Lincoln In The Bardo

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George Saunders

First Sentence:    On our wedding day I was forty-six, she was eighteen.

Back of the book:

The American Civil War rages while President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son lies gravely ill. In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.

From this seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of realism, entering a thrilling, supernatural domain both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself trapped in a transitional realm – called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo – and as ghosts mingle, squabble, gripe and commiserate, and stony tendrils creep towards the boy, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Unfolding over a single night, Lincoln in the Bardo is written with George Saunders’ inimitable humour, pathos and grace. Here he invents an exhilarating new form, and is confirmed as one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Deploying a theatrical, kaleidoscopic panoply of voices – living and dead, historical and fictional – Lincoln in the Bardo poses a timeless question: how do we live and love when we know that everything we hold dear must end?

Thoughts:

Rarely have I seen a book that has been praised as enthusiastically as this one. It seems that every time I hear it mentioned people are commenting on how it is a masterpiece/already their book of the year/ the perfect novel etc. I have read some of Saunders’ short stories in the past and was blown away by his skills as a writer. Not surprisingly I was genuinely excited about the prospect of this book; pre-publication buzz was off the scale and it looks and sounds incredible. I have to say though I was massively disappointed. I just genuinely do not understand what all the fuss is about, and am at a loss to find anything remotely enjoyable in this reading experience. Not one I’ll be going back to any time soon.

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Matthew Griffin

First Sentence:     Lord knows how long he’s been lying out there: flat on his back in the middle of the vegetable garden.

Back of the book:

Wendell Wilson, a taxidermist, and Frank Clifton, a veteran, meet after the Second World War. But, in this declining textile town in a southern US state, their love holds real danger. Severing nearly all ties with the rest of the world, they carve out a home for themselves on the outskirts of town. For decades, their routine of self-reliant domesticity – Wendell’s cooking, Frank’s care for a yard no one sees, and the vicarious drama of courtroom TV – seems to protect them.

But when Wendell finds Frank lying motionless outside at the age of eighty-three, their carefully crafted life together begins to unravel. As Frank’s memory and physical strength deteriorate, Wendell struggles in vain to hold on to the man he once knew. Faced with giving care beyond his capacity, he must come to terms with the consequences of half a century in seclusion: the different lives they might have lived – and the impending, inexorable loss of the one they had.

Quotes from the book:

You can’t just have one doctor anymore, one person who knows all there is to know about you. They keep dividing us up, down and down into parts too small for a knife blade, and then they go and invent an implement with a finer edge. You’ve got to have your heart man, your lungs man, your digestive man, your skin man, your brain man, until you’re nothing more than an assemblage of organs they can split apart and divide among the needy if you check the right box on the form to renew your driver’s license.

‘He stares at his palms, turned up in submission like dogs’ pale, tender bellies.’

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The Heart Goes Last

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Margaret Atwood

First Sentence:     Sleeping in the car is cramped.

Back of the book:

Stan and Charmaine are a married couple trying to stay afloat in the midst of economic and social collapse. Living in their car, surviving on tips from Charmaine’s job at a dive bar, they’re increasingly vulnerable to roving gangs, and in a rather desperate state. So when they see an advertisement for the Positron Project in the town of Consilience – a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own – they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for this suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month, swapping their home for a prison cell.

At first, all is well. But slowly, unknown to the other, Stan and Charmaine develop a passionate obsession with their counterparts, the couple that occupy their home when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire take over, and Positron looks less like a prayer answered and more like a chilling prophecy fulfilled.

Quote from the book:

Oblivion is increasingly attractive to the young, and even to the middle-aged, since why retain your brain when no amount of thinking can even begin to solve the problem? It isn’t even a problem. It’s more like a looming collapse. Is their once-beautiful region doomed to be a wasteland or poverty and wreckage?

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Thirteen Ways Of Looking

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Colum McCann

First Sentence:     The first is hidden high in a mahogany bookcase.

Back of the book:

As it was, it was like being set down in the best of poems, carried into a cold landscape, blindfolded, turned around, unblindfolded, forced, then, to invent new ways of seeing.

It is a cold day in January when J. Mendelssohn wakes in his Upper East Side apartment. Old and frail, he is entirely reliant on the help of his paid carer, and as he waits for the heating to come on, the clacking of the pipes stirs memories of the past; of his childhood in Lithuania and Dublin, of his distinguished career as a judge, and of his late wife, Eileen. Later he leaves the house to meet his son Elliot for lunch, and when Eliot departs mid-meal, Mendelssohn continues eating alone as the snow falls heavily outside.

Moments after he leaves the restaurant he is brutally attacked. The detectives working on the case search through the footage of Mendelssohn’s movements, captured by cameras in his home and on the street. Their work is like that of a poet: the search for a random word that, included at the right instance, will suddenly make sense of everything.

Told from a multitude of perspectives, in lyrical, hypnotic prose, Thirteen Ways of Looking is a ground-breaking novella of true resonance. Accompanied by three equally powerful stories set in Afghanistan, Galway and London, this is a tribute to humanity’s search for meaning and grace, from a writer at the height of his form, capable of imagining immensities even in the smallest corners of our lives.

Quotes from the book:

He knew even then that he would see her this way forever, his mind had processed a photograph and seared itself on his brain.

‘The more we know of time, the less we have of it. The less we have, the more we want.’

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TransAtlantic

TransAtlantic

Colum McCann

First Sentence:     The cottage sat at the edge of the lough.

Back of the book:

1919. Emily Ehrlich watches as two young airmen, Alcock and Brown, emerge from the carnage of the First World War to pilot the very first non-stop transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to the west of Ireland. Among the letters being carried on the aircraft is one which will not be opened for almost a hundred years. 1998. Senator George Mitchell criss-crosses the ocean in search of an elusive Irish peace. How many more bereaved mothers and grandmothers must he meet before an agreement can be reached? 1845. Frederick Douglass, a black American slave, lands in Ireland to champion ideas of democracy and freedom, only to find a famine unfurling at his feet. On his travels he inspires a young maid to go to New York to embrace a free world, but the land does not always fulfill its promises for her. From the violent battlefields of the Civil War to the ice lakes of northern Missouri, it is her youngest daughter Emily who eventually finds her way back to Ireland.

Can we pass from the new world to the old? How does the past shape the future? In TransAtlantic, National Book Award-winning Colum McCann has achieved an outstanding act of literary bravura. Intricately crafted, poetic and deeply affecting it weaves together personal stories to explore the fine line between what is real and what is imagined, and the tangled skein of connections that make up our lives.

Quotes from the book:

It is one of their beauties, the Irish, the way they crush and expand the language all at once. How they mangle it and revere it. How they colour even their silences. He has sat in a room for hours on end listening to men talk about words and yet never mention the one word they want. The maniacal meanderings. The swerves and sways.

‘The miracle of the actual.’

Emily could sense the skip in her life, almost like the jumping of a pen. The flick of ink across a page. The great surprise of the next stroke. The boundlessness of it all.

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