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Editorial Reviews

Editors Select, February 2017 - Lincoln in the Bardo is one of the most extraordinary books I have ever listened to - and make no mistake, this one is meant to be listened to. One hundred and sixty-six individual narrators (led by Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, and the author George Saunders) came together to voice this wildly surreal audiobook. And while that might sound like a production stunt, the breadth of voices was necessary to create the immersive cacophony effect (almost a Greek chorus of Americana) - because Saunders' first full-length novel, a hugely ambitious work that delivers the most humbling and accurate portrait of grief I've ever encountered, is entirely voiced by ghosts. The listener finds himself in the Georgetown Cometary, where young Willie Lincoln has been laid to rest and his grieving father (the president) keeps returning in a state of stumbling and stricken shambles, to the shocked confusion of the self-unaware dead. Perhaps most interestingly, the real events of the time (those things happening outside of the graveyard) are depicted entirely through historical snippets and citations so that the listener comes eventually to realize that these are also merely the impressions of the dead, even if not fictional. —Emily, Audible Editor

Publisher's Summary

Winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize

The long-awaited first novel from the author of Tenth of December: a moving and original father-son story featuring none other than Abraham Lincoln, as well as an unforgettable cast of supporting characters, living and dead, historical and invented.

February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln's beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. "My poor boy, he was too good for this earth," the president says at the time. "God has called him home." Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy's body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie's soul.

Lincoln in the Bardo is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction's ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?

The 166-person full cast features award-winning actors and musicians, as well as a number of Saunders' family, friends, and members of his publishing team, including, in order of their appearance:

Nick Offerman as HANS VOLLMAN
David Sedaris as ROGER BEVINS III
Carrie Brownstein as ISABELLE PERKINS
George Saunders as THE REVEREND EVERLY THOMAS
Miranda July as MRS. ELIZABETH CRAWFORD
Lena Dunham as ELISE TRAYNOR
Ben Stiller as JACK MANDERS
Julianne Moore as JANE ELLIS
Susan Sarandon as MRS. ABIGAIL BLASS
Bradley Whitford as LT. CECIL STONE
Bill Hader as EDDIE BARON
Megan Mullally as BETSY BARON
Rainn Wilson as PERCIVAL “DASH” COLLIER
Jeff Tweedy as CAPTAIN WILLIAM PRINCE
Kat Dennings as MISS TAMARA DOOLITTLE
Jeffrey Tambor as PROFESSOR EDMUND BLOOMER
Mike O’Brien as LAWRENCE T. DECROIX
Keegan-Michael Key as ELSON FARWELL
Don Cheadle as THOMAS HAVENS
and Patrick Wilson as STANLEY “PERFESSER” LIPPERT
with Kirby Heyborne as WILLIE LINCOLN,
Mary Karr as MRS. ROSE MILLAND,
and Cassandra Campbell as Your Narrator

"Lincoln in the Bardo sets a new standard for cast recordings in its structure, in its performances, and in its boldness. Now, let's see who answers the challenge." (Chicago Tribune)
"The result is an auditory experience unlike any other, where the awareness of individual voices disappears while the carefully calibrated soundscape summons a metaphysical masterpiece. This is a tour de force of audiobook production, and a dazzling realization of Saunders' unique authorial structure." (Booklist)
"The finished audiobook's tapestry of voices perfectly mirrors the novel." (Entertainment Weekly)
©2017 George Saunders (P)2017 Random House Audio

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"Where might God stand?"


I'll preface my review with some information that might be helpful to those struggling with the presentation of this little novel: Much has, and will be written about the style Saunders has chosen for this magnificent and ground breaking novel. In 1959, ( Mr. Sanders was 1 yr. old) neuroscientist/psychologist Bela Julesz had the idea that depth perception happened in the brain, and not in the eye itself and decided to test people’s ability to see in 3D. Thus was born the bane of the ocularly-challenged, the autostereogram: "a single-image stereogram, designed to create the visual illusion of a three-dimensional (3D) scene from a two-dimensional image"...consequently released to the public in the '90's as Magic Eye Pictures. You remember...you stared, crossed your eyes, fretted -- and then POP! The mysterious picture revealed itself hovering above a flat kaleidoscope of colors.
And so;
Earbuds secured, listening to the multi-cast presentation of this book, I thought of those pictures; waiting for the image to pop, ready to throw in the towel at the babble of voices and interjected references that flooded into my head. My mind felt 2 steps behind my ears...and then abruptly, the glorious pop and flow of clarity. Another dimension whirled around me and swept me into a story with dimensions I've never known before. Yes, it is a little reminiscent of the Greek chorus; a bit similar in effect to Scrooge standing with a spirit from another time, immersed in the gossamer voices and images while his head was still in the present. Point is...this series of incorporeal monologues works, be patient (no crossing your eyes needed). Even current-day biographer Doris Kearns Goodwins is represented, her book quoted by a graveyard spirit.

