Friday, June 2, 2006

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin played a prominent role in the early development and establishment of the United States of America, and is renowned for being a shrewd politician, witty writer, inquisitive scientist, and ingenious inventor. Most of us know about Franklin from the schoolbooks we read as children, but never really study his contributions to the country outside of that setting. For anyone who wants to learn more about one of the most extraordinary men of the past few centuries, I suggest checking out Franklin's Autobiography.

Many of today's politicians pen autobiographies, and in fact, it's becoming something of a tradition that former presidents publish theirs within a few years of leaving the White House. But back in Franklin's time, the practice wasn't as widespread. As a result, readers of his Autobiography aren't getting the highly edited, polished, and ghostwritten pieces that we see on the shelves today. If you're expecting Franklin's book to be a chronological retelling of his life from birth to old age, then you'll be sorely disappointed in this work.

Indeed, Franklin didn't even write his Autobiography with the intent that it would be published. He was actually writing it for the benefit of his son William, and wanted the book to serve as something of a guideline or advice manual for William to refer to throughout his own life. As a result, the reader is privy to Franklin's pure, unadulterated thoughts and musings. The look back on his life as a young adult is both frank and heartwarming, and sheds greater insight into Franklin's personality than any history book ever could do.

Franklin opens the book by explaining to William that he, Benjamin, has always enjoyed reading about his own ancestors, and hopes that William can someday derive the same pleasure from reading Franklin's words. He then talks a bit about his father, mother, and siblings (Franklin was the 15th out of a total of 17 children), as well as a few episodes from his childhood that reveal the beginnings of his studious personality. As a modern reader, and someone who is not particularly interested in history or genealogy, I found this part of the Autobiography to be fairly slow going. I had trouble making it through these chapters and actually but the book aside for a number of weeks until I convinced myself to continue slogging through. I would advise you to do the same, because the payoff really is worth it.

As with most people who go on to do great things with their lives, there were several important incidents in Franklin's childhood that would serve to shape his future actions. For instance, Franklin was apprenticed to a printer's shop at the age of 12. This not only gave him a chance to acquire a respectable skill that would help him earn a living later in life, but also gave him the opportunity to read pamphlets, newspapers, and other items that might not otherwise have fallen into his hands. Some of the things he read, including The Spectator, would even give him a writing style to try to emulate.

The printing business (as well as writing) would of course play a major role throughout Franklin's entire life. The Autobiography tells us how and why Franklin started printing pamphlets on his own, and how these activities eventually get him noticed by some very important people.

In addition to telling William about his working life during these early years of adulthood, Franklin also delves into a lot of personal items. For example, we find out that Franklin was something of a troublemaker in his youth, and liked to spend his money on food, drink, and women whenever he had the chance.

But we also see another side of Franklin, one that yearns for self-improvement. In the pages of the Autobiography, readers can clearly see that Franklin constantly strives to be a better person. Towards that end, he was always trying various experiments, such as getting up at a certain time in the morning, having a set schedule that he tried to follow religiously, and consciously trying to perform virtuous deeds every single day. He also tried to eat only one meal per day in an effort to free up some extra time for other things, but soon gave that up as impracticable.

It's important to note that Franklin's Autobiography doesn't say anything about his role in the American Revolution or in the establishment of the United States as a new nation independent of British rule. These are arguably the most critical times of Franklin's life, yet they aren't given any coverage in the book. But just remember that Franklin never intended his Autobiography to be as comprehensive as those we are used to seeing now, and he never expected the book to be printed for mass distribution. It should also be pointed out that Franklin kept copious notes and journals about those events, but just never had the time (nor, perhaps, the inclination) to add those to his Autobiography.

Overall, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is a fascinating look into the private life of one of America's earliest public figures. Although I found both the beginning and end of the book to be a bit boring and uninteresting, the work taken as a whole is certainly worth reading. It's a very short book as far as autobiographies go, especially when you consider how much Franklin did during his lifetime. It won't take a very big time commitment to make it through the book, so read it today!

The DaVinci Code, Special Illustrated Edition, by Dan Brown

By Christina VanGinkel

Everyone it seems is talking about the book, The DaVinci Code, by author Dan Brown these days. I had read the book a couple of years ago when it was first released, after reading the first book detailing the exploits of the book's main character, Robert Langdon, in Angels & Demons, several years before that. I have since read and listened to a lot of hype from both Catholics and others offended by some of the mentioned references to past and present church going ons. However, then and now, my main thing that I liked about the book was how it had the sense to draw the reader into the story, with details of famous paintings, sculptures, and architecture around the globe.

