Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
Willie Lincoln, age 11, has died of typhoid fever. His distraught father, President Lincoln, visits the Georgetown cemetery the night after his burial in February, 1862. The Civil War isn’t going well, and Lincoln’s in despair. His vigil that night helps him organize his thoughts and plans on how to proceed with the war. This is not a traditional historical novel, as most of the book is narrated by a chorus of the graveyard’s ghosts who do not accept the fact that they’re dead, and have not yet gone on to face judgment, a transitional state Buddhists call the bardo. The ghosts are eccentric, disturbing, sad, confused, and sometimes very vulgar and crude. They are from different times and walks of life, and talk and argue with each other. They reflect back on their imperfectly remembered lives, and are moved by Willie, as young ghosts should not linger long. They try hard to connect the president with his son’s ghost. The scenes in the cemetery alternate with short chapters of quotes, both real and fictional, of people’s reactions to Willie’s illness, death, and the unsettled state of the country. The overall tone is melancholy, and it’s a very vivid, moving read. It took me a while to adjust to the book’s unusual style. This is a first novel by a noted short story writer. This book will have the most appeal for fans of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War era, and readers looking for a unique, challenging and definitely worthwhile reading experience.
A Piece of the World, by Christina Baker Kline
In a life full of disappointments, Christina Olson both enjoys the coastal Maine farmhouse she shares with her parents, one of her brothers, and her cats, and longs to be free of the house and her life. In her 40s, she meets young painter Andrew Wyeth, who is engaged to her young friend Betsy, and they open up her world. Wyeth loves painting the old farmhouse and its surroundings, and sees Christina as no one else does. An illness as a young girl leaves Christina with shaky balance and weak legs, but she keeps house for her family after leaving school early, although she could have trained to be a teacher. At 20, Christina has a romance with a handsome summer visitor, but it too ends in disappointment. A few friends, sisters-in-law, clambakes, picnics, berry picking and other joys of summer enliven her life, along with the poems of Emily Dickinson, but the winters in a drafty house without electricity or a furnace get harder. This is a beautifully written book, and the author’s skill and extensive research make the Olsons and Wyeths come to life, along with the famous painting Christina’s World. This is a very moving and melancholy book, and difficult to read at times as Christina’s health suffers and her world narrows. In the end, Wyeth’s friendship and art help her see herself in a new way. This book is sure to be popular with readers of The Orphan Train.
The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, by Jennifer Ryan
This is not the cozy tale of home front life in an English village that I expected, but instead a grittier, more memorable story of life in southeast England in 1940. Told in letters and diaries, we experience the points of view of several women and one girl in Chilbury. 13-year-old Kitty Winthrop befriends a young Czech evacuee and uncovers disturbing secrets, while her 18-year-old sister Venetia falls hard for a visiting artist. Widowed Mrs. Tilling, who has sent her only son off to war, resents giving his room to Colonel Mallard. Also featured is a conniving midwife who values money over morals. Newcomer Miss Prim starts a ladies only choir, over the objections of traditionalist Mrs. B, and the women gradually learn the power of music to entertain, comfort, and inspire. I would have liked to learn more about Miss Prim and about the backstories of other characters, but found this to be an absorbing, enjoyable pageturner. Readers learn how far a father will go to have an heir, what happens to the survivors when a house is bombed, and how the women of Chilbury struggle to adapt to their new roles during a time of constant change. Readalikes include The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, and though it’s set decades earlier, The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson. A first novel by an editor of non-fiction books, the author was inspired by her grandmother’s stories of life in WWII, and by the many memoirs of life in WWII England that she read, especially those of evacuees.
On March 21 at 10 a.m., the Tuesday Morning Book Group will discuss the historical novel Dollbaby, by Laura Lane McNeal. Ibby Bell travels to New Orleans to stay with her eccentric grandmother, and grows up during the 1960s. Here is my earlier review.
The Tuesday Evening Book Group will meet at 7 p.m. on March 28 to discuss The Empire of Deception, by Dean Jobb. This is the true story of a brilliant con man, Leo Koretz, whose wealthy lifestyle, lavish parties, and generosity beguile his family, friends, and acquaintances into giving him millions of dollars to invest, much of it in non-existent oil wells in Bayano, Panama. Eventually his Ponzi scheme falls apart after investors visit Panama, but by then Leo is in disguise, still living extravagantly, in Nova Scotia.
The Crime Readers will meet at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 15 to discuss Broken Harbor, by Tana French, a Dublin murder squad mystery. Crime Readers are co-sponsored by the Indian Prairie Public Library. Optional dinner is at 6 p.m.
Copies of the books are available at the Adult & Teen Services Reference Desk.
The Whole Town’s Talking, by Fannie Flagg
In 1889, Swedish immigrant Lordor Nordstrom founds a small town in Missouri. Nordstrom is a dairy farmer and Elmwood Spring’s first mayor. In this appealing tale, the town ladies encourage Nordstrom to find a Swedish-American mail order bride, and they send her notes along with his letters. Over the decades the town grows and changes, with the progress overseen fondly by the residents of Still Meadows, the cemetery on a hill. Much to their surprise, the folks at Still Meadows can talk freely with each other, and even (silently) enjoy visits from their relatives. Quirky small town charm and plenty of nostalgia make for a quick, pleasant read.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Step back in time, to the grand Metropol Hotel in Moscow. Count Alexander Rostov, 30, is living in a suite, full of family antiques, enjoying mingling with international guests and fine dining every night. Unfortunately, a revolutionary poem he’s authored becomes too popular, and a Bolshevik tribunal in 1922 sentences him to house arrest at the Metropol, for life. Stuck in an attic room, how shall he live? Fortunately, Rostov is wealthy, charming, and resourceful. Young hotel guest Nina has acquired a master key and explores the hotel with Rostov. While he is removed from the outside world, the staff and guests share their experiences with Stalinist Russia and later World War II with him, especially after he becomes the head waiter of the hotel’s restaurant. He can plan seating charts with ease, has perfect manners, and has a fine palate for wine and gourmet food. Daily meetings with the maître d’ and the chef lead to friendship, as well as some excellent bouillabaisse. Beautiful actress Anna Urbanova makes regular visits, and a young girl, Sofia, comes to stay and captures Rostov’s heart. This is a rich, layered novel to savor, with lyrical writing, marvelous characters, and both humorous and poignant moments. This is definitely one of the best books I’ve read in the past year, and I enjoyed it even more than his first novel, Rules of Civility.
Dollbaby, by Laura Lane McNeal
An absorbing coming-of-age story set in 1960s New Orleans, this first novel is moving and compelling. Ibby Bell, almost 12, travels to New Orleans to live with her grandmother after her father dies. Ibby learns to wear dresses, eat Southern food, and attends her first church service. Fannie is an eccentric, wealthy woman who likes to bet on sports. Queenie is her longtime cook, Queenie’s daughter Dollbaby takes care of the house, makes dresses for Ibby, and is slightly involved in the Civil Rights movement. Dollbaby’s daughter Birdelia shows Ibby around New Orleans, although they draw stares in segregated New Orleans. Queenie and Dollbaby teach Ibby the rules to living with Fannie: don’t talk about the past, don’t ask about the locked bedrooms, and don’t ask too many questions. The big house has its secrets, which Ibby gradually learns, along with her family history. A strong sense of place and appealing, complex characters add to this book’s considerable appeal.