On our wedding day I was forty-six, she was eighteen.
Don’t judge a book by its title. Or maybe don’t expect to know what is going to happen by a book’s title. I thought Lincoln – like the American president. I thought Bardo – a kind of Buddhist limbo, add those and you get something eerie, cool, spooky about mourning, the afterlife and discussing religion.
Instead I got a collection of (fictional) citations and quotations about Abraham Lincoln, his dead son and a lot of people I’ve never heard of before.
It took some time to adjust.
Both Lincolns are very little part of this story. It is about the Bardo and how people of all walks of life experience it while avoiding the reality of having died. As mentioned before – this doesn’t happen in continuous prose, you seem to be paging through an encyclopedia of Americans that have died in the time before Abraham Lincoln. Why? Because some of them look out for Willie Lincoln, and are impressed that Abraham continues to visit his son and mourn him.
So it’s not a story about the American president, it’s a little bit about mourning, it’s a too little bit about what the Bardo is, how it works and what it looks like, and the rest of it is – I guess – about the skills of one George Saunders in bringing a lot of character sheets together and passing them off as novel.
2020 isn’t a great year for books, just yet.
Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders, Bloomsbury 2017
‘They’ve found the pilot.’
I’ve owned this book for ages, and I’m pretty sure that I read it before or at least partially. Per story line my opinion fluctuated on it, and as a harsh, firm book owner, this book will be donated soon.
I’m sure both the cover as the summary will draw several eyes, though. There’s things going on, it’s science fiction without having too much science, there’s shenanigans and hijinks, and – both a pro and a con – a lot of different story lines for everyone to find something of their liking.
Because there is a young man traveling through the USA to surprise his girlfriend, but there’s also a recluse math genius, and that plane. There’s a very secret government agency, more secret-y people and a machine that might impact/ruin/improve everything.
Besides the several story lines that can make you feel so-so about this story, there’s also something strangely stilted about it. What if fewer lines would have been added, and more world-building to the rest? Why does the ending feel like the author just didn’t feel like writing any more, and should we view all this as a commentary on life, coincidences and authorities, or is that looking for something that isn’t there?
All that makes The Coincidence Engine more a collection of gimmicks than a mind-blowing, eye-opening story. Or even just full-time entertaining.
The Coincidence Engine, Sam Leith, Bloomsbury 2011
Afterward, he tried to reduce it to abstract terms, an accident in a world of accidents, the collision of opposing forces – the bumper of his car and the frail scrambling hunched-over form of a dark little man with a wild look in his eye – but he wasn’t very successful.
And the prize for Most Depressing Book read in January goes to.
The tortilla curtain is the border between Mexico and the USA. The Tortilla Curtain is about the people on that thin line that just want to have a comfortable life, but are prevented from having it by paranoia, racism, and society. The one side is simply much more privileged than the other, but don’t let that fool you into thinking they could have an easier life (add a note of sarcasm here).
I had to read this one for school, because we’re doing a course called Aspects of the USA and well, racism definitely is one.
The book’s well written, luring into supporting one side until everybody just shows how ugly their thoughts and prejudices are. The one side is just allowed more, under the guise of honesty and worry. It’s over twenty years old, but the story can definitely be retold today.
The Tortilla Curtain, T.C. Boyle, Bloomsbury 1995
The phone is ringing.
Ik vond dit een heel leuk boek, een fijn boek dat lekker op alle zintuigen inspeelt. En toch weet ik niet hoe en aan wie ik het zou moeten aanraden. Het is meer dan oppervlakkige chick-lit, maar er zijn wel een boel vrouwen aanwezig die een mannelijke lezer zou kunnen afschrikken (waardoor ik ‘m juist aan zou raden, want het is niet alsof vrouwen ooit wordt verteld een boek niet te lezen omdat er te veel mannen in voorkomen). Het is coming of age in Technicolor.
Hoofdpersoon Kitty heeft een bijzondere familie, met een hele bijzondere moeder. Ze is jong en stoer en apart en nooit saai. Haar zussen zijn als fairy godmothers voor Kitty en haar broertje en zusje en grootouders Bestepapa en Bestemama maken het Jan-van-Steen huishouden compleet.
Helaas is Kitty’s moeder ook heel wispelturig in wie en wat goed voor haar en haar kinderen is. Ze reizen door de VS en de VK, wonen bij de Hare Krishna, in luxe appartementen in New York of in kleine huisjes in Londen. Kitty moet opgroeien tussen haar moeder’s stuiptrekken door.
De mensen, outfits en omgevingen die passeren zorgen voor kleur, sfeer en een duidelijk kader om Kitty’s eenzaamheid. Vrolijk, verdrietig, meeslepend.
Playing with the Grown-ups, Sophia Dahl, Bloosmbury 2007
At six forty-five one summer morning, a red London bus was crossing Waterloo Bridge.
The idea was lovely, but the execution could have been better. And I don’t think it was because Winterson tried to keep things age appropriate: ‘dumbed down’ isn’t the problem here.
So what is? Because taking too much/too little time literally, and almost having a Roald Dahlian feel to it sometimes, Tanglewreck definitely isn’t bad.
The characters just aren’t that good. They’re very child book like, not very multi-dimensional. Even when a Good Guy is revealed, there’s nothing more than an “Oh, okay” feel to it, because there’s simply not much excitement when it comes to the people of this story.
