Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

220px-Abraham_Lincoln_by_Byers,_1858_-_crop

When my mother tells me I have to read a book, it’s written in a way no other book she’s ever read is written, and then gives me the book, I read it. I was so impressed by this unprecedented move on her part, I read Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders in less than 24 hours.

Lincoln in the Bardo. Yes, that Lincoln. And his son, Willie. The one who died. And the Bardo, according to Saunders’ website, is what purgatory is known as in the Tibetan tradition.
Willie Lincoln

As you may remember, William Wallace Lincoln died of apparent typhoid at the age of 11 in 1872, during Lincoln’s second year in office. Specifically, he died at 5 p.m. on February 24, a few days after the Lincolns hosted an extravagant state dinner during which the President and First Lady traipsed upon and down the White House stairs any number of times to check on their beloved child. In Saunders’ novel, the two events — dinner and death — seem to occur simultaneously. Newspapers reported at the time that Lincoln returned to Willie’s crypt several times.

From this truth, Saunders launches a spectacularly innovative novel, a large portion of which is composed of a compilations of citations from actual historical novels. The rest of the narrative is composed of the voices of … well, of the residents of Oak Hill Cemetery, where Willie Lincoln was entombed.

Sad.

roger bevin iii

Very sad.

hans vollman

Especially given what we knew.

roger bevin iii

His boy was not “in some bright place, free of suffering.”

hans vollman

No.

roger bevin iii

Not “resplendent in a new mode of being.”

hans vollman

Au contraire.

roger bevin iii

As is their custom, several denizens of the cemetery greet young Willie moments after he arrives, expecting him to move on quickly, as most young people do, in the “matterlightblooming phenomenon” by which the cemetery dwellers leave the place. But Willie doesn’t move on. He’s waiting. Waiting to see what his father wants him to do.

In the course of Willie’s wait, we meet dozens, hundreds perhaps, of the cemetery folks,

Gorey

drawing by Edward Gorey

most of whom believe they are “sick,” having arrived there in a “sick-box,” and temporarily detained from their other, earth-bound life. In the cemetery, as in the country, there is dissension: all of the black residents must remain outside the iron fence with the criminals and low class whites. Each resident has his or her own distinct view of why they are in the bardo and how long they may have to wait, but none other than a reverend who ran away from his own judgment day seem to have any awareness of his or her own state; that is “dead.”

I found Saunders’ reach into the historical citations and commentary a fascinating tool. He compiles these quotations not as a means of bolstering his own story, but quite often to show the divergence of history reportage. In fact, perhaps he is making the commentary that fact is as fictional as fiction. A stimulating concept in these days of fake news.

A common feature of these narratives is the golden moon, hanging quaintly above the scene.

In “White House Soirees: An Anthology”

By Bernadette Evon.

There was no moon that night and the sky was heavy with clouds.

Wickett, op. cit.

A fat green crescent hung above the mad scene like a stolid judge, inured to human folly.

In “My Life,” by Delores P. Leventrop.

The full moon that night was yellow-red, as if reflecting the light of some earthly fire.

Sloane, op. cit.

If this reminds you of Our Town, you’re not alone. I’ve had the good fortune of performing in both Thornton Wilder’s beloved play and in Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters and it seems to me that Lincoln in the Bardo owes as much to these two dramas as it does to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and Edward Gorey’s body of work.

I most enjoyed the sections of the novel that escorted me inside Abraham Lincoln’s mind, Saunders’ portrait of the turmoil of family and country roiling the President, the citations of historical criticism that speculated Lincoln would be the worst president in history.

In short, thanks Mom!

Lincoln Bardo bookMENU

The menu for the state dinner is given in a quotation from Epstein, as “tender pheasant, fat partridge, venison steaks, Virginia hams . . . canvasback ducks, fresh turkeys, and thousands of tidewater oysters shucked an hour since and iced, slurped raw, scalloped in butter and cracker meal, or stewed in milk.”

Additionally, there are descriptions of towering sugar confections, where chocolate fish swim in a pond of candy floss and hives swarming with lifelike sugar bees are filled with charlotte russe.

Charlotte Russe

According to Betty Crocker, a “russe” is a molded dessert. Charlotte Russe is made of lady fingers and Bavarian cream. I found a nice explanation and a recipe for a Victorian Charlotte Russe on the Great British Bake-Off web site: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/food-and-drink/recipes/the-great-british-bake-off-how-to-make-a-charlotte-russe/.

My menu would include small muffins and rolls with turkey and Virginia ham. I would avoid the pheasant, partridge and venison, since I don’t have a source for those, but oysters depending on the time of year would be fun.

MUSIC

A few years ago, I was able to perform in the Lincoln Bicentennial celebration at Washington’s Kennedy Center as part of the Lexington Singers organization. Our performance was comprised of multiple Civil War songs including The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Dixie, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, the Battle Cry of Freedom, the Star-Spangled Banner. My favorite was a version of Shenandoah. This is a lovely version of that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1EG_4IBzbA.

Happy reading and eating!

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She’s Gone: The Fates Will Find Their Way, by Hannah Pittard, and Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

missing-milk-carton-psd53543“Lydia is dead.  But they don’t know this yet.”

“Some things were certain; they were undeniable, inarguable.  Nora Lindell was gone, for one thing.  There was no doubt about that.”

