Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Alchemist

            After my favorable experience with Jorge Luis Borges I decided to try another South American author.  I’ve seen Paulo Coelho’s work around a lot so I set about finding one of his novels for sale.  “The Alchemist” is his most popular and widely available book so I determined it would be a good place to start and now, after having read it, I’ve also determined it will be an excellent place to stop.  And in this context excellent is not a compliment.

            The story is about a boy, presumably in his mid to late teens, who is working as a shepherd in Europe.  He has a dream of a treasure at the pyramids and after a conversation with a gypsy and a godlike old man decides that it is his Personal Legend to find this treasure.  Hold on.  What’s this? Did I capitalize “Personal Legend?”  Why would I do such a thing? I mean neither “Personal” nor “Legend” are proper nouns or in “Personal’s” case even a noun.  No, I capitalized “Personal Legend” because it was capitalized throughout the text of “The Alchemist” along with “Soul of the World,” “Language of the World,” and probably a few others phrases that I don’t care enough about to look up.

            A few frivolous capitalizations may seem to be an odd thing to be upset about but these obnoxiously common out of place capitals are a good representation of everything that is wrong with the book.  “The Alchemist” is as heavy handed as any book I have ever read.  The story is an incredibly unsubtle allegory for following one’s dreams, the characters are one dimensional devices, only the most basic of words are used, the sentences are as inelegant and infantile as something one would find in a first grade reader and the worldview is naively simplistic and unbelievable.  Then, after dealing with all those shortcomings, when I see a clumsy pseudo-meaningful phrase decked out with those gluttonous capital letters I feel like chucking “The Alchemist” at a wall. That’s covered with spikes. And on fire.

            Okay, perhaps I’m exaggerating my reaction, but on the whole I found “The Alchemist” to be an incredibly frustrating read.  There is something to be said for simplicity and I’m a big proponent of being straightforward, but this book takes all the downsides of these qualities and weaves them into a preachy tale aimed at the lowest common denominator.  I don’t like to be completely negative so (Actually who am I kidding? I love writing scathing reviews and this love is pretty much the only reason I finished the book, but I refuse to cave into my ugly desires so here is something positive) I found two upsides to this book.  The first is it seems this novella has helped people and no matter my own opinions on the book that is definitely a noble result.  I also have to admit I found the prologue, a re-imagining of the story of Narcissus, to be very enjoyable and thought provoking two pages.

            Overall this book was not for me and as a result I would never recommend it.  “The Alchemist” is, however, an “international bestselling phenomenon” as the cover so boldly proclaims therefore someone, somewhere out there must think this book is pretty great.  Whoever that is I don’t think I’ll be ever be able to understand so... three cheers for diversity I suppose.  Or as Paulo Coelho would put it: Three Cheers for Diversity.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


            I’ve started and restarted writing this post several times now and I just can’t express what I want to say eloquently so I’m going to throw back-story, hooks, analogies and whatever other devices I overuse out the window and get to the point: Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges is good. Really good.

There's something intangibly wonderful
about well worn books.
            Borges was an Argentinean 
writer active in the 20th century and best known, at least in the United States, for his short stories.  His first collection to be translated out of its original Spanish and into English was Ficciones.

            Going into Ficciones I expected the pieces to be rather similar to many other short stories I’ve read: something about a person struggling to overcome an obstacle and then in the end the protagonist has a revelation or grows in some minute way.  Though echoes of this type of structure exist in several of Ficciones stories, individual human actions are not the main concern of this collection.  Borges’ gaze (Figuratively, of course. Borges was blind later in life) is far broader with his stories questioning both reality and perception.

            The unfortunate reality, no matter how Borges might try to twist it, is his stories are far from accessible.  Ficciones though under 200 pages is neither a quick nor an easy read.  Much of this difficulty comes from the ideas Borges plays with in the stories. A real world created from fictional encyclopedias, the implications of rewriting a book word for word, the downsides of infinite memory, parallel universes: these aren’t easy concepts grasp and especially not in the many faceted way in which Borges examines them. Subject matter, however, isn’t the only element making these stories difficult to understand.  It’s clear from the collection that Borges is a very intelligent, well-read and scholarly man.  While these are all admirable qualities, they often work to the reader’s disadvantage.  Many of the selections are written in the manner of a highbrow examination of a fictional author’s work with numerous obscure references, proper nouns and needlessly difficult words thrown in for good measure.  The translator might be at fault for some of these extra layers of difficulty but it’s doubtless Borges was responsible for quite a bit of the complexity.  The writing style does succeed at making the story deeper and more intricate, but whether any of Borges already dense stories actually needed this, is a matter of personal opinion.

