Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders I don’t think I’ve very read anything as daring, weird and inventive since Junot Diaz’s Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wow.  This book begs discussion from book groups.

Lincoln’s favorite son, Willie, died of typhoid fever as the Civil War waged and he commanded the White House.  Our president’s heart was broken.  Newspapers at the time reported that a grief stricken Lincoln returned time and time again to the crypt to cradle his dead boy in his arms.

This is the historical kernel of truth.

Saunders work is an astonishing feat of fiction as he places Willie in the Bardo, that whirl of Tibetan myth where souls go before they are at rest.  This is a colorful, fantastic purgatory where Willlie’s soul lingers with the dead. Some souls are irreverent and foul mouthed.  Others mourn the loss of loves that have not yet made it to this side.  All fight over control of Willie’s soul.

And Lincoln returns to hold his son.

Everyone will be talking about this crazy feat of imagination in this reading season.  You will want to be able to participate. Also, don’t be fooled by the length on Amazon. The book is actually written in something that resembles a script and 688 pages is more like 280.  Please say yes.

 

The year is 1862. President Lincoln, already tormented by the knowledge that he’s responsible for the deaths of thousands of young men on the battlefields of the Civil War, loses his beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, to typhoid. The plot begins after Willie is laid to rest in a cemetery near the White House, where, invisible to the living, ghosts linger, unwilling to relinquish this world for the next. Their bantering conversation, much of it concerned with earthly — and earthy – pleasures, counterbalances Lincoln’s abject sorrow.

Saunders takes huge risks in this novel, and they pay off. His writing is virtuosic – and best of all, its highs and lows are profoundly entertaining. You may hear echoes of Thornton Wilder, Beckett and even a little Chaucer, but Lincoln in the Bardo is peculiar and perfect unto itself. Some advice: don’t try to read this one in a library. You’ll be hooting with laughter when you aren’t wiping away your tears. –Sarah Harrison Smith, The Amazon Book Review

An Amazon Best Book of February 2017: Lincoln in the Bardo is hilariously funny, horribly sad, and utterly surprising. If you can fight past an initial uncertainty about the identity of its narrators, you may find that it’s the best thing you’ve read in years. This first novel by acclaimed short-story-writer and essayist George Saunders (Tenth of DecemberThe Brain-Dead Megaphone) will upend your expectations of what a novel should be. Saunders has said that “Lincoln in the Bardo” began as a play, and that sense of a drama gradually revealing itself through disparate voices remains in the work’s final form.

“A luminous feat of generosity and humanism.”—Colson Whitehead, The New York Times Book Review
 
“A masterpiece.”Zadie Smith

 

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News of the World by Paulette Jiles

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

Such a great, short, deep read.  This is the first Western that I’ve read in a long time and I am quite smitten. Reviews on Amazon are stellar: close to 800 of them with 4 and half stars. The book was a National Book Award Finalist for Fiction. All of my book groups will love it.

From Amazon:

National Book Award Finalist—Fiction

It is 1870 and Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels through northern Texas, giving live readings to paying audiences hungry for news of the world. An elderly widower who has lived through three wars and fought in two of them, the captain enjoys his rootless, solitary existence.

In Wichita Falls, he is offered a $50 gold piece to deliver a young orphan to her relatives in San Antonio. Four years earlier, a band of Kiowa raiders killed Johanna’s parents and sister; sparing the little girl, they raised her as one of their own. Recently rescued by the U.S. army, the ten-year-old has once again been torn away from the only home she knows.

Their 400-mile journey south through unsettled territory and unforgiving terrain proves difficult and at times dangerous. Johanna has forgotten the English language, tries to escape at every opportunity, throws away her shoes, and refuses to act “civilized.” Yet as the miles pass, the two lonely survivors tentatively begin to trust each other, forging a bond that marks the difference between life and death in this treacherous land.

Arriving in San Antonio, the reunion is neither happy nor welcome. The captain must hand Johanna over to an aunt and uncle she does not remember—strangers who regard her as an unwanted burden. A respectable man, Captain Kidd is faced with a terrible choice: abandon the girl to her fate or become—in the eyes of the law—a kidnapper himself. Exquisitely rendered and morally complex, News of the World is a brilliant work of historical fiction that explores the boundaries of family, responsibility, honor, and trust.

