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Lincoln in the Bardo (2017)

by George Saunders

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3,6542462,403 (3.99)380
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. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returned to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy's body. 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.… (more)
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» See also 380 mentions

English (236)  Dutch (3)  Spanish (2)  Catalan (1)  All languages (242)
Showing 1-5 of 236 (next | show all)
[b:Lincoln in the Bardo|29906980|Lincoln in the Bardo|George Saunders|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1492130850l/29906980._SX50_.jpg|50281866] is the rare book that feels both ephemeral and enduring all at once. It's a rare case of an author simply connecting two dots - a father's love for his dead son and the eternal question of what happens after death - and leaving the story right there exactly there. Some might be underwhelmed by the sparseness and I'll admit that the narrative style is a little abstract (especially in the early going) but hot damn if this isn't a neat piece of fiction. ( )
  millerkr | Jul 28, 2020 |
Experimental style. Can't quite make up my mind whether I liked that or not? On the one hand the short paragraphs and chapters made it a breezy read. And gave me permission not to dwell on any one passage as being overly serious. Even though this is Serious Literature, I could treat it like a casual read (which - to be fair - it was!). But on the other hand, it felt like cheating, because what pseudo-weighty prose did exist was given undue stress and spotlight in contrast to the rest of it. There are writers whose prose is dense and revelatory, who pack more into half a chapter than Saunders did into the whole book, but now, just because of a stylistic trick, Saunders comes out sounding just as good as the former set? Cheating, I say.

Read this while I was sick on vacation. It was primarily FUN. I would give it more starts if it had been marketed so. ( )
  nandiniseshadri | Jul 12, 2020 |
On the advise of other readers. I listened to the audio version of this book. I love Nick Offerman and David Sedaris, so that was a selling point. Although the book is extremely imaginative and original, I had trouble following the plot. If you like different styles of story telling and you aren't a stickler for a strong plot line, than you will love this book. I am giving it a 4 just for originality. ( )
  kerryp | Jul 4, 2020 |
I enjoyed reading it. The writing is good, the story moves along, shocking us at times. Much attention is required at the beginning in order to understand what follows, but the Bardo is certainly a place of interesting characters and fantastic events. Fun to read, some laugh out loud moments to offer a little levity to the very tragic threads explored in the story of President Lincoln. ( )
  MMKY | Jul 3, 2020 |
It's easier to cast a gauzy glow over figures that never faced the kind of constant examination that politicians today face. There was a lot of stuff going on in the White Houses of yore that even if it was known, wasn't published and dissected and scrutinized the way things are now. Like, for example, when Abraham Lincoln's 11 year-old son, Willie, died while he was in office during the Civil War. Mary Todd Lincoln had a breakdown, and Lincoln himself didn't cope well either. He went to the vault where his son's body was, at least once, and picked him up and held him. It was a demonstration of terrible, profound grief, and if it happened today can you imagine the tweets?

It is this situation, the heartbroken Lincoln going to see his dead son, that inspired lauded short-story writer George Saunders' first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. The bardo is based on the Tibetan concept of a liminal state between life and death, fairly similar to the Catholic purgatory but without the connotations of having done something "wrong", and the Lincoln in question is not Abraham but Willie himself. It is his soul that comes to the bardo, where he encounters other spirits, those who have elected to stay. They don't believe themselves quite dead...they refer to their coffins as "sick-boxes" and are sure that they'll soon recover and get back to their lives as they knew them. But they all know that children aren't supposed to linger, they're supposed to move on. And Willie is more or less ready to do so when his father appears, to hold him and talk to him, and promises to come back. So now Willie, too, wants to stay.

There are three main ghosts/spirits/souls that take on the task of trying to figure out how to inspire Willie to move on: Hans, Roger, and Everly. Hans was an older shopkeeper who remarried after the death of his first wife. He waited to consumate his second marriage until his young and lovely bride was comfortable, and after months, she's finally ready to do so...and then Hans is struck violently in the head by a wayward beam. Roger was a young gay man who managed to find love in a time when that was difficult...only to get dumped and slit his wrists in despair. As he bled, he realized how beautiful the world was and how much he wanted to live. And then there's Everly, a former reverend who lived righteously but is too afraid of heavenly judgment to go. They try everything, including communing with the President, to get Willie going where he needs to go.

This is a very odd novel. It's mostly structured like a play...dialogue is followed by a notation of the speaker's name. Then there are occasional sections where Saunders excerpts nonfiction historical sources to describe various aspects of the situation at hand: the party the Lincolns hosted at the White House the night Willie lay dying, what Lincoln actually looked like, what Willie was like, the day of the funeral. There's no traditional "narrative" at all. I'll admit that this made it a bit of a struggle to get into...I don't usually especially enjoy reading plays, and there's not a lot of information provided about what's going on and who the various characters are right off the bat. But my reluctance to put down books before I've finished them paid off here, because once I got into the flow of it, I found the back half quite strong and the ending unexpectedly powerful.

I've never read any of Saunders' short stories, but I'm excited to do so in the future because the sheer inventiveness of this novel is delightful. As someone who loves The Divine Comedy, I enjoyed his take on Dante's technique of contrapasso, giving the spirits physical manifestations matching the reason they won't leave the bardo. Although it won the Booker Prize for its release year (which was awarded the day after I finished reading it!), this is a novel destined to be divisive and one that I'd therefore hesitate recommending widely even though I personally enjoyed it. If you're looking for a straightforward form or narrative, or something more traditionally "historical fiction", this isn't for you. But if you're interested in a more unusual reading experience that challenges you to read in a different way, I'd encourage you to at least give it a try! ( )
1 vote GabbyHM | Jun 24, 2020 |
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Saunders, Georgeprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Offerman, NickNarratormain authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sedaris, DavidNarratormain authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bachman, Barbara MDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Brownstein, CarrieNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cardinal, ChelseaCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cheadle, DonNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dennings, KatNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dughet, HaspardCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dunham, LenaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hader, BillNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
July, Miranda Narratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Karr, MaryNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pye, JohnCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stiller, BenNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Webb, E.Cover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
Dedication
For Caitlin and Alena
First words
On our wedding day I was forty-six, she was eighteen.
Quotations
I will never forget those solemn moments—genius and greatness weeping over the love's lost idol.
Having never loved or been loved in that previous place, they were frozen here in a youthful state of perpetual emotional vacuity; interested only in freedom, profligacy, and high-jinks, railing against any limitation or commitment whatsoever.
In truth, we were bored, so very bored, so continually bored.
Birds being distrustful of our ilk.
Any admiration we might once have felt for their endurance had long since devolved into revulsion.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Haiku summary
Unread I hold it,
a new Saunders book is come.
My evening expands.
(SomeGuyInVirginia)

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