Cover Image: Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

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This has become one of my all-time favorite books.  While its format is non-standard, I quickly came to love its message.  I've reflected on it many times since completing the novel, and even after a couple of years it continues to help me find joy in my life - helps me appreciate all the little things that make this world so wonderful.  I've given a copy of this book to several of my friends as well, and most have loved it.  

My review, published at

George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo is a philosophy discourse brilliantly disguised as a novel. This stunning work hits all the right chords, imploring us to be kind to one another during a time when it seems hatred and distrust are increasingly the norm. It reminds us how important it is to savor, moment by moment, this truly beautiful the world in which we live.

As the book opens, President Abraham Lincoln's younger son, nine-year-old Willie, has died of typhoid fever but has not yet crossed over into the afterlife; he is stuck in the bardo, an intermediate state between life and death (see 'Beyond the Book'). He finds himself in a surreal world filled with others who have not yet moved on. Three long-term residents—Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins and the Reverend Everly Thomas— befriend Willie. The book revolves around their attempts to get the boy to relinquish his existence, as the young, in particular, are not supposed to linger in the land in-between.

The writing style is the first of many striking aspects of this novel. Much of the narrative involves back-and-forth communication between the primary trio as they convey information to the reader, with the speaker being listed at the end of each statement. In one scene, for example, they discuss a Mrs. Delaney, who remained in the bardo in a state of confusion because she'd cheated on her husband with his brother but loved both:

So she found herself stuck.
hans vollman
Physically longing for that Delaney (still back there, in that previous place).
the reverend everly thomas
But also desiring to go, and see her husband again, and apologize.
roger bevins iii
For having wasted the many years of their life together craving another man.
hans vollman
In short, she did not know whether she was coming or going.
the reverend everly thomas
Going or waiting.
roger bevins iii
So just wandered around, shouting, "Mr. Delaney!"
the reverend everly thomas
hans vollman
We never knew which Delaney she was calling for.
roger bevins iii
Nor did she.
the reverend everly thomas
This format can seem off-putting at first, but somehow it works. The main trio is very well spoken and interactions among them are relatively easy to follow. A few other denizens of the cemetery are much harder to understand. Willie's thoughts aren't as articulate, and other individuals' musings are barely coherent. Willie describing Bevins:

"Bevins" had several sets of eyes All darting to and fro Several noses All sniffing His hands (he had multiple sets of hands, or else his hands were so quick they seemed to be many) struck this way and that, picking things up, bringing them to his face with a most inquisitive
Little bit scary
In telling his story he had grown so many extra eyes and noses and hands that his body all but vanished Eyes like grapes on a
vine Hands feeling the eyes Noses smelling the the hands
Slashes on every one of the wrists
willie lincoln
Sometimes the narrative switches to monologues which go on for several paragraphs, and determining whose story is being relayed in such cases can be challenging. While this was confusing for the first few pages, it didn't take me long to adapt.

The novel must have required a lot of research. It includes snippets from accounts of real-life events such as the presidential dinner held the night Willie Lincoln died and news reports of the Civil War. The author uses quotes from wildly varying sources such as Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin; Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, by Elizabeth Keckley; private letters written by Civil War soldiers to their families; newspaper accounts of events; and even quotes from watchman Jack Manders from the Oak Hill Cemetery logbook, taken from the night of February 25, 1862, when Abe Lincoln visited his son's body. The style is unique here too in that the author includes no original text in these chapters. Scenes are described entirely with sentences from external sources. Similar to the conversations between Vollman, Bevins and Thomas, each citation is often just a sentence or two before flowing into another reference.

As part of the action, President Lincoln comes to visit Willie, and both Vollman and Bevins discover they can enter the leader's body and experience his feelings. Not only does Lincoln mourn the death of his beloved child, he also draws parallels to the other parents whose sons have died as a result of the war he continues to authorize in spite of the mounting death toll; his grief, his struggles and his ultimate acceptance of his role are nothing short of heartbreaking.

In spite of the disjointed feeling one may get from the quotes included here, the book contains a surprising amount of emotional depth. Buried within are profound statements about the need to appreciate life in the here and now, while one is still able. That's not to say the book is unrelentingly gloomy; parts of it are very funny and I did find it ultimately uplifting. And, although I found deep meaning in the novel—as well as plenty to think about—it never felt dense or text-bookish. The concepts Saunders espouses are universal and not geared to any one philosophy or religion. Although the bardo is a Buddhist concept, throughout, the author really talks about what it means to be human.