            I found Ficciones to be one of the most fascinating and perspective altering books I’ve ever read.  Each story forces the reader to think and revaluate realities that are often left unquestioned.  I liked the first half of the collection slightly better than the second but the whole book is filled with gems.  The stories that stood out to me are: “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” “The Circular Ruins,” “Funes the Memorious,” “Three Versions of Judas,” and “The South.”  If you’re looking for a good but challenging read I heartily recommend Borges.  For those of you unsure if you would enjoy his writings, many of his stories are available online for free and are well worth a try.

WWW Wednesdays (August 17)

To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…
• What are you currently reading?
• What did you recently finish reading?
• What do you think you’ll read next?

I don't usually do this "bookish meme" (oh, how I hate the word meme) but since laziness got the better of me yesterday and I didn't do a Teaser Tuesday I decided to give this one a whirl.

• What are you currently reading?
I'm currently reading "Pnin" by Vladimir Nabokov, best known for writing "Lolita."  I'm not very far into the book but so far the it's a clever and funny look into a pathetic professor's life.  Humor doesn't normally age well but this 1953 book is still hilarious and I'm looking forward to getting back to reading it.

• What did you recently finish reading?
I recently went on a mini South American writer kick and read "Ficciones" by Jorge Luis Borges (which I loved) and "The Alchemist" by Paulo Coelho (which I didn't).  The reviews will be forthcoming as soon as I can force myself to sit down and write more than three coherent sentences in a row.

• What do you think you’ll read next?
The next book I'll tackle largely depends on how long it will take to finish "Pnin".  If I finish "Pnin" before Friday I'll probably read "Mao II," a book by one of my favorite authors, Don DeLillo, that has been sitting in my to-read pile and tempting me for about a month.  Otherwise I'll read "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac next in conjunction with a long road trip.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


            Though the old adage goes “you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover” I like to maintain that a good cover doesn’t hurt. There are some books that just leap off the shelf.  “Survivor” by Chuck Palahnuik with its construction orange cover is one of them. Mix the alarming hue with dotted white lines that show where creases are made in making a paper airplane and embossed letters in the same blinding orange and you have one brilliant and unique cover.  And adages be damned, because brilliant and unique are also the adjectives I would use to describe the contents of this novel.
            The details of the plot are best left to be discovered while reading through the book (even the description on the back gives away too much in my opinion) but at its most general the novel is Tender Branson’s narration of his life story into a black box on a crashing airplane.  As the strange dictation circumstances might imply, Tender’s life has been anything but normal.  The whole book is a surreal parody of religion and pop culture.

            As funny as much of the novel is, Palanuik doesn’t hold back on sobering truths.  When the pilot of the airplane is explaining to Tender how to use the black box and when the plane will crash he says to Tender:

“‘You don’t know when the fuel will run out.  There’s always the chance you could die right in the middle of your life story.’
            And I yelled, So what else is new?”

Palahniuk also makes very good use of both direct and clever symbols and parallels to get his point across.  One of the more unique techniques he applies is a backwards page count starting with page 289 and ending with page 1 giving the sense of a countdown.  Style aside, the plot is engaging and the details never cease to be interesting. However, the disturbing zaniness that gives this book its spark and makes it one of my favorite books I’ve read all year, will just as easily alienate people comfortable with books that tell more traditional stories.

