Monday, April 26, 2010

Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin & Selections from His Writings
Benjamin Franklin, 1706-1790
Introduction by Henry Steele Commager
Illustrations by Thomas Hart Benton
Random House, 1944
Series: The Illustrated Modern Library

The other day I was in the library looking for Grant's Memoirs, which was not on shelf, but the multiple editions of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography caught my eye.  I decided to review the section where Franklin outlines the thirteen virtues he focused on in order that he might strive for moral perfection (I've included them at the end of this post).  If you're not familiar with Franklin's Autobiography, I highly recommend it, not only for the historical record of Franklin's accomplishments and astute observations, but for the glimpses of life in early America--both humorous and non--that he shares.

I read the book years ago and although much of it may be fuzzy in my mind, this section where he describes how he meticulously observed and recorded his daily progress on his chosen virtues really stuck with me.  It is probably the first secular self-help piece written in America and many self-improvement and/or business books written today still uphold Franklin's method as an inspirational example of a practical system for accomplishing one's goals.  You can click here to read the chapter that contains this section.  Scroll down to the paragraph that begins, "I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian."

The copy I chose to look at was a small, red library-bound copy published in 1944.  I was pleasantly surprised by the colorful illustrations and enjoyed them so much that I decided to take the book home.  I've scanned several illustrations to share with you here.
At 10 Franklin is taken out of school to help with his father's business, "which was that of a tallow-chandler and sope-boiler; a business he was not bred to, but had assumed on his arrival in New England" (12).

The young printer at work.
The illustrations looked vaguely familiar to me, but the name Thomas Hart Benton didn't ring a bell.  So I Googled him and was pleased to find many examples of his work on line.  He also illustrated Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and that's at least one place where I've seen his work.

Departure of the Joads, from The Grapes of Wrath, 1939

If you're interested in seeing more of Benton's work, do a Google image seach and you'll find some great examples.  Benton was a mentor of Jackon Pollock.  The other day at work I came across a new book about their relationship, Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock by Henry Adams.

Franklin's 13 Virtues:
1. Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trivling conversation.
3. Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
6. Industry: Lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9. Moderation: Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
11. Tranquillity: Be not disturbed as trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.
13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Here is Franklin's explanation of his system and a page example:

I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I rul'd each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I cross'd these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.
I determined to give a week's strict attention to each of the virtues successively. Thus, in the first week, my great guard was to avoid every the least offence against Temperance, leaving the other virtues to their ordinary chance, only marking every evening the faults of the day. Thus, if in the first week I could keep my first line, marked T, clear of spots, I suppos'd the habit of that virtue so much strengthen'd and its opposite weaken'd, that I might venture extending my attention to include the next, and for the following week keep both lines clear of spots. Proceeding thus to the last, I could go thro' a course compleat in thirteen weeks, and four courses in a year. And like him who, having a garden to weed, does not attempt to eradicate all the bad herbs at once, which would exceed his reach and his strength, but works on one of the beds at a time, and, having accomplish'd the first, proceeds to a second, so I should have, I hoped, the encouraging pleasure of seeing on my pages the progress I made in virtue, by clearing successively my lines of their spots, till in the end, by a number of courses, I should he happy in viewing a clean book, after a thirteen weeks' daily examination.
Phew.  I don't know if I could stick with this program for a week, let alone thirteen!  Have you ever created a systematic program for your own self-improvement?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Millennium Trilogy Madness

Title: The Girl Who Played with Fire
Author: Stieg Larsson
Translator: Reg Keeland
Publisher: Vintage Crime, 2010
Originally published by Norstedt, 2006

It's official: I've contracted a case of Millennium Trilogy Madness.  I had a copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo laying around my office for like a year before I read it.  What finally motivated me to pick it up was a one-day showing of the Swedish movie at the Gene Siskel Film Center, which I wrote about here.  

But now that I've finished the second book in the trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire, I'm chomping at the bit to get to the third, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.  The second book is "better" than the first, as people have have told me.  What is "better" about it for me is the thrill you get when you like characters in a story and have the opportunity to be with them again, to learn more about their pasts, and see where they are in the present.  Things in the first book make more sense after reading the second.  I imagine that the third will also shed more light on the first two.

Before I contracted it myself, I saw The Madness in the eyes of customers at work who briskly walk up to me with shoulders and head leaning slightly forward in excitement and ask where the new Stieg Larsson is.  Not the Dragon one, not the Fire one, but the third one, the last one.  Depending on their disposition, their faces either fall or get more animated when I tell them its coming out on May 25th.  

I also read an article in The New York Times back in December about how some independent bookstores were bucking tradition and ordering quantity of the book from the UK publisher--where the book has been available--to satisfy customer demand.  This, no doubt, annoys the US publisher, but made their customers happy and put some extra cash in their registers.  I enjoy hearing about book fever, but thought that perhaps those bookstores and their customers needed to relax a bit.  Have some patience.  Enjoy the anticipation.

