Listening to Lincoln

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

3 words: melancholy, gentle, eccentric

 

I’m guessing you might’ve heard this by now, but… this is The Big Audiobook of The Year.

And it’s not because there are more than 160 narrators, though that’s certainly a source of much of the buzz.

And it’s not because the cast contains tons of famous actors, though that’s true, too.

And it’s not because all of this fuss is over the author’s debut novel.

All of those things contribute, but for me, there are three other factors that make this thing so amazing.

First, the story makes you feel all the feels. At one point, I had to turn off the audiobook, because otherwise serious sobbing would’ve ensued, and I was pulling into the parking lot at work. That wouldn’t do.

This book is a magical realism-tinged look at the days following Willie Lincoln’s death in 1862. The Civil War is raging away, and then Lincoln lost his beloved son. And the way Saunders writes, you feel it.

But because this book is narrated by lots of dead people in the cemetery, you also feel lots of other things, because they represent a cross-section of humanity. So there are kind souls and there are brutes, and there’s gentleness and there’s crassness.

Second, the author tells the story in an inventive way. Not only is much of the book narrated by the dead, but there are also sections of knit-together excerpts of writings of the time, describing things like Willie’s death, and the Lincolns’ parenting style, and Lincoln’s personality and appearance. And the opinions differed widely, so you see the difficulty of getting at “the truth” of a person or a situation. But throughout, the greatness of Lincoln shines through.

And third, Nick Offerman. The man’s a narrating genius. He and David Sedaris read the two main roles, and I gotta say: Offerman’s subtle, understated way completely slayed me. The nuance in his voice conveys ten times more than dramatic flailings could even hint at. His character is in denial about his own death, and each time any of the ghosts is about to say “casket,” he substitutes “sick box.” It nearly choked me up.

If you’re going to read this book, I sure hope you’ll listen to it. The beauty of the narration — by all those 166 narrators — adds texture and emotion to an already remarkable story.

Give this book a whirl if you like…Lincoln, cemeteries, ghosts, books that include snippets of real historical accounts, sad stories, a bit of earthiness, The Graveyard Book, The Spoon River Anthology

Skyr and fear

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
3 words: melancholy, unfolding, muted
Oh, Katie darlin’, you got me to read an execution book.
You might be magical.
Here’s how it happened…
 
During our blogger reunion, we were talking about my recent trip to Iceland and resulting skyr-craving affliction, and Katie (she of Words for Worms) was all, “Oh my gosh, you’ve got to read Burial Rites! There’s skyr in it!”
I asked her what the book was about, and she said words that informed me that it was about the last months of a woman convicted of murder, who was awaiting execution. 
And we all know I can’t bear books about prison or execution. Heck, I can barely even read true crime, people.
So I was all, “Ohhhhh…” and doing the shaking of the head and backing away slowly, and Katie assured me it would be OK. (And her excellent review does the same.)
So I went in.
And I survived it.
But guys, this book, it is sad. And it is haunting and it will make you look off into the distance, all melancholy-like.
 
But it held me, it did. Agnes’s story unfolds slowly, and the author puts you right there in the plain, chilly, little hovels where she lived as a servant and where she awaited her end. So you’re very present in the there and then.  
Since reading Icelandic words is seriously hard work, I listened to the audiobook, and that was a good idea. (At then end, during the credits, they thank the person who advised them on Icelandic pronunciation. It’s the kind of thing that requires an expert.)
The craziest part of all is that Agnes was a real historical figure — the last person to be executed in Iceland. And during the months leading up to her death, she lived with a family on a farm, and each family member responded differently to the weirdness of having a murderess under their roof. Pretty fascinating character studies.
So: I’m super glad I read this book. Thanks, Katie, for giving me the gentle, necessary nudge.
So, readers… What’s the book that took you the farthest outside your comfort zone?

True Grit: The Re-Read

True Grit by Charles Portis 
3 words: plain-spoken, dramatic, unsentimental
The month of re-reading continues…
It’s rare that I allow myself the luxury of re-reading a book, but sometimes I’m fortunate and my assigned reading causes me to re-read something I loved.
Enter: True Grit.
And, as always, the second reading was a different, more complex experience than the first.
(I love how this happens.)
The first time I read this book, I marveled at Mattie’s clear, strong narrative voice and her toughness.
The second time, I knew to expect those things, so instead, I really felt the feels.
And man, this book is filled with them. 
It was only on the second time through, that this book made me get teary-eyed.
(Did not expect that)
It reminded me of that time I re-read The Sisters Brothers and felt it the second time. 
This re-reading can be hard on a person. 