It's too soon to say if the book had a life-changing impact on me, but it certainly transformed my outlook in the near term. I've been encouraged to look at those around me with more compassion and to appreciate all the tiny, everyday miracles that make up a life—to notice more and to look at the world with renewed wonder. Lincoln in the Bardo is a book I desperately want to share with others, and I can think of no higher recommendation; it's literally unforgettable.
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Several decades ago, George Saunders and his wife were visiting Washington D.C. when their cousin mentioned that anecdotal evidence indicated President Abraham Lincoln had surreptitiously visited the tomb of his 11-year-old son, Willie.

For years, the story of Lincoln, so overcome by grief, that he stole into the monument where his son was interred, nagged at the edges of Saunders’s mind. But Saunders, who teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University, had never written a novel and besides his writing was mostly satirical in nature. 

“But this material has been calling me all these years,” says Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House 2017; $28). “It’s like their story was a stalker, it kept showing up at my window and it needed to get out.”

Justifying his foray into a new literary form by telling himself he’d had a nice run regarding his career—Saunders is an acclaimed short story writer who is included in Time’s list of the 100 most influential people the world, he decided why not try “this Lincoln thing.”

Saunders still had doubts about his ability to tell the story in the way the way it needed to be told. But having grown up in Chicago as part of a devout Catholic family and now having adapted some of the tenets of Buddhism in the Tibetan tradition, he has written a book that though just recently released is already garnering great reviews.

Bardo is a Tibetan concept--a kind of transitional zone says Saunders. 

"We're all in the bardo right now that goes from birth to death," he says, noting that Buddhists would call these transition stages reincarnation and noting that the book takes place just after that, in the bardo that goes from death to whatever comes next. "Now is the time to live--knowing that death is coming—if we can accept ourselves as a mess.”

With all his research, Saunders has come to see how Lincoln persevered despite the immense weight of the Civil War, the deaths of so many Americans and that of his son as well.

“We had a president back then who bent,” he says, “when others would have broken.”
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I have a rather mixed experience with George Saunders's novels. I haven't yet read any that shine as much as the glowing and effusive reviews might suggest. That's not to say that I don't enjoy his work: I do, and he is extremely talented. It's just that none have landed with the same impact as might be expected.

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO is an imaginative historical novel, but one about ghosts wrestling with what it means to be mortal (and dead). It's an interesting read, with some great passages. But its strange style may not work for everyone.
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Absolutely phenomenal work from the incomparable George Saunders. This is a huge departure from his collections I've previously read, but as always I was swept away by the unflagging empathy and tenderness for his subjects that touch all of Saunders' writing. I've recommended this book to everyone I know.
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Amazing! I just finished reading this a second time, which is what always happens with 5 star books for me. I’m a bit surprised! I disliked Saunders’ “Tenth of December” very much, so I was a little wary of this one.  But – so many of my trusted Goodreads friends loved this (Angela, Elyse, Cheri, Alena, Connie, Laura…..and so many other wonderful friends and reviewers), that I had to give it a shot.

At first, I wasn’t in love with Saunders’ narrative device. The story, which primarily occurs over the course of one night, is told by many alternating narrators in a conversational manner. After a few chapters of this, I scanned the rest of the book to see how long this was going to go on. My heart sank when I saw THE WHOLE BOOK was like this!! Should I stop? Well, no, my friends loved it so onward! I fell into the rhythm, began to discern who was who and their backstories, and just adored it.

I don’t know how to describe this to do it justice, so let me just paint this image for you. The one thought that went through my mind repeatedly as I read this was, “this book is the exact literary equivalent of Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” triptych. Saunders creates a purgatory that is fantastical, hilarious, pitiful, horrifying and tender all at the same time. 

The story takes place in a cemetery where Abraham Lincoln’s young son, Willie, as just been interred after dying from typhoid fever. Most of the central characters are “inhabitants” of the cemetery and their physical representation reveals their essence – who they are/were and their main preoccupation or defining characteristic at the time of their death. Because – although they don’t seem to grasp this central truth – they are all dead. 

It’s a complicated story told in a complicated fashion. I honestly don’t know how Saunders pulled this off, let alone how he came up with this whole scenario to begin with. His imagination is incredible! I wish I could write a review to do this justice, but I can’t. 

This is a book that’s hard to recommend because I have no way of discerning who this book will speak to and who it won’t. My advice – give it a shot and hang in there through at least a quarter of the book. I am not sure how you would be able to follow this – so fragmented, and so many characters – in an audio format, so I would love it if audio book lovers who listened to this would comment with their experiences.

