The Off-Topic Book Club: Lincoln in the Bardo

The Off-Topic Book Club can’t agree about whether George Saunders’ Man Booker winning novel lives up to the hype.

Book Summary:
February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returned to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a thrilling, supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory, where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Saunders
Published by Bloomsbury




I think The Times summed this book up the best as ‘Memorably rich and strange.’ I completely agree, the writing is lovely and memorable, but the subject and characters are very strange.It made me laugh, it made me re-read and it confused me – so it was quite the ride! I would recommend this to readers who like to be challenged, and to read writing that takes risks. And don’t be put off by first impressions – it’s not as difficult to read as the format suggests.

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Favourite podcast book for 2017: Turtles all the Way Down – gorgeous writing and a memorable read. My copy has come with me on holiday, ready to be handed to the first person looking for a good book to read.
Most challenging podcast book for 2017: Gastrophysics in terms of actually finishing the book – it’s very long and the format was difficult to get caught up in. The Suicide Club was the most challenging subject matter, but the imagery has stuck with me for the right reasons.
This summer I’m reading: Anything with a palm tree on the cover, or a gorgeous blonde looking off into the distance in a dramatic gown – and baby magazines. Summer to me is the time for classic chick lit – I can’t go past Lesley Lokko, Tilly Bagshawe or Louise Bagshawe.

Emma: I’m not going to beat around the bush, I did not like this book. Yes it’s won the Man Booker prize so you’re supposed to like it, but I found it hard to connect to. Despite being very short, it dragged on and much like the characters trapped in the bardo the story was listless and without focus. The critical success of it flummoxes me, is there an aspect of the Emperor’s New Clothes here? Perhaps I’m being unfair as I listened to Lincoln in the Bardo as an audio book rather than reading it- which made it even harder to follow what was going on. The audio version features a great cast of Hollywood actors including Lena Dunham, Susan Sarandon, Jeffrey Tambor, Keegan-Michael Key Bill Hader and Megan Mullally but even their star power couldn’t bring this tale about the afterlife, to life for me.

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Favourite podcast book for 2017: Nothing can beat 2016’s My Brilliant Friend
Most challenging podcast book for 2017: Gastrophysics – I may have been the only person in the book club that enjoyed this one but I liked how the book tackled the science of eating – here’s a tip, skip the introduction.
This summer I’m reading: The rest of the Elena Ferrante series, The Neapolitan Novels

The idea is dazzling, the early parts wonderful, the writing excellent but ultimately drowns under its own weight.
Favourite podcast book for 2017: Surprisingly, Turtle’s all the Way Down.
Most challenging podcast book for 2017: The Break (too silly), and Gastrophysics (it’s no Freakonomics)
This summer I’m reading: A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment by John Preston

As I never think about the afterlife (is there one?) the premise of this book baffled me. All the characters, roused from a graveyard with nothing to bind them together beyond that fact that they were all dead, caused me consternation and revulsion in about equal measure. I was fascinated by the account of Lincoln’s dinner party and ball and might have enjoyed the book a whole lot more had it just remained on this trajectory – eyewitness accounts with their conflicting content.
Favourite podcast book for 2017: The Suicide Club
Most challenging podcast book for 2017:
This summer I’m reading: Manhattan Beach

Favourite podcast book for 2017: Lincoln in the Bardo
Most challenging podcast book for 2017: Gastrophysics
This summer I’m reading: Mythos, Stephen Fry.

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