The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

The Reader

The Reader

Bernhard Schlink

While on his way home from school, 15-year old Michael Berg falls ill.  Sick with hepatitis, he is found by a kind stranger who cares for him then walks him home.  His benefactor is 36-year old Hanna Schmitz and that chance encounter sets in motion a series of events that eventually leads to their unlikely and indecent love affair.  Throughout their relationship, Hanna is secretive and keeps her past private.  All Michael knows is that she grew up in a German community in Rumania, served in the army at 21, and held various jobs following the end of the war.  Hanna’s silence is off-putting yet intriguing, and the mystery surrounding her only increases with her abrupt disappearance from their town and his life.  Years later, all of Michael’s unanswered questions about Hanna’s past are revealed when he sees her in a courtroom standing trial.  Hanna’s shrouded past is a secret no longer.

The Reader is divided into three parts:  the first deals with Michael and Hanna’s meeting and growing relationship while the second and third focus on Hanna’s trial and the events following her verdict.  The latter two parts deal with weightier issues and make for a more interesting and faster-paced story.  Early on, Hanna is portrayed as a detached lover actively avoiding any kind of emotional commitment.  She has no need for our sympathy and we, the reader, duly deny her of it.   However, as Schlink sheds light on Hanna’s past and we begin to fully understand her moral makeup, our apathy slowly and willingly gives way to pity.  The author doesn’t allow our feelings to develop much further beyond this given Hanna’s tragic and unsympathetic backstory.  At this point, most authors would attempt to force a more intimate connection with one of his main characters, but Schlink seems satisfied in allowing us to remain unemotional bystanders and we do so without guilt or regret.

Bernhard Schlink gives us an unforgettable story of love, betrayal, secrets, and sacrifices.  What surprised and impressed me most about this novel is the number of thought-provoking and provocative questions he poses:  Is being right or honest worth the price of freedom?  Can you recognize atonement without granting absolution?  Is it ever too late to change?  Questions such as these not only offer us a more in-depth view into Michael’s internal thoughts and struggles, but they also force us to examine our own moral convictions.  The Reader is one of those rare books that not only entertains and educates, but also challenges the way we think and feel while encouraging us to be better versions of ourselves.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne (J)

The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket

The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket     

John Boyne (Juvenile Fiction)

“This is the story of Barnaby Brocket, and to understand Barnaby, first you have to understand his parents: two people who were so afraid of anyone who was different that they did a terrible thing that would have the most appalling consequences for everyone they loved.”

The Brocket family was undeniably THE most normal family in all of New South Wales, perhaps even in the whole of Australia.  That was until their third child was born.  You see, Barnaby…how to put this delicately…well, Barnaby floats and this put the Brockets in a very undesirable predicament since having a floating child is simply not normal.  Not normal at all.

Told in the vein of Lemony Snicket, John Boyne delights readers with a tale that mixes awfulness, meanness, and absolute horridness with kindness, goodness, and pinches of pleasantness.  The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket is a story about fitting in, finding your place, and accepting the person that you are supposed to be rather than the person that you are expected to be.  I never tire of books that reaffirm the belief that it is our differences that make us special and just because someone stands out shouldn’t mean that they stand alone.

Throughout his adventures, Barnaby meets coffee farmers, a window cleaner, a gallery owner, and an art critic, and he travels to Brazil, New York, Toronto, and Iceland.  Along the way, he comes to realize that the terrible thing that has happened to him may not be so terrible after all.  Besides, what’s so great about keeping your feet on the ground anyway?  Because if you do, how will you ever touch the stars?

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.goodreads.com

 

The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken

The Giants House

The Giant’s House

Elizabeth McCracken

“Peggy Cort is crazy, anyone will tell you so.  The only person who ever thought I wasn’t is dead; he is the subject of this memoir.”

Peggy Cort is a librarian in Brewsterville, an unremarkable little town in Cape Cod that has a few guest houses and a small stretch of beach.  But at one time, Brewsterville had James Carlson Sweatt.  Everyone knew him as “The Giant”.  It was the fall of 1950 when Peggy first met James.  He walked into her library looking for a book on magic.  At that time, he was 11-years old to her 25 and had already reached a height of six foot two.  Little did Peggy realize then how much that one ordinary moment would change her life forever.  How, as James Carlson Sweatt grew, so would her feelings for this humble, kind, and gentle giant.

