Monday, December 31, 2012

Book Review: The Alchemist

I have intended to read Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist ever since the summer of 2001, when a copy of it was delivered to my younger brother at my parents' house.  It was the "assigned reading" for his freshman class at Butler University, and I wanted to steal it and read it (but figured that wouldn't be a good start for his academic career).  It's been on my monstrously long "to read" list ever since then, but it got bumped to the top when my old book club read it and my friend Kristin told me that the introduction (about following your Personal Legend) made her think of my family and our move out of the corporate world and into the world of Christian camping.

When I checked The Alchemist out of the library, my husband actually got his hands on it before me (since I was distracted by a two-week flu epidemic than spread through me and all four of our kids).  He absolutely loved it and has requested that we purchase a copy so he can re-read it over the years.  The idea of following a Personal Legend really resonated with him.

I, on the other hand, really liked the basic idea but did not so much enjoy the book.  Maybe I'd had just mentally hyped it up for too long (11 years), but it just kind of fell short for me.  It is the story of Santiago (mostly referred to as "the boy" throughout the book), a simple Spanish shepherd who has a recurring dream of finding treasure.  He then meets a "king" (who is actually more like an angel or messenger of God) in a marketplace and learns that his dream is urging him on toward his own Personal Legend (or calling).  Coelho writes that "to realize one's Personal Legend is a person's only real obligation" and that "when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it."

The boy decides to follow his Personal Legend, so he sells his flock of sheep and sets out for Africa.  Along the way, he is robbed, works in a crystal shop, travels in a caravan across the desert, falls in love, meets an alchemist who knows the secrets of the Elixir of Life and the Philosopher's Stone, and learns to speak to his own heart.  And yes, he does find his treasure in the end.

While the story can be read on a surface level of the boy's adventures, it's also thick with philosophizing on Personal Legends and the Soul of the World.  Metaphors abound, and for a slim book, it holds a lot of ideas.

I liked the idea of a Personal Legend, but I'm clearly not as wise or as patient as the boy, because when I read the ending, I was like, "Seriously?  I'd be so pissed if that was me!"  So obviously I am not as deep as the author (or my husband, or all my other friends who enjoyed it).  I was also put off by some of the religious talk, which seemed, in turns, both rather Transcendental and rather New Age, while vaguely referencing many Christian stories.

So, in short, I didn't love it, but I am glad that I read it, and it was a good way to round out 2012 and welcome in the New Year, with thoughts of Personal Legends and what I'm meant or called to do in this life.

As a side note--my library had The Alchemist shelved in the Young Adult section.  I presume this is because the hero starts the story as a teenager, and because Coelho explains that we dream more when we are young (and tend to lose those dreams and hopes as we grow older).  However, I would in no way limit its reading to teens, and in fact think that adults would both enjoy and benefit from it more than the younger set.

Book Review: Keeping the Moon

I’ve read a lot of Sarah Dessen in 2012, and I’ve loved most of it.  Keeping the Moon was no exception.  It was Dessen’s third book (after That Summer and Someone Like You) and, in my opinion, the best to that point.

 The story centers around Nicole “Colie” Sparks, an awkward teenager with very little self-confidence.  She gets sent to live with her Aunt Mira (who she barely knows) in the seaside town of Colby (a frequent setting in Dessen’s books) for the summer.  She shows up as this girl dressed all in black, with unevenly dyed black hair and a lip ring.  And while her exterior changes over the course of the book (including a new hair color and some adventures in eyebrow plucking), her interior changes even more.

 Colie unexpectedly gets a job at a local restaurant (Last Chance, also mentioned in many of Dessen’s books), where she gets to know two twentysomething best friends named Morgan and Isabel.  These girls reminisce about their own awkward high school years and, while dealing with their own problems, teach Colie how to be “one of the girls.”

Meanwhile, Colie initially pities her eccentric Aunt Mira, who lives in a house full of broken objects, loves to watch wrestling on television, and rides an ancient red bicycle everywhere.  At first, Colie is mortified by how the townspeople make fun of Mira—much like how her classmates have always made fun of her.  But Mira isn’t bothered by any of it, and Colie eventually catches this attitude and learns, for the first time, to feel comfortable in her own skin.

 Of course, it wouldn’t be a Sarah Dessen novel without the guy—one of whom the girl is initially skeptical, but once she gets to know him, discovers that he’s exactly right in ways she didn’t even know she needed.  In Keeping the Moon, this guy is Norman, an aspiring young hippie artist, who also flips burgers at the Last Chance, does odd jobs for Mira, and takes a more mature view of his estranged relationship with his father than the father does.

Altogether, Keeping the Moon was a delightful read.  I think that most teenage girls could easily relate to Colie and her insecurities, love the diamond-in-the-rough Norman, and appreciate Morgan and Isabel's mix of wisdom and mistakes.  Keeping the Moon is shorter than some of Sarah Dessen's more recent novels, but captures that same spark that keeps me coming back for more.

