Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo
by
George Saunders

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I just finished reading Lincoln in the Bardo and I wanted to get a review out right away, to tell you about an excellent book and an important read, especially for me.

Lincoln in the Bardo was first published in 2017 and it’s been on my reading list for almost that long. When my father died in 2018, my brother Rick spoke at the funeral and, in his remarks, he talked about this book in which Abraham Lincoln mourns the death of his eleven-year-old son Willie. To give you perspective, this is in 1862 during the first year of the Civil War as the nation looks hard at Lincoln to do something about the war. So now Lincoln is mourning his son’s death, but he’s also shouldering an immense responsibility as war casualties grow at an alarming rate.

In an effort to understand why his son was taken, Lincoln visits the crypt where Willie’s body rests. There, but without his knowledge, Lincoln is surrounded by the ghosts of those who have died, but are trapped in the bardo, a Buddhist term for the intermediate stage between life and rebirth. Lincoln, still grief-stricken, tells his son he will be back and Willie’s spirit resists being taken to the next stage so that he can see his father again and help him make sense of it.

The book includes a multitude of ghosts whose features take varied and exaggerated forms that reflect their time on earth. Saunders features three main ghosts, a young gay man who died by suicide after his lover spurned him, a middle-aged printer who died in an accident before he could consummate his marriage and a minister who passed away peacefully after a presumably honorable life. These three ghosts act as narrators and also coordinate an effort to help Willie and his father move forward. In addition, they discover much about themselves and each other.

At the end, Lincoln finally understands that he must return to his life because he has important work to do, to make things better, as a father and husband, of course, but also as president of a warring nation. My experience reading this book, especially when I reached this point, became emotional because I felt I could see into my brother’s mind as he prepared his remarks for our father’s funeral. The very ideas in this book, realized by Lincoln, became the words that my brother spoke to us all, urging us to honor our father’s memory by continuing with our own important work. You may know that my brother Rick passed away in August and the words he spoke just three years earlier about continuing with a purpose have taken on a greater meaning to me. So a book that has more than 20,000 reviews on Goodreads reached me on a unique personal level.

Lincoln in the Bardo is described as an experimental and supernatural novel and it takes a lot of work to read it. Some sections read like a play and some present actual and fictional historical accounts. Readers will need to think hard about the ideas and setting as well as trust the author to provide a story. Lincoln in the Bardo won the 2017 Man Booker Prize and is ranked as one of the best novels of its decade.

I felt rewarded at the finish and if you read it, I hope you do too.

Rick talked about another book in his remarks, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. I’ll be reading that soon.

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Book Review: The Address by Fiona Davis

The Address
by
Fiona Davis

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I’ve always enjoyed reading stories set in New York and have been meaning to read The Address for a long time. In this 2017 novel by Fiona Davis, Sara Smythe and Bailey Camden live in New York, one hundred years apart. They are connected in indeterminate ways to the 1885 murder of the fictional architect Theodore Camden. Set in 1884 and 1984, their narratives revolve around the famous Dakota, an apartment building in New York.

The Dakota is a real place. Located on the northwest corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, its tenants include famous musicians, artists and actors. It’s also where John Lennon was murdered in 1980. When it first opened in 1884, the Dakota was actually in a remote part of NYC, if you can believe it. Designed to attract the newly wealthy, the building opened its doors to a full staff and plenty of luxuries.

Sara’s story begins in 1884 when Theodore Camden recruits her from the London Langham Hotel to become the first managerette (how do you like that job title?) of the Dakota. Unmarried and in her thirties, Sara works as the head housekeeper. She’s ready for a change, however and drawn to Theodore’s charms, despite the fact that he’s married with three young children. In a bold decision, Sara quits her job and crosses the Atlantic to start a new life during New York’s gilded age. She lives at the Dakota and confidently manages a large staff of housekeepers, porters, maintenance crew and the tenants’ maids. Unable to resist their mutual attractions, Theo and Sara begin an affair that leads to Theo’s ultimate death and the end of Sara’s career.

