Lincoln in the Bardo by George Sanders

A friend disliked this book so much but I’d been watching it and been intrigued.  So, because  he and I disagree on books from time to time,  and because of the generally positive critical reception the novel has garnered,  I went ahead.  Actually,  I got both the Audible and Kindle formats because from what I’d read the structure seemed so unique and the “plot” so original I felt it would be helpful to straightening things out.

Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Sanders
2017 / 367 pages
read by a whole cast 7h 25m
rating /  9.25  –  contemp historical fiction 

On February 19, 1862  Willie Lincoln, age 11,  is dying in an upstairs bedroom at the White House while a state dinner is going on in the formal rooms below.  His parents are both attending the dinner.

Five days later Willie’s body is taken to a nearby crypt.

So many people died during the Civil War from Willie Lincoln (the President’s young son) to the thousands of soldiers in the war and all the people doing the things of their lives and dying, naturally or no.  There were rich and poor, black and white, young and old dying.  Some died in their beds and others in fires or scenes of ungodly violence.

These are their fictional stories,  real and imaginary,  as they leave their bodies and pass into and hopefully through a place called the “Bardo.”

It’s also the story of those they left – the life of Mrs Lincoln as she lived out the days following Willie’s death and more particularly of Mr Lincoln as he endured his his grief which was reported on by many at the time.

The story is told in the voices of 166 (!) characters of various sorts and the Audible version uses a whole cast of characters.  Some are historical figures,  others are purely fictional.   Of the latter,  the two most important are “roger bevins iii”   and “hans vollman” (uncapitalized to show they are not living I suppose)  who serve as “guides” for newcomers to the Bardo – these two seem to be stuck there and do this welcoming and advising to pass the time.

There are differences between the Kindle book and the Audio –  the written narrative has every single character or reference named – the Audio sometimes doesn’t do that during simple conversations.  The Audio narrator says the whole indicated word when the printed version says “F’’.”   I recommend using both for clarity,  although if I had to choose one it would be the print version.  (And that said,  the Audible version is exceptional.)

So…   I  was thoroughly enjoying myself through the first 10% or so  which is about the death of Lincoln’s son,  Willie,  and Lincoln’s visit to the boy’s corpse.   This is followed by more conversations of the ghosts (roger iii and vollman)  in “Bardo” (a Tibetan word meaning “intermediate state)  with more Bardo residents when the language got quite vulgar and it was really jarring.   (I’m okay with vulgar language in my reading material – I loved A Brief History of Seven Killings –  but this is over the top.)  I suppose in fairness to Sanders a lot of foul-mouthed  and angry people died as well and everyone goes to Bardo –

But there are only a few places like that and many, many  places which are just as tender and  touching as the first chapters.  The tone swings from really extremely sad to quite humorous and from Civil War dead in huge numbers to individuals dying alone or with loved ones.  It’s not an easy book.

I’m reminded of the third act of Our Town by Thornton Wilder.

There is a plot which follows the illness and death of Willie Lincoln all the way to his funeral and a bit beyond.   His father the President,  his mother Mary Todd Lincoln,  and a few others are followed though those dark days – some of them are reporting on the death and its effects – some are contemporary historians.

A LOT of research went into this book with the effect being one of some kind of reality  with so many points of view detailing the events and all the sources are noted – and I checked enough of them to know they are real books written by real authors including real memoirs of real people who witnessed a heartbreak in the middle of a war.

There are a total of 166 characters inserting their problems and ideas and difficulties in the novel  – many between life and death,  when the soul is leaving the body or has left and is waiting to actually be gone.  Others come from that point in history.

“Isabella Perkins from The Civil War Letters of Isabella Perkins compiled and edited by Nash Perkins III.”   There are several longer pieces from her and Nash Perkins.

The narrative as written in  print format is like the script of a play but without stage directions.

