Book Reviews: Autobiographies & Biographies

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Naked: Confessions of Adultery and Infidelity by Kylie Ladd and Leigh LangtreeBook cover of Naked: Confessions of Adultery and Infidelity by Kylie Ladd and Leigh Langtree

Read by Natalie November 2011

Natalie recommends as eye-opening, sad and occasionally funny

Naked is a collection of short stories that were brought about when three of Kylie’s friends approached her within the space of a week with confessions of adultery or attraction to someone who was not their spouse. While each of the three friends had very different stories to tell, Kylie was nonetheless intrigued by the nature of adultery and infidelity. Why do people do it? Is it for the sex, the rush, to escape an unhappy marriage or is it simply something that happens, that we have no real control over? Armed with the desire to find out more, Kylie placed an advertisement asking for stories of infidelity (a breach of trust that doesn’t have to include sex) and adultery (sex with someone who is not your spouse). Flooded with stories told from all perspectives – the cheater, the one left behind, the other man/woman, the child who witnesses it - Naked provides an extremely raw and often painful look at the reasons why people stray. Of all the stories presented by those directly involved, most claim that is was never about the sex, that it was more about the “connection” and being “found” by another person. They describe all the highs of first lust and love and often have little regard for those left hurt and destroyed by their transgressions. When the stories are told by those left behind, the anger and fear and rejection is often palpable and you can see the far reaching ramifications of what has been done to them. However, there are also stories of open-relationships, where sex with others is readily acknowledged, although you get the feeling it's not as readily accepted. There are stories of confession to one's spouse and the subsequent reconciliation between them. There is a story of a woman who cheats on her husband with her best friend, honestly believing she's not being dishonest because she is with another woman. There are stories of threesomes and experimentation, prostitutes (using them to cheat as well as one man's acceptance of his girlfriend's occupation as an escort), and there is even one story where the other woman actually ends up with her man after he walks away from his marriage. While it’s not for the reader to judge any of these people for the things they have done, it’s hard not to. This is particularly when calculated dishonesty is involved, when the cheating occurs without the spouse's knowledge and the cheater genuinely believes it is their right to seek out something they are not receiving at home.

Naked actually formed the inspiration for Kylie’s first work of fiction After The Fall and you can certainly see why. It is full of raw, often painful honesty and emotion and it is almost like being part of a secret confession, which only makes it all the more appealing to read. Certainly eye-opening, some of the things people want or need, Naked might make you see infidelity and/or adultery in a different light.

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Hospital Babylon by Imogen Edward-Jones and Anonymous Book cover of Hospital Babylon by Imogen Edward-Jones and Anonymous

Read by Natalie October 2011

Natalie recommends as hilarious and actually kind of frightening!

I have previously read and loved Air Babylon and Hotel Babylon and given I work in medical research, and am based at a hospital I figured Hospital Babylon would be a great next instalment in this series. As with her previous novels, Imogen has interviewed a bunch of real life doctors, nurses, physios, locums etc and created a single 24 hour period in a fictional hospital in London. Following a day in the life of our nameless narrator we see all of the funny, strange, horrifying, sad and truly bizarre things that walk through the Accident and Emergency department doors. Of course this includes numerous sexual misadventures including a wrench tightened around a now bulging penis so the man could be led around by his girlfriend or the purple vibrator lodged firmly up a man’s backside by his lover/secretary, complete with long-life batteries installed and switched to on. We see the teenage girl who in the midst of having a miscarriage is also trying to pick up her treating doctor on facebook, the drunks who come in looking for fluids and a bed to sleep in only to wake up covered in their own urine, the druggies looking for an extra hit from doctors or even the other patients, the elderly who really just want to sit in the waiting room and have someone to talk too and of course the legitimate accidents that more often than not don’t end well. Of course in addition to the death and destruction, there is the screaming and swearing miracle that is childbirth, the entirely unexpected resurrection of a corpse that has already been granted for organ donation. The drug sales rep whose pitch of a drug that is already routinely prescribed serves only as a free lunch for the staff or the single day in a year when you don’t ever want to be sick due to the complete switch out of medical staff in the hospital. Then of course you need to throw in the sexual escapades of the medical staff themselves, either in the nursing office, the common room or even a vacant patient cubicle and the “confiscated” patient drugs that actually serve to pep up a doctor at the tail end of a 24 hour straight shift and this is enough to make you want to never visit the emergency department again! The emotions of our doctor on his last day in this hospital range from exhilaration at saving a life to frustration at the system, anger at being unable to save someone and unexpected sadness from a particular loss. You will also learn the meaning behind some of the strange acronyms that grace patient charts, the animosity between the specialities and the various drug combinations and the potential effects they can have on you. This book, just like its predecessors had me laughing out loud and vowing to be on my best behaviour should I ever have the misfortune to find myself in emergency. A very funny read.

