Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

This novel, by George Saunders, won the Man Booker Prize in 2017, and I felt obliged to read it.

George Saunders – according to the bio included in the book – is the author of nine books, including Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the inaugural Folio Prize (for the best work of fiction in English) and the Story Prize (best short story collection).  He has received MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships and the PEN/Malamud Prize for excellence in the short story and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  In 2013, he was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine.  He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.

George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo concerns the death of Willie, President Lincoln’s younger son, his burial and the President’s intense grief over his death.  This major theme in bound up in a collection of ghost stories in which a state of bardo is conceived and in which the ghosts provide a commentary on racial, social, financial, sexual and religious mores at that time.  There is no central narrator; rather, the stories are told by several dozen fictional ghost characters (two of whom are prominent) and by quotations from contemporary news articles and other sources.  These quotations lend a sense of reality, even though the viewpoints represented (of the President, himself, for example) are conflicting.  The style of the book is oblique, particularly as to the individual ghost stories, so that the reader is left to exercise some deduction and imagination.  The writing is innovative, but faultless. The author’s central question is: “how do we live and love when everything we love must end?”

For me, Lincoln in the Bardo was not an easy or a captivating read.  This was due, in part to the author’s technique of presenting the ghost’s dialogue frequently as fragmented hints (which is fine for ‘ghost speak’ but doesn’t make easy reading).  I also felt that the ghost stories did not always mesh well with the Lincoln tragedy. In my opinion, the author was trying to do too much in one novel.  Interestingly, I don’t recall seeing the word ‘bardo’ mentioned in the novel itself.  Bardo is a Buddhist concept of a transitional state between death and rebirth.  Two other minor comments.  I think the title of this novel should have been: Willie Lincoln in Limbo.  As a Buddhist concept, ‘bardo’ does not fit well in a Christian setting; bardo is a state, so the definite article ‘the’ is unnecessary – one wouldn’t say ‘in the coma’; and Lincoln (the President) was not in bardo – his son was.  But my suggested title is not as intriguing.  At the conclusion of the book, there are 11 ‘Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion’.  This says to me: ‘ I am not only the author, I am a distinguished academic’: hubris.

For me, this is another example of the Man Booker Prize Committee selecting works which are intriguing, different, innovative, rather than lucid, beautiful and memorable.

Why Children Need to Read

This was the title of the cover story in the Review section of The Daily Telegraph on 20 January 2018.  The author is Katherine Rundell, author of The Explorer, which won the 2017 Costa Children’s Book Award. She begins the article by talking about a “state of consciousness that comes without calling.  It is as if the clamorous world has quietened and thinned. . . The other times I have experienced it were as a child, while I read.  It would take perhaps three pages, then the world became mute.  Its urgency vanished and its demands fell silent.  I could sit waiting outside a ballet class, music vibrating through the walls, and hear nothing.

“Children’s fiction accounts for 39 of the 100 bestselling books of 2017, and for about 24% of the UK book market.  There’s a lot of it about.  Still, the question I get asked most, when people hear that I write for children, is: why?  Why not write real, serious books for adults?  Because, I think, only for a child, can fiction crowbar open the world.

“The intricacies of reading evade description in the same way that dreams and music evade it, but there is, I think, something unique about the way stories colour the imagination of a child.  What do you see as an adult, when you read?  Do you deck out the characters in shoes, buttons, fingernails.  I think I don’t.  I read ‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich’, and I conjure up, in the space behind my eyes, an atmosphere rather than a distinct picture, colour, nose or lip. But children are doing something different when they read.  They have sometimes described to me in painstaking detail, scenes from books of mine which do not exist.  It happens relatively often: a child will tell me she loves the dance across the Paris rooftops in my book Roofhoppers, or the moment when a girl jumps from a tree onto the back of a wolf in The Wolf Wilder –  scenes I never wrote, although I wish I had.  Children, as they read, paint bright colours in the margins that fiction leaves open.  Their imaginations are snowballs.  When, as an adult, I read some of  my favourite childhood books, I was startled to see how slight some of them were, how many of the details I thought I knew by heart never even appeared; houses I had furnished myself, clothes I had embroidered, journeys  had added.  This is part of why I write for young people: children read the world into largeness.  When you write for a child, you build them a house; when they read, they expand it into a castle.

Ms Rundell tells about the illness of an older sister who died.  “I read through long periods of being alone, in hospital waiting rooms, and car journeys and friends’ houses.  Afraid, I took The Jungle Book or What Katy Did into bed with me alongside my bear, so that if my own fear overwhelmed me, there would be an exit door; I would fall asleep with an escape hatch clutched in one hand. . . . the stories I read then allowed me to believe that my sister didn’t only lose; she also won.  To fight with such gallantry and love is to win.

“The value of children’s books cannot, of course, be predicated on pain – books aren’t only valuable when we have something to escape – but, in fact, I am not sure that escapism is a large enough word for what those books did.  They taught me through the medium of wizards and lions and spies and talking spiders that this world I was newly inhabiting was one of wit and endurance.  Children’s books say: the stories of the world are infinite and various and unpredictable.  They say: you will count for something. They say: bravery will matter, love will matter.”