One chapter is exceedingly hard on Lincoln – well,  I’m not surprised.  There are war protesters for every war,  to draft Northerners into a war to keep the South in the Union when it wanted to leave,   OR go into a murderous war for the sake of slaves,  made no sense to many Northerners and they were pissed off.   And when the deaths piled up (more fatalities than the total of all the other wars from the American Revolution to the Korean War) the outcry would have been fierce.

Bottom line – this book needs a couple readings to really get a sense of the characters,  which ones repeat, which ones have one story,  to see if there are any or many connections other than being deceased – I don’t think that would be the case because at least a part of the point seems to be the number and variety of very recently deceased people.

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A Proper Pursuit by Lynn Austen

I was really tired of unhappy books about genocide and refugees.  My mom was laughing and laughing about a book she was reading and was recommending to me.  Now,  I rarely if ever read anything recommended by my mother because her tastes run to the inspirational Christian lit – especially historical and light crime,  not romance.  But she had been going on about this  – was even going to order it for me so I caved and got an Audible version.


A Proper Pursuit
by Lynn Austen
2007 / 432 pages
read by Jennifer Ikeda 16h 10m
rating –  7.5 (for fun)/ light historical fiction/romance  – (Christian)

Okay – it is quite a bit more religious than I’m comfortable with,  (I’m not even a Christian, but I’m certainly not an atheist),  but that’s nowhere near the main plot of the story.  And overt religiosity is not always presented as an entirely desirable characteristic so I was, for the most part,  able to skim over those parts.   And then there’s the romance –  but that’s pretty humorous – fun.

It’s basically a pretty humorous book along the lines of Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen where a young woman is so enamored of reading gothic romance she imagines those situations going on in her life.   Here too,  our heroine’s perceptions are affected by her choice of romance reading,  but the entanglements are quite different from those of the Jane Austen’s book.

Told in first person by very courageous young Violet Hayes who, after graduating from finishing school in the spring of 1893,  is sent to her grandmother’s house in Chicago to find and appropriate husband.   There are also three aunts involved at grandmother’s house.    This is her father’s family. Violet has been raised without a mother and her family has not been honest with her but now her father is remarrying and Violet doesn’t like her new stepmother-to-be.    So, armed with new knowledge, she wants to look for her mother in Chicago and manages to stay a little longer than planned.  In doing that she finds herself with four very different suitors-  one is from back home and her father is pushing him.   In Chicago,  one man is rich and really only needs to marry to get stable for his father’s business,  one is a poor theological student who lives a life of good works.  And one is apparently a con artist with strange friends.

Meanwhile,  her matchmaking aunts are very different from each other.  One is society minded,  one is involved with charity including the Jane Addams settlement homes and the third is concerned with women’s suffrage and related issues.  There is fourth aunt who is afflicted with dementia and thinks her husband is fighting in Virginia in the Civil War.  And there’s grandmother who is very wise and loving,  but unable to be specifically very helpful.

But after awhile her father gets impatient and time is running out so Violet has to find her mother if she’s going to.  And her imagination works overtime while she pursues every possible lead,  even into the worst barrooms imaginable.

I suppose as far as secular themes go there might be something found in the ideas of love and deception.   Also,  I was pleasantly surprised by Austen’s skillful tension building – even if the outcome was fairly predictable  – I suppose that’s part of what makes it genre lit.

Historically the era is that of the Gilded Age and the story includes the conspicuous consumption of the very rich alongside the very poor working immigrants in filthy sweatshop conditions in the tenements.   It was also the era of the Chicago World’s Fair and women’s plight and their issues as well as suffrage coming to the fore.  The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 is remembered by one of the characters.  These events are pretty well woven into the lives of the characters as befitting good historical fiction.

Austin writes well enough, although there are an abundance of clichés, and she juggles these rather quirky characters masterfully while keeping the tone light and humorous through several plot threads.

Recommended only for readers who enjoy this genre,  but it’s pretty cute.

And now on to my usual fare –   lol

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Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

This book is so short – and only 4 1/2 hours on Audible –  was it worth a whole credit?  –  Okay ,  I loved Hamid’s The Reluctant Terrorist (2007) so I went ahead.   Yes.  It’s worth it.