Thanks to NetGalley and Random House Publishing for an ARC of this wonderful book. My review, however, is based on the hardcover version.
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This was a "did not finish" for me. While the different "voices" were absolutely captivating and the writing was clearly well-done, I felt that the plot and characterization was so "busy" that I didn't have time to fully sink into the story.
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One of the best, gripping, emotional, thrilling reads I've encountered in a long time. Saunders deserves all the praise he's received for this book. He's a national treasure whose work I will always devour.
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American chorus

Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel by George Saunders (Random House, $17).

Anytime someone asks for a novel rec, I’m giving this one. That’s not because it’s the most recent or even the most absolutely literary, but because it is the most American–and that’s what we need right now.

Simply enough, the novel takes place over the days immediately after the burial of young Willie Lincoln in the deep winter of 1862. It triggered the bout of melancholy that lasted until the president’s death three years later. The graveyard where Willie is interred in a mausoleum (his body was later moved to Illinois) serves as the physical location of the bardo, the intermediary place between life and death.

The various residents of the bardo–save one–are in deep denial about their state. Most of them, detached from time and the flesh, cannot imagine that they will not “recover” and return to the lives they left; as they slowly transform into figures unrecognizable as human, the psychological machinations through which they delude themselves become even more elaborate and they envision moving on as death, rather than what they have already experienced.

Meanwhile, Lincoln has returned to the mausoleum to hold Willie’s body, so deep in his grief that he is nearly mad with it. Some of our “ghosts,” for lack of a better word, see the president’s presence as a chance to escape the bardo.

While we toggle between the voices of a deceased newspaper publisher, a suicide, and a minister, we also get a sense of the United States as a mishmash of histories, ideas, dreams and desires. And no, it’s not fully inclusive–women are minor characters; there are no Native voices; slaves are relegated (with a singular exception) to a nameless ditch.

In other words, it’s the same as it ever was.

But it is also a specific moment in time, one in which Lincoln is confronted with the loss of a beloved son and so understands the deep grief of a nation losing sons on the battlefield daily. It is a moment in which one man’s decision made all the difference–and that is the crux of this novel.

So, no, it’s not perfect. But it is so very American that it is true in every way.
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Like The Graveyard Book for grown-ups.
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What has Saunders done here?! Amazing! The audio edition of this is not to be missed.
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What an incredible feat of writing!  George Saunders, has, once again,  provided an experience that will keep you pondering the meaning of existence.
It is early 1962 and the country is now in the throes of the Civil War amid the realization that it will not be over quickly.  President Abraham Lincoln is the leader in conflict,a compassionate, heroic figure for the times.  His beloved son, Willie, dies, and resurfaces in the bardo, that transitional state of being.  
To attempt to describe that place between life and one's final resting place would do an injustice to the frightening, beautiful world that Saunders has created.  The question he poses about life, love and its purpose will leave you thinking for so long after you finish.
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A fascinating look at death, grief and the afterlife, told through a panoply of the dead. The unusual writing style does take some getting used to, but the story carries through to an outstanding crescendo.
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I don't ever remember making this much of an effort to read a book before. The first time I picked up George Saunders' novel, Lincoln on the Bardo, I was halfway through the book when I stopped reading after realizing that I just wasn't getting a complete picture and was too confused to continue any further. I was also having difficulty categorizing this avant garde piece. Not magical realism despite the graveyard setting with the apparitions moving the plot forward, nor a horror story even though the ghostly characters, whose features reflect the moment of their death, come with a complete set of questionable behaviors, but a tale without any narration, purely quotes from both the living and the dead - a dramatic farce
, of sorts, without any stage directions, depicting events through the "dialogue" as the players disclose their personal sagas. 

The "plot" begins at the White House where Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln are hosting a gala, feting the community with all manner of delicacies, while upstairs their son Willie, who has contracted Typhoid, lies dying instead of being on the mend as the doctor had promised. The death of their beloved son leaves not only the Lincolns bereft, but also touches the hearts of all those who knew the young lad. While the community mourns along with the President, many castigate the parents for continuing with the celebration at such a time. All this is explained through quotes from various publications and diaries depicting the event, with numerous contradictions about the details - there was a full moon, the moon was new, it was a cloudy night, the sky was clear, etc. The funeral was well attended and little Willie was laid to rest in a borrowed Crypt. Lincoln, unable to accept the loss of his son, visits the graveyard, removing the deceased boy from his casket to hug and caresss the lifeless form, promising to return. All this is based on true events. 