Book Review: Every Day

I had been waiting anxiously to get my hands on a copy of David Levithan’s new release, Every Day.  I’m not sure if my library didn’t have one at first, or if someone else got to it before me, but I practically did a happy dance the day that I finally found a copy on the shelf.  My dear friend Tracy read it as soon as it came out and highly recommended it to me.  Then, once it was on my radar, it was like I saw reviews of this book everywhere.  And everyone that read this book simply raved about this.  I read reviews where people declared it was the best book they had read all year, or even the best book they had read EVER. 

 So by the time I got my hands on a copy, I had pretty high expectations for Every Day.  And it definitely did not disappoint.  This book was simply fantastic.  The basic premise is fascinating: A is a soul without a body.  Every day, s/he wakes up in a different body.  S/he never jumps large geographic distances or age groups—s/he is pretty much always in a 16-year-old (which is how old s/he is) and seems to stay in about a four-hour radius (unless the host body travels a long way that day).  But there are no limitations of sex, socioeconomic status, health…. Or anything else.  A is in each body for one day, no more or less.  So s/he lives drastically different lives, every day.  I was just fascinated by some of the different lives that A enters…. a younger sister who A inspires to stand up to her big brother, or an addict that A struggles to keep from drugs for just that one day, or a deeply depressed girl that A intervenes to save.

 So just the premise of the book had me hooked.  Then we get to the actual storyline: while in the body of a boy named Justin, A meets Rhiannon, Justin’s girlfriend, and falls in love with her.  In the following days, A cannot stop thinking about Rhiannon.  And for the first time, A decides that living his own life might be more important than maintaining the status quo in the lives he inhabits for a day.  So every day, in different bodies, he tries to find his way back to Rhiannon.

 Can a relationship like that work?  Can Rhiannon learn to love A, even though he’s never in the same body twice?  (See, I fell into the trap of referring to A as “he,” even though s/he’s not really either gender…. but since some of his most important encounters happen in male bodies, I tend to think of him that way.)  And what will those people remember the next day, when they regain possession of their own bodies?  In at least one case, a boy realizes that he has been “possessed” for a day and starts what amounts to a witch hunt for A.

 There are so many different threads of story and thought running through this book.  It introduces so many interesting ideas.  I could spend hours thinking about any of the various concepts in this book, yet it never feels overcrowded, preachy, or overwhelming.

 I had previously read some collaborations by David Levithan (Will Grayson, Will Grayson with John Green and both Nick and Norah’s InfinitePlaylist and Dash and Lily’s Book ofDares with Rachel Cohn), but I had never read any of his other solo works.  I simply fell in love with Every Day and wholeheartedly agree with its many rave reviews.  I will definitely be reading more of David Levithan in 2013!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Book Review: The Messenger

Last month, I re-read The Messenger by Lois Lowry.  This is the third book in her Giver sequence—until her recent publication of Son, it functioned as the conclusion of the cycle.  Reading Son led me into a cycle of my own—it inspired me to go back and re-read the other three books so that I could appreciate it more fully, and reading the other three books then made me go back and read Son (again) to make sure I had appreciated all its nuances.  Having now completed all of that reading, I can honestly say that I am wowed by Lois Lowry.  I love all the subtle ways in which she intertwines these stories, written over the course of two decades, and I love how she creates a distinct feeling of hope and joy for humanity in the midst of THE original YA dystopian society.

In The Messenger, the main character is Matty.  This is the same spunky young rag-tag adventurer who we met as “the fiercest of the fierce” in Gathering Blue, where he was a lovable but peripheral character to Kira’s story.  In The Messenger, Matty is now a young adult, dreaming of assuming his true role in the Village (and in life).  Here, it’s Kira who’s the peripheral character (though still important to the story).  Jonas from The Giver also reappears, now the Leader of Village.  Even Gabe (from The Giver) gets a passing reference, though his own story doesn’t emerge until Son.

 Matty lives with Seer, a wise old blind man (who also happens to be Kira’s father) in Village, a once-idyllic settlement that has traditionally accepted all strangers who have been rejected by other societies.  But a dark force is working on Village.  Its people are trading away the best parts of themselves in exchange for half-formed dreams or creature comforts.  The Forest surrounding the Village becomes physically darker and more dangerous, reflecting the souls of the townspeople.

 Matty serves as Villager’s Messenger, the only one who dares to venture to outlying communities.  And like Jonas and Kira, Matty has a Gift.  He has healing within his hands.  And though he is young and has not yet received his True Name, Matty finds himself called upon to restore all that is good in his world.

 The Messenger is (unfortunately) not as multi-layered as The Giver and (thankfully) not as dark as Gathering Blue.  It provides a fascinating portrait of what people think they really want in life—and what they are willing to sacrifice to get it.  Its story is only further enriched by Son, in which Gabe takes up the mantle that Matty wields in this book.  All great reads for middle school students on up through adults.