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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, 2018 APA Audie Awards - Audiobook of the Year
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 11-year-old son, Willie, is gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. 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 includes, 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

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Difficult

There are just too many characters voiced by too many people and burdened by too many footnotes to follow. I found my attention wandering.

41 of 43 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

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

112 of 120 people found this review helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

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.

103 of 111 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Creative

I enjoyed the creativity of this book. I did not enjoy the constant interruptions citing references.

9 of 9 people found this review helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
  • Saman
  • Houston, TX, United States
  • 01-11-18

Disappointment!

I wanted so much more from this book than I received. If I had known what “Bardo” meant prior to picking this up at Audible, I may have enjoyed the listen better. On many reviews of the book on-line, people state that it is not for all tastes. I can agree that it was not for me.

Centered around a cemetery, spirits, and Lincoln mourning the loss of his young son, the story is filled with what was and what could be. In between the spaces, multitude of period quotes are intertwined with the story to interject relevance, experience and fact. Characters, and there are many of them, narrate their own lives and how and why they seem to be trapped in this limbo state. Many fear the next state – moving on. All this can get quite confusing.

The production of this book is awful. There are long gaps of silence between some of the chapters that makes you think the audio has stopped working. It is almost impossible to know when a quote is delivered versus the actual narrative of a character. And there are so many readers. Its absurdly confusing.

How this one the Booker is a mystery to me.

28 of 30 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    1 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
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    1 out of 5 stars

Could not listen to it

Would you try another book from George Saunders and/or the narrators?

Probably not.

Has Lincoln in the Bardo turned you off from other books in this genre?

I don't think this book even belongs to a genre. Too avant garde.

What aspect of the narrators’s performance would you have changed?

The narration of multiple voices was the least of the problems.

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

Confusion.

Any additional comments?

This book was too bizarre and hard to follow. I gave it two hours and deleted it.

27 of 30 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Best book I've ever listened to

This book is so extraordinary I scarcely know where to begin. The format is so innovative, the sheer number of characters--all portrayed by different actors-was mind boggling. I heard somewhere there are 166 different actors in the audio version. It was as if I was listening to all of humanity. This book made me laugh, made me cry, made me think. The basic story is so moving--President Lincoln's loss of his beloved child and the irony of he himself being the catalyst for the deaths of so many beloved sons in the War Between the States. No wonder many described Lincoln as the saddest man they had ever seen. And all these souls in the cemetery, not willing to give up this earth and go on to the next dimension--it was funny, it was poignant, it was tragic. There is so much going on in this book, and the audio version is just masterful.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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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…"



271 of 312 people found this review helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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Drove me crazy

The way the audio was put together drove me crazy. Too many different voices not in sink with each other. Came out sounding like mish/mush! Sent it back for a refund!

26 of 30 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
  • Adele
  • Evanston, IL USA
  • 09-19-17

A first-rate radio drama, not a mere audiobook

Would you consider the audio edition of Lincoln in the Bardo to be better than the print version?

Yes! Not that I've seen the print version, but the different voices for each character are a huge enhancement to a book with so many characters. Some chapters are composed of excerpts from historical sources, often from firsthand accounts, and these were also enhanced by being read in different voices.

What did you like best about this story?

The connection between Lincoln's personal grief and his empathy for the grief being faced by the nation, culminating in the epiphany that despite seeing this grief it was his duty to continue on with whatever brutality was required to win the war. His struggle, in turn, connects with that of the other characters, who are ghosts living in a form of purgatory, unable to move past life's disappointments into the "next place"; they are all helped along both by the president and his son.

What about the narrators’s performance did you like?

Really, this is more a first-rate radio drama than an audiobook. The actors make each character unique and relatable.

Who was the most memorable character of Lincoln in the Bardo and why?

I wouldn't want to pick one. The lead "ghosts" portrayed by Nick Offerman and David Sedaris were excellent. Probably the central portrait was of Lincoln himself, which we saw from many different perspectives including his own, his son's, and the ghosts (most of whom don't know at first that he is president.)

4 of 4 people found this review helpful