AWF 17: In the Bardo: George Saunders

George Saunders appeared on Saturday, 20 May at 12 noon at AWF 2017

George Saunders was a geophysicist in a previous life. He’s been a short story writer for quite some time. And his latest turn has been as a novelist, with the release of Lincoln in the Bardo.

He was in conversation with Paula Morris, who broke the ice by pointing out that for quite some time now, George’s books have been dedicated to his wife – who is also called Paula. ‘So for years, I’ve been pretending they were dedicated to me.’

Paula went on, however, to expand on what George has been achieving in his work, noting that Lincoln in the Bardo serves as a reminder that the novel is still a very experimental format – after all, at it’s crux it is ‘a story told by ghosts that explore what it is to be alive.’

george saunders

George Saunders, photo by Chloe Aftel

They discussed the original genesis of the book as a series of drafts for a play, and the shift to the long-form prose format of the novel. George extolled the  virtues of rewriting – which is eventually led him through the marshes of his play drafts (‘the idea of monologues intrigued me’) through a foray into a fiction piece in the third person (‘Gore Vidal-esque’)before arriving at the final cut. ‘Your first draft doesn’t need to be good … in a certain way, the writer’s job is just to not suck.’

So he settled on the ghost-based narration. ‘But ghosts are a bit like dream sequences – a teacher once told me that you have three dream sequences in your career, so don’t use them up all at once.’ It’s safe to say that this particular instance of ghosts/dreams has been put to good use, with Lincoln in the Bardo receiving plenty of praise and securing a spot in the New York Times Bestseller List.

I went into the session with a relatively unusual relationship (or lack thereof) with George Saunders. I hadn’t read any of his books, but I knew of his work – Tenth of December was read by many a Unity Books colleague in my time working there – and I had heard him speak very on a podcast very recently. So I had a sense of knowing what I was in for, while still gleefully knowing that I had yet to read and unpack his work.

He speaks candidly, with a chirpy tone – he described himself as sounding like ‘a Valley Girl on quaaludes at one point’ – but he at the same time be brings forth these cutting truisms and opinions about writing, about reading. As someone who fancies themselves quite dedicated to both, my notes were scribbled as much for personal reference as supplies for this piece. Here are just a few:

‘There’s that thrill as a young writer when, for the first time, you write something truer than reality.’BookSaunders-kuI--621x414@LiveMint

‘I talk about writing in the language of sales. It’s a contract, where my job is to anticipate your resistance … my best self comes out through revisions – your best self is led out through the intimacy of the conversation.’

‘A writer takes a chance, pushes you away – and then on the next page they bring you back with an uplifting, luminous scene.’

‘I know writers who plan everything out – and then they write it, and it gets subverted. I like to see where a story goes.’

That final point can apply to writer and reader alike – and George reinforced this as he pointed out ‘part of the job of the story is to not know where it’s going’. He even pulled out an Einstein quote to really drive this home, as applicable to the story as to a physics equation: ‘No worthy problem is ever solved within the plane of its original conception.’

Paula brought up the contradictory elements of the narrative – an entirely intentional move by the author to reflect the nature of individual experience. ‘Historical accounts are often contradictory … there’s the complication of understanding something, the limits of our own perception.’ With the multiple perspectives telling the story, multiple versions of the truth become inevitable.

The discusison also covered the idea of the bardo – a Tibetan term for a transitional space between life and death. ‘It’s not purgatory,’ George explained. ‘It’s a lot more workable.’ He referred to one school of thought in Tibet that suggested that any deeply affecting emotions and experience become amplified many times over in the bardo – regrets, unrequited love, that sort of thing.

Discussing the spiritual aspect of the book let into conversation around George’s own religious upbringing – in a Catholic family in the south side of Chicago in the 60s. That particular kind of religious exposure wove its way into the discussion several times – discussion of the devotional scapular, to Lincoln’s saintly attributes, to one particular nun that paved the way for George’s future as a reader and writer through trust in his capabilities.

But as a flip side to heavier religious influences, there was frivolity – inherent in his view of the world, it seems. He described coming across two ‘working-class girls’ on the street who caught his attention with their particular cadence of speech – so he went home and tried to emulate it on the page, unraveling things about these two characters that had leapt from life to his page, from reality into fiction. He summed it up, saying: ‘I like when a story comes out of genuine verbal joy.’

As a member of the audience, the whole conversation was genuine verbal joy – and this reviewer will certainly be shuffling George Saunders titles to the top of her to-read pile.

Attended and reviewed by Briar Lawry on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Saunders
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408871744

Civilwarland in Bad Decline
by George Saunders
Published by Vintage Classics
ISBN 9781784871291

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Books I’ll be giving this Christmas, by Nicole Phillipson

Nicole Phillipson has recently joined Booksellers NZ after completing her MA (Applied) in Short Story Writing at the IIML. Here are five books that impressed her this year, that she will be gifting to her friends and family.