Jumping to 1984, interior designer Bailey Camden must rebuild her life after a struggle with drugs and alcohol. Out of rehab and jobless, she visits her wealthy cousin Melinda Camden, who lives at the Dakota, in the same apartment where Theo was murdered. Bailey’s family connection to the wealthy Camdens began when her grandfather became Theodore Camden’s ward. Melinda will soon inherit trust money, but Bailey, whose family has learned to live without, will not. In a gesture of seemingly good will, Melinda hires Bailey to redesign her apartment and agrees to let her live there until she gets on her feet. When Bailey discovers personal items belonging to Sara and Theo’s family, she will soon learn more about the affair and just how she fits into the Camden lineage.

I enjoyed this novel which is part mystery and part historical fiction. Davis explores the messy themes of money, class, inheritance and family and entertains the reader with images of New York’s upper and working classes and the city’s development and its varied architecture. In addition, a special appearance by investigative journalist Nellie Bly provides an up-close look at the horrors of Blackwell Island’s Insane Asylum. I recommend The Address to fans of New York stories as well as readers who like historical fiction, interesting characters and themes of money and class.

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Book Review: We Must Be Brave by Frances Liardet

We Must Be Brave
by
Frances Liardet

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

This historical novel is set during World War II near Southampton, England and follows the story of Ellen Parr, a woman whose strong thoughts about motherhood are tested when she and her husband, Selwyn take in a young girl who has lost her mother.

The story begins in 1940 during the aftermath of a German bombing when Ellen discovers five-year-old Pamela asleep in the back of an evacuation bus. Ellen brings the girl back to their home in the fictional village of Upton where they have offered shelter to other evacuees.

Offering temporary shelter is one thing, but as time passes and no relatives come forward, Ellen becomes emotionally attached to Pamela. Married just one year, Ellen and Selwyn must confront conflicting feelings about family and parenthood. Selwyn, forty-one and a veteran of the Great War, believed they would not have a family, choosing instead to run the mill he inherited from his uncle. Ellen, still very young, was only eighteen when she first met Selwyn and had just landed on her feet. As a girl, she had endured tragedy, poverty and loss. Now at twenty-one, Ellen has agreed with Selwyn. No children. But Pamela pulls her heartstrings and Ellen sees endearing traits of fatherhood in her husband. So maybe things could be different…

Of course, the inevitable happens and Ellen must choose what’s best for Pamela over her own feelings. But these feelings haunt her and, over decades become a problem that seems impossible to fix.

Parenthood, especially motherhood and “what life is meant to be” are the central themes in this story that spans over eighty years. Told mostly through Ellen’s point of view, the author returns to 1932 and provides the reader with Ellen’s back story. Letters and jumps to the future fill the reader in on the full story, which comes to a neatly tied-up, though somewhat unsatisfying conclusion.

I enjoyed this book, though at 452 pages, seemed overly long with repetitive descriptions of Ellen and Pamela’s connection. The author introduces many characters, who over the years become Ellen’s lifelong friends. I liked reading about her friendship with various villagers, including her friend and former classmate, Lucy Horne, Lady Brock, who lives in the grand Upton Hall and William Kennett, Lady Brock’s benevolent gardener. The World War II backdrop is always interesting to me, but does not play into the story much except to frame it. Fans of historical fiction may want to give it a try. I’d call this a light historical fiction, good for casual reading.

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What’s That Book? In the Night of Time by Antonio Muňoz Molina

In memory of my brother Rick who passed away on August 9, I’d like to share this review he wrote for my blog, originally published in 2016.

Title: In the Night of Time

Author: Antonio Muňoz Molina

Genre: Historical Fiction

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What’s it about? The outset of the Spanish Civil War, as seen through the eyes and experiences of a married, middle-aged architect with 2 children, and his affair with a younger American woman. By the end of the story, Spain is mired in senseless violence and the main character has escaped to New York alone, with his estranged wife and children remaining somewhere in Spain, the affair ended and the future uncertain.

