Acceding to all the buzz about this book, I put it on reserve at my local library. Twice. The first time I returned it without reading because I fell victim to a case of “Overdrive overload.” All the books I’d been waiting for showed up on my Kindle in the same week. Aack! The second time I settled in for a challenging, yet beautiful ride.
In 1862 Abraham Lincoln is not yet a beloved icon. The Civil War has just begun. Lincoln is widely believed to be inept and certain to be a one-term President. When his young son dies of typhoid, Mr. Lincoln recognizes the grief that other parents are suffering in the still young war—a war that would eventually claim more than 600,000.
“So we have the dilemma put to us, What to do, when his power must continue two years longer and when the existence of our country may be endangered before he can be replaced by a man of sense. How hard, in order to save the country, to sustain a man who is incompetent.
But those historic events only set the stage for George Saunders’ novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Yes, I had to google “bardo” and learned that it is “(in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.”
The entire novel takes place in a Georgetown Cemetery where young Willie Lincoln has been laid to rest in a borrowed crypt. That cemetery is also populated by numerous and diverse spirits who while quite chatty, aren’t exactly certain of their condition.
This novel is stylistically challenging. Each of the fictional and historic characters speaks or relates the speech of another without much connecting tissue. Their contributions may only be a word or a few lines long, like listening in on the conversation at a large cocktail party. Or perhaps it’s more like a pointillist painting or a patchwork quilt. You may need some distance to appreciate the big picture. That being said, you’ll either get on board with the way the story is told, or you’ll give up. Author Saunders says that’s fine.
Here are a few snippets of the text that give voice to the Lincolns’ grief at the loss of their boy.
“Everything nonsense now. Those mourners came up. Hands extended. Sons intact. Wearing on their faces enforce sadness-masks to hide any sing of their happiness, which—which went on.”
“He is either in joy or nothingness. (So why grieve? The worst of it, for him, is over.) Because I loved hm so and am in the habit of loving him and that love must take the from 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.”
“Mary Lincoln’s mental health had never been good, and the loss of young Willie ended her life as a functional wife and mother…Some blows fall too heavy upon those too fragile.”
The whole “dead men talking” thing reminded me of the cemetery scenes in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and Fannie Flagg’s The Whole Town’s Talking, but with a much darker, deeper, more poetic edge. If it were a movie, I imagined Tim Burton might direct it because of his darkly comedic style. However Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally have secured the rights and no director has yet been named.
Draw your own conclusions about reading it. It’s certainly not for everyone. The audio-book was available at my library this week, so I’m having another go. Now that I know the story, I’m enjoying the vivid voice portrayals on my morning walks and appreciating it much more.
If this hadn’t been a book club choice, I might have overlooked The President is Missing, simply because of the hype—the teaming up of two bestselling authors. Seriously? I guess I’m a bit contrary. Besides, I haven’t read the much in the mystery/thriller/suspense genre for more than twenty years when both my husband and I read a lot of Tom Clancy. He read for the technology; I read for the story. Happily, this book is loaded with both.
President Jonathan Duncan is facing a congressional inquiry and possible impeachment when warning of a credible cyber-threat reaches him through his daughter. The book weaves foreign policy, cyber warfare, terrorism, political ambition, and infighting into the narrative through vividly drawn characters and taut action. Who is the assassin aiming at? Who hired her? Who is the traitor among the President’s closest advisors? Who developed this virus? And what would happen if all the collected data stored on the cloud and our computers simply disappeared? Would we find ourselves thrust back into the Dark Ages?
“I lower my head and close my eyes, shutting out the rest of the room. I have a team of highly competent, well-trained professionals advising me. But I am making this decision alone. There is a reason that the founders of our country put a civilian in charge of the military. Because it is not only about military effectiveness. It’s also about policy, about values, about what we stand for as a nation.”
Patterson is skilled at creating and maintaining suspense. Written in present tense, each scene feels visceral and immediate. And the little cliff-hanger at the end of every chapter that forces you to turn the page and stay up past your bedtime? Masterful.
Clinton, on the other hand, knows firsthand about the complexity and frustrations, the power and limitations of being the President of the United States. He sees the big picture as well as all the moving parts.
“Our democracy cannot survive its current downward drift into tribalism, and seething resentment. Today it’s ‘us versus them’ in America. Politics is little more than blood sport. As a result, our willingness to believe the worst about everyone outside our own bubble is growing, and our ability to solve problems and seize opportunities is shrinking.”
If you’re up for a thrilling and satisfying ride, this book is your ticket. Recommend.
Whew. I finally finished the EPIC Alexander Hamilton. Ron Chernow did a masterful job here, however the sheer weight of the 818-page tome made me especially grateful for my Kindle. I started reading it after I’d become obsessed with the soundtrack of “Hamilton,” the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical it inspired. I heard Miranda say once that hip-hop was the only genre that could have captured the story, simply because it gets more words per measure. An example: “The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father / Got a lot farther by working a lot harder / By being a lot smarter / By being a self-starter.”
Years ago I read Gore Vidal’s Burr. I knew of the legendary duel between these two Founding Fathers. I also remembered the irony of Hamilton being an illegitimate child born in the Virgin Islands. However, somewhere I’d missed (or forgotten) Hamilton’s profound influence on our country’s birth, especially our financial system. And remember the Federalist Papers? Those essays written to promote the ratification of the U.S. Constitution? Yeah, Alexander Hamilton wrote most of them. He was kind of a big deal. And his origin story is pretty compelling as well.
“He embodied an enduring archetype: the obscure immigrant who comes to America, re-creates himself, and succeeds despite a lack of proper birth and breeding.”
“He chose a psychological strategy adopted by many orphans and immigrants: he decided to cut himself off from his past and forge a new identity. He would find a home where he would be accepted for what he did, not for who he was, and where he would no longer labor in the shadow of illegitimacy.”
“Like other founding fathers, Hamilton would have preferred a stately revolution, enacted decorously in courtrooms and parliamentary chambers by gifted orators in powdered wigs. The American Revolution was to succeed because it was undertaken by skeptical men who knew that the same passions that toppled tyrannies could be applied to destructive ends.”
I will admit to skimming through chunks of the middle—I got a bit bogged down in the detail of the political and highly partisan infighting. Nonetheless, it did remind me that our leaders have always fought, always been driven by principle—not to mention ego. No one mentioned here (Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Burr…) is without fault, least of all Hamilton himself.
Hamilton’s life was fraught with tragedy and scandal. He was passionate in all areas of his life and frequently his ego got the better of him. The one stabilizing influence was his wife Eliza Schuyler. From all appearances this was a love match. Eliza stood by him through scandals and long absences. His death left her in debt, still she worked to preserve her husband’s legacy as she built one for herself. Throughout her very long life, she served widows, orphans, and poor children. She established a school and an orphanage. Eliza even gave older orphans jobs in her home and helped one gain admittance into West Point.
Aaron Burr comes off especially poorly.
“For the rest of his life, he never uttered one world of contrition for having killed a man with a wife and seven children and behaved as if Hamilton’s family did not exist.”
If you–or someone on your gift list–loves history, I’d recommend this book. Otherwise, stick with the soundtrack to “Hamilton” and hope that Santa slips a ticket into your stocking (hint, hint).