Book Review – “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin”

An incomplete story of a self-taught, multi-talented titan

 

I’ve long been fascinated by Benjamin Franklin, not just because he was one of the founding fathers of the United States, nor because he can be seen on the US 100 dollar bill. The interest stems from the fact that he achieved all the greatness in his life in spite of having very little formal education and having to quite literally teach himself skills which brought him all that success. To quote from a letter (included in the book) that someone wrote to him: “…you are ashamed of no origin; a thing the more important, as you prove how little necessary all origin is to happiness, virtue, or greatness.”

The book begins as notes to his son but quickly descends into too many details of his early life. I initially found the details interesting as they had a narrative feel to the “origin story” of Benjamin Franklin. But I soon found myself skimming past events that no longer seem relevant in today’s world. This book is, after all, almost two and a half centuries old!

What did impress me was the frugality and industriousness that was evident in Franklin’s life from a very early age. He first brought this ability of sheer hard work to teach himself writing and debating ideas. He later multiplied his knowledge, thus gathered, by associating and engineering gatherings of erudite people. The work ethic of simultaneously spending long hours at his printing business, reading and studying matters of public importance, discussing and debating with others and setting up of public institutions is immensely motivating.

What is disappointing and disgusting to read is the carefree manner in which women and Native Americans are badly treated and spoken of in the book. Nary a thought is spared for women who are left alone to bring up a child or the human rights of the indigenous people.

I was left a little underwhelmed by the time I finished reading this book. It ends literally mid-sentence and that is pretty much how you feel about the book as a whole. We only get a short look at the inventor and the diplomat, two aspects of his personality that I wanted to read more about. I guess I’ll just have to settle down and read the biography of Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson that I bought a few years ago.

Snippets:

  • “Human felicity is produc’d not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.”
  • “Those who govern, having much business on their hands, do not generally like to take the trouble of considering and carrying into execution new projects. The best public measures are therefore seldom adopted from previous wisdom, but forc’d by the occasion.”
  • “This library afforded me the means of improvement by constant study, for which I set apart an hour or two each day, and thus repair’d in some degree the loss of the learned education my father once intended for me. Reading was the only amusement I allow’d myself. I spent no time in taverns, games, or frolicks of any kind; and my industry in my business continu’d as indefatigable as it was necessary.”

Books I marked as to-read after reading this book:

Read more about ‘The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin’ on Goodreads. Buy the book here.

Title: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Author: Benjamin Franklin

First Published: 1791

Number of Pages: 154

Price: Paperback – Rs. 98 / Kindle – Rs. 77.88 (Amazon.in)

My Rating: 6/10

(Disclosure: If you buy the book by clicking on any of the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)

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Book Review – “Reminiscences of a Stock Operator” by Edwin Lefevre

This disguised biography of Jesse Livermore has been highly recommended by stock market pundits over the years. One can see why, given the fact that the observations about human nature and stock trading ring true almost a century after the book was written and first published.

What however might make this a cumbersome read is the fact that most of the practices and anecdotes mentioned here are no longer relevant today. Institutions have been replaced and there are strict rules against “manipulating” stocks.

The book does give you a glimpse into the kind of courage and daring required to make big bets in the stock market. Apart from that, for the general learning, I recommend reading through the quotes from the book on Goodreads.

Read more about ‘Reminiscences of a Stock Operator’ on Goodreads. Buy the book here.

Title: Reminiscences of a Stock Operator

Author: Edwin Lefevre

Published: 1923

Number of Pages: 308

Price: Kindle – Rs. 60, Paperback – Rs. 890 (Amazon.in)

My rating: 3/5

(Disclosure: If you buy the book by clicking on any of the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)

Book Review – “The Audacity of Hope” by Barack Obama

When Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States of America, he kindled hope not only in America but across the world. This book outlines the basis of that hope.

Obama argues that in spite of their differences, Americans want the same basic things: jobs, good education for their children and a safe, free environment. And then there are the challenges created by the ideological differences between the two major political parties, the manner in which laws are created and how the legislature works. Not to mention the social and economic challenges brought on by globalization. In ‘The Audacity of Hope’, Obama confesses to not knowing all the answers but does outline a road-map that he says can take everyone ahead.

What I particularly liked about this book are the lucidly explained ideas. Even as someone has never followed American politics in great detail, I was able to grasp most of what was being explained about the legislature. This isn’t a book heavy with details and complexities of how the legislature works but gives us a peek into the lives of U.S. Senators and how they try to align their personal, political and national interests.

I would also say that this is not necessarily an ‘American’ book. The challenges that Obama lists and the common aspirations of the people are a universal story and as applicable to us here in India as to the citizens of America.