Imogen Edwards-Jones has a website that is full of information on her blog, scripts and books.

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You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead by Marieke Hardy"Book cover of You’ll be sorry when I’m dead by Marieke Hardy

Celebrity reviewed by Jeremy September 2011

I have loved Marieke Hardy ever since I became addicted to First Tuesday Book Club, watching every video available on their website in lieu of studying for my university exams. Despite my mother’s insistence that “no one could be that intelligent if they have tattoos” Marieke has always been my favourite panel member, with her acerbic wit and fearless critique of what the rest of the panel consider classic works of fiction.

I came to Marieke’s latest work You’ll be sorry when I’m dead a collection of autobiographical short stories, with high expectations. However, I am pleased to say they were met. The opening story begins with the line: “At the age of eleven I decided with no small sense of certainty that when I grew up I wanted to become a prostitute.” Marieke’s first story hilariously recounts her three sexual encounters with prostitutes, as Hardy seems to want to make the reader aware right away that this is no ordinary memoir. I am not the kind of person who usually laughs out loud while reading a book, feeling self-conscious and silly laughing by myself, but there were several points when Hardy’s writing made me giggle to myself.

While the first story is hilarious, I was worried that I might tire of one outrageous story after another, laced with self-deprecating humour. Yet I was pleasantly surprised to find that the tone of Hardy’s stories change throughout. Each is peppered with Hardy’s signature dry wit, yet some are profoundly moving. My favourite chapter is the second which tells us: ‘This is a cancer story that has some jokes in it mostly because the main person in the story who has cancer is the funniest person I have ever met.’ How can cancer be funny I wondered? Yet Hardy proves her skills as a writer as she beautifully mixes humour and pathos, telling the story of her young friend’s battle with cancer, and evoking the strength of the friendship that exists between her and her closest friends. The remaining stories touch on all kinds of matters including Hardy’s career as child actor, her unique relationship with her parents, her marriage, her childhood passion for both Young Talent Time and the Fitzroy Football Club, and her frankly bizarre relationship with Bob Ellis (after whom she has named her female dog). Each short story was an enjoyable reading experience, but it felt to me like Hardy has bookended the book with her very best work.

There is a refreshing honesty to the way Hardy writes. She hasn’t changed any names for the book, and in her acknowledgements at the end she thanks her mother and father, assuming they are still on speaking terms. Determined to make her memoir as realistic as possible, she allows a right of reply to many of those featured in her stories, including two of her ex-boyfriends. It’s a clever device, as it allows us to see her through the eyes of those who know her the best.

You’ll be sorry when I’m dead is unlike anything I have ever read before. The book pulsates with energy and humour. You have to wonder if Hardy has left herself with nowhere to go, publishing a memoir-of-sorts at such a young age. But the force of Hardy’s writing talent makes me think this is only the tip of the iceberg.