The story line itself tells the tale of Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor who teaches on such subjects as religious symbology. When he is awakened by the concierge at his hotel at 2am in the morning, with a request that someone wants to meet with him, he is not at alarmed at first. That is until he realizes the police are who want to talk to him, and the curator of the Louvre, whom he was to meet with earlier in the evening, but had not shown up, is now dead, apparently the victim of a murder. The victim had time before he died though, to leave behind some very cryptic clues that soon have Mr. Langdon on the run, along with the curator's granddaughter, trying to solve both the crime at hand, another one centuries old, and at the same time, prove his own innocence.

Upon my first reading of The DaVinci Code, I can recall pulling out other books that I had on my bookshelf, or turning to my computer's search engine, to look up some of the very paintings and other artifacts that were being discussed and referenced in the pages of the story. I also remember thinking that it sure would be nice if the publishers had included a few pictures of the very detailed subjects that the author delved into, right in the pages of the book itself. Lo and behold, I am now the owner of a copy of The DaVinci Code, Special Illustrated Edition.

This illustrated version has photographs of everything from a chalice belt, a medieval form of self torture to remind the wearer to keep their thoughts pure at all times, to pictures of the Louvre museum inside and out, including the stunning pyramid that was added in the not too distant past. Most helpful to the reader though, are many of the famous paintings and statues that are referenced in the pages of the book. There are snapshots of buildings, line drawings, and more, all lending a layer to the story that was lacking in the version that is not illustrated.

The DaVinci Code, Special Illustrated Edition, is available in both hardcover and soft cover. I opted for the soft cover, paperback version, but for those of you who would prefer a hardcover edition, they would make a fine addition to your personal library, especially if this is a book that like me, you plan to keep. I chose the paperback version simply due to the few dollars that I would save over the cost of the comparable hardcover edition. When one buys as many books a year as I do, and are on as strict a budget as I am, the dollar savings of a soft cover edition over a hardcover can really add up. The best part of this particular book is also that there is not a big enough difference between the two to make it worth paying the extra, beyond personal preference. The paperback edition is made with a sturdy cover with a flap that can be used to mark your page as you read even. It will hold up to repeated readings well, and I imagine that this book will be on my shelf for many years to come.

If you have read The DaVinci Code, and plan to read it again, or have yet to read it for the first time, I would highly recommend that you buy The DaVinci Code, Special Illustrated Edition, as it has a lot to offer the reader visually.

Mandy by Julie Andrews Edwards

One of the most beloved books in my personal book collection is a young adult book called "Mandy". It is written by an author named Julie Edwards-- an author that you may think you never heard of, until you look at the book jacket to see that Julie Edwards is really the award winning actress Julie Andrews (of 'Mary Poppins' and 'The Sound of Music' fame). Recent editions of the book have her author's name as Julie Andrews Edwards.

The book is a beautifully written account of a lonely child named Mandy. Mandy lives at an orphanage called St. Ann's and although there are dozens of other children that live there, Mandy prefers to surround herself with animals and nature. She is a creative little girl-- and also a little bit adventurous.

Mandy works at a small local grocery store every Saturday-- presumably to earn pocket change to buy art supplies like paints and paper. Because Mandy is one of the older children at the orphanage, she attends school at a local school outside of the orphanage. On her trips back and forth to school, as she walks through the beautiful country, Mandy dreams of what it would be like to live out there. Although the orphanage is a pleasant place and the head matron and all of the staff are very kind to her, Mandy longs for a real family and a life outside of the orphanage.

Mandy was fascinated by the big stone wall that surrounded the orphanage. She often wondered what was on the other side--and one day her curiosity gets the best of her. She carefully climbs the stone wall and breathlessly looks at what lay before her: hundreds of trees, and a little path that led to who knew where. Mandy decides to follow the path to see where it will take her.

It is then that she stumbles upon a run down little cottage. Mandy is enthralled with her find and even though the cottage is old and the windows are broken, she decides to take it under her wing and make it her own. She begins using her grocery store earnings to buy supplies to take care of her little house--a broom, cleaning supplies, some tea and food. She also begins taking small items from the orphanage, telling herself that it really wasn't stealing and that she was just borrowing the items. She stocks the tiny cupboards with tea cups, dishes, and other essential items. She decides to plant and tend to her own little garden over at the cottage property. And when it's time to trim the hedges at the cottage, Mandy even "borrows" some heavy garden shears from the orphanage gardener.

It is hard for Mandy to keep her cottage a secret. She finds herself lying to the head matron about her whereabouts. She also has to keep her secret from her best friend sand roommate at the orphanage, Sue, because even though she loves Sue dearly, Sue would never be able to keep such a big secret to herself. It is hard for Mandy as she lives her "double life".

