Lincoln in the Bardo: A Tumult of Hauntings

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Published: February 14th, 2017
Publisher: Random House Audio
Genre(s): Fiction, Historical, Ghost Story
Format: Audiobook
Length: 7 hrs and 25 mins

George Saunders is an amazing short story author. I’d put him up there with Kelly Link, Steven Millhauser and Jorge Luis Borges in my pantheon of personal favorites.

However, until Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders had never published a novel. This is a common trait among the short story authors I love; they rarely, if ever, turn their talents to novel-length works.

Lincoln in the Bardo is also unique because of its audiobook, which involves 166 different narrators acting out the massive cast of characters.

Nick Offerman, David Sedaris and Saunders himself take top billing. Voices you’ll probably recognize from movies, TV and audiobooks surround them on all sides. The care that clearly went into the audiobook production easily makes it the definitive version of Saunders’ novel.

At its heart, Lincoln in the Bardo tells a fairly straightforward story. After young Willie Lincoln dies from a protracted illness, Lincoln visits his son’s grave in the middle of the night, setting off a chain reaction that forces the other ghosts in the cemetery to examine their existence (or lack thereof).

Stories about the restless dead alternate with scholarly citations explaining the national attitudes towards Lincoln before and after the death of his son. The ghosts and citations interrupt and build upon each other, blending into long streams of conversation and contradiction. The effect is simultaneously poetic, hilarious and ironic.

And Lincoln in the Bardo is definitely funny, even though it is also filled with stories about incredible tragedy and heartbreak. One of the first ghosts we meet – Nick Offerman’s character, Hans Vollman – spends his afterlife walking around naked with a giant boner, insisting that he isn’t dead, just “sick”.

One of my favorite parts of the book was nothing but quotations describing Lincoln’s eyes; the quotes come one after the other, oftentimes directly contradicting each other on very simple information like his eye color. It’s a subtle way of emphasizing the subjective nature of historical narratives. I often wondered if any of the quotations were from real works or if Saunders invented them all.

I definitely enjoyed Lincoln in the Bardo, and would hold it up as an example of why audiobooks are a fantastic way to read, but I do think it feels a bit like a short story that grew to escape the confines of its word count.

The sheer avalanche of details, both personal and historical, are definitely compelling. I felt like I learned things about Lincoln that I’d never known, and Saunders is a master of characterization with a sensibility like none other. That said, the book felt a little slight thanks to its minimal plot.

Even still, I highly recommend checking out Lincoln in the Bardo, especially as an audiobook.

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Memories of a Ghost: The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

The Madness UnderneathPublished: February 26th, 2013
Publisher: Brilliance Audio, Inc.
Genre(s): Young Adult, Mystery, Fantasy
Format: Audiobook
Length: 7 hrs and 53 mins

The Name of The Star, the first book in Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series, ends with the main character, Rory Devereaux, discovering new powers that may change everything about her relationship to the spirit world. It’s an exciting end to an intense book, and it definitely sets up potential new storylines for what felt like a fairly self-contained story.

Johnson has publicly stated that she has a total of four books planned for the series, so The Madness Underneath needs to both follow-up on the first book and set up enough threads to make books three and four worth reading. With all that on order, does it deliver? The short answer is: kind of.

The Madness Underneath picks up a few weeks later as Rory is living with her parents and recovering from her ordeal. She’s been going to a therapist, which she hates because she isn’t allowed to actually talk about the truth. The government has covered up what actually happened with the Jack the Ripper copycat from the first book and nobody would believe her if she told them the truth in any case. Rory mostly just wants to return to Wexford to be with her friends and maybe get back in touch with Stephen and the rest of his ghost-hunting squad.

When Rory accidentally exorcises a ghost with her new powers, it doesn’t take long before she’s back at Wexford and under the watchful eye of the government’s secret paranormal squad. At this point it would be safe to assume that the main mystery plot would get underway, but instead the book largely focuses on Rory’s PTSD. She’s way behind in school and can’t work up the urge to get caught up. She’s dating Jerome but she’s no longer sure why. Eventually Rory goes to a new therapist after Charlotte, her overachiever classmate, gushes about how much the therapist helped, but the mystery plot remains elusive throughout.

Rory does eventually have to use her talents to exorcise some more ghosts, but those exorcisms never amount to a major story thread. By giving Rory the ability to banish any ghosts with a touch, Johnson has made it so that no ghost like the Ripper could ever threaten her again. The problem with that is that it means Rory needs a new, more serious threat to fight against, and for most of the book the only threat is her depression and general lack of direction. It doesn’t make for very compelling reading.

Ultimately the book just felt like a transition. Rory deals with her PTSD, deals with Wexford and then gets a reason and a purpose to pursue in the next book. The book ends on a cliffhanger that leaves a few major threads unresolved, and although I probably will continue reading the series, I’m disappointed that this installment doesn’t have enough to recommend it and make it stand alone.

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