Tag Archives: death

Lincoln on the Bardo by George Saunders

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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Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian

Opening Blurb: Grandfather Kemal is found in a vat used to color the kilim rugs he sells, meaning he literally “dyed”.

Orhan’s Inheritance is the perfect title for Aline Ohanesian’s premiere novel about a young man, Orhan Turkoglu, who inherits the family business when his DeDe dies. His bequest is unusual since a father usually passes his property to his son, not his grandson, but the 1990’s are modern times even in Turkey. Yet traditions remain strong and Mustafa threatens to take Orhan to court and challenge what he considers a bogus will. It’s not that the father wants to run the family business, he’s never earned an honest days work, it’s just the principle. Orhan fears his father will either neglect the business or sell it and waste the money, negating all his efforts to create a successful company.

However, that is not the gist of the story. The most unusual aspect of the will is that the deed to their family home is to be transferred to 87 year old Seda Melkonian, an unfamiliar name belonging to an elderly women living in an Armenian Nursing Home in Los Angeles, leaving him, his father, and his aunt without their beloved residence. Seda is the key to Orhan’s true inheritance and he travels across the ocean, his grandfather’s sketch book in hand, to have this stranger sign papers so he can keep his childhood home in the family as well as discover the mysteries of his Dede’s past.

Bopping back and forth between present and past, the reader is exposed to the genocide perpetuated against the Armenians living in Turkey during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, when the Turks sided with Germany in World War I. The Armenian Death March, where able bodied men were murdered or imprisoned and women, children, and the elderly were forced to leave their homes and walk to the Syrian dessert, is prescient to the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis. Similar to the attitudes towards those of the Jewish faith, the Turkish people resented the affluence of their Armenian neighbors – angry at the fees they charged when lending money, angry that they were Christian instead of Muslim, angry that the women were seen in public without covering their bodies (wearing a bonnet was not enough), angry that their success make them feel somehow lesser. So when the Turkish Army took action, the populace remained mum, even though it was their former friends who were taken away and shot as traitors. They blamed it on the war where casualties are to be expected, but there is a difference between war and genocide, a fact that needs to be acknowledged when a population of 1.7 million is reduced to 300,000.

Based on the memories of the author’s grandmother, Orhan’s Inheritance gives us a glimpse into the mind set of those who live in Turkey, a modernized Middle Eastern country with one foot still in the past.

A thank you to Algonquin Books and Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. 4 stars.

Elves (Volume 1) – Part 1: The Crystal of the Blue Elves by Jean-Luc Istin and Kyko Duarte, Part 2: The Honor of the Sylvan Elves by Nicolas Jarry and Maconi

A few years ago Elves was published in France (Elfes) and now it’s making its appearance here in the United States. Volume 1 contains two separate stories, Part 1: The Crystal of the Blue Elves by Jean-Luc Istin and Kyko Duarte about the Blue Elves who live by the sea and Part 2: The Honor of the Sylvan Elves by Nicolas Jarry and Maconi dealing with the Sylvan or Forest Elves. There are three other subsets of Elves to be published in a future edition.

The trouble with this series is that it takes awhile to grasp the cast of characters. While the graphics are spectacular and help the reader interpret the story, there is still a lot of confusion. Part of the problem in the first story is that these are three plot lines which eventually intersect, however, the story flits from one to another in a jarring fashion, taking a moment or two to figure out which part of the plot is front and center. While in the second story there is also a bunch of back and forths which make it difficult at times to figure out who’s who or what’s what. Too many gaps in the story only adds to the confusion, requiring an explanation which is nowhere to be found. It’s as if there was a prequel we all missed. Some backstory please before you throw us into the mix. Eventually we get the drift, but only after a frustrating start.

In both stories there’s a lot of backstabbing and double crossing along with a few deceptions which change the outcome of the saga, although there are some honorable characters who leave us with hope for an eventual resolution. The various evil creatures such as the ork mercenaries are horrifying, but as least they are easily identifiable as the enemy. It’s when the “good guys” turn out to have a hidden agenda and double cross their so called friends that the stories reflect a dark theme.

