Review 1377: Lincoln in the Bardo

The title Lincoln in the Bardo is the first tip-off that this book is unusual, for it refers to a Tibetan concept of immediate life after death. The novel is set in a graveyard after the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willy, and is narrated by a host of ghosts who don’t know they are dead and are clinging to their worldly concerns. It is also moved along by quotations, some real, some fictitious, by accounts of the time, letters, and historical accounts.

The ghosts in the graveyard are grotesqueries who physically manifest the obsessions they had in life. The two most important ghosts in the novel, for example, are Hans Vollman, who sports an enormous erect penis because he died before he could consummate his marriage; and Roger Bevins III, whose sensual nature is indicated by his multiple eyes, noses, and hands. Okay, this can be comic. It is certainly an amusing idea. But after a while, I began to miss the subtle humor that seems to have deserted us in recent years.

The thrust of the plot is that children aren’t meant to linger in the Bardo or terrible things happen to them. However, Lincoln arrives early in the novel to visit his son in his grief, and he says he will return. Vollman, Bevins, and their friend, the Reverend Everly Thomas, become determined to help Willy leave, and to do so they must get Lincoln to return to the tomb and release him.

This novel is wildly original. Aside from the characteristics I’ve mentioned, it is written more like a screenplay than a novel. It also resonates deeply in its themes of grief, Lincoln’s worries about the war, and the concerns of life affecting the afterlife. Still, I was repelled by how crude and crass it is at times. I also felt that the novel was much longer than it needed to be. You get the idea about the ghosts fairly quickly, but the supernatural chatter becomes boring after a while.

I read this for my Booker Prize project.

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Day 260: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

Cover for Team of RivalsBest Book of the Week!

Doris Kearns Goodwin begins her examination of Lincoln’s administration by remarking that because so much has been written about him, everything might be thought to have been said. However, by examining his career in terms of the team he put together to run the country, she found much more to write about.

This team consisted of his rivals in politics. Edwin Stanton, who treated Lincoln with contempt on their first meeting and who Lincoln made Secretary of War, was griefstricken at Lincoln’s death. Salmon P. Chase, eternally Lincoln’s rival for the presidency and a frequent undercutter, was an extremely competent Secretary of the Treasury. William H. Seward, the favorite for the Republican presidential nomination that Lincoln won, was at first inclined to underestimate Lincoln but became his closest friend and advisor as Secretary of State. Edward Bates, the Attorney General, was a homebody who was not sure he wanted a public life and at first looked upon Lincoln as well-meaning but incompetent, but ended up thinking he was very nearly perfect.

Team of Rivals begins on the day of the Republican convention of 1860, in which, of the rivals who had some expectation of winning the nomination of the party, Lincoln would seem to have the least. Seward was the odds-on favorite, but he had made many enemies in the party. Chase’s overwhelming ambition for the presidency lead him on several occasions to ignore the warning signs that he would not be the nominee. Bates was willing to act if nominated but made no extraordinary efforts because he preferred his home life.

Goodwin’s narrative then turns farther into the past to trace the men’s respective careers. In this examination she shows how Lincoln cleverly set himself up to be everyone’s second choice for the Republican nomination.

The book follows Lincoln’s nomination, campaign, and stunning victory, but the bulk of it concerns the compelling story of how he put together a cabinet containing these men, who were not only rivals for the office but who were from different regions of the country and who had different views on the important issues of the day. He then managed to work with these men and run the country during one of its most difficult times. It was frequently rumored that Seward actually held the power, but Goodwin shows us that Lincoln was always in charge.

Through an examination of the diaries of the men, letters, and other sources, Goodwin provides us with the fascinating details of political machinations, the conduct of the war, the fights among the generals, the alliances and friendships, and the story of how several men, who began with no esteem of Lincoln at all, grew to respect and love him.

Goodwin’s book is one of the most absorbing history books I have read. Although it is long and takes awhile to read, it explains each issue in completely lucid terms and interesting detail. The most important thing I got from the book was a fuller understanding of Lincoln’s greatness, his humor, kindness, and magnanimity–and what a disaster for the country his death was.