Exit West
by Mohsin Hamid
2016 / 340 pages
read by Mohsin Hamid 4h 42m
rating 9  / contemp lit

Saeed and Nadia are two young adults who live and work in a largish city in an unknown country which is undergoing transformation into a very conservative hard-line place with military presence and fighting.  It’s typical of the kinds of places refugees come from.   Because of their journey I figure they are from Syria or thereabouts.   They met each other taking classes and now want to marry,  but at the moment it’s not possible.  They are generally trapped in the fighting.  It might not even be safe to be seen with each other. But they do.  Daily life is different in a war zone but still,  it goes on. 

Nadia is looking for a way out and thanks to a bit of magic/fantasy/metaphor (?), one day  a door appears. There have been rumors about these doors but this is the first they’ve seen.  Saeed’s mother is deceased,  but maybe his father could make the trip.  No,  he won’t go.  But he wants them to go,  he wants Nadia to look after Saeed and stay with him until they find someplace safe.  Nadia remembers that.  The couple leaves through the door and find themselves in a series of Greek refugee camps with thieves and brave souls and more doors and then comes Vienna.  After that there’s a camp in London where life gets harder and somewhat more organized,  but more difficulties are encountered in their daily lives –  which refugees belong to which groups,  there are divisions, disputes.  Who is a friend, who is not?

This book is a more a mediation on the life of a refugee and the nature of love than it is a plot or character-driven novel.   The characters are not “fully formed” or “rounded,”  and in my opinion that’s appropriate because they are meant to represent almost all refugees,  not one particular couple.  I think Hamid wants the reader to see many refugees in the faces of these two,  and to see these two in the faces of the refugees we see in the media – (or downtown).   To individualize them too much would take that recognition away – or minimize it  – “Our refugees are different.”  And I don’t think that’s the intended take-away.

Theirs is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural life,  love in a time of ultimate danger, of impermanence, of transience,  of death,  as well as of wealth amid rubbish with wondrous good will and generosity amidst thievery and loss.   And the luminous writing of a compelling story.

The doorways are compared to the closet of C.S. Lewis but I saw it more like Colson Whitehead’s doors and stations in The Underground Railroad.

Yes – read it.

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American Genocide: by Benjamin Madley

I’d been looking at this book for some time.  As those who have known or followed me for any length of time I have a couple of favorite nonfiction subjects –  the French Revolution, the history of Christianity and Native Americans.  It’s been awhile since I’ve read anything about the Native Americans and living in California for as long as I have (a LONG time) I wanted to know more.

American Genocide:  The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873
by Benjamin Madley
2016 / 712 pages
read by Fajir Al-Kaisi  15h 43m
rating  10 /  history (Native American)
(read and listened)  

** Note – this is NOT a book for the faint of heart –

There is controversy about the use of the term genocide and it could never have been used prior to 1945 or so when some term was needed to describe the Holocaust of WWII.   But it happened prior to that – and not rarely.   Madley explains what he means and equates the words which were used in the 19th century (and 20th!)  in a very inclusive Introduction.   The words “exterminate” and “eliminate” come up in the primary source materials quite often.  That’s Madley’s point –  in terms of the UN Genocide Convention what happened to the natives in California fits.   And he shows that what happened here is a bit more extreme than what happened in the rest of the US.  It was a concerted effort on the part of the population and the government, both state and federal,  to remove the Indian presence.

The book is incredibly well researched,  well organized and nicely written.  But in its thoroughness it becomes tedious – killing, killing,  killing – page after page of massacres and body counts.

The chronology starts with the Spanish missions but moves briefly to the very short-lived Russian presence in the north,  then on to the Republic and finally to the Gold Rush, statehood and Indian removal.  But because there was nowhere much to move the Indians to,  they had to be killed.   So killed they were.   By state law they had no legal status – they couldn’t vote or testify in court,  couldn’t own land,  etc.

It was the population boom of the gold boom which stimulated the animosity and greed plus racism created the willingness to kill whatever stood in their way.  The newspapers often pushed them on – but not always.