I was fortunate in having a mother and a grandmother who liked to read aloud.  They were probably motivated, in part, by the rapt attention I paid to stories by Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson and J Howard Pyle.

Review: Istanbul: Memories and the City

I wanted to read a book by Orhan Pamuk, who won the Noble Prize for Literature in 2006, but when I looked at his recent novels, I was put off.  My Name is Red is 688 pages; A Strangeness in my Mind is 764 pages.  To me, this seems a disproportionate amount to time to devote to one author.  (Perhaps, I’m like a teenage boy: so many girls, so little time.)  So, I chose Istanbul: Memories and the City (336 pages), which was written in 2005, and appealed to me because I visited Istanbul, briefly, on my honeymoon.

Orhan Pamuk is a Turkish writer, screenwriter and academic, born in Istanbul in 1952; he has sold 13 million books in 63 languages.  He is a Professor of Humanities at Columbia University, where he teaches courses in writing and comparative literature.

In 2005, Pamuk made a statement regarding the Armenian Genocide that  “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.”  An ultra-nationalist lawyer brought a law suit based on Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code which makes it a crime to insult Turkey or the Turkish Grand National Assembly.  The suit resulted in a lengthy battle with the Turkish legals system in which the European Union took an interest because of its implications for the freedom of speech in Turkey.  The Turkish Justice Ministry finally declined to back the trial on a technicality, but gave no support to Pamuk, who said that he mentioned the genocide not to call attention to specific numbers of deaths but to demonstrate the lack of freedom to discuss taboo subjects in Turkey.

Orhan Pamuk

Istanbul, translated by Maureen Freely, is one of five non-fiction works by Pamuk in English.  It is, as the subtitle suggests, a reflection on the Istanbul the author knew as a child together with his family memories.  There are black-and-white photographs on every couple of pages, some dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, and some as recent at the 1960’s; most are of ‘old Istanbul’ but there are family photographs, as well.  The ‘old Istanbul’ photographs are a vehicle for commentary on the writings of European and Turkish literati regarding the culture, style, history, art and visual perspectives of the city.  Clearly, Istanbul was (and is) a unique city: its rapid growth, its human crossroads of East and West, its unique wooden architecture (which frequently went up in smoke), the presence of the Bosporus with all its maritime energy, and the air of melancholy (húzún) arising from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the subsequent economic decline, and the cultural ambivalence between East and West.

Perhaps what is surprising about this book – part travelogue, history, autobiography, artistic and cultural commentary – is that it is an integral whole, seamlessly shifting themes without confusing the reader.  This, I think, is all down to Pamuk’s fondness for his city and his skill as a commentator and a writer.  One can set the book aside for a day or two, but one is drawn back into its dream-like flow.  The attraction is, in large measure, due to the characterisation of the boy, Orhan, his brother, his mother and father, the larger family and their declining circumstances.  The one criticism I have is that a map of the city should have been included.  There are frequent references to districts in Istanbul by their Turkish names, but one has no idea of the geography which is an omission for a piece of writing which is otherwise so visual.

Istambul is a very pleasant reading experience.

America, the Ugly

As an American living in Europe, I am often asked whether I miss the States and whether I will return there.  The answer I give is that I miss my family and friends living there, but that I have no plans to return to the States.  In fact, in the current environment, I would find America a disagreeable place to live.

Those of you who visit this blog on the expectation of stimulating thoughts from an author’s point of view I ask your indulgence that I might – just this once? – enlarge the topic.

My impression of America today, based in the voices I hear from across the Atlantic – the formal media, social media, politicians, commentators, activists and private individuals – is that it has become a violent, racist, and un-educated country, and my impression is that this is a view shared by many non-Americans.  To be clear, I’m not focusing on the President; to my mind, he is only the cheerleader of a violent, racist, un-educated minority, a minority that is attempting to dominate the discourse on issues with a stridency which seems to seek a change in the culture of America.  The desired culture appears to be more fragmented, more ‘them-and-us’, less orderly, and more beneficial to the loudest.

When I mention an ‘un-educated minority’, I am not speaking of Americans who have only a high school or secondary school education.  For me, it’s not about the number of years of education one has; rather it’s about how one behaves.  There are Americans with graduate degrees who are behaving like cretins and high school drop-outs who display considerable wisdom.

I believe that there are two vital behaviours which the ‘un-educated’  are neglecting: the systematic collection of reliable, non-business-related information, and the deliberate, dispassionate analysis of this information.  These two behaviours, taken together, are the foundations of good citizenship.  What kind of information am I talking about?  General, wide-ranging information on subjects including history, social science, physical science, theology, sports, finance, psychology, art and politics.  If one doesn’t have at least an understanding of the trends in these areas, how can can one call oneself a knowledgeable citizen?  And it isn’t just a question of having ‘facts’ at one’s disposal: the ‘facts’ can be wrong or misleading.  Trust only sources of information that are reliable and have no incentive to bend the truth.  It takes time, attention and effort to become half-educated.