Anyway, the world building with time tornadoes, alchemists leeching time from people and mammoths in the Thames, is definitely amusing enough for a quick read. And the house gets a few bonus points, for being what it is. Everything could just possibly have been more than it was.
Tanglewreck, Jeanette Winterson, Bloosmbury 2006
It’s years beyond the worst of it, and it’s your time, Mom, a time of head starts and new starts and starting and not stopping – of re-dos and fixes, of gazing at full moons and quarter moons and seeing what before were phantasms for-reals.
Sometimes people have already said it and said it better: “A raw heart wreck of a novel .. one of the fictional families I have cared about most” (Amy Hempel).
A poor, black family tries to adjust to the drugs-addicted mother coming back from rehab. She tries to adjust to society, life, and family, but none of those are very cooperative in giving her a a second, third, fourth chance. Her older son tries hard to avoid the cracks, but just stumbles from one to another, because life is different for a black man versus a white man.
Things go a bit better before they turn a lot worse again, and it hurts and it aches because the reader can’t do anything about it. This is simply the reality for some people, and even it knowing is uncomfortable, it’s better than not knowing.
The Residue Years, Mitchell S. Jackson, Bloomsbury 2013
I learned early on that if you tell people what you see at low tide they’ll think you’re exaggerating or lying when you’re actually just explaining strange and wonderful things as clearly as you can.
This book in one word: heartfelt.
Sometimes it’s too obvious that the author wants you to know how odd its main character is, how special in its weirdness. Jim Lynch manages to show Miles in all his different ways, but never turns him into a caricature, in something that you will only experience in fictional stories. But this teen, although experiencing some weird things, could definitely exist.
Miles lives in a small town near a bay and loves everything the ocean and maritime nature can offer. This, combined with his lack of length, makes him the odd duck. Finding strange things and becoming a (local) media star, turns (pun intended) the tides for him. Suddenly his being different is amazing, he’s viewed as an expert on every subject related to the ocean, while his (social) life starts falling apart.
Is finding an oarfish really so amazing if your crush is in trouble and can you care about clams if your parents might be divorcing? Miles’ story meanders through a teen’s life with amazing details on ocean life. A pleasure to read.
The Highest Tide, Jim Lynch, Bloomsbury 2005
As the clock struck ten, Smew opened the register.
I didn’t see the ‘Comedy Genre’ sticker. Readers know that I’m always careful when it comes to having someone else decide for me what I’m going to find funny and/or laugh about. On the other hand, maybe comedy is more than that, but that comes to close to the philosophical side of things. I guess I just got distracted by the cover and the title.
A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In starts out as funny and pretty absurd. There’s a country with a missing empire, the people of state can’t spend their money and there’s no such thing as efficiency or productivity. The main character and reader are in the same state of bewilderment, and possibly after a few chapters starting off the same way, wondering if any kind of plot is even around.
With a train come changes and the absurd does a 90 to turn into something that could be recognized as satire. Is every kind of process good, does a human being not need anything else but employment and there is definitely no need for a state-figure as long as there is (small/local) authority.
And like that the reader shuffles through this book with a question mark on their forehead and a smile around their lips. Yes, maybe this is comedy.
A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In, Magnus Mills, Bloomsbury 2011
I like to imagine there were more of us in the beginning.
Oh, wow. I love to be swept of my feet like this. A compelling story, a less-than-perfect (and genuine unlikely) heroine and thrilling world-building. I know I harp on about that a lot, but a story having a sound foundation can change annoyed disbelief in flabbergasted positive surprise.
The Bone Season doesn’t worry with ‘In a galaxy far, far away’ or lengthy prologues to show the reader what’s going on. It jumps right in, things go wrong quick and the protagonist – already in a tight spot as criminal scum of the earth – ends up as a slave. And all that because she’s clairvoyant and this is a world that sees those kind of people as an epidemic threatening real humans. And because of several other things, including alien god-like creations, but that would be a bit of a spoiler.
Another pluses are the lack of romance pressed upon the characters, nothing that shows that this was written as a first book of a series (meaning: no plot lines being cut up for no other reason than ‘To be continued’) and that the book is just a very enjoyable, quick read.
The Bone Season, Samantha Shannon, Bloomsbury 2013
We sprint for the ball, shoulder to shoulder, our backpacks thumping from side to side.
How children learn that the enemy is still human and that the ones allied to you can be the enemies. With Palestina versus Israel on the background.
As the title says, the story is a modern fable. Tunnels to another world, discovering that things you knew aren’t really what they are. An unlikely friendship and an evil stepfather. It’s written in a light, airy way that gives room for the story to put its weight on the reader’s shoulders. Because even though this is fiction (the author underlines that fact in the acknowledgements), this could well be happening on any side of the Wall down there in the Middle East.
I don’t know if The Wall: a modern fable will suddenly change someone’s mind on the subject, but it’s very successful in showing the hopelessness of it all. How human everyone involved is, even though it would be easier to view one side as the monsters and the other as the victims. It might leave the reader with a slightly bitter feeling: how can things down there ever change when confrontation is the only way to change minds? But it also shows that there are other kinds of confrontation than violent ones, and maybe that’s the one part that might lead to a happy ending.
The Wall: a modern fable, William Sutcliffe, Bloomsbury 2013