Madley says the state established what he calls a “killing machine” which worked via militias which were state paid and then that was reimbursed by the US government.  It was the job of these “volunteers” (local ranchers and gold miners)  to handle the Indian problems.  And so they did.  And they got help from the US Army.

Chapter after chapter Madley details the many, many massacres of whole tribes,  annihilated because one cow was missing or one white man killed in revenge.  The reservations were very small and could not provide enough food for the tribes.  So a few Indians would wander off and steal a cow and that might be the end of their tribe.

There was also trafficking in Indians – when a mother and father were killed in a raid,  the children were stolen and sold as “indentured” or placed with “guardians” for several years.  (This continued for long after the Civil War ended.)

When the Spanish came it is estimated there were about 300,000 Indians in California.  By the start of the Gold Rush there were 150,000 and by 1873 there were about 30,000.  Today there are a couple dozen or more tiny reservations dotting the state -none in the top 50 of the US in size and one is the very smallest – at 1.3 acres, used as a cemetery.

In addition to a lengthy narrative,  Madley provides eight (8) appendices,  detailed Source Notes,  an organized Bibliography,  and an Index.  There are pictures and graphs.

An article by the author:


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Say No More by Hank Phillippi Ryan

Well I was just wondering what to read next when there in the mail comes the newest book by Hank Phillippi Ryan –   🙂

But since my eyes are not what they used to be I decided to download a copy from Audible and do this my favorite way –  read and listen.   It’s a good idea because this narrator reads a bit fast but I got used to it – I usually get used to narrators.


Say No More 
by Hank Phillippi Ryan 
2016/ 382 pages
read by Xe Sands  10h 50m
rating:  A+   /  crime – procedural

Say No More is the fourth of a series starring Jane Ryan,  intrepid television reporter of  local live news and documentaries.  I don’t remember ever  having read a crime novel in which a reporter was the protagonist – it works nicely.  (And now I wish I’d read the first three books in the series prior.   Oh well,  I’ve done this before and I catch up with pleasure.)

Anyway, the first thing we know Jane and her producer,  Fiola,  are witness to a car-wreck between a Cadillac and an older delivery van.  Jane almost automatically writes down the license number.  The two women get close enough that Jane gets a very good view of the driver of the Cadillac and  memorizes what he looks like before he finally collects his senses, steps on the gas and speeds away.  The women call 911 then go to check the van and it’s driver.  The cops are on their way.

Very shortly after the call,  the DA’s office gets involved with her hit-and-run 911 call  to the point of threatening a subpoena to get her to come in for a little chat.     Yeah? –  Okay fine – and that’s pretty much what Jane thinks, too,  “Huh?”

Meanwhile we have Jake Brogan, a homicide detective and Jane’s boyfriend/fiancé, working his own cases and just now finding out about the death of Avery Morgan,  the resident of a very classy neighborhood of old Boston brownstones.  This was reported by a new young neighbor woman who has her own sections and definitely has her own point of view laden with her own terrifying secrets.   The murder victim  was a visiting adjunct professor at the college where she taught opera.

Jane’s current documentary concerns campus rape.  She is interviewing girls from the campus who are willing to come forward.  One in particular with her own code name of Tosca.  She was in the opera class the visiting teacher Ms. Avery taught.  Tosca connects the two threads.

Thanks in large part to the short chapters and multiple points of view the tension never breaks and everything seems connected with the reader puzzling out how.  And then the threads seem to get tangled actually,  but in a good way,  with a cleverly twisted plot.  The main characters are nicely drawn and seem to be people readers would like to know.  The books are a series but from this sample there is more emphasis on the crime than on the over-arching character relationships and their development.

An added little interest is that the class  opera Tosca is and that motif is used throughout.

Finally,  the novel is of completely contemporary interest.   What happens when you know you should tell the truth,  but it will endanger yourself or others?   Or do you “say no more” (great title!)  and let a guilty party – murderer or rapist – go free to do it again?  –  Would you “say no more” to save your own skin?   How about “say no more” to protect your sources or some information you have which is protected but necessary to others?    And then there are the cases where reporting is mandatory. This idea affects several characters in different ways.