And the other half of being ‘educated’ is perhaps more difficult: it involves setting aside one’s personal agenda and biases (my, particular religion/political beliefs/economic circumstances/social standing/etc.) in order to understand alternative viewpoints and to analyse dispassionately the pros and cons.  (Nothing other than arithmetic is always right.)

It seems to me that the ‘uneducatedness’ of some Americans, who have insufficient or wrong information and analyze it superficially, is what leads to racism and violence.  Racism (and other forms of intolerance) cannot stand up to the ‘educated citizenship’ approach.

By ‘violence’, I’m not just referring to gun violence, but to abuse of all kinds, and to the desire to disrupt the status quo just to ‘punish the system’.  The latter two forms of violence are invalidated by informed analysis.

Gun violence is a particular issue for me, as a resident of England, where reliable adults can have rifles and shotguns, subject to certification and safe storage, and where handguns and automatic weapons are proscribed.  Does this handicap the British population, many of whom are keen hunters?  No.  Gun violence is a tiny fraction of what it is in the US.  Apart from this, the major difference between the two countries is that there is no ‘constitutional right’ in the UK to bear arms.  But, the Second Amendment was based partially on the right to keep and bear arms in English common law and was influenced by the English Bill of Rights of 1689.  Yet, there is no ‘constitutional right’ in the UK.

As I think about the causes of ‘uneducatedness’, two things come to mind: laziness – unwillingness to take the time and effort to inform oneself and to think clearly – and discontentment with one’s situation in life, which, while sometimes justified, can lead to the the blaming of others or the ‘system’.  Laziness is, of course, self-inflicted, and if one is discontented, the best remedy is action, not blame.


The Espresso Book Machine

There is an article in the September, 2017 issue of the IBPA Independent magazine, ‘Can the Espresso Book Machine Save the Indie Publisher?’  It is written by Peter Goodman, the publisher of Stone Bridge Press in Berkeley, California, and a member of the IBPA Independent Editorial Advisory Committee.

The article tells us that “the EBM is a self-contained, on-demand printing and binding machine that can produce a single perfect-bound book from a digital file in 5-8 minutes.  A product of On Demand Books in New York City, the EBM promises ‘Books Printed in Minutes at Point of Sale for immediate Pick-up and Delivery’.

“Currently there are about a hundred EBM’s installed in stores and libraries, mostly in the US and Canada, but in other countries, as well.  Through On Demand Books’ own servers and tie-ups with other publishers and with Google and Lightning Source, over 7 million titles are currently available in multiple languages for on-demand printing at these locations. ”

The article also mentions that the machine can be promoted to anyone who simply wants to get unpublished written material into a printed and bound format: family cookbooks, memoirs, school projects first novels, etc.

“An EBM prints books – perfectly bound only – one at a time on an integrated Xerox D95 toner-based printer.  Available formats range from 4.5″ x 5.0″ to 8.25″ x 10.75″ with page counts from 40 to 830 pages.   Covers are produced on heavier tabloid-size stock using four-colour digital printing.  As the book pages print, the cover is output and positioned below the book block.  The EBM then scrapes and applies glue to the spine of the block and presses the  block down onto the back surface of the cover.  The book is finished as soon as the block and its attached cover are turned and trimmed on the side and front edges.”

Espresso Book Machine

“Publishers contract with On Demand to make books available through the EBM network database.  The finances are straight forward: the EBM operator arranges with On Demand  for leasing and maintenance, and then pays a licensing fee for each book printed.  The publisher receives 25% of the price of the book to the customer; the publisher sets the price, as long as it exceeds a calculated amount to cover production costs, licensing and profit to the bookseller.”

Turning now to an article from Publishers Weekly, On Demand Books emphasize that the EBM is “not a POD ( print on demand) solution: it is a sales solution”

“Another reason that book machines have started to come into their own is that publishers are looking for ways to support bricks-and-mortar stores. Publishers cannot afford to lose retail distribution. So they also see this as a mechanism for the distribution model.  The desire to keep indies in business is translating to a new willingness to make content available. To date, most of the books that the machine can print have come from deep backlists.  Most frontlist titles are from smaller presses and open source publishers.

“A question put to attendees at Xerox’s first Thought Leadership Workshop about the EBM in Rochester, N.Y., last month indicates another possibility for the machine’s growing popularity: Amazon. “We need to compete with Amazon,” says Linda Gregory, who handles Web site and order fulfillment for Colgate Bookstore in Hamilton, N.Y.

“Statistics from On Demand are tantalizing: within the first three months of having a machine McNally Jackson Books in New York City has gone from zero to 1,000 books a month. At Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., which added a machine in October 2009, owner Jeffrey Mayersohn expects to surpass 2,000 books a month this summer. “Digitalization is the salvation of the neighborhood bookstore,” he declares. He regards Amazon’s infrastructure as “20th-century” and believes that the key competitive issue is inventory, not price. With the EMB, Mayersohn says, “The store becomes a well-curated showroom with books published to specification—and a manufacturing operation in the backroom.”

In doing some research for this post, I found that the price of an EBM is $185,000, but I feel sure that On Demand’s preference is to enter into lease and maintenance agreements.