How did you hear about it? Several “best of” book lists. The book has received many favorable reviews.

Closing comments: Rich with detailed descriptions, the book is highly effective in conveying through small incidents, minor characters and specific observations a depressing impression of the Republic, the Nationalists, their respective supporters and an entire people and nation sinking into an abyss, while at the same time telling an ambiguous story of a man expanding his personal experience while betraying his wife and children. The book is beautifully translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman.

Contributor: Rick

Have you read something you’d like to share?  Consider being a contributor!  Contact bvitelli2009@gmail.com for more information.

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Book Review: Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland

Florence Adler Swims Forever
by
Rachel Beanland

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I decided to read this right away after announcing it was on my radar. What I didn’t know then is that Beanland’s debut historical novel is based on a true family story about the author’s great-great-aunt, Florence Lowenthal.

Florence Lowenthal grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and dreamed of swimming the English Channel. Although a strong swimmer, she drowned in the summer of 1929 off the coast of Atlantic City. At the time, Florence’s sister was pregnant and in the hospital on bedrest, after losing a baby boy. Their mother insisted they keep Florence’s death a secret until after the baby was born. Beanland used these events to write her story. She created additional characters to add historical content.

In Beanland’s story, the Adlers are a Jewish family and Florence is the younger daughter. Her older sister, Fannie is in the hospital on bedrest. During this time, her daughter, seven-year-old Gussie Feldman, lives with the grandparents while Fannie’s husband, Isaac, who works for the Adler family business, stays at their apartment. A young woman named Anna Epstein also lives with the family. Joseph Adler has sponsored her to come to America from Germany, to escape Hitler’s alarming restrictions on Jews living in Germany. Anna’s parents hope to join their daughter, but they face a multitude of nonsensical requirements and time is running out.

Like the real Lowenthal mother, Esther Adler insists on keeping Florence’s death quiet so that Fannie will deliver a healthy baby. During these months, we learn about other family secrets, especially between Joseph and Esther, and the reason Anna has come to stay with them. Isaac Feldman also plays an important part of the story. Beanland throws in a nice romance as well as a few moral dilemmas.

One of the best parts of the book is its setting and the author’s description of Atlantic City’s sights and sounds. Although completely unrelated in plot and character, it reminded me of the HBO show Boardwalk Empire and I was easily able to picture Atlantic City during these times.

I enjoyed reading Florence Adler Swims Forever, although I thought the story was a little flat at times. The first half reads like a Young Adult novel, but transitions to more mature themes in the second half. I liked how several characters had to make important and bold decisions that affect the Adler family.

This is a fast read and great for fans of historical fiction. Although the end lacked a lot of details, it gave me space to imagine how the characters are doing. I look forward to seeing more books by this author.

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Book on my radar – Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland

I have this book on my Kindle and I’ve been trying to get to it. My work friend recommended it and now I’m just going to have to make it happen! It’s the Winner of the 2020 National Jewish Book Award for Debut Fiction and a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.

Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

“Over the course of one summer that begins with a shocking tragedy, three generations of the Adler family grapple with heartbreak, romance, and the weight of family secrets.

Every summer, Esther and Joseph Adler rent their house out to vacationers escaping to “America’s Playground” and move into the small apartment above their bakery. This is the apartment where they raised their two daughters, Fannie and Florence. Now Florence has returned from college, determined to spend the summer training to swim the English Channel, and Fannie, pregnant again after recently losing a baby, is on bedrest for the duration of her pregnancy. After Joseph insists they take in a mysterious young woman whom he recently helped emigrate from Nazi Germany, the apartment is bursting at the seams.

When tragedy strikes, Esther makes the shocking decision to hide the truth—at least until Fannie’s baby is born—and pulls the family into an elaborate web of secret-keeping and lies, bringing long-buried tensions to the surface that reveal how quickly the act of protecting those we love can turn into betrayal after tragedy.”

In case you don’t know, “America’s Playground” refers to Atlantic City. (I wouldn’t have known that unless my work friend had told me.)

