Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders – The Raucous Undead and Some Historical Tidbits


‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders   (2017) – 343 pages


Like many other readers I have been a great fan of the short stories of George Saunders.  His short fiction is wildly original and wickedly funny.  Now Saunders has released his first novel to universal praise.

Not quite universal praise. Keep reading.

Usually I try to avoid fiction where Abraham Lincoln is a major character, because he is always portrayed as an overly familiar depressive Gloomy Gus of a character, and ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ is no exception in its portrayal.  This is especially true here, because the novel is about the death of his 11 year old son, Willy.  As for Mrs. Mary Lincoln, she is not really a character in the novel, because as a historical note conveniently points out, “Mary Lincoln’s mental health had never been good, and the loss of young Willie ended her life as a functional wife and mother.” – ‘A Mother’s Trial: Mary Lincoln and the Civil War’ by Jayne Coster.

As for the little boy Willy, yes, it is sad that this little boy has died, but as another historical note again conveniently points out, the casualty figures for the battle of Fort Donelson, the first really bloody battle of the Civil War with casualties in the thousands, had just been published, so a lot of families were suffering the loss of sons.  Willy is rather a stock little boy character even when he is one of the undead.

Most of ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ takes place in the cemetery where Willy is to be buried. The “bardo” is the transitional state between life and death in the Tibetan Buddhist religion.  Throughout the novel we hear the voices of many of these undead ghosts.  They call their coffins ‘sick boxes’, because they are still transitioning between life and death.  I suppose the voices of all these undead function as a Greek chorus would function in a Greeks tragedy.

As for all these ghosts, including the two main ones Mr. Vollman and Mr. Bevins, their presence grew tiresome for this reader rather rapidly.  Saunders does not give us readers any reason to care about these ghostly figures, and this reader did not care for them.  They weren’t particularly funny.  The “disparate voices” schtick works better in a short story than in a long novel.

Throughout the novel there are short quotes from real historical accounts which ground this story that is always threatening to fly out of control off into the wind by these cemetery voices.  It is not a good thing for a novel when the most interesting parts of it are all the factual little tidbits scattered in the text.

The audiobook for ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ advertises a cast of 166 different people doing the voices for the book.  I must point out that all these different voices are not necessarily a positive feature for the reader/listener.  There are just too many characters to care about.  With so many different voices, it is very difficult to attend to any particular character or characters.  Frequently the symphony becomes a discordant cacophony.


Grade :    C      


‘Zama’ by Antonio Di Benedetto – A Skirt Chasing Bureaucrat in Paraguay in the 1790s


‘Zama’ by Antonio Di Benedetto  (1956) – 198 pages           Translated by Esther Allen


Don Diego de Zama is an administrator working for the ruling Spanish government in Asuncion, Paraguay in the 1790s.  His job title is “Asesor Latrado” which I take to be “assessor of trade”.  He is far away from his wife Marta and their children and his mother who are at his home in Mendoza which is in western Argentina.

Being on his own with lots of time to kill, Zama gets into all sorts of mischief.  He is caught spying on some women who are swimming naked in the river, and one of the women’s husbands calls him “a predator upon honest women” and “a filthy gutless snoop”.  Zama considers his job in Paraguay beneath him and he is angling for a transfer perhaps to Buenos Aires or perhaps to Santiago, Chile where he would be closer to home.

The subjects of the novel are Zama’s love life and his battles with those around him.  Much of ‘Zama’ is taken up with his machinations to get other women including Luciana who is the wife of another administrator.  Despite its potential for his romantic intrigues being played for laughs, this novel is not a comedy

  “This same Diego de Zama, not having kissed a body other than his wife’s for years, knew himself to be alien to the purity that fidelity imposed, and urgently required that someone else participate in the bewilderment of his desires, the sharp bite of his reproaches. 

So beneath the blur of that evening sky, I knew I was not going toward a luminous or happy love.  With what certainty I knew that.”  

The above lines are a good example of Zama’s way of thinking.  Zama is no ordinary hero; if anything, he is an anti-hero.  He is constantly getting into one kind of trouble or another, usually his own damn fault.  In other words, he is your average guy.

In ‘Zama’, Antonio Di Benedetto wrote a modernist or even post-modernist novel.  Di Benedetto’s two literary heroes were Dostoyevsky and Kafka, so don’t go into ‘Zama’ expecting it to be a traditional read. Expect the rug to be pulled out from under you at any time.

