Just What I Always Wanted: Unwrapping the World's Most Curious Birthday Presents by Robin Laurance

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Just What I Always Wanted: Unwrapping the World's Most Curious Birthday Presents by Robin Laurance

Category: Trivia
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Put simply, close to the ideal gift book.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: November 2008
Publisher: Quercus Publishing plc
ISBN: 978-1847246165

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Is there anything more suited to a trivia book, yet so much thought over, and serious, than the birthday present? It might be something completely throw-away, but mean a lot to the receiver. It might have cost the giver an awful amount of money, and be disregarded by the person expected to accept it. And if you think the givings and takings of the rich and famous are sheer trivia, just think about the number of sociologists and historians who would jump at the chance to explore, say, Hitler's given gifts.

And, if this book and the hearsay of the time are to be believed, why then Hitler gave Eva Braun just what Dubya has also given Mrs Bush over the years. Who would have thought?

There are obviously different types of birthday present. You can give the world, if you have it – or, in one case, settle for Mount Kilimanjaro. Other people only find themselves taking coals to Newcastle – I'm sure the current Pope needed Gordon Brown giving him a book of his father's sermons.

There are the presents that get thrown away, either because a marriage breaks down or they just appear plain ugly – witness Mia Farrow's family chucking a Dali vase out the window and immediately regretting it.

There are the presents here that change the life of the receiver – from Humphrey Littleton receiving his first musical instrument, to Lance Armstrong and his first bike, and Senna his first car. And there are presents that change the entire world – how could Mr and Mrs Frank know what might come of the blank diary they gave their daughter Anne one year?

And there are the plain ridiculous. The German political worker given a metal sombrero. The Yorkshirewoman gifted an ice-cream van to call her own. The famous person who gave his own birthday away to someone whom it suited better.

It surprised me, when I received this book (not as a present, but as a task from the reviewing gods), to find it was set out in yearbook form. With the hundreds of millions of people who have a birthday on every day of the year this makes sense, but I didn't expect the format of every day having its own entry. Other people I am sure would have clumped the ridiculous largesse of the world of bling, the pomp of North Korea's state gifts, and so on, all together.

It does mean there are a couple of weaker entries. One early one mentions quins being born, and all it can do is waffle on about how awkward their gift-buying might be. Mr Roget is here being born, just because you might get his thesaurus your next birthday. Chances are you won't.

Chances are you would still appreciate unwrapping this book. I think it best if you leave the birthday format behind as a stricture, and take this as a generally themed trivia book. And there are delights of trivia in here I didn't know about – Neil Diamond got to college on a fencing scholarship; there is a Braille Playboy published to this day; Prince Charles is both patron of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust and founded the Mutton Renaissance Club.

The royals would get a chapter of their own in this book had it been formatted differently. Charles gave William a rifle for his 21st, and waited three years before following it up with a range finder for it. But I'll leave you to find why the Queen of Thailand liked being given a hundred junked train carriages.

The book shows a huge amount of research – the gamut of detail from history to, say, J-Lo is huge. The picture librarian had fun as well – rustling up bizarre vehicles gifted Neil Kinnock, Arnold Schwarzenegger and more. The only thing I could possibly think of that wasn't here was the original white elephant – the present given out of spite, of course, with the sacred beasts being too precious and costly to maintain.

What I could have done without was the voice of the author coming across too much at times – there are quite a few entries that I think suffer from editorialising. Calm down, man, it's only Jerry Hall. But he does handle everything he needs to cover with authority, whether it being Captain Oates sacrificing himself for the sake of Scott and his colleagues on his birthday, or Drew Barrymore flashing her bazoomas on TV for someone else's.

It's that depth and wealth of detail nicely put together (bar a few heinous lapses from the proof-reader) that makes the book so recommendable. It did a lot more than I thought a trivia book could – resulting in clearly a definitive volume that would go down very well for birthdays, Christmas, Channukah, Eid, oh just about anything. You're left pitying those cultures who don't record birthdays and therefore have fewer excuses for giving this great value volume to each other.

I would like to thank Quercus for the Bookbag's review copy.

You can go round the calendar in search of trivia of a different theme in Annus Horribilis: A Chronicle of Comic Mishaps by Sam Jordison.

Buy Just What I Always Wanted: Unwrapping the World's Most Curious Birthday Presents by Robin Laurance at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Just What I Always Wanted: Unwrapping the World's Most Curious Birthday Presents by Robin Laurance at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Just What I Always Wanted: Unwrapping the World's Most Curious Birthday Presents by Robin Laurance at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Just What I Always Wanted: Unwrapping the World's Most Curious Birthday Presents by Robin Laurance at Amazon.com.


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