The Giant’s House is Elizabeth McCracken’s first novel and it’s easy to see why it became a National Book Award finalist.  McCracken gives us an exceptionally well-written and heartbreakingly beautiful story of two souls who share a quiet and understated love.  James and Peggy form a mutually beneficial yet emotionally satisfying relationship based on their circumstances: he—by genetics—requires daily support and assistance while she—through vocation—is more than able to adequately provide both.  On the cover, The Giant’s House is rightly billed as a “romance” rather than a love story since the author mainly focuses on the growing relationship between James and Peggy.  It truly is an immersive story filled with compassion and tenderness.  I withheld a rating only because the ending didn’t seem to fully hit the mark.  McCracken’s story seemed to veer a bit off-course near the end and this shift was just enough to leave me a bit unsettled and unsatisfied.

When Peggy once used the word desiderata, James asked her its meaning to which she replied, “That word, it’s the best thing I learned in library school.  It means—well, it’s sort of like, what’s desired and required.”  “Desired and required?  Which?” James asked.  “Both.  Some things are both,” she said.  Dictionary.com gives an example of this word by providing “happily-ever-after”.  While The Giant’s House may have fallen short in providing readers with a traditional happily ever after, it does give us two characters who succeed in making each other happy until their own ever after arrives.  And that is enough to satisfy my own desideratum.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

 

The Canning Season by Polly Horvath (YA)

The Canning Season

The Canning Season     

Polly Horvath (Young Adult Fiction)

Thirteen-year old Ratchet Clark (her father wanted to name her Stinko) lives with her mother, Henriette, who dreams of belonging to the Pensacola Hunt Club (“Thank God for the Hunt Club” is the mantra in their household).  Henriette works two jobs, sustains the family on Cheerios, and constantly reminds her daughter to cover up That Thing on her shoulder (it is unsightly).  Life moves along at a predictable pace until the day that Henriette sends Ratchet to live with her two great aunts in Maine.  Tilly and Penpen Menuto (DON’T call them the Blueberry Ladies!) are twins, but as different as chalk and cheese.  Tilly is tiny and thin and Penpen is round and jolly, but both are as devoted to canning as they are to one another.  Between blueberries, bears, a one-way phone, an unexpected orphan, and countless stories of a headless mother, Ratchet’s summer will prove to be anything but predictable.

The Canning Season is a delightful, entertaining, and hilarious romp.  Fans of Philip Gulley or Ann B. Ross will find equal enjoyment in the Menuto sisters and their tales of loggers, love, and the lure of the woods.  Some of the language in this book is a bit salty, but is appropriate to the targeted age (13 and older) and shouldn’t shock anyone who watches PG-13 films or hangs out at the local mall.

Throughout the book, we see Henriette placing an unhealthy importance on belonging to the Pensacola Hunt Club, which remains an elusive aspiration.  We find out that the club really isn’t as exclusive as first thought and, in reality, is open to anyone wanting to join.  Drawing a nice parallel with Tilly and Penpen’s home, we see that the ominous house on the hill surrounded by bear-infested woods isn’t really what it appears to be either.  It is actually warm, welcoming, and inclusive; all who enter are taken care of and treated with respect, kindness, and love (except Myrtle Trout…Heaven help her).  The Canning Season reminds us that things are not often what they seem and that love is often found in the least likely of places.  Thank God for the Hunt Club, indeed.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.goodreads.com

 

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (J)

Alices Adventures in Wonderland

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Juvenile Fiction)

Lewis Carroll

Alice was bored.  She had peeked into what her sister was reading, but it held no pictures or interesting conversations.  What is the use of a book without pictures?  So, she began contemplating whether making a daisy-chain would be worth the effort on such a dreadfully hot day when a white rabbit suddenly passed by her.  Not just any rabbit, but a talking rabbit…with a pocket watch.  Perhaps this day wouldn’t be so boring after all.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a wonderful way to introduce your young reader to the joys of classic literature.  From Alice (“Curiouser and curiouser.”), to the White Rabbit (“Oh dear! Oh dear!  I shall be late!”), to the Queen of Hearts (“Off with her head!”), this story brims with so many colorful and memorable characters, that it simply begs to be shared and read out loud.  I highly recommend reading the version that contains the original illustrations by John Tenniel.  His beautiful drawings capture the true essence and spirit of Carroll’s tale and allow the reader to become fully absorbed in the wonderful world which is Wonderland.

Aside from being a fanciful story about a young girl’s dream, there is a deeper message that Carroll lovingly bestows upon his reader.  Once you realize that Lewis Carroll is actually the pseudonym of the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, an Anglican deacon, it’s not so hard to recognize or appreciate it.  When the Duchess was taking Alice to meet the Mock Turtle, she said to the girl, “Be what you would seem to be.”  Many characters in Carroll’s classic are, in fact, not what they seem to be.  We find out that the Queen isn’t as bloodthirsty as she appears and that there is an understandable reason for the Hatter’s madness.  Even the Duchess’s child undergoes its own formidable transformation.  Closely resembling the Latin phrase Esse quam videri meaning, “To be, rather than to seem”, Carroll reminds us all—through a curious girl, a tardy hare, and a grinning feline—that it is far better to be the person you really are than to be the person others think you to be.