Overall a great sleep snatcher – full of life and action.

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All Things Cease To Appear by Elizabeth Brundage

Wow –  I am forgetting to finish and put up my blogs! –  Finished this one a few days ago.  I picked it up because a friend in a reading group recommended it.  No group involved with this one.


All Things Cease To Appear 
by Elizabeth Brundage
2017 –  466 pages
Read by Kristen Potter
Rating –  A  / literary crime 


The book opens with the death of a young woman in a farmhouse in upstate New York and her husband and family’s reactions.  It then switches to the two- thread back story which joins about midway.  – Complex structure.

First there is the backstory of the  very dysfunctional couple  who committed suicide in that same old farmhouse. They were the parents of several young boys  The boys are taken in by an uncle in town.

A few years later a young couple with a small child buy the place and then several months later she is found murdered in her bed.  (NOT a spoiler – it’s relates to the opening scene when George is the obvious suspect).  The story of George and Catherine Clare goes back to how they met and is told from the woman’s point of view.  George is a PhD student and then a professor of art history at the college in upstate New York. He is the only child of an upper class couple with their own problems.   He’s been a very difficult person from the day he and his wife met.   But Catherine might not be without her own issues – she senses a haunting,  a spirit presence.  When she finds out about the prior deaths in the house she worries.


In the Berkshires – George Inness – 1850

The story of the boys and the Clares  intertwines
in many ways and it’s riveting to see how the murder transpires –  and there is a bit of “who-done-it” in there because although all fingers seem to point to George,  there are certainly other possibilities.

There’s also a rather literary element in that George specializes in the art of the Hudson River School of American art and that’s pretty much where they live.  Brundage brings in the ideas of light and dark as well as dropping the  names of  a lot of artists, particularly George Inness who painted the area,   and literary figures including Emanuel Swedenborg,  an 18th century Swedish inventor and theologian/mystic   – those two connect rather ambitiously on the level of spirituality and the afterlife.   George did his thesis based on discounting the connection between Swedenborg and Inness while Catherine might be sensing the spirit of Swedenborg’s angels.  (at least that’s what I get – it’s rather peripheral to the main plot.)

I really enjoyed this book except for two things.  The stretch between the spiritual theme and the basic murder plot was pretty slender and not necessary imo although it did add a certain texture.  Also,  there seemed to be a bit too much sex in it for my tastes.  I suppose that was also a part of the plot in a way but still – it was kind of disturbing.  That said,  yes,  I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a literary thriller without being in any way a formulaic mystery.

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The Light of Day by Graham Swift

This one needs a reread as it’s very confusing to start out – who is whom?  Especially amongst all those women! But it clears up about halfway and is pretty straightforward after that although there are times when the frame story flashes back to something unexpected which was not all tidied up.

The Light of Day 
by Graham Swift
2003 / 323 pages
read by Graeme Malcolm 7h 5m
preliminary rating – 9  / literary crime 
(read and listened)

Graham Swift is an old favorite and since he won a slot on the Booker Prize Long List back in 2003 The Light of Day was deemed worthy of reading in the Booker Group.   Yay!

Swift is as literary as ever here – the masterful use of appropriate language, the themes, the interesting structure,  the suspense is nicely woven in –

The plot  concerns a cop getting out of jail for something but what – corruption of some sort is what is said but …   These days George Webb is a private detective.

The husband  of his clients, Sara Nash, is (or was) cheating on her and she wants more info.  But there’s a frame story which shows Webb visiting a grave so somebody dies.  Hmmmmm…. Webb was obsessed and the story starts at the beginning of his relationship with Sara and takes the reader through the story of all that with masterfully developed pace using structure and a bit of foreshadowing in addition to normal situational suspense.

Good book although not your usual “thriller” because our 1st person protagonist is very thoughtful and emotionally involved with what happened.

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