Book Reviews: Autobiographies & Biographies

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Finders Keepers by Mark BowdenBook Cover of Finders Keepers by Mark Bowden

Read by Natalie December 2010

Natalie recommends this is an interesting story of stupidity!

What would you do if you discovered $1.2 million dollars? Hopefully not what this guy did! This is the story of Joey, a working class guy who can't hold a job, is addicted to meth and pretty much thinks the world owes him. One day, on his way to score some drugs, he and his buddies drive past a yellow box on the side of the road. Thinking it would make a nice tool box, Joey gets them to pull over so he can pick it up. He gets the surprise of his life when the box turns out to contain $1.2 million dollars in unmarked bills. Casino money that has fallen off the back of an armoured truck, Joey happily picks it up, thinking that finally something is going his way. Swearing his friends to secrecy, what follows next are 7 of the craziest and stupidest days of his life. Despite his order to his friends, Joey preceds to tell anyone and everyone he meets that "he is the guy" the one who found the money, which is of course now headline news. On top of that, he goes on a spending frenzy, buying drinks for everyone, drugs for himself and his girlfriend and even handing out $100 bills to strangers. He also splits the money up, giving it to strangers and friends as he attempts to "launder" it before fleeing the country. Problem is, he is so high and crazy, he never remembers exactly where it all is and starts to develop paranoia that the mob is out to get him. Eventually the law catches up with him as he is about to flee to Mexico. The two friends who were in the car when he picked the money up have caved and told the police. What follows next is an even crazier trial. While locals are keen to protect Joey, who despite his stupidity, is a friendly, easy-going guy, it's the jury selection that is most difficult. Every person has heard the story and nearly every person admits, that they may have kept the money too. Although it is well known that in Philidelphia that if you find something worth more than $250, the law says you have to make every effort to return it, Joey gets let off. This is in part due to poor preparation by the prosecution and then later when Joey goes for the temporary insanity plea, by the judge not allowing Joey's drug use (and real reason behind his behaviour) as evidence in the case. I found the trial to be quite unbelievable actually. Here was a guy who blatantly kept the money, despite knowing that it wasn't his, who was clearly high as a kite on drugs and spending it all, but for some reason all charges against him get dropped! While he escapes jail, get's a Hollywood movie made about his story and all but $192,000 gets returned, Joey's life doesn't get any better. Plagued by his drug addiction and the constant harrassment from strangers eager to know where the remaining money is, Joey eventually succumbs and hangs himself. A sad story of a wasted life and the perils of drug addiction, it is also a mind blowing look at the justice system!

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Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth BardBook Cover of Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard

Read by Tracy & Natalie November 2010

Tracy recommends for some of the recipes, while Natalie recommends as a funny and mouth-watering read

This was the pick for the final book club of the year. I was not expecting much as I have previously read other similar books - well a lot actually. Young woman goes to foreign country, meets foreign good looking man and never leaves. In the meantime she is supposedly torn between her home country and her adopted country. I could think of a lot worse situations to be in. This book was similarly designed as "French Women Never Get Fat" with the novel split into sections that are separated by recipes. Some of the recipes, however were good and interesting, of course the challenge is to buy the ingredients in Australia where they won't allow us the privilege of the beautiful cheeses Bard describes. This book is described as a love story, but I don't really think it is that, more a musing of how funny life can turn out. Bard keeps saying she wants to be in France, but I always get the feeling that she would rather find a French part of New York and move there.

Not an inspiring read and I finished it in one afternoon with a couple of glasses of vino of course. Tracy

I on the other hand, really enjoyed this book. I was surprised, this kind of story has been done to death, but Elizabeth was very funny, and she's American! I thought her stories were entertaining, self-deprecating and easy to read. Her constant companion, food was mouth-watering and I will definitely be trying out some of the receipes. My only issue was when Gwendal proposed, her reaction was beyond stupid, especially as she liked to tell us she was always afraid of being ordinary. Luckily she woke up and took a chance and even luckier he stuck around for 6 months waiting for her! All in all, it was a fun read, that would be perfect for the holidays. Natalie

Elizabeth Bard is an American journalist and art historian based in Paris and writes for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune, Contemporary (Media Editor since 2002), Wired, ARTnews, Time Out and Fodor's - and she manages to write books and keep a Blog as well as send updates to The Huttington Post.

