History of Wolves and Lincoln in the Bardo

How is your fall going? A lot of the leaves are down here now so I need to get out and rake, rake, rake the yard. We had some snow but luckily it didn’t stick around too long, though more flakes are in the forecast. This week is busy with the book festival, Wordfest, going on here; I think I’m attending eight author events. Most notably perhaps is an evening with authors Tom Perrotta and Ruth Ware. I’m also looking forward to seeing nonfiction author Michael Finkel who wrote “The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit,” which came out this year and I’m on the wait list for at the library. I’m sure there will be plenty of other interesting readings and talks,  mostly by Canadian authors who are featured here, so I will let you know how it goes.

Also kudos to British author Kazuo Ishiguro for winning the Nobel Prize in Literature last week, Wow. I thought it was a good choice. I loved his novels “The Remains of the Day” (1989) and “Never Let Me Go” (2005) — so sad and good. I’d like to read more of his books including “A Pale View of Hills” (1982) and “An Artist of the Floating World” (1986) among others. I’ve heard various people say that “An Artist of the Floating World” is their favorite of his novels, but I think “Never Let Me Go” is hard to beat. Which one is your favorite of his?

Meanwhile I will leave you with a couple reviews of what I finished last week. Both of them happen to be shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize.

Set in Northern Minnesota, Emily Fridlund’s debut novel “History of Wolves” is a coming-of-age story that is quite unsettling. It’s about a 14-year-old girl (Linda) who lives with her parents in a drafty cabin in the woods by a lake, where they once were apart of a commune. She’s a lonely girl, unsupervised most of the time, who comes to be the babysitter for a 4-year-old boy whose parents have a place a mile or so away. Something happens to the boy — you learn this at the very beginning, though it’s not revealed then how — and the girl, Linda, who doesn’t see it coming, is haunted by it in the years after.

Told in the first person by Linda, the story delves back and forth in time over her young life there and her relations with the boy and his parents — as well as there’s a side story about Linda’s high school history teacher, who she’s drawn to, that’s accused by a student of wrongdoing. This side part turns out to have some thematic parallels with the main story about the boy, though it’s not evidently clear what those are until the very end.

I’m still rolling over in my mind what I thought of the novel. It sort of creeped me out in a bit of an icky way, but it did get under my skin. It very slightly reminded me of Celeste Ng’s novel “Everything I Never Told You” because the boy’s fate is known at the beginning (like Ng’s character’s is), and because I wanted to shake some sense into each of these characters at some point, just like I did with Ng’s book. You’ll figure out what happens long before Emily Fridlund’s character Linda does, but like her, you probably won’t want to see it coming.

I guess I’m a bit surprised “History of Wolves” was shortlisted for this year’s prestigious Man Booker Prize. For one thing, it’s a debut novel — and for another, I didn’t realize they pick many in this psychological thriller genre for the award (but maybe that’s just my own misconception). Also some of the threads of the story seemed to strain one’s sense a bit — though I do agree it is a pretty visceral debut — both a bit moving and disturbing. I will watch to see what the author writes next.

Second up, I finished listening to the audiobook of George Saunders’s offbeat and much-talked-about novel “Lincoln in the Bardo,” which features 166 different actors’ voices for the many parts — perhaps the record for any audiobook. Surely all the different voices light up the story. It’s a lyrical narrative and at times the chapters sound like poetry and at other times the scenes of the interaction between characters come off like a play.

The novel has quite a few components to it, but mainly it intermixes historical parts about President Abraham Lincoln after his 11-year-old son Willie dies in 1862 — with a fictional story about ghosts in limbo of those dead, including Willie, who hang out at the cemetery where he is buried. It’s quite a motley crew of the undead who are in various states of decay that befriend Willie. They yammer amongst themselves about their past lives and their anxieties of their current limbo.

I didn’t know exactly what to make of all the ghosts. Some are comical and some tragic; they made me contemplate otherworldly states a bit. But despite their colorful liveliness, I was more drawn in the story to the interspersed historical parts about Lincoln that Saunders compiles from bits of letters, diaries, newspaper articles, testimonies, and history books. Some of these sources are fictional, while others are real. They are quite fascinating, and give a portrait of Lincoln that shows his utter grief over his son’s death, the struggles he has with his faith, and the loss of lives in the Civil War. It’s a sobering and sad view of the president and all that was happening at the time. (I guess I didn’t realize either that there was a party given at the White House the night Willie lay ill and dying upstairs, which only compounded the Lincolns’ grief later.)

