Read My Mind© By Michael Harris
Apr 03, 2018 09:39PM
● By Michael Harris
Lincoln In The Bardo
George Saunders’ long-awaited first novel, Lincoln In The Bardo, is all the rage. It's getting all kinds of awards and critical acclaim. But it's one of the most confounding books I've ever read and it's a challenge to explain and review, but I'll try my best.
First of all, you need to know what “the Bardo” is. In Tibetan tradition, it’s a transitional state between death and rebirth. The book centers on Abraham Lincoln's beloved son Willie, who actually died of typhoid fever at the age of 11. In this fictional account, Lincoln pays several visits to his son's grave in the old Oak Hill Cemetery. From here, reality departs and we’re left with Saunders’ imaginings.
Interspersing facts and fantasy, Saunders conjures up a strange "chorus of disembodied spirits to describe Lincoln's visits, while babbling on about their own regrets and misplaced dreams.” Saunders even includes citations as he quotes a motley crew of ghosts through public records and newspapers who bemoan their own lives and deaths. The book is extremely hard to follow as Saunders cuts between his ghosts and the grieving president.
I tried to read the book when it first came out last year. In fact, I tried several times and couldn't get past the first few chapters. It is so disjointed that every page or two I had to go back just to remember which of the ghosts was talking. Saunders admits "People really struggle with the first 30 pages.” Unfortunately, I struggled with the entire book. I even listened to the audio version of the story to no avail. The language is often foul and the characters confusing and interchangeable. Although much of this book has been critically acclaimed, I did not enjoy it and cannot recommend it to anyone other than true literary aficionados.
Good thing there are other recent books to enjoy. Take, for example, astronaut Scott Kelly's recent book about his life and year in orbit aboard the international space station, Endurance: A Year In Space, A Lifetime Of Discovery. Scott, the twin brother of fellow astronaut Mark Kelly, endured a year in space to help determine how the human body copes with long periods of weightlessness, as would be needed to send a man to Mars.
I had the good fortune to hear Scott Kelly speak recently. He is truly an amazing guy. Not a very good student, Kelly admits that as a kid he would rather look out the school window at a squirrel climbing up a tree than listen to his teachers. But something amazing happened to him when he read Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book, The Right Stuff, the story of the original Mercury seven astronauts. This book turned Kelly’s life turned around. He now had a dream and a goal; he wanted to be an astronaut.
He joined the Navy ROTC at college, became a Navy pilot, and then became a test pilot before being selected to be an astronaut. The book is inspirational in so many ways. Young people who are struggling in school or finding their way will find the encouragement they need to turn their lives around in Kelly’s story. And anyone interested in space exploration will find this book fascinating.
And speaking of exploration, I also recommend Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide To The World's Hidden Wonders, by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, and Ella Morton. It’s a "curious and enthralling" guide to over 600 strange, marvelous, and intriguing places around the world. Discover the ultimate travel “bucket list" in this delicious book. You shouldn't just read this book; you should savor every enchanting page!