Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

Lincoln in the BardoBardo:: A Tibetan Buddhist term meaning ‘of an existence between death and rebirth’.

This novel is quite unconventional. Not quite as unconventional as the book called S. by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams, but it does not, as a typical novel would, consist of nothing but prose.  The chapters are quite short, and many of them are made up entirely of quotes pulled from historical accounts, history books, and letters. It is almost more of a work of art than a novel. And Although it took me awhile to get the rhythm, in the end I rather enjoyed it.
I came to this book straight off of Gone With the Wind and wanting to stay in the time period of the civil war. While this story does technically take place during the civil war, it is nothing about it but a vague backdrop that almost has no meaning to the story being told. This book is about the death and mourning of a child, and also an interpretation of the afterlife.

I read this book on audible, and it is the first audiobook I’ve listened to with a full cast. For this novel it meant 166 narrators! I can’t move on from this subject without mentioning how odd the experience was at first listening to people reading sometimes only a few words before another person jumped in. It was a cacophony of human voices for awhile, but once I understood what was going on, I loved it. As you may have seen, Nick Offerman (of Parks & Rec fame) leads the cast, playing a dead man called Mr. Vollman. David Sedaris has another leading roll as Mr. Bevins, and together they narrate much of the story from their perspective as ghosts in a graveyard. I was able to pick out a few other voices I knew: Rainn Wilson and Megan Mullally among them, and in 166 voices, I’m sure you will find others you know as well.

The story itself is devastating; Lincoln’s young and beloved son Willie dies. Since this was an audiobook it is hard to go back and pull quotes, but I will just say that the chapters full of quotes were extremely powerful and put together very skillfully. As a new mother, I found new layers of meaning and understanding in the scraps of real world accounts surrounding this event and my heart ached for our 16th president. Not only was he dealing with this horrific personal event, but he was also facing enormous backlash because of the war, where thousands and thousands of other men’s sons were being slaughtered on his order. What a terrible burden it must have been. Again, I find I am intrigued to learn more about this era, and even Lincoln himself. Knowing that his life was prematurely ended not terribly long after this, it makes me feel so terrible for him. What a hard life he had. Poor man.

But this is all only backdrop for the novel. Mostly the story takes place in the graveyard Willie is taken to after his death. The ghosts there are unwilling to accept that they have died, and therefore linger on, resisting their fate by essentially squeezing their eyes shut and ignoring anything that doesn’t fit their faulty beliefs. When Willie’s spirit joins them, he is confused, and resists ‘passing on’ when his father comes back to the mausoleum to hold onto his dead son’s body (apparently a true event). Through the quest to get this child’s spirit to pass on (something they all agree should happen), the other ghosts become more aware of themselves and what the true situation of their existence is, eventually accepting their fate and moving on themselves.

Yes, those were all spoilers, and yet I feel like none of that will ruin the book for new readers. This is the kind of book you don’t necessarily read for the story, but for the experience itself. I hope you read it, you who are reading this, and that you can appreciate it for what it is. I loved this book, and it has stuck with me in the weeks since I’ve finished it. Maybe it will for you too.

E.

Gone With the Wind – A Reading Journal, Part III

This post is a reading journal, and therefore contains pretty much nothing but spoilers. You have been warned.

If you do the right things for the wrong reasons, are you still a good person?

My oh my, part three has quite a lot going on, doesn’t it? As a short summary, it opens when the front lines are just reaching the boarder of Georgia. The inhabitants of Atlanta are still feeling confident at this point that they’ll never get any nearer the fighting than that, but within a few weeks the war is in their doorstep and people are fleeing for Macon. When Atlanta falls to Sherman’s army, Scarlett and Melanie barely escape, and were only able to do so with the help of Rhett Butler, who up and decides to join the army. Having to fend for herself for the first time in her life, Scarlett has to get herself, Melanie, Prissy, Wade, and Melanie’s new baby Beau all the way to Tara by herself while avoiding Yankee troops. Once there, she finds her mother dead, her father lost his mind, and her two sisters on sickbeds unable to contribute. The only lucky thing to have happened is stumbling across a cow on their way there, and having Dilcey in milk in order to nurse Melanie’s baby. At Tara, life isn’t much better, they are always on the brink of starvation, and in constant fear of yankee troops. They are also out of the way of any news and have no idea whether the fighting is still close or if it’s moved off away from the area. And of course, the part wraps up for the third time with a scene involving Ashley – this time, he is returning from prison camp.

I learned a lot in this section. Growing up in Colorado, which didn’t exist (as a state) during the time of the Civil War, we didn’t spend too long studying about it. Basically I knew there was a battle at Gettysburg, brother fought against brother, the Underground Railroad was a thing, slavery was abolished, and the south lost the war. It’s pretty pathetic really, my lack of education on the subject. I did not know that Atlanta was captured and essentially burned to the ground. I didn’t know that soldiers marched and fought while barefoot and starving to death. I didn’t know that the entire south was cut off from the world, unable to receive goods and supplies from anywhere else, which basically starved the whole confederacy. War is a terrible thing. A terrible terrible thing. 

