A Sort of Book Review (But Not Really): LINCOLN IN THE BARDO

Being obsessed with my own mortality, perhaps Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders may not be the best choice when I decided to take a break from mystery novels, my literary equivalent of “comfort food”. However, I had read a lot of favorable press  on the Saunders book and I was curious.

Bardo, according to Tibetan Buddhists, is a kind of existence between death and rebirth. The Lincoln of the title refers not to the town car but U.S. President Abraham Lincoln himself.

The novel, which takes place during one momentous night in 1862 in  a Washington DC cemetery, depicts President Lincoln, unaware of the fact he is being watched by ghosts, grieving at the graveside of his young son, Willie, who has died of a fever. 

Lincoln - cover

And here’s the kicker: the ghosts who serve as narrators for the majority of the novel are not  aware they are dead. (Any relation to the current administration is strictly a matter of chance.) The ghosts refer to their coffins as “sick-boxes” and the planet they inhabited while alive as “that other place”. There is a middle-aged man who was about to consummate his marriage to a much younger woman; a conflicted homosexual brooding about a lost love, an elderly clergyman and a coarse and rather vulgar husband and wife duo  (There are other ghostly voices, too,  including the late Willie Lincoln!)

Let me be honest or as I  refer to it, my literary equivalent of hara-kiri. 

lincol - saunders
George Saunders and his best-selling book

I was unfamiliar with the works of George Saunders. Judging from some of the names on the back of the book, though, Mr. Saunders is a short story master (Lincoln in the Bardo is his first novel). No less a literary luminary than Dave Eggers wrote that Mr. Saunders is  “… no one more essential to our national sense of self and sanity.” (in other words, “A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius” or something like that) and Zadie Smith claims” not since Twain has America produced a satirist this funny.” (Her claims may be”greatly exaggerated.”) The publishers have also recruited such literary lions as Khaled Hosseni, Lorrie Moore and (gasp!) Thomas Pyncheon to write blurbs on the back cover of Mr. Saunders’ debut novel.  So who am I, a mere English major, to argue about Mr. Saunders brilliance, both as a short fiction master and a novelist?

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Incidentally. a website called openculture.com (which I am familiar with) has assembled a collection of Mr. Saunders’ vaunted short fiction, The New York Times online video section has a ten-minute video inspired by Lincoln in  the Bardo, a feature film version is in the works (good luck with that! ) and interviews with Mr. Saunders are available online on various sites including youtube. 








Random Mutterings #1: They Don’t Know Jack About Taylor

…. Looks like they are turning one of my favorite fictional tough guys into a pussycat. They’ve even given Jack Taylor (played in the TV series and the movies by Iain Glen …. I guess they couldn’t afford Liam Neeson) a girlfriend. (Siobhan O’Kelly has replaced Nora-Jane Noone but the movie has kept the character’s name, Kate Noonan, and presumably used the replacement as an excuse to involve Jack and Kate in a relationship.)

Author Ken Bruen is obviously so chuffed they are making his novels into TV and movie stuff that he doesn’t care whether the screenplays take radical turns away from his novels. He even refers to Iain Glen in one of his novels and has a cameo role in a movie based on  a book.) One thing hasn’t changed from the novels, though. Jack is still letting people down. (He promises to be there to lend support prior to Kate’s cancer surgery and arrives late. Sure, he has a good reason. There is always a good reason. Isn’t there? )

Reviewers who have praised the books as “hard-boiled fiction” are not just whistling an Irish jig. The novels may be too dark for the movie and TV types. But, yes, at the risk of using the cliche, I liked the books better.

Jack Taylor
Iain Glen as Jack Taylor -A Real Pussycat


TV or not TV: Is That a Question? (WOLF HALL)

Think Westeros has intrigue (and a high body count)?

Wolf Hall - poster

Try the court of Henry VIII in 15th century England (and, unlike the Lannisters, this is based on real facts.(Kudos to screenwriter Peter Straughan for boiling down Hilary Mantel’s two door-stopping historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in this six-part BBC/PBS miniseries now on DVD.)

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Damian Lewis (left), Mark Rylance (middle) and Claire Foy (right) in “Wolf Hall”

Award-winning actor Mark Rylance (he has won or been nominated for every major award except the Grammy) stars in a thoroughly immersive performance as Thomas Cromwell, a wily manipulator trying to survive and prosper in the court of Henry VIII (played with mercurial elan by Damian Lewis).

PS Claire Foy, so good as a young Elizabeth II in Netflix’s The Crown, portrays the doomed Anne Boleyn (although her character doesn’t know she is doomed in the early stages of this drama. Far from it!)

