Elie Wiesel's longtime student recounts life lessons from the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner in "Witness: Lessons From Elie Wiesel’s Classroom."

Debut writer Ariel Burger, an artist and rabbi, was just 15 when he first met Wiesel. He didn’t know then that his college and doctoral work would be organized around Wiesel’s classroom. Here, the author brings readers into the classroom, sharing with us Wiesel’s readings and analyses of Kierkegaard, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and others. Such a book could seem exploitative, sentimental or cheesy, but Burger has managed to craft something both inspiring and substantive. He recounts the profound moral insights Wiesel scattered abundantly through his classroom discussions and his one-on-one conversations with students — e.g., “superficiality is the enemy of everything,” or how faith can be an act of protest. Wiesel’s reading of the book of Job illustrates his compassion and profundity: “Job is … included in the canon … to ensure that we do not take the earlier theology of reward and punishment too far, that we do not make it a weapon.” In response to a student’s question about literature that depicts madmen, Wiesel opines that some people are so possessed by the vision of a world without hatred and cruelty that they “raise the alarm” whenever anything threatens peace. The rest of us, comfortably squirreled away writing the occasional letter to our elected officials, label the messianic visionaries “mad” — but it is by paying attention to them that we learn how “to effectively resist evil.” Amid all the Wiesel wisdom, Burger interweaves bits of his own autobiography, including his childhood and an account of the years he spent in Israel before his doctoral studies. Neither irrelevant nor self-indulgent, these strolls into memoir help establish Burger as a trustworthy and likable guide, a fellow learner who has invited us to sit next to him as we absorb hard-won knowledge about the shape of a good life from a sage.

"Witness" is an insightful and winsome love letter — and, for newcomers to Wiesel, a good introduction.

Grisham's latest lacks imagination

In 1946, months after returning home to Mississippi from fighting in the Philippines, decorated war hero Pete Banning strolls into the local church and shoots pastor Dexter Bell dead. Even when facing the electric chair, he won't say why he murdered his old friend in John Grisham's "The Reckoning."

Did it have something to do with word that in Pete's absence his wife, Liza, was seen with Bell, who was known for straying from his marriage? Liza, who three years before her husband's shocking return had been traumatized by a notification that he was missing in action and presumed dead, is in no condition to answer any questions. She is in the state mental hospital, where Pete, head of a prominent farm family in Clanton, got her committed for iffy reasons after his homecoming. Brutally tortured by the Japanese, he himself appears to be in a reduced mental state. This being a Grisham nvel, we spend a fair amount of time in the courtroom, first with the insistently tight-lipped Pete's trial and then after Bell's widow files a wrongful death suit against Pete's family that stands to wipe them out. As usual, Grisham does a solid job of portraying a Southern town at a particular moment in time, touching upon social issues as he goes. But the book never overcomes the hole at its center. It's one thing to create a character who is a mystery to those around him, quite another to reveal next to nothing about that character to the reader. After a while, Pete's one-note act becomes a bit of a drag.

Grisham's ntertaining wartime novel is not lacking in ambition or scope, but the spark of imagination that would grease its pages is largely missing.