Book Reviews: Autobiographies & Biographies

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Lentil as Anything by Shanaka Fernando with Greg HillBook Cover of Lentil as Anything by Shanaka Fernando with Greg Hill

Read by Tracy in November 2012

Tracy recommends – as Shanaka says; everybody deserves a place at the table and it is fantastic to see someone trying to make that happen

Growing up as a fairly privileged Sri Lankan who saw troubled times come and go, but still managed to have a fairly idyllic childhood, Shanaka grew up realising that money doesn’t necessarily make the world go round, although it does help. Living in a large compound in Colombo just near the beach, even from an early age, Shanaka could see the differences between workers, beggars and those that travelled through life between the cracks. Eventually as the war deepened between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, he also learnt how your race can impact how you view society and how this can be the basis of allowing random acts of violence to become socially acceptable, regardless of the friendship between the Tamils and Sinhalese in the community, the growing unrest caused these friendships to break down leading to some horrific crimes. Although it wasn’t until he met the Sri Lankan Veddha who were being forced to relocate for a dam, that he realised there was another way of living that embracing the consumerist culture wasn’t it. This saw him arrive in Australia – undeniably the land of consumerism and ownership at the detriment of community and personal happiness.

His arrival here was hilarious, the differences in the two countries had me laughing – the ‘No Standing’ signs must have been baffling. Likewise I am sure his announcement of being a vegetarian to please a girl, isn’t new but I can’t think of anything that would scare most people off. What was fascinating is that he stuck with the concept long after the girl left his life. Eventually he meets Joanne and they start a life of travelling together which further encourages Shanaka to follow the Buddhist mantra of karma. Of course in my experience nothing in life can prepare you for an Aerolineas Argentinas flight and best be avoided. On their return to Australia, Shanaka opens a restaurant where he continues to live is ideal that everyone should be equal. The Lentil as Anything restaurants don’t just serve an interesting vegetarian diet, but you pay what you feel you can afford – yes there are people out there that rort that system, but there are also others, that this billing system allows them to actually have a healthy and varied meal. In addition, Shanaka has also attempted to help the disadvantages in his community by providing gateways for health care, mental health facilities, work and a variety of initiatives which has ultimately seen

Unfortunately as his relationships change, he does become blinded by his philosophies and I became frustrated that he wants to live in society and can offer so much, but wants a free ride by not paying parking infringements etc. There are laws (and we may all agree some of them aren’t the best), but society needs some regulation. Unfortunately as Lentil grew and grew and grew, it is also increasingly obvious that Shanaka may have the original thoughts and ideas, but he is not a businessman and as economic pressures impinge on his utopian ideals, a cannier businessman may have made the business more profitable, which would have meant more money being put into the services that helps those in our community most at risk. That being said, I love these kinds of books, and certainly appreciate the value that migrants make to the community – if Shanaka had grown up in Australia, would he be prepared to take a stance against consumerism, probably not.

Shanaka has also been named Australia's Local Hero in the Australian of the Year Awards and was a guest judge on MasterChef alongside the Dalai Lama.

This book was kindly provided by Vivid Publishing.

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Wild: From lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl StrayedBook Cover of Wild: From lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Read by Tracy in August 2012

Tracy recommends as a surprisingly inspiring journey

In 1995, at the age of 26, Cheryl Strayed started to walk the 1800km stretch of the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) from the Mojave Desert through California to the Bridge of the Gods at the Oregon-Washington State border - alone. Up until that time her life had been spiralling out of control. At the age of 19 she married Paul, at the age of 22 she lost her mother to cancer and her family scattered in their own attempts to deal with the grief. Quickly her marriage faltered, on Cheryl’s own admission of infidelity and she soon found herself with a growing addition to heroin and some very seedy sexual partners. She spent the time since her mothers’ death constantly crying about the bad decisions she had made, but doing nothing to fix them. Cheryl finished College, but never finished the final essay to graduate, so she is now tied down with a huge education debt but no graduation certificate to show for it. After an intervention from Paul and her best friend Lisa, Cheryl realised she wanted to be alone to think about her life and how to best back on track, become the person she was before her mother died. In a bizarre trail of events she ended up in an Outdoor Store, where standing in the check-out queue, she saw a book on hiking the PCT. She later went back and bought the book, but the decision to hike the PCT was initially just an idea, a dream and even though she had no experience with hiking, it soon became something that would solve all her problems.

On subsequent trips back to the REI Outdoor Store, Cheryl invested in everything that was advised, only to find that when she finally packed her backpack, the morning of the trek, it was too heavy to lift and was so over packed she had to use bungee cords to strap things to the outside. In hindsight she remembers the REI people advised her about weight, but she had become focused on wants instead of needs. Realising as soon as she stepped on the PCT that she was seriously underprepared, all the trials she was meant to do, she had run out of time to try. From the first day she had troubles with her too small boots and her feet soon became bloody and tortuously painful. She had also seriously under calculated her money during the trek and every package she had posted to herself at different stops, only highlighted her inexperience. So a culmination of too much weight, too tight boots soon her skin was chaffed raw which just added to her woes. I know what she feels like, I trekked the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, totally underprepared for the physical toll it would take and the chaffing was probably the most painful thing I have suffered – everything hurt. On the second week of the trail, after she had named her backpack Monster, the realisation that everything she needed in life was able to be carried on her back was monumental, at the same time she realised that her emotional and spiritual life could also be simplified. As she spent the days focusing on her physical wellbeing, she hadn’t spent time pondering over the sorrows of her life.

