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Metaphysical Audio Audacity: LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders

A tour de force of audiobook production and a dazzling realization of Saunders’ unique authorial structure.

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Lincoln in the Bardo. By George Saunders. Read by Nick Offerman. Feb. 2017. 7.5 hr. Books on Tape, $35 (9780553397598).

Lincoln in the Bardo. By George Saunders. Read by Nick Offerman. Feb. 2017. 7.5 hr. Books on Tape, $35 (9780553397598).

Short-form master Saunders’ debut novel grabs attention with audiobook audacity: a record-breaking cast of 166 voices, showcasing stars, including Susan Sarandon and Rainn Wilson, as well as expert audio narrators, notably Cassandra Campbell, and Kirby Heyborne. Enter an alternate existence where the words of ghostly beings and factual quotes from Abraham Lincoln’s contemporaries eddy through the audible ether in a foggy miasma that conjures Oak Hill Cemetery, where Lincoln’s young son Willie has been newly interred in the mausoleum. Over a single evening in 1862, and through flashbacks augmented by passages providing historical context, listeners become enmeshed in the president’s sorrow as he enters the crypt to hold his boy’s body one last time.

Listeners are guided through the graveyard’s bardo (a Tibetan Buddhist post-death, pre-rebirth, indeterminate state) by Offerman as Hans Vollman, Saunders himself as Reverend Thomas, and David Sedaris as Roger Bevins: a trio of snarky, sardonic, sanctimonious spirits who remain tethered to the bardo in a state of bickering boredom. A choir of specters add their observations, from bawdy to mournful, while interspersed throughout are scores of short historical excerpts, each voiced by a different performer. The result is an auditory experience unlike any other, where the awareness of individual voices disappears while the carefully calibrated soundscape summons a metaphysical masterpiece. This is a tour de force of audiobook production, and a dazzling realization of Saunders’ unique authorial structure.

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About the Author:

Mary Burkey is an independent library consultant in Columbus (OH). An enthusiastic audiophile, she has served on all four of ALA's audiobook award committees as well as the Audies. In addition to writing the "Voices in My Head" column for Booklist, she is the author of Audiobooks for Youth: A Practical Guide to Sound Literature (ALA, 2013). Follow her on Twitter at @mburkey.

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