Read more about ‘The Audacity of Hope’ on Goodreads. Buy the book here.

Title: The Audacity of Hope

Author: Barack Obama

Published: 2008

Number of Pages: 375

Price: Rs. 325 (Amazon.in)

My rating: 4/5

(Disclosure: If you buy the book by clicking on any of the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)

Book Review – “My Salinger Year” by Joanna Rakoff

My Salinger Year - Joanna Rakoff

 

This book was recommended to me and a friend (the same one who very sweetly sent me a copy of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman) by another very dear friend. The latter had highly praised this book, and I was even more intrigued when the former finished reading the book in one sitting and couldn’t stop praising it.

And no wonder. This is easily one of the more lucidly written books that I’ve read this year.

The book journals a year in the author’s life when, in 1996, she takes up an assistant’s job in a New York literary agency which, as she later realises, represents J. D. Salinger. As the year progresses, she gets to know her colleagues better, answers Salinger’s fan mail, helps her manager who is going through a tough time personally, has second thoughts about her current boyfriend and gets involved in a book that Salinger wants to publish.

The time-period and the setting of the book gave me a very post-Mad Men era feel. This is helped not only by the fact that it is set in New York in the late nineties but also by the somewhat puzzling insistence of the agency to not embrace technology: it’s 1996 and yet, they use faxes and Dictaphones instead of computers and e-mail.

Right from the very beginning, there are beautiful descriptions of the city of New York. Be it the fairy tale like day when deserted streets greet our heroine as she determinedly goes to her first day at work, in spite of the entire city being snowed in, or when she occasionally treats herself to walks inside the landmark Waldorf hotel where she breathes in the opulence; this is a very keen observer who is able to transport the reader to a different place and time.

There are also geeky insights into the world of publishing. For instance, how books usually have their names written vertically down the length of their spine. You know, how you need to tilt your head to the right to be able to read the name of the book and the author when books are arranged on a shelf? Yeah. Salinger hated that. He insisted that all his books have their names written horizontally. Which created a curious problem if the book, as is the case of the one which is under discussion to be published, is not voluminous enough to accommodate the length of the title and the author. What does one do? Do you widen the margins? Increase the fonts? (It was while reading this that I realised that I had always sub-consciously preferred book titles to be printed horizontally on the spines.)

And then, there are the Salinger mails. From young and the old, from the frustrated to the angry; they all write in to Salinger. The recluse that he is, he has specifically requested none of it to reach him. And it falls upon the author to write a standard letter back to each mail which comes. But going through the contents of the letter, she can’t help but be moved to write a little personal note to these people who are trying to get through to a great author. The letters and her responses take a life of their own and, I suspect, makes the author see things in a different light by the end of the year.

This is a beautifully written book which completely moved me. Like the author, I too haven’t read any books by J. D. Salinger (she does read his works by the end of the book, though) and this perhaps made me connect with her in a strange way. Her struggles of trying to survive in expensive NYC felt like a reality check on the beauty that she described in other pages. The voice of a young woman, living a tough life in New York City and yet having access to the great American literary scene in the late 90s. Perfect weekend read.

Lingering thoughts:

  • “Oh. That Jerry!”
  • “He was also just afraid. Afraid the way most people become when they get what they’ve long wanted.”
  • Next time I’m in a spot of bother, I too am going to stand in a doorway like Joanna’s boss and shout “HUGH!!”
  • “You can’t go about revealing your goddamn emotions to the world.”

Image courtesy: www.goodreads.com

Read more about ‘My Salinger Year’ on Goodreads. Buy it on Amazon.in or on Flipkart.

Book: My Salinger Year

Author: Joanna Rakoff

Publisher: Knopf

Publication Year: 2008

Number of pages: 252

Price: Rs. 247 (Paperback on Amazon) and Rs. 125.30 (Kindle) on Amazon.in / Rs. 221 on Flipkart.

My rating: 5/5

(Disclosure: If you buy the book by clicking on any of the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)

Open by Andre Agassi

Title: Open – An Autobiography

Author: Andre Agassi

Number of Pages: 400

Price: Rs. 235 (Amazon.in/Flipkart)

I hadn’t read an autobiography in a while, let alone a sports one. What tipped me towards reading this particular book was that it was highly recommended by a couple of friends who are avid sports fans themselves. In fact, one of them had insisted that she listed this book as brilliant.

I expected the book to be a simple narration of an athlete’s journey: his trials and tribulations, snippets from his personal life, the various battles that he had been part of on the tennis court. What I got, however, was an untarnished glimpse into the life and the roller-coaster mind of a flawed genius.

