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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 It is composed of fragments, divided into chapters, some that appear to contain extracts from a variety of written historical documents (diaries, newspapers, books, memoirs) which provide background to the events, Lincoln’s presidency and the tragic death of his son, Willie, victim to typhoid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 2018-06-20 10:13
Et ego in illo: “Baltasar and Blimunda” by José Saramago, Giovanni Pontiero (Translator)
Baltasar and Blimunda - José Saramago,Giovanni Pontiero

“If Adam was punished for wishing to resemble God, how do men come to have God inside them without being punished, and even when they do not wish to receive Him they go unpunished, for to have and not to wish to have God inside oneself amounts to the same absurdity, and the same impossible situation, yet the words Et ego in illo imply that God is inside me, how did I come to find myself in thus labyrinth of yes and no, of no that means yes, of yes that means no, opposed affinities allied contradictions, how shall I pass safely over the edge of the razor, well, summing up, before Christ became man, God was outside man and could not reside in him, then, through the Blessed Sacrament, He came to be inside man, so man is virtually God, or will ultimately become God, yes, of course, if God resides in me, I am God, I am God not in triune or quadruple, but one, one with God, He is I, I am He, Durus est hic sermo, et quis potest eum audire.”

In “Baltasar and Blimunda” by José Saramago, Giovanni Pontiero(translator)

(“ […] Se a Adão por querer assemelhar-se a Deus, como têm agora os homens a Deus dentro de si e não são castigados, ou o não querem receber e castigados não são, que ter e não querer ter Deus dentro de si é o mesmo absurdo, a mesma impossibilidade, e contudo Et ego in illo, Deus está em mim, ou em mim não está Deus, como poderei achar-me nesta floresta de sim e não, de não que é sim, do sim que é não, afinidades contrárias, contrariedades afins como atravessarei salvo sobre o fio da navalha, ora, resumindo agora, antes de Cristo se ter feito homem, Deus estava fora do homem e não podia estar nele, depois, pelo Sacramento, passou a estar nele, assim o homem é quase Deus, ou será afinal o próprio Deus, sim, sim, se em mim está Deus, eu sou Deus, sou-o de modo não trino ou quádruplo, mas uno, uno com Deus, Deus nós, ele eu, eu ele, Durus est hic sermo, et quis potest eum audire.”

In “Memorial do Convento” by José Saramago
)


Arriving in Mafra, let us imagine ourselves as part of the crowd that, on October 22, 1730, attended the consecration of the convent. Impossible not to be impressed by this façade more than 230 meters in length. To the centre, the basilica with its dome and bell towers, and on each side the imposing turrets. The portico columns clearly showed the neoclassical influence, complemented by several sculptures in the same style. Saramago tells us that 40,000 workers worked night and day so that the Basilica could be finished on D. João V's birthday.

 

If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review.

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review 2018-05-06 18:49
Tonight I finished reading "The Underground Railroad"
The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead

Tonight I finished reading this amazing book. The story depicted slavery in a much more brutal way than any other story I can recall reading. As I worked my way through the book, the terms, “white privilege” (a term I have struggled to understand) and “black lives matter” have played over and over again in my mind. I also think of “black holocaust”, a term I had only recently heard, yet as I read of Cora’s experiences and observations in North Carolina, shares so many similarities to the Jewish holocaust.

 

I need to take a day or two to think about this book and let its story gel in my mind before I can write much about it. I am appalled and moved beyond description for the things that occurred in this story. I think this is an important book that will stand the test of time and, as hard as it was to read, I am glad to have read it.

Source: funfoodlife.com/the-underground-railroad/#comment-2141
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review 2018-04-26 19:27
"The Trick To Time" by Kit De Waal -Highly Recommended
The Trick To Time - Kit de Waal

I chose"The Trick To Time" by Kit De Waal as one of the six books I wanted to read from the sixteen books on the 2018 Women's Fiction Prize Longlist and I'm delighted that I did as it is one of the best books I've read so far this year. I recommend the audiobook version of "The Trick To Time" as Fiona Shaw's narration is perfect. Hearing the voices of the two Irish Aunts nicknames Pestilence and Famine, I was transported back to listening to my grandmother and her sister who spoke in exactly the same way.