Wolf Hall - bookwolf hall - bodies


Philip Roth and “American Pastoral” : Trash or Treasure?

This post starts, strangely enough, in the local dump. That’s where I found a copy of the Philip Roth novel American Pastoral in pristine condition. Actually, it was a friend of mine and his wife who make periodic visits to “The Free Store” at the local sanitation station who rescued the copy. My friend read it and passed it on to me.

I had never read a Roth novel before. although I had seen Goodbye Columbus (back in the days when Richard Benjamin was a leading man) and had heard of Portnoy’s Complaint (who hadn’t?) and knew Philip Roth was a major literary figure but I had never cracked one of his novels.

PHILIP ROTH – Author of “American Pastoral” (and many other novels. A major American literary figure.)

Near as I can figure, American Pastoral is about a Jewish man named Seymour Levov (nicknamed “Swede” for his blond hair and blue eyes) who acquires all of the things society indicates are  symbols of status and success (a star jock in high school, marriage to a onetime beauty queen, head of a successful business , which he inherited) and still manages to alienate his wife and daughter. I interpreted the novel as a nasty indictment of the so-called American Dream and/or a grim, almost existential fable about life itself (no matter how carefully we may plan, hope and/or dream about our personal future, stuff happens.) 

roth - book cover

Frankly I didn’t quite know what the author wanted me to take away from the novel – and I may not have been the only one. Atlantic Magazine calls it ” a relentlessly mental book, full of inconclusive rumination on material often left strangely undramatized. And that, along with the book’s mystifyingly haphazard structure, prevents it from becoming a “genuine imaginative event.” On the other hand, the English newspaper,The Guardian labels it a “masterpiece”.  Since the novel won a Pulitzer Prize and was named one of “the 100 Greatest Novels of the 20th Century” by TIME I may be missing something (if you value what society deems to be symbols of status and success.)

By the way, Mr. Roth based the character of Swede on a real person according to reviewer Ted Gioia (among other folks) writing in something called the newcanon.com. The object of the novelist’s admiration was a star high school athlete, Seymour “Swede” Masin, and although the tragedies which befall the fictional Levov later in life didn’t happen to his real-world counterpart, Mr. Masin (who passed away in 2005) confessed, according to Mr. Gioia, that if those events had befallen him,  “It’s amazing, but almost everything in the book I would have done if I’d been in those situations.”

roth - movie

There is apparently a screen adaptation of the novel as well with Ewan McGregor (miscast as “Swede”, in my opinion), Jennifer Connelly as his wife and Dakota Fanning (giving one of her few misguided performances) as his daughter.  The film rights were actually acquired in 2003 but after a number of directorial and cast changes they finally started filming in 2015. (It takes tenacity to work your way through Mr. Roth’s dense prose.) The producers compounded their error by asking the unfortunate Mr. McGregor to make his feature film directing bow after Phillip Noyce pulled out. (There is probably a reason Mr. McGregor has not helmed a movie since). A box office and critical disaster, American Pastoral (the film) helped to prove why Mr. Roth’s novels are so devilishly hard to successfully adapt for the screen.

Nathan Zuckerman, widely regarded as Mr. Roth’s alter ego, makes a brief appearance here as well but, depending on which reviews you read, he is there in spirit for the majority of the novel.

Currently, I am  reading Zuckerman Unboundone of the only Roth novels available in my local library. It was copyrighted in 1981 and shows a lighter side of the novelist. (But then we were all a little more optimistic in 1981. At least, I was.) In the book, Mr. Zuckerman has attained wealth and success as the author of an erotically charged best-seller called Carnovsky and is uncomfortable with his celebrity and all it brings with it. The novel could be interpreted as the fame Mr. Roth unwittingly earned as the author of the controversial novel Portnoy’s Complaint.  



I Got it at the Library: “By Gaslight”

That Stephen Price is a helluva storyteller.

gaslight - author
Steven Price

At over 700 pages, By Gaslight, the second novel by the Victoria, British Columbia-based poet and fiction writer might have been a doorstopper. But like many of the lengthier films I have enjoyed over the years, I was never bored or visually fatigued thanks to the author’s vividly realized prose and memorable characters.