Where is The Bardo? You might ask. The bardo is a Tibetan term that refers to an in between state, a transitional state, and in the case of Lincoln at the Bardo, the state between life and death for Willie, the state of decision for a president to press on with a horrible civil war or choose to end that war whose body count in the first year was already into the thousands. Saunders, one of America's most acclaimed and intelligent writers, and a student of Buddhist philosophy, ponders: "What state of mind would a man be in at 12:45 a.m., on a cold February night, five minutes after he's seen and held his dead son's body?" [G. Saunders for TIME,Feb 16, 2017]

Willie, 11 yrs. old, has died of Typhoid fever. Lincoln's second child to pass away. At the foot of the "huge carved rosewood bed," [the *Lincoln Bed"] Elizabeth Keckly, a former slave who washed and dressed the little body, observed the gray-face President, "his tall frame convulsed with emotion. I shall never forget those solemn moments -- genius and greatness weeping over love's idol lost." The body was moved to the family vault of the clerk of the Supreme Court, William and wife Sallie Carroll. Alone, late at night after the funeral, the father lifts the coffin lid and puts his arms around the body of his dead son. Around him the Voices in utter surprise at this contact begin calling out to each other their monologues. The reader observes the scene, the voices coming in as if from a gauzy curtain in front of the tomb. Saunders' chorus of ghostly voices begin their requiem for Willie, and for Lincoln. *This is where the confusion, or frustration for some listeners, becomes a manner of sticking with it until the Magic Eyes picture appears and the voices flow in a smooth synchronicity with the story.

A word about the Voices. Saunders explained the process of producing the effect of the chorus in an interview with TIME. He and the Penguin Random House team auditioned and cast 166 actors for the parts needed to voice Lincoln at the Bardo for the audio version. BRAVO! to each and every one of them for their performance and unison of spirit. Each voice in this chorus is rich in character, the words chosen, the voice inflections, the way they embellish, their distractions and emotions all sketching in their character when they were alive. It's wonderful fun; it's heartbreaking. There's the lechers, the snobs, the criminals, the homosexual, and references to those who still cannot speak of the horrors that drove them to death, all caught in their own dialogues that keep them from passing into an afterlife. They recant the actual daily headlines and hearsay. Though sourced, the facts often contradict each other..."it was a clear sunny day"..."there was a violent storm"...""the president shook with agony..."was profoundly moved by his death, though he gave no outward sign of his trouble". In one passage that struck me, the spirits move through the body of Lincoln to pull him back to the Georgetown cemetery. An African American specter says that he [Lincoln] passed through her and she "was glad, his burden to hard to share" if she lingered there. The audio version is a rare gift to readers, a fuller experience than only reading the text. Even though, I immediately purchased the text. This story is at the same time agonizing, humorous, and beautifully wise.

Saunders is a joy to read; a writer's writer that can call out the harshest conflict with such compassion that he seems to be testifying this love for all of humanity like a loving and wise teacher. He fits into my consciousness like a crystalline tool, harmonizing my thoughts and my feelings with his perfect words. I must be a sight to see when I'm listening...my head shakes and nods, I smile, I wince, and sometimes I feel a tear, cold from it's travel down my cheek, drip onto my shoulder. His sophisticated prose unflinchingly captures the voice of our culture often soaring close to poetry. Lincoln at the Bardo has become my favorite book, right now at least, for the breadth of feelings it invoked in me. It is immersive and thoughtful..."pushing our aversions into the light" with grace and compassion for our human frailties. There are some that this won't appeal to, but for those that are considering this one...don't waste another second. This is epic.

These words and their message feel like they came from the heart of the man that wrote "Four score and seven years ago...." This kind of writing is why I read.

"His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact…We must try to see one another in this way…As suffering, limited beings…Perennially outmatched by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces…And yet…Our grief must be defeated; it must not become our master, and make us ineffective…We must, to do the maximum good, bring the thing to its swiftest halt and…Kill more efficiently…Must end suffering by causing more suffering…His heart dropped at the thought of the killing…"



154 of 180 people found this review helpful

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  • diane
  • Wilkes-Barre, PA
  • 04-29-17

So Disappointed

What reaction did this book spark in you? Anger, sadness, disappointment?

I bought this at the recommendation of a friend, and was glad to hear Nick Offerman was in th elist of narrators. The story line was quite interesting, but I just couldn't follow along and found myself distracted - having to rewind frequently.

10 of 11 people found this review helpful

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Otherworldly Brilliance

Lincoln in the Bardo is one of the most extraordinary books I have ever listened to - and make no mistake - this one is meant to be listened to. 166 individual narrators (led by Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, author George Saunders, and the incomparably sweet Kirby Heyborne as Willie) came together to voice this wildly surreal audiobook. And while that might sound like a production stunt, the breadth of voices is necessary to create the immersive cacophony effect (almost a Greek chorus of Americana) - because Saunders' first full-length novel, a hugely ambitious work that delivers a devastatingly accurate portrait of grief, is entirely voiced by ghosts.

