Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

A tumultuous cast of characters clamor through the bardo, the world between life and rebirth (similar to purgatory). We are led on our journey through the netherworld by a caucophany of voices, but primarily by a duo of characters not too dissimilar to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Tying all the bedlam together is an underlying story about the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, and his appearance in the Bardo. The format of this novel is unique, similar to a play interspersed with bits of historical documentation that frame the story. To expose our loose grasp of history, the historical excerpts often contradict each other, making the reader question how much truth there is behind the “true” events of this story. Watch for a movie adaptation in the coming year or two, produced by Nick Offerman and Megan Mullaly, who have already purchased the rights. If Ron Swansan and Karen Walker got together and made a movie, it would probably be something like this. This is a riotous romp of a read, except for a few sad parts, which were indeed sad. Back to Book Reviews  

Between Dog and Wolf by Sasha Sokolov

Many reviewers have compared Between Wolf and Dog to Finnegan’s Wake, and they have done so with very good reason. This is a work that requires intensive study to penetrate the stream of consciousness through which the actions of the book are divulged. In summarizing the plot all that several reviewers have been able to say is that someone lost a crutch at some point. That is the plot. Whether the crutch is recovered, or whether any characters even search for the crutch is unclear. What is clear is that one narrator of the story is a knife sharpener who seems to be the Russian equivalent of a folksy Appalachian mountain dweller. He talks in a meandering colloquial dialect. Also clear is that all narrative in the book is highly subject to linguistic play, much of which is illuminated by the 25 pages of annotations at the end of the novel. In fact, the language is said to be the plot of the novel, and it does seem to be the main force driving the book. Any sense of traditional plot is so elusive that most reviewers spend their time comparing the novel to other masterworks, such as Finnegan's Wake, and discuss Sokolov’s importance to Russian literature rather than discussing the plot, timeline of events, or anything about the book itself. This is a novel of intense literary quality that only the most committed will want to struggle through, but the struggle is an interesting endeavor, and readers looking for a challenging text will find this novel meets the bill. The gauntlet has been thrown down. Back to Book Reviews

The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees

A brilliant satire, this novel takes place in an unnamed country that bears many similarities with Syria. It follows the story of Fathi, a writer, who has lost favor under his nation’s despotic ruler because he dared speak out contrary to the ruler’s attempts to control the media. He struggles to find work, having been black listed, and to maintain his grasp on the truth amidst the ruling despot’s attempts to drown the truth out with a flood of mass propaganda. These absurd circumstances, where helping a fellow citizen is seen as a crime against the state, parallel much of the turmoil of today’s world. This is a very timely novel, considering the current events. Highly recommended, enjoyable, quick read. Back to Book Reviews

The Attack by Dauvillier and Chapron

This graphic novel (and the novel it is based on) is about the struggle to come to terms with decisions and actions that do not correspond with the facts as the main character sees them. It illustrates the humanity underlying the desperation in an act of terrorism, without trying to justify the act, and it explores the expanding circles of family and friends affected by the attack. Many peoples’ lives are changed forever and the carnage is far more than those involved directly in the attack. The collateral damage is more than the surrounding buildings. The author explores the complicated circumstances without being didactic and without providing clear answers. This story thoughtfully engages a sensitive and controversial topic. Back to Book Reviews  

Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I found Colson Whitehead’s idea intriguing, portraying the Underground Railroad as a real railroad that traveled beneath the land. However, the real highlight, I found, was Cora’s story, a woman who clung to the railroad as her only hope of freedom, or even survival. As she journeys on the railroad the reader witnesses the many different kinds of horrible slaves experienced throughout the South, and in fact throughout a long and embattled journey towards equality, each stop signifying a different struggle. While it is an important story, I found it lacking in continuity and depth in comparison to Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, which portrays similar narratives and was my favorite book in from the past year of reading. I happened to read two one right after the other, which maybe was unfair to Underground Railroad, a very good book in its own right. Back to Book Reviews  

Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

These well-written stories center on Refugees’ experiences. The characters are caught in a transition between two cultures, two worlds, two lives, not able to fully inhabit either, struggling with the idea of assimilating while clinging to the memories of a life that was ripped away. I recently heard Viet Thanh Nguyen say in an interview on NPR that he believes refugees have the valuable experience of being outsiders, which helps them feel compassion and empathy towards others. He wishes everyone “had a sense of what it is like to be an outsider, an other.” These stories give the reader a brief glimpse into how that might look and feel. Back to Book Reviews

Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson

For those who do not have first-hand experience of it, this book offers an opportunity to step into someone else’s shoes and try to understand the onslaught of racism many people experience daily. Using personal examples from his life, Dyson annotates events and points out the building frustration, the sparks of emotion and the cultural patterns lurking beneath seemingly normal interactions. This is even more powerful realizing this is a highly educated African American professor at an Ivy League school who has regularly feared for his life, with reason, in circumstances the majority would consider routine or mundane. This is an important contribution to race relations, well worth reading. Back to Book Reviews  

Citizen by Claudia Rankine

Lyrical and profound, these observations explore the interactions between African-American culture and American racism. Using multiple formats Rankine critiques topics as wide ranging as Serena Williams’ reception as a superstar in the world of tennis to the author’s own personal daily interactions. She carefully builds a case that exposes the steady current of microaggressions against which African-Americans constantly struggle. Back to Book Reviews  

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

This book is outrageous throughout, in ways both hilarious and offensive, with no clear separation between the two, but that just shows how hard-hitting the satire is. It is a brutal satire on race, and nearly everything race-related, including slavery and segregation. Beatty irreverently digs into these sensitive subjects, dissecting them with wit and satire, leaving them raw and bare and leaving the reader laughing inappropriately. Back to Book Reviews  

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

This is one of those books you read with fascination watching the conflict unfold. A woman decides to become a vegetarian in a family who savors their meat. Not surprisingly, her family has a hard time understanding her decision to not eat meat. As the story unfolds, it raises the questions of where is the line between eccentric and total madness, between self and family, or self and culture? Back to Book Reviews