Booth by Karen Joy Fowler (Fictionalized History)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5

What an unusual book. It is a fictionalized history of the Booth family from 1822 to 1865 when its most infamous member — John Wilkes — shot Abraham Lincoln. John Wilkes is kept as an important but minor character throughout until his action at the end tears everything apart. The story is told from the perspective of three of his siblings: “poor” Rosalie, the eldest daughter who remains a spinster family caretaker for life; Edwin, who becomes the leading tragedian of the 19th century; and Asia, the youngest daughter and eventual poet and writer.

Fowler is a fantastic writer — every book she writes is completely different and spans topics and genres easily. In this — her first fictionalized history — she brings the place and time to life in incredible physical, political, and every day life detail. Following their lives in rural Maryland, Baltimore, and later Philadelphia, New York, and then California (including a harrowing description of the trip across the 40-mile Panamanian isthmus, pre-canal) we are immersed in the attitudes and experiences of a very different time.

Fowler doesn’t modernize sentiments — we are treated to multiple attitudes towards women, immigrants, and slavery. Having read a lot about the time period, I found them to be accurate and comprehensive. As examples, the family’s patriarch — Junius Brutus Booth (a famous Shakespearean actor of the time) — didn’t like slavery but had two slaves; John Wilkes declaimed frequently on the value of slavery and the tyranny of the North; and various speeches (including Lincoln’s, Douglas’ and others) offer additional viewpoints.

I had to keep remembering I was reading a book which while novel-like had to adhere to actual history so while some details seemed extraneous to the plot, they were not extraneous to the lives of those living through them. For me it was a bit of a slow start — I let myself be unhappy that I was having to read a book about someone I did not want to know more about and of course, knowing what happens at the end, I had a kind of dread creeping up on me. However, if you can avoid the kinds of destructive thoughts I was having, it really is gripping reading, and the assassination and aftermath actually takes up a very small part of the end of the book.

Thank you to Penguin Group Putnam and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 8th, 2022.

Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles (Historical and Literary Fiction)

Thank you to William Morrow and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 14th, 2020.

Plot:  4.5/5  Writing:  5/5  Characters:  5/5

The best kind of historical fiction — a deep, richly painted, description of life in East Texas at the end of the Civil War. It’s an everyday adventure story — not about mythical heroes but about people trying to reclaim their lives in the chaotic aftermath of a devastating war.

Simon Boudlin — the titular fiddler — has simple goals after the war: find a piece of land, marry a woman with similar desires, and make a living with his music. But life after the Civil War is anything but simple. The novel is gritty with detail painting the turmoil of that time with a full sensory experience. While some semblance of government is trying to establish itself and put the country back together again, displaced and ruined people are scrambling to survive and make new lives. From my modern perspective life then was impossibly hard — but in this book it isn’t described in an emotional, complaining way. It just is the way it is. This is the story of people getting on with it — making their way by whatever means necessary, while still not losing their way morally.

Included are beautiful descriptions of music at the time: Simon’s lusting for new sheet music that he can’t afford, the way music draws yearning and memory from the new mash of people from disparate backgrounds, and the business side — how to get gigs, what needs to be played, and how to handle the drunks and disorderlies who insist on disrupting.

If you liked The News of the World, you’ll be just as captivated by Simon the Fiddler (in which Captain Kidd makes a surprise, cameo appearance!)

Beautiful writing that gets to essences. Some quotes:

“His worrying kept him awake. The country was in chaos, there were no rules, law was a matter of speculation, nobody knew how to buy land or put savings in a bank since there were so few banks, how to get a loan, register a title to land, or legalize a marriage, everybody was dubious about the new federal paper money, there was little mail service, and nobody seemed to know where the roads led.”

“So he lived in the bright strains of mountain music and the reflective, running pool of the Irish light airs that brought peace to his mind and to his audiences; peace soon forgotten, always returned to.”

“Every song had a secret inside. When he was away from shouting drunks and bartenders and sergeants and armies, he could think his way into the secret, note by note.”

“He knew that he did not play music so much as walk into it, as if into a palace of great riches, with rooms opening into other rooms, which opened into still other rooms, and in these rooms were courtyards and fountains with passageways to yet more mysterious spaces of melody, peculiar intervals, unheard notes.”

“His first problem was to find a girl who would fall in love with him despite his diminutive stature and his present homelessness.”

“People always tired him, always had, always would.”

“He was ragged, a man of a defeated army and at the dinner he had played his heart out in a borrowed shirt. In short, very like the Irish.”

“So it’s dog eat dog and Devil take the hindmost. So it has been in human memory, wild places where the only law is the strength of your good right arm.” He lifted his arm and made a bony fist. “That’s how it is in all human memory. ‘Vastness and Age! and Memories of Eld!’”

“You expect the government and the diplomatic corps to proceed at some foolish breakneck pace! There are substatutes to argy over and rewrite! And meantime the politicians must be paid their stipends and their travel expenses. Become wise, young man, and cynical, and life will be far more understandable.”

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Bardo – (in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.

I can’t use my standard Writing / Plot / Characters rating scheme as this novel simply doesn’t fit within those parameters!

The death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, on April 20th, 1862, is the precipitating event around which the novel unfolds. The unique storytelling style combines quotes from historical sources (often in conflict with each other) with descriptions of and conversations between the ghosts who inhabit the “Bardo” of the title. This Bardo is manifest within the graveyard into which Willie Lincoln’s body has been interred.

Willie’s death occurs at a critical juncture within Lincoln’s presidency. The civil war has begun and has already incurred a great loss of life. The interplay between the real world and the confusing swirl of ghostly presences finds a center in Lincoln himself as he grieves for his boy in the cemetery and tries to find the resolve to continue his approach to the war. The ghosts vary in age, gender, race, and life time period. Each has been distilled to an essence with a unique presentation and obsession. These are riveting reductions — reminiscent of Hemingway’s famous six word story: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”

A fascinating view of history and a strangely compelling style — I enjoyed this far more than I expected. It really is the masterpiece everyone says it is (which is hard for me to admit as I don’t like agreeing with “everyone”!).