It is after a while that Mandy notices another presence around her secret cottage. It is apparent that someone else has been visiting her little cottage when she is not there. And one day she comes to find a note from a secret admirer.

It becomes somewhat of a mystery this point, as Mandy (and the reader) tries to figure out who the anonymous admirer is. When Mandy is confined to the orphanage after the head matron questions where she has been going all the time, Mandy decides to sneak over one last time to leave a note for her admirer. It is then that her life changes forever.

I love the way Julie Andrews Edwards writes. She writes in such an endearing way that you can't help but feel for Mandy. Although this book is geared for the young adult set, I have re-read it many, many times since I first received it as a gift years ago. I can't wait to share this book with my young daughter in a few years and I may even buy her a new edition of the book as my copy is rather dog-eared after years of reading it. This book is a timeless tale of a hopeful young girl and it is a great read for any young girl who dares to dream.

Thursday, June 1, 2006

Cowboys Are My Weakness by Pam Houston

Pam Houston's "Cowboys Are My Weakness" is a collection of short stories that was first published in 1991. Filled with stories about wild women and even wilder men, the stories still ring true today.

Houston hit the scene shortly after her short story "How to Talk to a Hunter" was selected for the highly acclaimed "Best American Short Stories" series in 1990. That story was the launching pad for this book-- or at least it was the reason that I bought this book in the first place. I just had to read more of this author's work-- and what better way than to delve into her short story collection? Turns out it was a good choice because this book is one that I read repeatedly.

The book contains 12 stories, mostly set in the West. Cowboys are everywhere though, not just out west-- and some of the stories are set in Alaska as well. Most of the stories center around the theme of love-- real or unrequited. And although all of the men in these stories are not all cowboys per se, the cowboy motif describes the image of Houston's bad boy, the untamed man. The women in the book are not dumb-- they are educated, sensible women but they tend to fall for the wrong men. Sometimes over and over again.

At the time that she wrote this book, Houston was a part time river guide and hunting guide, so it's no wonder that her stories are written about adventurous types. Outdoorsy type imagery is prominent throughout the book, whether it's a tale of white water rafting ("Selway") or just a casual mention of a desert within a story. Some of the stories are very short-- just a few pages long ("Symphony", "A Blizzard Under Blue Sky") but the words pack such a punch that even the shortest stories are riveting.

If you're not the outdoorsy type (or not a hunter or a river rafter) then you may long for some urban imagery with your fiction, but Houston keeps you interested in things you would normally never even think about: Dall sheep hunting, for instance. And eating moose steaks for dinner.

In "How to Talk to a Hunter", undeniably the most famous of these stories, we hear from a nameless narrator, in love with a man so deeply that she overlooks his "flaws"-- the fact that he listens to top 40 country music and that he doesn't play back his answering machine messages when she is in the room. He's a pseudo-hunter: he sleeps under moose skins, yet expresses remorse for a deer that he killed-- a deer that he all the while he displays on his wall.

While you feel for the narrator of this story, you may find yourself also looking down on her-- until you realize that she may be just like you. The "hunter" in this story is clearly seeing another woman, a woman whose voice the narrator hears on the answering machine one morning. Still silent, she does nothing and says nothing to her hunter. Why? Because he takes care of her. Because he makes her feel safe. Her two best friends-- a man and a woman-- offer tidbits of advice throughout the story. Advice that makes sense, depending on your gender. And while the narrator in this story could come off as a desperate woman, she doesn't because you understand her. Set with a backdrop of the Christmas season, this story is one of my favorite short stories of all time.

Houston has a wonderful way with words and her descriptions of the mountain tops and other outdoor images are written in a beautifully lyrical way. Her talk about animals-- from white tailed deer to two beloved dogs named Jackson and Hailey (who seem to make it into a couple of the stories) is delightful. The dialogue in her stories is realistic and keeps the flow of the stories going nicely.

If you enjoy the short story genre, I highly recommend the book "Cowboys Are My Weakness". While all of the stories in this collection are well written, be sure not to miss the title story, as well as "How to Talk to a Hunter", "Selway", "Highwater" and "Sometimes You talk About Idaho". These stories will undoubtedly make you want to read more.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

What Are the Seven Wonders of the World by Peter D'Epiro and MaryDesmond Pinkowish

I've made no secret of the fact that I love to read. I've been an avid reader ever since I was a child holed up in my room for the summer with the entire Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys collections sitting before me. Usually, I like reading novels, but sometimes it's fun to branch out and read other kinds of books -- especially those that I can just browse through instead of reading in chronological order. What Are The Seven Wonders of the World (subtitled And 100 Other Great Cultural Lists - Fully Explicated) by Peter D'Epiro and Mary Desmond Pinkowish is just such a book whose chapters can be read entirely at random.