I read another book as I read this called The Girl You Left Behind. It’s a novel by Jojo Moyes which describes in detail a fictional account of a family (all women and children since the men are off fighting) living in German occupied France during World War I. This made the atrocities of war in both books stand out even more than they would have on their own. Those were some somber days as I read them. I even had to set Gone With the Wind aside for awhile to get through some of the tougher passages about the suffering and wounded soldiers. I cannot possibly imagine living through that time. 

This leads me back to Scarlett. Our selfish Scarlett who resented every moment she spent tending to wounded and dying men. She seemed to hate them, and as I write this it occurs to me that I can’t blame her for that. I was just about to go on and on again about how selfish she is and how much I dislike her, but maybe it wasn’t just that. Yes, Scarlett is a selfish person and is upset about how life has changed so much from what she was raised to be a part of. But perhaps the soldiers served to remind her again and again that her old life is gone now, and slowly she was realizing unconsciously that it was never going to come back either. The relentlessness of the incoming wounded and dying must have been a painful reminder of that. I don’t think anyone would have been able to deal with it all fully. You would have to put out a mental block to keep yourself from thinking about it too hard, or you’d just go crazy with death all around, wouldn’t you? 

I marked one passage to that effect as I read:

“Gradually, Scarlett drew courage from the brave faces of her friends and from the merciful adjustment which nature makes when what cannot be cured must be endured.”

On another note, Melanie has continued to amaze me. She is by far the most sensible character and such a contrast to Scarlett. She does her duty and endures that which comes her way with no complaint. She’s a better woman than I, certainly. I was sure she would die in childbirth, but I’m glad she’s still around.

I’ve never enjoyed a book with such a dislikable main character before, it’s very strange. I’m waiting patiently for the ‘epic love story’ everyone goes on about…I am having a hard time picturing how Scarlett and Rhett will end up with a happy ending, but that’s part of the magic of a story I suppose. And maybe there isn’t a happy ending after all, I shall find out soon enough!

I’ve already started part four, I couldn’t stop reading after finishing three. Hopefully I’ll finish the book by the end of June – that is my goal! Stay tuned ;-)

E.

Gone With the Wind, A Reading Journal – Part II

[Please be aware this post is full of spoilers!]

It is difficult to know where to start with this entry, so much has happened in the second section of this novel…and yet it has ended in virtually the same place as the one before it. Scarlett, while she has been through many life altering events up to this point, remains fundamentally unchanged. It is almost annoying how she has not matured at all. Still, even after being married and widowed, after bearing a son, after tending to wounded confederate soldiers in Atlanta hospitals, she is more concerned with clothes and fancy hatsZ than anything else. She seems almost even more of a spoiled brat in this section because in these times when she is needed to work for ‘the Cause’, she does so only for pretenses, not for any actual desire to do good. She has no compassion whatsoever, which is going to be hard to forgive – she has a lot to make up for in order for me to respect her. She is so hung up on this ‘love’ of Ashley Wilkes that she constantly takes for granted the only person who seems to truly be her friend, Melanie. I put love in quotes because although Ashley is a very smart and honorable character who is easily loved, Scarlett only ‘loves’ him for how beautiful he looked one day after she’d not seen him for awhile (and probably most of all because she can’t have him) and not for his brain or heart, as she should do.

Melanie seems to be the only female character with any sense so far. She is everything Scarlett isn’t: compassionate, empathetic, smart. She tends to the soldiers and raises money for The Cause dutifully and with a sense of righteousness, even when it means she has to sacrifice something. Scarlett is horrible to her and Melanie believes it is because the loss of Charlie that makes her act so, well, bitchy. Her brother’s loss is so prominent in her own heart, and this makes me dislike Scarlett even more. Because Scarlett is so catty and attention grabbing, Melanie makes less of her own feelings because she feels it must be even worse for Scarlett having lost him as a husband than for her having lost him as a brother…and all the time Scarlett could care less. What kind of soulless person can have married a man, had his child, lived in the house he grew up in with his sister and aunt who raised him, and not feel even the slightest bit of sadness, or at least a bit of sympathy? I think this is the thing that bothers me the most about Scarlett.

I also feel that Scarlett is made to be less bright in this section. I thought in the beginning she was too preoccupied with herself to pay attention to things, but that she did really have reasoning skills. This section made me question whether she has the ability to reason at all. Unless it had to do with manipulating the feelings of a man, of course. When Scarlett reads the letters from Ashley, she doesn’t seem to understand what they mean. Is she really that dim, or is it because she just doesn’t have any interest in it? It must be a severe disinterest, since those are the only words from her ‘beloved’ that she has to read, so you would think she would hang on to every one of them. It’s a little confusing when she hears the things Rhett Butler says and goes on to call it common sense. Is it just that she has been so brainwashed by the southern culture that she doesn’t seem to understand his concepts very well? Perhaps. But maybe she’s just dim and requires everyone else to do the thinking for her.

