So I wavered between choosing fantasy and non-fiction for the bookshelf on this one. How's that for bizarre. Coelho presents this as an autobiographical story of a book tour across Russia on the Trans-Siberian railroad. Early on the journey he meets a woman (21 to his 59) who feels a powerful need to assist him on his journey for self-fullfillment. Through the course of the book, he realizes that she is someone that he knew, loved, and then abandoned during the Inquisition (several hundred years ago in a past life). Clearly this is not a true story, even though Paulo presents it as such (including a note at the end with an update on when he met Hilal after the book was written).
Not only am I not convinced that he did not actually meet five women whom he knew in a previous life, but I find the entire concept of the Aleph to be fantastical and impossible. Aleph is the point at which everything exists simultaneously, it is the beginning and the end, it is an energy point with lots of history (but in the story it exists on a train..how old can this train possibly be?), and it is "love..both time and space, but all focused on one single constantly evolving point--the Aleph." I have personally made the comment that I cannot believe in religious rituals and structures, but that I know that love is something beautiful and individual and powerful. As an agnostic, I do not subscribe to any religious (or spiritual or magical) beliefs, but I do believe in love.
It was a better story (and easier to follow) than The Alchemist; slightly less cheesy, but a bit too much on the "Eat, Pray, Love" continuum for my taste. As a hyper-realist, logical minded person I find most religious (and spiritual, which this is more of) texts unbelievable and geared towards the simple minded. In contrast, this was readable and pleasant as a fantastical story.
Overall I did not find it moving or teaching in the way that Coelho meant for it to be. I did appreciate that he was not over-preachy; certainly Hilal doesn't like churches (but he conveniently gives Hilal a great reason to be disappointed with the church, afterall they burned her at the stake in a former life) and Coehlo seems to be accepting of non-believers..but his quest for a magical life is just a bit too fantastical for me to buy as an autobiographical account. Not that I question whether or not he believes it is true; I just don't agree with his interpretation of events. Unlike Coehlo, I do not believe that dreams are the access to former lives; I think he simply has fallen asleep while holding a naked younger woman.
All of that said, there are some great quotes and advice on how to life your life (spiritually or not):
"It isn't what you did in the past that will affect the present. It's what you do in the present that will redeem the past and thereby change the future." and "Don't think about what you'll tell people afterward. The time is here and now. Make the most of it." As someone who has trouble living in the moment, I appreciate any time to think about doing a better job of being aware of the here and now.
"knowing full well that we always try to interpret things in accordance with what we want and not as they are." How true.
"all we achieve by exacting revenge is to make ourselves the equals of our enemies, wheras by forgiving we show wisdom and intelligence." It is hard to let go of anger sometimes, but certainly worth the release to move on.
"Not the love of a man for a woman, not the love of a father for a child, not the love of God for his creatures, but a love with no name and no explanation, like a river that cannot explain why it follows a particular course but simply flows onward. A love that asks for nothing and gives nothing in return; it is simply there. I will never be yours, and you will never be mine; nevertheless, I can honestly say: I love you". I found this description very apt. Personally, I have experienced this "river love" for another person.
This book defintely has a lot of truisms and gives some good advice about living a happy life. Not great, but not awful.