Sunday, April 20, 2008

Amazing people, amazing stories

On a hot afternoon in Mae Sot (all afternoons) you will most likely find me in my underwear lying in a low hammock in the shade of our home reading another book. This trip I have been drawn to reading autobiographies and true stories.

My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi
It is a true treat to hear Gandhi's story in his own words. Starting as a shy Indian traveling to England, followed by Satyagraha's beginnings in South Africa, and eventually his saintly work in India, his autobiography is thick and full of terrific anecdotes. Some aspects really struck me, like his childhood marriage at 16 and his vows of self-deprivation. He was born a vegetarian and abstainer from alcohol, but this proved to be not enough to satisfy his thirst for not consuming. He vowed against carnal pleasures, like sex with his wife, drinking milk, eating anything but fruits and nuts, eating after sunset, and eventually vowed only to eat five articles of food a day. Its a great book, read it!

Electroboy, Andy Behrman
Born in dirty Jersey in 1962, Andy came from a obsessive compulsive family and developed severe manic-depression but was not diagnosed until much later in life. This autobiography recalls his wild mania ride through Wesleyan University followed by New York City in the 1980's and 90's. Male prostitute, drug addict, worldwide art dealer, art forger, and party animal were a few of the many hats he wore. His recounting of sleepless nights, restless and destructive behaviors, and spontaneous decisions makes the book a page turner. Finally, after doing jail time for art forgery, he is diagnosed and put to electroshock therapy, hence the name of the book. If you are feeling a little too mellow and controlled, perhaps this book can spark you up.

The Malay Archipelago, Alfred Russel Wallace
For eight years Wallace, an English natural scientist and close friend of Darwin, studied the Malay Archipelago trying to make sense of evolutionary differences between the islands and regions. Written in 1868, it contains a lot of un-PC commentary on the island races. However, the adventure stories are downright classic. Follow him as he hunts Orangutans through swamps, nets butterflies in mountain streams, and is stranded on a deserted island. The long book bounces chapter topics between anthropology, natural science, and adventure tales. The entire book is available here as an eBook, I recommend reading it when you have a lot of free time, perhaps on a beach with a rum drink, as I think those are the preconditions Sir Wallace had for creating the piece.

Freedom in Exile, Dalai Llama
This is an absolute must read. It turns out that the Dalai Llama is a downright hilarious dude, his insights and self-mocking are humble as well as humorous. The book documents his life growing up with his family on a remote farm to being selected as the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Llama through his escape to India as the Chinese invade Tibet. The book is an excellent guide to understanding what the Chinese did to the Tibetans and how the invasion occurred. Funny, historically relevant, and very well written, start reading it soon if you haven't yet.

Nelson Mandela, biography
I borrowed Nelson Mandela's biography from the small English library here. It is a well worn photocopy written at sixth grade reading level with a few pictures even. As an introduction to his work, the apartheid, and South Africa's history it was quite satisfactory, but did not give me a full understanding. I was struck by Nelson's hard work. Even when in prison, he continued to educate himself and teach others. While an inmate on Robben Island he was able to scavenge pieces of paper to write an autobiography which he hid portions of buried in the courtyard to be eventually smuggled out and published. Perhaps you should read that before picking up his biography, but here in Mae Sot beggars cannot be choosers.