BOOK REVIEW | Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

My thoughts:
This book is stunning – unique in style and rich in substance. I have never read anything like this before, and loved this new reading experience. This is one of those rare books that I could start over again immediately.

Willie, Abraham Lincoln’s eleven year old son, falls ill and dies leaving Abraham wrought with guilt and sorrow. Willie passes on to the bardo, a Tibetan concept of purgatory, and is greeted by other spirits who are stuck in this place, refusing to believe themselves dead. The ghosts want to help Willie move through to the other side, as young ones are not meant to tarry. Over the course of one night, Abraham visits Willie’s grave multiple times to be with his boy once more. Meanwhile, the United States is at war and we gain insights into Abraham’s torment about the state of the country, and how his grief shaped his presidency.

The story is told by the ghosts in purgatory as well as through historical accounts, making for a completely new reading journey. It took me a little getting used to, but all of the insights painted a layered picture of who Abraham Lincoln was, as well as the depth of his grief.

The impression I carried away was that I had seen, not so much the President of the United States, as the saddest man in the world.

An examination of grief, Saunders astutely captures the horror of a parent loosing a child. It’s all consuming, backwards, unimaginable. This is not the story of a president, but rather of a father who is desperate in his sorrow – so desperate that holding his son’s body, just a little longer, feels like the right thing to do. A beautiful and haunting book that won’t leave me soon.

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BOOK REVIEW | Canada Reads 2017 #1 – Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis

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4.5/5

From the publisher:
– I wonder, said Hermes, what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.

– I’ll wager a year’s servitude, answered Apollo, that animals – any animal you like – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence.

And so it begins: a bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto veterinary clinic. Suddenly capable of more complex thought, the pack is torn between those who resist the new ways of thinking, preferring the old ‘dog’ ways, and those whoembrace the change. The gods watch from above as the dogs venture into their newly unfamiliar world, as they become divided among themselves, as each struggles with new thoughts and feelings. Wily Benjy moves from home to home, Prince becomes a poet, and Majnoun forges a relationship with a kind couple that stops even the Fates in their tracks.

My thoughts:
Fifteen Dogs blew me away. This was probably the Canada Reads selection that I was least looking forward to, and it may very well end up as my front runner.

Gods Hermes and Apollo are hanging out at the local tavern, waxing philosophical over drinks. The discussion turns to human happiness, and a bet is made: Apollo wagers a year’s servitude that any animal, if bestowed with human intelligence and consciousness, would be even more unhappy than humans. Hermes takes him up on the bet, with the caveat that if any one animal is happy at its death, he wins. After leaving the tavern they end up near a veterinary clinic and in the back are fifteen dogs. With that, they decide to test their theory on dogs, and they grant the animals with human language and intelligence. From here, the story unfolds. We follow the fifteen dogs as they begin to understand their new intelligence, through their lives and struggles, and ultimately to their deaths. The story is insightful, bleak, brutal, and heartbreaking – I absolutely loved it.

The dogs ask poignant questions and contemplate timeless philosophies – to understand love, the fight for personal sovereignty, the need for a sense of family or community, dominance vs. submission, and of course the struggle to find meaning and joy in life. Alexis skillfully weaves in and out of their stories, and brings it all home with a touching denouement. In the note on the text, Alexis reveals something pretty amazing about the short poems in the book – I promise you’ll be turning back to read them all over again.

Alexis packed so much into this short book: there’s action, quiet contemplation, humor, joy, and sadness. Every page has meaning and has been carefully crafted; this is not a book to be skimmed through. While this is a book about fifteen dogs, you do not need to be a dog lover to enjoy this, though there are some great moments for those of of who are! This book is profoundly human, and one that I can see myself returning to again and again.

BOOK REVIEW | Zero K by Don DeLillo

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Jeffrey Lockhart’s father, Ross, is a billionaire in his sixties, with a younger wife, Artis Martineau, whose health is failing. Ross is the primary investor in a remote and secret compound where death is exquisitely controlled and bodies are preserved until a future time when biomedical advances and new technologies can return them to a life of transcendent promise. Jeff joins Ross and Artis at the compound to say “an uncertain farewell” to her as she surrenders her body.

“We are born without choosing to be. Should we have to die in the same manner? Isn’t it a human glory to refuse to accept a certain fate?”

These are the questions that haunt the novel and its memorable characters, and it is Ross Lockhart, most particularly, who feels a deep need to enter another dimension and awake to a new world. For his son, this is indefensible. Jeff, the book’s narrator, is committed to living, to experiencing “the mingled astonishments of our time, here, on earth.”

Don DeLillo’s seductive, spectacularly observed and brilliant new novel weighs the darkness of the world—terrorism, floods, fires, famine, plague—against the beauty and humanity of everyday life; love, awe, “the intimate touch of earth and sun.”

My thoughts:
After reading White Noise I knew I had to read more DeLillo as soon as possible. Zero K delivered with its profound philosophy on our inevitable mortality.

Isn’t death a blessing? Doesn’t it define the value of our lives, minute to minute, year to year?

In Zero K, death is avoidable. Through technological advances, human bodies can be cryogenically preserved post-mortem for an infinite amount of time, to one day be reborn into a new and better life. Jeffrey Lockhart is upset when he learns that his father, Ross, is looking to undergo the process voluntarily, rather than after his natural death. Ross, however, would like to go with Artis, his younger second wife who is terminally ill and beginning the preservation process. This inevitably brings heavy questions to the table, which DeLillo works through assertively.

DeLillo returns to a theme that resonated with me from White Noise: the significance that death has on living life purposefully. I’ve heard criticism that DeLillo brings nothing new to the table with this book, that he is re-hashing old ideas. For me, death is a constant that all living beings must face, so it makes sense to continue to explore what gives value to life.

We are born without choosing to be. Should we die in the same manner?