Man V Nature, by Diane Cook (Oneworld) 9781780748153

cv_man_v_natureThis short story collection feels truly “2016.” Each genre-defying story contains a miniature dystopia: floods rise to swallow the earth, monsters invade workplaces, and a society reverts to brutal survivalism. Maybe you’re feeling that you’ve had enough apocalyptic events this year to last a lifetime, but if humour is the best medicine Cooke’s extremist fantasies are the perfect, darkly funny antidote to this year. Her unhinged characters – like walking, talking Freudian ids – are strangely loveable, and the title story, a Lord of the Flies scenario set on a fishing boat, manages to be both unsettling and hysterical.

Mansfield and Me, by Sarah Laing (VUP) 9781776560691

cv_mansfield_and_meThe first thing you notice about Laing’s graphic memoir is the visual deliciousness – the warm and affectionate drawing style makes it hard to stop turning pages. As you read on, you will become immersed in a frank, funny and understated exploration of Laing’s life. What sets this book apart is its dual narrative: Laing’s story is interspersed with Mansfield’s own. Laing brings Mansfield’s spiky, brilliant, often tormented character to life through Mansfield’s own words and striking black-and-white images. There is a bare honesty which lets you feel the most poignant moments of both women’s emotion: their self-doubt, deep pain and passion.

Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury) 9781408880364

cv_commonwealthAnn Patchett has a great talent for evoking situations that feel deeply real. She is unafraid in exploring the darkest folds of humanity, but also casts light on moments of beauty and warmth. Commonwealth follows ten different characters in two entangled families, the Cousins and the Berts, over five decades. The story begins with a striking scene in which married lawyer Bert Cousins shows up at the christening party of acquaintances Beverly and Fix Keating. A drunken kiss between Bert and Beverly is the single catalyst for irrevocable changes in both families. Patchett is a dab hand at pulling the rug out from under you. Characters who initially seem incurably heartless are slowly softened under Patchett’s empathetic touch. Commonwealth is a universally relatable story of family.

How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, by Chris Tse (AUP) 9781869408183

cv_how_to_be_dead_in_a_year_of_snakesIn How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes, Chris Tse uses poetry to transmute history into a living pulse of emotion. The collection is loops around an event 1905, when white supremacist Lionel Terry murdered elderly Cantonese gold prospector Joe Kum Yung. Multiple voices sing through the collection including that of the unhinged Terry himself. But one beauty of this book is the way it turns history on its head, giving a voice to the Cantonese immigrants and Maori whose voices were written out from the Pakeha historical narrative. Tse explores death both in literal and symbolic senses, as Yung is erased both physically and narratively: ‘As you bleed out/ the night rejects your history,’ and Tse brings him to life again. These are deeply evocative, empathetic poems with words that ring and echo.

Coming Rain, by Stephen Daisley (Text Publishing) 9781922182029

cv_coming_rainComing Rain, set in the harsh outback of Western Australia, explores the human condition amidst a mesmerising evocation of farming life and the desert. The novel is set in 1956, largely set in the ‘marginal wheat and sheep lands’ of the South West of Western Australia. It follows the young Lew and the older Painter, who work together, shearing sheep and charcoal burning, traversing the land in Lew’s truck. Two concurrent stories weave and intercross: the quiet, tragic narrative of Lew and Painter and that of a pregnant dingo being tracked by a hunter. A book which delves into the minutae of the outback with beautiful, haunting descriptions, and leaves space for the deep, quiet sorrow of its main characters to fill the narrative.

by Nicole Phillipson

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Book Review: A Court of Mist and Fury, by Sarah J. Maas

cv_a_court_of_mist_and_furyAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

Disclaimer: Please do not read this book unless you are experienced in extreme emotional rollercoastering. I suggest you buckle in tight, because A Court of Mist and Fury will take your breath away.

To start with, if you have not read the first instalment of Sarah J. Maas’ new fantasy series, A Court of Thorns and Roses yet, what have you been doing with your life? Stop reading this and go and find it immediately. You can thank me later.

For all the old-timers, you are in for a treat because Feyre is back but this time she is High Fae… and not adjusting well. Tamlin has taken overprotective to a whole new level and Feyre finds strange comfort in the company of Rhysand, High Lord of the Night Court who she once couldn’t stand. After saving the land in book one, Feyre now faces an even bigger challenge in learning to save herself.

I believe it is a rare feat to find a second book you love better than the first. Second books are a sly species that tend to draw out the plot much longer than necessary just because the first book was a hit. This one however is clearly a breed of its own because although I would have laughed if you had told me pre-ACOMAF that I would like it better, you would have been absolutely right. Maas truly knocks it out of the park with this one.