The listener finds himself in a Georgetown Cemetary where young Willie Lincoln has just been laid to rest. The Civil War has only just begun, and Willie's grieving father (the president) returns to the graveyard in a state of stumbling and stricken shambles to look at and hold the body of his boy. This unorthodox behavior from a visitor triggers shocked confusion among the self-unaware dead who wonder what it means for their own fates. In rounding out his tale, Saunders depicts the real events of the time (those things happening outside of the graveyard) entirely through historical snippets and citations, and you eventually come to realize that these are also the impressions of the dead. The effect is such that the listener feels like he's spying in on a world completely outside of time, and defined only by the shifting perceptions of ethereal spirits. It's quite literally otherworldly, but the concerns of the voices feel recognizable, real, and at times contemporary, as every stratum of society is represented among the cast. Without a doubt this is one of the strangest books in our store - but please do not be discouraged by its oddity. There's some serious genius here.

123 of 154 people found this review helpful

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Ibits and Op Cits do not a story make.

Feels as though more than half of the story is made of quotes followed by endless citations. Many of these quotes are a sentence long, the citation longer than the quote. The cumulative effect is deadening, pun intended. What is the intent of this repetitious soporific except a plea to admire the author's research?
Even a lugubrious tale needs an interjection of humor; the contrast heightens the dolor. (Cf., Dante) None is to be found here unless your comic sense delights in woeful descriptions of flatulence and giant penises. Mine doesn't.
Slogging through this story suggests a better title: Readers in the Bardo.

42 of 53 people found this review helpful

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  • Gillian
  • Austin, TX, United States
  • 02-15-17

Intricate At First--Then Heartbreakingly Beautiful

You know how some authors are sooo annoying because they tell us what to feel rather than writing it and leaving us to look into our hearts to make our way? "Lincoln in the Bardo" is nothing if not showing rather than telling.
I admit--it took me awhile to catch the rhythm of the writing; history is not written but is shown through quotes from numerous scholarly works. And then there's the fact that "the dead" aren't speaking, rather they communicate directly with you, the listener.
This is a book about all of us wanting to share our stories, share our greatest grief. It's about wanting to be a part of something, something greater, more beautiful. It's about love being a weight; love being the only thing that'll set you free.
There are so many memorable characters: bachelors, unloved in life, who are free, free to play pranks and skim where they might. There are the profane who were so self-absorbed in their "celebrating" that perhaps they weren't decent people, decent parents. Slaves buried in a common pit, each with their own story, their own excruciatingly painful experiences.
Mostly there is the utterly heartbreaking performance by David Sedaris. Don't get me wrong; the cast is stunning (if you've ever seen a movie, watched TV, listened to an audiobook--those people are narrating!), but I was really moved by Mr. Sedaris.
At the end of the book, there is a soft and lovely instrumental song: Listen to it. You'll really want to sit back, think about what you listened to, feel what's changed inside you...

76 of 97 people found this review helpful

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Less is More

It took me a while to get into this book and to understand how it was being told. It redeemed itself towards the end, but the first two hours I contemplated just throwing in the towel. I'm not sure if audio format works well for what this book was trying to convey... especially with the chapters of quotes pulled from letters and diaries. Switching readers after 5 words was distracting at times, same with the automated voice. Having 166 readers seemed too many. I did find myself looking forward to the actual story though... I'm still digesting this book and might grow to like it the more I think about it, but one thing is for sure, way too much use of the word said. "Jesus! There are far better ways to show dialogue," I bellowed while trying not to drive my car into the back of the BMW in front of me. "Watch where you are going," the driver shrieked.

44 of 56 people found this review helpful

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  • Darwin8u
  • Mesa, AZ, United States
  • 02-18-17

The Great Emancipator as the Great Empathizer

"He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bond to return to nothingness."
- George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo

Again, I find myself wandering at night alone, reading grief literature. I'm not sure if I have just accidentally stumbled on my own special vein of grief literature or if it has suddenly become more popular. But, here I am, writing another review of another sad book. No. Not sad. Certainly it deals with sadness. Death and sadness. Certainly. But it is hard to contain Saunders. His stories were never easily boxed, labeled, or restrained. They seemed to crawl under doors, slip through walls, escape the clutches of easy definition. This novel, his first, is also hard to easily categorize. It is historical fiction in that its primary characters (Abraham Lincoln and his dead son William) are historical. But the rest of the characters (and there is an army of characters) are fictional. The book is also historical in the sense that Saunders uses, in an unusual way, historical writings about Lincoln as almost a Greek chorus. There are chapters where a repetition of voices, like a series of paintings by Giorgio Morandi, where he paints the same few household objects in slightly different constellations. Or Monet painting the same church at different times. All of these studies, given at different times seem to not confuse the subject but illuminate the subject. So when in this book Lincoln's eyes are described by different historical voices as:

