Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Man Booker Prize long list 2017)

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XXII

After perhaps thirty minutes the unkempt man left the white stone home and stumbled away into the darkness.

Entering,  I found the boy sitting in one corner.

My father, he said.

Yes, I said.

He said he will come again, he said. He promised.

I found myself immeasurably and inexplicably moved.

A miracle, I said.

the reverend everly thomas

February 25, 1862

President Lincoln has returned to the cemetery where his son, Willie, had earlier been interred in his sick-box. The father is overcome with grief for his son, holding him and arranging his hair and creating a dreadful longing amongst the ghosts already there, for they yearn to be touched by someone from “that other place.”

The ghosts: roger bevins iii, hans vollman, the reverend everly thomas, converse amongst themselves thereby filling us in as to the goings-on in the Oak Hill Cemetery. Their voices are interspersed with other ghosts, all indicated by names which are not capitalized, a perfect way to show how “unsubstantial” they are.

As for a bardo…in Tibetan Buddhism, a bardo is a state of existence between death and rebirth. It is in this bardo that the ghosts exist, discussing amongst themselves the woes of death, the way that people have arrived to dwell in the bardo with them. Their conversation is rich in imagination, lush with detail. Who among us does not wonder about how it will be when we depart from this world?

When Mr. Lincoln mourns his son, one of the ghosts imagines what he is thinking:

Because I love him so and am in the habit of loving him and that love must take the form of fussing and worry and doing. Only there is nothing left to do. Free myself of this darkness as I can, remain useful, not go mad. Think of him, when I do, as being in some bright place, free of suffering, resplendent in a new mode of being.

Thus thought the gentleman. Thoughtfully combing a patch of grass with his hand.

roger bevins iii

Yet the perspectives which Saunders has written about President Lincoln could well apply to those felt toward our own President Trump today. Look at the irony within these sentiments:

The Presdt is an idiot. ~In “The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan,” edited by Stephen Sears

Vain, weak, puerile, hypocritical, without manners, without social grace, and as he talks to you, punches his fists under your ribs. ~In “The War Years,” by Carl Sandburg, account of SherrardnClemens

Evidently a person of very inferior cast of character, wholly unequal to the crisis. ~In “The Emergence of Lincoln: Prologue to the Civil War, 1859-1861, by Allen Nevins account of Edward Everett

These disparaging points of view go on for much longer than I could type them, or perhaps than you would want to read them. We all know of the negative perspectives people have toward our current leader. I only mention them here to point to Saunders’ apt imagination and research, applicable to more than the character of whom he writes.

While I found Lincoln in the Bardo clever and imaginative, ultimately it does not hold up to either Solar Bones or Days Without End, both of which will be hard to beat in my mind.

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Autumn by Ali Smith (Man Booker long list 2017)

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All across the country, the country split in pieces. All across the country, the countries cut adrift.

All across the country, the country was divided, a fence here, a wall there, a line drawn here, a line crossed there,

a line you don’t cross here,
a line you better not cross there,
a line of beauty here,
a line dance there,
a line you don’t even know exists here,
a line you can’t afford there,
a whole new line of fire,
line of battle,
end of the line,
here/there.

When she is young, and talking to Daniel who is old, Elizabeth gets to see things in her imagination while Daniel sees them in his memory.

They have a relationship of great beauty,  built on truth and understanding. It is absolutely opposite the relationship she has with her mother, which has been eroded by lies and deceit.

Elizabeth is 13, and David is 85, and they are friends. When they walk, they talk. David tells her about books. Songs. Poets, like Keats. Or, Sylvia Plath.

But now she is trying to visit him in the hospital, and she can’t get the Post Office to process her passport so that she has proper identification. Her picture is all wrong: her head is the wrong size (!) and that bit of hair shouldn’t be touching her forehead. (Oh, sister, have I been there! Bureaucracy, officious officials, ridiculousness at every turn, thwarting the honest person simply trying to follow the rules.)

Within their story are lovely games with language. Like this:

Isn’t it a bit too far, to walk as far as the river? Elisabeth said.

