August 20, 2015
(+++) BELIEF AND DISBELIEF
Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Special Edition 2016. Scholastic. $16.99.
Whoppers: History’s Most Outrageous Lies and Liars. By Christine Seifert. Zest Books. $13.99.
One element of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! that is a believe-it-or-not fact of its own is that the daily drawings based on Robert Ripley’s concept are the longest-running syndicated cartoon in the world. The annual Special Edition books have not been around quite that long, but each year they continue to present certain kinds of surprising facts and objects – no longer the “exotic” ones from Africa, Asia and other “far-flung” lands in which Ripley himself specialized (those are now taboo, thanks to political correctness), but now with a focus on people who knowingly or (sometimes) through science turn themselves into examples of exceptionalism or bizarrerie. The 2016 edition includes, for instance, a woman whose fingernails are 13 to 18 inches long, a girl who ate nothing but French fries for 15 years, a Japanese artist whose creative medium is sushi, a man who paints using the tip of his beard instead of a brush, a woman whose 12-foot-long hair takes two hours to wash, some extremely messy participants in the World Custard Pie Championship, and a former soldier who controls his artificial arm with his thoughts. Other entries here are natural phenomena, such as the strange turquoise ice that forms on Lake Baikal in Siberia every winter, and unnatural ones, such as the beachfront hotel constructed from 1,000 tons of sand and the hedge sculpted into the shape of a 100-foot-long dragon. There is less hyperbole in the book than there used to be in the newspaper panels and in early Ripley’s collections, although there is still some overstatement or outright error, for example in describing a python as a “deadly snake.” The 2016 edition tries to maintain relevance in the Internet age by, for example, showing photos of people wearing cats on their heads like wigs – an Internet craze that will likely disappear long before next year’s Ripley book. The attractiveness of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Special Edition 2016 depends largely on a reader’s feelings about celebrities and about the strange things people do, not on remarkable natural occurrences, since so much of the book is about human oddities: an artist who creates celebrity portraits using burned toast, another who paints tiny cityscapes on foods as small as a coffee bean, another who creates faces from crumbled crackers. But none of the works of these three artists is shown – a real shortcoming in our visual age, especially when readers can search for the artists online and get pictures that way. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Special Edition 2016 is a book in search of relevance, its photos of the strange things people do or create being its strongest part by far. But even those pale after a while: on a single two-page spread are pictures of gatherings of identical twins, redheads and men with mustaches, the net effect being only to show that people with things in common sometimes get together. At a time when it is so easy to see so many strange things anytime, a book that captures a small selection of oddness once a year seems a bit passé. But on the other hand, those newspaper panels keep attracting interest even as newspapers themselves fade from many people’s consciousness and into obscurity.
The attraction of the Ripley’s material has always been that, no matter how strange it seemed, it was true. But things that are false are of equal interest, and people whose lives are built on or around lies can be especially intriguing. That is the premise of Christine Seifert’s Whoppers: History’s Most Outrageous Lies and Liars. The title itself is kind of a lie: on what possible basis could the fact that Milli Vanilli was not really a singing duo be considered one of the “most outrageous” instances of falsehood in history? And the four divisions of the book overlap and are somewhat arbitrary, even though they make for convenient organizing: “Tall-Tale Tellers,” “Great Pretenders,” “Cheaters & Thieves,” and “Aliens, Ghosts, & Creature Hoaxes.” Each short chapter names “the liar,” gives a date or time period, says what the lie was, and explains the reason for it – although those are not always terribly clear (Seifert says H.L. Mencken made up a story about Millard Fillmore installing a White House bathtub because Mencken “was feeling depressed about World War I”). The book cannot really be considered a rogues’ gallery, despite its title, because some people in it had noble motives (Mattie Griffith, who falsely claimed to be an escaped slave so she could raise money to free the six slaves she had inherited) and some told their lies for literary or admirable sociopolitical reasons (Jonathan Swift, whose A Modest Proposal was not, as Seifert asserts, an attempt “to show people what a ridiculous idea eating babies was,” but was in fact a scathing indictment of the English treatment of Ireland – a fact that readers can glean from the chapter but that is at odds with the setup). Whoppers is riddled with factual errors and misinterpretations, but still manages to dredge up some fascinating material and present it interestingly. There is, for example, the story of Victor Lustig (born Robert V. Miller), who sold the Eiffel Tower for scrap not once but twice – a scam that seems ridiculous on the face of it today, but that Seifert correctly explains was enabled by the fact that the tower was falling apart when Lustig “sold” it, and some people were in fact arguing that it should be demolished. Unfortunately, Seifert’s book suffers not only from errors she makes but also from some that may be due to poor editing: one box is headlined, “Change to Eight Famous Singers Who Have Been Accused of Lip-Synching,” which makes no sense at all. And Seifert’s writing style, peppered with pop references that are often just plain silly, sometimes trips her up even when she tries to be straightforward: in her chapter on Kluge Hans (“Clever Hans”), a horse that supposedly knew math, she includes a box called “An Even Smarter Horse” that reads, “Mr. Ed was so smart that he could talk. He was the star of a popular TV show (called Mr. Ed) that was popular in the 1960s. You won’t be surprised to discover that the horse who played Mr. Ed couldn’t really talk.” That whole passage comes perilously close to incoherence – and it is not the only one to do so. It also seems odd for Seifert to include writers’ use of pen names among her “outrageous” reports. So Whoppers as a whole is very much a mixed bag, containing some fascinating accounts of outrageous lies both ancient and modern, mixed with some less-interesting or less-relevant material, all tied together in a style that may charitably be described as choppy, although it at least makes an attempt to be truthful.