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Born to Run - a hidden tribe, superathletes and the greatest race the world has never seen by Christopher McDougallBook Cover of Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

Read by Tracy September 2011 (book pick of the month for September 2011)

Tracy recommends as inspiring

Okay anybody who knows me knows that I am not a runner, not even a jogger but after signing up for the London Marathon (unfortunately didn't get in), my partner has started running in a more formulaic and serious manner whereas I am focusing on the mental strength required. After getting injured in London, my partner met a sports physiotherapist who recommended barefoot running, changing his running style and to focus on running well not just speed and length of the runs. As we are travelling through Europe in a motorhome sometimes it isn't possible to sit back and read a book on our endless quest to follow The Tour de France (France) and also La Vuelta (Spain) so we started listening to Born to Run which although written by Christopher McDougall is read by Fred Sanders who manages to bring the words to life. McDougall is a journalist and writer for fitness and men’s health magazines and whilst waiting to do an interview reads an article about a race of superathletes from the deserts of Mexico. Not much is known about the tribe except they are exceptional long distance runners, live in the remote and inhospitable Copper Canyons in Chihuahua and live on a diet of pinole, chia seeds and grain alochol and as McDougall amply describes wear the most beautiful clothes. This tweaks McDougall’s interest and he finds himself on a quest to find a man called Cabello Blanco (the white horse) (and who sadly passed away in 2012) who has been living with the Tarahumara Indians for the last decade and is probably the gringo who has been able to watch them in close confines hidden away from the world within the Copper Canyons. The Tarahumara Indians have attempted to shy away from modern lifestyles and live in caves or homes within the canyons but are increasingly being drawn into westernised lifestyles as roads are brought closer and the area is under the control of drug cartels. This change in lifestyle is also seeing their running styles being reduced as they settle into more sedentary lives. McDougall finally finds Cabello and is captivated by his story and his one desire which is to have a race between the Tarahumara Indians and several of America's great ultra marathon runners and he requires McDougall’s assistance to get the word out there. It is this journey at McDougall makes interesting, as well as facts, figures and information we are drawn into the stories of running including runners, doctors, races (if you want to read something amazing check out the Leadville Trail 100 Ultramarathon), whilst all the time we are brought back to the main story of the race.

McDougall then gives us an explanation about his own running injuries and his desire to find a method that will allow him to run without pain and constant expense of cortisone injections, sneakers and orthotics. You sense his frustration as everything he does ends in the same problems, no matter how much he spends on the latest sneakers or equipment. Eventually he starts trawling through a variety of sports medicine physicians, sports podiatrists and various other doctors where he is amazed to learn some of the statistics involved in running injuries. 8 out of every 10 runners will be hurt each year, in fact those that aren't hurt are seen as mutants, Achilles tendon injuries are increasing by approximately 10% per year, stretching exercises seem to have no effect on injury rates and planter fashiter injuries have not reduced since the introduction of modern day running shoes. The mutants that are talked about are people who have a strange leisure activity that involves ultra marathons which are anything from 50 miles (double marathon) over rocky and/or hilly terrains and involve temperatures from boiling to freezing and take as long as they take with some of the famous races needing you to carry a torch and headlamps. They do not use aids, aren't sponsored, rely on their families to provide support, only battling themselves and other competitors. At the end of all his visits to different doctors, McDougall wants the answer to one question - what is the right way to run?

In 1972 Nike gave us the running shoe and from that date runners have been suffering increasing levels of injury. Although there is growing awareness that running can be seen as a magic bullet, particularly in times of global uncertainty (running became increasing popular in Vietnam, Great Depression, Cold War, Race Riots and 9/11). Running is seen as reducing some of the great tragedies of the western world from heart disease, diabetes and various cancers. However, we get so caught up in advertising (and I am no exception) that running has become an expensive sport and if you believe the hype, you can't run or jog without the latest Nike, Adidas (or insert other global manufacturer) sneakers. However, it doesn't have to be that way and McDougall goes back through time to explain how we used to run and suffered less injuries and how sneaker manufacturers are starting to change their marketing (Nike Free) and introduce models that provide less cushioning and supposed less assistance for issues that you don't really have or only have due to the sneakers you wear in the first place. McDougall cites the Stamford head coach in telling Nike executives in 2001 that he believed when athletes trained part of the time in barefeet they are faster and suffer fewer injuries as the foot becomes more adaptable, is able to deal with different surfaces and stronger, whereas in a running shoe the foot is protected and therefore grows weaker and subsequently more prone to injuries or moves injury points to different areas. In fact there appears to be no evidence or research that running shoes prevent injuries or make you less prone to injury.