Next comes Saunders extrapolation of the dead who have not gone into the beyond, remaining in the "Bardo", a sort of holding center. The spirits watch this aberration of behavior, wondering. Willie wants to remain in the graveyard awaiting his father's promised return, but the three main characters, Roger Blevins III (suicide victim) Hans Vollman (possible heart attack), Rev Everly Thomas (appalled at his future awaited fate) urge him on to the afterlife. Young ones are not to stay behind, although others have chosen to remain, not trusting the beyond. Each lost soul wants to share their particular tale of death with the lad, in the hopes that his luck might touch them as well, with an undertone that Willie might yet return to his old life through the power of his father. Never before has anyone touched, let alone hugged, a body after being laid to rest. It is this unusual feat which draws everyone close to the boy. As the story unfolds the reader is exposed to the idiosyncrasies of the graveyard where the souls still exist, returning to their "sick boxes" each day, even as their bodies decay, resisting the call from those who try to trick them into leaving the mortal realm. 

This extremely confusing book needs some explanations before the reader opens the first page. With so many characters, it is difficult to follow so I decided to give the audiotape a try. Still, with a multitude of voices, (166, including the numerous quotes, many from real sources), I needed to simultaneously read the book as I listened to get the gist of the story. Only then could I decipher what was actually happening.

I must say that deciding to use this large number of separate narrators to tell the tale was a moment of brilliance. While some of the readers are unknown, many are A list actors with big names such as Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, Bill Hader, Megan Mullally, Ben Stiller, Don Cheadle, and even the author, George Saunders, taking part. Nick and David, portraying the main characters, did a phenomenal job, with their interpretations bringing the graveyard to life. While Saunders had a credible performance, he could not compete with the other two actors who definitely earned their pay. The others taking on smaller roles were delightful, especially Bill Hader and Megan Mullally portraying foul mouthed white trash who lived in the black community, allowing some discourse on the slavery issue. As I followed along with the text, the words came alive in a way my mind could never imagine, especially some heart felt sections when the true plights of the "victims" are finally revealed. 

So, while still a bizarre book, I finally was able to finish and appreciate the author's intent, with the last quarter of the book providing some hope and inspiration about life beyond the grave, although there are still a myriad of questions which I would like the author to answer. Since this book utilizes an unusual format to advance the plot, It was a shock to hear Lincoln on the Bardo won the 2017 Man Booker Award, (especially considering an American won last year as well). I wonder how many other readers will take the time necessary to appreciate this offbeat book and Saunders' unique approach to literature.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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This book reads like the literary achievement that it is. It's unique and bold and told in a style that I haven't come across before. Any challenges I had were because of my own personal reading taste - the shift in narrator was jarring at times, but was what made it interesting I think. And honestly - it just won the Man Booker. That says more than I ever could!
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I was not a fan of this book as I had supposed I would be. Author has brilliant short stories however this novel had working to hard to love from the start. Once I fell into to sync with the writing style it got better, but it's not what I had hoped from this author and fabulous premise.
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Fascinating and original, George Saunders' first novel uses a unique format utilizing real and fictional information and a variety of haunted voices to tell the story of Lincoln's grief over his young son's tragic death. The conceit wears a bit after a while, but well worth the read. More, please, sir.
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I believe the author should stick to short stories.
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I was surprised by how much I loved this book. I picked it up being very wary since I've never gotten into George Saunders' writing before, but I wound up wanting to go back and revisit all his earlier works now that I have a firmer grasp on his writing style. The prose and dialogue in this book seem disjointed at first, but ultimately, Saunders weaves it all together to build a beautiful story of the loss of a child, the afterlife, and how we are haunted by those who have left our life. His style is quirky and witty yet sends a profound message to his readers about a part of history about which so few people know. I found myself researching more details about Lincoln and the death of his young son. Simultaneously beautiful and haunting, I would definitely give this book as a gift, particularly to those who are fascinated by the human aspects of history and novels with a gothic feel. I'm impressed by Saunders' ability to weave together a beautiful story with abstract writing.
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While this book was not my personal favorite, I understand why many people would enjoy it.  The multiple narrators left things a bit jumbled, but the premise allowed me to power through.  An interesting read and an interesting perspective.
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This book is amazing. Pure brilliance. I think it's safe to say that this will be the best book I'll read in 2017, not even knowing what I'll read the rest of the year.  The book is incredibly difficult to put down, the compelling story and beautiful writing made disrupting the flow of the sentences feel like a crime.
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