Full of blood, violence, and death, not everything turns out with a happily ever after ending. It’s just not that kind of book. With a better narrative and smoother transitions, this would be a superior series. The colorful, intricate art work illustrating the two stories could easily be developed into an adult animation (there’s nudity along with the violence) for the small or large screen. Three stars.

Thank you to Netgalley and Insight Comics for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Woman of God by James Patterson with Maxine Paetro

IN 2002 I bought my first ever brand new car. During that initial year of ownership, I was stopped at a red light on Sheridan and was rear-ended – twice. Over the life span of that car it was in so many accidents I was on a first name basis with the owner of the collision shop. Even though the majority of these incidents were not my fault, my insurance went up because I (or perhaps that particular car) was considered “jinxed”.

In James Patterson’s novel, Woman of God, the main character, Brigid Fitzgerald, is jinxed. Not only does she find herself in difficult situations, but those around her are also endangered with many unable to survive the ordeal. Brigid herself is not left unscathed, experiencing a multitude of near death experiences.

How does this girl, an on again, off again Catholic, end up being considered for the role as the “first” female pope?

It starts with a stint in South Sudan as a member of the staff for Helping Hands (a sort of Doctors Without Borders). Brigid, a young doctor just out of medical school, is thrilled to be at this remote location – think “MASH on Steroids” – right in the middle of the action. When the protective forces move on, the unit is left to the mercies of an adversary who refuses to distinguish between neutral volunteers or the enemy in their quest for genocide. Instead of evacuating, Brigid tries to save one more victim, becoming a target herself. When her vitals indicate death she has an out-of-body experience resulting in an ethereal connection to God after the medics on the rescue chopper bring her back to life. Despite this divine linkage, her continued exposures to traumatic events make her question the existence of a deity, yet God relentlessly reaches out, wordlessly urging her forward. Brigid’s bad luck isn’t helped by her insistence on placing herself in dangerous situations, tempting fate. Even when trying to eke out a somewhat normal life, trouble follows her and those she loves.

After various encounters with the assorted men who are drawn into her circle, she eventually settles down and marries a Priest. Becoming disenfranchised with the Roman Catholic Church, he starts the JMJ (Jesus Mary Joseph) Movement for forward thinking Catholics and other believers. Within a few years, the movement leads to a chain of churches across the United States and into Europe. Brigid is ordained a Priest and her popularity draws huge crowds plus all manner of enemies who disdain what they consider her blasphemy. After her five year old daughter nonchalantly mentions that her mother talks to God to one of the stalking media, Brigid suddenly finds herself on Sixty Minutes admitting her connection with The Lord to the world. This leads to an audience with the Pope and the speculation that she is next in line for the papacy.

What goes around comes around. While my Saturn celebrated its last day of service by spewing its subframe onto the road at the very same intersection as its first accident, Brigid finds herself at a crossroads, not knowing what comes next, but leaning towards the same activities which brought her a sense of fulfillment when she was in her early twenties, back in South Sudan. Whether she survives her further anticipated adventures is up to the reader to decide.

A great book for the light reader who wants some quick entertainment. Cowritten by Maxine Paetro, this is one of a myriad of publications by the Patterson machine, whose popularity endures no matter how many books a year he cranks out.

