Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

Love, death, ghosts, and history. What a sad, funny, interesting and heart-squeezing novel.

From Wikipedia:

Many years ago, during a visit to Washington DC, my wife’s cousin pointed out to us a crypt on a hill and mentioned that, in 1862, while Abraham Lincoln was president, his beloved son, Willie, died, and was temporarily interred in that crypt, and that the grief-stricken Lincoln had, according to the newspapers of the day, entered the crypt “on several occasions” to hold the boy’s body. An image spontaneously leapt into my mind – a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà. I carried that image around for the next 20-odd years, too scared to try something that seemed so profound, and then finally, in 2012, noticing that I wasn’t getting any younger, not wanting to be the guy whose own gravestone would read “Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt”, decided to take a run at it, in exploratory fashion, no commitments. My novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is the result of that attempt […].[10]

What must that feel like… to not only finally complete a project you’ve been thinking about for decades, but to also have it be so acclaimed?

I hope he feels proud, because it is great. I never would have though a book written in such a strange way could evoke such strong feelings, but it does. After a few pages of it, you don’t notice the strangeness as much. Or, you do, but it is no longer a hindrance. It blends into the feeling of it. The idea of dozens or hundreds of viewpoints coalescing into a single story of a single night.

I think anyone with an open mind could enjoy this book. The only people I’ve seen saying bad things about it are just complaining about the way it’s written, not what’s written.

The only minor complaint I had was how short it was. The 360 or so pages it claims would actually be probably half that, if each page were covered with words instead of having them spread out as it is formatted.

Read if you want something fresh and interesting and heartfelt!

Despair, by Vladimir Nabokov

Schadenfreude–pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune. Nabokov, I am coming to find, is the master of this.

The key to it, is to not identify too much with the person experiencing the misfortune, otherwise it becomes uncomfortable, cringy, awkward… but this, is not. You find yourself laughing with the most perfect satisfaction.

And I want more!

Good thing he has many novels left for me to read…

Mystery on the side

I’m listening to another Nabokov novel, and no surprise, it’s great. This one is about a struggling businessman who also seems a bit mentally unstable, running across a vagrant who happens to look exactly like him.

The instant he sees this face, a plan sparks in his mind. You can tell, but, you don’t know what that plan is… and that is the mystery. Not how he is going to do something (he’s going to do it by using a look-alike in some way) but what he is going to do.

Since it’s Nabokov, I automatically suspect that this guy is way less smart than he thinks he is, and also that there is a lot going on between the lines. I’ve not yet discovered much, but it is fun searching for it.

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Kafka has some way with words that makes everything seem like a slow, surreal nightmare. This story, in simple, straightforward language, manages that feeling while still being somewhat comical.

Gregor Samsa wakes one morning to find he’s transformed into a giant insect-like creature who’s smell and appearance so horrify his family that they can’t bear to be in the same room as him for more than a few seconds.

But, like The Trial, it all has the effect of a strange dream… an inevitable, existential horror creeping slowly but unerringly.

First he is sequestered to his room, only able to listen to his family or guess what they are up to. Then the furniture is removed from his room. Then the room (and he) gathers dust and trash and is left untended… and his relationship deteriorates at the same time.

And it all somehow evokes a feeling of… shrinking, of the world being stripped away until reality is a single room, a single floorboard at which your eye is pointing, unblinking.

A short, strange read. Well worth it.

Word trap

Still listening to Dorian Gray, but I’ve noticed a certain repetition of wording that happens so often it stands out. No one in this book ever sits down, they all invariably fling or throw themselves into their chairs and sofas–sometimes multiple characters in a scene.

I find myself repeating words like that, too. When I read back through something I wrote, I see the same word over and over, and I have to search for replacements for it.

Good to know even the best of authors can fall into repetitive patterns!

Start at the action

Now that I’ve got a bit of experience slush reading at our new magazine, I can say ‘start at the action’ with even more certainty than ever.

When you’re reading someone else’s story, who you don’t know, and have no preconceptions about, it is a lot easier to see faults. One fault being ‘I have no desire to keep reading this because nothing is happening.’ If your friend or family wrote the story, you want to see what happens because you are curious about the ideas in the head of someone you care about. But, most other people reading that story might get bored…

If your story is about a bank robbery, start at the bank. A detailed account of the afternoon leading up to the robbery is going to lose 90% of your readers, even if it’s really great prose. Short stories aren’t novels, people don’t know what they are about or what to expect, so you have to let them know what the story is about right away and give them a reason to keep reading.

I think I will learn a lot about writing from the experience with this magazine!

Love in the Time of Cholera

This was the story of love between many people over a lifetime.

There were so many little nuggets of goodness in this novel that it’s hard to give a general idea of why I liked it. I loved the description of Florintino, and found a lot of myself in him. He was also laughable at times, though, with his ridiculous ideas of love and his determination that bordered on obsession.

I enjoyed the juxtaposition of youth and age, and how their views on love differed, but the views that others took of them remained the same–they were kept apart in their youth because they were too young, but in their old age, their families try to keep them apart because they are too old for love!

Fermina has a hard/hot headedness that Florintino refuses to give in to, and it is fun and emotional to read. He is a tireless, endless lover and you can’t help but cheer for him to keep trying.

The kind of love that lets you fall for someone in your youth, and then be unable to forget about them for fifty years, even when they never talk to you or even acknowledge your existence, is difficult to imagine. But Marquez does a great job of giving me an insight, and a hint at what that might feel like.