Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders

Sometimes it’s nice to not have the weight of expectations behind an author’s newest work.  I’ve only read one book by George Saunders, his breakout short story collection Tenth of December.  (I loved that, by the way.)  So coming into his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, I didn’t have all the expectations that someone who’d read and loved his other three short story collections and novella might.  I just knew from reading December that he had the capability to make me cry and make me laugh and terrify me in the span of 300 pages.  I knew that he has one of the most inventive voices in modern fiction, as well as one of the most humane.97808129953431

I was only slightly aware of Bardo’s premise: President Abraham Lincoln, a year or so into the Civil War, distraught over the death of his beloved young son Willie, ventures to the crypt where he is laid to rest to visit his son’s body.  Various spirits, including Willie’s, talk and swirl around Lincoln. “Bardo” is a Buddhist term for the spiritual state between death and rebirth.  That’s all I knew going in.  When I type that it seems kind of weird and morbid and, frankly, kind of boring.  But knowing what a master Saunders is, I knew I wanted to give it a try.

I’m so glad I did.

It’s a difficult novel to describe.  The structure took a little while for me to settle into.  I wasn’t exactly sure who was speaking in the first chapter (turns out it’s two spirits in the graveyard,) and then the next few chapters chronicle a White House state dinner that President Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln are having, while the country is at war and while Willie and his brother Todd are both lying in bed very ill.  These chapters are comprised of snippets of facts and first-hand accounts from people who were there or who wrote of the dinner.  Saunders uses this technique to give a framework to the novel and inform the casual student of history of what was happening in the country at the time.  It was disorienting at first but I grew to appreciate it as a way to ground the more fantastical, imaginative elements of the novel.

We meet many, many spirits while we are in the cemetery, including a drug-addicted, foul-mouthed couple who bemoan the fact that their children never visit them, a prodigious hunter who has had a change of heart and is atoning for his kills, and an anxious mother who is convinced that her husband can’t be trusted to raise her children. All of the spirits here are tethered to the world for some reason, and they don’t seem to understand that they are dead. Young people who linger are particularly in danger, for if they don’t move on to the next realm quickly, they become ghastly, gruesome vessels of anguish, chained to the cemetery forever.  Three spirits emerge as main characters:  Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins, and the Reverend Everly Thomas.  We get to know each of these spirits very well over the course of the book, and they valiantly work together to try and shepherd young Willie Lincoln to the next spiritual level before it’s too late.  In trying to help him they are also figuring out things about their own spiritual predicaments.

This book may hold the record for The Most Times Laila Cried While Reading.  I picked it up and put it down dozens of times in the first half just because I didn’t want to sob in the break room at work during lunch.  So it took me a week to read it.  But once I got into the second half of the book, it flew.  I couldn’t put it down.  I still sobbed, but I knew I could handle it, because it was going somewhere that felt… satisfying and authentic.  This is a book about a father learning to let go of his beloved child and simultaneously coming to a deeper understand of all the other parents losing beloved sons to the horrors of the Civil War.  It’s about how human beings contrive all sorts of ways to forget that all the people we hold most dear will one day die, and that one day we will too.  It’s about loving and letting go, and helping others along that difficult path.  It was bawdy, quirky, heartbreaking, and utterly astonishing in its agility and scope.  It’s one of those kinds of books that I like to say are “about everything.”  For me, it’s about life itself.   It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read.  George Saunders is full of compassion for his characters and for his readers, even though he may put us through the emotional wringer.  Don’t let my emotional state put you off reading this.  I’m a huge cry-baby!  I fully admit it!  I have a Goodreads shelf called “Sad But Worth It,” and Lincoln in the Bardo is definitely on that shelf.  Although it’s only March, I’m confident than this will be on my year-end Best Of list.