Zama, the man, is aware of his own self-deceptions.

“No man, I told myself, disdains the prospect of illicit love.  It is a game, a game of dangers and satisfactions.”

In one sense, ‘Zama’ is a historical novel with the three sections taking place in 1790, 1794, and 1799 respectively.  However, don’t expect much historical perspective as the entire novel takes place in this one guy Zama’s mind.

The last section is a departure from the first two sections as Zama quits his administrator job and goes off with a legion in search of the criminal Vicuna Porto.

“A head, Vicuna Porto’s, would be my ticket to the better destiny that neither civil merit, intermediaries, nor supplication had gained me.” 

‘Zama’ is not an easy read; in fact I would call it a quite difficult read, not because the scenes and attitudes are hard to understand, but instead because the approach is so original and unexpected, especially in an historical novel. I do definitely believe that reading ‘Zama’ was worth the effort of reading. Several reviewers called ‘Zama’ a masterpiece and left it at that. However the difficulty makes ‘Zama’ next to impossible for me to grade, but, fool that I am, I will grade it anyhow.


Grade:   B+ 


‘The Refugees’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen – “For all refugees, everywhere.”


 ‘The Refugees’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen, stories   (2017)  –  207 pages


There are many good examples from the stories in ‘The Refugees’ which show that Viet Thanh Nguyen has mastered most of the lessons of writing excellent fiction and has developed into one of the United States’ finest authors.  He makes the characters in these stories and their situations come alive for his readers as only a few of the best writers can do.

I previously read his outstanding novel ‘The Sympathizer’ which told the story of the Vietnam War from the perspective of the Vietnamese, a viewpoint we here in the United States had not encountered before.    When the Americans finally evacuated Vietnam as Saigon was falling to the North Vietnamese Army in 1975, there were all the Vietnamese people who had aided the Americans and were in peril.  Ultimately over 600,000 Vietnamese people either self-evacuated or were evacuated and were processed as refugees to the United States.  ‘The Refugees’ contains some of the stories of a few of these Vietnamese refugees.

Some have flashbacks to the terrible time of leaving.

“He tried to forget the people who had clutched at the air as they fell into the river, some knocked down in the scramble, others shot in the back by desperate soldiers clearing a way for their own escape.  He tried to forget what he’d discovered, how little other lives mattered to him when his own was a stake.”

In one story, “The Other Man” a young man from Saigon is sponsored by a man from San Francisco who has a gay lover.  This is an extreme example of the cultural shock in store for some of the refuges.  His father, still in Saigon, writes him as follows:

“When you have time, send us the news from America.  It must be more sinful even than Saigon, so remember what the cadres say.  The revolutionary man must live a civil, healthy, correct life!  We all think of you often.  Your mother misses you, and sends you her love.  So do I.”

The really good writers make these combinations of words seem so easy.  Here is a daughter describing her father in poignant terms to which some of us can relate. In these lines, Nguyen captures the oddness of close family members and the embarrassment it causes.

“None was drawn more clearly than her father, whom she pitied, and, worse, did not respect.  If only he were an adulterer or playboy, then there would be cause for resentment, but he was in decline, a failure without even the glamour of decadence and bad behavior.    This was a matter of sufficient sadness and embarrassment so that when her father’s shadow appeared in the doorway, Phoung turned on her side as well.”

Remember the name Viet Thanh Nguyen.  Here is a writer I suspect you will be hearing a lot about in the future.


Grade:    A


‘Doctor Faustus’ by Christopher Marlowe – “Why This is Hell, Nor Am I Out of It”


‘Doctor Faustus’ by Christopher Marlowe   (1592) – 69 pages


Christopher Marlowe is one of the great Might Have Beens in literary history.  Besides being a successful playwright, Marlowe was apparently a street brawler and a government spy and was also arrested for blasphemy in his writings just thirteen days before he was stabbed to death at the age of 29.  Had he lived, Marlowe would have been a worthy competitor to William Shakespeare as a playwright.  As it was, Marlowe’s completed plays greatly influenced Shakespeare.  Shakespeare emulated Marlowe in writing his plays also in blank verse which is a metrical pattern consisting of lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter.

‘Doctor Faustus’ was Marlowe’s last play.  The main character John Faustus is a learned doctor from Wittenburg, Germany, but like Icarus he aspires for so much more.  He takes up magic.

“So much he profits in divinity
That shortly he was graced with doctor’s name,
Excelling all, and sweetly can dispute
In th’heavenly matters of theology;
Till swoll’n with cunning, of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And melting, heavens conspired his overthrow.”

