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In 2000, The New Yorker named George Saunders one of the "Best Writers Under 40". In the intervening years, he has continued to live up to the designation with multiple award-winning short stories, essays and novellas, and an acclaimed book for children. But, until now, never a full-length novel. Lincoln in the Bardo is his maiden venture in this department - and what an accomplishment it is!

Also in this issue, we feature Laurie Frankel's This Is How It Always Is, about a family that lives happily ever after...until happily ever after becomes complicated.

Then we go beyond the book to explore the Buddhist concept of the bardo and America's "bathroom bills."


Your Editor, Davina 
lincolnEditor's Choice

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Hardcover (Feb 2017), 368 pages.
Publisher: Random House.
BookBrowse Rating: 5/5, Critics' Consensus:  5.0/5
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Review and article by Kim Kovacs

George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo is a philosophy discourse brilliantly disguised as a novel. This stunning work hits all the right chords, imploring us to be kind to one another during a time when it seems hatred and distrust are increasingly the norm. It reminds us how important it is to savor, moment by moment, this truly beautiful the world in which we live.

As the book opens, President Abraham Lincoln's younger son, nine-year-old Willie, has died of typhoid fever but has not yet crossed over into the afterlife; he is stuck in the bardo, an intermediate state between life and death. He finds himself in a surreal world filled with others who have not yet moved on. Three long-term residents-Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins and the Reverend Everly Thomas- befriend Willie. The book revolves around their attempts to get the boy to relinquish his existence, as the young, in particular, are not supposed to linger in the land in-between.

The writing style is the first of many striking aspects of this novel. Much of the narrative involves back-and-forth communication between the primary trio as they convey information to the reader, with the speaker being listed at the end of each statement. In one scene, for example, they discuss a Mrs. Delaney, who remained in the bardo in a state of confusion because she'd cheated on her husband with his brother but loved both:... continued

Full access to our reviews & beyond the book articles are for members only. But there are always four free Editor's Choice reviews and beyond the book articles available.
bardoBeyond the Book: The Bardo
Every time we review a book we also explore a related topic. Here is a recent "beyond the book" article for Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

The word bardo comes from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and means "in-between." It refers to a transitional state when one's awareness of the physical world is suspended. According to the concept is an "umbrella term which includes the transitional states of birth, death, dream, transmigration or afterlife, meditation, and spiritual luminosity...for the dying individual, the bardo is the period of the afterlife that lies in between two different incarnations." Most of the characters in Lincoln in the Bardo are in this latter state throughout the novel, stuck between life and whatever awaits them beyond.

Broadly speaking, Buddhist philosophy states that while a person's physical body may die, one's essence does not, and that one is reborn. Whether the new life is better or worse than the earlier one depends on the person's actions during the current cycle.

Throughout the process of death and rebirth the individual is thought to pass through four separate bardos. The first is the bardo of death, which follows a dissolution of the physical body in a prescribed progression that aligns with the four elements:
  • The senses fail, muscles lose strength and the body becomes inert (earth)
  • There is a loss of control of bodily fluids (water)
  • The body loses warmth (fire)
  • The breath fails (air)

It's believed that for most, the bardo of death passes quickly and only those who have practiced spiritual disciplines like meditation are aware of it ... continued    

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thisEditor's Choice

This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

Hardcover (Jan 2017), 336 pages.
Publisher: Flatiron Books.
BookBrowse Rating: 5/5, Critics' Consensus:  5.0/5
Buy at Amazon |  B&N |  Indie
Review and article by Kate Braithwaite

This is How it Always Is
tells the story of the family of Rosie Walsh and Penn Adams, a doctor and a writer respectively, who fall in love, marry, and have five children. The novel opens with Rosie hoping that her fifth pregnancy will bring her a girl-a girl she might name Poppy, after her younger sister who died of cancer when Rosie was just twelve. But the baby is a boy, Claude. Claude is quick to walk and talk and by the age of three he is thinking about what he would like to be when he grows up--a cat, or a vet, a dinosaur, a scientist, or...a girl. So begins the transition of the youngest of the Walsh-Adams children to become a girl called Poppy.

The story that unfolds of Poppy's childhood is fascinating in many ways. First it's a window into the life of a transgender child. Although Poppy's early years are told from the point of view of her parents and their concerns, as she grows Poppy's perspective develops. Issues of schools, bathrooms, (see 'Beyond the Book') and sleepovers inevitably arise. She is also part of a large family and the implications of having a transgender sibling affects everyone. Part of trying to create a safe and happy childhood for her involves uprooting the family and moving from Wisconsin to Seattle. And then there is the constant question of what to reveal--or not--about Poppy's past as a boy. It's a secret the whole family will struggle to keep.

The novel is also an insightful study of the more commonplace joys and perils of parenthood. Rosie and Penn have a family set-up that works for them. Rosie, as a doctor, works long hours so it makes sense that Penn, an aspiring writer, takes on the lion's share of laundry, cooking and homework. Their relationship is good-humored and tender but at times the responsibilities of parenting--particularly a child like Poppy--and the choices in terms of hormones and surgery, threaten to overwhelm them.

Full access to our reviews & beyond the book articles are for members only. But there are always four free Editor's Choice reviews and beyond the book articles available.
bathroomBeyond the Book: The Bathroom Bills
Every time we review a book we also explore a related topic. Here is a recent "beyond the book" article for This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel
The joys and perils of raising a transgender child are beautifully brought to life in Laurie Frankel's This is How it Always Is. The question of where Poppy should go the bathroom when at school is a sensitive issue.

In the United States, since 2013, more than 24 state legislatures have proposed so-called "Bathroom Bills" with the express aim of restricting access to public bathrooms and locker rooms on the basis of the sex assigned to each individual at birth. As of January 2017 only one state, North Carolina, has passed such legislation into law. Public reaction was vocal and distaste for the new ruling brought about boycotts: the National Basketball Association and the NCAA moved sporting events out of the state. But despite considerable pressure, attempts to repeal the law failed in December 2016 and in the early weeks of January 2017 eight states (Alabama, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington) have already pre-filed or introduced similar bills....

In This is How it Always Is, Rosie and her transgender child, Poppy, travel to Thailand and find a very different cultural response to transgender people and the question of public restrooms. In Buddhist culture it is the soul that counts, not the body that carries it, and ladyboys are so common and accepted that Poppy finds a new kind of public bathroom with a sign that combines both the traditional male and female figures split down the middle and then joined together to make one sign ...continued

Read in full  
fiveBook Club Q&A  
The Wednesday Afternoon Book Discussions at the Merrick Library, NY,  were begun by librarian Carol Ann Tack four years ago. Since then the group has grown from about ten participants per meeting to over thirty. And they are a dedicated bunch - coming to meetings in snow and sleet and heat for great conversation and camaraderie.

Read the interview 
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