One of the most satisfying things in books is a bit of good old character development. And Feyre’s transition from a Bella Swan into a Katniss Everdeen is about as satisfying as it gets. Broken and terrified to stand up for herself at the start, she walks out of this novel like the powerful ninja-warrior you always wanted her to be. And can we just talk about the title. A Court of Mist and Fury. I mean come on, I’m not advocating judging a book by its title here, but how intense is that?

If you thought you loved the characters in the last book you will love these ones even more. Rhysand and Feyre are kind of the best combination ever. Endlessly witty and cheeky but somehow still raw and vulnerable, they make the book what it is. The sass is so real I couldn’t get enough of it. Days after reading this book, the characters are still running through my mind while I wonder desperately what will happen to them next.

Irresistible, heart-pounding exhilaration, A Court of Mist and Fury is hands down my favourite book of the year so far. I went in expecting great things and somehow it was better than I ever could have imagined. I can’t wait to see how Maas will bring it with the next one.

Reviewed by Alex Thompson
As part of the Allen & Unwin YA Ambassador review team.

A Court of Mist and Fury
by Sarah J. Maas
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408857885

Book Review: Thirteen Ways of Looking, by Colum McCann

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_thirteen_ways_of_lookingThe novella and three short stories in Thirteen Ways of Looking each centre on a character in search of a lost connection – a lost intimacy – with another person, or God, or hope. Or, rather, the characters aren’t seeking to re-connect so much as learn to live without connection. They’re learning how to be alone, which can be lonely but not necessarily: the stories flash back through memories, childhoods and relationships. These are the parts I enjoyed the most, more than the meanderings the stories sometimes go through on the way to these memories.

It’s not a passive read, which is good. You’re presented with puzzles (the first story is a whodunit) and confronted with some morally tricky choices (some brutal abuse and the question of forgiveness), which is also good. It would probably be a great Book Club choice – it’s short and full of “things to discuss” and will “make you think”. But…

I guess here I should be upfront: I didn’t like this book very much. I found it irritating, more often than not. The writing was too close to the surface – it was Writing – and I prefer for writing to be invisible so I can get lost in the story and characters. Not that I don’t like it when writers do great or interesting things with language – I love words! and language! and experimentation, sometimes! – but, hmm. Something about these stories made it seem like they were writing exercises rather than stories. And because each of them dealt with quite hefty issues – Issues – it all felt a bit heavy-handed to me.

I’m sure there are dozens of readers out there who’d disagree with me. In fact, going by the boatloads of fancy accolades on the cover of the book, I suspect I’m a bit too much of a grumpy or cynical reader for this writer. (I could barely stop myself from rolling my eyes at the earnest, black & white, gazing-out-the-window, chin-on-hand, scarf-wearing author photo inside the back cover. In fact, I think one look at that photo sums the book up – if you’re on-board with its tone, give the book a go; if it gives you the giggles, step away.)

If you’re going to read something with this title, I’d suggest the Wallace Stevens poem, which opens each chapter of the novella, for showing new ways of looking at familiar things (and it’s shorter). Or if you’re interested in writing, seek out the excellent documentary about Wellington’s creative writing school, IIML.

Reviewed by Jane Arthur

Thirteen Ways of Looking
by Colum McCann
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408869840

Book Review: Mutant City, by Steve Feasey

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

Mutant City ticks all the boxes for me with a fast-paced plot, good hooks and a punchy storylinecv_mutant_city

I found Mutant City by Steve Feasey to be a surprisingly enjoyable mix of a science fiction doomsday and some believable throws to real world scenarios.

As you start reading the book you are quickly introduced into a grim and distressing lab in which children are held captive and experimented on by the government – not unlike the stories we hear about from animal welfare groups about how we treat the animals we use for testing on products.

A sense of relief is brought about when we realise that ‘Silas’, the strange man entering the laboratory soon after our story begins, has incapacitated the authorities supervising the horrific treatment of these children and is a friend there to rescue the children.

The story then skips thirteen years into the future when the children who escaped the confines of the lab so many years ago are now threatened as they begin to realise the effects of those experiments so many years ago.

Steve Feasey uses effective hooks in every chapter to enthral and draw readers deeper and deeper into his delicately woven masterpiece. Mutant City is a fast-paced and intriguing book that I will definitely be reading again who knows how many times.

As a reader I can be incredibly picky, I know what I want from a book and can get quickly bored if I don’t get it. However, Mutant City ticks all the boxes for me with a fast-paced plot, good hooks and a punchy storyline which is similar to my all-time favourite series ‘Virals’.

Review by Ishan Brailsford
Supplied as part of the Allen & Unwin Ambassador Programme

Mutant City
by Steve Feasey
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN 9781408865088

 

Book Review: Queen of Shadows, by Sarah J Maas

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

‘Be prepared to lose yourself in the most dangerously captivating series ever.’cv_queen_of_shadows

Sarah J Maas’s writing has never let me down. Her books, filled with elaborate, twisting plotlines and the best-developed characters, seem to come with a guarantee of being unputdownable. Queen of Shadows was no exception.

