Lincoln in the Bardo

Thoughts  by George Saunders, Random House Audio 2017, 7 hrs 25 mins

Audiobook  narration by a long list of people!

MOTIVATION for READING:  LISTENING:  I couldn’t resist the high praise and curiosity of so many narrators.

Let’s start this nutty review with my suggestions. IF you think you want to do the audio – and I DO suggest you listen to this if you love audiobooks – I must insist on two things,

  1. Read the list of which person reads which character, and
  2. Know what Op. Cit. means. You’ll hear it and if you are like me, you’ll hear the word ‘UPSET’ rather and you’ll be distracted.

WHAT’s it ABOUT: Oh, one more thing… KNOW THIS!!! I do think one should KNOW a bit about this book and its format before one embarks. I don’t think going blind or just knowing that it is about Lincoln and his dealing with Willie’s death is enough. I think you might best understand the use of the historical quotes and what/how Mr. Saunders lays out in the telling. Thus, we return to the “Op.Cit.”

I was so wrong to go in blind to this. I think I had read the synopsis way back long time ago and so I was helluva confused at the beginning. I was easily distracted,

If you think attempting to identify which celebrity is speaking which part will be a distraction, I can solve that for you – read on.

I’m sure if I had read this first I would have waded in with more success; do read this from iTunes:


The long-awaited first novel from the author of Tenth of December: a moving and original father-son story featuring none other than Abraham Lincoln, as well as an unforgettable cast of supporting characters, living and dead, historical and invented. February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body. From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul. Lincoln in the Bardo is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction’s ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?

The 166-person full cast features award-winning actors and musicians, as well as a number of Saunders’ family, friends, and members of his publishing team, including, in order of their appearance: Nick Offerman as HANS VOLLMAN David Sedaris as ROGER BEVINS III Carrie Brownstein as ISABELLE PERKINS George Saunders as THE REVEREND EVERLY THOMAS Miranda July as MRS. ELIZABETH CRAWFORD Lena Dunham as ELISE TRAYNOR Ben Stiller as JACK MANDERS Julianne Moore as JANE ELLIS Susan Sarandon as MRS. ABIGAIL BLASS Bradley Whitford as LT. CECIL STONE Bill Hader as EDDIE BARON Megan Mullally as BETSY BARON Rainn Wilson as PERCIVAL “DASH” COLLIER Jeff Tweedy as CAPTAIN WILLIAM PRINCE Kat Dennings as MISS TAMARA DOOLITTLE Jeffrey Tambor as PROFESSOR EDMUND BLOOMER Mike O’Brien as LAWRENCE T. DECROIX Keegan-Michael Key as ELSON FARWELL Don Cheadle as THOMAS HAVENS and Patrick Wilson as STANLEY “PERFESSER” LIPPERT with Kirby Heyborne as WILLIE LINCOLN, Mary Karr as MRS. ROSE MILLAND, and Cassandra Campbell as Your Narrator.

The only voice I recognized was Offerman’s in the beginning — I thought he was Abraham Lincoln (nope, just reading his thoughts) but I eventually was able to connect voice to character and get lost into the story. I had Sedaris’ voice as some other actor I cannot name off the top of my head but I eventually connected voice with Bevans. I picked out Susan Sarandon’s voice right away but the rest – couldn’t identify. (I was never any good at picking the callers on Frasier, either). I am SO glad I found this list! (when I was about 3/4 done). I hope it helps you if you think you might need it.

Or read any of the many wonderful reviews and explanations that I’m finding NOW after I attempted the thing…  Audible has a good review or two, Goodreads has some, too.

WHAT’s GOOD:  A lot to admire here. The phrasing, the wording! Poetic, emphatic, bursting with imagery. I guess the best I can say is that this is a work is art. Writing is truly a creative artistic endeavor and Lincoln in the Bardo is one of the best examples of the art of literature that I’ve enjoyed of late. It’s funny at times, shocking at times, so very very sad sometimes. It has rhythm like music and inspires emotion like a beautiful painting.

But was it really that good? Am I adding to a hype that is starting to saturate the lit-osphere? I don’t know. I really wonder about whether I was ‘getting it’ about 1/3 in but by the end of it, I was mesmerized.

I am considering a re-listen and maybe I will buy the print. I suggest you take a long car trip and enjoy. My 10 minute commute to work twice a day didn’t cut it.

FINAL THOUGHTS: I think it might be a masterpiece. If you read the print and loved it, I think you might next want to hear it. It’s lyrical, it’s creative. It’s affecting.

RATING: Five slices of pie.




Copyright © 2007-2017. Care’s Online Book Club. All rights reserved. This post was originally posted by Care from Care’s Online Book Club.  It should not be reproduced without express written permission.

27 thoughts on “Lincoln in the Bardo

  1. Yes! I said in my review that the commentary (from such a wide variety of characters and sources) is one of the pleasures of the novel. And several of the people who commented said how much they liked the audio version.

    1. I am now re-listening. I’m trying to find a pie quote! But also, I know my attention was not its best in the beginning and I want to have a total pleasurable experience with this book and I have not doubts about I will achieve.

    1. I just filled out a form from our local indie bookstore asking which authors they should invite to our book festival in 2018 and I wish I had thought of GS. (I actually left the field blank because it overwhelmed me – too many favorites!)

      1. It just depends whether an Australian distributor has picked up the rights to sell it in Australia. Otherwise it means using an American or U.K. based website – which means the conversion rate & postage costs make it all rather expensive. I also prefer not to use these sites as they don’t pay company tax in Australia. It’s a long story…😬

        1. Yea, I get it. Our state has enacted a sales tax collection duty on the consumer for internet purchasing. Craziness – if don’t ‘declare’ they ASSUME you owe!

    1. Grand idea. I considered it but knew the library wait list was long.

      Will you read a hard copy of ebook? I need to find someone who has read the ebook so I can search for a pie quote! Capturing such in an audiobook is TOO HARD.

  2. Whew! This was my pick for book club so I’m glad to see the 5 slice of pie rating. I won’t be reading it until later this year though.

  3. I read it in print first, and I am glad I did because it helped me understand the format. I think had I started it in audio, I would have been thoroughly confused. I want to say I warned people to at least look at the previews available at Amazon or B&N before listening so they can get a feel for how it is structured. That is the key to enjoying the audio.

    That said, I absolutely adore the audio version, and I already thought the print version is brilliant. The two together work in tandem to allow you to catch all the nuances and layers to the story. This will go down as one of my favorite books of the year.

  4. I loved this in print form – masterpiece is correct in my opinion! So now I’m hold number 28 on three copies of the downloadable audio book from my library. It’ll be a while, I think! 🙂 I am excited to experience it in both formats. What a cast!

    1. I appreciated your review of this (and your Underground Railroad post.)

      You remind me that I should try to figure out how to download audios and ebooks from my library.

  5. Love this review – so helpful! I read this in print, and thought it was incredible. I really want to re-read it via the audiobook, but I do think I would have been majorly confused if I had started out with only audio! (I was confused enough in the print edition!) I think I might do a read-along when I’m ready to re-read it, to take advantage of this incredible cast of narrators.

    1. I loved YOUR review. I don’t really (or didn’t) have much of a sense of George Saunders but I do now. He’s fascinating and I love the kindness message and the quirky, too. (I do like quirky.)

  6. I am not a huge audiobook fan but I do want to listen to this one. Apparently so do many other people in my county as the holds queue I have been patiently waiting my turn in is large and moving much too slowly!

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