 

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

I came to love the Williamsburg Bridge, once I learned how to walk it.  I was mostly alone, a few all-weather bikers, a few heavily bundled Hasidic women.  I walked either in some dusky circumference of gray light or some blotchy, cottoned afternoon.  It never failed to move me.  I paused in the middle of the filthy river.  I stared at the trash eddying in currents and clinging to docks like wine dregs cling to a glass.  Simone had mentioned the orphan’s dinner as Howard’s to me.  I thought of them all up there at Howard’s on the Upper West Side.  I thought of Jake in a Christmas sweater.  I told them I was busy.  Remember this, I told myself.  Remember how quiet today is.  I had the newspaper, which I would keep for years, and I was on my way to lunch in Chinatown by myself.  As I contemplated the skyline this double feeling came to me as one though, pressing in from either side of the bridge, impossible for me to reconcile: It is ludicrous for anyone to live here and I can never leave.

Have you ever read a book with a full awareness all the time of how other people might hate it?  While I was reading Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter I kept thinking, “I shouldn’t like this as much as I do.”  The main character, a twenty-two year-old named Tess, consistently makes such poor choices. She’s kind of a blank slate as well, and we don’t learn very much about her past at all.  Pretty much every person in the novel is messed up in some way.  There’s really not much plot.  And yet I couldn’t stop reading.

41fe52droflI’ve never been a server, I can’t really cook, I don’t consider myself to possess a particularly refined palate, and still I find myself drawn to books and television shows about food and drink. Sweetbitter is set in New York City, which hits another one of my bookish buttons.  It is divided into four seasonal sections, beginning with summer 2006.  Tess has left an unnamed place, a place she only describes by evoking “the twin pillars of football and church, the low faded homes on childless cul-de-sacs, mornings of the Gazette and boxed doughnuts.”  Tess’s past is not really important in this story.  Instead we jump with her into the deep end of big-city, high-end restaurant business, and into the extraordinarily messy social lives of her co-workers, most of whom have been there for years.

She becomes fascinated with Simone, a senior server, and Jake, a bartender. They have an obvious and ineffable connection with one another, and despite being aware of that, Tess develops a raging crush on Jake.  Simone, who is in her thirties,  takes Tess under her wing, teaching her about wine and food and giving advice about life.  Tess comes to trust her and depend upon her as a sort of mother figure, all the while becoming closer and closer to Jake.

She cut me a piece of cheese and handed it to me – “The Dorset,” she said – and it tasted like butter but dirtier, and maybe like the chanterelles she kept touching.  She handed me a grape and when I bit it I found the seeds with me tongue and moved them to the side, spit them into my hand.  I saw purple vines fattening in the sun.

“It’s like the seasons, but in my mouth,” I said.  She humored me.  She cracked whole walnuts with a pair of silver nutcrackers.  The skins on the nuts felt like gossamer wrappings.  She brushed the scattered skins onto the floor, with the grape sees, the pink cheese rinds.

Let’s be generous and say that I understood about seventy percent of what Simone said to me.  What I didn’t misunderstand was the attention that she gave me.  Or that by being close to her, I was always in proximity to him.  There was an aura that came from being under her wing, with its exclusive wine tastings and cheese courses – the aura of promised meaning.

I mentioned bad choices earlier.  There is so much cocaine, so much alcohol flowing through these pages, so many casual and not so casual sexual escapades and heartbreaks. Thwarted ambitions, people using one another, people tethered to one another and to the restaurant in unhealthy ways.  But there is also the energy and the life of the nightly dance of cook, server, and guest, the camaraderie of going to the same bar with your co-workers every night, the thrill of learning to exist as an adult in New York City.  This is really a coming of age story.  I thought of myself at 22, fresh out of college, so lost without the structure of school, my identity so unformed.  I found myself feeling sympathy for Tess as she blunders on the job and in pursuit of love.  She makes bad choices, but damn it, she owns them.

Isn’t this what you dreamed of, Tess, when you got in your car and drove?  Didn’t you run away to find a world worth falling in love with, saying you didn’t care if it loved you back?