She didn’t want him to have to go so far if he really was as ancient as her mother kept saying.

Not for me, Daniel said. A mere bagatelle.

A what? Elisabeth asked.

A trifle, Daniel said. Not that kind of trifle. A mere nothing. Something trifling.

The book is called Autumn, and within its pages Daniel is taking leaf of his senses, the images of leaves is woven throughout; from the very beginning where he sews himself some clothes from leaves to cover his nakedness, to the end where a leaf talks to him, telling him that falling is the very thing leaves do.

We’re in a never ending leaf-fall.

It’s amazing what Ali Smith is able to do: tell a story that encompasses age and youth and friendship and the fragile times of our history, (the stories unfolding in front of us right now) which seem to make no sense, but still deserve to be examined.

Loved it.

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (Man Booker Prize long list 2017)

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Here’s a hint: do not read this book after Solar Bones or Days Without End. While on any given day it may be considered a fine book, after those two it becomes merely ordinary.

The writing feels jagged, the story cumbersome. I’m frankly not so interested in this young misfit of a girl who lived in a rundown cabin with very weird parents. She babysits Paul, who stuffs an old leather glove with leaves, and befriends his mother, Patra, who is only 26. Her full name is Cleopatra, and she was once called Cleo, but that would never work with her 37 year old husband named Leo.

And then there’s Lily, a girl from their school who became involved with their teacher, Mr. Grierson, who was discovered to be a pedophile when dogs searched his old apartment in California, from which he fled to teach in Minnesota.

So there is a certain tension within the first 100 pages as all this is set up, but the point for me now is, “Who cares?” I’m eager to reach the end so that I can move on to another book from the Man Booker long list. Autumn, by Ali Smith, to be exact.

 

Addendum: I have just finished the book, a day after I published this post, and my feelings about it have not changed. I’m baffled as to how it managed to land on the Man Booker long list, curious as to what the judges saw in it that completely eluded me.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Man Booker Prize long list 2017)

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It’s a dark thing when the world sets no value  on you or your kin, and then Death comes stalking in, in his bloody boots.

And now I come to another book with incredible writing, a turn of phrase, or an expression, that will make me alternatively pause to think or smile or both.

Thomas  McNulty tells us his story, that after fleeing Ireland he caught up with John Cole, and these two became inseparable first working in a bar dressed as young girls so the men would have dancing partners, and then signing up to join the army.

They fight the Indians on the frontier in the 1850’s, and there is a ghastly retelling of each misunderstanding and massacre the soldiers encounter.

You can’t have nothing good in war without you punishing the guilty, the sergeant says with a savage air and no one says nothing against that. John Cole whispers to me that most times that sergeant he just wrong but just now and then he’s right and he’s right this time. I guess I’m thinking this is true. We get drunk then and the sergeant is clutching his belly all evening and then everything is blotted out till you awake in the bright early morning needing a piss and then it all floods back into your brain what happened and it makes your heart yelp like a dog.

For who is the sergeant to say what is right and what is wrong? Plus, these soldiers are at a disadavantage as they are in the “awkward position of being clumsy-footed Europeans near a village of geniuses when it comes to tracking and vigilance.”

Only after awhile John Cole’s body isn’t quite right, somehow, and it is decided that they will not sign up again when the time comes round.

They take a young Sioux girl, Winona, and set off for a new life, hoping at the same time that they can form a family since her father had been killed. They are a group of misfits to be sure, but misfits who love one another all the more for their lack of belonging elsewhere.

Next thing you know, they are called into service for the Civil War, a situation which seems as bungled and bloody as fighting the Indians ever was.

Nothing too tricky about dying for your country. It’s the easiest item on the menu. God knows the truth of it. Young Seth McCarthy he come up from Missouri to be a drummer boy in the Federal army and what does he get only his head took off by a Federal Shell.

When they end their time serving in that war, they are mere shadows of their former selves, skeletal men who hunger for more than food. They answer a compatriot’s call to come to Tennessee and help with the tobacco farm he cannot manage on his own, and so Thomas, John and Winona go there while we hope that this is a place where they can at last find a normal life. Or, at least some comfort from the hardships they have endured.