There is no doubt about the fact that Agassi is one of the greatest tennis players of his age. He will forever be remembered as one of the titans. He will also be remembered as somebody who was flamboyant and perhaps not mentally strong enough to capitalise on his skills in the initial years of his career.

The book smashes all such ideas. And then some more.

Agassi shocks us by telling us how his father trained him since the age when he could barely hold a racket. Agassi hated the sport. As he grew up, he was, like any other kid, a rebel. What made things different for him was the focus on his life and his career. And that the rebellious kid’s every antic was being noticed and commented upon.

No doubt he worked extremely hard was made to work extremely hard on his game. But he was also clearly gifted. Yet, he continuously saw ups and downs in his career graph, most of which can be attributed to the demons in his head.

Agassi speaks honestly about his married life with Brooke Shields and how, even though it looked picture perfect, there were ominous signs right from the start. His subsequent wooing of Steffi Graf, however, makes for a delightful read and you cannot be any more pleased for a man to have finally found happiness after all that he has been through in his personal life.

There are also some great stories of friends, trainers and coaches who have had a significant impact on Agassi’s life. Each one of these injected a dose of positive thinking in his life when he needed them the most. Those chapters are very good motivational reads.

And then of course, there is Pete. “As always, Pete.” The one awkward rivalry-friendship that endures through the length of the book is that of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. Agassi admits as much. Sampras was definitely the more crowned champion, and perhaps with good reason. Agassi mentions how not bothered Sampras could be with the sport when he was off the court: how he could “switch off”. You cannot but admire the way Agassi speaks of his friend and arch-rival.

I have always loved tennis as a sport and will forever remain a Federer fan (GO FED!). But this book has made me look with new respect at Agassi and at what is perhaps the loneliest sport out there, as he mentions in the book.

Bring on the Sampras autobiography, I say!

My rating: 4 out of 5.

Image courtesy: http://www.goodreads.com

Read more about Open on Goodreads. Get it on Amazon.in, Flipkart & on your Kindle.

(Disclosure: If you buy the book by clicking on any of the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

Title: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Author: Truman Capote

Number of Pages: 157

Price: Rs. 357 (Amazon.in)

I read this book as a part of The Sunday Book Club’s (@tsbookclub on Twitter) #TSBookChat. As is the norm with me these days, I immediately searched for the book on the Kindle store and was surprised and disappointed to not find a Kindle edition. Hence, I ordered for a copy of the book.

Having read the book, I can now admit that I’m thankful that the Kindle edition wasn’t available. Packaging this under their Modern Classics series, Penguin has done a fabulous job with the quality of the cover page and also of the pages inside. Also, the fonts used for the book make it a pleasure to read. (Someday, I will dedicate myself to studying various fonts.)

“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is a charming novella. Narrated by a nameless author (who has, at the beginning of the book, not had anything published) who lives in 1940s New York, the story features the charismatic Holly Golightly, a modern “American geisha”, if you will. She doesn’t have a job, per se, but was almost a Hollywood starlet before she runs away to New York, offering herself as company for dinners and parties to anyone who would compensate her for her time and presence. Holly, who at the beginning of the novella, is about 18 or 19 years old, is most definitely not the “ideal” society girl and you know she is going to fall into trouble sooner rather than later. Yet, Capote manages to capture a mix of naivete and brashness which made me adore her and kept me curious about her fate.

I remember watching the film ages ago, and hence, it was only Audrey Hepburn I saw in my mind’s eye while I read the book. I recalled a very different ending in the film and thought the “romantic comedy” genre inspired end was better than the slightly ambiguous one the novella provided. Yet, one cannot really blame Capote, as the novella feels more like a labour of love than something he was writing that would enable him to pay the bills.

Apparently, Capote wrote the character keeping Marilyn Monroe in mind. I guess it will remain a debate for film historians to decide who would’ve been a better Holly Golightly.

This edition also comes with three short stories: House Of Flowers, A Diamond Guitar and A Christmas Memory. House of Flowers disappointed me a bit and A Diamond Guitar merely flirted with my curiosity and my imagination. However, it was A Christmas Memory which was the most impactful of the three. It is a tribute to Capote’s skill that the reader is so invested in the characters by the end of this short story. It almost perfectly captures how we feel looking at people as we grow up, more often than not, far away from those who we love.

This was the first time I was reading Truman Capote and I am now sufficiently impressed and curious to read In Cold Blood, which I believe was what earned him fame and established him as an excellent modern writer.

My rating for the book (the 3 short stories included): 4 out of 5.

Image courtesy: Penguin Books

(Disclosure: If you buy the book by clicking on any of the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)