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The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember by Nicholas CarrBook Cover The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember by Nicholas Carr

Read by Tracy October 2010 (book pick of the month for October 2010)

Tracy recommends this as a challenging and extremely interesting read, after all technology is everywhere and seemingly invading our whole lives.

Carr charts the history of the written word and the changing plasticity of the brain. The book has been based on Carr's personal thoughts and growing awareness that the computer has changed his writing style and research methods. He writes "Over the last few years, I have had the uncomfortable sense that someone or something has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory." Carr argues that we have become a generation of scanners, never reading the full article and only searching for specific topics and finding it increasingly difficult to engage in complex texts and ideas. Carr does not totally discount the internet, although he hates his vanishing attention span, he finds it extremely useful in providing an infinite amount of information.

All said and done, Carr believes it is the search engine itself that is the problem, by fragmenting knowledge. In a 2008 study it was found that there are fewer articles being cited in research by scholars, instead focus was on new publications due to the ease of access to academic titles online. I agree with Carr, the internet has certainly made my Masters research simpler as I don't have to spend long periods of time in the library, accessing information with the click of a button instead. On the flipside, I feel like a servant to technology. Of course there is research for both sides of the story with a 2009 study showing that performing Google searches led to increased activity in the dors lateral prefrontal cortex (how's that for scientific speak), compared to actually reading a book. So although Carr's research tends to be one-sided and suited towards the outcome he wants, he does raise interesting questions in relation to cultural criticism and as he sets out: fewer and fewer people are likely to be engaged in contemplative, deep reading activities. I want to stay as one of the few. I don't think reading as something that is altruistic or academic, but an escape that can provide me with an insight into everything outside my world. Alas, even I have bought an electronic book reader (see October 2010 newsletter), but I still can't comprehend a world without the printed page. After all, Gutenberg's invention of the printing press was described by Sir Francis Bacon as having as great an impact as gunpowder and the compass on the modern world, making reading by the masses affordable and portable.

Carr himself is an interesting author, although this book included a lot of research and geek talk, it was easy to read, interesting and engaging. I don't think he is pessimistic about the future of technology, just struggling to find a balance. Increasingly I see people dictated by their electronic gadgetry - how many people speak to each other or read a map these days? So even though Carr tries to convince you the internet is responsible for turning our brains to mush, it is the cognitive overload that is the problem and we need to learn and sort information more effectively.

In response to Carr's book, Milo Yiannopoulos wrote an interesting response in the Telegraph arguing that Carr's book is shallow and his arguments week. Nicholas Carr used to be the former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review and now focuses his writing and speaking on technology, business and culture. You can keep up to date with Carr's thoughts through his Nicholas Carr website.

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Storming Las Vegas by John HuddyBook Cover of Storming Las Vegas by John Huddy

Read by Natalie September 2010

Natalie recommends this as an interesting look at a huge crime spree that was never really heard of outside of Vegas