As race day approaches we are introduced to the different racers from America and the different Tarahumara tribes and their stories are amazing, these people all have one thing in common, they are great people who really care about the world and people around them. One of the most interesting characters was Barefoot Ted (http://barefootted.com/); he has become a machine in showing that you can run in barefeet or with minimal sneakers and still keep up with more experienced athletes. In fact, Barefoot Ted was the first sponsored athlete of Vikram (barefoot running shoes, or some people may know them as Vikram Five Fingers). A lot of book focuses on whether you are a good runner because you are a good person or vice versa, however it would seem that if you are a good runner it takes a lot of stress and anxiety about trivial matters from your life and lets you focus on what is happening around you. Some of the best ultra marathoners in the world (Scott Durack) stand by the sideline of every race to cheer on every person crossing the line so that everybody knows they are appreciated and not forgotten. I don't think you see that kind of sportsmanship in a lot of people these days. As the race progresses McDougall describes in detail everything that surrounds it including the town that has come out in all its glory to provide support for the runners, as well as provide a base for anyone who wants to place a bet.

At the end I did realise that I will never be an ultra marathon runner, but am certainly walking more and taking in my surroundings and my partner has swapped to barefoot shoes and finds it easier with less injuries to job longer and longer distances. Even though this is McDougall's first book, he gives clear evidence and provides plenty of references to information he has collected and collated and although I am sure there is another book that spruiks the exact opposite, this book was a great read and you were totally drawn into the lives of the Tarahumara Indians and their hope that they will be able to continue their way of life. Of course when we return to Australia we will be attempting to grow our own Chia and Pinole which sound fantastic foods. Strangely enough we had never heard of Chia until listening to this book and then noticed that the Saxobank Tour de France team have it written on the side of their portable kitchen. In the end McDougall, who was one of the racers tells a great story and the importance he learnt to go back to basics. Keep up to date with what is happening in the barefoot running world and some upcoming events at Chris McDougall's website.

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The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de WaalBook cover of The Hare With Amber Eyes:  A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal

Tracy read in May 2011

Tracy recommends as an interesting family memoir

The Hare With Amber Eyes is a tale about the family heirloom (netsuke) and how it came and went through the family. The story is narrated by Edmund de Waal, himself a potter and ceramic artist based in the UK after studying in Japan. He inherits 264 Japanese netsuke, which are tiny carvings of animals, plants, people in wood or ivory, from his uncle Iggie. De Waal decides to find out the story of how the netsuke came to be and their relationship with the family. So de Waal leaves his studio and starts his journey in Paris, where the netsuke are first purchased by Charles Ephrussi in the 1870s. During this time there is a craze for Japanese art and they are highly sought after. Charles is a relative of de Waal's great grandfather, Victor and so the linkages between family and the netsuke begin. The Ephrussi family are an incredibly rich Jewish banking family whose wealth it would appear knew no boundaries with large palaces built in the best capitals of Europe, art by the best artists (Renoir, Monet etc) and unlimited wealth for everything they could desire, all created initially from selling grain. The netsuke are sent from Paris to Vienna as a wedding present for his cousin Viktor and his new bride Emmy. It is at the huge Palace Ephrussi that the netsuke are housed in Emmy's dressing room and where their children are allowed to handle and play with them. Under the auspices of the first World War, anti-seminism takes hold and the Ephrussi family are thrust out of their gilded palaces with their businesses and belongings gradually confiscated. In 1938, the Ephrussi home is invaded by Germans who steal, plunder and pillage the remainder of their belongings - except the netsuke, which is hidden by the long serving maid Anna, in her mattress. The Ephrussi's are now spread across Europe with the main family managing to eventually escape and start new lives. In 1947 the family were able to return to Vienna to obtain what they could of their belongings or attempt to receive some recompense for their losses. It is on one of these trips that Anna is uncovered and she returns the collection of netsuke who are rehomed in England. We are then reintroduced to a young Iggie who decides to take the netsuke with him to set up home in Japan - returning them to their rightful country. In 1991, de Waal was first introduced to the netsuke when he was studying pottery in Japan where he was able to examine and appreciate the intricate carvings and come under their spell.

