Scholastic Book of World Records 2009. By Jenifer Corr Morse. Georgian Bay/Scholastic. $9.99.
Jetpack Dreams: One Man’s Up and Down (but Mostly Down) Search for the Greatest Invention That Never Was. By Mac Montandon. Da Capo. $25.
Each new year brings a new crop of world records, some of which are evidence of world-record silliness. As people strive anew to get themselves a piece of posterity – however briefly – old records are broken and new ones established. Feeding on this frenzy are a host of world-record books, of which Scholastic Book of World Records 2009 is short enough, at a bit over 300 pages, to be accessible to young readers as well as families. This year’s Scholastic volume opens with sports records (many of which change from year to year), then moves into human-made records (at least some of which change over time), then to nature records (which change much less often), popular-culture records (which change constantly), money records, science records, and U.S. records – one record per state, which makes for some of the more interesting reading here. There is also a bonus section of facts that are not records but are in themselves interesting: zookeepers feed four tons of food every day to the 1,000 animals at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando; the tiny, mouselike jerboa never drinks water and can jump 10 feet at a time; a mole can dig a tunnel nearly 200 feet long in one night; and so on. Among the highlights of the records sections are some of the unusual distinctions of the states: Pennsylvania has the oldest drive-in theater, Maine the oldest state fair, South Dakota the largest petrified-wood collection. The world-records sections contain some unsurprising information (the United States is the world’s top moviegoing country and has the most movie screens) and some that readers may not expect (the country that eats the most ice cream is New Zealand). The book’s once-over-lightly approach makes it quick and easy to read in little bits, and if the facts are presented in scattershot fashion, that just seems to go with the world-record territory.
One item not included in world-record books is the most efficient jetpack – or anything about jetpacks at all. That is because these Buck Rogers-style modes of transportation – which actually trace back to Bucks Rogers in the 25th Century, the comic strip that started in 1929 – still do not exist in a practical form, despite the attempts of many people (from serious scientists to folks best described as nutcases) to develop them. Jetpacks have done very well in fiction, from TV’s Lost in Space to the James Bond film Thunderball to the Star Wars bounty hunter, Boba Fett. But fact has never quite caught up to their promise. Mac Montandon, a frequent contributor to a variety of publications, pursues the still-unfulfilled dream of a personal jet-driven flying transportation method around the world. He tends to downplay character description: “Eric Scott is a lean, craggy-faced former stuntman and air force pilot. …He wears a black-and-red racing suit and a black motorcycle helmet with a clear face shield.” Instead, Montandon gazes with wide-eyed wonder at the various experimental jetpacks and jetpack-like constructions he encounters, especially those, like Scott’s, that actually work, however limited and impractical they turn out to be: “I am about to see a man. Fly. Through the air. I peer at the viewfinder. The pilot cracks the throttle open, and my eardrums melt. I grimace and clutch at my left ear. It’s softened candle wax. With a rush of wind flapping his pant leg, Eric Scott lifts off the ground as if by the Hand of God.” Montandon is nothing if not hopeful, no matter where he goes, as when he heads toward Dublin to see a young man named Will Breaden-Madden: “And though he is but nineteen years old and can be agonizingly slow replying to my e-mails with progress reports and a tad flaky-seeming, at this point he remains my best shot at the wondrously realized future so many others have only dreamed about.” Again and again, of course, Montandon is disappointed, and Jetpack Dreams is essentially a chronicle of ongoing failure, somewhat enlivened by its lightness but also tending to the sophomoric in its style. The book is a mild sort of gonzo pseudo-journalism, from which readers ultimately learn not very much – but which they may enjoy on its own terms and for its own sake. Ultimately, Jetpack Dreams is for someone a lot like the author himself, who at one point writes, “Oh, I badly want to believe. I really do. But the future is seemingly forever far away.”