So guys… Ever been surprised by a book you re-read?

Paul Harvey visits Longbourn

Longbourn by Jo Baker
3 words: domestic, sympathetic, frank
So this one made me a little nervous. A retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ viewpoint?
My fear: snark. Or worse.
Katie of Words for Worms (her review is, of course, a fabulous thing to read) assured me it would be OK.
And it was.
In P&P, the servants are sort of there, taking care of things… but really? They’re pretty much making the Bennets’ lives comfortable, and their thoughts and feelings are completely absent.

Here, we get The Rest of the Story.  (Anyone else kinda miss Paul Harvey?)

And Jo Baker does it up right. 
Sarah, a young housemaid, is smart and hardworking and likeable. And her hands usually hurt, cuz that was some horribly hard (and often disgusting) work they had to do. (I’ve never looked at my washing machine with such fondness as I do now.)

Then a new footman arrives at the house, and that upsets the applecart downstairs almost as much as Mr. Bingley’s arrival disrupts life upstairs.

The thing that surprised me — and eventually delighted me — is that Elizabeth and Darcy’s story is hardly even mentioned in this version of events.

Here, we get to hear Sarah’s story. And James the footman’s story. And Mrs. Hill’s surprising back story.

And it was a little bit Downton Abbey-esque, all this downstairs business, as we follow these characters through their daily lives and care about what happens to them.

And it’s not necessarily the happily-ever-after story of P&P, but the author leaves her characters in reasonably good situations, so no worries there.
And even the poor, overlooked, middle Bennet daughter, Mary, gets a happy ending. These lines made me so happy, I nearly cried.

“And to be flourishing, and happy, was to be a good way towards being beautiful. And being flourishing, and happy, and beautiful, was a good way towards being beloved…”  (326).

So, good people… What’s your take on pastiches? Yay, nay, or maybe?

A Gentleman in Moscow delights a lady in the U.S.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
3 words: gracious, engaging, triumphant

I was pretty sure I’d love this book, given the way I felt about Amor Towles’s debut novel, The Rules of Civility.

And then when I heard him speak about this new novel at BEA, that completely clinched it. (And I spoke to him, and he was gracious!)

So when I actually started reading, it shouldn’t have surprised me — but did — that I loved it so very much.
And all of these things happened despite the fact that I don’t like novels set in Russia. And I don’t like novels of political imprisonment. And I’m not all that very much into historical fiction, though I wish I were.
And this book is all of those things, but it won me over almost immediately.
Here’s how it did it…
Count Alexander Rostov is the central figure in this book, and the dude is witty, cultured, good-humored, and positive to a degree that’s seriously impressive.
If there’s anyone on earth who would not like this man, I hope I never meet that person.
So we have a delightful main character whose charm and humor and approach to life create an atmosphere that’s like breathing fresh air.
Then you plunk him down in a luxury hotel in Moscow, where he’s been ordered to live out his days. In a tiny attic room.
And so it begins…  this story of a man whose life has been turned into a miniaturized version of itself, who responds by expanding his world within those hotel walls and creating a family from those who work and stay there.
And then there’s the author’s writing style, which perfectly matches its subject. It’s sophisticated and wry and urbane and witty, and it’s smooth and smart and polished, and it makes a person feel very comfortable. The author is like a fine host who caters to his guests.
I read most of this book on the flight home from Reykjavik, and I truly felt like I was soaring. 
So now I’m doing that thing, where I dart around telling everyone about this book. (If I see you in person, prepare yourself. This book’s coming up in conversation.)
Fellow readers… what book are you pushing these days? 

Biggest book of BEA?