Along with Doctor Faustus and a few other human characters including a Pope or two, the devil’s representative Mephistopheles and the old devil Lucifer himself and the Seven Deadly Sins are all characters in the play.  I am Pride, I am Covetousness, I am Wrath, I am Envy, I am Gluttony, I am Sloth, I am Lechery.  You see, the learned Doctor Faustus sells his body and soul to the devil in exchange for having Mephistopheles as his servant and at his command for twenty-four years.  Doctor Faustus partakes of all seven of these sins; nothing can hurt him during those twenty-four years.

“Mephistopheles: Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?” 

During this entire time a Good Angel and an Evil Angel spar verbally for Doctor Faustus’ soul apparently not knowing of the agreement he has already signed in blood.  The years pass quickly, and, spoiler alert, Doctor Faustus meets a bad end.

“All beasts are happy,
For, when they die,
Their souls are soon dissolv’d in elements;
But mine must live still to be plagu’d in hell.
Curs’d be the parents that engender’d me!
No, Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer
That hath depriv’d thee of the joys of heaven.”

Unfortunately Christopher Marlowe was not given twenty-four years in his adulthood.  Compared to ‘Doctor Faustus’, Shakespeare’s plays, even the wild ones like ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, are realistic and down to earth. However, based on ‘Doctor Faustus’, the plays of Christopher Marlowe would have been more philosophical, more allegorical, more willing to take things to their logical or illogical extremes.  It would have been interesting if they both had at the same time been writing plays which competed for an audience on the English stage.


Grade:   A


‘Autumn’ by Ali Smith – Not the Post-Brexit Novel

‘Autumn’ by Ali Smith   (2016)  –  260 pages


‘Autumn’ has been called the first Post-Brexit novel, and there are a few bits about the anti-refugee hysteria that has taken over England, but it is not the Post-Brexit novel.

“Rule Britannia, a bunch of thugs had been sing-shouting in the street at the weekend past Elisabeth’s flat.  Britannia rules the waves.  First we’ll get the Poles.  And then we’ll get the Muslims.  Then we’ll get the gyppos, then the gays.  You lot are on the run, and we’re coming after you, a right-wing spokesman shouted at a female MP on a panel on Radio 4 earlier that same Saturday.  The chairman of the panel didn’t berate, or comment on, or even acknowledge the threat the man had just made.  Instead he gave the last word to the Tory MP on the panel, who used what was the final thirty seconds of the programme to talk about the real and disturbing cause for concern – not the blatant threat that was just made on the air by one person to another – of immigration.” 

9780241207017These lines echo the spiteful Trump phenomenon in the United States as well as apply to Brexit.  However a few good lines scattered through ‘Autumn’ do not a Post-Brexit novel make.  We must wait for a novel that more intensely deals with the Right-Wing racial hatred and viciousness sweeping across both England and the United States now.

In many ways ‘Autumn’ is similar to Smith’s previous novel ‘How to Be Both’.  Both concern a young girl/woman and an old, old man.  In ‘Autumn’ the girl/woman is Elisabeth Demand, now a 32 year-old university contract lecturer, and the old man, as opposed to a 15th century Renaissance artist, is now 101 year-old Daniel Gluck, a former neighbor who is on his death bed.  There is a profound innocence between the old man Daniel and the young Elisabeth.

For me, ‘Autumn’ is just not as sharply written as ‘How To Be Both’.  It has some of the same themes as ‘How To Be Both’, but these themes do not cohere so well.  The story is more scattered and less clever and engaging.

One particular quality which I do like a lot in the fiction of Ali Smith is how she can make a facet of art history come alive.  In ‘How To Be Both’, it was the life and times of Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa.  In ‘Autumn’, the artist who Smith spotlights is 1960s English pop artist Pauline Boty.  Like so many stories, Boty’s story is exquisitely sad only to emerge triumphant in the end.

And I’ve got some final advice for the British people.  Don’t sound too vicious or stupid in your racist rants or you will wind up sounding like Donald Trump.


Grade:    B


‘Transit’ by Rachel Cusk – Listening to Other People’s Life Stories

‘Transit’ by Rachel Cusk    (2016)   –  260 pages


‘Transit’ is almost entirely made up of the life stories that other people tell our narrator, Faye.  Instead of getting Faye’s story, we mainly get those of the people around her who tell stories from their lives to her in casual conversations.