The novel is set in 1880s London (with flashbacks to the American Civil War and the diamond mines of South Africa) and it is a credit to Mr. Price’s impeccable research and richly detailed narrative that I had to keep reminding myself that this novel was written recently and not penned a number of decades ago. (I haven’t read a novel this rich in period detail which transported me back in time since Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan which was primarily set in 1939 Berlin and Paris – the novel also flashes forward to the early Nineties.) 

gaslight - cover

The story centres around William Pinkerton, son of the crusty, larger-than-life authoritarian who founded the famed investigative organization, and his hunt in foggy London town for an elusive criminal whose very existence is questionable. There is also a gentleman grifter named Adam Foole, his lady love, Charlotte Reckitt, a giant named Fludd and Molly, a ten year old girl who is wise beyond her years (to say the least).  Each of these characters are given humane and believable back stories, scrupulously sculpted by the author. The result is, yes, characters you both know and care about as well as (or better than) members of your own family.

You don’t have to be Fellini, to paraphrase an old George Carlin routine, to see themes of the often thorny relationship between fathers and sons, the futility and tragedy of war (any war) and the Rashomon – like nature of truth interwoven into the narrative.

Perhaps the ancient adage is true that a prophet (or, in this case, an author) is without honor in his own country because, in one of the first Canadian literary websites I logged onto, the highly respected quillandquire.com, while admitting that the novel is “an engrossing read“, the reviewer says  “… nothing carries us beyond the characters to give their stories thematic resonance of the sort that motivates the great 19th-century novels to which By Gaslight is so indebted … “(Perhaps the writer of this review has been hanging around stuffy Ontario academics too long,)

I much prefer the enthusiastic, uncluttered  response of America’s NPR (National Public Radio): ” … Intense …  threaded through with a melancholy brilliance, it is an extravagant novel that takes inspiration from the classics and yet remains wholly itself.”

Perhaps the best description of the novel is on the back cover of the book itself: ” … darkly mesmerizing,” writes author Jacqueline Baker, “worthy of the great Victorian thriller writers, but Steven Price brings to his prose a sensibility and dazzling skill all his own … perfectly grounded in period and rich in incident and image. Haunting and deeply satisfying. “

Come to think of it, Stephen Price and Esi Edugyan are husband and wife. Could they be CanLit’s new Power Couple (even if they are not based in Toronto)?

gaslight - couple
Esi Edugyan and Steven Price: The Canadian Lit Power Couple?

A Dark Twist on an Old Story? Not Even Close

Okay, I know how I started writing about a 2010 movie based on a 2001 novel but I am not sure why I am posting an entry in my blog about them.

I guess it all started when I watched the Brit TV series based on the Jack Taylor novels by Irish writer Ken Bruen (an appreciation of Mr. Bruen’s unique – to me – prose style appears elsewhere in this blog.)

London - book

I noticed a second hand copy of London Boulevard at a book sale and since I had become an aficionado of Mr. Bruen’s works I picked it up. Okay, it wasn’t a Jack Taylor novel but the protagonist, a wary, volatile ex-con named Mitchell, his run-ins with former criminal associates, his relationship with mentally unstable sister, Briony, his reluctant affair with the aging but still alluring  reclusive actress Lillian Palmer and her enigmatic butler, Jordan. held my attention.

Then I became aware of a movie adapted from the novel.  Since it was written by William Monahan, the Oscar-winning screenwriter who adapted the Asian box office hit Infernal Affairs for the Martin Scorsese-directed North American cinematic success The Departed (one of my favorite films) I had high hopes when the acclaimed screenwriter chose London Boulevard as his directorial debut. 

London - movie

Imagine my surprise when I looked closer at the back of the DVD dust cover and saw that Colin Farrell and Keira Knightley had been cast in leading roles. While reading the novel I kept picturing Liam Neeson and Helen Mirren or Charlotte Rampling in the roles. (On the other hand, the casting of Anna Friel as Briony and Ray Winstone as Mitchell’s criminal nemesis, Gant, was spot-on.)

I understand the need to attract “name” stars to secure investors. However, the casting – and rewriting – completely destroys Mr. Bruen’s original intent: to write a British version of Sunset Boulevard, or, as it says on the front cover of the novel, “a dark twist on a classic story.” Imagine a version geared to a youthful demographic directed by Zack Snyder and starring, say, Scarlett Johansson as Ms. Palmer (renamed “Lily”) and one of the Hemsworth boys as Mitchell (MC Mitch?)  

Mr. Monahan’s second attempt at directing, the dismal Mojave. didn’t fare much better (24% Audience Rating). Perhaps Peter Howell of Toronto’s Globe & Mail (quoted on RT) says it best:  “Writer/director William Monahan won an Oscar for penning The Departed and he obviously needs the discipline Martin Scorsese brought to that picture.”

London - sign