Friday, February 25, 2011

The Alchemist by Paul Coelho

(Here's my second and much shorter review, I just didn't have it in me to redo it all!)

The Alchemist has a dreamy feel to it.  It is calming to read and I agree with another reviewer that it feels like a bedtime story.  It is written simply, and doesn't try to hide it's intended meaning very deep.  I liked it and I recommend it. 

This story is an allegory or a parable about a shepherd who is referred to as "the boy" and the journey he makes toward self-actualization.  I think it would have fit well in my high school philosophy class, you know with Siddhartha and Candide.  In the beginning he meets an old king.  The King explains, "Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is.....but, as time passes, a mysterious force begins to convince them that it will be impossible for them to realize their Personal Legend."  So the boys sets off to follow his.  He, observes, "No matter how many detours and adjustments it made, the caravan moved toward the same compass point.  Once obstacles were overcome, it returned to its course, sighting on a star that indicated the location of the oasis."  And so it goes for him.

Along the way he discovers the Language of the World, which connects everyone regardless of culture or language.  He eventually explains this as the Soul of the World.  I always like allusions to us all being connected.  When the boy taps into this, miracles happen. 

Here are some more quotes I liked:

His father said, "Amongst us, the only ones who travel are the shepherds."
"Well, then I'll be a shepherd."

"There was a moment of silence so profound that it seemed the city was asleep...It was as if the world had fallen silent because the boy's soul had." 

"It is we who nourish the Soul of the World, and the world we live in will be either better or worse, depending on whether we become better or worse.  And that's where the power of love comes in.  Because when we love, we always strive to become better than we are."  LOVE IT.

When the book is almost over, the boy has an epiphany and realizes, "On the way toward realizing his own Personal Legend, he had learned all that he needed to know, and had experienced everything he might have dreamed of."  And maybe that should have been the end.  He had realized truths, gained knowledge, shared beliefs, and I really liked all of it.  But what happens next seems kind of dumb to me.   Maybe that was Coelho's intention, that we realize the journey is more important than the end.  Because the end kind of altered my affection for the book.

Having re-read my notes, and typed up some of my favorite quotes, I realize how much there is to like in The Alchemist.  I really liked the boy, and how he was sincerely questioning and learning all the time.  I like the simple characters that he associates with and how they each help him understand something.

So what did you think?  What were your favorite parts?  If you haven't read it, hopefully you will know from this review whether or not it's your sort of book!

Pity Party

I hit something wrong while doing my final spell check, and my The Alchemist review was auto-saved into nothingness.  I just spent the first 45 minutes of my birthday desperately trying to recover it because, obviously, it was my best review ever.  So now I will cry myself to sleep.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Umbrella Summer By Lisa Graff

So, I think going in if I had realized this was written for upper elementary (which I now think it is), I might have liked it a little more.  There are times when Annie comes off a little like Junie B. Jones, and it caught me off guard.

I liked the sweet characters.  Annie is a 10 year old, who has become overly cautious since her older brother died.  She wears a lot of bandaids, wears knee pads and a helmet even after she gets off her bike.  It is a sad story of how this tragedy is affecting her family.  She offends her best friend, snubs a boy in the neighborhood, and ultimately befriends an older woman who moves in across the street. 

I liked Annie, I think she was an interesting character.  I loved when she got her hands on a huge medical reference book, and how she poured over it. Or when she describes what another girl is wearing then adds, "I wish I had a polka-dot headband."

There are some really sad moments when her parents are failing her because they are consumed with their grief.  Like when her mom tells Annie to say one thing she is happy about, and Annie thinks hard, then comes up with a good list.  But then her worries about Annie are overshadowed with her own sadness and she doesn't go to the picnic.  If she had gone, it would have giving Annie something to be happy about.  So sad.

This story does end on a better note.  Annie's parents wake up a bit, and having sweet Mrs. Finch as a friend helps Annie deal with her sadness.  The title comes from the analogy that Mrs. Finch tells Annie.  "So there you are, with your umbrella still open above you, and there's no more rain at all.  You may not be getting wet, but you're missing the sunshine."   She also tells Annie, "It's easier to be worried than to be sad."   It ends with reconciliations, fun, and sunshine.