What Are the Seven Wonders of the World is basically an in-depth look at some of the most famous "numbered" items from a wide range of topics, including history, science, literature, art, and mathematics. In other words, this book takes a question, such as that found in the title (what are the seven wonders of the world), and then lists the answers for the reader along with a detailed explanation of each particular item in the list.

The book starts off with the number three. So some of the first questions that the reader encounters are: Who were the 3 sons of Adam and Eve? Who were the 3 Furies (from ancient mythology)? What are the 3 Laws of Thermodynamics? And What were the 3 temptations of Christ. As you can see, these are some very common and very interesting questions that are nevertheless quite difficult to answer.

In all, the book contains 101 of these questions, and covers numbers ranging from 3 to 15, then 18, 20, and 24. You'll be able to answer some of the questions right off the bat (what are the seven deadly sins?), but others will leave you scratching your head (which were the 15 decisive battles of the world according to historian Edward Creasy in 1851?).

As I mentioned above, this is the kind of book that can be thumbed through at random. You can view the table of contents and then just read any sections that sound interesting to you. Or, you can read the book straight through if you like. What I've discovered is that I often just pick a random place in the book, and then get caught up in everything and start reading straight through from that point. As a result, I read the entire book in just a couple of days.

What Are the Seven Wonders of the World is meant to be a reference book. I have to admit that I haven't really used it as such though. After all, if I really needed to determine what the 14 Points of Woodrow Wilson's famous speech were, I could find the information from the Internet just as (or even more) quickly than I could leafing through the book. Nevertheless, I like to keep the book near my desk and pull it down once in a while to refresh my memory about some of the more famous numbered lists in the world.

Although I can't claim to remember every single thing that I've read in What Are the Seven Wonders of the World, I will say that I've learned a great deal of new information, which has come in handy on many occasions. For example, I have been able to answer a few extra crossword puzzle questions due to the knowledge I've picked up from the book. I've also been able to answer several Jeopardy! questions, and I've been able to start some really great conversations with friends and co-workers. I won't go so far as to say that I bring up the information I've gleaned from the book when I'm at parties or anything, but the I guess that's always a possibility as well!

Overall, I recommend purchasing What Are the Seven Wonders of the World (and 100 Other Great Cultural Lists - Fully Explicated) by Peter D'Epiro and Mary Desmond Pinkowish. It will make a wonderfully informative addition to your home reference library and is a book that you will actually enjoy reading. It also makes a terrific gift for those readers on your list that have read just about everything else you can think of.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Safe Place by Lorenzo Carcaterra

A Safe Place is a book written by Lorenzo Carcaterra, who also wrote the book Sleepers. A Safe Place is a true story, which tells about the life of Lorenzo Carcaterra, who was also the young boy in Sleepers that attended a state facility for committing a crime while he was a minor. In Sleepers, you learned about how Lorenzo was beaten, abused, and raped as a child. In A Safe Place, Lorenzo tells you about his life with an abusive father, and a mother who was very distant from him. The book also looks into the life of Lorenzo's mother and father, before he was born.

The book starts out with Lorenzo and his mother walking along an island beach in Naples. His mother tells him that she needs to tell him something very important about his father. She then tells him that his fathers first wife did not die of cancer, his father actually murdered his first wife. Lorenzo's mother then left him alone to think about what she had just told him. Before his mother told him about his father, Lorenzo adored his father and thought the world of him, but at that moment, Lorenzo hated his father. He did not know if he could believe what he had just heard.

Before his mother ever told him the truth about his father, Lorenzo had many great memories of his father. His father loved him and would do anything for him, and he told him that often. But Lorenzo could also remember his father beating his mother, hitting her in the face, and embarrassing her in public. Lorenzo's father also had many affairs. He slept with married women, widows, young women, and pretty much any women he could get to sleep with him. He racked up credit card bills buying appliances for men he was trying to impress, by buying women expensive dinners, and any other way that he could make himself out to be a great guy. Although he spent money he did not have on other families, his own family lived in run down apartments in the bad parts of town, and Lorenzo's mother often had to borrow money from neighbors to pay her bills, get Lorenzo's father out of debt, and she even had to borrow money to put food on the table. Lorenzo's father worked but not very often. If his mother would leave his father, his father would get a job and tell Lorenzo's mother that he had changed until he got her back, and soon enough he would turn back to his old ways.

