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

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

 

The True Gift: A Christmas Story by Patricia MacLachlan (J)

The True Gift

The True Gift: A Christmas Story    

Patricia MacLachlan (Juvenile Fiction)

Lily and Liam are off to Grandpa and Gran’s farm for Christmas.  They always go in December and then wait for Mama and Papa to join them on Christmas Day.  Lily likes the sameness that this time of year brings:  the walks into town, the trip to the lilac library, and helping Gran make cookies.  But when her brother spots a white cow standing alone in a snowy meadow, Lily’s predictable holiday is suddenly threatened.  “Do we know if she’s lonely?” Liam asks his sister.  “She’s a cow,” replies Lily.  “Cows don’t care.”  But Liam cares and because of this, Lily knows that White Cow is bound to ruin everything…especially Christmas.

From the author who delighted us with Sarah, Plain and Tall, Patricia MacLachlan gives readers another book filled with compassion, love, and family.  She introduces us to Lily, a young girl who finds herself angered by her brother’s selfless desire to help a creature that finds itself quite alone on Christmas.  Fortunately, Liam’s determined desire to bring comfort to this lonely creature is enough to eventually whittle down Lily’s stubborn defenses until at last, she surprises herself by whispering to White Cow one night, “Don’t worry.  We’ll take care of you.”  Those few words set in motion a turning of Lily’s heart, as well as the fate of another soul in need of rescuing.

The True Gift shows us that any small act of kindness isn’t truly small at all.  By giving us a simple story of a young girl, a small boy, and a lonely white cow, MacLachlan reminds us that Christmas is about giving from the heart and that the act of bestowing even the slightest bit of charity to another being is perhaps one of the truest gifts of all.

Rating: 4/5

Posted: 12/4/2018

* Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com

 

 

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