Duck Duck Book

65 – birthright
05.31.2010, 7:08 pm
Filed under: social sciences

Birthright : the true story that inspired Kidnapped / A. Roger Ekirch.
New York : W.W. Norton & Co., c2010.
[MCL call number: 364.154092 E367b 2010; two copies, two holds]

I came to A. Roger Ekirch’s account of James Annesley’s unhappy and newsworthy life not from an interest in Annesley’s biography, but because I so enjoyed Ekirch’s earlier book, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (reviewed in duck duck book number 39).  Anything else he cared to write, I thought, must be worth my time.  And indeed it was.

James Annesley was the only son of Arthur, Baron Altham, an Irish peer, and though one might say he was lucky to have been born with wealth and privilege on his side, in actual fact his early life was pretty hard.  His parents separated when he was small.  Arthur ran through most of the family fortune and became indebted to his mistress, who didn’t like James and made Arthur toss him out of the house at the tender age of nine.  Then Arthur died, when James was just 12, and shortly after, Arthur’s younger brother Richard had Arthur kidnapped and transported to America as an indentured servant so that he could become the next Baron Altham (and inherit several other family titles besides, and the land and wealth to go with them).  James endured many years in servitude, but eventually made his way back to the British Isles and attempted to sue the crap out of his uncle in a long series of notorious trials.

It’s worth pointing out, actually, that Ekirch makes the story of dozens of years of complex and confusing lawsuits seem fascinating, rather than dull and stupefying as one might expect.  But the whole arc of James’s life, as Ekirch tells it, is pretty compelling too — this young person has had his childhood stolen away just as he lost his father, how horrible!  By his uncle, who should love and protect him, how appalling!  And he is made a temporary slave, how unjust!  But he bears up and attempts manfully to claim what’s rightfully his, how noble!  Really, it’s easy to see why the story was so newsworthy at the time, and in fact, as Ekirch’s subtitle points out, it was the basis for several popular novels, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, Sir Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering, and several others.

After reading Birthright, I realized it might be the perfect book to take traveling.  It’s not very long (about 200 pages), but the story is dense, challenging, and packed with odd details of 18th century British and Irish life – Ekirch describes the minutiae of civil court procedure, illuminates the workings of aristocratic households, considers the daily life of indentured servants in early America, and explains the mechanics and the social role of the press in mid-1700s London.  These carefully deployed bits and pieces bring clarity to a fascinating but terribly complex story.  I’m a fast and rather reckless reader, but I slowed down, so as not to miss anything, and it was worth the effort.


65 – home-made
05.31.2010, 7:07 pm
Filed under: technology

Home-made : contemporary Russian folk artifacts / [compiled by] Vladimir Arkhipov.
London : Fuel Publishing, 2006.
[MCL call number: 621.9 H765 2006; one copy, no holds]

Everyone makes things, even people who don’t think of themselves as practical or creative or skilled.  It’s natural for us human tool-builders to force the material of the world around us to give service in aid of whatever project we are engaged in.  Sometimes we do this in style, and then we’re likely to call it art.  But mostly, we just make do with manipulating whatever is lying around to do the job we need done now, whether or not the resulting tool or shortcut is sharp or elegant or lovely.  And when objects themselves are scarce, why then we really get busy making do.

Home-Made is a catalog of objects making do, created by everyday Russians during the twilight of the Soviet Union.  I can’t begin to characterize the entire collection, but I’ll mention a few items that charmed me:

  • a flowered china teapot, its broken handle replaced with a utilitarian stainless steel affair held on with a bolt (page 82)
  • a doormat/boot scraper made from discarded beer caps (page 24)
  • a corner basin made from a galvanized wash tub (page 272)
  • a basket with a handle, fashioned from a punctured rubber ball (page 219)

Each object’s photograph is accompanied by the story of how it came to be made, and a picture of the artisan, or of the person who explained the artifact’s provenance.  All of the items are part of Russian artist Vladimir Arkhipov’s collection of home-made things.

[thanks, Matthew]

65 – surfing san onofre
05.31.2010, 7:05 pm
Filed under: art & entertainment

Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942 / photographs by Don James.
San Francisco : Chronicle Books, 1998.
[MCL call number: 797.32 J27s 1998 ; three copies, no holds]

If you were to visit Los Angeles before the Second World War, you probably wouldn’t recognize the place.  It was teensy, for one thing, compared to the vast sprawl of asphalt and low-rises you’d see if you went there now.  And if you went to the beach, that would be different too.

First you’d have to get to the beach — not always easy, since the freeways hadn’t been built yet and the city was so small that everything surely seemed further away.  Once you were wherever the road took you, you’d still have to get to the beach, maybe down a couple of miles of sketchy trail.  If you were there to surf, you’d have to hump your board on your back, your homemade 10′ or 12′ long redwood board weighing about 90 pounds.  If there was a lifeguard, he was probably a volunteer.  Almost no one had a radio, unless it was in their car.  Everyone smoked.  Sunscreen hadn’t been invented and people thought a sunburn was a sign of health.

Don James’s pictures are a little window into this world, a series of glow-y 4″ x 5″ snapshots of surfers, sunbathers, and hangers-about amid the sunshine, sparkling water, and ramshackle coastline architecture.   The collection is romantic, for sure, but it shows enough hunger and grit to come off as reasonably honest; and it’s definitely revealing of a place, time, and way of life you might like to visit, but which no longer exists.