Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Alchemist

Title: The Alchemist
Author: Paulo Coelho
List: #94 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading? Yes.

The Alchemist is a novel that feels very much like a self-help book. It tells the story of a young shepherd who is trying to live out his “personal legend,” or destiny. The premise is that everyone has a destiny to fulfill, but that most people give up at some point along the way because they get distracted by material things or are held back by love. Through an old king that appears to the shepherd, the author encourages us to chase our dreams to find happiness and implies that we cannot be truly happy until we have attempted to follow our dreams and live out our destinies. The novel also implies that love is only true love if our lovers let us do whatever it takes to follow our hearts.

For the most part I am not a fan of novels masquerading as self-help books, particularly in such a spiritual way, but there is something different about The Alchemist. It is a very soothing book written in a calming prose that carries the story rapidly towards its conclusion, but in an unhurried sort of way. What I mean by that is that this novel did not put me to sleep or rush me the way a thriller would, but just gently, but firmly, urged me to reach the end. And I thought the author was quite adept at painting the scenery and transporting me to the shepherd’s world without quite making me forget my own surroundings.

I will not pretend that this novel is at the top of my must read list, nor is it close to being one of my favorites, but I really think it is worth the read. I think it would be particularly appreciated as an escape from a hectic period of life or after some more angst-driven novels.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Animal Farm

Title: Animal Farm
Author: George Orwell
List: #17 on Radcliffe’s Top 100 20th Century Novels, #20 on Modern Library Readers’ Top 100 20th Century Novels, #31 on Modern Library Board’s Top 100 20th Century Novels, #46 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading? I guess so, maybe.

When this book is in the top fifty on all four of my lists, and the top twenty of two of them, how can I say it is not worth reading? Maybe the impact of the novel has been lost over time as it has become such a staple of popular culture. I am sure that when it was first published it caused quite the sensation, but now I think I would be hard-pressed to find anyone who is unfamiliar with the story.

And so I am not quite sure what there is left for me to say. Yes, Animal Farm is quite the political allegory. Yes, it should probably be required reading for high school students learning about communist Russia and political revolutions in general. And yes, it has become a classic. But is it really relevant in the twenty-first century? Or for the future? I am not at all sure it is.

I suppose for now, even though the story will not come as a surprise, it may be worth reading just because the book and its theme are so pervasive in modern discourse.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Death Comes for the Archbishop

Title: Death Comes for the Archbishop
Author: Willa Cather
List: #61 on Modern Library Board’s Top 100 20th Century Novels, #89 on Radcliffe’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? Yes.

Death Comes for the Archbishop has a rather dramatic title, evoking thoughts of murder mysteries or thrillers or perhaps a historical account of an archbishop’s untimely demise. But Willa Cather’s novel is no such thing. Rather, it is a moving account of a missionary priest’s full life in the brand new American southwest. And it is quite different from the two other Willa Cather novels I have read (My √Āntonia and O Pioneers!).

The novel introduces us to newly minted Catholic Bishop Jean Marie Latour, who is granted the diocese of New Mexico shortly after it becomes an American territory. We see New Mexico in its virtually untamed state through the eyes of Bishop Latour and his friend and fellow missionary Father Joseph Vaillant. The two priests struggle to unite the diocese and tend to the needs of their people with nothing but a horse or mule to help them cross the vast distances. The author lovingly describes the rugged landscape and the Mexican people and culture. She also introduces us to Navajos and other Native Americans who are vital to the physical and mental survival of the priests.

Although the plot is concerned with establishing the diocese and ministering to the Catholic flock, the language and mood epitomizes the majestic grandeur of the Southwest. The characters seem to serve as vehicles through which the author can communicate her love for the culture and landscape of New Mexico. In that sense, the book is more of a Western, but one with a completely different viewpoint. And because of that unique perspective on a beautiful region, I think the book is worth reading.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

To the Lighthouse

Title: To the Lighthouse
Author: Virginia Woolf
List: #15 on Modern Library Board’s Top 100 20th Century Novels, #34 on Radcliffe’s Top 100 20th Century Novels , #48 on Modern Library Readers’ Top 100 20th Century Novels.
Worth reading? Not really.

Apparently I am missing something. Not only did the Modern Library Board and the Radcliffe Publishing Course place this novel in the top 50, but Modern Library Readers did as well. And here I sit, having just finished the book, thinking about how reading To the Lighthouse was a complete waste of time. I just do not see what the point of the whole thing was. And if it had been any longer, and I did not have this crazy goal of reading all the books on the lists, I would not have finished it

Maybe the novel is supposed to be good because of the way the narrator intimately focuses on various characters, revealing their thoughts in a very “stream of consciousness” way. The stream of consciousness is so pronounced that a character’s thoughts slip brokenly from the present to the past and back to the present creating a story within a story that is extremely hard for a reader to follow, at least in the format in which I read the book. And maybe some people like a book written almost entirely in thoughts and observations with hardly any dialogue. And maybe it does not bother other people that half the book seems to take place in the thoughts of one character in one day while, after a brief odd interlude that is supposed to indicate a lapse of time, the rest of the novel is split between the thoughts of a few more characters on another day. And maybe to those people it is fine that nothing actually happens in the book. And maybe those people focus on and admire the language rather than thinking, like me, that the author seemed so wrapped up in the language that she forgot to write the story.

But clearly, this was not the book for me. And I am very glad it is finished.