Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders (Book Review)

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I heard about the release of this book at the beginning of the year, and it was my most anticipated to date:

February 1862. The American Civil War rages while President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son lies gravely ill. In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.

From this seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of realism, entering a thrilling, supernatural domain both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself trapped in a strange purgatory – called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo – invisible to his father, bowed at the tomb. Within this transitional realm, where ghosts mingle, squabble, gripe and commiserate, and stony tendrils creep towards the boy, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Unfolding over a single night, Lincoln in the Bardo is written with George Saunders’ inimitable humour, pathos and grace. Here he invents an exhilarating new form, and is confirmed as one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Deploying a theatrical, kaleidoscopic panoply of voices – living and dead, historical and fictional – Lincoln in the Bardo poses a timeless question: how do we live and love when we know that everything we hold dear must end?

Having read some of Saunders’ short-stories, I was quite eager to see how he would approach writing a full length novel.

The whole story is set over one night in the graveyard in which Willie Lincoln was buried. He joins other spirits in the bardo, each reflecting on the lives they lived before they were left, forgotten in this place.

The characters all now live exaggerated realities of their desires in life, refusing to move on from that which characterised them before they were “sick”.  The book is written from the point of view of many of these characters in a very unique way, characteristic of Saunders. Many pages contain little more than 5 lines, and often these are quotes from sources around when Lincoln buried his son. The contrast between fiction and reality merging seamlessly in the writing.

The book has moments of stark honesty about the nature of life and the denial of death; the unity in suffering and the clinging to dissatisfaction. It was written in a unique way which garners interest in and of itself – I appreciate authors who are willing to take risks with what they write about and how they present it, and Saunders definetely pays off in this regard.

Worth a read if you get a chance, or have read his other stuff before. Otherwise it may seem a bit pricey for the time being until the paperback is released! With the line-spacing and the short chapters, this could easily be read very quickly, despite being around 350 pages long.

American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis (Book Review)

After many recommendations and appearing on multiple lists of ‘books you should read’, I decided to give American Psycho a try:

Patrick Bateman is a young, wealthy American living in New York city. Constantly buying the newest and best things, and eating at the newest and best restaurants, from the outside he has a good life: influential friends, a beautiful girlfriend etc.

Hiding behind this mask however, is an insatiable urge to murder and maim other humans.

The writing style of the book will likely put many off from the start – sporadic interjections of seemingly unrelated topics, whole chapters on the character’s morning routine, other chapters being essentially essays on certain bands discography – but it all seems so intentional too. The narration fits the character perfectly in his attention to detail which is seemingly insignifficant.  Nearly every chapter begins with a description of what everyone was wearing (Armani suits, Hugo Boss ties) and what the topic was on the morning chat show.

Nevertheless, it is eery how familiar certain topics and conversations are when meeting with friends, and feels almost accusatory in our obsession with the superficial whilst ignoring more important matters.

The murders are described incredibly graphically, and for this reason I’d be hesitant to recommend the book to everyone. I’ve had friends who stopped reading at the first murder…

The book is very clever in it’s style and unique in narrative. The ending is ambiguous and leaves the reader guessing too.

The book itself seems to focus on the topic of these masks we wear in our culture to cover up what we actually are – we appear happy, successful, strong, complete; underneath is something quite different.

We all have a tendency to wear masks in our settings, but with enough time and pressure, the mask begins to slip, revealing what was hidden beneath.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage – Haruki Murakami (Book Review)

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I was supposed to buy this when it was first released, but ended up putting it off until a few weeks back. I’ve read some Murakami in the past, so wanted to give his latest a try:

Tsukuru Tazaki belonged a friendship group of five throughout secondary school, each of the other four having colours in their name. The group has unwritten rules to create a perfect community, and were successful in doing so.

Whilst at college in Tokyo, Tsukuru recieves a phone call from the group informing him he was out, but the reasons for this were unclear.

As an adult, Tsukuru is encouraged to discover what happened all those years ago.

The plot isn’t as simple as ‘he didn’t have a colour in his name’, in face, the lack of colour only made him feel insignificant: as though he was boring, and contributed nothing to his friendships, Colourless.

As the story unravels it becomes apparent quickly that the reasons for his exile were a lot more complicated than it first seems. The turmoil Tsukuru must go through in order to find this out, however, is at high cost.

The book was well written, like a lot of Murakami’s stuff, and left me thinking more than a few times. The characters are well constructed too.

The ending of the book was a little ambiguous, but left me wondering: perhaps we were only given insight to his ‘years of pilgrimage’ after all, and now that pilgrimage had ended, and he was a changed man.

A recommended read for sure, though I know some die-hard Murakami fans don’t agree, but I see no real reason as to why!

All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr (Book Review)

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This was another book chosen for the book club I attend: something I wouldn’t typically chose: my first impression of it being a historical fiction. I was quite surprised, however:

The book follows a two story lines in almost alternate chapters:

Marie-Laure, a six-year-old French child, is daughter an employee at a museum. The museum is home to a mysterious diamond: the Sea of Flames. Becoming blind at the age of 6, she navigates the streets of her home town by memorising a model her father has built for her. When the German armies begin to occupy France, she travels with her Father to Saint Malo to live with her uncle Etienne.

Werner Pfennig is a young German boy living in an orphanage, destined to work in the mines like the rest of the community. Due to his aptitude with electronics, however, he is welcomed in the Hitler Youth. Continuing through the programme and finally joining the troops, Werner helps capture those using radios by tracing their signals, ultimately leading him to Saint Malo.

As the Second World War unfolds, and stories intertwine, the story of two seemingly ordinary people face the challenges brought to the youth of Europe in the 1940’s.

The book was quite well written, and the storylines felt quite natural in presenting the horrors of war-torn europe. I first feared that author may feel the need to contantly remind the reader that Marie-Laure was blind (as is often the case!) but he did not, and this made the writing so much more flowing.

The story line was quite touching, and challenging in some place: how do we in the 21st century think of those who were lucky to have a bowl of watery, cabbage soup as their only meal in days? or those who, though so young, were forced to defend their country, some of whom didn’t want but had to in order to not be executed, or shamed?

I don’t wish to spoil the ending, but I appreciate the method the author uses in the fate of some of the characters: we simply don’t find out what happened. It can often leave the reader frustrated, but how much more were those back then frustrated to never find out where their loved ones were? Alive or dead, identified or just a number, it must have been a difficult decision to stop searching years after the war, and some probably never did.

WW2 showed the horrors of humanity at its rawest, and those are times we can’t imagine to have lived through. Heres to hoping we needn’t!