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review 2018-09-08 22:17
Just in Time, Abraham Lincoln
Just in Time, Abraham Lincoln - Patricia Polacco

This book is filled with history, time-traveling, and a visit to a museum that opens the door to the past. Michael and Derek do not expect to have a fun time at the museum, but boy where they wrong. The two boys find themselves putting on uniforms and being whisked away through a secret door to the Civil War times. This book would be a great read-aloud and a wonderful way to integrate History and Language Arts. I would love to have a "Back in Time Day" where I would transform my classroom into Civil War time and then have the students (and myself!) dress up for the entire day. We would spend the day learning all about the events of the Civil War! 


Lexile: 570L

Fountas and Pinnell: R

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review 2018-07-21 14:36
Experimental, challenging, touching and funny at times but not a crowd-pleaser.
Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

I thank NetGalley and Bloomsbury Publishing for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

First, in case you have not read the book or anything about it, and wonder what the bardo of the title refers to, it is a Buddhist concept (in Tibetan Buddhism, it seems, and I’ve read that Saunders is a Buddhist) referring to an intermediate state between death and rebirth (between two lives on Earth).

Now that we’ve cleared that out, if you follow my blog, you might remember that I reviewed some of the books that had made the long and the short-list of the Booker Prize. I enjoyed some of them more than others, but I had not read the book that actually won the Prize, and when I saw it come up on NetGalley, I could not resist. I had heard and read a great deal about it, and I felt I had to check it for myself.

This is not a standard novel. It is composed of fragments, divided into chapters, some that appear to contain extracts from a variety of written historical documents (diaries, newspapers, books, memoirs) which provide background to the events, Lincoln’s presidency and the tragic death of his son, Willie, victim to typhoid fever. Other chapters, also fragmented, contain first-person observations by a large variety of characters that ‘live’ at the cemetery where Willie is laid to rest. Call them ghosts, spirits, or whatever you prefer, they seem to have been there for a while, some longer than others, and they interact with each other, while at the same time talking about themselves and taking a keen interested on little Willie Lincoln and his father. We have the spirits of black and white characters, young and old, men and women, well-off citizens and paupers, people who had lead seemingly morally exemplary lives and others who had gone down the wrong path, some who had taken their own lives, others who had died by accident or in bed. There are some actively atoning for their sins while others only seek entertainment. They are a motley crew, and although we hear mostly from three of these characters (Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins, and the Reverend Everly Thomas) and from Willie, they all make important contributions and help create a whole that is more than its parts.

The structure of the novel is puzzling and intriguing, and although it made me think of postmodernism and pastiche, the methodology used to construct the novel is not an attempt at emptying it of meaning or making us reflect upon the artificiality and futility of seeking truth and understanding. The death of a child (even if we are not parents, most of us are close enough to the children of relatives and/or friends to be able to imagine what it must be like) is a terrible tragedy and although there are light moments in the novel, there are touching and moving ones as well. Some of the fragments emphasise the diverse opinions and judgements about Lincoln and his presidency (by the way, although some of these fragments are real documents from the period, others have been created by Saunders, and it is not evident while reading which ones are which), but everybody agrees on the devastating effect the death of his son had over the president. The hopeful ending might feel somewhat surprising but is open to interpretation, like the rest of the text.

There are fragments that will make readers wonder about religious beliefs, others that question the social order, racial ideas, and the Civil War. But I fully understand the puzzlement of many readers who leave negative reviews on this book (and the negative reviews are many) stating that they don’t understand anything, it goes over their heads, and it is not really a novel. Some readers, familiar with Saunders’s short-stories, prefer those to the novel, but as I have not read them, I cannot comment.

Here some examples of the style of writing in the book (in this case, I definitely recommend prospective readers to check inside or get a sample to see if it suits their reading taste).

…only imagine the pain of that, Andrew, to drop one’s precious son into that cold stone like some broken bird & be on your way.

Mr. Collier (shirt clay-stained at the chest from his fall, nose crushed nearly flat) was constantly compelled to float horizontally, like a human compass needle, the top of his head facing in the direction of whichever of his properties he found himself most worried about at the moment.

The money flows out, tens of thousands of men wait, are rearranged to no purpose, march pointlessly over expensive bridges thrown up for the occasion, march back across the same bridges, which are then torn down. And nothing whatsoever is accomplished.

Blame and Guilt are the furies that haunt houses where death takes children like Willie Lincoln; and in this case there was more than enough blame to go around.

The book collects a large number of endorsements and reviews at the end, and I’ve chosen this one by James Marriott, from The Times, for its briefness and accuracy: ‘The book is as weird as it sounds, but it’s also pretty darn good.’

In sum, this is a highly experimental book, for readers who enjoy a challenge and don’t mind a non-linear narrative, who enjoy literary fiction not focused on plot, and are intrigued by new writers and what makes critics tic. It is not an easy read, but it is a rewarding one and I, for one, hope to catch up on some of the author's previous books.

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review 2018-04-06 17:11
How the North reacted to secession
Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession - Russell A. McClintock

The period between the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860 and the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861 is one of the most heavily covered in American history.  Those five months represent a decisive turning point that led to the bloodiest war that the nation ever fought, followed by the abolition of slavery and Reconstruction.  Yet as Russell McClintock notes in the introduction to this book, most of the attention on this period has focused on the attitudes and developments in the South.  By contrast, the events and decisions made in the North have received little attention, with Kenneth M. Stampp’s dated And The War Came dominating the short list of works focused on the secession crisis as it developed there.  McClintock’s book is an effort to redress this by showing how the North reacted to the secession movement and how the decisions they made ultimately led to war.


To do this McClintock focuses on politicians and public opinion in four geographic areas: Washington, D.C., and the states of Illinois, New York, and Massachusetts.  These areas open up a range of reactions to Southern declarations, as well as proposals for how to respond.  He finds that while determination to maintain the Union was widespread, opinions as to how to do this varied widely, with many people supporting some sort of compromise.  These attitudes were strongest in the nation’s capital, where Northern politicians had to address the concerns of Southern unionists working to maintain as many Southern states in the Union as they could.  Yet there was a real vacuum of leadership in these months, with James Buchanan hobbled by a narrow view of his range of action as president and Abraham Lincoln endeavoring to keep his fragile political party together on the cusp of taking power.  In the end, the range of options steadily narrowed, to the point that by April Lincoln faced the choice of resupplying the remaining outposts in federal hands or abandoning them in a further effort at conciliation.  His decision to resupply the forts, and the Southern attack on them, helped to erase temporarily the divisions over secession, uniting the North against Southern disunion and bringing about war.


McClintock’s book is a fine study of how the North reacted to secession.  It is primarily a study of the political response, which is understandable given the extent to which secession in those months was predominantly a political issue.  His depiction of the major political actors is often surprising, with the moderate Lincoln steadfastly opposed to key concessions and the supposedly hardline William H. Seward at the forefront of compromise.  Yet the book suffers somewhat from the author’s focus on the controversy over Fort Sumter, which predominates here to the extent of overshadowing events elsewhere in the South that were contributing to the crisis.  This is a minor issue, though, and one that does not detract from McClintock’s overall achievement in providing readers with an examination of an often overlooked aspect of the secession crisis.

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url 2018-01-26 11:17
Miki's Hope book review of Gun Kiss
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review 2018-01-10 18:53
My eighty-sixth podcast is up!
Lincoln’s Sense of Humor - Richard Carwardine

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interviewed Richard Carwardine about his excellent book examining the role humor played in Abraham Lincoln's life (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!

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