This past week I have read two short books that are so similar to each other in theme, they might as well be promoted as a set. They come from different authors, though, and while one is a best selling memoir, the other is a best selling piece of fiction. Both deal with mortality, the meaning of life, and human wisdom gained at the very end. I read one while I was happy and one while I was decidedly not. No surprise, really, that I loved the former and nearly threw the latter across the room after I finished it.
Oh, the power of the reader’s filter.
Anyway, my intention was never to review them in tandem, but the more I think about it, the more I can’t resist. The similarities and differences are pretty interesting.
Let’s start with the book I read first.
On Friday night last, our wonderful little Oklahoma book club met for dinner and to discuss The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom. Everyone gave it glowing reviews; we explored most of the messages thoroughly and gleaned lots of worthwhile discussion fodder; and I walked away feeling deeply soothed and inspired, very much the intended outcome of this title selection, after so many grittier, war-torn, controversial books we’ve read together over the past year. Five People is a slim piece of fiction which tells the story of an old man’s death and his first days in Heaven, though the book addresses the timelessness of God, as though perhaps He subscribes to Al Gore’s fuzzy math. haha As the unusual storytelling progresses, we get meaningful glimpses into Eddie’s childhood, his adulthood, and every pivotal part of his life before he died. The book is divided into five parts, one for each of the people who help guide him through his first days in Heaven. Each person also has a lesson to teach him, a bit of explanation or understanding to offer him about his earthly life. Okay.
Friends, it is an absolutely wonderful little book. It’s short in volume and also written with short, concise sentences. The life lessons feel universal without being preachy or overly indulgent. The story itself, well, let’s just say I read about a third of it while eating lunch alone at Braum’s (FYI their apple-bacon-walnut-grilled chicken salad is amazing!), and I cried openly, unable to hold back tears. Maybe it was the salad talking, but this book is so good. Here are the five life lessons, paraphrased, so you get an idea of the emotional impact:
- All people are connected to each other; there are no accidents or stories unrelated to other stories. “No man is an island” kinda stuff.
- True personal sacrifice is a necessary part of life and should be embraced. The meaning and fruit of our sacrifices big and small should be celebrated, not bemoaned.
- Holding in anger is a poison.
- Love never ends, it only changes form and expression.
- Each of us has a purpose to serve, no matter how humble our life station seems to be.
I will take creative license here with my book review and add that the sixth and overarching lesson in Five People is that death is not the end. Not by a long shot. I don’t know your personal beliefs, and some would argue that a well loved piece of fiction is just more heaven mythology, but I either happen to believe or choose to believe that death is not the end. Okay. Thoughts on that?
Here is a line that spoke to me so strongly, though I relate it to my children:
Lost love is still love, Eddie. It takes a different form, that’s all. You can’t see their smile or bring them food or tousle their hair or move them around on a dance floor. But when those senses weaken, another heightens. Memory. Memory becomes your partner. You nurture it. You hold it. You dance with it.
On to The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. As mentioned above, I read this book while not in a great frame of mind. Surely that colored my opinion, and as much as I hate to criticize any book, I really hate to say anything ill of the deceased. (You probably know this book was authored by a terminally ill man who passed away not long after the book was published. It is based on an actual lecture he delivered several months earlier.) I will say with an attempt at the same sense of humor the author used, that Randy Pausch was known by people who loved him for his inflated ego, for his penchant for frustratingly unyielding scientific argument, and for being (his words) a “recovering jerk.” Let me say that this all definitely bleeds through to the page. And being to married to an otherwise wonderful man who happens to sometimes fit this exact description, and considering that I read this book while sleeping apart from him in the midst of one of the biggest fights of our marriage, well, it’s no surprise that I was annoyed at the author over and over again.
Still. He (Pausch) was brave and generous with his difficult and beautiful story and offered the reader a much longer list of life lessons to consider than did Five People. I won’t list them here because they are so numerous, but I encourage you to read the book for yourself. A highlight for me was around page 133:
I’ll take an earnest person over a hip person every time, because hip is short term. Earnest is long-term. Earnestness is highly underestimated. It comes from the core, while hip is trying to impress you with the surface.
Taking the same creative license as before, I will suggest here that Pausch’s story also teaches that death is not the end, though he tells it more from the standpoint of physical legacy than spiritual eternity. Thoughts on that, friends?
Okie doke. Let’s do some comparison thinking.
- Both books are emotionally impactful and have spiritual themes, but neither is religious. This is all very nice, in my opinion. Nice nice nice.
- Both books deal with human mortality and many of the attendant griefs, both for the dying and for the left behind.
- Each of the dying men (one is fictional, remember) has a chance to distill his life into fairly compact bundles of wisdom. Stuff that most people can relate to.
- Both men managed to find a “One True Love,” romantically. Each was married to a woman he considered to be the love of his life.
- I didn’t notice this until just now, but the books are not only similar in size and shape; they are almost exactly the same in length. Five People is 196 pages and Lecture is 206. How about that. I am a fairly slow reader and was able to read each one in less than a day while still taking notes. These would both make excellent airplane or waiting room books, as small as they are to slip in your purse. Or man purse. Or backpack. Or under your big hat. Or in a turkey wrap. Or whatever.
- The most obvious difference is that Five People is a work of fiction (though it was inspired by a real person) and Lecture is an actual memoir, or at least a memoir-ish retelling of a personal-story lecture.
- One man (Eddie, Five People) dies very old, from a violent accident he never saw coming. The other man (Randy, Lecture) dies young after an extended terminal illness. So one man was gone suddenly with no goodbyes and the other man spent his last months doing little else besides preparing for goodbye.
- While both were married, Eddie was a widower after several decades with his true love and they never had any children. Randy was only married eight years but had fathered three children.
- Eddie was not formally educated, a self taught carnival mechanic by trade who felt stuck in the inertia provided by his neglectful father’s life and career. He was faithful to but wholly unfulfilled in his work. Randy, on the other hand, was a PhD, a widely accomplished and celebrated tech field professional and university professor who knew for years that his reach and impact were significant. In contrast to inertia, Randy’s parents were doting and encouraged him to blaze his own trail, and he did.
- Speaking of that, Eddie didn’t even know what his personal dreams were and was heartbroken by this, while Randy not only knew what his personal dreams were; he made every one of them happen. Or at least he came pretty close.
- One man (by now you can guess who) was humble to the point that he became bitter over it, crumpled in on himself both emotionally and physically. The other man was egocentric to the point that friends and colleagues had to remind him of humility sometimes. So did his Mom. And so did his wife. This second man was also in peak physical condition despite his grim prognosis, doing push ups on the lecture stage to demonstrate. Not crumpled in at all.
What do you think? Have you read either of these books? Do you agree with my reviews, or maybe take issue with something here? I am super curious what you think. What do you think of the uncanny balance between the two? I really did not see this book relationship coming. I flat out loved reading Five People. And as irritating as it was to read Lecture while angry at my own husband, I am glad the thin little book popped out to my eyes from the bookshelf that night. Pausch offered us lots of great food for thought, and it calmed me down, too. Both reads were wins for me.
Okay. Spill your literary guts. And thank you so much for checking in here, as always.
“Love, like rain, can nourish from above,
drenching couples with a soaking joy.
But sometimes, under the angry heat of life,
love dries on the surface
and must nourish from below,
tending to its roots, keeping itself alive.”
p.s. Here is that delish salad from Braum’s. Go getcha’ one. : )