SHELF LIFE

2 Gracie Fields: The Authorised Biography by David Bret, Robson pounds 16.95. "Our" Gracie is a curious specimen in the annals of stardom. Apart from the fact that this down-to-earth Lancashire Lass "opted to enjoy the lotus-eating opulence of Capri" for 46 years, she was a stranger to excess, turning one home into an orphanage and singing herself into the ground for charity shows. Her war record was exemplary: in France to cheer the troops she coped valiantly with mud, discomfort and bombings, and a German magazine declared threateningly: "Gracie Fields is adjudged a war industry. She should be treated accordingly." Two days after she was smuggled out, her hotel was bombed and the room she had slept in reduced to rubble. Bret, who evidently believes the biographer's only duty is unswerving loyalty, has provided an exhaustive and exhausting list of her good deeds, though there are intriguing glimpses of her as a serious singer, rather than just a joke. She had a string of lovers, but her first sexual experience, dismissed in an early paragraph, was horrific: aged 12, she surprised her landlady's son in bed with a girl and the two of them threw her on the floor where he raped her. Bret makes no attempt to answer the obvious questions: was the man prosecuted? What was the long-term effect on Gracie? Punishment rapes could have been carried on in bed-sittingrooms up and down the land for all the curiosity Bret demonstrates. On a lighter note, there's the French song Gracie recorded phonetically, not knowing it was a gay anthem: "Nous irons a Valparaiso/pour foutre les filles/et les matelots!" "The radio station switchboards were jammed with callers asking to hear it again," says Bret without discernible irony.

2 A Self-Made Man by Paul Hewitt with Jane Warren, Headline pounds 10.99. This is the latest in the sub-genre "I was trapped in a man's/woman's body". Bubbly blonde 26-year-old Martine had it all: "I was born perfectly female, the ideal biological specimen in fact ... When I wore a skirt I looked slinky and attractive and male attention was aplenty." She even earned pin money as "a sexy stripagram" in her home town of Reading. But deep inside she knew something wasn't right. Finally, in desperation, she blurted out her confused feelings to a nurse friend - "So you think you're transsexual?" came the reply. Martine was gobsmacked: "I looked blankly at her white face part-hidden by wide glasses ... Transsexual sounded like something sinister and deviant." And thus begins the emotional and physical rollercoaster from woman to man, from Martine to Paul: the trips to Top Man to buy the first tie, the agonising over which penis to get and then the regret over ordering an extra large, the battles with the doctors and psychiatrists, the final victory after "leaving the boobs on the operating table", and, toughest of all, trying to get British Telecom to change "his" account name. Co-author Jane Warren is a features writer on the Daily Express, which no doubt helps explain the exclamatory mid- market style. Perhaps it also explains the rather tortuous moral tone which seems to run through the book - Paul is horrified when a gay man tries to pick him up in London's Earls Court and his previous lesbianism is best forgotten, but becoming a "man" is a return to "normality". For a more insightful memoir, turn to last year's transgendering hit, Gender Outlaw by the feisty Kate Bornstein (Routledge, pounds 19.99). Bornstein lived as a heterosexual male for 37 years, before having the op in 1986. Since then "she" has lived as a lesbian and now "her" current partner is switching sex from woman to "man". Now that is worthy of a Daily Express features writer.

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