I see this as a strategic retreat on our narrator Faye’s part.  She is going through a divorce, and this might be a good time to listen to what the people around her are saying about their own situations rather than dwelling on her own plight.  Perhaps she wants to re-establish her bond with others by listening to them.

First there is old boyfriend Gerard who is now happily married with a family and still living in the old neighborhood to which Faye is returning. There are two ways that a writer can approach dialogue.  In one approach, to be entirely natural and realistic, the writer can have his or her characters speak exactly like real people speak which means they would rarely say anything clever or witty.  In the other approach, the writer has his or her characters speak in witty sparkling epigrams, constantly saying the perfect thing.  Rachel Cusk favors the second approach, and I admire her for it.  Here is a line from Gerard.

“It’s hard not to become self-satisfied,” he said, “with so much self-satisfaction around you.”

Later Faye responds to Gerard as follows:

“I said that it seemed to me that most marriages worked in the same way that stories are said to do, through the suspension of disbelief.  It wasn’t, in other words, perfection that sustained them so much as the avoidance of certain realities.” 

We do find out a few things about Faye as she interacts with the people around her.  She has two children and is going through a divorce.  Her children are staying with her ex while her apartment is being remodeled.  She has a terrible obnoxious couple living below her which is one of the novel’s sources of humor.  She teaches creative writing.  She has started dating again.

But mainly we find out other people’s stories.  The guys who are remodeling her apartment are two brothers from Poland, Pavel and Tony, who are making a go of it in England.  We accompany Faye to her hairdresser and to a literary conference where she is one of the guest speakers.  We learn quite a bit about the other two writers who are guest speakers but not so much about Faye.

Even though Faye is the central figure in ‘Transit’, most of the stories are related to her by the people she meets.  There is essentially no conventional plot and little character development.  Rachel Cusk is on the cutting edge of writers attempting to take the novel to somewhere new and different from its traditional roots. She has a talent for writing eloquent and expressive sentences that many experimental novelists do not have.  I have followed Cusk’s writing from the beginning of her career and am happy to continue to do so.


Grade:    A

‘Sudden Death’ by Alvaro Enrigue – The Sixteenth Century Viewed Through a Tennis Match


‘Sudden Death’ by Alvaro Enrigue   (2013)     261 pages       Translated by Natasha Wimmer



‘Sudden Death’ is an incredibly rich entertaining whirlwind trip through the 16th century presented within the framework of a tennis match in 1599 between Italian artist Caravaggio and Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo.  Along the way, we have stops for English Queen Anne Boleyn and Spanish explorer Cortés and the church officials during the Counter Reformation as well as other excursions.

“I don’t know what this book is about.  I know that as I wrote it I was angry because the bad guys always win.  Maybe all books are written because in every game the bad guys have the advantage, and that is too much to bear.”

Instead of the usual axe, a sword was used by the special executioner from France brought in by English King Henry VIII in 1536 to behead Anne Boleyn.  There is a rumor that this executioner kept some of her hair to make four tennis balls.  Yes, this is spurious history, and I would not vouch for the accuracy of much that is in this novel.  That does not make these apocryphal stories any less fascinating.    The author Enrigue has these four Boleyn tennis balls bounce through the 16th century being passed from Pope to Cardinal to financier to favored artists.   Thus we get to the time of the Counter Reformation and its accompanying tortures.

“Never were the connections among politics, money, art, and semen so tight or so murky or so unashamedly happy, tolerant, and fluid.”   

There are also occasional side trips to Mexico where the Aztecs led by Montezuma make the fatal mistake of not executing Cortés and his men upon their arrival.  For Enrigue who is from Mexico, the history of Cortés and Montezuma has special significance.  “There are few better illustrations of how a whole host of people can manage to understand absolutely nothing, act in an impulsive and idiotic way, and still drastically change the course of history,” Enrigue says of Cortés and his men.

I did not even know that tennis went back that far, but apparently there was tennis already in the Middle Ages.  Later Caravaggio was known for his realistic paintings and also for using prostitutes as models for his religious figures including the Virgin Mary.   Caravaggio is considered the most important artist of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, yet he was jailed on several occasions and had a death sentence pronounced against him after he killed a young man in a brawl in 1604.

‘Sudden Death’ contains so much of history and of rumor that it can be quite an overwhelming experience to read this novel.  However Enrigue presents all of this material in such a methodical and intriguing fashion it is ultimately pleasurable.


Grade:    A


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