These are the opening lines from Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng, and The Fates Will Find Their Way, by Hannah Pittard.  I happened to pack both for my summer vacation without realizing that despite differences in story-telling technique, both concern high school girls gone missing:  Lydia Lee, a tenth grader at Middlewood High School in Northwest Ohio disappears on May 3, 1977 in Ng’s 2014 bestseller.  Nora Lindell disappears from her widowed father’s home somewhere in the Midwest on Halloween, sometime in the late-1980s in Pittard’s debut novel.  Both Lydia and Nora leave gaping mysteries in their wake to be unravelled by those who loved them most.  In Lydia’s case, her parents and her siblings, Nath and Hannah.  In Nora’s, a chorus of neighborhood boys who speculate about Nora’s life, alternate theories of disappearance, her sole sibling a younger sister and just whose children the three girls are who turn up for Mr. Lindell’s funeral.

everythingEverything I Never Told You begins with the traditional end.  Lydia is dead and her family finds out about it within a few pages of the beginning of the book.  What remains is a meditation on the family’s life, the role of a mixed marriage in a tradition-bound place and time, the pain and recrimination and guilt associates with a woman who relinquished her professional dreams for her family.

The New York Times gave it high praise and named Ng’s debut novel a notable book of the year.

Ng has structured “Everything I Never Told You” so we shift between the family’s theories and Lydia’s own story, and what led to her disappearance and death, moving toward the final, devastating conclusion. What emerges is a deep, heartfelt portrait of a family struggling with its place in history, and a young woman hoping to be the fulfillment of that struggle. This is, in the end, a novel about the burden of being the first of your kind — a burden you do not always survive.  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/17/books/review/everything-i-never-told-you-by-celeste-ng.html?_r=0Scan20078

Everything I Never Told You satisfied all my requirements for a great read:  complex, interesting characters, beautiful language, a fascinating plot.  The touchstone references of the Partridge Family/Brady Bunch were a special treat.

fatesThe Fates Will Find Their Way is another debut novel.  Pittard uses the collective voice of the neighborhood boys who were fascinated by Nora Lindell and her sister, Sissy, to speculate as to why she disappeared (she ran away to her grandmother in Arizona; she was molested by a teenager in a Catalina; she was murdered and buried in the leaves two counties away; she caught a plane and never looked back), and what may have happened to her (she died on November 1, 1977, she lived with a man in Arizona and had three children, she ended up in Mumbai).  It is not Nora or Sissy that is important in the reflections of the boys – to – men, it is how their perceptions of Nora reveal their own growth, development, their own triumphs, failures, losses, disappointments, disasters and tragedies.

Jennifer Gilmore’s review in the NYTimes points out:

As deeply felt as “The Fates Will Find Their Way” might be, it only circles around a plot, and so its collective voice eventually loses strength. The more characters are peeled away from the group, the less powerful the original collective becomes. We wind up knowing little more at the end than we did in those opening pages.

But perhaps that’s the point. Though on the surface this seems to be a novel about a girl’s disappearance, at its core it’s about how children become adults. “We cannot help but shudder at the things adults are capable of,” Pittard writes, as the now-grown narrators watch their own daughters. That shift, from what teen­agers can do to one another to what adults can do to children, is crucial. But what this novel is really examining is the moment when such a reckoning occurs.  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/30/books/review/Gilmore-t.html

I have recently read The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides, and found these two novels similar in plot, technique and voice.

Maybe it’s the success of Gone Girl, or the Nancy Grace factor, or simply the existence of Fox News’ Missing Girl channel, but it seems like every time I turn around there’s some version of the missing teen mystery playing somewhere.  These two novels, at least, give the old story a new twist.  Both are excellent book club choices with lots of fodder for discussion — both in terms of plot and execution.

MENU(s)

Fates

Mrs. Epstein’s Rice Krispie treats

Mrs. Price’s bananas and peanut butter

Mrs. Rutherford’s cake batter

Mrs. Hatchet’s fruit roll-ups, Coca-Cola gummy bottles

Mrs. Dinnerman’s fruit bowl

Mexican food a la Nora’s “Mexican”

Halloween Candy

Everything

Char Sui Bau:  Chinese pork buns.  I wouldn’t try to make them, but they play a critical role in the book and it would be fun to purchase some for your party.

Eggs:  Scrambled, Boiled, Over Easy.  Your choice.  Or go for the full commitment, and make them to order.

Swedish Fish candy

Betty Crocker’s White Cake

betty crocker

2 cups Gold Medal™ all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup shortening
3/4 cup water
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
Frosting
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup shortening
2/3 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla

Directions

  • Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour bottom and sides of 13×9-inch pan, two 9-inch round cake pans, or three 8-inch round cake pans. In large bowl, beat all cake ingredients with electric mixer on low speed 30 seconds, scraping bowl constantly. Beat on high speed 3 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally. Pour into pan(s).
  • Bake rectangle 40 to 45 minutes, rounds 30 to 35 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool rectangle in pan on cooling rack. Cool rounds 10 minutes; remove from pans to cooling rack. Cool completely. 
  • In 2 1/2-quart saucepan, mix all frosting ingredients except vanilla. Heat to rolling boil, stirring occasionally. Boil 1 minute without stirring. Place saucepan in bowl of ice and water. Beat until frosting is smooth and spreadable; stir in vanilla. Frost rectangle or fill and frost layers with frosting. 
MUSIC
Everything contains more music references.  Things like the Partridge Family and Waterloo (ABBA).  Given that Lydia disappears in 1977, any songs from that era would be grand.
Fates contains a lot of scenes that feel like a junior high school make-out party that you just know would be banging out tunes.  But I don’t find mention of anything specific.  There is however, a handy-dandy youtube compilation of the 9 1/2 Weeks soundtrack available here:  https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLFBA25B39F32401FE

MOVIE CASTING

No suggestions on this for now.  Feel free to add your own!

Happy Reading!