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.

 

RIP Challenge: The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

“I wish Aunt Fanny would stop babbling sacrilegious nonsense,” Mrs. Halloran said, and there was an ominous note in her voice.

“Call it nonsense, Orianna, say – as you have before – that Aunt Fanny is running in crazed spirits, but – although I am of course not permitted to threaten – all the regret will be yours.”

“I feel it already,” Mrs. Halloran said.

“The experiment with humanity is at an end,” Aunt Fanny said.

“Splendid,” Mrs. Halloran said.  “I was getting very tired of all of them.”

shirley-jackson-the-sundialYou know when you begin a novel with a grandmother matter-of-factly talking with her granddaughter about pushing the girl’s father down the stairs to his death that the usual rules of play don’t apply.  Shirley Jackson’s 1958 novel The Sundial, which I read as part of the 11th R.I.P. Challenge, was the the fourth of her books that I’ve read, and it was definitely the funniest, albeit in a bleak way.  The basic premise is that a group of awful people, some related and some not, trade witty barbs and gradually succumb to the apocalyptic visions of Aunt Fanny, in effect preparing for the end of the world.  Fanny’s vision says that everyone in the house will be spared and will perpetuate a fresh start for humankind. Everyone else is toast.

The imperious, controlling Mrs. Halloran (Orianna) has inherited the house (more like a mansion) after her son Lionel’s death.  Living with her are her mousy daughter-in-law, Maryjane, her granddaughter, the wickedly precocious Fancy, her husband Richard, who is wheelchair-bound and suffering from dementia, Fancy’s governess, Miss Ogilvie, a young man named Essex, who was supposedly hired to catalog the library, and Richard’s sister Fanny, who has the aformentioned vision while lost one night in the estate’s maze.  Add a distant cousin, a seventeen-year old named Gloria, an old friend of Orianna’s named Mrs. Willow and her two unmarried daughters, Julia and Arabella, and a stranger invited from the village basically because he’s a youngish (theoretically virile) man, whom they dub “The Captain.”

Oh, and along with the maze and a man-made lake, there’s an actual sundial on the lawn inscribed with the inscrutable phrase WHAT IS THIS WORLD?  No one really knows what it’s supposed to mean.

At first it seems like the members of the Halloran House are humoring Aunt Fanny by beginning to prepare for the end of the world, going along with her ideas about what to stock up on, even going so far as to burn the books in the library to make more room for provisions.  But as the story progresses, everyone seems to become more paranoid and fearful, and starts taking her predictions more seriously.  They even enlist Gloria to gaze into a mirror glazed with oil to see if she can more accurately predict the exact date of the apocalypse.  Once they’ve got a date, they throw a huge garden party for the poor, unsuspecting dopes of the nearby village, people they politely tolerated but never really intermingled with before these visions began.  Alcohol flows and shenanigans ensue.  The day after the party, a violent storm begins, and the Hallorans and their entourage make their final arrangments.

sunThe one character I felt sympathy for in the entire novel was young Fancy.  She’s really the only character who utters a lick of sense.  She’s been sheltered from the outside world for the entirety of her young life, and now she may never get to experience life outside the manor as an adult.  Here she talks with Gloria, questioning her about the wisdom of the adults and trying to understand things:

“Well,” Fancy said slowly, “you all want the whole world to be changed so you all will be different.  But I don’t suppose people get changed any by just a new world. And anyway, that world isn’t any more real than this one.”

“It is though.  You forget that I saw it in the mirror.”

“Maybe you’ll get onto the other side of that mirror in the new clean world. Maybe you’ll look through from the other side and see this world again and go around crying that you wish some big thing would happen and wipe out that one and send you back here.  Like I keep trying to tell you, it doesn’t matter which world you’re in.”

I’ve struggled to write about The Sundial since I finished it over a week ago.  It’s so…odd. I  don’t exactly know what to make of it.  It’s not scary, like The Haunting of Hill House, and it’s doesn’t have the pure beauty of language that We Have Always Lived in the Castle has.  Of the four Jackson novels I’ve read, it is my least favorite, but it’s still engaging and worth reading.  Shirley Jackson had such a brilliantly twisted mind, and her novels are so unusual, especially for the time period in which they were written.  I don’t know much about her biography, but I’m very much interested in how she was able to create such vividly strange stories in what I have always imagined to be a very stifling decade (while she raised kids!)  There is a new biography about her by Ruth Franklin called Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, but I think I want to read all of her works before I delve into her biography. In any case, The Sundial was witty, bizarre, and entertaining as all get out, a solid choice for your October reading list.