Rhett Butler is also unlikeable, yet I like him much more than Scarlett. Although his motives are entirely monetary, he doesn’t seem like a bad person, just one who has learned the hard lesson that the only person you can depend on is yourself. He has given many gifts out of compassion (buying the satin for a wedding dress, and acquiring Melanie’s wedding ring back for her). He doesn’t care what people think of him, but that is ALL Scarlett cares about. As Rhett tries to make her see that the gossip doesn’t mean anything, it becomes a battle of ‘how much can I get away with as a widow in mourning without my mother finding out?’ for her. She is entirely selfish, although, so is he’s.

I also want to touch on the southern traditions and culture at play here. There were very strict rules of ‘proper’ conduct and when you acted outside of those expectations, you were at best gossiped about, and at worst, ruined. The ‘rules’ of mourning sound especially tough, and this is one area where I do feel sorry for Scarlett. Not that Scarlett is in grief, but people deal with it differently, and should be allowed to partake in whatever they feel comfortable doing to heal. It seems very silly to me to not allow someone to go to social events for YEARS. Especially girls who are widowed so young in times of war. Luckily Scarlett had Rhett Butler, who is maybe one of two people who truly know Scarlett’s true character (the other being her father Gerald), to help her be more herself and break down the social barriers a little bit. Reputation was everything in those days.

I am annoyed by Scarlett’s behavior towards the end of this part. Still believing that Ashley returns her love after he has spurned her again and again – how is it possible? She is blinding herself, making up her own reality and doesn’t even seem to realize she’s doing it. And beyond that, she is falling in love with Rhett, but is too stupid to actually realize that they are REAL feelings she is having towards Rhett, when her relationship with Ashley is actually a relationship with her own mind.

I do not know where the story will go from here. Already the war is almost over and I am only a quarter of the way through the book. I am skeptical that Scarlett will be able to redeem herself and become someone I can respect. I am infinitely curious to see what the catalyst could possibly be for so radical a change. Hopefully there will be some progress in Scarlett’s character in Part III.

E.

Leaving Time, Jodi Picoult

Leaving TimeSometimes you just want a book that will grab you early and keep you turning the pages the whole time. I picked up Leaving Time exactly for that reason; Jodi Picoult is pretty reliably compelling, whether it’s a controversial subject, a thrilling court case (…or both), or a mystery (like this one).

Leaving Time is the story of a young girl named Jenna Metcalf in search of her mother, Alice. Alice was a researcher living and working in an elephant sanctuary in Pennsylvania. She ended up there for love, following a man who didn’t think her study on grief in elephants was a waste of time like many of her colleagues. When Jenna is only three, a woman is found dead, trampled to death by an elephant, and Alice disappears. Due to the lazy work of a retiring detective and no missing persons report, there is no investigation into the disappearance. Now a young teen, Jenna takes the search into her own hands. Consulting with a washed up celebrity psychic and the detective whose guilt never went away after the botched investigation, they are determined to find out what happened that night in the elephant sanctuary.

In the format of a typical Jodi Picoult novel, the narrative bounces back and forth between characters. Alice is the only narrator who isn’t in the present. Instead, she acts a flashback character, providing the background story that leads up to the night she disappeared, eventually revealing what actually happened. It is done skillfully, the reader never learns until the end whether or not she is still alive or if her story ends that night. Hers was ultimately my favorite perspective, although an impatient reader would call hers the slowest. I really enjoyed reading about her accounts of elephant behavior observed both in the African wild and in the sanctuary. The elephants definitely have personality, especially Maura, and I enjoyed the sections about them – you can tell, maybe a little too much, that the subject matter was researched well by the author. It reminded me of another of her novels in that way, Lone Wolf. As an animal lover and general softie in life, I could have done without some of the graphic descriptions of what happens to some of the elephants, but Alice is researching grief, so grief-inducing events are kind of necessary and expected. And everyone knows that historically elephants have not been treated very well in captivity, which were some of the hardest parts for me to read.

Another characteristic element of a Picoult novel is a twist ending, sometimes even on the last dang page (Handle With Care, anyone?). Leaving Time is no exception. While I did enjoy the pleasure of the plot completely flipping (a twist you don’t see coming is always oddly satisfying), it also cheapened the whole story in a way. I won’t give it away, but let’s just say this particular twist has been done before, and very famously. The author had to know it was a risk to use it, and I kind of wish I could get into her head to see what the other possibilities were, if there ever were any. For me it didn’t ruin the story because it made complete sense once it was revealed. It wrapped up the storyline of one of the characters in a great way – in fact, you could say the entire story was actually about her. Okay okay, let’s move on…

All things considered, this wasn’t my favorite novel by Jodi Picoult. I haven’t read them all, but I’ve read around a dozen. Leaving Time probably floats around the middle of the pack among them. As I said, I wanted something compelling to read, and in that sense it did not disappoint. However, if you are new to Jodi Picoult, I would recommend some of her other novels over this one. Some of my favorites have been Keeping Faith, Handle With Care, Lone Wolf, Vanishing Acts, My Sister’s Keeper, and Plain Truth. Just whatever you do, don’t start with Songs of the Humpback Whale. I couldn’t get through it!

Any other fans of Jodi Picoult out there? Which of her novels is your favorite?

E.