This is an interesting story about a 2 year crime spree that involved many high end casinos in Vegas, a city considered to be a very safe and fashionable tourist destination. Spanning 1998-2000, the crimes barely made a dent outside of Nevada, let alone the rest of the world, but somehow one man and his crew managed to hit the MGM, the Desert Inn, the New York-New York, the Bellagio and several armoured cars. The leader of this group, Jose Vigoa was a child of Fidel's revolution in Cuba. Trained by the Russians, sent to fight the Afghans, he survived a hellish crossing from Cuba to America before seeking assylum in Sin City. He tried to make it work, but frustrated at the lack of opportunities and money, he used his military training to commit some of the most brazen robberies ever seen. Finally caught out after a seemingly blase final robbery, he then tried to play the FBI and court systems in a final bid to win his freedom. Fortunately for the city of Las Vegas, this didn't pan out for him and he was sentenced to nearly 500 years in jail, much of which has been spent in solitary confinment. It is an interesting story where the author was given complete and candid access to Jose. The truth is not always known though, as Jose version of events is often vastly different to that of the police or FBI. At the end of the book you are left wondering exactly who Jose Vigoa is, all talk or real action? Having visited Vegas and all the casinos he hit, this was a great trip down memory lane for me. I did find the story confusing at times as it jumped around a little and I couldn't always work out what time zone I was in, but it is a very interesting book and something I was certainly unaware had ever happened.

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Absurdistan by Eric CampbellBook Cover of Absurdistan by Eric Campbell

Read by Tracy 2010 & Natalie 2005

Tracy recommends this as a lighthearted view for how journalism is viewed in different countries

This book commences with Eric's first overseas deployment as an ABC foreign correspondent and sees him sent to Moscow. The book goes through his lowlights (initial homesickness, wife leaving him and difficulty to adapt) through to highlights (new wife, ability to see the funny side of things and realising that journalism is more important than his family). I can also understand the difficulties of reporting and living in a foreign country where you want to bring the real stories, but must also bow to pressure brought by various diplomatic departments (particularly in China). I was saddened by the fact that he put journalism over everything and appears to follow the typical sensationalistic journalism school of today where they have to be on the front line to report instead of leaving the soldiers to worry about themselves, putting additional pressure on resources.

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Three Cups of Tea (One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time) by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver ReilinBook Cover of Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Reilin

Read by Tracy 2010

Tracy recommends for an inspiring story

This is a story about one man's campaign to build a school in an extremely remote area of Pakistan. It is a true story and is proufoundly uplifting. After trekking some of this region I realised just how isolated some villages are from any communication with the outside world (when you read the papers every day I am not sure if this is a good or bad thing) and I really started to understand some of the challenges faced by Mortenson in his endeavour. After a failed K2 attempt (in his dead sister's memory) in 1993 that nearly cost him his life, Mortenson was lost and eventually discovered and nursed back to health, not only physically or emotionally by the villagers of a remote and impoverished Pakistani village, who barely had enough food for themselves. It was this single act of kindness that saw Mortenson promise to return and build a school which then led to a one-man humanitarian mission to involve as many people as possible when he realised it was outside of his own abilities. Many people I am sure make extreme promises, but few would actually follow through and this was the interesting part of the book - Mortensons' sheer perseverance is impressive. He not only tackled fundraising, but actually getting the money and goods to this extremeley remote and dangerous part of Pakistan. He, himself, was even kidnapped at one point. However, he believed that a balanced, non-extremist education for boys and girls was the only effective way of overcoming terrorism. Mortensen isn't perfect, but that isn't the point of this book, in fact you are inspired by these imperfections (he is one of the most unpunctual people you could imagine).

Mortensen has subsequently written Stones into Schools in 2010 which is the sequel to Three Cups. His foundation has now constructed 55 schools and is continuing. In August 2008, The Government of Pakistan gave Mortenson the Sitara-e-Pakistan, the highest civilian award. He has also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 and 2010.

Visit the Three Cups of Tea website.

In addition to co-authoring Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson is the co-founder of the nonprofit Central Asia Institute and the founder of Pennies For Peace (www.penniesforpeace.org) in addition to having his own website.

Addendum added April 2011. There has been doubt cast on the figures that Greg Mortenson claims. The Independent argues that Mortensen has fudged many of the facts to exaggerate the extent of his charity work. This has been uncovered during an investigation by 60 Minutes being aired on CBS News in the US on 18 April 2011. It seems no matter what you do sometimes, there are always questions to be answered - we look forward to the documentary. This story certainly keeps going. Greg Mortenson has now been ordered to reimburse the charity he established to assist communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the tune of approximately US$1 million).

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