Leah Rodriguez’s May 2017 TBR: George Saunders, Maria Semple and More

Why can’t I read for a living?

leah rodriguez may 2017 tbr george saunders lincoln in the bardo

Reading and writing have gone at a snail’s pace this past month. I ask myself every day, “Why can’t I just read for a living?” Alas, I have to work, and my 9 to 6 desk job (which I actually love) gives me little time to read and hash out reviews. Granted, I make time no matter what: when I have a lull in workflow or I’m on lunch. But my productivity has fallen.

So. Only four measly books comprise my May TBR, but I’m really looking forward to each of them. It might be a little weird, but my reading habits change based on the seasons/weather, and spring is when I’m in the mood for an eclectic collection of books.

My selections this month range from George Saunders experimental new novel Lincoln in the Bardo to Heather Ann Thompson‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Blood in the Water: the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its LegacyHere’s what I’ll be reading this month:

Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

leah rodriguez may 2017 tbr paperback paris
Random House / Tim Knox

Synopsis: The captivating first novel by the best-selling, National Book Award nominee George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven-year-old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War

On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body.

Set over the course of that one night and populated by ghosts of the recently passed and the long dead, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, the powers of good and evil, a novel—in its form and voice—completely unlike anything you have read before. It is also, in the end, an exploration of the deeper meaning and possibilities of life, written as only George Saunders can: with humor, pathos, and grace.

Thoughts: I’ve actually just finished Lincoln in the Bardo, and it’s one of the strangest and most beautiful novels I’ve read in a while. I’ll go into a lot more detail when I write my review, but, just as an overview, it’s a staggering feat; Saunders must have spent years researching Willie Lincoln’s death and how it fit into the political landscape at the time, which happened to be the early years of the Civil War. Amidst the carnage of war and the Lincoln family’s guilt and strife, Saunders forges a new space—that which resides between living and death.

Saunders uses excerpts from real histories and primary resources in juxtaposition with fictional histories and resources, creating a conversation of perspectives—real and imagined. It is poignant, heartbreaking, and, at times, snort-worthy in its humor. A must read by any standards.

Blood in the Water: the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, Heather Ann Thompson

leah rodriguez may 2017 tbr paperback paris
Pantheon Books / Graham MacIndoe

Synopsis: On September 9, 1971, nearly 1,300 prisoners took over the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York to protest years of mistreatment. Holding guards and civilian employees hostage, during the four long days and nights that followed, the inmates negotiated with state officials for improved living conditions. On September 13, the state abruptly ended talks and sent hundreds of heavily armed state troopers and corrections officers to retake the prison by force. In the ensuing gunfire, thirty-nine men were killed, hostages as well as prisoners, and close to one hundred were severely injured. After the prison was secured, troopers and officers brutally retaliated against the prisoners during the weeks that followed. For decades afterward, instead of charging any state employee who had committed murder or carried out egregious human rights abuses, New York officials prosecuted only the prisoners and failed to provide necessary support to the hostage survivors or the families of any of the men who’d been killed.

Heather Ann Thompson sheds new light on one of the most important civil rights stories of the last century, exploring every aspect of the uprising and its legacy from the perspectives of all of those involved in this forty-five-year fight for justice: the prisoners, the state officials, the lawyers on both sides, the state troopers and corrections officers, and the families of the slain men.

Thoughts: Thompson is a renowned historian and prison reform activist who spent years researching the Attica prison riots in 1971. My father used to make reference to it in my youth, but I didn’t discover the full scope of the tragedies that occurred there until a few years ago, and even now, I don’t believe I know even the half of it.

Thompson’s Pulitzer prize-winning text is the first in-depth and comprehensive analysis of the events that took place in 1971, and its publication this year was more timely than ever. At a time when mass incarceration is one of our society’s darkest plagues, it takes a book like this one to help us examine the systemic issues that got us here, and why prisons fail to be the institutions of reform they claim to be.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Maria Semple

leah rodriguez may 2017 tbr paperback paris
Weidenfeld & Nicolson / Maria Semple

Synopsis: Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she’s a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she’s a disgrace; to design mavens, she’s a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.

Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette’s intensifying allergy to Seattle—and people in general—has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.

To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence—creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter’s role in an absurd world.

Thoughts: I must admit, I picked this book up from my library last week because, for months, I’ve passed it and denied myself the privilege of taking it out even though I loved the cover. Yes, that’s correct. I’m judging this book by its cover. But I’ve also heard nothing but good things about Semple’s quirky novel.

I tend to dislike books that spend too much time dwelling on mother/daughter relationships because—to be academic here—I think they’re too touchy-feely and boring. The synopsis for this novel, though, is different. For one thing, it seems fascinating. But, most importantly, it seems funny as hell.

The House at Riverton, Kate Morton

leah rodriguez may 2017 tbr paperback paris
Davin Patterson

Synopsis: The House at Riverton is a gorgeous debut novel set in England between the wars. Perfect for fans of Downton Abbey it’s the story of an aristocratic family, a house, a mysterious death, and a way of life that vanished forever, told in flashback by a woman who witnessed it all.

The novel is full of secrets—some revealed, others hidden forever, reminiscent of the romantic suspense of Daphne du Maurier. It’s also a meditation on memory and the devastation of war and a beautifully rendered window into a fascinating time in history.

Thoughts: So this book had me at “for fans of Downton Abbey.” Funnily enough, I am not a huge fan of that show, but, as I’ve said before, I love anything and everything that has to do with examinations of class and the luxury world of rich people problems. There’s also the matter of my uncrushable Anglophilia, which I’ve had since the age of about ten when I saw Oxford University for the first time in that Amanda Bynes movie, What a Girl Wants...That’s a long story…But you get why Morton’s dishy novel made it on my list.

Have you read any of the books on this list?!

Tell us which books you’re most looking forward to reading in the comments below!
Be sure to keep up with the Paperback Paris Team’s monthly TBRs!


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Written by Leah Rodriguez

Reader. Writer. Cat enthusiast.
Trying to put that BA in English to good use.