However, if you want something more from your reading material, keep searching. Trying to create an anology between Brigid and Job, the authors throw one catastrophe after another into her path. While there is a lot of action, everything is superficial, and all too often the reader has to suspend all sense of reality. The writing lacks depth, the characters are one dimensional, the plot moves too quickly and at times is confusing or even senseless due to a lack of detail. I won’t even mention the two to three page snippets called chapters. I personally feel this is an outline for a movie, with its faced paced “drama and trauma”. Brigid travels throughout the world with stops in the Sudan, Italy, Germany, and the United States, flitting from one locale to another meeting a myriad of characters who may or may not be significant in her life. I certainly hope Carrot finds her way home, but we never do discover what happens to the majority of Brigid’s chance encounters unless they die while driving her somewhere. Not my cup of tea, but obviously beloved by others. A generous three stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Kreuger

Unlike many novels which highlight dysfunctional relationships, Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger introduces us to the Drums, a loving family leading what, on the surface, appears to be an idyllic life.

It was the summer of 1961 in a small town in Minnesota when a series of deaths shake up the lives of the village, especially the pastor, Nathan Drum, his wife Ruth, and their three children Ariel, Frank, and Jake.

At thirteen, Frank is not quite old enough to be included in the loop so he uses every opportunity he can to tag along when events are happening. Eleven year old Jake takes advantage of his big brothers wheedling and comes along for the ride.Since the grown ups aren’t forthcoming, Frank finds a way to secretly listen in to adult conversations and snoop around to fill in the blanks. However, sometimes eaves dropping can be a heavy burden. Secrets have a way of complicating life, resulting in feelings of guilt and reticence. Yet the information the boys hold close are the very facts which are needed to answer the mystery which will redefine their lives. The problem is deciding which secrets to tell and which ones must be kept quiet.

Jake, afflicted with a stutter, has what some people would call “the sight” because, since he is reluctant to speak, he listens and has an innate understanding of people and events. Although he is more of a sidekick, in a way one might consider Jake the hero of this novel.

It is the captivating Ariel, ready for college at Juilliard, who is the spark of the family with her musical talent and light hearted loving relationships with family and friends.

The setting is one of the major players in the story -from the railroad tracks to the river to the location of the church across from the parsonage – each locale becoming an important focal point in advancing the plot.

One of the many positives of this novel is the development of the numerous characters, both primary and secondary. Knowing that Kreuger’s favorite novel is To Kill a Mockingbird, you can see the influence of an Atticus Finch on the Methodist Pastor.

One can also see touches of Hemingway where what is not said is just as important as what is said. The author finds no need to explain every fact, for example, the reader is left to ponder what tragic event happened to Nathan during WWII which made him switch careers from lawyer to pastor.

Although I felt the book had a slow start, it quickly picked up speed and easily engages the reader throughout the first half of the story. While the second half is just as exciting, it is difficult to read due to the tragedy which befalls the Drum family. Even though the events are hinted at in the first chapter of the book, it is still heart wrenching to read of such loss. Kudos to the author for presenting an accurate reaction to such events through the individual thoughts and behaviors of the various townsfolk. Anyone who has experienced a similar heartache will relate to (and possibly relive) these feelings.

Closure to this saga is abruptly presented at the very end of the book, not giving the reader much time to process the information, although the epilogue ties up some of the loose ends quick nicely.

Told by an adult Frank looking back on that fateful summer, Ordinary Grace is a well written, engaging story. Four stars. This review also appears on Goodreads.

The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows

It was on Memorial Day 1938 when Willa realized that everyone seemed to be keeping secrets from her, which lead to her honing in on just one goal in life – to surreptitiously ferret out the unspoken mystery. What the twelve year old fails to realize is that sometimes there are some very good reasons to keep the truth hidden from view. Looking back she is only able to lament her aptitude at acquiring such potent sleuthing skills, but by then it is too late to unremember her discoveries.

The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows captures the essence of small town life during the depression era where everybody has nothing better to do than keep their nose in everybody else’s business. There are no secrets between “friends” – or are there?

The story unfolds through the eyes of matriarch Josephine (Jottie) and other members of the Romeyn Family as they struggle through the summer heat in Macedonia, West Virginia. A parallel story intersects their lives when Layla Beck, an upper crust daughter of a US Senator who (after a major disagreement with her father) ends up boarding at the Romeyn house while writing the history of Macedonia’s Sesquicentennial for a WPA project.