I would recommend this book.  I passed it on to my 11-year-old, and he liked it OK.  I think a girl his age would like it more.  It deals with adult themes, but I think in a younger way.  I would have liked it in elementary school for sure.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Monday, February 14, 2011

Friday, February 11, 2011

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years By Donald Miller

I was really excited to read this because my sister loved it so much.  She has been giving me good book recommendations my whole life!  And I really enjoyed reading it.  I'm still thinking about things he wrote.

Donald Miller wrote a book that was successful, and some guys wanted to make it into a movie.  As they start writing, they need to create a more interesting protagonist.  And so Don begins to evaluate his life as a story.  "The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won't make a story meaningful, it won't make a life meaningful either."  When I did some research about this book, the two things mentioned are his progress in making a movie about the first book, and his bike ride across the US to raise money for clean water in Africa.  And I think those are the book ends to this story, but what was most valuable to me, was his self-evaluations and efforts to positively change what he was doing in his life.  I know I've mentioned this before, but I always wonder if we really, really can permanently change our lives.  I know in theory it's true, but to actually overcome bad habits, stay motivated, and be successful seems almost impossible sometimes.

As Don begins to find positive ways to spend his time and invest his energy, he comes in contact with and makes friends with tons of interesting people.  Bob, one of them, is absolutely amazing, you will enjoy reading his story.  Another friend, an artist, says, "He wondered out loud if the point wasn't the search but the transformation the search creates."  Don writes about how we often need a catalyst to change, something that forces us out of our routine.  "Humans are designed to seek comfort and order, so if they have comfort and order, they tend to plant themselves, even if their comfort isn't all that comfortable.  And even if they secretly want for something better."  And also, "People love to have lived a great story, but few people like the work it takes to make it happen." Oh, I am so often one of those people!  And reading this really did make me want to make my life a better story!  I can totally relate to that plateau you reach and sometimes stop at in your efforts to improve. "They get into the middle and discover it was harder than they thought.  They can't see the distant shore anymore, and they wonder if their paddling is moving them forward...."

It doesn't take long in the book for Don to begin talking about God.  At first he mentions imagining talking to God after he dies, and being held accountable for what he did with his life. (This fits in great with my beliefs.)  And he realizes that "God will probably sit there looking at me, wondering what to talk about next."  While it becomes obvious that Don is religious, I believe that he wanted those who might not share his beliefs to also benefit from this book.  So the meaning is there, but I wouldn't call this entirely a religious book.

"If I have a hope, it's that God sat over the dark nothing and wrote you and me, specifically, into the story, and put us in with the sunset and the rainstorm as though to say, Enjoy your place in my story. The beauty of it means you matter, and you can create within it even as I have created you."  Yes, I think so.

There is a chapter that I REALLY liked called, "The Reason God Hasn't Fixed You Yet."  And I've been trying to quote from it or paraphrase, and I'm afraid if I do it will be misunderstood.  Just believe me, it's good. Oh, and the story, "How Jason Saved His Family" made me cry, seriously.

Don Miller has a sense of humor, and the parts in this book that made me laugh aren't forced.  Like he talks about reading an article about advertising and how it causes us to think in "wish-fulfillment dynamics." On the other side of the page was an ad for a specialized remote control.  Then he says, "I had trouble finishing the article about the effects of advertising because I kept pressing my finger against the picture of the remote, imagining my television turning on and off."  Also he doesn't over explain, he just assumes his readers are intelligent and can draw the conclusions he's making throughout his book.

Here's another great point, "When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are."

And another, "A good storyteller doesn't just tell a better story, though.  He invites other people into the story with him, giving them a better story too."

He talks about the need for opposition and sacrifice.  He comes to the conclusion that, "It wasn't necessary to win for the story to be great, it was only necessary to sacrifice everything."  This made me think about Young Women lessons that I've given about sacrifice.  Which have in turn made me ask myself, "what do I sacrifice?"  And the truth is that often it's not very much.  I am usually willing to do great acts of charity or service when it fits neatly into my life.  I know that it is more meaningful when it requires me to miss out on something, or inconvenience myself to help someone else.

