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 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

 

 

 

The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness (Biography) by Joel ben Izzy

The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness

The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness  

Joel ben Izzy (Adult Biography)

“There are some stories that make you feel warm and good inside, leaving you with the sense that all is right with the world.  There are others that simply make you laugh.  And then there are those you just don’t know what to do with, the kind that pass through your psyche like a mouse moving through a snake.”  This is a story about a man who lost so much only to gain even more.

Joel ben Izzy is a storyteller and a very successful one at that.  He has traveled the world delighting audiences with his folktales and stories.  He has a wife, two beautiful children, and is happy…until a routine operation robs him of his voice.  Just when our storyteller believes he has lost everything, his old teacher resurfaces to remind him that what is really important isn’t lost, but has yet to be found.

Joel ben Izzy combines his remarkable journey with tales about a lost horse, a jumping cricket, a border guard, Silence, Truth, and Death.  Through witty, poignant, and heartbreakingly honest writing, ben Izzy demonstrates why he is so remarkable and successful at what he does.  Very seldom does a book leave me absolutely charmed, entranced, and hopelessly smitten.  Such was my gift from this truly skilled storyteller.

ben Izzy’s former teacher once told him that his story was in the hands of a masterful storyteller.  There are those of us who believe this about our own story—that it is already written and we are merely being guided, chapter by chapter, to our final page.  Throughout our life, we hope that this storyteller is kind, merciful, generous, has a sense of humor, and perhaps suffers from bouts of amnesia.  But through it all, we pray for the courage to keep turning the next page—ever anxious to discover what the storyteller has in store for us next.

Rating: 5/5

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

 

 

 

A Virtuous Woman by Kaye Gibbons

A Virtuous Woman

A Virtuous Woman  

Kaye Gibbons (Adult Fiction)

Blinking Jack Ernest Stokes is forty when he marries Ruby Pitt Woodrow.  Jack is twice Ruby’s age, skinny, and homely, but despite his drawbacks, he loves Ruby unconditionally and promises to take care of her.  After suffering a tormented marriage to a brutal drifter, Ruby longs for stability and security and accepts Jack’s proposal of marriage.  Such is the story of two very different people who transcend both economic worth and social status in order to make a marriage work.

Gibbons gives us a simple story about a man and a woman whose devotion for one another is uncomplicated, unwavering, and unbounded.  Jack and Ruby’s love is quiet and kind and both derive a satisfying and greatly needed comfort from their marriage.  A Virtuous Woman is a pleasant read and flows along at a relaxed pace—alternating narration between Jack and Ruby.  Sadly, this book barely breaks the surface and fails to give the reader an opportunity to emotionally bond with either the story or to its characters.  Gibbons succeeds in providing a big-picture view of a bittersweet relationship between two broken people, but the story could have been far richer had Gibbons further fleshed out the complicated feelings and effects associated with infertility, terminal illness, and bereavement.

Jack and Ruby’s unlikely relationship reminds us that love need not be complicated or blind.  Sometimes, just having someone there offering you acceptance, kindness, and peace is enough.

Rating: 3/5

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

 

 

Quite A Year For Plums by Bailey White

Quite A Year For Plums

Quite A Year For Plums

Bailey White (Adult Fiction)

Roger is in love with a Yankee (although some of those people are just as nice as can be).  Louise arranges letters and numbers so that she can contact space aliens (who are really small by the way).  Della is having a devil of a time painting Dominique chickens (capturing their feet correctly is the hardest part) and has a penchant for labeling her garbage.  And then there’s Bruce who has nightmares about fonts (he’s a typographer and takes these things very seriously).  These and many more wonderfully odd characters live in a small southern town, and they laugh, love, and cry together…because that is what families do.

In the vein of Philip Gulley, Jan Karon, and Ann B. Ross, Bailey White gives us a humorous and heartfelt glimpse into rural America.  In White’s world, the boy doesn’t always get the girl and even the best intentions end in defeat, but she shows us that anything can be made just a little bit brighter and sweeter with just a jar of sweet pickles or a slice of homemade plum pie.

I adore Bailey White, but this novel came up a little short as I had a hard time sinking my teeth into it.  Rather than getting a rich and satisfying entrée, I was instead served several courses of appetizers.  White gives the reader many humorous and delightful vignettes, but when put together, they fail to form a complete and cohesive story.  Quite A Year For Plums is a quick read that doesn’t require a tremendous amount of emotional investment, but its quirky and lovable characters do make for an enjoyable book.  Almost as enjoyable as a jar of sweet pickles or a slice of homemade plum pie.  Almost.

Rating: 3/5

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

 

The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg

The Story of Arthur Truluv

The Story of Arthur Truluv

Elizabeth Berg (Adult Fiction)

Arthur Moses has had lunch with his wife Nola every day for the past six months (missing only just one day, which is not bad for an octogenarian with no car and bad knees).  He departs the bus with his folding chair and bagged lunch, sits beside her headstone (she’s passed away you see, but “a promise is a promise”), and tells Nola about the day’s events or complains about their neighbor, Lucille (who considers the world to be her classroom, BUT happens to make THE most wonderful desserts).  While Arthur gains comfort through his daily cemetery visits, 18-year old Maddy Harris seeks escape.  Maddy is a budding photographer and artist (who is rather pretty despite that awful nose ring), but she is viewed as an outsider by her high school classmates and therefore endures relentless ridicule and abuse.  At the graveyard, she finds peace, and it is here where she and Arthur meet and begin a very unlikely friendship.

Berg delivers an endearing, amusing, and pleasant story about three flawed individuals who, like most of us, merely want to be accepted, useful, and loved.  Each one of them holds a piece to the others’ happiness and when they are placed together, they fit to form a quirky yet beautiful puzzle.  This is a delightful read that is surprisingly uplifting and inspirational, despite the underlying themes of death and loss.

Early in the book, Maddy mentions that her English teacher taught her one of her favorite words: hiraeth, a Welsh word meaning yearning and grief for lost places.  The Story of Arthur Truluv provides the reader with some glimmer of promise and hope that grief is never permanent and what is lost will once again be found.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.penguinrandomhouse.com

 

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies

William Golding (Adult Fiction)

Tragedy strikes when a plane carrying English schoolboys crashes onto an uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean.  Lacking adult supervision, they eagerly welcome the adventure that awaits them.

“This is our island.  It’s a good island.  Until the grownups come to fetch us we’ll have fun.”

Their elation soon turns to discontent as rules are quickly established to maintain a semblance of order.  Soon, their tight-knit group breaks into factions and their once carefree lifestyle is threatened while they wait and hope for rescue.

This book will leave you unnerved and emotionally raw as you watch this group’s slow descent into moral depravity and eventual savagery.  Absent the presence of an actual authoritative figure, these boys suffer no negative consequences and slip into traits which come naturally to them: frivolity, disobedience, and indifference.  Desperate for structure and stability, they will follow any strong and decisive leader—regardless of how corrupt or destructive this person may be.

Golding masterfully lures us deep into a place full of wonder, mystery, and danger, and his attention to detail is as lush as the forest he describes.  He slowly builds tension and suspense, which ultimately culminates in a heart-stopping, gut-wrenching, and unforgettable climax.  Perhaps the most disturbing and frightening aspect of this book, published in 1954, is not its plausibility, but its lurking inevitability.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.bookdepository.com

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