You cannot say that de Waal scrimped on his family research. However, I was not drawn into the story, the details were sometimes explained in too much detail that you felt disconnected from the important story being told. I wanted to be absorbed by the netsuke, to know about their makers and how they first left Japan and more importantly what happened to Anna. The inability by de Waal to tell us Anna's story was a fundamental flaw, she was one of the most important characters in the storyline (and I know she wasn't family, but she kept the netsuke together when the family did not appear to particularly care for them), de Waal himself stated that he "forgot" to find out information about her until it was too late.

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The Fry Chronicles by Stephen FryBook cover of The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry

Read by Tracy March 2011

Tracy recommends to get an insight into 80's comedy.

Stephen Fry will forever be linked with Hugh Laurie in my mind, and in this the second book of his life (the follow-up to Moab Is My Washpot), he covers his teenage years, to Cambridge, his meeting with Laurie and how he started his career as a writer/actor. So what do we learn - Fry actually did a stint in prison for credit card theft in his late teens, in part fuelled by an addictive personality that he could not sate. However, he pulled himself together enough to get accepted into Cambridge to read literature. Fry does go to considerable lengths to explain the differences between Oxford and Cambridge which in some examples were a little longwinded. I must admit I have lost a bit of awe for this supposed hallowed educational institution, considering the lack of study done yet everyone seems to still come out with a degree. After leaving the relatively cloistered Cambridge lifestyle, Fry realises that you should not have to choose between different cultures which may lead to a false dichotomy, after all biodiversity is what makes the human cultural jungle amazing and although he was heavily involved in drama during his university years, he tended to mix with the same group of people.

Fry reminisces about his life with other struggling actors (including Hugh Laurie, Emma Thomson, Ben Elton etc etc etc) during this time and the desire to, in Fry's case, be famous or at least recognized. This book is a huge collection of the who's who of comedic talent through this period. Fry is certainly smug about how lucky he is in life and it seems like he can do no wrong and although he professes self doubt and shyness, I felt that his public persona may sometimes be the real him. He is also one of those annoying people that does not seem to struggle in relation to money or work, it falls in his lap - don't you just hate people like that. The book does delve into his puzzlement on "old friends" who have since changed and call him aloof and unhelpful in the early years (particularly Robbie Coltraine) and Fry does work on the theory that if you can't say anything nice don't say anything at all. During his time writing book reviews Fry became faced with the ultimate book that he could say nothing good (and yes as you know I have read a few of these) and it is this one book that Fry actually wrote a completely scathing and bitter review which haunted him enough to stop doing book reviews. His argument was that if you offer up works for public scrutiny you must accept any negative critical notices. I don't feel so bad now when I am faced with a bad book that I just can't understand on any level. In his own book, Fry must surely have been tempted to dish up the huge amount of dirt he must have, but this book does not delve too much into the bottomless pit of celebrity gossip. Fry does discuss his own personal life and writes of his attempts to become more involved in the gay scene before turning to celibacy. Although the book was a good read, I didn't laugh out loud and sometimes he lost his way on different tangents. But then I don't have an exciting life that has put me under public scrutiny, and I can only imagine how difficult it is to write a memoir without alientating most of your friends.

Stephen Fry also has an undying love to technology which shines throughout the book and The Fry Chronicles was initially published simultaneously in hardback, as an eBook and an iPhone app. I read it as an eBook.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca SklootBook cover of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Read by Tracy February 2011

Tracy recommends for a fascinating insight into how one womans death changed the world

Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920 in Virginia, America into an extremely impoverished family, living in former slave quarters and farming tobacco just as her ancestors did. Henrietta married her cousin with their first child being born at 14, it was not a perfect marriage and they moved to Baltimore to work in the escalating steel industries to provide a better future for their family. Henrietta's life was not an easy one, although by all accounts she was a lively woman who cared deeply for her family and those around her. By the time it was discovered she had cervical cancer, she already had five children and a history of syphilis from her wandering husband. Elsie (her first child) was institutionalised when young and this story also uncovers the horrific life she led in a "coloured institution". Henrietta didn't tell anyone she was sick as she always believed she was being cured and it wasn't until she died in 1951 in Baltimore that this story takes a bizarre turn. On reading back through her medical history Skloot discovered that she was being treated palliatively with painkillers and any hopes for a cure were long gone.