 

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Homegoing: A novel by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing: A novel by Yaa Gyasi  Historical fiction at its finest.  Two half sisters from the Gold Coast—one sold into slavery and the other married off to a British officer and the stories of their descendants come together in this ambitious first novel by Yaa Gyasi.

From Amazon:

Effia and Esi are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

From School Library Journal

This sweeping family saga encompasses seven generations of descendants of a Fante and his captured Asante house slave. After giving birth to a daughter, Maame manages to escape, making her way alone back to her own village. She is taken in by an Asante warrior, becomes his third wife, and has a second daughter by him. The two sisters, Effia and Esi, will never meet, their lives will follow very different paths, but their descendants will share a legacy of warfare and slavery. Effia will marry an Englishman who oversees the British interest in the Gold Coast slave trade. Esi will be captured by Fante warriors, traded to the Englishmen, and shipped to America to be sold into slavery. Progressing through 300 years of Ghanaian and American history, the narrative unfolds in a series of concise portraits of each sister’s progeny that capture pivotal moments in each individual’s life. Every portrait reads like a short story unto itself, making this volume a good choice for harried teens, yet Gyasi imbues the work with a remarkably seamless feel. Through the combined historical perspectives of each descendant, the author reveals that racism is often rooted in tribalism, greed, and the lust for power. Many students will be surprised to discover that the enslavement of Africans was not just a white man’s crime. VERDICT Well researched, beautifully told, and easy to read, this title is destined to become required, as well as enlightening, reading for teens.—Cary Frostick, formerly at Mary Riley Styles Public Library, Falls Church, VA

“The hypnotic debut novel by Yaa Gyasi, a stirringly gifted writer . . . magical . . . the great, aching gift of the novel is that it offers, in its own way, the very thing that enslavement denied its descendants: the possibility of imagining the connection between the broken threads of their origins.”

—Isabel Wilkerson, The New York Times Book Review

“It’s impossible not to admire the ambition and scope of “Homegoing,” and thanks to Ms. Gyasi’s instinctive storytelling gifts, the book leaves the reader with a visceral understanding of both the savage realities of slavery and the emotional damage that is handed down, over the centuries, from mothers to daughters, fathers to sons. At its best, the novel makes us experience the horrors of slavery on an intimate, personal level; by its conclusion, the characters’ tales of loss and resilience have acquired an inexorable and cumulative emotional weight.”

—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

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A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

My readers love this book and I have added it to most of my group lists.  The author is a scholar and a gentleman and the novel is a welcome reprieve from today’s news. A Gentleman in Moscow will remind my readers of a kinder, gentler time.

From Amazon:

A Gentleman in Moscow is the utterly entertaining second novel from the author of Rules of Civility. Amor Towles skillfully transports us to The Metropol, the famed Moscow hotel where movie stars and Russian royalty hobnob, where Bolsheviks plot revolutions and intellectuals discuss the merits of contemporary Russian writers, where spies spy, thieves thieve and the danger of twentieth century Russia lurks outside its marbled walls. It’s also where wealthy Count Alexander Rostov lives under house arrest for a poem deemed incendiary by the Bolsheviks, and meets Nina. Nina is a precocious and wide-eyed young girl who holds the keys to the entire hotel, wonders what it means to be a princess, and will irrevocably change his life. Despite being confined to the hallway of the hotel, the Count lives an absorbing, adventure-filled existence, filled with capers, conspiracies and culture. Alexander Rostov is a character for the ages–like Kay Thompson’s Eloise and Wes Anderson’s M. Gustav, he is unflinchingly (and hilariously for readers) devoted to his station, even when forced to wait tables, play hide and seek with a young girl, or confront communism. Towles magnificently conjures the grandeur of the Russian hotel and the vibrancy of the characters that call it home. –Al Woodworth, The Amazon Book Review

 

Doesn’t this just sound lovely in the current climate?

 

“Who will save Rostov from the intrusions of state if not the seamstresses, chefs, bartenders and doormen? In the end, Towles’s greatest narrative effect is not the moments of wonder and synchronicity but the generous transformation of these peripheral workers, over the course of decades, into confidants, equals and, finally, friends.  With them around, a life sentence in these gilded halls might make Rostov the luckiest man in Russia.”
The New York Times Book Review

 

“In all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight . . .This is a book in which the cruelties of the age can’t begin to erase the glories of real human connection and the memories it leaves behind. A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles’ stylish debut, Rules of Civility.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“In his remarkable first novel, the bestselling Rules of Civility, Towles etched 1930s New York in crystalline relief . . . His latest polished literary foray into a bygone era is just as impressive . . . an imaginative and unforgettable historical portrait.” 
– Booklist

“House arrest has never been so charming as in Towles’s second novel, an engaging 30-year saga set almost entirely inside the Metropol, Moscow’s most luxurious hotel. . .empathetic, and entertaining.”
– Publishers Weekly

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The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue-I loved this latest slim work by Emma Donoghue, author of the sensational Room. In it, the author showcases her ability to spin a yarn with the finest of historical novelists.