All in all, I enjoyed the language of “Lincoln in the Bardo” — which made it feel like it was 1862 — and its imagery and history. Though there were times in the audio that I became lost with who was speaking and what was happening — due to the immense number of characters and facets to the story, and therefore I should go back at some point and read the print version as well. Despite its brevity, there’s quite a bit to take in. Some parts of the novel worked better for me than others, yet I still think it’s likely to win this year’s Booker Prize.

Finally last week my husband and I saw the movie “Battle of the Sexes” about the 1973 tennis match between then-world No. 1 Billie Jean King and ex-champ and hustler Bobby Riggs. Oh it’s an enjoyable movie and is about much more than tennis (which is mostly at the end of the film). It delves into the personal lives of both Billie Jean and Bobby at the time, and the social change that was going on in the country. With Emma Stone as Billie Jean and Steve Carell as Bobby what are you waiting for? They are terrific in the roles — even if slightly nuanced from the real Bobby and Billie Jean.

Surely pro athletes such as Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams have much to thank (as we all do) for the early women pioneers of the sport, who are highlighted in the movie, though there’s still plenty of room for improvement of women’s equality and workplace fairness … which is clearly evident this week by the abhorrent story of Harvey Weinstein and how he conducted business at Miramax films for decades. In regards to all these cases that have recently come forward (with Cosby, Roger Ailes, and Bill O’Reilly etc.) —   “Battle of the Sexes” seems to be still highly relevant and timely in a number of ways.

That’s all for now. What about you — have you read these books or seen this movie and if so, what did you think?

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22 Responses to History of Wolves and Lincoln in the Bardo

  1. We haven’t had any fall weather yet. I like the high temperatures but am getting tired of the humidity.

    My book club was supposed to read Lincoln in the Bardo but a couple of people tried it and gave up on it so they voted to skip it.

    I’m going to try to catch a movie with a friend next week. We haven’t decided what we’ll see but my vote will be for The Battle of the Sexes – I remember when it happened.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Kathy, I hope you like Battle of the Sexes if you see it. If you remember that match when it happened, I think you’ll enjoy it. Quite a spectacle in ways. I agree that the Saunders book does jump around quite a bit & have a ton of characters so I can see where a number of readers would bail on it. It was a very different kind of read for me, which I had to open my mind to. I can’t believe you still haven’t felt any fall there yet, wow.

  2. Carmen says:

    I can see how hearing so many voices in the audiobook Lincoln in the Bardo would be somewhat confusing. I read it and it has the feel of a play with many characters. Like you, my favorite parts were the historical composites; I learned a lot and made me want to read Lincoln’s biographies, of which I own several. I’m surprised this novel was nominated for the Booker; typically they choose novels with philosophical implications, and this one has a little of that, but mostly not.

    I would like to watch Battle of the Sexes. I read an interview with Emma Stone and Billie Jean, I think it was in People’s Magazine. Emma is taking more daring roles and she has to if she doesn’t want to be typecasted.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Carmen, I’m impressed with Emma Stone; some of her roles over the past few years have been gutsy. I hope she keeps on in this direction. And I hope you like the movie. I’m glad to hear you liked the historical parts of the “Bardo” book best — me too! Sometimes the ghosts got in the way for me; just too much of them when I was wanting more of the nonfiction parts. It got me interested in reading more about Lincoln too, hooray.

  3. Brian Joseph says:

    We have had a very warm fall so far. We have had many days in the low 80s (Fahrenheit).

    The History of Wolves sounds intriguing. I tend to like dark and unusual stories. However, they can be disturbing.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Wow Brian — you are having a warm fall. Are the leaves even changing color there yet? As for “History of Wolves,” you might like it, b/c it has some religious & philosophical beliefs in it that guide the characters to do what they do. Its moral lessons are sort of interesting in that respect.

  4. Our weather has been so strange this fall… record lows for the beginning of September, then several of the nicest weeks of the entire summer – crazy! My roses are even beginning to bloom again!

    The Remains of the Day is on my shelf in FL. Meant to read it last winter, but I will without fail this year. Never Let Me Go was such a haunting tale. I never did see the film.

    Lincoln in the Bardo is also on my audio list, but do you think I should read instead of listen? The thought of 160+ voices is intriguing, but also a little intimidating.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi JoAnn, you might need to do a combo listen/read with Lincoln in the Bardo; I think that might be the best way to go. I enjoyed the voices but I needed the print version as well. It’s quite different for sure but it is doable and not as hard as I feared. I hope you enjoy an Indian Summer there! We may get good weather next week. Both Ishiguro books I’ve read have been sad — they get to the heart.

  5. Brona says:

    I also think that Lincoln in the Bardo will win the Booker – it’s definitely one of my favourite reads this year so far. Everyone I know is terribly disappointed that Reservoir 13 didn’t get a nod.

    It’s spring in Sydney and we’ve been enjoying lots of balmy sunny days in the mid-20’s (celcius) Love this time of year with the scent of jasmine hanging in the air.

    happy autumn to you

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Brona, thanks for stopping by! Spring in Sydney sounds so nice. I wish I were there, ha. I would like to read Reservoir 13 b/c I have heard the same as you about it. Saunders’s Lincoln book was one of the most different novels I’ve encountered in many years — I guess I think that will please the judges. Enjoy your spring!

  6. Viv says:

    Hi Susan – warm Autumn here too, humidity allows for shorts & t-shirts still ! Looking forward to watching Battle of the Sexes – and also hope to read Never Let me go this winter – I’m currently between the cottage and Nick’s place of work on Lake Huron – it’s expected to be a hard winter so I’ll be housebound reading reading reading!!!
    take care
    Viv

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi V, thanks for keeping in touch. We have had a bit of snowflakes in Oct but I’m hoping next week will be nice. How is Nick liking the new job? Hope the place you’re at will be okay for winter. What town is it? Miss our walks. Enjoy the fall. SW

  7. Judy Krueger says:

    OK you have done it. I will read History of Wolves and Lincoln in the Bardo. I have been on the fence about both. I cannot wait to see Battle of the Sexes! Maybe this weekend. Enjoy your falling leaves and don’t kill yourself raking!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Ha Judy, I probably will rake myself into oblivion this month. You must see Battle of the Sexes! I thought it was entertaining & worthy. As for the two books, I don’t think it’s a must you read them — I’m still a bit on the fence about them even after — but I always enjoy your take on books so therefore it’s fun when we read the same titles to compare. Hope all is well in L.A.

  8. Ti says:

    Did you know that many of the sources cited in Lincoln were made-up? I Googled many of them only to find out that they were fictional. Many of the letters and publications. Almost all the ones I checked, actually. That blew my mind! They seemed so real.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Ti, great observation & comment — I think someone had said they were made-up but I don’t know if I fully realized it when I was listening to the audio or remembered it for my review — since some of the sources were actually real but others as you say were fake. They did seem very real. I’m not sure where that leaves me, LOL. But I should clarify my review to reflect that. thanks.

  9. I think Lincoln in the Bardo will with the Man Booker too. It’s such an odd and unique book.

    History of Wolves is on my TBR stack…second from the top right now. But first I have to get through the ginormous Stephen King book I just started!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Kate: I know I have many piles of books now to be read. I thought History of Wolves was decent for a debut novel but b/c it was shortlisted for the Booker I was expecting it to be better than I ended up liking it. Hmm. Still give it a whirl when you get a chance. Let’s see if the Bardo novel wins.

  10. Naomi says:

    You called it… Lincoln in the Bardo it is! It certainly sounds creative. I’m sure I’ll get around to reading it sometime, but I still haven’t read Tenth of December which is one that I own. I don’t know what I’ll make of all the ghosts, but I know I’ll love the history.

    Ishiguro seems like a good choice for the Nobel. I haven’t read anything by him yet, but there are quite a few of his that have been on my list for a while. And he seems able to write stories that sound very different from one another.

    The Battle of the Sexes looks like a fun movie. I’ll be watching for it to show up on Netflix! 🙂

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Naomi, yeah I’d like to read more of the books by Saunders and Ishiguro. I think I should read Tenth of December too and I’d also like to get to An Artist of the Floating World. Now if we could only guess the Giller Prize. I guess I think Rachel Cusk will win, but maybe I’ll be wrong. Definitely look for Battle of the Sexes — it is quite entertaining.

  11. Michelle says:

    I read both Wolves and Bardo and I can see how both were nominated. It isn’t the psychological thriller aspect of Wolves that I think caused it to garner attention. I think it is the what is says about society that people can live in a commune, can hold certain beliefs, and can get away with all of it. I view it as an examination of society more than anything.

    As for Bardo, I read it in print first before listening to the audio version. It definitely helps to have done one before the other. Knowing what to expect and understanding the story’s structure allowed me to sit back and enjoy the performances, which I loved. I thoroughly enjoyed everything about Bardo and am so glad it won the Man Booker prize!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Thanks Michelle for your excellent comments on these books. Yeah I think reading “Bardo” first and then listening to it would have been best. I enjoyed all the voices and characters but would have kept them more straight if I’d read it beforehand. As for “Wolves,” your thoughts are interesting. I definitely was very angered by the neighbor’s husband; yikes.

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