Tenth of December by George Saunders

4/5 Stars.

I wasn’t sure about this short story collection at first. As revered as Saunders is in the literary community—and even after reading and loving his new novel—I don’t know much about his work, and was admittedly caught off guard by how postmodern this was. I love postmodern fiction, but I also feel as if you need to be prepared for it—especially the experimental kind that plays around with form and language as much as this does.
So it took me a few stories to get going. Many of them are disorienting, and it takes some time to become acquainted with the styles and settings.

This is a collection about the downtrodden. About people living on the fringes of life. Although Saunders’ settings are sometimes surreal or even dystopian, they’re always firmly rooted in reality—critiques of modern American life verging from hilarious to emotional to disturbing.

His characters confront difficult situations, doing what they believe to be best for themselves and their loved ones, often to the point of absurdity. Because navigating happiness and prosperity in modern America is nothing if not absurd. A few of the stories juxtapose two characters, each in their own heads, whose lives overlap in striking ways. It’s a sobering reminder of the inherit loneliness of the individual human experience and the inevitable limits of our empathy.

When it comes down to it, we’re all just bumbling around doing our best, and Saunders’ prose cuts to the heart of that reality. Some of the stories in this collection were forgettable, but the ones that hit—and there were several—hit like a ton of bricks.

Favorites: The Semplica Girl Diaries, Escape from Spiderhead, Home, My Chivalric Fiasco and Tenth of December.

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Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

5/5 Stars.

I devoured this book in a frenzied state of awe, feeling grateful each moment to be experiencing something so beautiful. I’ve never read anything like it.

The entire story takes place in one night. Abraham Lincoln’s young son, Willie, has died, and grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.

The narrative is entirely unique: a combination of brief excerpts from historical texts (mostly real, I believe?) about Lincoln and a cacophony of voices from the ghosts in the cemetery where Willie has been laid to rest. It takes some getting used to at first, but it’s brilliant.

The ghosts—and now Willie—are stuck in purgatory, and Willie’s arrival will change everything for them as they seek to help him transition to what comes next.

It’s a dazzling and deeply moving work of speculative fiction that delicately confronts the most profound topics: death, grief, love, sorrow, loss of a child. It’s tender, humane, funny and wildly inventive, written in prose that flows like poetry. I ached for the characters and felt such deep compassion for them, as Saunders clearly did, too.

I can’t think of a more beautiful and affecting meditation on love, life and death. Reading this was a gift and I’ll be surprised if there’s a better book this year.