This book looks at the lack of empathy or humanity that medical researchers have towards those that have provided them with invaluable research possibilities and ignore the fact that tissue and cell samples were taken without consent. Henrietta had a virulent form of cervical cancer, from which a sample of her cells was cultured. Up until then, researchers had not been able to keep human cells alive, however Henrietta's cells were found to be robust and became the basis for HeLa, the laboratory convention that is still used today. It is through her cells that a polio vaccine was found, along with a myriad other research initiatives.

Henrietta's remaining children were cared for after her death in an abusive home before being taken in by the oldest brother and his wife. They have never benefitted from any commercial aspects surrounding their mothers cells - continuing to live in extreme poverty and have formed a hatred of medical care or systems, which they believe lied and cheated them. They did not find out until 20 years after her death, that Henrietta's cells were still being used and her life and even ongoing tests with the family (which they thought were cancer tests to tell them if they would have the same virulent strain of cancer that their mother had) were veiled in secrecy, which is hardly surprising considering the time when black oral history highlights all the gruesome experiments carried out in public hospitals. There seems still to be no clear consent requirements about what happens to your tissue samples etc, it appears that the scientists want to make the money, but not pay those that were directly affected. Rebecca Skloot obviously was enamoured with her subject (she did after all spend 10 years researching the topic) and tenacious in following the facts, but she sometimes wrote as if she was the herione of the book, not someone who was following a trail. I still think it is sad that John Hopkins Medical Centre did not provide the Lacks family with at least free or subsidies health care, considering how much money their institution makes from the sale of the HeLa cells to other organisations.

This is a fantastic choice for your book club. If you want some further information and book club discussion questions - check out the OurBookClub Book Club page.

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The Happiest Refugee by Ahn DoBook cover of The Happiest Refugee by Ahn Do

Read by Tracy January 2011

Tracy recommends for an interesting take on immigration

Ahn Do and his family fled Vietnam when he was just a small child, with his parents hoping that it would enable the children to have a much better life. Their journey saw them face extreme adversity being boarded by pirates twice, however, they were soon picked up by a German boat and eventually made their way to Australia. From the moment they arrived Ahn's parents never stopped working to achieve a standard of living which would have been outside anything they could have imagined in Vietnam - also never once forgetting to be thankful to Australia for giving them an opportunity. This was the humbling bit, Ahn and his family never asked for anything, with the whole family working as many hours a day as possible doing as much as possible to bring in an income. I am sure most people would have given up and accepted charity, but not the Do family. They relied on friends and family but saw it as a larger circle that would be repaid in the good times. It is this family history that has enabled Ahn Do to draw on for his comedic routines and his ability to adapt and fit in - he seems to be an all-round nice guy. I loved the fact that although the children worked, they also were given plenty of opportunity to play and be kids, something severely lacking in today's lifestyles. The rough and tumble of large families have created some fantastic scenes and I was laughing out loud.

Although I am convinced the hero of his story is his mother and I shed quite a few tears in sections, even getting teary eyes writing this. She was the strength in her family and rarely become despondent or accepted defeat, always extremely proud of her children no matter what their choices in life - after all Ahn received a Law Degree and then turned down a well paid job at Andersens to become a comedian. I am sure not many parents would take that news so well. There are some families out there that you wish well and it is his, there are also a lot of families out there who should take head of the tireless effort that the Do family put into living here, including their ongoing charity work for the less fortunate than themselves - so much optimism is amazing to read about.

Anh Do discusses The Happiest Refugee on ABC Radio National LifeMatters and you can find out more about Ahn on his website.

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