment, in a variety of voices, on the newly arrived Lincoln boy and the intense, stormy grief of the father who comes to visit his son’s body.

There’s so much going on here it’s hard to explain it all, even though in some ways the scope of the story is quite narrow. The part that I struggled with was not the scenes of the dead speaking in their various voices from beyond the grave — I had no trouble accepting that as a narrative device. Rather, I had trouble with the expository chapters sprinkled in between, where another plethora of voices narrates and comments upon what’s happening in the “real world.”

These historical accounts — usually only a sentence or two from each — are drawn from eyewitnesses and later chroniclers, describing Willie Lincoln’s death in the White House, President Lincoln’s response to it, the state of the American Civil War at the time, etc. These snippets of historical voices are placed next to one another, sometimes complementing and often directly contradicting each other, echoing the technique of the graveyard voices and reminding us that eyewitness accounts can disagree with each other even over something as basic as the colour of Abraham Lincoln’s eyes or the phase of the moon on the night Willie died. It’s a wonderful, fascinating technique that makes us call history into question, and Saunders handles it as well as he handles everything else in the book.

But. But. BUT.

There’s a big but. And I understand it and I get why he did but I still struggled with it, and it kept me from fully immersing in the book for quite awhile. These “historical sources” that populate the expository, real-world chapters — most of them actually are historical, drawn from historians’ books as well as various contemporary accounts of the events. But a substantial number — less than half, but more than a quarter, I’d estimate — are wholly made up by Saunders, and there’s no distinction made in the way he credits and cites them — the made-up sources look just as real as the real ones, and I was only able to figure out which was which by googling (which of course I did because, have you met me?).

Again, I 100% understand from a literary point of view what Saunders is doing here. He’s playing around with our perceptions of truth, history, story. He’s telling a “historical” story and turning it into “fiction,” but taking away the sheen of verisimilitude that makes “historical fiction” (including the kind I write) feel like a transparent glimpse into history when in fact it’s not. Saunders forces us to question our definitions of both “history” and “fiction” at every turn. Here’s a historical event, narrated by a chorus of fictional characters who aren’t even “real” within the fictional confines of the story — they’re dead and trapped in a mythological afterlife. Then there are these supposedly reliable expository chapters in between, where we should be able to count on objective, dispassionate voices — but not only do these contradict and argue with one another, but some of them are fictional as well, and we can’t tell which ones! It’s a brilliant and at the same time a frustrating technique. Even as I admired it, I struggled with it.

My copy of Lincoln in the Bardo was a library copy (I read mostly e-books, but the structure of this one seemed better fitted to reading on paper) and I’ll be honest: if I’d been reading a copy I owned myself, I would have gotten little sticky-tab circles and colour-coded the historical snippets to indicate to myself which were fictional and which were real. I know that doing that would have undermined the whole point Saunders was making about the unreliability of history, but I would have done it anyway, but I am just that obsessed with “facts” and correctly citing your sources. We are what we are.

Anyway, all this to say that I both admired and struggled with the writer’s technique for the first half of the book, and then I just gave up and accepted it and allowed myself to fall into it. It’s a beautiful meditation on grief, loss, life and death, and once I let the book be what it was, it almost made me cry. The juxtaposition of Lincoln’s grief over his son’s death, with the grief of an entire country over the deaths of its young men in war — a war that Lincoln knows most people hold him responsible for — is powerful. But just as powerful are the personal vignettes of the struggling graveyard characters — people who, for one reason or another, cannot let go of their regrets, their dreams, the hopes for the lives they were supposed to have lived, and the unfinished business they left behind. Letting go of that vision is essential to their ability to move on, and this is why I guess Saunders chose a Buddhist word to describe this afterlife, since letting go — detachment — is so closely associated with Buddhist thought. (Although I would argue it’s there in some sense in all religions, and maybe all sane systems of thought — certainly it’s there in Christianity, whose founder told us we must lose our lives in order to gain them).

As one ghost after another struggles to let go of the old life and move forward into the unknown beyond, the one living man in their midst — Abraham Lincoln — has to let go of the son he dreamed of raising to adulthood, and move back into his own world of the living, in which he holds the the fate of thousands of other men’s sons in his hands.

This is an incredible, powerful, infuriating, challenging and ultimately fulfilling book. I’m so glad I read it.

Still haven’t completely let go of the idea of those little stickers, though. 