 

 

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

I haven’t read a lot of sci-fi in my life.  It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve really started exploring that genre.  So I don’t know if that makes me a good person to write a review of Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon or not.  I was drawn to this book because I’m interested in Nigeria, and this is set in Lagos.  I’d heard positive things about Ms. Okorafor’s other books like Binti and Who Fears Death.  I was also interested in the book’s premise:  shapeshifting aliens land in the waters off of Lagos – what do they want?  How are people going to react?

18753656A famous Ghanaian rapper, a female marine biologist, and a soldier are all on the beach when the massive BOOM rattles their ears and makes them drop to the ground.  Within minutes a massive wave rolls in from the sea and takes them into the water.  We never find out exactly what happens to them in the water, but they emerge with a mysterious woman.

There was something both attractive and repellent about the woman, and it addled Adaora’s senses.  Her hair was long – her many braids perfect and shiny, yet clearly her own hair.  She had piercing brown eyes that gave Adaora the same creepy feeling as when she looked at a large black spider.  Her mannerisms were too calm, fluid, and… alien.

Not surprisingly, once strange things start happening and word gets out, all hell breaks loose.  Some people want to get to this mysterious woman/creature.  Some people want to get the hell out of Lagos.  Others just want to exploit the chaos for their own gain.  What makes this novel interesting is the way in which Okorafor weaves Nigerian mythology and elements of magical realism into what could have been just another first contact story.  I admit that some of this went over my head but I still enjoyed it.  She also weaves in elements of feminism, environmentalism, and gay rights advocacy into the narrative.  She vividly depicts all different kinds of Lagosians, from the fundamentalist Christian priest who is mainly concerned with lining his pockets to the mute orphan boy who picks pockets until he witnesses the events unfolding on the beach.  There are even passages narrated by a swordfish and a spider.

9781481440875_custom-83c869fee28f9137f21e4e8c5eae3529468e813a-s300-c85I admit that the action in the first half of the book developed a little more slowly than I would have liked, and there are a TON of characters’ viewpoints, some of which aren’t explored very much and seem a little extraneous.  But these are tiny quibbles.  I liked Lagoon.  It was weird and intense and a heck of a lot of fun.  I am hungry for more from Nnedi Okorafor.

(Book 6 of 10 for my #10BooksofSummer, from Cathy’s #20BooksofSummer challenge.)

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

I wasn’t at all sure that I was going to read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.  Even when it popped up in review after review on blogs I follow, I still wasn’t sure.  Once I began reading it, I still wasn’t sure that I’d even finish it.  And now that I’ve read it, I’m still not sure what I think about it.  Despite all of that uncertainty, I’m genuinely glad that I read it, and find it one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read.

I worried that it might be too disturbing for me to handle.  It certainly wasn’t a pleasurable reading experience for me, but it was too strange, too different from the things I normally read, to put down.  If I’m honest, the short length (188 pages) helped .  As did the fact that I’m almost certain it will be a Tournament of Books pick next year.  But the spare elegance of Kang’s writing kept me turning pages.56abcc1b1f00007f00216f6a

It’s told in three sections, which were apparently published in South Korea as three novellas.  Yeong-hye, a young, married woman is the center of this story, but she does not really get to tell her own tale.  There are italicized passages here and there that are probably told from her point of view, but they are infrequent.  The first section is told from the point of view of her husband, Mr. Cheong.  He’s a real… well, I’m thinking of a crass word to describe him.  There is nothing whatsoever appealing about him.  He basically married Yeong-hye because she was so unremarkable and demanded so little from him.  When she has a terrible dream and decides to becomes a vegetarian, she is rocking his orderly, boring, controlled life.  She shocks and angers her family as well, and there is a violent scene at a family dinner that is really hard to read.

The second section is told from her brother-in-law’s point of view, and it’s disturbing in a totally different way.  He is sexually obsessed with her, and wants to use her as a model in his video art installation.  This section is interesting in that Yeong-hye seems to subvert her brother-in-law’s desires and claim her own power in the midst of his objectification.  However, her gradual descent into madness, which has been building throughout the whole novel, is unchecked.

