A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

It’s Throwback Thursday and we’re reviewing one of literature’s classics!  During the month of December, we’re reviewing books that celebrate the season.  Enjoy!

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol    

Charles Dickens (Adult Fiction)

How does one go about describing Ebenezer Scrooge?  Perhaps our story’s narrator says it best: “Oh!  But he was a tightfisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge!  a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire, secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.”  Yes.  That will do nicely.  But no matter how vile Scrooge is, he has an equal by the name of Jacob Marley, his business partner that’s been dead seven years to the day.  This very night, Marley will pay a spectral visit to Scrooge in hopes of salvaging his former colleague’s soul and thus sparing him from an afterlife laden with rusty chains and regret.

A Christmas Carol is Dickens’ beloved and cherished Christmas song to the world.  First published in 1843, this classic story is divided into staves (or staffs) rather than chapters where every character is a note, every ghostly visit is a movement, and every revelation is a crescendo that builds to the climax when Scrooge realizes the dire consequences of his avarice and malevolence.

There are more than two dozen film adaptations of A Christmas Carol, but nothing quite compares to reading and absorbing Dickens’ original words, which contain a few subtleties that are otherwise lost when presented visually.  One example is that prior to Marley’s visit, the characters of Bob Cratchit and Fred are nameless and simply given titles such “clerk in the tank” or “Scrooge’s nephew”.  This omission would lead the reader to conclude that these characters are inconsequential; however, it is only later in the book when we realize what an important part these individuals will eventually play in Ebenezer Scrooge’s road to redemption.

I love the many moral and spiritual lessons we can glean from A Christmas Carol: “In order to fully realize life, one must love and be loved in return”; “Learning begins with listening”; “It’s important to learn from the mistakes of others”; or, if you’re a businessowner, “Treat your employees nicely”.  My personal favorite is taken from Marley’s visit with Scrooge where the former says, “I am here tonight to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate.”  In an uncertain world where, despite careful planning or our best intentions, life doesn’t always go the way we wish, and it is therefore important to remember that if there is a chance—no matter how slight or remote—then there is still hope.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.scholastic.com

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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 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 Cradle by Patrick Somerville

The Cradle

The Cradle  

Patrick Somerville (Adult Fiction)

It’s 1997.  Matt and Marissa Bishop are expecting their first child.  In her eighth month of pregnancy, Marissa suddenly asks Matt to find her something.  Not a certain brand of pickles or obscure flavor of ice cream, but a cradle.  Her cradle.  The one that she used when she was a baby and that was stolen from her home many years ago.  Flash forward ten years and Renee Owen, a former children’s author, is preparing to send her son off to serve in the military in Iraq.  She counts down the days to his departure as she counts the white notecards on her bulletin board—cards that represent a book of poetry that longs for completion.  Both Matt and Renee are on a path where they will discover that secrets are powerful things and have the ability to either rip a family apart or make the shared fabric even stronger.

I’ve found that when books have two central characters with alternating story lines, there is always one that stands apart and tends to be more interesting and compelling.  The Cradle is no exception.  We follow the individual stories of Matt and Renee and from early on, Matt’s story is definitively the deeper and more developed of the two (out of fourteen chapters in the book, Matt is featured in ten).  Renee’s inclusion in the book seemed superfluous and the parts featuring her were a needless drag on the story’s pace.  Deciding to give Renee equal billing (or close to it) in this story was unfortunate.  Her inclusion didn’t add much to the story line and her contribution was more of a weak supporting character rather than a central, standalone figure.

The Cradle is clearly Matt’s story and the struggles he faces when dealing with his past while trying to understand his future.  Throughout the book, Matt is all about what matters.  Family matters.  Things matter.  His quest for his wife’s childhood heirloom not only puts him in direct contact with several strange and unforgettable people, but it also allows him the opportunity to begin realizing what a family is and what having a family really means.  And in the end, to Matt, those are the things that matter most.

Rating: 3/5

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

 

 

 

Ghost on Black Mountain by Ann Hite

In honor of Halloween, we’ll be reviewing ghoulishly scary and spooky books throughout the month of October.

Ghost on Black Mountain

Ghost on Black Mountain  

Ann Hite (Adult Fiction)

“Mama warned me against marrying Hobbs Pritchard.  She saw my future in her tea leaves: death.”

Nellie Clay was only 17 when she married 25-year old Hobbs Pritchard.  With just a feed sack of clothes, some trinkets, and a childhood full of memories, she leaves the only home she has ever known and moves to Black Mountain with a man she barely knows and the ghosts he has spent a lifetime creating.

