Good holiday reads

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In the brief holidays I had after completing my B.E and before joining my full time job at Cisco, Bangalore, I managed to catch up on my old favorite pastime -- reading. Here are a couple of books I read which immediately topped my all time favorites. Interestingly, both of them are autobiographies.

  • The Man In The White Suit (An autobiography by Ben Collins)

To those who are one among the 3 million T.V viewers of Top Gear U.K (a car show), the name sounds familiar. Of course, for me, this book had been top priority for some time. Ben Collins was in the news not long ago, with BBC, the news corporation that airs Top Gear U.K, trying hard in the courts to block the release of Ben Collins' book. There was good reason for doing so. A character called the Stig in the show has always been surrounded by anonymity and secrecy. Nobody knows the identity of the Stig, not even the famous presenters of the show themselves, let alone the viewers and the paparazzi. His identity is known only to a select few -- the "inner circle" of Top Gear production. This is what has added to the charm of the current version of the show, with an unknown character blitzing aroung race tracks around the world in some of the fastest cars on the planet. It has always been like this, ever since Top Gear was revived in the late 90's after being scrapped by BBC for not generating enough viewers. Now, Top Gear is the most watched television program on the planet, and its presenters are some of the top paid television presenters in the BBC. There have only been three Stig's in the show, including the current one. The first one a.k.a Black Stig (for the color of the race suit he wore) was literally thrown out of Top Gear for revealing his identity to the media. No wonder, Ben Collins, the second of the breed, a.k.a white Stig was shown the door as well. Considering how important concealing the Stig's identity was to the BBC and to Top Gear, it is clear why they went to such great lengths to prevent the release of the book, where Ben Collins reveals everything about his life as the Stig. A lot of people including die hard Top Gear fans hate Ben Collins for making the move, because they think he did it for financial gains. But the book reveals so much about Ben Collins and his life that making such claims sounds so absurd.

Ben Collins starts out in the book about how his love of cars was handed down to him by his father. He recalls how he got into professional racing, which was not through go-karting which is considered by many as the first place to start a professional racing career. He talks about his days in the British army. He gives vivid details about his arduous army training, how he passed at the top of his class and how it has helped him immensely in life and most importantly racing. Then, he talks about his first audition with Top Gear U.K, where he was asked to drive around the Top Gear test track, and in just 6 laps, was able to beat F1 legend Nigel Mansel's time around the same track, in the same car. The previous Stig (black Stig) could only keep his identity secret for two years. Ben Collins kept his for 8 years. He talks about how difficult it was to keep everyone guessing for 8 years, and how his identity was all but revealed and he could no longer hold onto it. He speaks about how difficult it was to hide beneath his white suit and tinted helmet, careful not to utter a single word while 3 million viewers worldwide were itching to find out who the Stig was. He talks about his racing career in Formula 3, then Formula 2 and despite how he consistently beat some of the best names in racing, wasn't able to land a full time racing contract with any company, and even in those that he got, finances were lacking and reliability was a major hindrance in making his presence known. He talks about his glory days in NASCAR alongside some of the current F1 names like Mark Webber and Takuma Sato. Then, he goes on to describe his favorite form of motorsport -- Le Mans. He describes how his military training and fitness helped him in the 24 hour endurance race of Le Mans and how difficult Le Mans actually is compared to the way normal people see it as. This infact reminded me of this particular Top Gear episode where the three presenters are competing in a British 24 hour endurance race in a second hand BMW 3 series diesel against purpose-built racing machines, and how the presenters with no racing pedigree are struggling to keep pace with the competitors, and how Ben Collins single handedly drives the entire night passing more powerful cars and finishing 3rd in class overall. Amazing feat!!!. He also gives vivid details about how the entire Top Gear team including the production team, presenters and camera crew work tirelessly to create a 1hr show that is loved by so many. He gives special credit to the fearless camera crew who he says, stand within feet of supercars travelling at over 100mph just to get the best shot. He also shares his experiences in filming Top Gear at some of the most exotic locations on earth in some of the most desirable cars on the planet. He then describes his transition to stunt driving in some of the best hollywood movies like Nicholas Cage's "National Treasure", Daniel Craig's "Quantum of Solace" (the chase scene in the tunnel near lake Garda, Italy, in an Aston Martin DBS, at the very start of the film). Ben Collins even did stunt driving for the latest blockbuster "The Dark Knight Rises". Ben Collins currently owns a company that specializes in stunt driving and is also the chief driving instructor for the British Special Forces.

