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Saunders Before Lincoln: The Winner’s Works

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George Saunders

With the announcement of Lincoln in the Bardo as the 2017 Man Booker Prize winner, George Saunders has taken over the world’s literary headlines as a celebrated first-time novelist.

But short fiction fans have been celebrating Saunders’ talent for years.

Describing him in Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in 2013, author Mary Karr proclaimed, “For more than a decade, George Saunders has been the best short-story writer in English—not ‘one of,’ not ‘arguably,’ but the Best.”

Reviewing Saunders’ story collection Tenth of December, Zadie Smith (whose Swing Time made this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist), wrote, “Not since Twain has America produced a satirist this funny with a prose style this fine.”

Saunders is more than a satirist. The range of anthologies in which Saunders’ work has appeared gives an outline of his versatility:

He’s also an advocate of kindness. In addition to his novellas and short story collections, in 2000 he published a children’s book about the power of kindness and community, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. He returned to this theme in a convocation address to the Syracuse University class of 2013, which he published as Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness after a transcript of the speech on The New York Times website went viral.

Earlier that year, in a New York Times Magazine profile, Joel Lovell had written of Saunders that “if you didn’t know that he was more or less universally regarded as a genius, you might peg him as the superfriendly host of a woodworking show on daytime public access.”

Clearly, it's worth getting to know this satirist, traveler, sci-fi writer, and superfriendly champion of kindness—not to mention 2017 Man Booker Prize winner. To get you started, here are George Saunders works, from his 2000 collection Pastoralia, through to this year’s Lincoln in the Bardo.

Pastoralia

"Saunders is an astoundingly tuned voice—graceful, dark, authentic and funny—telling just the kind of stories we need to get us through these times" -Thomas Pynchon 

In Pastoralia, elements of contemporary life are twisted, merged and amplified into a slightly skewed version of modern America. A couple live and work in a caveman theme-park, where speaking is an instantly punishable offence. A born loser attends a self-help seminar where he is encouraged to rid himself of all the people who are "crapping in your oatmeal." And a male exotic dancer and his family are terrorised by their decomposing aunt who visits them with a solemn message from beyond the grave. With an uncanny combination of deadpan naturalism and uproarious humor, George Saunders creates a world that is both indelibly original and yet hauntingly familiar.

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The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

In the seaside village of Frip live three families: the Romos, the Ronsens, and a little girl named Capable and her father. The economy of Frip is based solely on goat’s milk, and this is a problem because the village is plagued by gappers: bright orange, many-eyed creatures the size of softballs that love to attach themselves to goats. 

When a gapper gets near a goat, it lets out a high-pitched shriek of joy that puts the goats off giving milk, which means that every few hours the children of Frip have to go outside, brush the gappers off their goats, and toss them into the sea. 

The gappers have always been everyone’s problem, until one day they get a little smarter, and instead of spreading out, they gang up: on Capable’s goats. Free at last of the tyranny of the gappers, will her neighbors rally to help her? Or will they turn their backs, forcing Capable to bear the misfortune alone? 

Featuring fifty-two haunting and hilarious illustrations by Lane Smith and a brilliant story by George Saunders that explores universal themes of community and kindness, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is a rich and resonant story for those that have all and those that have not.

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CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

Since its publication in 1996, George Saunders’ debut collection has grown in esteem from a cherished cult classic to a masterpiece of the form, inspiring an entire generation of writers along the way. In six stories and a novella, Saunders hatches an unforgettable cast of characters, each struggling to survive in an increasingly haywire world. With a new introduction by Joshua Ferris and a new author’s note by Saunders himself, this edition is essential reading for those seeking to discover or revisit a virtuosic, disturbingly prescient voice.

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The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

In a profoundly strange country called Inner Horner, large enough for only one resident at a time, citizens waiting to enter fall under the rule of the power-hungry and tyrannical Phil, setting off a chain of injustice and mass hysteria. 

An Animal Farm for the 21st century, this is an incendiary political satire of unprecedented imagination, spiky humor, and cautionary appreciation for the hysteric in everyone. Over six years in the writing, and brilliantly and beautifully packaged, this novella is Saunders' first stand-alone, book-length work.

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In Persuasion Nation

Talking candy bars, baby geniuses, disappointed mothers, castrated dogs, interned teenagers, and moral fables—all in this hilarious and heartbreaking collection from an author hailed as the heir to Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon.

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The Braindead Megaphone

The breakout book from "the funniest writer in America"—not to mention an official "Genius"—his first nonfiction collection ever. George Saunders' first foray into nonfiction is comprised of essays on literature, travel, and politics. At the core of this unique collection are Saunders' travel essays based on his trips to seek out the mysteries of the "Buddha Boy" of Nepal; to attempt to indulge in the extravagant pleasures of Dubai; and to join the exploits of the minutemen at the Mexican border. 

Saunders expertly navigates the works of Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and Esther Forbes, and leads the reader across the rocky political landscape of modern America. Emblazoned with his trademark wit and singular vision, Saunders' endeavor into the art of the essay is testament to his exceptional range and ability as a writer and thinker.

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Tenth of December

Winner of the 2014 Folio Prize and shortlisted for the National Book Award 2013 

George Saunders's most wryly hilarious and disturbing collection yet, Tenth of December illuminates human experience and explores figures lost in a labyrinth of troubling preoccupations. 

A family member recollects a backyard pole dressed for all occasions; Jeff faces horrifying ultimatums and the prospect of DarkenfloxxTM in some unusual drug trials; and Al Roosten hides his own internal monologue behind a winning smile that he hopes will make him popular. With dark visions of the future riffing against ghosts of the past and the ever-settling present, this collection sings with astonishing charm and intensity.

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Congratulations, by the Way

"Here's something I know to be true, although it's a little corny, and I don't quite know what to do with it: What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness."

Three months after George Saunders gave a convocation address at Syracuse University, a transcript of that speech was posted on the website of The New York Times, where its simple, uplifting message struck a deep chord. Within days, it had been shared more than one million times. Why? Because Saunders's words tap into a desire in all of us to lead kinder, more fulfilling lives. Powerful, funny, and wise, Congratulations, by the Way is an inspiring message from one of today's most influential and original writers.

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Lincoln in the Bardo

Man Booker Prize Winner 2017 

A No. 1 New York Times Best Seller

 "It would be an understatement to call this novel an extraordinary tour de force" -Sunday Times 

 The extraordinary first novel by the bestselling, Folio Prize-winning, National Book Award-shortlisted George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War.

 The American Civil War rages while President Lincoln's beloved eleven-year-old son lies gravely ill. In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy's body. 

 From this seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of realism, entering a thrilling, supernatural domain both hilarious and terrifying. 

Willie Lincoln finds himself trapped in a transitional realm - called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo - and as ghosts mingle, squabble, gripe and commiserate, and stony tendrils creep towards the boy, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie's soul. 

 Unfolding over a single night, Lincoln in the Bardo is written with George Saunders' inimitable humour, pathos and grace. Here he invents an exhilarating new form, and is confirmed as one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. 

Deploying a theatrical, kaleidoscopic panoply of voices—living and dead, historical and fictional—Lincoln in the Bardo poses a timeless question: how do we live and love when we know that everything we hold dear must end?

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Author photo credit: Bloomsbury

Katie is a reader, editor and note taker who works as a Content Writer at Bookwitty. Originally from Wisconsin, she's at home in Dublin.

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