"His eyes dark grey, clear, very expressive, and varying with every mood"
- Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln

"His eyes were bright, keen, and a luminous grey color."
- Ostendorf, Lincoln's Photographs - A Complete Album

"Grey-brown eyes sunken under thick eyebrows, and as though encircled by deep and dark wrinkles."
- Marquis de Chambrun, "Personal Recollections of Mr. Lincoln"

"His eyes were a bluish-brown."
- Wilson & Davis, Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln

"The saddest eyes of any human being that I have ever seen."
Shenk, Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness

This technique of borrowing the same description of Lincoln or of an event of Lincoln's life and telling it again and again becomes almost a mantra that pushes the reader back into reality. Shows the reader how things exist in a multitude of ways. How reality might be ALL the experiences of a person; past, present and future and seen by everyone. It also seduces the reader and lulls the reader into a laconic, dream-like state as the strangeness of the novels swirls around. These chapters become an incantation, a rite, a ritual, a dirge.

One of the small gems I loved from this novel is one that won't mean much to anyone else but me. One of the dead slaves, one of the "black beasts", the "damnable savages" also stuck in purgatory shares my name, or my last name at least. I'm tribal enough that I enjoy that. I like the serendipity of discovering one of the best characters, with one of the best "voices", "the sweetest f____er, but talks so G____ complicated" has my last name. Perfect. That is the best part of this book, the gist really. That it is IN others and THROUGH others and HELPING others that we discover our own worth. We are saved IN and BY our empathy. As we see the world through slave and soldier's eyes. As we grapple with the suffering of all, the pain of all, we redeem and save each other. Lovely.

The danger with grief literature is it can so, so easily slip into sentimentality. It can quickly slide into sap and pretentiousness. Grief is hard. It is real. It also something, like sex, that is fraught and dangerous to write about. Saunders nails it. He is able to walk THROUGH the valley and WITH the shadows and fear no evil, because tonight, for me, Saunders is the baddest son-of-a-biatch in the bardo.

57 of 74 people found this review helpful

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A Mixed Bag

I found the audiobook to be frustrating, to say the least. I love Saunders' work and know that the printed version of this novel is likely much better than this audiobook version indicates. As is, there are some good narrators (Nick Offerman), some decent ones (David Sedaris), and some utterly terrible ones, who feel like they are reading their lines with a gun to their heads. I think the stilted language of the 1860s was too much an impediment to some of these voices. Another problem is that the actors were not recording a shared experience - in other words, they were not together at the time and were not able to fully feed off each other's lines and work as a true ensemble. Few actors enjoy working under those conditions. The story rambles and ambles about, speakers are interrupted, and there is no cohesive emotional center sustained throughout. I felt at times that I was in the audience of a bad high school play. That said, there are some beautiful moments and funny moments, too. Too bad they're buried amidst the mess.

24 of 31 people found this review helpful

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George Saunders answer to Dante's Inferno

I've not listened to many books but it's hard to imagine one that could be more entertaining than Lincoln. The actors speaking for the characters make the story seem more like a play. A truly wonderful play.
The images that are conjured up by George Saunders are so vivid ,heartbreaking , and comical at the same time. This book found me when I was beginning my journey of grief over the sudden loss of my 35 year old disabled daughter. The scene in the beginning where the spirit of Willy is standing with his father with his arm around his him comforting him gave me comfort and made me feel that my daughter was sitting close to me with her arm around me.
It also gave me a glimmer of hope that if President Lincoln could endure this terrible loss and go on eventually with his life maybe so could I. It's been 6 months now and I've listened to the book gradually during these months and just finished it tonight. This book has been one of the most important pieces of my healing. My deepest thanks to George Saunders for this precious gift.
Betty Reardon Vance

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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A New American Classic is Born

What made the experience of listening to Lincoln in the Bardo the most enjoyable?

Remember the graveyard scene in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town"? That scene is a tease for Saunder's Lincoln in the Bardo. I wonder if both authors belonged to the same church. I learned in grad school that Wilder's faith taught that after life was as portrayed in the cemetery scene. This is easily the best book I have read thus far this year. The actors are perfectly cast. How Saunders came up with characters is amazing. I hope a filmmaker doesn't ruin it.

What was one of the most memorable moments of Lincoln in the Bardo?

When Lincoln's son decides to let his father feel him again in his body.

Which character – as performed by the narrators – was your favorite?

The dead son

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

You think you know Abe Lincoln

Any additional comments?

Don't miss this book in this performance. It is a readers' theater to rival the best! Bill Adams would so proud.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful