In the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln’s youngest son Willie Lincoln was laid to rest. Newspapers from the time report seeing the President visit his son’s crypt in the night to cradle the boy’s body. Departing from this real historical event, Lincoln in the Bardo, MacArthur Fellow George Saunders’ first novel, is a moving journey through the netherworld and a meditation on what it means to love what you cannot hold.
In a Georgetown cemetery, the spirit of Willie Lincoln refuses to move on, instead arriving in a strange place called the “Bardo,” a dizzying state between life and death where the dead refuse to believe that they’re dead. There, spirits replay past events and undergo strange transformations in their struggle to cling to the world. The arrival of Willie upends this delicate world, particularly the visits from his father, who is the first living being the dead have seen in years.
Lincoln in the Bardo is written in a style unlike anything you’ve seen before. It’s narrated by characters who speak in turn like a play, some of whom are from real historical sources such as Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, and some of whom are ghosts. I found myself re-reading the first few chapters, not quite sure of what I was getting into, but once I adjusted to the unusual style, the novel was accessible, fast-paced and binge-worthy.
Saunders has created a historical novel that flirts with fantasy and sacrifices, features his readers have come to love. Fans of his comic imagination, Vonnegut-esque inventiveness and blunt sensitivity will find his talents are on full display.
Anyone who enjoyed The Underground Railroad’s inventive approach to American history will find much to love, but Lincoln in the Bardo is sure to ensnare adventurous readers of all kinds.
As far as patent disputes go, this was a doozy. Graham Moore’s excellent new historical legal thriller, The Last Days of Night, plops us right into the hotbed of technological innovation that was in situ in late 19th century America. Readers are rewarded with the wonders of invention, dubious plots, a smidgen of romance and a peek into the wiring of the greatest minds of the day set amid Gilded Age New York.
So who really invented the light bulb? Neophyte attorney Paul Cravath finds himself embroiled in the legal wrangling between the inventor Thomas Edison and industrialist George Westinghouse. Cravath is hired to defend Westinghouse against a patent lawsuit filed by Edison. Edison says he holds the right to electrify a country still aglow with gas lamps. There is also the dilemma of alternating current (Westinghouse) versus direct current (Edison), with the winner transforming the world. Cravath is over his head and knows it in this highly readable retelling of the War of the Electric Currents that actually took place between 1888 and 1896.
Moore, author of The Sherlockian and the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of The Imitation Game, actually recreates the time period from 1888 to 1890. Along the way, we are introduced to familiar names, like J.P. Morgan, Alexander Bell and Viktor Tesla, as well as the birth and controversy of the modern electric chair. Cravath’s love interest, the singer Agnes Huntington, develops into a surprising multi-hued personality that adds the merest trifle of melodrama.
With a calibrated dose of legal and technical jargon, Moore’s fast-moving narrative is certain to carry broad appeal for readers wanting to get inside the heads of brilliant and visionary giants. For those wanting the real story, try the excellent Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, George Westinghouse and the Race to Electrify the World by historian Jill Jonnes. A film adaption of The Last Days of Night is also in the works, starring actor Eddie Redmayne as Paul Cravath.
Music and history entwine in Bernice McFadden’s newest novel, The Book of Harlan, a story of one African American family spanning generations. McFadden found her inspiration for the title character of Harlan from her paternal grandfather, about whom the author says:
I never personally knew the man and neither did my father. All I had to recreate his life were a birth certificate, census schedules, a few newspaper articles and my imagination.
Emma is the cherished and respectable daughter of a Baptist minister in Macon, Georgia, until carpenter Sam Elliot sweeps her off her feet and, in the oldest story ever, Emma is pregnant. Newly married, Sam and Emma join the Great Migration of African Americans escaping the south and Jim Crow to find a better life, but leave baby Harlan behind with Emma’s parents. Landing in New York City in 1922, America’s prosperity trickles down to the Elliotts, who can finally bring their young son north with them. Harlan develops into a gifted guitarist who thrives in the Harlem Renaissance music scene and his job in a jazz band finds him touring in Paris on the eve of World War II. Hitler’s visions of extermination aren’t limited to Jews, and Harlan and his bandmate Lizard are caught up in an unimaginable nightmare.
McFadden does not sugarcoat the lives of the Elliott family, and by extension, the broader African American experience. Poverty, single motherhood, addiction, injustice and race-based prejudice cycle around again and again, making the upward mobility to which the Elliotts aspire a two-steps-forward, one-step-back journey. From the turn-of-the-century segregated south to the Newark riots of 1967, The Book of Harlan offers a sweeping view of 20th century African American life in which the constant is the unbreakable bonds of family and friends. Readers who enjoy Bernice McFadden’s perspective should also try The Turner House by Angela Flournoy.
What happens when author and former Washington Post Best Science Fiction & Fantasy winner Victor LaValle writes a story that combines horror, science fiction and mystery? The result is his latest novella The Ballad of Black Tom.
The Ballad of Black Tom takes place in 1920s New York. Readers quickly enter the world of Charles Thomas Tester, a 20-year-old African American hustler from Harlem. On the streets of New York, Charles goes by the name of Tommy, and Tommy likes to put on a show. He portrays himself as the “dazzling, down-and-out musician” by wearing a gray flannel suit, an aging seal-brown trooper hat and brown leather brogues with nicked toes and completes the look by toting around a guitar case (once in a while there's an actual guitar inside). Although Tommy has no musical talent, it doesn’t stop his hustle. Yes, he'll play the role of a musician, hum a few sour notes and scam people all for the sake of supporting himself and his ailing father. Things take a turn for the worst when Tommy attracts the attention of a wealthy white man named Robert Suydam. A cop and private detective, who are watching Suydam, now have their eyes on Tommy, after witnessing their first encounter. Suydam offers Tommy a couple hundred bucks to play a few tunes at his upcoming party. Astonish that someone actually likes his non-vocal abilities, but not one to turn down money, Tommy accepts. Suydam introduces him to a realm of crime and magic that sets off a chain of dark events that will forever change Tommy's life. Suydam tells Tommy about awakening a Sleeping King that sleeps at the bottom of an ocean. Once this Sleeping King awakes, he’ll create a new world where a select few will be rewarded. Tommy is intrigued. When he immerses himself into this magical world, he becomes a different person, a monster, who no longer goes by the name of Tommy, but "Black Tom."
If you're looking for a quick entertaining read, I recommend The Ballad of Black Tom. This book is a page-turner and would make for a great film. If you’re interested in more books by Victor LaValle, check out Big Machine and The Devil in Silver.
The 100th anniversary of the War to End All Wars has created a proliferation of popular fiction set during World War I. Standing head and shoulders above the crowd is Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War.
Agatha Kent has a well-ordered life as the wife of a British diplomat. She has travelled the world, and resides contentedly in the coastal Sussex town of Rye. Agatha is confident that her husband will succeed in his efforts to quell the quarrel in the Balkans and looks forward to a visit from her two nephews. Hugh is a brilliant young surgeon just finishing his studies. Daniel, the apple of his aunt’s eye, is a burgeoning poet of great promise. The only potential tempest on the horizon is Agatha’s arrangement to hire a female Latin instructor for the local school.
Beatrice Nash has lost her beloved father and must find a way to support herself. Her inheritance has been tied up in a trust controlled by relatives who do not believe a single woman should be without the protection of a man. Fleeing their plans to marry her off, she has accepted the position of Latin instructor in an insular English village. The daughter of a respected writer, Beatrice is well-traveled and highly educated. Her new role, as well as her independence of spirit, presents a challenge to the rigid hierarchy of the town. As the summer deepens, everyone must face a far greater threat to their way of life; the German invasion of Belgium brings reality as well as refugees.
Simonson’s debut novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is an international bestseller. The Summer Before the War is an insightful, witty, haunting portrait that will surely captivate its readers.
Dawn Tripp’s Georgia is an arresting, sensual novel that offers a startling and realistic picture of Georgia O’Keeffe’s life, inspirations and influences.
The novel is mostly a close examination of her relationship with Alfred Stieglitz, noted photographer and curator who was an early champion of her art. As each period of her art passes, and their relationship develops, we feel her frustration with how others perceive her deeply personal work as an extension of Stieglitz’s art: how the photos he’s taken of her are linked in critics’ minds to her work itself. This imbalance threatens their marriage and, more importantly, O’Keeffe’s ability to create.
It's when O’Keeffe is on her own on her self-directed retreats that we feel her freedom to take her work in an entirely different direction. “When someone looks at something I have painted, I want them to feel what moved me to paint it in the first place. I paint as I feel it. Light, sky, air. As I want it to be felt,” she said.
Georgia is a work of fiction and, while the rich descriptions of O’Keeffe’s art are well-written, reading about them will inspire you to look up O’Keeffe’s actual works. Georgia O’Keeffe: An Eternal Spirit by Susan Wright offers a great overview and pictures of her most famous paintings. Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction by Barbara Haskell and E. Bruce Robertson is a great companion to the novel as it focuses on some of her often-overlooked art. Also worth watching is this brief video about her life and work from the O’Keeffe Museum.
On March 28, 1968 in Memphis, shop windows broke and mace-triggered tears flowed when African American sanitation workers marched to protest dangerous and inhumane working conditions; within days, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel kicked off a period of riots and mourning nationwide. Forty years later, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. So, we’re all good now, right? In his newest novel Grant Park, Pulitzer Prize winner Leonard Pitts Jr. looks at the complicated dance of race relations as played out by two aging Chicago journalists whose lives intersected in 1968.
On the eve of the 2008 election, African American syndicated columnist Malcolm Toussaint, a man showered with professional accolades and prizes, enjoying the trappings of the upper middle class, has written a final piece in which he declares he is “sick and tired of white folks’ bullshit.” And, everyone knows Malcolm is tired of white folks because despite his white editor, Bob Carson, telling him this column cannot run, Malcolm sneaks onto the office computers and inserts it into the Chicago Post’s front page. Fall-out is swift; Malcolm is now jobless and the newspaper management team also fires Bob. An angry Bob sets out to find Malcolm, who has disappeared. Instead of hiding from everyone’s wrath, Malcolm’s been abducted by a Frick and Frack pair of suicidal white supremacists who intend to strap Malcolm to the front of their explosive-filled van like a hood ornament and blow them all to kingdom come at Grant Park as the first black POTUS makes his election night speech.
Pitts jumps from Malcolm’s and Bob’s pivotal experiences in the civil rights movement as it moved away from King’s nonviolent preaching to finding both men on the cusp of retirement, their discouraged, sometimes jaded, voices reflecting frustration born of lack of progress. Often farcically funny, Pitts manages to humanize the worst of us while pointing out that we, black and white, have no choice but to work together for change. Meet Leonard Pitts Jr. as he reads from Grant Park and discusses race relations in America today at the Towson Branch on April 23 at 1:30 p.m. as part of the BC Reads: Rise Up! month of events.
Immigrating to a new country is hard enough, but when your (sometimes metaphorical, sometimes literal) ghosts travel with you, you need someone who will protect and ward your community from those with malevolent intentions. In The Girl with Ghost Eyes, author M. H. Boroson mixes fantasy, martial arts and Chinese culture to create a thought-provoking tale with a resilient heroine.
