Lessons Learned From The Alchemist

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A little while ago I read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. And I loved it. The story not only resonated with me, but it also caused me to reflect on my own life and my own Personal Legend (more about that to come).

The story itself is quite simple: Santiago, a young shepherd in Andalusia, has a recurring dream about a treasure at the base of the Pyramids. He ultimately decides to make the journey to Egypt to find the treasure. On his way, he encounters people from different walks of life and learns about the world.

Perhaps the beauty of the book lies in its simplicity. In just a few words, Coelho is able to convey universal truths about life that are applicable to anyone at any point in his or her own journey.

Some of my favorite moments:

At one point, Santiago loses all he has to a thief. He has given up everything to travel to a strange land, and now he is alone and possesses nothing. He realizes he has two ways to look at the situation: he is either the poor victim of a thief or he is an adventurer on a quest for treasure. He decides, “I’m an adventurer, looking for treasure.” In such a simple way, Coelho shows us that we too can decide whether we are victims of life’s trials or whether we are adventurers on a quest to fulfill our Personal Legend.

Along the same lines, there comes a point where Coelho writes, “When each day is the same as the next, it’s because people fail to recognize the good things that happen in their lives every day that the sun rises.” It’s something that I don’t often think about, but now that I do, I realize how much truth the statement holds. There have been so many times when each day seems to blend into the next. I have a set routine: go to class, do homework, take exams, eat, sleep, repeat. And I forget to acknowledge good things that happen to me – because indeed, every day is like an adventure, and every day is full of good things, full of new and exciting possibilities. It’s all about how we look at it.

And, above all: the Personal Legend. Coelho uses this term to mean one’s destiny or purpose in life. The entire story revolves around the fact that everyone, every living thing, has a Personal Legend. A life’s calling. And we know what this calling is from a young age, but few of us pursue it. According to Coelho, the world’s biggest lie is that at some point in our lives we lose control and no longer have the ability to fulfill our Personal Legend. This is what we believe, but it’s not true. In fact, “people are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.” In other words, it’s never too late to start doing something you’ve always wanted to do.

I don’t want this post to become too long, so I’ll stop now (although there are really so many other moments and life lessons that struck me as incredibly thought-provoking and inspiring). I highly recommend reading The Alchemist if you haven’t already (or reread it if you have!). It’s a short read but contains so many universal truths.

Book Review: Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy

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The premise of this book is great. Marina, a teenage ballerina, and her father are forced to flee the Soviet Union in the 80s, shortly after Brezhnev’s death. Marina’s mother, who is also a famous ballerina, has been taken away by the Soviet government, and the story is about Marina’s life in New York. The possibility of being caught by the KGB looms over her. She wants to continue her dancing at Juilliard, but she doesn’t know who to trust. What if her dance partner is a spy?

The elements of espionage, action, and danger are what made me pick up the book. It seemed so exciting! It was also cool that it was set during the Cold War. Unfortunately, it fell short of my expectations.

The main problem with the book is that not much happened. I was halfway through and it still felt like the author was setting up the story. Thing is, the book is only about 280 pages, so there isn’t enough time or space to spend so long on exposition. As a result, even though it’s written pretty well, the story doesn’t really go anywhere. There isn’t any fast-paced action; it’s mostly Marina’s thoughts and dialogue about what could happen.

Marina and her mother also have a “sixth sense” which isn’t really explained well or developed. It was confusing to read at times because I wasn’t sure if something was actually happening or if it was just a vision. The idea of having visions also didn’t sit well with me. I don’t know if the author was going for magical realism here, but being able to see the past or the future seemed jarring in a book that otherwise adhered so much to reality.

As for the good stuff? Well, I loved the details about Russian culture woven into the story, and I also loved the references to music. Most of the chapters were song titles or had something to do with music, and I liked how Marina used these songs to tell her own story. As I mentioned before, the story is also written pretty well (the problem was with plot, not writing).

Overall though, I was disappointed with the book. It just wasn’t what I was looking for. I didn’t care enough about the characters to get into it as much as I wanted to. It seems that the author had some excellent ideas, but they weren’t executed as well as they could have been. This book probably wouldn’t be at the top of my list of recommended titles, but I do realize that it is the author’s first novel. I would definitely be interested to know what she writes about next.

Book Review: Don’t Call Me Ishmael

I won’t lie – I stayed up until 2 AM to finish this book. It was beautiful. Everything about it was beautiful, but what stuck out to me most was the author’s voice.

Here is what is says on the inside cover of the book:

By the time ninth grade begins, Ishmael Leseur knows it won’t be long before Barry Bagsley, the class bully, says, “Ishmael? What kind of wussy-crap name is that?” Ishmael’s perfected the art of making himself virtually invisible. But all that changes when James Scobie joins the class. Unlike Ishmael, James has no sense of fear – he claims it was removed during an operation.

Now nothing will stop James and Ishmael from taking on bullies, bugs, and Moby Dick, in the toughest, weirdest, most embarrassingly awful… and best year of their lives.