(photo credit: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
3 words: brutal, lyrical, magical realism

At BEA, it was clear that Colson Whitehead’s forthcoming book was gonna be one of THE books of the fall publishing season. And I felt really lucky to have the opportunity to gush briefly at the author himself and to secure an ARC of The Underground Railroad.
And then I started reading the book, and it was an even more intense experience than I had anticipated. (That’s saying something.)
First, the book pulls the reader in immediately. Cora, the main character, and those who surround her on her journey north, became real people the moment I met them. 
Cora’s life has been pretty darn horrific, and when she sets off for freedom via the Underground Railroad, I’m sad to say it remains rather horrific.
But then there are brief periods of calm, when I’d think, “She’s gonna be OK. She’s made it to a good place.”
But… no.
Whitehead doesn’t hold back and he doesn’t shield his characters from the harshness of the reality they faced. It makes for some wrenching reading.
And again I was reminded of the power of fiction to convey truth.
Second, I realized early on that I was reading a Colson Whitehead book. Because here’s the thing: in this novel, the Underground Railroad is depicted as an actual underground railroad.
And each state has its own slavery culture, with its own horrors to learn anew. So, again, even though the book wasn’t a factual depiction of life in (and escaping) slavery, the story wields enormous emotional power, and some of that strength comes through its symbolism.
And third, the language. Oh, dear people, the way this writer writes. It’s enough to take your breath away. He writes with a lyrical precision that is stunning.

As we careen toward autumn, what books are on your radar?

Sometimes it sucks to be the wife

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin
3
words: biographical, personal, lyrical
Since I
went through a spree of reading everything Anne Morrow Lindbergh ever published (except that horrid-sounding thing, The Wave of the Future) I approached
this fictional account of her life with a wary eye. There are so many ways a
novelist can get it wrong.

(photo: courtesy of the Library of Congress)
But
Melanie Benjamin has seriously impressed me here.
Yes,
this is a work of fiction, but yes, she has done the research and I feel like
she’s speaking in Anne’s voice in this book. That’s high praise from an AML
reader.
The
thing I didn’t expect was to come away from this book detesting Charles
Lindbergh.
Sure,
I already had pushed away from him once I learned of his anti-Semitic speeches
in the pre-WWII years. And then there were those other families of children he
fathered. Dude had some serious flaws. And big, unpardonable ones, too.  
But
this book put venom in my fangs.
I
think it’s because fiction did that thing it goes so well: it made things more
immediate, more personal, more felt.
Even AML’s diaries and letters, which were edited before publication (by both
AML and her husband) keep her at a greater distance.
So:
this book surprised me with the depth and honesty of its characterization, and by the loveliness of the writing. I went in, expecting to emerge partway through, shaking my head. Instead, I was sorry when it ended, and I’m shaking my head in admiration. 

I finally read it

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
3
words: compassionate, lyrical, wry  
Worth
the hype? Yes.
So… Death
as the narrator. I know. But if you can get through the first chapter and meet
the characters he describes (I think Death
is a “he;” at least the audiobook narrator was), you just might get hooked on
the book as fast as I did.
The
thing is: to describe The Book Thief
makes it sound sad and depressing. Which it is, yet really isn’t. It has too
many moments of light and goodness amidst the difficulties.
It’s
Germany, WWII is raging, and Liesel is only 9 when she’s orphaned. Her new
foster parents are a study in contrasts: Rosa is foul-mouthed and harsh (yet a
good woman in a crisis), and Hans is notable for “the brute strength of the
man’s gentleness.” (CD 1, track 13)
And
then their small household grows in population when Max Vandenburg joins them.
But his presence must remain a secret, because he’s Jewish.
Since
Death tells the story, a person is rather on edge throughout the entire novel. Who’s he coming for? But then Death
becomes rather likeable himself, and that’s even more unnerving. He’s a darn
credible narrator, and he doesn’t sugar-coat things.
The
audiobook is a remarkable thing. Death’s voice is calm, cynical, wry,
occasionally kindhearted.
Zusak
has an extraordinarily strong ability to draw memorable characters. The good
ones have flaws that make them real, and they all have quirks that make them
believable. I won’t soon forget them.  