An English nurse is brought to a small Irish village to observe what appears to be a miracle–a girl said to have survived without food for months-soon finds herself fighting to save the child’s life.

Looky loos flock to the home of eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell, who believes herself to be living off manna from heaven, and a journalist is sent to cover the sensation. Is this a miracle or is this something far more dark and sinister.  I’ll leave it to my readers to discover the work on their own.

“[Donoghue's] contemporary thriller Room made [her] an international bestseller, but this gripping tale offers a welcome reminder that her historical fiction is equally fine.”―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Outstanding…. Exploring the nature of faith and trust with heartrending intensity, Donoghue’s superb novel will leave few unaffected.”―Sarah Johnson, Booklist (starred review)

“Donoghue demonstrates her versatility by dabbling in a wide range of literary styles in this latest novel…. The closely imagined, intricately drawn story possesses many of the same alluring qualities as her bestseller, Room. …. Donoghue’s engrossing novel is loaded with descriptions of period customs and 19th-century Catholic devotional objects and prayers…[and] asks daring questions about just how far some might go to prove their faith.”―Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Donoghue, a writer of great vitality and generosity-one gets the sense that she would gladly have her characters over for dinner, as long as they’d agree to eat-has been drawn repeatedly to the genre of historical fiction not so much to inhabit or reinterpret the past as to try to fit together its overlooked, missing pieces…. Fiction is small solace for history’s grief, but it’s one way to set the record straight.”―Alexandra Schwartz, New Yorker

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Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah.  I am a fan.

I’ve known he was special since the first time I grudgingly watched The Daily Show on Comedy Central after Jon Stewart’s departure.  If you watch the show, you know that there’s a unique outsider’s perspective from Noah’s seat.  His memoir explains why.  Born a “crime” as a mixed race child in Apartheid era South Africa, Noah inspires, illuminates and amuses. His fresh, personal discussion of race is that of a non-American and there’s something unique about Noah’s vantage point.

There’s a great hero of his story and it isn’t Trevor Noah: it’s the mother who always believed in her boy and kept him safe, educated and loved.

Well-written, thoughtful, and honest, this is my favorite memoir of the 2016/17 school year.   My readers and students alike agree: this book has been a lovely surprise.

While not necessarily a book group book, I highly recommend this special memoir.

“[A] substantial collection of staggering personal essays . . . Incisive, funny, and vivid, these true tales are anchored to his portrait of his courageous, rebellious, and religious mother who defied racially restrictive laws to secure an education and a career for herself—and to have a child with a white Swiss/German even though sex between whites and blacks was illegal. . . . [Trevor Noah’s] electrifying memoir sparkles with funny stories . . . and his candid and compassionate essays deepen our perception of the complexities of race, gender, and class.”Booklist (starred review)

“A gritty memoir . . . studded with insight and provocative social criticism . . . with flashes of brilliant storytelling and acute observations.”Kirkus Reviews

 

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Nutshell by Ian McEwan


Nutshell by Ian McEwan-  Trudy is betraying her husband with an affair with her husband’s brother, Claude.  Together they plot the husband’s murder.  There’s a twist to this story though: a witness.  Told from the perspective of Trudy’s unborn son, this book is unlike any McEwan novel we’ve ever read.  I would love to hear from other readers what you think.

“With Nutshell, Ian McEwan has performed an incongruous magic trick … A smart, funny and utterly captivating novel … A small tour de force that showcases all of Mr. McEwan’s narrative gifts of precision, authority and control, plus a new, Tom Stoppard-like delight in the sly gymnastics that words can perform.”
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Compact, captivating … The writing is lean and muscular, often relentlessly gorgeous … McEwan is one of the most accomplished craftsmen of plot and prose.”
—Siddhartha Mukherjee, The New York Times Book Review

“Brilliant . . . Surprisingly suspenseful, dazzlingly clever and gravely profound.”
—Ron Charles, Washington Post

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Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett Full disclosure: I’m not Ann Patchett’s biggest fan but I just might have been converted with this latest gem.

