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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 It is composed of fragments, divided into chapters, some that appear to contain extracts from a variety of written historical documents (diaries, newspapers, books, memoirs) which provide background to the events, Lincoln’s presidency and the tragic death of his son, Willie, victim to typhoid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 2017-06-15 19:40
Recommended to fans of romantic historic novels looking for a short, enjoyable and thrilling read set in the early Civil War era
Genteel Secrets - S.R. Mallery

I have read, enjoyed and reviewed several of S.R. Mallery’s novels and short story collections (most recently The Dolan Girls, check the review here) and she has a knack for combining historical fact and characters with gripping stories that grab the readers, transporting them into another world, sometimes closer and sometimes  far back in the past.

In this novella, the author takes us back to the period of the early American Civil War, and our guides are two characters, James, a medical student from New York (an Irish immigrant who moved with his parents when he was a child and suffered tragedy and deprivation from an early age) and Hannah, a Southern girl, the daughter of slave owners, although not a typical Southern belle, as she enjoys books more than balls and feels closer to some slaves (including her childhood friend, Noah) than to her own cousin, the manipulating Lavinia.

The story is told in the third person from both characters’ point of view. They meet in Washington D.C. at the beginning of the novel, realise they have plenty in common (their love of books and their political sympathies among other things) and fall in love (more at at-first-meeting than at-first-sight) as they should in these kinds of stories. There are many things that separate them (I’m not sure I’d call them star-crossed lovers, but there is a bit of that), and matters get even more complicated when James decides to join the Pinkerton Detective Agency and ends up chasing Confederate Spies. At the same time, Hannah is forced to spy for the South, much against her will, and… Well, as the author quotes at the start of one of the chapters (thanks, Shakespeare) ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’. I won’t give you full details but let me tell you there are secret codes, interesting hiding places, blackmail, occult passages, and betrayals galore. The underground railway is put into action, Frederick Douglass (one of my favourite historical figures of the period, and I’ll recommend again his  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave here in Project Gutenberg) makes a guest appearance, and famous spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow plays an important part. (I must confess I hadn’t heard of her before but the author’s decision of using her as one of her background characters is a great success).

The story flows easily and although there are no lengthy descriptions that deflect from the action, we get a clear sense of the locations and of the atmosphere of the period, including the abuse slaves were subject to, and the social morasses of the time, particularly the different treatment of women and the expectations of the genders and races. I was fascinated by the Washington of the period, the political machinations, and the fantastic description of the Battle of Manassas from the point of view of the spectators (as it seems that the well-off people decided it was a good occasion for a picnic and they ate and observed the fighting from the hilltop). The two main characters and Noah are likeable and sympathetic, although this is a fairly short story and there is no time for an intense exploration of psychological depths (their consciences struggle between complying with their duties and following their feelings but their conflict does not last too long). There is no time to get bored, and the ending will please fans of romantic historical fiction (although some might find it a bit rushed).

My only complaint is that the story is too short and more traditionally romantic than I expected (pushing the suspension of disbelief a bit). I would have liked to learn more about the Pinkerton’s role chasing spies during the war (one of the author’s characters in the Dolan Girls was also a Pinkerton detective), and I hope there might be a more detailed exploration of the underground railway in future stories (although the role of quilts to signal secret messages is discussed in one of the stories of Sewing Can Be Dangerous and Other Small Threads).

Recommended to fans of romantic historic novels looking for a short, enjoyable and thrilling read set in the early Civil War era. Another great story from S.R. Mallery.

 

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review 2016-02-11 08:51
The Mental Floss History of the World: An Irreverant Romp Through Civilization's Best Bits
The Mental Floss History of the World: An Irreverent Romp Through Civilization's Best Bits - Steve Wiegand,Erik Sass,Johny Heller,Tantor Audio

A big thanks goes to Murder by Death for introducing me to this book. When I saw one of my library's digital services offering the audiobook of this, I had to give it a try.

 

I am sadly remiss in my knowledge of World History with some minor exceptions, so I found this book's overview (tinged with humor) perfect. It's packed full of information, but written with the average reader in mind. This made it perfect for listening to while doing other things. I actually had to stop the audio as my focus was ensnared too much at times. There is often a tongue in cheek aspect to the writing and the narrator delivered every line perfectly.

 

One of my favorite elements of the book were the side boxes (or asides as they manifested on the audiobook) that focused on specific elements, going more in depth into key facts. One I always looked forward to was a list of numbers comparing things like world population, city sizes, etc.

 

This is a must reread and I'll probably end up getting it from Audible. Hopefully, their American History is just as good.

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review 2016-02-03 07:37
Mourning Lincoln (Audiobook)
Mourning Lincoln - Martha Hodes,Donna Postel

I wanted to like this book as the idea and information interested me. While Lincoln's death brought on great public mourning, I'd never believed that everyone mourned his passing at once. It simply couldn't be, as many places still received news from newspapers or letters delivered vast distances, not to mention that many people - quite a few within his own government and party - hated him when he was alive.

 

All of this, as well as a focus on how people on both sides reacted through primary sources, made this the first audiobook I attempted on Hoopla. I even bypassed Star Wars audiobooks for this. 

 

Sadly, it didn't live up to my expectations. Don't get me wrong, this was clearly very well researched; however, information poorly presented does little good for anyone. And this was very poorly written. Not so much its sentence structure and word choice - though at times these seemed overly verbose - but in repetition. The author would state something and then in other section the author would convey the same information though often in a slightly different way. I could even see how many of these instances could have been helped by tying the two sections together but not simply reiterating the same information every time it comes up. And the second time was always after going into great detail about everything the first time. I felt the book greatly needed another editor and, though I can't prove it, believe this was a doctoral thesis before it was turned into a book. It would explain some of the issues.

 

The narrator further did the book no favors. I don't expect a giggling performance, considering the topic, but the monotone was extremely interest killing! I got over halfway through the book and just couldn't take it anymore. After hearing the same information for the third time as if it were new and apposite, it all became too much.

 

On to the next book!

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review 2014-11-13 22:35
Once Upon a Time: Illustrations from Fairytales, Fables, Primers, Pop-Ups, and other Children's Books
Once Upon a Time: Illustrations from Fairytales, Fables, Primers, Pop-Ups, and Other Children's Books - Amy Weinstein

I love the old illustrations in books and the ones in children's books can be particularly interesting. That's why I had to pick up this book; it covers several years and types of books common for children. It turned out to be both what I was looking for and not quite.

 

cover of one of their A Visit from Santa Claus booksThe book is largely based on a private collection of children's picture books from the 1850s to early 1900s, mostly from the McLoughlin Brothers. It's beautifully put together, the pages are printed on photographic style paper, bringing the reproductions to the reader in brilliant color, which their chromolithographic process created.

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