Thursday, May 19, 2016

A book tells more than one story

For best results, this should be printed and read on paper, or preferably vellum…

Books are a pain. You usually need a bag to carry them and even then a heavy hardback is hard to handle on the train, especially when you don’t have a seat. That partly explains why I’m only a quarter of the way through that 700-page hardback one of my kids gave me a couple of birthdays ago. If you’re going on holiday, you have to lug several heavy tomes with you. And don’t get me started on reading in bed (yes, I know there are other recreations at bedtime, but let’s keep this decent). Your thumbs get tired (reading, I mean); you have to angle the book towards the light; in winter your arm gets cold – then you wake up with the book on the floor, the pages bent and your place lost because the bookmark is still somewhere in the folds of the duvet. Yes, books are a right pain. 

And yet…

The above-mentioned offspring is in hospital this week for a major operation, so I’m there lending support. Another patient on the ward mentioned downloading 19 books onto an e-reader in preparation, but I only had room for four. 

One of those books is ‘Kidnapped’ by Robert Louis Stevenson: one of those books you find on the bookshelf and question why you've never read it before. Something about the opening pages intrigued me, so I took a picture:

This is why, for all their antidiluvian inconveniences, I have a fondness for books. 

If you look at the picture, you’ll notice a few things. First, this a thumb-numbing hardback. Second, it’s old, published in 1926 to be exact. Also, it came from a publisher in Akron, Ohio, complete with American spellings – in the frontspiece Uncle Ebenezer is leaning out of the “first-story window”. Most interesting of all for me, a young girl has written her name and address in the front: 
Rosemary D Moorhouse,
“Durocina”, Field End Lane,
Holmbridge, Nr Huddersfield. 
I can tell she’s young because her writing later became firmer, more ornate and assured. I know this because that girl’s handwriting adorned all my school permissions and sicknotes. That girl was my mother.

Her own mother, my Nan Mabel, had moved her children to Yorkshire after the bombing got too bad in Carshalton, just south of London. She named the house Durocina after the Roman name for Dorchester in Oxfordshire, where she was brought up. The house still bears that name today.

Why would a girl of around eight be reading a a US edition of an old Scottish classic in Yorkshire in the early 1940s? I don’t know, but Americans had been donating books to English libraries since the end of the First World War, and maybe that gesture of solidarity continued into the dark days of the Second. My mother’s family certainly had no relatives in the US.
Mum (right) with her mother and brother outside their Yorkshire cottage

I don’t know how Mum read about David Balfour’s adventures in ‘Kidnapped’. Perhaps she was huddled up in bed, defying the blackout with a clandestine candle (whose flame would have been a far greater risk to her health than the Luftwaffe), enjoying the gift of an American stranger she would never know and who would never know how his or her gift was appreciated.

And now, eight years after her death, I’m sitting in a hospital waiting room. Her grandchild is in the operating theatre while I'm reading the same words she read, my older fingers touching the same paper her fingers touched seventy years ago, perhaps hoping her light wouldn’t be mistaken by a passing Heinkel for Liverpool docks or the Huddersfield Conservative & Unionist Club.

And this is what I get from a physical book. It has life, it has history, it tells a story and yet it’s also its own story. Download that onto your Kindle if you can.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Review: Diana Ross: A Biography

Diana Ross: A Biography Diana Ross: A Biography by J. Randy Taraborrelli
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It doesn't take long to divine Taraborrelli's opinion of himself in this book: it begins with a quote from Miss Ross herself telling him how he knows her better than any biographer. Yes, the first words of the biography are about him, not her. And this reviewer found this writer's constant references to "this writer" (rather than simply "I" or "me") to be tiresome and pompously self-serving.

Now, having written two previous biographies of the Motown superstar, he's returning to squeeze the last bit of milk from his cash cow.

To be fair, despite being an unashamed fan, Taraborrelli is even-handed. It's long been alleged that Ross is an uncompromising, career-focused manipulator and, despite his obvious love for her as an artist, he's quite happy to show her in this unflattering light. He even colludes with the consensus that Ross was miscast in The Wiz when a one-eyed fan might have presented it as a triumph. This is by no means a hagiography. Its failings lie elsewhere.

The book is over-long and excessively detailed, with the accumulation of facts valued far above writing style. Taraborrelli is meticulous at the expense of readability and his prose is workmanlike and uninspired, as if he's desperate to collate every scrap of source material rather than tell a story. And yet the opposite is true when it comes to the photos. Nearly all of them are PR shots taken from the glory years 1966-68, giving a frustratingly incomplete picture.

In the end we don't learn much about Ross that we didn't already know. We just know it in more detail. A lot, lot more detail.

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