Lorenzo's mother only married Lorenzo's father because he was her aunt's son. She thought that a man who was of the same blood as her father would take care of her. She had two children from a previous marriage, but the youngest one died from a hit on the head. Lorenzo's mother, Raffaela, was only sixteen when she met Lorenzo's father, Mario. The day they left Ischia, Mario told her that he had a daughter that lived with his wife's family. When Raffaela asked where his wife was, he told her that he killed her. That night, Mario beat Raffaela for brushing her hair over the sink. At that moment, she knew that by marrying Mario, she had made the biggest mistake of her life.

Lorenzo does not have very many good memories of his early childhood between his mother and father. He remembers his father taking him on dates with different women, and he remembers his father making him fight in street fights when he was as young as seven and eight years old. He remembers his mother crying and begging his father not to do this with their son, but his father would just laugh at her and walk out the door.

At one point, Lorenzo and his mother take a trip back to the country where Rafaela grew up. Lorenzo gets to meet his grandmother, his aunts, and many of his cousins. On the trip, Rafaela and her son get to spend a lot of time together, which they did not get to do in the United States because of Mario. Lorenzo also becomes very close to his grandmother and his cousins. When his mother tells him the truth about his father murdering his first wife, Lorenzo tries to convince his mother to stay in Ischia and live for the rest of their lives.

Read this book to find out what happens in Ischia, and if Lorenzo and his mother decide to return to the states or stay where they are. This book is very dramatic, and since it is a true story, you really feel for the young boy and his mother.

Necklace of Kisses by Francesca Lia Block

Francesca Lia Block is a renowned young adult author most famous for the Weetzie Bat series and lyrical writing. Now she has entered the realm of adult literature with Necklace of Kisses. Feeling unhappy with her marriage, Weetzie hides out in the same hotel where she attended her high school prom. She feels a kiss she didn't receive that night may have been a pivotal moment in her life. While there, she finds a host of strange characters and magical events while pursuing the lost kiss.

I was left feeling unsettled after reading this book, but it was hard to put my finger on exactly what it was. I could honestly say that I enjoyed the book, but there was something lingering in the back of my mind I didn't enjoy so much. I asked my friend who had originally given me the book if she had read it before, and unfortunately, she hadn't, but by talking with her in general about the book I finally narrowed it down to three things.

My first problem with the book is I felt the fantasy elements were more pervasive throughout the entire book than they were in the other Weetzie Bat books. Now, it has been a few years since I read the original series, but it seemed like there was usually a single fantasy element introduced in each book, such as a genie. It might have been an extended element essential to the plot, but it was kept to that one thing. In Necklace of Kisses, fantasy element piled upon fantasy element until I was in overload. I don't want to tell you all of the things Block includes so as not to ruin the plot, but everything from the creation of the titular necklace to a possible mermaid to Weetzie's favorite genie adds to the fantasy atmosphere. I think part of my problem is it almost seemed more believable when there was just a single fantastic occurrence. Certainly, it was unbelievable, but maybe, just maybe, magic could appear in our world from time to time. But when everything Weetzie touches is magical then it becomes a little less possible.

The second unsettling thing, not necessarily a problem, was a feeling of melancholy brought on by the events of the book. Mainly, if Weetzie Bat can grow old and have marital problems, what hope is there for the rest of us? Weetzie is supposed to be an eternal teenager, full of hope and wonder at the world. She's not supposed to leave her husband behind and run away to hide out in a hotel. Weetzie Bat just isn't allowed to have a mid-life crisis. The first book was published in 1989, though, so perhaps some of Weetzie's first fans are facing such dilemmas right now, and Block is just catering to her older audience. Not that Block seems like the sort of author to "cater" to anyone. She strikes me as an inspired author who probably wrote this story because these were the sorts of issues pressing on her at the time. Perhaps she just wasn't in the mood for whimsical musings.

On a related note, Weetzie's problem with her husband stems from the 9/11 attacks. After that day, he spends too much time reading the newspaper and being depressed. For some reason, it didn't ring true to the Weetzie Bat world. Now certainly, the punk aesthetic of some of the earlier Weetzie books probably only belongs to a certain time I don't know much about, but there was an overall timelessness to the stories that maked them as good in 2006 as they were in 1989. I feel like the references to 9/11 will date this book and detract from it in 15 or 20 years.

So I guess you just can't make me happy. I'm not content when there's too much magic in the book and I'm not content when Block introduces too much realism into the narrative. Despite my ranting about the problems I had with the book, I still recommend it completely since I love Weetzie Bat, and I was happy to spend just a little more time in her world, even if it didn't make me completely happy.