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Genuine Fraud, by E. Lockhart

genuinefraudReading Lockhart’s We Were Liars was an amazing, almost overwhelming experience for me a couple of years ago, so I had high expectations for Genuine Fraud and picked it up as soon as it was available.

Genuine Fraud is a thriller, a genre I don’t normally read much because I don’t usually find them, well, all that thrilling. I was drawn into this book not only because I trusted the author, but because I found the main character, Jule, intriguing (though by no means likable — liking her is not the point) and I wanted to know how she got into the situation she was in as the novel opened, and what secrets she was hiding. The novel’s unusual structure — essentially the story is told in reverse chronology, each chapter taking us a little further back into Jule’s story to explain what happened — kept me turning pages through this quick read.

Because of We Were Liars, I expected a big twist at the end and kept trying to guess what it would be (thus making the plot even more complicated in my head than it actually was). But there isn’t one bit surprise reveal; there are a series of gradual reveals along the way that all add up to a genuinely intriguing thriller. 

The two main criticisms I’ve seen of this book are that 1) some of the things Jule gets away with are pretty implausible, which I think is true but also probably true of most mysteries and thrillers, and 2) it is not inspired by, but far too closely modelled on, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. As I haven’t read that book, I can’t comment on that, but I will say that if you cite another author’s novel in your afterword as being a major inspiration, you do need to at least make sure there are significant differences between your work and theirs. Otherwise, you might just want to say that your book is a modernized, gender-swapped retelling (told in reverse) of a classic thriller. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you’re clear that’s what you’re doing.

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The Songs of Willow Frost, by Jamie Ford

willowfrostI very much enjoyed Jamie Ford’s first novel, Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, so I had relatively high expectations for this book. Once again, Asian-American author Ford brings us into a little-known corner of American immigrant history. This time, it’s the Chinese community in 1920s and 30s Seattle, and the involvement of Chinese musicians and actors in the entertainment world — in opera, music halls, and eventually in the nascent film industry, before Hollywood became the centre of the American film world.

Another world we get to glimpse in this novel is that of orphanages in the period. The main character, William, is a 12-year-old Chinese boy grows up in a Roman Catholic orphanage, not knowing for sure whether his parents are dead or have abandoned him. (The fact that most orphans of the time were not in fact orphans, but children whose parents gave them up because they could not afford to raise them, is very well explored here). He comes to believe that the Chinese movie star Willow Frost is actually his mother, and sets out on a quest to find her.

While it’s clear that Ford has done his research and the glimpses of history we get in this novel are fascinating, the book didn’t connect with me emotionally as well as I’d hoped. I certainly found it enjoyable, but something about the way he wrote kept me at an emotional distance from both William and Willow, unable to full feel the terrible experiences that they go through. For this reason I’ll have to mentally file this book under “liked it but didn’t love it,” but I certainly learned things I didn’t know before about the places and time period, which is valuable in and of itself.

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Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay

badfeministUnlike a lot of Roxane Gay fans (among whom I would definitely count myself), I came to Bad Feminist after reading her more recent book, Hunger, which I thought was amazing. Bad Feminist is a different kind of book: it’s not really a memoir, although it contains elements of memoir and reveals a lot about Gay’s life. It’s not focused on a single issue as Hunger is; despite the title, Bad Feminist is not solely or even mostly about feminism. Feminist thought, and what it means to be a feminist (and why you might sometimes be thought of as a “bad” one) permeates the book, but so do issues around race, literary criticism, critique of TV, movies and other elements of popular culture, and Gay’s trenchant observations on many quirk and foibles of contemporary American life. She is often funny, very often biting and satirical, always thought-provoking. Bad Feminist is a collection of essays rather than a single, compelling story like Hunger is, and nearly all of them are interesting and worthy of sparking a lively discussion. If you’re interested in the intersections of feminism, racism, and popular culture, you will definitely want to read this book.

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The Murder of Mary Russell, by Laurie R. King

maryrussellOther than having a deliberately misleading title (Mary Russell’s the hero of the series — she obviously isn’t murdered in this book, but is it about an apparent murder of our Fearless Heroine, or is it about Mary Russell murdering someone else? The ambiguity is not accidental), this is another good addition to King’s series about the intrepid Mary Russell and her May/December marriage to an aging Sherlock Holmes. What the novel really is, regardless of whether Mary apparently gets murdered or murders anyone, is “The Backstory of Mrs. Hudson.”

