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.