As Layla sets out to learn the true story behind historical Macedonia (versus the boring “official” accounts of the founding members), she discovers a talent for something other than being the center of attention at social events. The back story about her former life as a debutante is revealed via a flurry of letters back and forth between family and friends.

Lottie reveals her innermost thoughts through flashbacks to her childhood. Barrows slowly reveals details about the devastating loss which has colored Lottie’s life resulting in her “old maid” status. Rumors abound about her past, but In order to avoid a potential scandal which might hurt the children, especially with Willa asking questions, she strives for respectability. Lottie spends her time helping her beloved brother Felix take care of his two daughters, Willa and Bird, whenever he is out of town on the frequent business trips necessary to acquire some cash to help them through the hard times.

There is so much to this story it is impossible to summarize the details. Expect quite a bit of rambling towards the beginning as the author introduces a myriad of characters. It takes a while to keep them all straight (an annotated list of townsfolk would have been helpful, although there is a Romeyn family tree for reference), but once the events start to snowball, the reading pace picks up.

One of the highlights of the story is the various eccentric personalities found in Macedonia. Barrows makes us a part of the community through their thoughts and actions, especially those of main characters Lottie and Willa. Willa, in a way, reminds me of Scout from Montgomery’s To Kill a Mockingbird, somehow getting caught up in all the action. Lottie’s childhood stories are both entertaining and informative in helping the reader get a handle on her personality. Whether you love or hate the smooth talking, womanizer Felix depends on whose eyes you view him with – as a brother, a father, a friend, or a curious neighbor.

While the ending isn’t totally unexpected, it was at times a bit confusing, yet despite these flaws, The Truth According to Us is still a beautifully written book.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Random House for providing this ARC in exchange for a honest review.

For This Life Only by Stacy Kade

Jacob Palmer is a PK or Pastor’s Kid and has difficulty living under the family strictures requiring him to always be on his best behavior since the neighbors might be watching and judging his actions. To make matters worse, his twin brother Elijah is on the fast track to follow in the steps of both his father and grandfather to become the pastor at the local church which has become a family legacy. Needing to get away from another night of scrabble with his parents and young sister Sarah, Jace takes off to hang out with his friends, bumming a ride off his twin. Making it an early night so as not to break curfew, he has to call Eli to pick him up after he accidentally gets doused with a cup of beer (can’t let his dad know he’s had a sip or two). On the way home the car spins out on a patch of ice and their vehicle goes over the bridge killing one boy and almost taking the life of the other.

Even as he physically begins to mend, life for Jacob will never be the same. No longer able to throw the ball, his goal of a college sports scholarship is out the window. That’s the least of his worries as he has to adjust to a new family dynamic with broken parents and a traumatized baby sister as he carries the guilt of his brother’s death on his shoulders and tries to avoid the well
meaning platitudes of his classmates and the community.

Inexplicably Jacob finds himself seeking comfort from the school pariah, the daughter of the psychic who lives across the street from the church with the garish neon sign which makes his dad fume. This girl is off limits even to his friends since they hold her responsible for losing the state championship when two seniors were suspended based on her allegations of sexual harassment. Yet Jace sees a different side to the once hated Thera and, through her, starts to view life via a different lens.

For This Life Only by Stacy Kade is a powerful story dealing with some heavy topics such as sexual abuse, faith and religion, death and grief, loyalty and rejection. Kade shows a realistic snapshot of a family trying to deal with a senseless loss.

While there’s a lot going on with various subplots, unfortunately many of the characters aren’t fully developed and the story doesn’t quite gel. A further complication is the quick but confusing resolution leaving out some pertinent details which prevent the reader from attaining a fulfilling closure. While many YA books tend to be too wordy and need a little editing, this one could have easily added another fifty pages to properly wrap things up instead of using an epilogue to try and put a bow on a slightly incomplete story.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on my blog, Gotta Read.