So what did I do after finishing The Girl Who Played with Fire?  I let an idea float around in my mind for the afternoon and then sat down and ordered my own copy of the long awaited third book from Amazon UK.  The paper back is already out in the UK so with shipping and handling it only cost about $17.  It should arrive any day now.  I've been checking my front porch regularly.  Its like Harry Potter all over again.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Listen to Joe Hill reading from Horns

The Writers' Block is a weekly podcast where writers read their work from KQED Public Media in Northern California.  I subscribe to it through iTunes.  This week's guest is Joe Hill and you can listen to him read the beginning of his new novel, Horns, here.  While you're there, check out the list of episodes/writers that you can listen to going back to 2005.  The list is sortable either chronologically by episode title or alphabetically by author's last name.

In February I posted a review of Horns, which you can read here.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Therapy by Sebastian Fitzek

Title: Therapy
Author: Sebastian Fitzek
Translator: Sally-Ann Spencer
Publisher: St. Martin's, 2009
Originally published in Germany as Die Therapie by Knaur, 2006

Wow.  Talk about a page turner!

I came across this book by way of Euro Crime, an information packed blog devoted to British and European crime fiction. I was scrolling through the list of authors sorted by their country of origin looking for something recent to read by a German writer. Sebastian Fitzek's Therapy was the lucky winner because I was able to request it through the Metropolitan Library System via my library's website with a simple click of my mouse.  It arrived in two or three days. I love my library.  I used to be a compulsive book buyer, but now I'm mainly a compulsive book-checker-outer at the library because 1) I'm in school and low on funds and 2) its free.

Therapy is an intense psychological thriller.  After reading this book, I'll think twice about labeling other books as psychological thrillers.  It's the story of famous psychotherapist Viktor Larenz's search for his missing daughter, Josephine or Josey, and his own process of grief and betrayal.  Josey disappeared four years ago from a doctor's office where her father dropped her off.  She had been sick with an un-diagnosable illness and was going to see yet another specialist.

Viktor and his wife, Isabell, are coping with the disappearance in their own ways. Isabell seems to be throwing herself into her work whereas Viktor has slowly fallen apart. He's quit seeing patients, drinks too much, and hopes for the day an investigator will show up and tell him his daughter is dead, giving him closure. Isabell seems confident that Josey is alive; she may blame Viktor for Josey's disappearance.  The action takes place in Berlin and Parkum, an island off Germany's coast in the North Sea, where Viktor has a cottage and to which he retreats to work on interview questions for Spiegel magazine that's due in a few days.

Shortly after Viktor's arrival at Parkum, the mysterious and pushy Anna Glass walks into his life wanting therapy sessions with him.  He insists he's no longer seeing patients, but she's a writer who claims to suffer from a form of schizophrenia that piques his curiosity: the characters she creates come to life.  But what keeps him talking with her, and violating his own professional standards, is that some of Anna's hallucinations seem to provide clues to Josey's disappearance.

Viktor gets in touch with Kai, the private investigator whose been working on Josey's disappearance, and he does some leg work on the possible clues Anna provides.  Strange things start to happen as a storm brews on the North Sea: Viktor starts getting ill after seeing Anna, his dog disappears, the island's mayor warms him that Anna seems like trouble, and then there's the odd ways that Anna shows up.  Is she really there for help or is she a danger to Viktor? Does she know something about Josey? Is Josey alive?

This is one of those books that's hard to talk about without giving away too much and I don't want to blow any plot twists for you.  I highly recommend Therapy to those who like to be kept off balance by a good story.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Some Girls Bite by Chloe Neill

Chicagoland Vampires Novel: Book One
Release date: April 7, 2009
Author: Chloe Neill

I came across this series while re-shelving books at work one day back in December. I cut my reading teeth on Bram Stoker’s Dracula many moons ago and am always drawn to vampire books. Not that I read many of them these days, but Dracula remains one of my favorite books and I re-read it every couple years. Salem’s Lot is another great vampire story. I enjoyed An Interview with a Vampire when Anne Rice was all the rage. More recently I even gave The Twilight series a try, but stopped after the first book. I’m just not a fan of the romantic and/or blatantly sexual vampire story. I like my vampires to be mean and horrific, perhaps a teensey bit sympathetic, but not over-sexed lover boys (or girls) who ooze sexual tension all over the place and exist in a world that lacks a philosophical framework for their existence.

The bookstore where I work shelves Some Girls Bite in the sci-fi/fantasy section, others may shelve it in romance as its often categorized as paranormal romance. What caught my eye was the Chicago setting and I added it to the books-to-read-list in my mind. My memory was jarred last week when I saw it again on display at my public library. I put aside my misgivings about the “smokin’-hot sexual tension” one reviewer praised on the back of the book and took it home.