This is a beautiful book, a story of much more than war and poverty and loneliness. I found it quite moving; my mother liked it so much she is presenting it to her Book Club this August as a “must read”.

Indeed.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Man Booker long list 2017)

IMG_4294 Never have I read a book like this, one long sentence with no periods in it whatsoever, just a conma thrown in here and there but that does not make it any less readable or powerful as Marcus Conway reviews his life as an engineer, husband, and father at the kitchen table, waiting for his wife and kids

the wife and kids whom we are told about so clearly we feel we have inhabited their home and physically suffered Mairead’s illness from the virus she caught after attending their daughter’s art exhibition in the city, an exhibition of art done in her own blood; or Darragh’s Skype sessions from Australia where  he has temporarily landed; or fought the powers who want to pour cement for the school’s foundation even though Marcus knows the foundation will not hold,

for he knows of everything that will not hold and can name it all, from politics to infidelity to illness to raising one’s children to ultimately, dying.

I cannot imagine a book I will want to win the Man Booker Prize more than this one. You surely must read it.

 

A quote which contains the title, but by no means a summary of the novel:

“…just before the world collapses

mountains, rivers and lakes

acres, roods and perches

into oblivion, drawn down into that fissure in creation where everything is consumed in the raging tides and swells of non-being, the physical world

gone down in flames

mountains, rivers and lakes and pulling with it also all those human rhythms that bind us together and draw the world into a community, those daily

rites, rhthyms and rituals

upholding the world like solar bones, that rarefied amalgam of time and light whose extension through every minute of the day is visible from the moment I get up in the morning and stand at the kitchen window with a mug of tea in my hand, watching the first cars of the day passing on the road, every one of them known to me….

 

(Solar Bones was sent to me by SoHo Press, a most timely and precious gift.)

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Man Booker long list 2017)

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“In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days. His name was Saeed and her name was Nadia and he had a beard, not a full beard, more a studiously maintained stubble, and she was always clad from the tops of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe. Back then people continued to enjoy the luxury of wearing more or less what they wanted to wear, clothing and hair wise, within certain bounds of course, and so these choices meant something.”

These are the first three lines of this unusual book, and from the instant I read them I knew that I was going to read something pertinent.

Saeed and Nadia fall in love, of course, in their unnamed, war-torn town. When one day the signal to every mobile phone in the city vanished, internet activity was discontinued as well.

Nadia did not have a landline at home. Saeed’s landline had not worked in months. Deprived of portals to each other and to the world provided by their mobile phones, and confined to their apartments by the nighttime curfew, Nadia and Saeed, and countless others, felt marooned and alone and much more afraid.

The conditions of the city near Dubai worsen, until there is no electricity, nor piped water for the toilets to work. When they pay in order to escape, Saeed’s father will not leave because “he preferred to abide, in a sense, in the past, for the past offered more to him.”

I am gaining an awareness of the pain within a refugee camp.

Their funds were growing thinner, more than half the money with which they had left their city now gone. They better understood the desperation they saw in the camps, the fear in people’s eyes that they would be trapped here forever, or until hunger forced them back through one of the doors that led to undesirable places, the doors that were left unguarded, what people were nonetheless trying, especially those who had exhausted their resources, venturing through them to the same place from which they had come, or to another unknown place when they thought anything would be better than where they had been.

They had escaped from their city through a door to Mykonos through another portal to London, where they live with other refugees in a luxurious home while angered nativists outside gather outside. They end in a refugee camp outside of San Francisco.

The novel is labeled with a Romance sticker on its spine, but I suppose that must be in part because there was no sticker with the word Refugees nearby. For surely it is as much about leaving one’s country for another, which can never be properly called home, as it is about the relationship between this young couple.

But, the end result of this book in my mind is disappointment. The writing is beautiful, the concerns immediate. Yet, I wish the characters  could have withstood the adversity they faced to stand by one another; I wish that not everyone seems to succumb to “finding their own way” as if that is the most important thing.