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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 It is composed of fragments, divided into chapters, some that appear to contain extracts from a variety of written historical documents (diaries, newspapers, books, memoirs) which provide background to the events, Lincoln’s presidency and the tragic death of his son, Willie, victim to typhoid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 2018-06-23 22:49
A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving
A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving

A tidbit I learned whilst reading was that much like the narrator, John Wheelwright, John Irving's mother never revealed the identity of his father to him. Apparently this book contains a lot of Irving's biography (well mixed with fiction) which may interest someone, but not really me.

 

The thought experiment: what would it take to make me a Christian? is interesting. And it plays out here in the form of one Owen Meany -- annoying prophetic child who knows, without any doubt, that he's an instrument of God. People who have zero doubt are often very irritating, as Owen can be. Owen hasn't arrived at his doubtless state without interrogating his faith or life, though. He's not full of faith because he refuses to see reality, in fact it's almost the opposite. He seems to have questioned and still believes his fate and purpose. I grew up in the Catholic church and never met a person like this until I was already quite the doubting Thomas. However, I can attest to how discombobulating strong faith can be in the face of endless questioning, and this is what Irving sets up so beautifully, comically and tragically for John and Owen.

 

Along the way we witness a friendship between two boys and young men that is so charming and graceful and appealing that it's hard not to be moved. The comic scenes are pure gold. (I both read and listened to the Christmas pageant scene many times. I bookmarked my audio copy there, and it made me laugh so hard tears rolled down my face, even when I already knew what was going to be said. It's a perfect scene.)

 

This novel is dense, full of little details, flies off on what seem like tangents, and more than once I wondered if there was an editor. Then in one fell swoop every single detail that seemed extraneous, silly or irritating falls into place. Details become symbols. Tangents find their meaning. The topsy-turvy struggle between faith and doubt gets an answer -- at least for John. But Owen's "gift" of faith to John is not without cost. John Wheelwright is bitter and confused and doesn't seem to know his own place in the world, though he's clear on Owen's. So even with an easy answer on the question of God, this novel shows how painful a life of faith can still be.

 

Please read this book if you haven't. I'll evangelize for John Irving's story of friendship, home and faith. Hang in through the unholy capitalization and irritation, your belief in the story will be rewarded.

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review 2018-04-17 18:16
The Best We Could Do - an affecting graphic memoir
The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir - Thi Bui

Thanks to some challenges I found in recent years (and directions from the web on how to read them,) I've finally taken graphic novels/comics as something I could understand and perhaps even like. This graphic memoir is a nice example of why it's worthwhile to open my TBR list up to yet another genre. (I can be poorly read in many genres!)

 

Thi Bui is an American kid born in Viet Nam. When the memoir opens, she's having her first child. As many parents will tell you, this is a time that often brings our own childhoods into focus. Her story is different from the stereotypical strict immigration story, and through the memoir we see that the family history is indelibly marked by Viet Nam's history and her parents stories are marked by their parents' stories. It's easy to get tied in a knot when we find fault with our parents. It's clear from her pictures and words that there was some anger and confusion exorcised by writing this memoir. While she may have been able to lay blame at one time, her title states her final view. It's Thi Bui's unique story with lots of room for empathizing readers.

 

Her simple-yet-resonant art conveys the emotional impact of her words. The combination is effective and moving. I lingered over this book for weeks, searching the pictures and immersing myself in her story (until the library demanded I return their copy.) If you, like me, aren't comfortable with comics or graphic novels, this might be a place to start for those who like memoirs or history or both.

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review 2018-03-12 23:35
Rosie Colored Glasses -- Love is not all you need
Rosie Colored Glasses - Brianna Wolfson

Once again, we see love is not all you need, especially when you are a parent.

 

Rosie and Rex are somewhat star-crossed lovers, and their differences bring them together even while they keep them apart. While living in the blush of love, they bring two children into their marriage, and they don't know how to keep it all together, despite desperately wanting to.

 

I got very angry at these parents for keeping their mouths shut when they should be talking, being rigid when they should be bending, and not setting their feet down when that was absolutely required.

 

This was a tear-jerker, but it ends on a positive note. Even when we aren't quite sure how to love someone, if we are willing to be vulnerable, uncomfortable, and try though we're sure it will cause us torture, we are all better for having walked openly through the pain.

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review 2018-03-08 01:39
The Chalk Man -- Yay, a good 2018 mystery!
The Chalk Man: A Novel - C.J. Tudor

This is pretty dazzling debut, especially given all the clunky "just OK" mysteries that litter my house, library history, recommendations and my Read piles. I'll take a mystery no matter what, but it's very nice to get a good one.

 

As I read this, I was reminded repeatedly of less successful (in my eyes) books I've read recently. It does the back and forth from A Time Before to Present Day and back again, which is what apparently must be done in every book written since 2016, but it didn't irk me the way many others have. Even when we jumped time, the storyline continued through. The past had a lot to do with the present. It wasn't just some device. Or if it was, it was well handled.

 

I also noted that All the Missing Girls has a fair number of surface similarities - both set in small insular towns, involving a circle of friends who have known each other since childhood, cue the lifelong crush, and then there's the biggie -- two murders decades apart. The similarities end there though. First of all, the characters are all original in this book. People we would be led to feel sorry for in other books are strong in this one. People we would like in other books are unlikable in this one. Everyone is very human. Nobody is a cardboard cutout. And there are some nice twisty bits that require actual attention because you haven't read them a thousand times before.

 

Every time I thought I was onto a clue, I was dead wrong. Twist after twist, we're kept slightly off balance by a narrator who drinks too much and is a bit of a curmudgeon in everyman clothes. Maybe because I woke up early and read in the dark, but the whole book feels spooky and yet on the surface it all seems so normal. It's never good when things seem normal. I know this, so maybe I added to the spooky factor.

 

I can't tell you the plot. If I tell it, I'll give something away. Again, this is not a book anyone MUST read. But if you're looking for a good mystery that was released recently, this is the best "everyone's talking about it" book I've read in a while.

 

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