 

I went into the book without reading the publisher's summary and I'm glad I did as it reads like the summary of a different book entirely, suggesting either magical realism or a historical romance.

 

For me, the strength of "The Trick To Time" is that exists purely to tell the story of how the main character, Mona, came to be Mona. The story is told in two parallel timelines: Mona as she reaches her sixtieth birthday, living alone in a seaside town in England, making dolls and providing some mysterious service to some of the women who visit her shop and Mona as a little girl, growing up in Ireland and then moving, in her late teens, to Birmingham to make a new life for herself.

 

The thing that most engaged me about the book was understanding how the little girl playing on the beach, and the young woman going nervously to her first dance in Birmingham, became the calm, strong but sad woman who makes wooden dolls. The parallel timeline structure of the book kept this at the centre of my attention and kept surprising me, not through the use of tricks or crazy plot twists but by how real and honest the changes in Mona seemed. I'm the same age as Mona and when I look back, I also wonder how the boy I was became the man I am. I was there and I yet I understand Mona's journey better than my own.

 

I was delighted to see that the sixty-year-old Mona isn't presented either as an old-woman far along the crone road or a woman still pretending to be twenty. Mona knows herself, she knows what's happened to her, she recognises the compromises and limitations in how she lives now and she has still a strong desire to find a way to live her life.

 

There is a real sense of time passing and perceptions changing while the people themselves remain who they have always truly been as if time simply wears away the bits of themselves that they'd only dressed up in in their youth.

 

This is a deeply empathic book about the nature of grief, the enduring impact of loss and the effect of time on emotions, memory and our own sense of identity.

 

I won't put spoilers in this review so I won't talk about the central trauma of Mona's life, except to say that it made me angry and it made me cry and it filled me with deep admiration for the service that Mona provided to others in later life.

 

Mona is a working-class Irish woman, living as an immigrant in Birmingham at the time of the IRA bombing that unleashed so much pain and hate.  Her ambition is simple: to make a family with the man she loves. By today's standards, they have nothing but they have enough to live independently and dream of a life filled with children who are loved and cared for with: "A roof on the house, food on the table and a coat on the hook".. I recognise those kinds of circumstances and that simple ambition but I rarely see it in books that are nominated for literary prizes. I also recognise the situation of being an immigrant and just trying to make your way. I like the matter-of-fact way this was dealt with: no polemics, no dog-whistle posturing, just an honest personal narrative.

 

The writing is beautiful without being flowery. From the beginning, I understood that there was more going on than I yet knew about and that understanding filled me with pleasant anticipation of a real story worth waiting for. It was a story that caught me by surprise time and again, up to the final chapter, but each surprise made more sense of Mona's life and actions rather than feeling like a magic trick.

 

Although this is Mona's story, the other people in it are more than cyphers. They are people with histories and emotions and opinions of their own and they rarely take the path that convention or cliché would channel them to.

 

For example, Mona's father is a complex and compassionate man. When his still-young wife is dying and Mona, his daughter, is playing on the beach to avoid her mother's illness, he finds her and persuades her to spend time with her mother. He says:
 
"One day, you will want these hours back, my girl. You will wonder how you lost them and you will want to get them back. There's a trick to time. You can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or make it longer." 

The gentle, sad truth of this sets the tone for the whole novel.

 

I'll be reading Kit de Waal's back-catalogue and anything else she publishes. I think she's an extraordinary talent.

 

4480If you'd like to know more about her and how she wrote "The Trick To Time", take a look at this Interview with Kit de Waal in "The Guardian" covering:

"The novelist on her Irish heritage, the passing of time and why she’s glad she didn’t start young"

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review 2018-02-24 11:00
An Australian in Search of Understanding: The Tree of Man by Patrick White
The Tree Of Man - Patrick White

As I found out after reading, this is one of the most famous and most widely-read novels of the first Australian recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Although critically acclaimed abroad it wasn't much of a success in Australia when it first came out in 1955.

 

It's the slow-paced life story of a good though rather taciturn farmer and his family in the stunning nature of New South Wales in the first half of the twentieth century. Things change all around, the children go their own ways and relations between husband and wife are characterised by affection and habit.

 

For more be invited to click here and read my long review on my book blog Edith's Miscellany or its duplicate on Read the Nobels!

Source: edith-lagraziana.blogspot.com
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