Rating: 4/5

Posted: 11/15/2018

*Book cover image attributed to http://www.harpercollinschildrens.com

 

Incident at Hawk’s Hill by Allan W. Eckert (J)

Incident at Hawk's Hill

Incident at Hawk’s Hill     

Allan W. Eckert (Juvenile Fiction)

Twenty miles north of Winnipeg, in the year 1870, there stood the farm of William MacDonald, his wife, Esther, and their four children.  They named their farm Hawk’s Hill and for many years, the family thrived on the land.  Everyone thrived except the youngest child, Ben.  At six years old, he was much smaller than other children his own age.  He was also quiet, withdrawn, and seemed to get along better with the surrounding animals than with his own family.  Ben would often imitate the animals he came in contact with—mimicking their sounds and movements.  The folks in town called him strange, odd, and different.  But Ben derived a certain amount of comfort when he was with the animals, and in turn, the animals drew comfort from him.  One day, Ben wandered a bit too far from home and found himself hopelessly lost.  Little did he realize that his rescuer would be a female badger who needed him almost as much as he needed her.

The author’s note states that this book “is a slightly fictionalized version of an incident which actually occurred at the time and place noted.”  Intrigued, I did a little research and found that this claim could neither be substantiated nor does the author provide any further documentation.  Some believe Eckert’s story is based on legend while others think that it came from an article about a boy who, in 1873, lived in a badger hole for 10 days.  Regardless, Eckert gives us an interesting main character who is part Dr. Dolittle and part John Audubon and, through his exploits in and around his farm, offers readers a fascinating insight into the natural world.  Eckert also provides a greater understanding of the hunting, nesting, and breeding habits of the badger sow.  Although the book is filled with many interesting facts and details, the pace doesn’t lag and the story never feels weighted down.

Through the unimaginable and unlikely bond formed between a boy and a badger, we are treated to a story of survival, friendship, and devotion.  I truly enjoyed this book, but deducted a rating point since this is one of those rare children’s books that lacks a sufficient ending.  Because of the emotional commitment required on the reader’s part, the author should have provided a definitive ending merely out of a sense of obligation…especially given the age of the intended audience.  But rather than acquiring a sense of closure, we are left feeling deserted, confused, and rather perturbed.  There are stories that purposely leave the ending open-ended in order to encourage further thought and reflection.  This is not one of those stories and will undoubtedly leave the reader growling, chittering, wailing, hissing, and sounding very much like an angry badger.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.goodreads.com

 

 

 

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint

Brady Udall

“If I could tell you only one thing about my life it would be this: when I was seven years old the mailman ran over my head.  As formative events go, nothing else comes close.”

Seven-year old Edgar Mint is what you might call a “miracle boy”.  The son of a drunk, heartsick mother and absentee, wannabe cowboy father, he survives a near-fatal accident only to live a life in reverse.  His early years are filled with heartache, hard choices, and terrible consequences while later on he enjoys the sheltered, unfettered, and uncluttered life of a child.  Throughout his entire life, Edgar is always being saved and, quite frankly, he’s getting pretty sick of it.  But once he finds religion, Edgar finally realizes what his God-given purpose is: to find and forgive the man who nearly killed him.

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint is undoubtedly one of the most entertaining and immersive books that I’ve read in quite a long time.  Udall doesn’t waste a single word on frivolous details or superfluous backstories.  Instead, he gives us a rich story that neither lags, stalls, or grows tedious.  Every chapter is thoughtful, engaging, and provocative, and Udall takes great care in introducing us to Edgar and slowly allowing us to care about this peculiar and resilient little outcast.  Throughout his journey, Edgar meets his share of heroes and villains, teasers and tormentors, bullies and a best friend.  He survives physical, verbal, and emotional abuse and faithfully captures every thought and memory through an old Hermes Jubilee typewriter: “I typed because typing, for me, was as good as having a conversation.  I typed because I had to.  I typed because I was afraid I might disappear.”

I can’t remember the last time when a book so deeply transported me into a fictional world or when I felt so drawn to a character.  Edgar’s story is both heartbreaking and heartwarming.  All too young, he accepts misfortune as his constant companion yet attempts to turn every bad situation into a learning experience.  Edgar’s comical take on either the harshest of circumstances or the cruelest of individuals is both pitiful and inspiring.  Thankfully, hope runs eternal for our miracle boy and when he finds someone who truly loves and cares for him, Edgar realizes that being saved might not be such a bad thing after all.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com