Overall, this was one of the best books I have ever read. It shows how much effort Ben Collins put into his life and work.

  • Its Not About The Bike - My Journey Back To Life (An autobiography by Lance Armstrong)

Everybody who keeps tabs with the news knows the most famous name in bicycle racing -- Lance Armstrong, and how he fought cancer and lived to tell the tale. But, not everybody knows the pain and suffering behind the glory. His autobiography reveals these and more with larchrymal gland drying detail. He begins by recounting his difficult upbringing where he never knew or saw his biological father(until very late in life), how the step father that he had, growing up, was a satan, and how his mother meant everything to him. He recalls how he found out that he had extraordinary stamina, lung capacity and the ability to sustain massive lactic acid build up in his muscles, that others just didn't have, and how he had never intended to be a cyclist. Lance Armstrong had always wanted to be a swimmer, and won several championships in his childhood. He talks about how a gracious person down the road from where he lived, handed him his first bicycle and his feeling of freedom when he was on his bike. He talks about how he used to beat competitors in local cycling championships who were twice his age. Most importantly, the book throws light on his mindset in his early days of cycling -- brash, arrogant, not caring for advice, thinking he was unstoppable.

And then, his world comes to a dead stop when he is diagnosed with testicular cancer. Further tests revealed that the cancer had spread to his brain, and doctors gave him less that 3% change of living. He then talks about how different doctors advocated differnt types of chemotherapy to him and how they said that chemo would first have to kill him before bringing him back to life. He re-iterates on taking multiple opinions from differrent doctors because that was what saved him ultimately. He unexpectedly stumbled upon the best cancer speciality institution in the world where his doctors promised him he could get back on his bike, when all others had told him that he would be lucky if he could walk again. He talks about how much information he gained from reading books related to cancer in the lead up to his first chemo, that he believed he could write a book on testicular cancer himself. He then talks about his utter financial instability during treatment, when no company wanted to sponsor an athlete who was as good as dead. He talks about how he had completely lost hope in life and was resigned to a life off the bike. He describes in detail how demoralizing and unbearable chemotherapy is and how it kills a person from the inside. He gives due credit to his nurse, doctors, family and close friends who were by his side throughout his bad patch.

He then moves on to explain what he regards as much worse than chemotherapy -- his return to life after cancer treatment. He tells that while so many people do so much to help cancer patients, not one person tells how to deal with life post cancer. He tells how he lived every day in fear that the cancer would return again, and how he would break out in cold sweat in the middle of the night everytime he felt pain in his abdomen, thinking that the caner had returned. He tells how life and racing did not interest him anymore, and all he wanted to do was to help others in the same situation as him. He talks about how he organized charity races to raise funds for cancer patients and how a little girl suffering from cancer became his best friend in life (He later dedicates his Tour de France win to this little girl). He explains how he met his future wife while organizing one of these charity races and how she was the sole motivator that helped him get on his bike again. He talks about how hard and alien cycling felt after his recovery and how he had lost all his unique traits like stamina, lung capacity that once made him unstoppable. He then explains how hard he had to train to get back most of it.

Then comes the grand finale -- The months leading up to the greatest cycling race on earth -- the Tour de France. He tells how nobody except the US Postal team was ready to sponsor him, because nobody believed that a cancer patient could win the gruelling 3000 mile event. Lance Armstrong regards his cancer as a gift in one crucial way -- chemotherapy helped him lose 15 pounds and weight made all the difference in the Tour. His body was altered by chemotherapy, but in a way that would get him to the peak of bicycle racing. He talks about how his gruelling training post chemotherapy helped him thrash Tour de France title contenders in time trials by huge margins. He talks about how his superb comeback raised doping speculations in the french media and how he felt so bad about it after all the pain and hardships he had gone through in life. Ultimately, all speculations aside, he proved that cancer was no barrier for him by beating so many title favorites to win the Tour de France. Problems were aplenty for Lance Armstrong from the very beginning, but Lance Armstrong proved that he was truly unstoppable.

This book has got to be the most inspiring book I have ever read. A fantastic read.

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