            “Survivor” by Chuck Palahnuik is an odd book.  It’s crude, uncomfortably dark and populated with mostly morally vapid characters.  Yet at the same time it’s meaningful, funny and the characters are, in their own way, endearing.  Whether you can reconcile these disparate parts and enjoy the book largely depends on your own degree of oddness.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

My First Summer in the Sierra

            I recently visited Yosemite and perhaps I’ve watched too many National Park documentaries or accidentally absorbed what my transcendentalist obsessed high school English teacher was telling me, but Yosemite and John Muir are inseparably linked in my mind.  So in celebration of my arrival at the scenic, yet tourist overrun park that would make old John cry himself to sleep at night if he knew one has to fight through Disneyland sized crowds to see a simple waterfall, I decided to buy and read a book by John Muir. “My First Summer in the Sierra” was the one I happened to pick up.

            John Muir, for the uninitiated, was an American naturalist who spent years frolicking in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and other wild places, chronicling his experiences. His accounts and enthusiasm led to his founding of the Sierra Club in 1892 and also proved instrumental in the creation of the National Park Service.  As someone who generally greatly enjoys national parks I figured I should give Muir a try even though his writings aren’t the type that would generally appeal to me.

            Now I realize I just provided two different reasons for why I read this book, which may seem superfluous (and probably is) but I would argue that you really need some sort of strong conviction to make it through Muir’s account.  That’s not to say Muir’s book is bad because it absolutely isn’t.  There’s a lot to love about it actually.  His writing manages to be accessible without sacrificing his beautiful prose and his enthusiasm is infectious, though he uses a few too many exclamation marks for my cynical tastes.  The difficulty with “My First Summer in the Sierras” is it’s basically 350 pages of description.  There is a small amount of narrative since this is the 1869 diary of the summer Muir spent as a member of a sheep herding expedition, but it appears Muir did very little in his actual job so the account is almost entirely description ranging from the poetic to the scientific.

            If anyone is thinking of reading a book by Muir I urge you to ask yourself why you want to read it.  If you want beautiful passages about nature I would recommend getting a book of collected quotes from Muir because his descriptions are much more meaningful and palatable in small doses, but if you want a taste of who Muir the man was go ahead and try one of his full books.  The side of Muir that is often disregarded in his public profile comes out.  Don’t misunderstand, Muir is not some monster in disguise with a dark history, but reading Muir’s mixed opinions on the Native Americans and even a veiled reference to the recent end of slavery in the nation is fascinating.  My favorite parts are when the usually overjoyed Muir breaks the character history has set for him and starts complaining about something.  The naturalist’s hatred for small black ants and sheep seems to only be surpassed by the disgust he shows towards shepherds. An account from the unfortunate shepherd who spent most of his summer with Muir has the potential to absolutely hilarious.

            “My First Summer in the Sierras” is well written, insightful and an important piece of work.  Despite these positives it’s not a book that will appeal to many people and unless you’re fascinated with how Muir presents himself in an unfiltered form or think works by Emerson and Thoreau make for riveting reads, I would skip it.

Teaser Tuesdays "Ficciones"

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
     I'm currently reading "Ficciones" by Jorge Luis Borges and it was very hard to select a quote.  Borges doesn't go for simple, powerful lines but instead weaves a story with slowly growing layers of detail.  This makes for an absolutely fascinating read but does not lend itself to short spoiler free quotes so this is the best I could find:

     "'The work will make no pact with the impostor Jesus Christ.' Buckley did not believe in God, but he wanted to demonstrate to this nonexistent God that mortal man was capable of conceiving a world." --"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" by Jorge Luis Borges 

artwork by Ben Clarkson

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Road

            I finished “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy awhile back and I’ve been delaying the review because I’m really at a loss as to what to say.  The premise is pretty simple: it’s about an unnamed man and his son surviving in a post-apocalyptic world.  There really isn’t much more that happens.  The boy and man scavenge for food, evade cannibalistic tribes of humans that roam the desolate world, and constantly face death.  The sparse story reflects the meager existence of the two main characters whose worlds start and end with each other.

            Despite the minimalist approach to story, the novel never drags or seems dull.  “The Road” is driven by its atmosphere, which is gritty, dirty and void of hope.  Throughout the whole story I couldn’t help but be reminded of the world in the popular video game “Fallout 3,” an association which unfortunately spoiled the book for me a bit since “Fallout 3” took post-apocalyptia more lightheartedly than this utterly humorous novel.  Though with the topic of the destructive powers of video games aside (I kid, I kid. Video games are great), it can’t be denied that McCarthy really excels at setting the grim tone with his prose.  Much like the story, the writing was simple yet powerful.  The sentences are short and to the point suggesting a rather simplified and animalistic thought process that arose in the wake of civilization’s destruction.

