Book Club books #7, #8, and #9 - The Alchemist, The Great Gatsby, and Don Quixote

Posted in: Books, Reviews, Book Club

Books 7, 8, and 9, combine to make what I like to think of as a period where we ran out of ideas and thought to consult lists, the internet, and other friends, for what they all thought we should read. Unfortunately for us, the Venn diagram of 'things other people say we should read' and 'what our book club actually enjoys reading' did not intersect.

Venn diagram

The Alchemist

Book, $6.83 USD on Kindle, written by Paolo Coelho, http://www.amazon.com/The-Alchemist-Paulo-Coelho/dp/0061122416/
The Alchemist cover

We picked this one from some 'top something-or-rather books everyone should read' list on the internet - from which site I'm not really sure, although I think it was one of those online lists put up by some UK newspaper, a best-sellers list which put this book amongst the top-selling books of all time, alongside the Harry Potter series, and The Bible.

The Alchemist is a novel on the shorter end of the word-count scale, originally written in Portuguese by its Brazillian author. It follows the journey of an Andalusian shepherd named Santiago, who tries to find the meaning behind a recurring dream, which in turn starts him on a journey towards his destiny.

I remember the term "Personal Legend" got thrown-around a lot by the characters in the story, more than words like 'fate' and 'destiny', and I couldn't help but wonder if it was a victim of the translation process. Terms like fate or destiny are more about things that are written or ordained by powers greater than ourselves, whereas 'personal legend' feels more like something that one goes out and obtains along their way.

It certainly felt that way at the beginning, where Santiago gave up his steady and predictable life of shepherding to pursue this dream, and even stumbled about for several months before making any real progress. I actually liked this part because it really showcased the effort that one had to go through to achieve anything great. Far too often we're shown these positive motivational messages that tell us to just go out there and chase our dreams, but without any allusion to the real effort and hard work one has to go through to achieve anything great. People often just expect good things to fall into their lap because they put on a positive attitude, but real life doesn't work like this:

  1. Change your outlook
  2. ???
  3. Success and happiness

That second step is the most crucial part of any endeavour, and the beginning where Santiago was having feeling diverted from his personal legend and even started to doubt it because it seemed like too much work and too far off, that was my favourite part.

As soon as that part of the story was over though, things just started falling into his lap - including magical powers - and it was getting way too deus ex machina for me.

5 out of 10.

The Great Gatsby

Book, free (I borrowed this one from my mum), written by F Scott Fitzgerald, http://www.amazon.com/Great-Gatsby-F-Scott-Fitzgerald/dp/0743273567/
The Great Gatsby cover

On the recommendation of friends who were telling some of us that this was a good book to read, and given the increased popularity it was receiving with the Baz Luhrmann movie adaptation just around the corner, we thought to give this literary classic and contender for the title of Great American Novel a try.

The Great Gatsby is narrated by Nick Carraway, a man who manages to find himself in a humble house on Long Island, right next door to a lavish mansion and the eponymous Jay Gatsby, a mysterious millionaire who throws extravagant parties. Nick eventually befriends Gatsby and learns about his past, where he got his millions, and his plan to win over Daisy, the 'one who got away' girl from his past, who happens to be Nick's cousin.

It all starts however with Nick going over to his cousin Daisy's place to have dinner with her, her husband Tom, and a friend of the couple, Jordan. Over dinner they start a conversation about something I completely forgotten, because what I remember most from that conversation is how blatantly racist Tom and Daisy were. Sure, I could have excused it for being a product of its time - it was set in the 1920s after all - but hot damn that Tom just couldn't keep his mouth shut about keeping coloured people down.

After that, nothing really memorable stuck out to me. I wondered if it was once again just a product of it's time - all the stuff that was maybe supposed to be shocking (Affairs: oh noes! Drugs: woe is me!) didn't really make an impact. Maybe I'd seen so much Home & Away in my time that plot twists and character revelations just don't hit me like they should, and I've got this 'meh, seen it' barrier of cynicism that supposedly-shocking stuff from any decade before the 1940s has no chance of breaking through.

It also doesn't help that not a helluva lot actually happened, and that 'not a whole lot' was spread over what felt like 400 long and arduous pages.

I came to the book club meeting about this book very unimpressed, and very vocal about all the racism. We all had our fingers crossed that the movie would be a lot better. As of writing, we're still yet to see it.

5 out of 10.

Don Quixote

Book, free, written by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Don Quixote cover

Another book from a list, another list put up by a UK newspaper. If I thought The Great Gatsby was long, then I obviously had never read this book. But then I did. And then I regretted it.

Don Quixote has been referenced so often that I already had a fair idea of what it was about: a man who, in search of chivalric adventures where there were none, conjured fantasies to take the place of common things, who saw giants where there were windmills, highway robbers where there were servants and monks, castles where there were inns, and who has a sidekick named Sancho who helped reinforce these illusions.

I did not finish reading this book. Looking through the plot summary on Wikipedia, I didn't even get through 3/4 of the first part, but then looking at my progress on the Kindle tells a sadder tale: 15%. The writing style of this book was one that I associate with a lot of older books - describing details to extreme lengths, ridiculously long dialogues, and absolutely pointless asides (Why the hell did I need to know how the narrator managed to scrounge-up a missing chapter of Don Quixote's story? And why did you take so long to tell that side-story within this story?) - and a writing style that just can't hold my attention.

It didn't take long for my patience to run out, and I moved on to other things. It was the first book club meeting that I turned up to without having finished the book, and I was far from alone in that respect.

4 out of 10.