I like historical fiction and stories about secrets. It seems to have an original twist to it too. What do you think? Would you read it?

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Book Review: The Last Pilgrim by Noelle Granger

The Last Pilgrim
by
Noelle Granger

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I’ve always been interested in American history, especially that of the early American settlers, who endured many hardships as they built lives in a new land. I very much enjoyed reading Noelle Granger’s latest book, The Last Pilgrim, a rich historical fiction about Mary Allerton Cushman, the last surviving passenger of the Mayflower.

In 1620, Mary Allerton was four years old when she and her family arrived on the Mayflower in what would soon become Plymouth Colony. She grew up and married Thomas Cushman, a man she’d known since childhood, who became a Ruling Elder of the colony. Together they worked the land and raised eight children. Like all of the settlers, however, they faced many dangers and endured sickness, hardship and loss. Both Thomas and Mary lived long lives, despite these trials. Thomas died in 1691 at age eighty-four and Mary died in 1699 at age eighty-three.

This well-researched story is told mostly in Mary’s voice and some in her father, Isaac Allerton’s. It portrays her as a bright young girl, full of questions and a mind of her own. When her mother dies, Isaac Allerton fears that Mary, his youngest child and a willful girl, will be without proper supervision. He places her in Governor William Bradford’s household where Alice Bradford teaches her the many difficult tasks assigned to women, including caring for children, cooking, gardening, spinning wool, weaving flax, helping with childbirth, learning herbal remedies, and making candles, soap and beer. As a member of the Bradford household, Mary’s inquisitive mind is also tuned in to William Bradford’s colony business, an interest she cultivates and maintains throughout her life, and for which she often receives rebukes from her husband. “It isn’t your place to question me, wife. I’m responsible for our welfare and will see to it,” Thomas tells her.

Granger’s unfiltered history also reveals the complex and ever-changing relationships colonists had with the different Native American tribes, who were often at war with each other and had treaties and alliances with different tribes and colonies. She shows this darker side of American history, a time when settlers stole corn from the natives, pillaged their camps and, during times of war, massacred Indians, including women and children. Other descriptions reveal the colonists’ challenges as they try to establish a community, including the ever-present pressure for payment of debts to the Merchant Adventurers, who financed their voyage, and the simmering conflict with England over independence.

Family life and the Separatists’ religious beliefs are also prominent themes in Granger’s story and she portrays the settlers matter-of-factly in their efforts to worship, propagate and govern. Discipline was important as well as knowing one’s place and while Granger’s Cushmans love their children, they raise them under the strict rules of the times, with frequent thrashings for impertinence. Punishments for transgressions in their community include hangings and other harsh sentences. It’s no wonder these early settlers were tough, which likely made them able to survive.

The Last Pilgrim is full of life and history and is an uncensored look at early American settlers. Granger’s extensive research is evident in its telling and I found it easy to imagine Mary Cushman’s life with all its difficulties as well happy times. I recommend The Last Pilgrim to readers who enjoy historical fiction and want to learn more about early American life.

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Book Review: Near Prospect Park by Lawrence H. Levy

Near Prospect Park
by
Lawrence H. Levy

In Near Prospect Park, Brooklyn detective Mary Handley takes on New York’s upper crust as she works with Lillian Russell, Diamond Jim Brady and Teddy Roosevelt to solve her husband’s murder.

It’s 1895 and Mary is happily married to Harper Lloyd, an investigative journalist. Despite also caring for their baby daughter, Mary still has her feet in detective work. For Mary is a modern woman, unwilling to sacrifice her ambition and independence to society’s (and her opinionated mother’s) expectations.

William S. Gilbert (of the comic opera team Gilbert and Sullivan) has hired Mary to help him retrieve a ransomed manuscript and, with four thousand in cash, Mary agrees to make the exchange with the thief in Prospect Park. But the meeting goes wrong and in the shocking aftermath, Mary discovers that Harper has been murdered. Fueled on grief and rage, Mary sets out to find his killer.