Ghost on Black Mountain is a haunting tale of abuse, power, greed, and fervent love.  There is not a soul on Black Mountain that hasn’t been negatively impacted or affected by Hobbs Pritchard, and his toxic anger and avarice blanket the mountain like mist on a crisp autumn morning.  Hite does a credible job in conveying the torment and fear unleashed on a tightly-knit mountain community by a man consumed by evil and jealousy.  The author keeps the story interesting by having different female characters narrate and share their own histories and perspectives.  Near the end of the book, just when you thought you were safely out of the woods, Hite throws in an unexpected twist by introducing an unknown character.  Rather than stall the story’s progression with this sudden interruption, this shift actually adds to the story’s mounting tension and brings us ever closer to an inevitable tipping point.  As this character’s story is slowly unraveled, we become uncomfortably and painfully aware that the ghost on Black Mountain may never truly rest in peace.

Ghost on Black Mountain is Hite’s first novel and she gives readers a truly gripping and all-consuming story of good versus evil and the price one is willing to pay for redemption.  Like the ghosts on Black Mountain, this story and its characters will linger in your mind and lurk in your memory long after the last page is turned.

Rating: 5/5

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

 

 

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

It’s Throwback Thursday where we review a Classic from literature.  In honor of Halloween, we’ll be reviewing ghoulishly scary and spooky books throughout the month of October.

The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw  

Henry James (Adult Fiction)

It’s Christmas Eve and, as is ancient tradition, ghost stories are being told by a group of friends sitting around a fire.  Now a ghost story with one child in it would be—as everyone might agree—horrible, gruesome, and terrible even.  But a ghost story with two children?  Well, that would be just an inexcusable and abominable turn of the screw.  Wouldn’t it?  This is such a story.

Contrary to popular belief, just because a story is labeled a “classic”, doesn’t mean that you are automatically inclined to love it, rave about it, or recommend it.  Sometimes old doesn’t instantly equate to great.  The Turn of the Screw is one such book.  Written in 1898, Henry James’ gothic novella is considered one of literature’s most famous ghost stories…but perhaps not the best.  The story is verbose, inordinately descriptive, and James throws about commas like strings of beads during Mardis Gras (“They moved slowly, in unison, below us, over the lawn, the boy, as they went, reading aloud from a story-book and passing his arm round his sister to keep her quite in touch.”).  Adding to the tedious reading that awaits even the most patient of readers, we are presented with an unlikable and unsympathetic  heroine (a governess) who puts her own need for vindication and legitimacy above all else.  As a result, she fails her employer, she fails her friend, and she gravely fails her two small charges.  Those around her pay the ultimate price for her incessant need to claim victory and prove her sanity.  The fact that she did it despite the ongoing harm she constantly inflicts upon two young children ultimately proves to be one too many turns of the screw.

Sometimes, when a story is exceptional, you got lost in it.  Other times, the story just simply loses you.  The Turn of the Screw is regrettably an example of the latter.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

 

 

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

In honor of Halloween, we’ll be reviewing ghoulishly scary and spooky books throughout the month of October.

The Woman in Black.jpg

The Woman in Black   

Susan Hill (Adult Fiction)

It’s Christmas Eve at Monk’s Piece.  Lawyer Arthur Kipps, his wife and children are gathered around the fire telling ghost stories, as is ancient tradition.  They all take turns until it comes to Arthur.  “Now come, stepfather, your turn.  You must know at least one ghost story, stepfather, everyone knows one…”  Arthur does know a ghost story.  One haunted by a child’s anguished screams, an approaching pony and trap, a moving rocking chair with no occupant, and a mysterious woman in black.  A ghost story made even more horrifying and terrible because this story is true…absolutely true.

I wasn’t familiar with Susan Hill before this book, but about twenty pages in, I was so impressed with the eloquent and nuanced writing style, and so immersed in the story, that I wondered if she was English.  Sure enough, she is.  There is no mistaking a truly adept English or British author.  The turns of phrase, the sentence structure, and the painstaking attention to detail without being overly verbose all add up to an exceptionally well-crafted book.

Hill gives us a satisfying horror story which achieves its goal of raising the hairs on your neck and increasing the beats of your heart.  By introducing noises in the dark, mysterious brushes against your body, and an invisible presence that always seems to be just right behind you, she goes to the very core of our fears and keeps them tucked into the deepest, darkest corners of our soul—very far away from the light.  Hill gives us a gripping and suspenseful story that builds at a steady and progressive pace until the final climax.  With one last blow thrown in at the end, it might be best to read this with a torch (flashlight) nearby…just in case.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.penguinrandomhouse.com