Danler’s writing is exquisite.  It hums and vibrates and pulled me along effortlessly.  I found myself picking up the book at every spare moment, and when I had to put it down again it was with unwilling resignation.  In this time of my technology-induced short attention span, I can’t tell you the last time I had this immersive experience of reading.  I know that some may find this author pretentious, or the plot boring, or Tess utterly unlikable. As for me, I simply lost myself in this world – a world I don’t want to inhabit in real life, but found so beautifully rendered that I couldn’t take my eyes from.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus today, and I wanted to write about it while it was still fresh in my mind.  I wanted to write about it because the books that I write about manage to stay fresher in my mind than the ones I don’t.  It’s my book group’s pick for this month – our meeting is Sunday.  I really hope that my fellow members read it because I want to talk about it!  It’s one of those books that grew on me as I read it, and by the end, I didn’t want to put it down.

This was Adichie’s first novel, but I found it to be as captivating as the only other one of hers I’ve read thus far, the epic Americanah.  It’s a far more quiet novel, though; it sneaked up on me with an emotional heft that took my breath away.  A coming of age story set in modern Nigeria, it follows fifteen year-old Kambili and her family: her older brother Jaja, her mother and father, and her father’s sister Ifeoma and her family.img_0469

Kambili’s father is wealthy, publishing a progressive newspaper and owning factories, and his children lack for nothing physically.  However, their house is a quiet one, where every day has a schedule and no one speaks out of turn.  Laughter is nonexistent, and the household is strictly religious (Catholic.)  Kambili loves her father, wants to make him proud with her grades at school, but she also fears him.  As the novel progresses we get more of a picture of what’s going on inside the house – it becomes obvious that the father is physically abusive not only to their mother but also to Kambili and Jaja.  One day a girl at school asks Kambili why she always runs to get into the car her father sends to pick her up instead of walking and chatting with the other girls.

“I just like running,” I said, and wondered if I would count that as a lie when I made confession next Saturday, if I would add it to the lie about not having heard Mother Lucy the first time.  Kevin always had the Peugeot 505 parked at the school gates right after the bell rang.  Kevin had many other chores to do for Papa and I was not allowed to keep him waiting, so I always dashed out of my last class.  Dashed, as though I were running the 200-meters race at the interhouse sports competition.  Once, Kevin told Papa I took a few minutes longer, and Papa slapped my left and right cheeks at the same time, so his huge palms left parallel marks on my face and ringing in my ears for days.

Things begin to change when Kambili’s Aunty Ifeoma manages to convince her brother to let the children come stay with her and her family for a week during a school break, under the pretense of going to visit a pilgrimage site.  Ifeoma, a widow and university professor, is a vibrant, strong, colorful woman, and at first Kambili doesn’t know how to behave around her or her opinionated children.  She is painfully shy and afraid to do or say anything that she’ll have to later confess to her father.  This includes even having a relationship with her grandfather, whom her Papa considers a pagan heathen, since he never converted to Catholicism.  As Kambili and Jaja stay with Ifeoma, they start to open up, speak their minds more, laugh, and learn a new way to be a family.  Inevitably, this new consciousness chafes against the ways that their Papa controls them and their mother.

This was one of those books that had potential to be “too heavy” for me, a self-described wimp when it comes to sad things in books.  But Adichie has such a succinct yet beautiful way of writing, with not a word wasted, that even when she describes painful events, it’s not too much to handle.  Ifeoma’s home and community in Nsukka is such a vibrant, loving environment, I longed to be there, embraced and cared for by her and her children. We also meet a kind, strong, attractive young priest named Father Amadi, who is a positive, fatherly figure for Ifeoma’s children and other children in Nsukka.  He and Kambili develop a unique friendship and he helps draw her out of her shell, giving her a glimpse at another way to embody the Catholic faith.  He’s a lovely character.

I’m so glad we chose this novel to read for my book group.  I had it on my TBR, but you know about my TBR, right?  Things might linger there for one, two, three years before I “get around to them,” if I ever do.  Don’t make the same mistake I made – get your hands on a copy of this gorgeous, sad, but ultimately hopeful novel sooner rather than later!