Mary first turns to her contacts in the Gilbert case, who include actress Lillian Russell and railroad supplies magnate Diamond Jim Brady. Through them, she soon becomes acquainted with blue blood bad boys Stanford White and James Breese. White, a famous architect and photographer and financier Breese have been linked to a raucous party in which fifteen-year-old Susie Johnson was hired to jump out of a pie. Johnson’s claims of rape were largely quashed by the powerful elite. But Mary has not forgotten the scandal of the Pie Girl Dinner and, despite investigating Harper’s murder, she knows she must also get to the bottom of this atrocious behavior. Teddy Roosevelt, president of the New York police commissioners and a strong supporter of women’s rights, also has Mary’s back.

Mary is a risk-taker, but a confident one, for she is a master in jujitsu and she has flattened many foes with her quick moves. She will need these skills as she digs deeper into the case.

I enjoyed this fast-moving and entertaining historical mystery. As in his earlier books, the author includes many historical figures and brings their personalities to life. New York in the 1890s was a rough place, especially for women. The Pie Girl Dinner, an actual event, is just one example of how crimes against women are nothing new.

As in the earlier Mary Handley Mysteries, Near Prospect Park is an enjoyable mystery that incorporates humor into serious themes. Mary’s character is strong, yet vulnerable, making her relatable, even in modern times. I’m looking forward to more Mary Handley adventures!

Want more? Check out these other Mary Handley Mysteries.

Second Street Station (Book 1)
Brooklyn on Fire (Book 2)
Last Stop in Brooklyn (Book 3)

Author Interview – Lawrence H. Levy

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Short reviews from 2013: Twisted, The Shoemaker’s Wife and Steve Jobs

In celebration of my 7-year blogging anniversary, here are three short reviews of books I read in 2013.


Twisted
by
Laurie Halse Anderson

This book is a little bit like a modern Catcher in the Rye and I liked it for that reason. Twisted was on our school district’s summer reading list for rising ninth graders a couple years ago. There is some mature language and content, but I think it is realistic. I think kids want to read something contemporary that has an edge to it and Anderson understands how to incorporate this element into quality writing.

In Twisted, Tyler returns to his senior year of high school, after being punished during the summer for vandalizing the school. He struggles with a poor self-image and how others, most importantly his father, perceive him. Tyler navigates through adolescence and important relationships and, like many coming-of-age stories, learns the true meaning of family and friendship.

Final scenes with his family are raw and emotional and show Anderson at her best.


The Shoemaker’s Wife
by
Adriana Trigiani

I liked this family saga of immigration, near-misses in love and brushes with greatness, with the appropriate doses of disappointment and sadness. It is a light and entertaining read. I enjoyed reading about Italy at the turn of the century and life in the Italian Alps. The author does a nice job bringing the main characters to life.

I think the author’s strengths lie in the story’s initial setting and characters. Her early descriptions of Ciro, Eduardo and their mother are moving. In addition, Trigiani’s descriptions of the Ravanelli family show warmth and devotion. It is the foundation of a really great story.

Ciro’s success as a shoemaker and his assimilation into New York life move at a believable pace. I enjoyed this part of the story much more. Despite the unlikely nature of meeting Enza on her wedding day, we all know it is coming and accept the feel-good moment.

Some other parts I like include Ciro’s relationship with Sister Teresa at the San Nicola Convent. I also like how Ciro is accepted for who he is at the convent, and how the nuns do not force him to be a believer.

An entertaining read and a great way to escape to another time and place!


Steve Jobs
by
Walter Isaacson

This biography gives us the full picture of Steve Jobs, good and bad. It is a detailed history of Jobs, his life and his creations at Apple, NeXT, Pixar and Apple again. And it’s a look at the impatient frustrations of a perfectionist who, with the genius of vision and presentation, liked to distort reality, had poor people skills and thought no rules applied to him.