An adulterous kitchen kiss changes everything for the two families during a family christening.  The reverberations are felt through the next five decades. A spring 2017 favorite for Julie’s Book Groups members.

From Amazon: #1 New York Times Bestseller

The acclaimed, bestselling author—winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize—tells the enthralling story of how an unexpected romantic encounter irrevocably changes two families’ lives.

One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny’s mother, Beverly—thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families.

Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them.

When, in her twenties, Franny begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another.

Told with equal measures of humor and heartbreak, Commonwealth is a meditation on inspiration, interpretation, and the ownership of stories. It is a brilliant and tender tale of the far-reaching ties of love and responsibility that bind us together.

 

“Patchett brings humanity, humor, and a disarming affection to lovable, struggling characters… Irresistible.” (Library Journal)

“Exquisite… Commonwealth is impossible to put down.” (New York Times)

“(A) rich and engrossing new novel …” (New York Times Book Review)

“Indeed, this is Patchett’s most autobiographical novel, a sharply funny, chilling, entrancing, and profoundly affecting look into one family’s “commonwealth,” its shared affinities, conflicts, loss, and love.” (Booklist)

“…a funny, sad, and ultimately heart-wrenching family portrait…Patchett elegantly manages a varied cast of characters…[Patchett is] at her peak in humor, humanity, and understanding people in challenging situations.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))

“The prose is lean and inviting…A satisfying meat-and-potatoes domestic novel from one of our finest writers.” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))

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The Nix by Nathan Hill

The Nix by Nathan Hill Nathan Hill reveals himself as one of the best writers of the year.    I needed a quirky, comic novel after a summer of heavy reading. This was it.  The Nix reads like the work of John Irving, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen.   You will laugh out loud in places as you unpack the mother/son secrets of Faye and Samuel Andresen-Anderson.  The tone is right and critics and readers alike agree on this book. Nathan Hill is a writer to watch.

From Amazon: The Nix is a surprising novel that you didn’t know you were waiting for until you start reading. At its center is Samuel Andresen-Anderson, a failed writer and increasingly apathetic college professor, who gets a second chance at literary fame from the most unlikely source—the mother who abandoned him as a child. The American public is up in arms about a rather absurd crime that Samuel’s mother committed against an obnoxious politician. While Sam is shocked and surprised to learn the whereabouts of his estranged mother, he also realizes it’s the chance of a lifetime to tap into the zeitgeist with some choice tidbits about her, if he can write it before media A.D.D. sets in. But in order to write the book that will revive him, Samuel is forced to dig into her life, and he discovers a completely different version of the woman he thought he knew; it turns out he’s not the only one who’s life is carved out of traumatic events. Nathan Hill is incredibly perceptive, as in this, which I can’t stop thinking about: “The things we love the most are the most disfiguring. Such is our greed for them.” Hill has created a brilliant junction of mother-son saga and comic satire about our self-righteous and obsessive society. This is a big, clever novel that wraps itself around you until you never want to leave. –Seira Wilson, The Amazon Book Review

“Hill has so much talent to burn that he can pull of just about any style, imagine himself into any person and convincingly portray any place or time. The Nix is hugely entertaining and unfailingly smart, and the author seems incapable of writing a pedestrian sentence or spinning a boring story. . . . [A] supersize and audacious novel of American misadventure.” Teddy Wayne, The New York Times Book Review

“Irresistible. . . . A major new comic novelist . . . . Hill is a sharp social observer, hyper-alert to the absurdities of modern life. . . . his enormous book arrives as one of the stars of the fall season. . . . readers will find this novel. And they’ll be dazzled.” —Ron Charles, The Washington Post

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Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett-

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett-A stirring portrait of mental illness and its far reaching consequences for a family.  This is a fine piece of writing and will move anyone who has been touched by mental illness or has struggled with an ill family member.  Told from alternating points of view of members of the family, Haslett paints a compassionate portrait of a family in crisis.

“Haslett is one of the country’s most talented writers, equipped with a sixth sense for characterization.”--Wall Street Journal

“Ambitious and stirring . . . With Imagine Me Gone, Haslett has reached another level.” –New York Times Book Review

New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice

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