The third section was the strongest for me, the one that finally awakened me emotions and locked me into the flow of the narrative.  It’s told from the point of view of her sister, In-hye, and it’s some time later after the events of the second part.  Yeong-hye has deteriorated drastically, both mentally and physically, and she is in a mental hospital.  We learn more about In-hye and how their family life may have informed each of the sister’s life paths.  There is some gorgeous writing in this section, like this passage:

She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of.  She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner.  And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.

I was deeply moved by the final section, so much so that it made me reconsider the novel as a whole.  I was finally able to push against my discomfort and appreciate what I think this novel is trying to explore.  For me, it is about family, and expectations, both familial and societal, especially for women.  It’s about choice and desire, how free one person can truly ever be to create the life they want to live, for themselves without hurting or angering or disappointing the people around them.  At least that’s what I emerged with from my reading of this bizarre, haunting, remarkable book.

The Vegetarian would make a killer book for your book group – one could talk about it for hours.  I’m really glad I read it, even though it was not an easy read.I haven’t yet rated this novel on Goodreads with a star rating.  I usually find it pretty easy to assign stars: three for “I liked it,” two for “it was okay,” four for “REALLY good.”  I don’t think this is the kind of novel that is suited for that system.  It really is something totally of its own, and to give it a star rating would almost diminish its odd terror and beauty.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Housebound by Elizabeth Gentry

Imagine reading a book that is the equivalent of being locked in the Sleeping Beauty castle.  Thorny vines wind their way around the windows and turrets, while inside, beautiful young people are sleeping peacefully. The family members in Elizabeth Gentry’s Housebound are similarly asleep, as if under a spell. Reading it was an enchanting but slightly breathless experience.

Maggie and her eight siblings are home-schooled and isolated from the small town they live near, except for a weekly library trip.  She is the eldest at 19, and the story begins when she realizes that it’s time for her to get a job and leave home – that if sIMG_2965he doesn’t, no one else ever will.  Her announcement at breakfast one morning seems to break the spell that the family has been under for years.  Maggie begins exploring the woods near her house, rambling around places she doesn’t remember going before, and meets neighbors and family members she’d forgotten existed.  They start filling her in on what’s really been going on with her family all this time, and deeply buried family secrets are brought painfully to light.

This is an enthralling and slightly claustrophobic read. We get inside the minds not only of Maggie and her siblings, but also her parents, and very briefly, a rat that bites Maggie’s finger in one of the opening chapters.   Menacing characters fill the woods like trolls or witches from fairy tales. The family’s house itself holds mysteries. I felt compelled to keep reading, to see if Maggie, was going to find her way out of the labyrinth of secrets and forgotten memories she was ensnared in. It’s a dark, cautionary fable, vague in time and place, but explicit in the ways families hurt each other and believe lies that both comfort and bind.

Mislaid by Nell Zink

Sometimes you read a book and think, “What was that?!?”  That’s what I’m thinking now that I’ve finished the perplexing but entertaining Mislaid by Nell Zink.  (I won a copy in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway.)  It’s sort of a comedy of manners set in rural Virginia in the 1960’s, ’70’s and ’80’s.

But it’s not nearly as genteel as that descriptor would lead you to believe.    IMG_1843

In 1965, Peggy is a lesbian at a small women’s college called Stillwater.  She falls in love with and ends up marrying poetry professor Lee Fleming, who happens to be gay.  They have two children, a boy named Byrdie and a girl named Mireille.  Ten years in, Peggy is driven to leave Lee – only she takes just one child with her.  She and Mireille go underground, loving in a shack in a rural part of Virginia, assuming new names and identies – as a black mother and child.

Race, class, sexuality, academia – it’s all dissected in this wacky novel.  Only sometimes I think it was just a bit too zany for its own good.  I enjoyed it, though.  Zink has a light touch, a nice flow, a definite flair for pointed, wry comedy.  It started out a bit slow at first, but the novel really started flowing for me once Peggy and her daughter go into hiding.   I haven’t read her first book, The Wallcreeper, although I’ve heard some intriguing buzz about it and I’m interested.  Mislaid was a strange little bird of a book, but it was a fun read.