I don’t know what to think of Steve Jobs. He derived his happiness from creating and was driven to do so. Isaacson shows a man who manipulated people, berated them, and often ignored his wife and children. He regularly took credit for ideas that came from his creative team and rearranged facts to benefit his point, all with no regrets. But time and again he enabled people to achieve the impossible by refusing to believe that something could not be done.  The combination of persistence and genius made him a remarkable man.

AND…Steve Jobs gave us the Mac, fonts, graphics and desktop publishing. Then he gave us the iPhone, the iPod, iTunes and music. He allowed us to re-experience the feelings we used to have in record stores as we excitedly flipped through albums and heard new music on the store speakers. Then he gave us the iPad, movies and books all with a touchscreen. He knew what we wanted, just as he said, before we knew what we wanted.

This was a very interesting read. My only negative comment is that it was sometimes repetitive, particularly on the subjects of distorted reality and Jobs’ belief in closed-end product design. I also thought the author often portrayed Jobs as too much of a beloved hero in the second half of the book, once Jobs returned to Apple. But then again, that’s when we got all these great products. And I don’t think I could live without them.

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Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad
by
Colson Whitehead

Rating:

Cora is a young slave on the Randall cotton plantation in antebellum Georgia when Caesar approaches her with a plan to escape. He tells her she will be his good luck charm, but he’s picked her because he knows she can make it. Cora’s strong and determined personality will help them escape the brutal treatment they can no longer endure. And as a young woman, she is now defenseless against Terrance Randall’s abuse. Cora’s mother, Mabel ran for her own freedom when Cora was a girl. Now Cora is an outcast living on the plantation’s “hob,” a place where slaves are banished by other slaves.

Shortly after they run, they are chased by a group of slave catchers and Cora kills a boy who attacks her. Via the Underground Railroad, they find their way to safety in South Carolina. But something isn’t right and Cora is soon on the run again. And she’s being pursued by a slave catcher named Ridgeway whose reputation is at stake. Ridgeway failed to capture Mabel when she ran. Now he’s determined to succeed and restore Terrance’s confidence in him.

In Whitehead’s interpretation, station agents from a real underground railroad system, built by blacks and white supporters of freedom, help Cora move from state to state. The risks are great for Cora and those who help her and some will pay with their lives.

What do I say about a book like this, read at a time like this? Though Whitehead’s depiction of slavery and oppression is from a grim time in American history where slavery in the south was accepted, his characters’ messages continue to ring true. Cora’s story is a reflection of innumerable stories of how poorly blacks have been treated in this country.

What makes this book excellent is how Whitehead’s characters represent complicated and nuanced views of slavery and oppression.

For example, Colson offers a keen insight into Ridgeway’s belief in what his own father taught him about a Great Spirit. He tells Cora, “All these years later, I prefer the American spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the New to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription—the American imperative.” That’s a scary quote, but these are the shameful words that others throughout history and in present day have spoken.

Cora’s fight for her own freedom is the most central to the story because it represents an imperative for basic human rights. The people who help her, blacks and whites, have varied reasons for helping and for me, offer hope as I relate her story to present time. White shop and saloon owners who live above railroad stations, station agents, and citizens offer help. In particular, Martin Wells, a white station manager in North Carolina, risks his family’s life to hide runaways in his attic, despite his wife’s opposition. His wife, though, is terrified and has her own complicated story. Elijah Lander is a biracial and outspoken abolitionist, who grew up in privilege and uses his stature to make speeches and distribute pamphlets.

One complicated and realistic character is Mingo, a former slave who purchased his own freedom and believes blacks should disassociate themselves from weaker blacks. For Mingo, his cause is his own and his view is narrow.

But the character who tugs at my conscience is John Valentine, a light-skinned Ethiopian who marries a black woman and buys her freedom. He starts a farm in Indiana to help runaways. Valentine explains,

I didn’t grow up the way you did. My mother never feared for my safety. No trader was going to snatch me in the night and sell me South. The whites saw the color of my skin, and that sufficed to let me be. I told myself I was doing nothing wrong, but I conducted myself in ignorance all my days.”

Something in the front of my mind.

Thanks for reading.