"It made me think about the hard lives so many people have had, the sacrifices they've endured, and how those people will see heaven differently from those who have had easier lives."

I could seriously quote this book all day long.  I'll end with this one:
"I  knew a story was calling me...and once you know what it takes to live a better story, you don't have a choice.  Not living a better story would be like deciding to die, deciding to walk around numb until you die."

I recommend it.  I thought it was great start to finish.  I took lots of notes (obviously).

PS. THIS IS MY 100TH REVIEW!  Look for a commemoration next week!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

All About Lulu by Jonathan Evison

So, I don't recommend this book.  The language, subject matter and actions of the characters are not what I would recommend to my friends!  But even if those things had been cut, or handled more delicately, I'm not sure I would have liked this book very much.

Will is a tragic character.  His mom dies when he was 10, and his brothers and Dad are meat-loving body builders.  He doesn't fit in, and literally stops growing when he loses his mom.  "I was living inside of myself; that is, my world was inside out.  I had senses, but they were all on the inside.  The sense that something was missing.  The sense that this missing thing would elude me forever..." It is so sad.  Then his dad remarries an old sweetheart, who is also a grief councilor.  Along with her comes a step-sister that Will falls in love with.  "...allowing this miracle of a girl to tickle the edge of my despair simply by listening to the sound of my voice, and something opened in my chest and tingled like a frostbitten had regaining its warmth." They become best friends, he keeps notebooks filled of his memories of her, and a few other weird obsessive things happen.  You are happy for Will because he is happy.  Of course that is all mysteriously shattered when Lulu goes away for the summer and something happens.  Next there are these painful years where she ignores him.  Then as young adults they have a few intense emotional scenes together.  It goes up and down and up and down.  Not until the VERY end is the big secret revealed to Will and the reader (although I was pretty sure what the deal was about half way through.)  For me it went on too long.  I couldn't help but think that in real life it would have been talked about sooner.  BUT the ending is done well.

There are somethings I liked alot about this book:

1) I think Evison has a nice way with words.  They are clever without being too over the top.  I liked the style of his writing.

2) I liked the way the family sticks together and in the end there are two great scenes of reconciliation.  First with his younger brothers, and second, with his father.  Both are really beautiful.  Really.  There is this time when Will looks back at awkward family dinners and realizes how much he misses them, and how they held the family together. 

3) There is some good dialouge about whether people can or do change.  Some of this is trite, but it's a theme I think about a lot.  I think there are some good ideas expressed by the characters, and more good ideas shown through their actions. 

4) Like any true coming-of-age novel, Will grows up.  Most of the supporting characters go through some type of life-altering change.

But sadly, for me, the cons out weighed the pros.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Mudhouse Sabbath by Lauren F. Winner

It's safe to say I have never read any book like this before.  I can't even think of a comparison.  But I loved reading it, and I would recommend it to almost everyone I know.

Lauren Winner converted to Christianity from Orthodox Judaism when she was in college.  That alone is mind-blowing to me.  In this book she writes about 11 spiritual practices she misses from her "jewish ways."  Then as she gives clear explanations of each practice, she explains how she is trying to incorporate it into her Christian life.  The information is great, the writing is great, and reading it made me want to be a better person.  It inspired me to evaluate my devotion, my spiritual practices, and what I could learn from traditions and practices of a religion I know very little about.

In her introduction she says, "Practice is to Judaism what belief is to Christianity." Then she writes, "your faith might come and go, but your practice ought not to waver."  This totally resonates for me.  There are times when I might be questioning my beliefs, or not feeling as convinced about something, but I just keep doing the things I know I'm supposed to be doing, and it comes around again.  You know?  And I think it's when you stop doing the things, that you stop believing.  Not the other way around.

I loved when she talked about the Sabbath.  "In observing the Sabbath, one is both giving a gift to God and imitating Him."  Her descriptions of ushering in the Sabbath, and then enjoying it, were beautiful.  I'll admit I've let some things slip in my observance, and reading this made me want to work more on Saturday, so that my Sabbath can truly be Holy.