During the trek Cheryl had nothing but her thoughts and we are taken back through her life where you are faced with the hardships of her childhood and can see why she idolises her mother. On a trek like the PCT there is no escaping the loneliness and isolation. Even though Cheryl met some fantastic fellow hikers who helped her out considerably, she didn’t cling to anybody, she started the trek alone and wanted to finish it alone. Her description of losing her most hated possessions, her boots, was hilarious, and even more hilarious was her descriptions of her duct taping her feet had me laughing out loud. She realised at that point she was alone, barefoot, 26 and an orphan – an actual stray. What is interesting in this memoir is that Cheryl doesn’t dismiss her feelings about aches, pains, loneliness, blistered, bloody feet and persistent hunger, however, as each day went by she realised the changes in herself and her body and how much she had changed. Cheryl certainly doesn’t put herself in the best light, it is almost a no holds barred conversation about herself. As a reader you can sympathise with her and also realise her stupidity, but you can’t help think “wow” she set out to do what she wanted and with no training or money she made it. She managed to survive bears, rattlesnakes, huge temperature changes and most worrying of all some very predatory men. Wild won the Goodreads Memoir and Autobiography choice award in 2012 and came in a number 4 in the BookPage best books for 2012. The movie adaptation of Wild is being released in December 2014 and will star Reece Witherspoon.

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Playing House by Amy ChoiBook Cover of Playing House by Amy Choi

Read by Tracy in April 2012

Tracy recommends if you want a very selfish travel memoir

Great premise for this book, boy meets girl, boy wants to go overseas travelling and therefore not have a long term relationship, girl buys plane ticket and following him and everyone lives happily ever after. Hmm that isn't exactly what happened. I love travel memoirs, biographies etc, anything that whets my travel desires and also provides a window in how other people manage to move around this fantastic planet. Our female character is Amy who is fairly self-centred and selfish. She meets Scott, who is a down to earth guy who knows what he wants (to travel to Europe) and is very upfront about having delayed this in the past for relationships but this time he is going. Scott departs for England, but he isn't left alone for long and Amy soon lobs on his doorstep without much of a plan, except she doesn't want to travel and is homesick from day one. Scott meets Amy at the airport and they soon embark on their journey to Shepherd's Bush where Scott has found them a room in a share house. Amy tries out various jobs and they soon embark on a trip to Prague. Yet again you feel that Amy controls everything - what they do, where they go and her constant desire to get Scott to change his mind and return to Australia. She also needs to constantly be in a large group of people and they move from hotel/apartment/hostel to sate Amy's need for companionship. I visited Prague in October 2011 and it was absolutely fantastic, just wandering the streets and avoiding the huge hordes of tourists and unlike Amy I did not find myself bitterly lonesome - there is so much to see and do, especially when you are there with your love. I started to become slightly disappointed at the lack of commentary on the sights, sounds and every day goings on in the places that are visited; instead we are drawn into Amy's thoughts and are not privy to the other point of view. At this stage I think I fixated on her bad points, so I took a step back and tried to ignore her neediness. It is then that Amy visited her parents in London. She expected them to be sitting waiting for her, instead they were out and about seeing what they wanted to see - fantastic finally someone stood up to her. Amy then returns to Scott in Hungary and immediately thwarts his travel plans by arranging a shortened visa. Why on earth can't she just let him enjoy his trip that he wanted to go on? Although as the book progressed realisation dawned on me that Amy and Scott wanted to travel, but not give up their middle-class vision and maybe if they weren't backpacking, Amy may have enjoyed the trip. In Luxor they ate and drank constantly at an English-style pub, I am hoping they actually left it to eat some of the fantastic Egyptian fare. Finally Scott succumbs and they return to their old life in Australia where Scott gets a job at a camp with disadvantages and disabled children. As usual Amy wants to be part of it and insists she attends the camp. However, along the way they become a caregiver to Lydia, a very troubled teen who they take under their wing. However, it isn't all plain sailing and the relationship starts to deteriorate as Lydia fulfils her prophecy of being exactly like her parents. After reading the book, the character Amy was not one to enamour you, I found her manipulative and wanting to be the constant centre of attention. My heart went out to Scott, as I desperately wanted him to stand up and do what he wanted, not what he was told he would enjoy. Amy's parents were the highlight, they were funny, accepting and very interesting - more of them please!

On a side note the artwork for this book cover was fantastic and interesting. It is Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne.

This book was kindly provided to us by Transit Lounge.

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