Mini Review – Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde

It seems that my reading speed is far outpacing my blogging speed right now, so I decided to write a mini-review..  I feel like this is a book that I must share.  Based on my Goodreads friends, I know many of you have read it, or read selections from it.  If I borrow a book from the library, and I think it’s one that I’m likely to write a post about, I take notes in a medium-sized magenta  notebook.  While reading Audre Lorde’s collection of essays and speeches, Sister Outsider, I ended up with four pages.  It took me quite a while to get through this, because I did not want to rush it.  I wanted to sit with the essays for a while.  I’d read Lorde in college in my women’s studies classes, but that was almost twenty years ago, and honestly, I can’t remember half of what I did back then (other than make midnight trips to Taco Bell with my friends and pine obsessively for boys who weren’t into me.)

img_0322This is a collection written in the 1970s and early 1980s, but (sadly) so much of what Lorde writes feels relevant and fresh for today’s reader.  Bookended by insightful travel pieces about Russia and Grenada, the bulk of Lorde’s essays are about speaking , writing, and owning her truth, and the power of words, language, and poetry to unite women who may lead different kinds of lives but who are all oppressed by patriarchal structures.  There were so many powerful passages that I noted, so many sentences that spoke to me and that I wanted to share.

I was reminded of Lindy West and her excellent book Shrill when I read this from “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action:”

What are the words you do not have?  What do you need to say?  What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you sicken and die of them, still in silence… And where the words of women are crying to be heard,we must each of us recognize our responsibility, to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives.  That we not hid behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which we so often accept as our own.

This stunning passage is from “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response:”

I wish to raise a Black man who will not be destroyed by, nor settle for, those corruptions called power by the white fathers who mean his destruction as surely as they mean mine.  I wish to raise a Black man who will recognize that the legitimate objects of his hostility are not women, but the particulars of a structure that programs him to fear and despise women as well as his own Black self.  For me this task begins with teaching my son that I do not exist to do his feeling for him.  Men who are afraid to feel must keep women around to do their feeling for them while dismissing us for the same supposedly “inferior” capacity  to feel deeply.

And finally, this passage on guilt from “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism;”

Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own action or lack of action.  If it leads to change then it can be useful, since then it is no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge.  Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.

Oh man, I felt that.  Did you feel that?

I wish I could be more eloquent in my appreciation of Lorde’s poetically devastating prose. While some of the essays in the book spoke to me more than others, this is a book to be shared, discussed, and pondered.  It is the kind of book that can change lives, that can galvanize action, that can inspire a woman to speak her truth and seek out common ground with others who are speaking theirs.  I am so glad that I read it.

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

Sometimes it’s the books we love the most that are the hardest to write about, right?  I loved Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele, plain and simple.  It’s a novel that I want to buy so that I can read it again.  I can see it becoming a “comfort read” for me in the future.  It’s genuinely romantic, a page-turning mystery, and a surprisingly feminist spin on a classic, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

I have only read Jane Eyre once  – I know, GASP! – back in high school.  It’s one of those books that I’ve been meaning to reread for ages.  But it’s influence is so widespread that the story feels fresh to me somehow.  I certainly don’t think you have to have read Jane Eyre recently or ever to enjoy Jane Steele, but for me it added an extra layer of enjoyment.

IMG_3493This is not what I would call a retelling, but rather I feel it is a companion piece to the original.  This Jane tells us from the first page,

I have been reading over and over again the most riveting book titled Jane Eyre, and the work inspires me to imitative acts.  My new printing features a daring introduction by the author railing against the first edition’s critics.  I relate to this story almost as I would a friend or a lover – at times I want to breathe it’s entire alphabet into my lungs, and at others I should prefer to throw it across the room.  Whoever heard of disembodied voices calling to governesses, of all people, as this Jane’s do?

