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Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the BardoLincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to love this book. I really did. And all I could manage was deciding that it was okay, that I respected the story Saunders was trying to tell and the research it required. But I just couldn’t make myself love it.

Not that there weren’t aspects of the story that I liked, because there were. There was real emotion here, deep emotion. There were philosophical questions on death and what lies beyond the grave, thoughts on war and parenthood and religion. Racism and sexism were addressed in ways that were harsh and real. Saunders also provided a plethora of quotations from various historical documents on Lincoln, on his personal life and appearance and presidency, on the state of the White House and the state of the Union while he served as Commander in Chief. And he provided readers with some great information on Willy, the poor Lincoln son who died too soon. This was Willy’s story, and Lincoln’s story, and the story of a nation represented by ghosts in a graveyard.

This all sounds like the makings of a new literary classic. And it probably is, or will be. But it fell flat for me. There were some descriptions and language that felt uncomfortably overdone, as though Saunders included them for shock value alone. (I never want to hear about a ghost’s grotesquely swollen member ever again, for example. And the Barons! Good grief at the mouths on that couple.) It could be that I’m a prude, and others probably wouldn’t be bothered as much. Also, some of the writing just felt so pretentious which is my problem with a lot of literary novels. Again, this might just be me, and I can’t put my finger on a particular example because I listened to the audiobook and thus can’t flip back through.

Speaking of the audiobook, listening instead of reading is likely the only reason I finished this. The vocal cast was phenomenal including the talents of Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Lena Dunham, Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, the author himself, and many more. There were 166 voice actors in all, which is quite possibly a world record. (Penguin Random House Audio has applied to Guinness for exactly that.) And, had I not made it to the end, I would have missed a pretty great ending. Which is why I settled on three stars here. A lot of people are going to love this book. It might even be life changing for some. Just because it wasn’t for me doesn’t mean it isn’t for you.

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