The chapter on mourning was fascinating to me.  Judaism has these very specific, structured time lines for mourning.  I loved the part about the prayer that must be said twice a day, but must be said with 10 other people.  So no one is left alone in their sorrow.  When Winner has a close friend die, she is reminded that "I might not know what to do in the face of this death, but the tradition that raised me knew what to do."  This made me think of the way that having practices and procedures can help you to deal with the pain.

Winner has a chapter on fasting.  I love that she admits up front that she doesn't like to fast.  So I think this chapter was especially personal in her attempts to find meaning and balance. "It is not meant to distract us from the really real, but rather to silence us so that we can hear things as they most truly are."  This is a nice way of saying what I know, that fasting humbles us and makes it easier for us to be sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit.  She also quotes a Rabbi saying, "When I am sated, it is easy to feel independent.  When I am hungry, it is possible to remember where my dependence lies."  One thing she doesn't mention, which is the only way I can fast, is fasting with a purpose.  Having a particular need that I focus on all day gives meaning to my fasts.

Another great quote: "Most good and holy work is sometimes tedious, but these tasks are burning away our old selves and ushering in the persons God has created us to be."  I love it.

There's another chapter about community, and I love that our church puts so much emphasis on creating a community, or family among believers.  I know it isn't always successful, but it can be.

Look this one up.  Its a tiny little volume that was both thought-provoking and inspiring for me!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


This is book is about a girl who commits suicide in highschool.  But before she does she records cassette tapes telling all the stories that led to her feelings of hopelessness that led to her choice.  Then she makes a list of the people on the tapes, and insists they listen to and pass on the box full of tapes. It is very sad, but also captivating.  Just as the narrator is sucked in and listens to the tapes continuously, even though he wants to stop, I couldn't put the book down. This is a book I would have really liked in highschool.  Just like I liked Go Ask Alice, or Goodbye Paper Doll, or any number of YA books that deal with difficult dark topics.  I might even put it with A Separate Peace or Catcher in the Rye.  (In topic and style, not necessarily quality),  I think this book does a good job of showing highschool dynamics.   I think it is realistic.  Sadly, it made me think of a few teenagers that I know.

The first time I ever heard of suicide I was 9, and a girl at the junior high up the hill killed herself.  Everyone was talking about it for awhile, and I remember hearing it was because of a mean note some girls gave her.  My mom helped me understand a bit more by explaining that there was probably a lot more to it than that.  The note might have just been the final thing that made her do it.  Everytime I hear tragic stories like these, I want to know why.  Maybe so I can make sure they don't happen, or couldn't happen to people I know, but also just because.  I think we all do.  So I liked the premise of the book.  All these students are stunned by the suicide, then they get their chance to really know why.  BUT since they are all "on the tapes,"  they are somehow connected.  Either a reason why, or someone who didn't stop her.

The writing switches back and forth between the narrator's, Clay's, thoughts, and Hannah's recorded voice on the tapes.  There are parts where this is done really well, switching rapidly.

Here are some well-written phrases I marked:

"Hitting PLAY that first time was easy...I had no idea what I was about to hear.  But this time, it's one of the most frightening things I've ever done.  I turn the volume down and press PLAY."

"This tape isn't about why you did what you did, Alex.  It's about the repercussions of what you did.  More specifically, it's about the repercussions to me.  It's about those things you didn't plan--things you couldn't plan."  This is a recurring theme.  One person does something, and it affects others' opinions of Hannah, and then they act accordingly.  So maybe what someone does isn't as bad as the series of events that occur because of what they did.

"Right then, in that office, with the realization that no one knew the truth about my life, my thoughts about the world were shaken."

I was annoyed by the endingn when she drags a teacher into it.  It felt tacked on, and not as developed as the rest.  Almost like a poorly done afterthought.  Also, she alludes to her parents being overwhelmed by other issues, and also to her life before moving here, but both are just casually mentioned.  I kept waiting for either topic to be explored further, and I think it's kind of weird that they weren't. 

So who would I recommend this too?  It's hard to say.  If you are intrigued by my review, read it.  I think that the right highschool student would like it, but it addresses some tough topics so I might not put it in their hands.  Only a couple of swear words, and the more graphic scenes are in sinuated instead of spelled out word for word.  Chris Crutcher is quoted on the cover.  It's been years since I read anything by him, but I think this book would fall in the same category as his books.