This book did everything a book is supposed to do. I laughed at all the funny parts. When Ishmael was embarrassed, I was squirming in my seat because I felt uncomfortable, too. And when he succeeded, I wanted to cheer for him.

But I think the biggest compliment to the author is the fact that I stayed up so late reading it! I had a decent chunk of the book left to read, but I knew I had to finish it that same night… THIS is what a book should do. And it’s been a long time since I felt this way about any book.

Was it perfect? Of course not. To be honest, I had a little bit of trouble getting into it at the beginning. But once I got into it, the author’s voice was so strong that any other fault could have been overlooked.

If you’re looking for something entertaining, quick, and beautiful, I would recommend Don’t Call Me Ishmael. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

The Old Man and the Sea

I couldn’t sleep last night because of this book. Which is strange, because I read it last December. I can’t tell you why it rushed back to me all of a sudden. But I can tell you how it made me feel.

I couldn’t sleep because each time I closed my eyes all I could see were the vast rolling waves. It wasn’t just a dark ocean; it was a menacing one. I was scared.

I was scared of that black, endless ocean. And the sharks. Oh man, the sharks! They were enough to strike terror in one’s heart.

I know I put this in the Book Reviews category, but it isn’t really a book review. It’s more of a “this book made me feel something and I want to share it” sort of thing. Certain books leave an imprint on my mind, and this book is one of them.

When a book doesn’t let me sleep at night, I know it’s good. When it doesn’t let me sleep almost a year after I’ve read it, I know it’s really good. And when I can see the ocean every time I close my eyes, and I can feel myself moving because of the waves tossing and turning and pitching below me, and I can feel the strength of that marlin, I know it’s really really  good. Actually, no – it’s more than that. It’s powerful.

I guess what I’m trying to say here in a sort of roundabout way is that a book doesn’t necessarily have to be long and fancy to be good. The Old Man and the Sea is 127 pages long. It’s not even really a novel. It’s a novella.

But I don’t think I will ever forget it.

Because it made me realize that there are things like this in the ocean:

I’m not saying that I didn’t know sharks existed before I read the book. But… they just didn’t seem real. It was like, “Oh yeah, sharks. No big deal.” Not like, “SHARKS!”

Hmm. I don’t think this is coming across the right way. I’m not trying to show that I’m afraid of sharks. I guess I’m trying to show that I’m in awe. In awe of the ocean, and all the creatures that live there.

And I didn’t really realize that until I read The Old Man and the Sea.

It wasn’t a perfect book (no book is – gasp!), but it was beautiful. And it made an impact.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I’m doing the ocean or the book justice right now. I feel like I’m just rambling and none of this actually makes sense.

So I’ll stop. Right now. And hope that you take away something meaningful from this post.

URLs for both pictures:

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/7/73/Oldmansea.jpg

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/2f/Isurus_oxyrinchus_by_mark_conlin2.JPG/220px-Isurus_oxyrinchus_by_mark_conlin2.JPG

Book Review: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

First off, let’s pretend that it has only been two days since my last post. All right. Now that that has been established, let’s continue.

So I read this book a while back, and it really made me think. About life.

The book is a collection of short essays by Robert Fulghum, and he basically sends the message that all we really need to know we already learned in kindergarten (surprise!). But in all seriousness, it’s kind of true. We learned to play nicely, share our things, clean up our messes, etc.

And even though I don’t agree with every single thing he writes, I do agree with most of it.

Honestly, if more people could remember the things they learned in kindergarten, the world would be a better place. If politicians could learn to play nicely, if presidents could learn to clean up their messes, if people in general would just say “please” and “thank  you” – what a world of difference it would make.

Aside from the content, I just loved Fulghum’s writing style. I felt as though he was right there, talking to me. I think that’s what made it so enjoyable to read.

One of my favorite essays that he wrote was about crayons. Crayola crayons, in particular. All the different color names – seriously, razzle dazzle rose? – and whatnot. There’s just a certain pleasure that comes from scribbling with crayons. And Robert Fulghum captured it perfectly.

During finals week, I spent much of my time coloring with crayons. I just brought my crayons to school, and my friends and I had a fine time coloring. There’s just this joy, this childlike satisfaction, this relaxing feeling that comes with a box of crayons. It’s included in the package. Free.

I could do a whole blog post just about crayons. Maybe another day. But for now, I just want to say that All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten is a beautiful book. One of the nicest I’ve ever read. Like the cover says – uncommon thoughts on common things. And you know what? It made me realize that I don’t have to be some amazing person who travels the world and learns anything and everything there is to know. I can learn things and make my own discoveries by doing the most mundane of tasks if I want to. (Although, I do love traveling.)

One last thing. About crayons. In case you were wondering (which I’m sure you were :)), Wikipedia has a list of all Crayola crayon colors under the sun:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Crayola_crayon_colors 

Look at the “magic scent” ones too. I mean, really, can you believe there are crayons that smell like leather jackets?