As in the original Conan Doyle novels, Mrs. Hudson is Holmes’s landlady at Baker Street; in the Russell/Holmes series, she has followed Holmes into retirement in Sussex where she serves as his housekeepeer. She is also something of a maternal figure to Russell, who was taken in by the kindly Mrs. Hudson when she was a teenager, so when a mysterious stranger shows up with a possible threat to Mrs. Hudson several years later, it’s not surprising that Mary swings into action to protect the older woman.

Most of the story unfolds through flashbacks into Clara/Clarissa Hudson’s early life, tying together threads from two Conan Doyle short stories and weaving them into the Holmes/Russell canon. The short stories contain characters named Hudson with no suggestion that they are related or connected to Holmes’s Mrs. Hudson. But in King’s retelling, they are all connected, and the backstory adds layers not only to Mrs. Hudson but to her long relationship with the great detective, explaining why she has stood by him so faithfully for so many years.

Sandwiched in between some heavier books I’ve been reading over the summer, this was a great, light diversion, and a worthy addition to the extra-Doyle Holmes cannon, as are all the Laurie King books.

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Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanahAmericanah is the first book I’ve read by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and one of the few books I’ve read at all by African novelists. It tells the love story of two people who are apart for most of the book — the main character, Ifemelu, and her high school and college boyfriend, Obinze. When student life in Nigeria is interrupted by political unrest and frequent strikes at their university, Ifemelu moves to the United States to get her degree. The plan is for Obinze to join her eventually, but amid the struggle of trying to adapt to immigrant life and earn a living, Ifemelu slips into depression and cuts off contact with Obinze. When she begins to rebuild her American life, she starts afresh, leaving Obinze in the past.

Meanwhile, Obinze moves to London, where he too struggles to make a living. His position is even more difficult than Ifemelu’s, because he outstays his original visa and tries to live and work in the UK as an undocumented immigrant. For a boy who grew up as the son of a university professor, living an enviable upper-middle-class life in Nigeria, this is a huge come-down indeed.

By the time both return to Nigeria and their paths cross again, they have both changed greatly (and Obinze has acquired a wife and child). Yet the attraction between them has not faded with the years. The final section of the novel explores where their relationship goes from there. But the bulk of the story is the tale of their separate years apart, the insights each of them gains into their very different immigrant experiences in two different countries. Adichie’s writing not only gives the reader a very clear picture of life in Nigeria, but of the subtle shadings of cultural difference between Nigeria, the U.S., and the U.K., as well as racial and class differences within each of these countries. Ifemelu parlays her trenchant and witty observations about life as a “Non-American Black” in the U.S. into a wildly successful blog, and it is the fineness of those observations, the keen eye for detail in a character, a scene, a hairstyle, an item of clothing, that drives this thoughtful and often funny novel.

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Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew J. Sullivan

midnightbrightideasI’ll pretty much pick up any book with the word “bookstore” in the title, or any book that’s set in a bookstore (whether wholly, or just in part). In the cast of Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, with its appealing title and cover, the titular bookstore provides the backdrop for a story that takes the main character, bookstore employee Lydia Smith, on a reluctant journey into her own past.

Lydia enjoys her quiet life — a steady relationship with her kind and undemanding live-in boyfriend, and her work at a bookstore where she finds pleasure not only in the books but in the patrons, including the many outcasts, misfits and homeless (or nearly homeless) people who take shelter there. When tragedy invades the bookstore one night and a man hangs himself among the upstairs bookstacks, Lydia is horrified. But the horror becomes more personal when she realizes that the dead man not only has ties to her, but to a past she has done everything possible to distance herself from.

It was at this point (as often happens with me in reading) that I realized I was reading a mystery novel, even if it’s not marketed primarily as such. Lydia has to follow a trail of clues to find out the connection between the violent death in the bookstore and another act of terrible violence in her own past — and to find out who committed the original crime, and why.

This is the sort of book that, midway through avidly turning the pages, I found myself thinking, “This author has set up SUCH an intriguing mystery — can he possibly resolve it in a satisfying way?” The answer is almost yes … everything is resolved and does tie together, but the author has to introduce a couple of pretty big coincidences to make the resolution work, and I’m always wary of staggering coincidences. There’s also a method of leaving clues that is way too clever to be believable … but I still found the story enjoyable, and thought Lydia, in particular, was a very likeable and relatable character, as a person who has tried to construct a new life amid the ruins of tragedy. I don’t agree with every choice Lydia makes (especially a big one at the end) but I always empathized with her.

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