Xian Li-lin is a priestess and exorcist of the Maoshan tradition of Daoism living in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1898. After a fellow exorcist attacks her, Li-lin plots to confront her enemy in order to restore honor to herself and to her father, the only family she has left after the death of her husband. She cannot afford to lose any more face since she is already considered something of an outcast due to her widowhood status, and she’s cursed with yin eyes — the ability to see the spirit world. In her quest, she has to navigate not only the power struggles of the rival tongs of male-dominated Chinatown, but also the avenues of the spirit world, home to demons and monsters of all shapes. Unbeknownst to Li-lin and her allies, there is a horrifying plot to unleash a monstrous abomination that exists only to destroy everything in its path. Li-lin will have to challenge both the world of spirits and of men if she is to stop the monster.
The Girl with Ghost Eyes is refreshing because not one character is a stereotype or a caricature. Boroson treats the culture and history from which he draws his fictional Chinatown with respect and honesty, keeping the depictions of Chinese and Chinese immigrants’ culture and Maoshan tradition as close to reality as possible. Li-lin is a fantastic reluctant hero struggling through an almost impossible task simply because no one else will. She’s not the only person who can succeed in stopping the plotters, but she is the only person who keeps trying to do so.
This book reads like a detective noir crossed with the best kung fu movies, with lots of action and characters that are well-rounded, conflicted and complex. Li-lin will resonate with fans of Garth Nix’s Sabriel. This is also the first book in her series, promising lots of future ghost adventures to come.
The Man Who Spoke Snakish is a bildungsroman legend coming out of the often overlooked Baltic country of Estonia. It is set during an awkward and mysterious period of time in Medieval Europe — late in the age of Vikings but early in the times of Christian colonization. Author Andrus Kivirähk describes the conflicts of peace — when people are forced to navigate societies in which different languages, beliefs and ways of living intermingle and cross-pollinate. The book's narrator, Leemet, is a member of a society that has learned the tongue of serpents, and with this, gained the power to communicate and control other animal species. But that society's way of life is threatened from within as its people change their ways. Their assimilation to an agrarian lifestyle means that they are renouncing the ways of their forest home and forgetting the ancient language. Will Leemet be able to pass his knowledge of Snakish down to the next generation?
While it does resemble Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear in some respects, The Man Who Spoke Snakish is not a story with any qualms about historical accuracy. It stands out for its wry use of anachronistic language and the ease with which it can be imagined by modern readers. In fact, many of the characters seem like stereotypes from a modern neighborhood — the hippies living on the edge of town, modish young people obsessed with the latest fads and ultraconservative religious fanatics. While the appellation “barbarian” hovers throughout the text, it never alights to describe a particular culture or character. Instead, there is an unrelenting, Darwinian conviction that change is inevitable, unrelenting and often times totally irrational. In the end, is Leemet more of a Grendel or a Beowulf?
In her debut novel Cleopatra’s Shadows, Emily Holleman took it upon herself to focus not on the mythological and lauded Cleopatra herself, but rather her two sisters — one younger, one elder. One her beloved, one her father’s enemy. The two focal characters are the usurping queen Berenice the Shining, and the small, almost entirely neglected Arsinoe. Weaving back and forth fluidly in alternating chapters named “Elder” and “Younger,” Holleman tells the tale of a tense three-year period in the fading Ptolemaic dynasty as Berenice orders a coup on her own father in order to claim his throne as her own and rule Egypt as she believes is her right. As Berenice reigns, she takes on every luxury and every horror her station can provide, all with determination to be seen as a strong and unwavering ruler. Meanwhile, 8-year-old Arsinoe attempts to make peace with the fact that anyone she ever loved abandoned her during the coup, reaching out at first meekly and then with desperation to the few caretakers and friends still within the palace walls. Despite her efforts, her nights are dogged with dreams that seem to predict not her own destruction, but the destruction she may cause.
Holleman has done a fantastic job focusing in closely and personally on characters that history leaves mostly to our imagination. Her efforts to bring humanity and empathy to these two lives lived and actions committed in such an era are remarkable. If you’re looking to indulge in some Game of Thrones-esque dramatic history led by two strong female narrators, Cleopatra’s Shadows is an excellent choice.