One that encourages you to muse on your attitudes towards life, ambition and fate

‘The Alchemist’ – Paulo Coelho


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The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

This story, dazzling in its powerful simplicity and inspiring wisdom, is about an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago who travels from his homeland in Spain to the Egyptian desert in search of a treasure buried in the Pyramids. Along the way he meets a Gypsy woman, a man who calls himself king, and an alchemist, all of whom point Santiago in the direction of his quest. No one knows what the treasure is, or if Santiago will be able to surmount the obstacles along the way. But what starts out as a journey to find worldly goods turns into a discovery of the treasure found within. Lush, evocative, and deeply humane, the story of Santiago is an eternal testament to the transforming power of our dreams and the importance of listening to our hearts.

Similar to Johnson’s ‘The History of Rasselas’ [], this philosophical novel intends to encourage readers to evaluate their attitude towards life and their own ambitions, through the story of Santiago the shepherd. Whilst the messages throughout this novella are pretty clear, I personally don’t have much time for such teachings and found myself racing through to reach its conclusion.

So if this book does appeal to you, it definitely is one that should be read in several sittings to consider the messages that Coelho writes of. It is certainly not difficult to decipher; the time would be in relating it to your own life and experiences.

That being said, I was keen to know what fate had in store for Santiago, hence me reading it through to the very end, otherwise I am pretty sure I would have abandoned this one. So it might be that I find I think back on this book much later after finishing it and that ‘The Alchemist’ has taught me something on a subconscious level.

This novella will not take long to consume if you are curious to know what this book is actually about after just hearing others mention the title. However, if you aren’t into your philosophical, “life teaching” stories, then give this one a miss because there is not much essence to the plot beyond its morals.


The pursuit of happiness

‘The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia’ – Samuel Johnson

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The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia – Samuel Johnson

‘Rasselas’ compresses into a hundred or so pages everything that puts Dr Johnson among the great lions of English literature and life.

Telling how Rasselas and his companions escape from the bland pleasure of their perfectly happy valley in Abissinia to Egypt, to study how people live, the book is a parable and a pilgrimage in which all manner of subjects are discussed – flying machines, poetry, marriage, madness. ‘Rasselas’ embodies Dr Johnson’s most powerful and heart-warming qualities: his tragic sense of life, his justice, his wisdom which is never boring or solemn, and his miraculous ability to balance humour with sympathy in weighing up some of life’s more mysterious problems – what is happiness, and how can we find it?

I find it ironic that the last book I reviewed was a 20th century take on the pursuit of happiness, and now here I am again, but this time reviewing Samuel Johnson’s interpretation from 1759. It’s not surprising that I have rated this as dreary because it is sometimes a bit of a slog. What I mean by this is not just the language and style of writing, but the social commentary that Johnson includes.

The novel follows the Prince and Princess of Abissinia, as they decide to escape the Happy Valley – a plentiful paradise where every wish is fulfilled. They desire more – they want to feel a need for life and desire. In other words, they are no longer satisfied by the material and wealthy life that the Happy Valley offers.

The procrastinating and deliberating of the Prince and Princess is entertaining because they appear to lament on the negativities of society and procrastinate on its issues, but often are not compelled to widen their observations of society. Instead, they seek other ways of living to make comparisons. I think this is clearly summarised in the concluding chapter, titled ‘The conclusion, in which nothing is concluded’ and, like ‘The Beach’, the reader is left feeling that nothing has been gained, questioning whether the Prince and Princess are now truly happy?

The book has very short chapters and this helps you dip in and out of it. I think this is important to fully appreciate Johnson’s commentary because it does require a lot of thinking at times! If you are up on your classics and 18th century history, then definitely give this a go. It is interesting to consider Johnson’s social commentary at the time and undoubtedly this does enrich one’s reading of this novella. However, don’t feel put off at giving this a go. At the very least, you will read a short story about two members of royalty who go off on an ancient jolly!

Don’t be distracted by Leo in his shorts

‘The Beach’ – Alex Garland

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The Beach – Alex Garland

The classic story of paradise found – and lost.

Richard lands in East Asia in search of an earthly utopia. In Thailand, he is given a map promising an unknown island, a secluded beach – and a new way of life. What Richard finds when he gets there is breathtaking: more extraordinary, more frightening than his wildest dreams.

But how long can paradise survive here on Earth? And what lengths will Richard go to in order to save it?

You can be forgiven for being distracted by images of a young Leonardo diCaprio, fresh faced from ‘Titanic’, wandering around a glorious deserted beach in nothing but his shorts. Or have the AllSaints song (remember them?) playing in a loop in your head. But putting all this aside, ‘The Beach ‘ has more of a darker side than either of the distractions allow.

I, like so many others in this world, watched the film and then decided to read the book. Obviously the film follows the main gist of the story, but there is a lot more depth to this novel than people may originally realise.

The story is told through the eyes of Richard, a traveller who gets a copy of a map to ‘Paradise’ whilst bored and alone in a hotel in main Thailand. Right from the beginning of the book we are exposed to two parts of Richard’s character: the analytical observer and the young man that he is who loves to play video games. Over the course of the novel the two become intertwined and the reader sees Richard escape into an alternate reality: one he feels is more exciting and that is more like the video games that he enjoys playing. With this, I think Garland is trying to emphasise the point of how remote and detached the islanders are from the ‘real world’, yet it is this that ultimately seems to drive them apart as a community; the characters feel like they are in Paradise but at the same time feel a longing for something more.

I wouldn’t normally comment on the structure of the book but on writing this think that the short chapters (sometimes just a couple of pages long) are not only convenient in making this an ideal book to dip in and out of, are also meant to reflect Richard’s immaturity to some of his experiences. This escapism grows throughout the novel as he spends more time on the island, and I was expecting Garland to do something with this. However, the closing of the book does not elaborate on this state further and to some extent I found this disappointing, leaving me wanting more. So I guess this is Garland’s point: leave you wanting more after reading about a paradise, just like the characters on the island.

I would definitely give this book a read. It is interesting to see how the characters change to their new surroundings but I must admit there are points where things get a little bit dull. If you have already seen the film, it will give you a fair idea of what this is about, but definitely expect more to Leo/Richard than you originally perceived.