Queen of Shadows  is the highly anticipated fourth book of the ‘Throne of Glass’ series. In this book, Aelin Galathynius returns to claim what is rightfully hers, embracing her destiny as the Queen of Terrasen. Gone is her past self: Celaena Sardothein, the enslaved assassin trying to hide from her past. This time round, it is Aelin who returns to Adarlan and she does so prepared to fight for her friends, her people and her country. Yet, her evil foes are not as weak as she would like them to be (Of course, since one of them is the King of Assassins and the other, the King on the Glass Throne). The only question is, will Aelin be able reap vengeance from her previous masters or will she be the one to pay? Read it to find out and once again, be drawn into our favourite badass heroine’s story as she battles for the greater good.

Although I preferred the intrigue and romance of the first and second books more, I nevertheless enjoyed Queen of Shadows with its brilliant characters, vivid fantasy universe and racing plotline. If you are looking for a book with a strong, sassy female protagonist, a heart-pumping narrative and a beautiful yet dangerous fantasy universe to lose yourself in, then look no further than Queen of Shadows.

Warning: I advise you to wait until the weekends to read this book because once I picked it up, I found myself unable to put it down.

Reviewed by Elinor Wang, as part of the Allen & Unwin Ambassador programme.

Queen of Shadows
by Sarah J Maas
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN 9781408858615

Book Review: The Harder They Come, by T C Boyle

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_the_harder_they_come

T Coraghessan Boyle is prolific. Since 1982, he’s published fifteen novels (The Harder They Come is his latest) and ten collections of short stories. The Harder They Come is an ambitious, disturbing account of America today, as well as a harrowing story of suspense as the tragedy within it unfolds.

Told in the third-person voices of three main characters – Sten, Sten’s son Adam, and Adam’s lover Sara – Boyle does a great job of showing us their worlds, their beliefs and above all their disillusionment with the way their lives have turned out. Boyle keeps up the pace by constantly switching between Sten, Adam and Sara, and by splitting the book into short chapters of no more than ten or twelve pages each. The action and suspense doesn’t falter for a second.

Sten is a Vietnam veteran but, unlike many other returned soldiers of that despised conflict, he hasn’t ended up on the street or in prison. A retired high school principal, he has sustained a satisfactory marriage and raised a child. Of course he is damaged, but his life since the war has consisted of high school politics, parent-teacher evenings and taking his wife out to dinner once a week.

Underneath this conventional veneer, though, is a violence that pervades every page of the story. Is Sten an innately violent person? Does it come from Sten’s service in Vietnam? Or is it the frustration and impatience all men in the seventies feel, as the ends of their lives approach and they realise they’ve already achieved all they will, and there’s nothing more of note to come? Boyle makes it clear, without ever being explicit, that Adam’s troubled, dysfunctional, violent life is a direct unintentional result of his relationship with his father.

The book starts with a sudden act of violence by Sten, in the unlikely surroundings of a shore excursion on a retirees cruise holiday. It horrifies him, but everyone else thinks him a hero. He can’t deal with it; it changes everything for him and his wife, and shows us a hint of what’s in store in the rest of the story.

The characters in The Harder They Come don’t help themselves with their irrational, resistant, and unhinged behaviour, but this merely throws the nature of society in America – and, undoubtedly, other western societies – into sharp relief. It is not entirely their fault. Whether it is Sara, desperately rejecting conventional society, repeating ‘I don’t have a contract with you’ to anyone representing officialdom, but still obsessed with her calorie intake; or Adam, pining for life as a ‘mountain man’ pioneer from two centuries ago, retreating to the woods to grow drugs, and hating the Chinese, Mexicans and other ‘aliens’; or even Sten, trying to come to terms with his so-called heroic act on the shore excursion, they all need the kind of help you can’t get in California these days unless you’re seriously wealthy.

The subtle way in which Boyle has things unravel from simply odd and awkward to disturbed and tragic is masterful, as if one moment you’re scrambling down a steep but manageable scree slope but the next, before you know it, you are flying out of control. You could have done something about it, but you didn’t realise until it was too late. That applies to everyone in this story.

The Harder They Come doesn’t bother with lots of fancy flashbacks, although there are some, or with complex narrative structures. Boyle captures the different voices of the three characters brilliantly and distinctly. Sometimes the chapters overlap in time as we see the action unfold from each character’s point of view, but mostly this story starts running hard in one direction right at the start and doesn’t stop until it is done. It is a hard to put down tragedy of guns, drugs, and the damaged, dis-enfranchised individuals America cannot – or will not – look after.

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Harder They Come 
by T C Boyle
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408859933