October 13, 2005


Pedestrian Safety Expert Gets Hit by Bus. By Huw Davies. Andrews McMeel. $9.95.

A Brief History of the Smile. By Angus Trimble. Basic Books. $14.

     Books of “wild and wacky things people do” are a publishing-industry staple, practically a genre of their own.  They are reliable in three ways: there will always be material for more of them; some of the material will always be funny, or at least wry; and some of the material will be unfunny, if not outright tasteless.  Huw Davies has produced a series of books of this type, the latest of which bears the wholly appropriate subtitle, “Another Weird Year of Bizarre News Stories from Around the World.”  Weird and bizarre these snippets certainly are.  There is one about a man who tried to beat his dog to death with a shotgun.  The dog fought back, the shotgun went off, the man was fatally wounded by both gun and dog, and the animal survived.  Not your cup of tea?  How about the story of 15 Ugandan prisoners who escaped by repeatedly urinating on the same spot of a wall, weakening it enough so they could dig through it with spoons?  Or you can read about the exploding salad dressing: a bottle that was past its sell-by date fermented, producing gases that built up to such an extent that the bottle blew up, blowing the door off the refrigerator.  Or, still on the topic of food, find out about the Wisconsin man who eats nothing but Big Macs – he has consumed more than 19,000.  Then there’s the new business suit, with powdered charcoal and jade sewn into the crotch and armpits, designed to protect the wearer from electromagnetic radiation.  And the story of the Indiana woman who was browsing the wedding notices when she saw her husband’s name – he had just committed bigamy.  You get the idea: a decidedly mixed bag of this and that from here and there, intermittently smile- and groan-inducing.

     If you’d like to know a bit more about why we smile at something funny, read Angus Trimble’s A Brief History of the Smile.  It won’t make you laugh – it is a serious work, even a touch too scholarly at times.  But it will make you think about the meanings of smiles in various cultures and contexts.  Human smiling starts in infancy, but its meaning develops over time and changes according to where we live, whether we are in public or private, and what we are trying to communicate.  Smiling, Trimble argues, is its own form of communication, with its own rules and quirks.  Trimble discusses everything from the smile as enticement to its sinister aspects as a lewd grin or leer.  His analysis is based partly on biology and partly on history and art, and it is often quite intriguing: the Mona Lisa’s smile, Trimble suggests, is fascinating because it combines beauty and decorum.  Trimble also discusses the difference between smiling and laughter, the latter being “an entirely different proposition…long thought to have beneficial or therapeutic effects as a kind of valve to release nervous tension.”  Trimble’s writing may not make you smile, but it will help you understand why you do.

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