            I have to admit I didn’t completely “get” this book.  I followed the religious and moral undertones well enough, I think, but the end still puzzles me.  I won’t say any spoilers but the final event of the novel is so incongruent with the rest of the occurrences in the novel I’m stuck wondering what it means, if it’s as it seems or if it even occurred in the post-apocalyptic world.  This isn’t a complaint, just a musing.  There’s nothing wrong with a book that makes you think.

            “The Road” is a very human look at the apocalypse, a subsection of dystopian literature that is rarely explored with such mastery.  I wouldn’t say this is an enjoyable read because the subject matter is far too depressing. I also wouldn’t say that a year from now I’ll be thinking back and remembering it’s message often but I do believe this book has the potential to be a memorable read, especially for parents.  The book never quite clicked for me and I don’t know why since it has all the markings of a book I would like.  It’s not a novel I would actively recommend but I wouldn’t try to persuade someone against reading it either.  In the end to most eloquent thing I can say about it is that, “The Road” was okay.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Teaser Tuesdays "My First Summer in the Sierra"

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
"It seems extravagant to spend hours so precious in sleep... Pity the poor beloved needs it, weak, weary, forspent; oh the pity of it, to sleep in the midst of eternal beautiful motion instead of gazing forever, like the stars." --"My First Summer in the Sierra" by John Muir

Grab On to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way

            I promised a review of “Grab On to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way” by Bryan Charles quite awhile ago but things got in the way and though I finished the book over a week ago I haven’t had time to write a blog on it until now.  I first found this book on a library shelf and I was immediately attracted to its fantastic cover and unwieldy long name.  Acting on these very superficial opinions I checked it out, went home, curled up on a sofa and began to read it.  This is what I found:

            “When you grow up you can be anything, they said, but that’s a lie too.  So I go to band practice and plug in the Twin Reverb, the Stratocaster, and the noise is a beautiful plane crashing into my face.  So I make a gun with my finger and thumb and aim it heavenward.  So I dream of a landscape, this one, darkened by the slow rolling shadows of cloud-sized tits.”

            I don’t like dealing with long quotes but the first paragraph of this novel sums up everything this book has to offer far better than I could say it.  Angst, music, lust.  The three driving themes of this book have been done time and time again by hundreds of different authors but Charles manages to make it seem fresh in no small part due to his writing style.  Every sentence is expertly crafted and I could go to any page at random and pull a tragically beautiful quote out.  

           This is the main reason why (full disclosure time) this isn't the first time I’ve read this book.  It’s been about a year since I first read it and I finally found a used copy of it for sale prompting this recent reread.  Though I loved it the first time, now that I’ve read it again I can easily say it’s become one of my favorite books.

            Despite this, I should acknowledge it’s not a book for everyone.  The basic plot is about 17-year-old Vim Sweeney’s coming to age in early 90’s Michigan.  This means angst and a lot of it.  Vim’s motives aren’t always obvious and he’s not a completely sympathetic character, but that’s really aside the point.  He embodies the turmoil that comes with the empty space on the cusp of adulthood and though his actions are sometimes idiotic, in the end he’s really just a pretty smart, kind hearted, lost kid.  The supporting characters form an interesting and believable cast, each with enough depth to make them more than just flimsy devices to help Vim along with his journey.  Though the writing and cast is sound, this book will probably appeal most to people who were teens in the early 90’s or people who are currently teens. Even if you don’t fit into either of these categories, if you’re in the mood for a good coming to age story I urge you to give this a try because, if nothing else, there are few books with prose as piercing and poetic as this novel offers.  Since I can’t resist I’ll leave you with one final quote:

            “I want to take a ten-year shower.  There is the night to wash off me, all the doubt and dark things lingering.  I feel naked in the brightness now, exposed, like my skin is peeling off and I’m showing her everything, for the first time showing my mother my heart, my fear, the sunken bruises that never heal.”