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.

Thoughts on The View from the Cheap Seats, by Neil Gaiman

The View from the Cheap SeatsNeil Gaiman is one of those authors whose fiction has a distinct style. You can point to something he wrote and say with confidence, Neil Gaiman wrote that. It’s in the names he chooses, the subjects he writes about, the stories he weaves, and the language he uses as the strands to do so. After having read and loved many of his novels (Neverwhere, The Graveyard Book, Anansi Boys, and Stardust are some of these), and hearing his incredible speech titled Make Good Art, I was very excited to read his book of collected non-fiction, The View from the Cheap Seats.

The book is comprised of magazine articles, essays, speeches for various occasions, and book introductions which are grouped together in an order that generally flows from subject to subject. Some pieces are short, others are quite long, and some of them seem to overlap each other slightly. He writes about everything from his own fiction, authors he admires, his career in comic book writing, the internet, music, films, mythology, and his childhood.

Beginning with the dedication – “For Ash, who’s new, for when he is grown. These were some of the things your father loved and said and cared about and believed, a long time ago.” – I loved this book. It is filled with the wisdom and insights of a man who has dedicated his life to telling stories. From a young boy reading his way through the children’s section of the library, to the young man who discovered and devoured the science fiction genre and comic books, to the young journalist, to the comic book writer and finally the award-winning novelist he is today. This book is all at once a reader’s guide to great fiction, a quasi-memoir, a conversation about what makes a book great, but most of all it is a love letter to story telling and literature. Neil Gaiman is one of the great authors of our time (in my opinion), and getting to see the inside of his brain in this book was such a treat.

Right off the bat we are confronted with discussions about the importance of literacy, libraries, and the freedom to read whatever you feel compelled to read. Reading teaches you how to think, it exercises your imagination, and it teaches us that anything is possible. According to Neil, a child should never be forbidden to read a book, even if it is not necessarily what you want them to be reading. He says every book is a gateway drug into the next book, and eventually they will probably stumble onto things you do feel more comfortable with, while all along learning about themselves and the world.

I loved his discussions about what makes a genre a genre, and another piece on what the difference is between a children’s book and a book for adults. He comes at these questions from a place of pure curiosity, taking the questions down to their fundamentals and building up from there. Truly, what is the difference between a book for children and a book for adults? It is not easy to point to one criteria that makes the difference, is it?

There is a good chunk in the middle of the book to do with comics; how he read and collected them as a kid to his eventual career writing them, working with different artists, as well as reviews and introductions for them. I myself have never read comics or graphic novels at all, and while this was not my favorite section of the book, I still feel like I came away from it having learned a lot about them, and harboring a new curiosity to find one of the ones discussed to see what I might think of it.

Neil, like me (and you, I presume), is a lover of fiction. He shares the names of works and writers who have inspired him, books that helped shape him, and the stories of how he came upon them in the first place. His introductions offer new perspectives on works you may have read before, and have definitely sparked my interest in some books I’ve never heard of. His recommendations span throughout many genres including children’s, science fiction, horror, and classics so you’re bound to find something you’ll love as well as something that may be out of your comfort zone.

The one thing that surprised me the most about this collection was how much Neil Gaiman has done. He has been involved with magazines, newspapers, collaboration fiction, short stories, children’s books, novels, comics, as well as being the speaker at any number of conventions and events, he’s been asked to write about books in all different types of genres, as well as writing for music albums, film scripts, and essays. What hasn’t the man done? He has a curious mind, and is a true believer in art and creativity. He understands the impact one good book can have on a person, and more importantly, he wants everyone to be able to feel that incredible feeling.

If I’ve come away from this book with only one thing, it’s that I love Neil Gaiman. I already knew it, but I saw so many more facets of the man through this book, and it’s made me love him all the more. I highly recommend it for any reader.

E.

Summer 2017 TBR – & the 10 Books of Summer Challenge

I was in the middle of drafting a summer 2017 TBR post when I came across the 20 Books of Summer challenge hosted by 746books.com. What a happy coincidence! So instead of the conservative 5 books I was planning to list, why not double it and see if I can finish them all? Here are the books I plan to read for this challenge (June 1st – September 3rd)::

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Some books have a seasonal aura about them, and for me The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy screams summertime. I first read it in the summer of maybe 2010 – 2011 era? I remember it being short, light, and absolutely hilarious. I’m really looking forward to a refresher.

A Study in Scarlett by Arthur Conan Doyle

So far, the only Sherlock Holmes I’ve read is The Hound of the Baskervilles, and to be honest, I wasn’t really impressed. Last week I was searching through Audible looking on something to spend my credits on and I saw the complete Sherlock Holmes collection read by Stephen Fry. It’s nearly 63 hours long! The first piece in the series is A Study in Scarlett, and I hope to have it completed by the end of the summer.

Finders Keepers & End of Watch by Stephen King

While on maternity leave earlier this year, I read Mr. Mercedes, the first in a trilogy of psychological/crime thrillers by Stephen King. While I wouldn’t necessarily say I LOVED Mr. Mercedes – because seriously, Brady Heartfield is messed up – but it sure was a page turner, and I’ve borrowed the next two books in the series from a friend at work, so I want to make sure I get them read and returned. Besides, I love Stephen King and would love to make a bigger dent in his body of work.

 

The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

This is the book I am currently reading as an audiobook. It is a non-fiction collection of Neil Gaiman’s speeches, essays, and articles. From what I’ve read so far, it’s superb. It is also narrated by the author, which makes it 100xs better.

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

I was not planning to start this novel anytime soon, but after posting my new Classics Club reading list I was convinced to start it immediately. This book is over 1,000 pages long, so it may throw a wrench into this challenge, but oh well. I’m only 10 pages in so far and I already feel like I’m going to love it!

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

This book has come highly recommended to me by a friend from work, so I added it to my audible list. I can usually crank out at least one audiobook a month at work so this one will probably be up next. By the synopsis I’m not fully entranced, but my friend sings nothing but praises, so we’ll see how it goes!

Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery

I’m shamed to admit I’ve never read this book. Lately I’ve been seeing it everywhere, and I think it’s about time to remedy that. It is also on my Classics Club Challenge list, and it’d be nice to knock out a few early to give myself a great start!

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

I’ve been meaning to read this forever, and I have a feeling it’d be a great book to read in the summer (it’s about a road trip after all)…but I kind of want to leave this spot in the list open for any Steinbeck. I have a bindup copy of his seven short novels that I want to get through as well, so I’d be happy to read one of those instead. We’ll see what mood I’m in when we get to it :-)

The Fireman by Joe Hill

I originally read the first quarter of this book just after it was released, but for some reason I put it down and never picked it back up. I really want to finish it up! I read Horns a few years back and really enjoyed it, so I have high hopes for this one.