Monday, February 6, 2012

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
167 pages

The Alchemist is Paulo Coelho's landmark masterpiece that literally and symbolically tells readers to follow their dreams no matter what feelings they have or what obstacles they face. This message is delivered through the story of a young shepherd named Santiago living in Andalusia who embarks on a turbulent journey of faith after having a recurring dream in an old church. Santiago is often certain about his life experiences and the decisions he makes until he has a dream about a child who led him to the Egyptian pyramids and told him if he came there he would find his treasure. He goes to woman who reads palms so she can interpret the dream. The woman says that he won't have to pay her if he promises to give her one-tenth of his treasure. Santiago agrees but he thinks the woman is a fraud.

As Santiago prepares to sell wool to a merchant in town he encounters a strange old man while reading a book. The man tells him that the book perpetuates one of the world's greatest lies, that humans don't control their fate. The old man reveals himself to be the King of Salem, Melchizedek. He tells the shepherd that he must follow the dream and also reveals to the boy things about his life that he's never told anyone. He also tells the boy that he needs to pursue his Personal Legend. Santiago decides to give up his life as a shepherd and cross the seas to find his treasure. After selling his sheep, he leaves his country to achieve his Personal Legend--accomplishing the purpose of his life.

When Santiago arrives in Africa he talks to a man at a bar who tells him there are a lot of thieves in the area and that he would help Santiago cross the desert to the pyramids. Santiago gives the man all his money and walks through the market with him to buy camels. While Santiago is momentarily distracted, the man disappears. Santiago stands in the marketplace for hours in shock. Eventually Santiago decides his dream was foolishness and that he would have to save up to return to his country. He meets a crystal merchant and is able to persuade him to offer a job in his shop on the hill. Santiago's presence in the crystal shop increases the sales and attracts a lot of customers. The crystal merchant reveals to Santiago that he has wanted to go to Mecca his whole life, but is now content to only dream about it. Santiago saves money to go back home and makes plans to become a shepherd again. He leaves the crystal shop after eleven months, but instead of going home he goes to a warehouse to find out how far away the Pyramids are.

Santiago joins a caravan that is crossing the desert. During his trip with the caravan he meets an Englishman who is studying the secrets of alchemy and wants to meet the alchemist who lives in the desert. They talk and become acquaintances. When the caravan arrives at an oasis named Al-Fayoum they settle there to wait for a tribal war to end. The Englishman asks Santiago to help him find someone who knows where the alchemist is. After asking several people Santiago meets a young woman named Fatima at a well and instantly falls in love with her. She tells him where he can find the alchemist and Santiago tells the Englishman. Santiago and Fatima meet at the well for several days and talk for about fifteen minutes each time. Santiago confesses that he loves her and is looking for his treasure. Fatima tells him to go search for his treasure and she'll be waiting for him when he returns. One evening Santiago has a vision about a tribe coming to attack the oasis. He tells the leaders of the oasis and they decide to prepare for an attack. Santiago's vision comes true and he is named the counselor of the oasis.

The alchemist learns of Santiago's vision and visits Santiago to see if he can be his disciple. The alchemist acts as his guide on his journey to the Pyramids. Along the way the alchemist teaches Santiago important lessons about life and the world. When Santiago admits that he is afraid his heart will suffer while pursuing his treasure the alchemist tells him "tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second's encounter with God and with eternity." After traveling across the desert for days the alchemist and Santiago are taken captive by one of the tribes at war. The alchemist convinces the chiefs of the tribe to spare their lives by saying his apprentice can turn into wind. Santiago is frightened to death because he does not know how to turn into wind and he has only three days to learn how. On the third day Santiago went on top of the cliff and spoke to the desert, who told him to speak to the wind. When Santiago asks the wind to help him the wind demanded to know how he learned to speak the language of the desert and the wind. Santiago replied "my heart." After having a long conversation with the wind and the sun, Santiago began to pray and spoke to God. He learned that he can do anything with the power of God in himself and turns into wind.

The tribe lets Santiago and the alchemist continue their journey. When they reach a monastery the alchemist tells Santiago to go to the Pyramids by himself. He gives him a gold bar. When Santiago reaches the top of a dune and sees the pyramid he weeps. He begins to dig for his treasure after following an omen. After digging for many hours Santiago is ambushed and attacked by a group of men who are about to kill him after stealing his gold bar. When Santiago tells him he is digging for the treasure that he had a recurring dream about they decide to let him go because they think he's a fool. As the attackers leave, one man stays behind and says he had a recurring dream two years ago about treasure being in an old church across the seas with a sycamore tree growing out of it, but he wasn't stupid enough to pursue it. Santiago realizes that the treasure is where he had the dream about the Pyramids. He returns to his country and digs below the sycamore tree at the old church he dreamed at many months ago and finds a box of priceless treasures from centuries ago. When the wind blows on him he feels a kiss from Fatima and smiles. He tells her that he is coming.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Best Laid Plans by Sidney Sheldon

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
384 pages

Sheldon's 1997 suspense thriller is a rapidly paced story featuring his signature web of lies, deception, and murder, albeit this novel is less complex than his earlier works. In The Best Laid Plans the two main characters, Leslie Stewart and Oliver Russell are engaged to be married when Oliver suddenly ditches Leslie and marries the daughter of a powerful U.S. Senator. This acts as an explosive trigger to Leslie's underlying distrust of men since her father abandoned her as a child and she becomes obsessed with getting revenge on Oliver, who becomes the President of the United States.

Leslie marries the wealthy owner of an Arizona newspaper, who passes away a few years into their marriage. Leslie takes control of the newspaper and ruthlessly acquires newspaper companies around the country and expands worldwide as she closely watches Oliver Russell's presidential campaign and election. Leslie's plan to use her media power to damage President Russell's reputation becomes reckless when the President is a murder suspect of a governor's 7 year old daughter. As details of the case leak, more people are murdered in connection to the crime, making the President an obvious target. However, Leslie's machinations are ruined when the Washington Tribune's famous foreign correspondent Dana Evans finds out who really murdered the governor's daughter.

The President appears to be guilty due to his well-documented habit of having extramarital affairs and Leslie's memory of his connection to a drug called Liquid Ecstasy. President Russell admits to FBI officials that on the night the governor's daughter was murdered he was sleeping with an Italian ambassador's wife, unbeknownst to Leslie who has written a sensational headline that the President is wanted for six murders.

In a heart-pounding chain of events Dana Evans is talking to the sister of a man who was murdered in connection to the governor's daughter's murder when she is cornered by a hit man. Dana calls the Washington Tribune station and asks a staff member to put her on live because her cameramen had already set up. The hit man is captured attempting to murder Dana and the sister on national television while Dana reveals who is behind the murders. Leslie, who owns the Washington Tribune and was at the station when the breaking report came on, is horrified that her story on President Russell's impending arrest for the murders is wrong. Unfortunately, it was too late for her to recall the paper with that headline story. The editor-in-chief of the Washington Tribune warned her not to print it without all the facts, but Leslie was so desperate to take down the President that she became the victim of her own maniacal revenge plan, while the President was forced to face the reality of his careless philandering.

By the end of the novel Dana Evans emerges as the true heroine. It seems that the point of Leslie and Oliver's relationship and twisted long-term connection were to provide Dana with a happy ending. Sidney Sheldon's plotting isn't as sharp in this book, there are some definite holes and unnecessary details, but he still crafts an interesting juxtaposition between Leslie and Dana, along with realistically redeeming Oliver Russell's character after he becomes a murder suspect.