Battle of the books

Cain at Gettysburg by Ralph Peters

3 words: classic, honest, human

So
much for my Top 10 list.
This
book has shoved The Killer Angels right
off the pile. I thought it couldn’t be done.
The
Dear Man’s dear dad gave me a copy of this book when he learned that I was a
Gettysburg fanatic.
When I
saw the Booklist blurb on the cover
that said, “Surpasses Michael Shaara’s classic The Killer Angels,” I was like, yeah, right.
Then I
read it.
And
the gritty realism of this novel makes the Civil War seem nearer than anything
I’ve ever read or seen. It made me want to revisit Gettysburg with new eyes.
The
thing I loved about The Killer Angels is
the way it portrayed the soldiers and generals as actual human beings. The
writing isn’t half bad, either. But its focus is on the people, not the
landmarks or the ammunition or the strategy.
The
same is true with this book, only more so. The people are more flawed and
realistic. Peters puts blood in their veins, and he puts blood on the
battlefield.
(photo by Alexander Gardner; courtesy of the Library of Congress)
During
the battle scenes (oh, the battle scenes! I could read them only in sort
spurts—they were overwhelming to experience otherwise) I felt like I could see
and hear and smell and feel what was happening. There were moments when I
moaned out loud at something a soldier experienced. 

I was reading with my mouth
open in wonder.

There
are short paragraphs that build suspense to an almost unbearable level,
accomplishing this effect with a severe economy of words.
“The
Confederate barrage slackened, then stopped abruptly. Freshly arrived Union
batteries sent their shells into the smoke, but the Rebel gunners resisted the
urge to reply.
Meade
understood. They were coming. Then he heard a distant Rebel yell.” (p. 257)
Peters
hits all the bases here: North and South, rank-and-file and generals, the noble
and the cowardly, the old guard and recent immigrants, the righteous and the
profane, the wise and the foolhardy, the young and the old.
Peters
is a retired Army lieutenant colonel, so he knows military matters. But the guy
also can write with the best of them. For years now he’s been writing the Abel
Jones Civil War mystery series under the pseudonym Owen Parry, but this novel
feels like it’s the book he was born to write.
And
the best thing is this: When I was sad to turn the last page of the epilogue, I
found these words in the Author’s Note: “The
Killer Angels
will remain the most beloved Gettysburg novel. Michael
Shaara’s skillful writing, mythic portraits, and romantic view of the battle
make it incomparable.” (p. 425) He goes on to describe how Shaara’s book was
perfectly matched to the mid-1970s, when it was necessary to restore regard for
the military.
But,
he goes on, “It demeans the heroes of Gettysburg to depict them as flawless
saints. Not one was cut from marble in the womb. Imperfect men fought an
imperfect battle and so preserved ‘a more perfect union’ or all. Heroes are men
who overcome themselves.” (p. 426)
The
grace with which he credits The Killer Angels
and also explains his own novel’s approach makes me happy that Peters took
up his pen when he put down his sword. He’s given us a new masterpiece, and
he’s done so while upholding the dignity of its predecessor. 
This is the real
deal here, guys.

Downton-esque

The House at
Riverton
by Kate Morton
Well, that was lucky.
I wouldn’t’ve read this book except that it was assigned reading.
And I’m actually glad I read it. It’s one of those.
The happy coincidence to the timing of my reading this book is
that I (like half the planet) just finished watching the second season of Downton Abbey, which is also set in a humungo English country house
in the early 1900s. 
One of the things people either love or hate about this book is
that it actually starts in the current day, with an elderly woman named Grace
remembering back to her days as a lady’s maid at Riverton. So there are
flashbacks. I actually love the whole flashback thing in a book, especially
when it’s one of those end-of-life flashback situations (like in Penelope
Lively’s Moon Tiger and Susan
Minot’s Evening).
It’s clear from the start that all hell broke loose (are you listening, Elmore?) at
some point way back when, because there was a big honking scandal, and now a
filmmaker is making a movie about it. So Grace is forced to face the ugly old truth
again for the first time in eons.
So then we flit back in time to the days just before WWI, when the
rich and entitled (and titled) were
toodling around their grand estates, and poor young Grace was a clueless new
housemaid. And it’s a pretty darn good little story, as long as you can
tolerate all those young, beautiful, entitled sorts. (They can be a bit hard to
stomach.) It helps a lot that we’re hearing the story from the perspective of the former maid, because she’s more down with the people, you know?
I actually liked the last page best. Not because the book was over
(I’m not being snide!) but because of the way it reveals the way everything
went so very wrong… and how things also turned out so well for Grace. 
Recommended as a remedy for Downton withdrawal.