The book starts with an interesting buzz: a graduate student of English, Merit, is attacked by a vampire while walking across campus late one night. Her original attacker is scared away by Ethan, a kinder, gentler vampire who is the Master of the second oldest vampire house, Cadogen House. Merit is offered the opportunity to become a member of Cadogen House, but she’d have to swear eternal obedience not only to Cadogen House but also specifically to Ethan as her new Lord and Master. Ethan is “smokin’ hot” but he’s arrogant and may have had a secret agenda for turning her into a vampire. Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Even if he is good can Merit stomach swearing absolute obedience to some guy she’s supposed to consider her Master? He saved her life by making her an undead. But most vampires are “made” only after giving their consent. But he didn’t have time to get her consent; he had to save her life. But why did he happen to be in Wicker Park at the University of Chicago campus at the exact moment Merit was attacked when his house is in Hyde Park? Does it have anything to do with her father’s connections? Merit is pretty much estranged from her father, but daddy is a big wig in Chicago. We don’t find out the answer to these questions; at least not in book one.

The Chicagoland Vampires are the first in the country to “come out” and make their existence known to humans. Eight months before Merit is turned into a vampire, Celina Desaulniers, the smokin’ hot she-vamp master of the oldest and most powerful house, Navarre House, held a press conference to announce the existence of vampires. After months of panic the humans are settling down. The mayor even has a liaison officer to keep the lines of communication open between the vampires and other supernatural populations. What humans don’t know is that not all vampires are nicely tucked into official Houses that control their vampire natures. There are also rogue vampires who swear no allegiance to a house. Ethan thinks Merit may have been attacked by a rogue vampire and two more women also die around the time of Merit’s attack. The two victims look very similar to Merit. It seems Chicago has a vampire serial killer on their hands.

Merit struggles to come to terms with the loss of her life as a graduate student, her new vampire identity, and has just days to decide if she’ll swear eternal loyalty to Cadogen House and Ethan. She has the support of her best friend and roommate, Mallory, her grandfather, and a couple of new friends as well. She also has to learn about vampire culture, get trained in the art of vampire sword fighting and using her new powers. On top of all that, Merit has to deal with the sexual heat created by all the “smokin’ hot” vampire boys. Meanwhile, the serial killer is out there, the rogue vampires are feeling left out, the vampire Houses are starting to bicker and the other supernaturals in the city—wizards, shape shifters, water nymphs—are buzzing with tension.

I recommend Some Girls Bite to fans of paranormal romance. The Chicagoland Vampires novels are a series that Twilight fans can grow into.  Hardcore vampire fans who prefer more traditional horror probably won't be interested unless they want to check it out for the Chicago location.  I should add that the only other paranormal romance or romance novel that I've ever read was Nalini Singh's Angels' Blood
(recommended by a friend who's an expert in romance books) which seemed to be more suspense/urban fantasy than romance, even it if is shelved in the romance section at my bookstore. Some Girls Bite was a quick, fun read, but it did drag in parts. Merit's sassy-ness spills over into bratty-ness at times and she seems rather immature for someone turning 28. I liked the world that Neill attempts to set up, but she does do more telling rather than showing at times, particularly when trying to portray tension between characters. That said, I do plan on reading the second book in the series, Friday Night Bites.  The third Chicagoland Vampires Novel, Twice Bitten, is due out on July 6, 2010. Chloe Neill has a fresh voice and a fun imagination. I look forward to seeing how she'll develop as a storyteller.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Library: Atlanta, Illinois

Since I love libraries so much and my partner and I regularly take road trips, I thought it would be fun and possibly of interest to fellow book lovers to post occasional pictures of libraries we encounter on our travels.  The first featured library appropriately starts with the letter "A."

Atlanta Public Library
100 Race Street, Atlanta, IL
Built: 1908
Contains 13,190 volumes
Serves 2,325 residents
Circulates 3,032 items/year
Date visited: March 31, 2010

It's the only octagonal public library in Illinois. 

The plaque reads:
The Atlanta Public Library was founded in 1873 by public spirited citizens who realized the importance of books. In 1973, the museum was added for the purpose of preserving Atlanta's heritage. In 1979, this octagonal structure was listed on the national register of historical places. Atlanta, founded in 1853 as Xenia, had Logan county's first bank in 1854. Abraham Lincoln traveled throughout this area and was well known by several of Atlanta's pioneer families. Lincoln attended the July 4, 1859 picnic at Turner's Grove on the southeast edge of Atlanta and was presented a gold-handled cane by Sylvester Strong. In 1860, the initial "wide-awake" group supportive of Lincoln's presidential bid was organized in Atlanta. Lincoln's friends fired thirty-three cannon rounds when they heard the news of his nomination.
Unfortunately the library closes early on Wednesdays (4:30pm), so I didn't get to go inside to see its original turn of the century book stacks and furniture.  But here's a picture that I took through the front door.

The clock tower next to the library houses a 1909 Seth Thomas clock.  The clock was originally part of the Atlanta High School.  When the high school was razed in 1979, the citizens of Atlanta saved the clock.  The restoration of the clock and construction of the 36 foot tower were completed in 1982.  The clock rings on the hour and has an impressively loud chime which sounded while we were out front talking with a local man who was telling us some stories about Atlanta history, particularly about how Abe Lincoln was friends with some local families and would stay with them when he was traveling.  It was loud enough that we quit talking and waited for the seven chimes to sound.  The 36 inch brass bell weighs 1,200 pounds.

Together the library and clock tower form an impressive pair.
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