Jane Steele is also an orphan, suffers at a horrible boarding school, and she becomes a governess, but there is one huge difference from the original – she’s a murderer.  This is not a spoiler, as it’s on the inside jacket flap and included in the first sentence.  I will say that she does not kill for fun.  Jane Steele is a warrior, fiercely protective of the people she cares for.  Perhaps this is what I loved most about the novel – her spirit of resourcefulness and capability, and her courage.  There is a decidedly feminist tone to the book, in Jane’s strength and also in her ownership of her sexuality.  Jane is a realistically lusty woman, and I appreciated that.

Which brings me to the romance at the heart of the novel.  I am not a dedicated romance reader, as a genre, but I DO appreciate a heartfelt, moving, deeply felt love story.  Lyndsay Faye has succeeded in bringing to life a sexy, slightly tortured, romantic pairing in Jane and Mr. Thornfield. I will not say more because I don’t want to spoil the plot.  But I loved, loved, loved, the pacing and unfolding of Jane’s attraction to her pupil’s father figure.

There’s also a riveting mystery about something precious hidden in a trunk, and a whole bunch of history about the British and Sikh wars in the Punjab, and all the while Jane is terrified of her past catching up with her.  I simultaneously couldn’t turn pages fast enough and didn’t want it to end.

I’m thrilled to have discovered that Lyndsay Faye has written previous novels and am adding them all to my TBR.  And I bought a used copy of Jane Eyre at the bookstore tonight.  I’m inspired now to reread the original after all this time.   This is going up there with Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest for my favorite books of the year so far.  It’s also my first read for the 10 Books of Summer challenge.  What a fun, well-written book to kick off my challenge!

 

 

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

I’m going through a grapefruit phase right now.  Occasionally I’ll get obsessed with a particular fruit and I just can’t get enough.  Right now it’s grapefruits.  I eat half of one almost every morning.  Sometimes I eat the other half later in the day.  I don’t know.  I’m just going with it.

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest reminds me of grapefruit.  It’s tart, somewhat sweet, and totally juicy.  I loved it.  It hit many of my bookish buttons right from the start.  New York City setting – check.  Multiple perspectives, told convincingly – check.  Family secrets and lies – check.  I didn’t have a lot of reading time when I first began, but once I was halfway through I finished the remainder in one day.  (My son was sick, and I stayed home and sat on the couch with him and read while he watched cartoons.)  I simultaneously didn’t want it to end and couldn’t stop turning the pages.25781157

The bare bones plot is this:  The Plumb siblings, the youngest of whom is soon turning forty, have been counting on “The Nest,” a ridiculously named trust fund that their father set up for them.  He intended it not to be something that they counted on to save them from bad decisions, but rather a modest sum that they could add to their retirement funds or help their kids pay for college.  Well, what was intended to be modest grew into a sizable sum, and all four kids counted their chickens before they were hatched.  Now that the youngest, Melody, is turning forty, they are all in financial trouble and eagerly awaiting their portions of The Nest.  The trouble is, the oldest sibling, the charming but feckless brother Leo, has gotten himself into major trouble, and Mama Plumb raids the Nest’s coffers to dig him out (and to shield herself from scandal.)

But this novel is so much bigger than its plot.  What I loved most about these characters (and we get to know not just the siblings, but their children, their partners, and their neighbors) is that they all seemed wholly believable to me.  They are all very flawed people, but they are not unlikable.  Sweeney writes with great empathy for her characters. This family not only doesn’t connect well with one another, but they also don’t really know themselves.  And it’s a real treat getting to see how they build (or break) bonds with one another and go on emotional journeys of their own, reckoning with old family patterns and poor choices.

If you enjoy a well-written family saga, if you’re a fan of books like J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine or The Engagements, or Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, you will probably enjoy The Nest.  It’s sharp, smart, funny, and compassionate, and I can’t wait to see what Sweeney writes next.  Definitely one of my favorite reads so far this year.

Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt

Night comes down and her breath deepens.  Millions of stars overhead make the violence of the Big Bang clear.  So much force that matter is still sprinting away from the center.  I feel the velocity of space pinning me to this platform.  I’m tiny but I’m going to be someone’s mom, someone’s everything.  I touch the baby.  None of this is easy to believe.  The stars leave streaks, we’re moving so fast.  Ruth breathes heavily.  One small scintillation above – a gossamer thread of light – gathers oceans, every word ever spoken on the radio, each calorie of sunlight ever captured and stored in a kernel of corn.  You know.  Things like that.  And the star beside it: the tongues of every lizard, spider, leopard.  If spiders have tongues.  One day the sun will suck us in.  I’m not too angry about that.  Lying in these stars, despite them, somehow I can imagine my child seat-belted in a minivan while I stress the importance ofsharing chocolate Easter eggs or stuffed toy pandas or bags of corn chips with the other children.  And I’ll mean that being alive matters, even being alive in the smallest, smallest way.  And aren’t you lucky to be here.

The first book I’ve read so far this year that was published in 2016 is a DOOZY. Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot defies easy description, but I’m going to do my best to tell you why I loved it so much and why you should give it a try.  What I’m not going to do is tell you too much about it.  I didn’t know much about this novel besides the fast that Andi Miller (of Estella’s Revenge) had chosen it for her pick as the best book she read in January for Book Riot.  Reading it is such a thrilling and moving journey that to spoil it would truly be a crime.9780544526709

The novel begins in the recent past in a home for older, physically and/or mentally “damaged” kids in Upstate New York, named the Love of Christ! (intentional exclamation mark) Foster Home.  It’s run by a religious, deranged, but not altogether cruel man named Father Arthur, whom the kids simply call Father. He makes the kids dress in old-time plain clothing and work on the farm. There’s no TV, no internet, no electric heat and air.  Our story initially centers on Ruth and Nat, two 17 year olds who are not biologically related but have become so close over the years that they privately call each other “sisters.”  (Nat is a boy.)  Ruth has a large scar on her face from when her biological mother poured bleach on her.  Her much older sister El aged out of the house at 18.  She never returned for Ruth.  This all sounds really grim, and initially I wondered if the story of the foster kids would take a too-depressing turn, but Hunt somehow manages to weave a streak of hope into the narrative.

We next flash-forward to the present day, and we meet Cora, a twenty-something woman in a dead end (and soul deadening) insurance job.  She spends her breaks buying shoes online and surfing the internet. Cora is having an affair with an older married man, named Lord (!) and she finds out she’s pregnant.  Lord is not happy about this situation, to say the least.  We quickly learn that Cora is Ruth’s niece – the daughter of El, the sister who left her behind.  Ruth shows up at Cora’s door unexpectedly – Cora’s not seen her aunt since she was 17.  And now Ruth won’t or can’t talk.  But with a lot of nodding and pointing she somehow convinces Cora to come with her on a journey.  It’s not like Cora has a lot going for her anyway.

Meanwhile, back at the Love of Christ!, Nat and Ruth start offering seances to the kids at the home, with a mysterious entity named Mr. Splitfoot apparently inhabiting Nat’s body.  He tells the kids what they want to hear – that their parents would be with them if they could.  They get hooked up with a con man named Mr. Bell who wants to take their talents on the road, for a profit.

So we flip back and forth between two time periods, and the propulsive, mesmerizing quality of the writing casts its spell.  I’m not going to tell you any more about the plot, but what starts as a weird, sad story about orphans morphs into a thrilling page-turner.  And then it takes this beautiful, haunting turn into something even more magical and meaningful.

I was not able to cobble together much reading time when I first began reading this, but every time I had to put it down, it was with great reluctance.  And then last night I read the entire second half in one breathless gulp.  I ended up with a face streaming with tears.  I didn’t expect to be so moved by this book.  If you like creepy, gothic, mysterious page-turners, put Mr. Splitfoot on your TBR.  It’s a work of speculative fiction (fantasy? magical realism?) with a great big beating heart.