July 27, 2006

(++++) BRITS' BITS

The Wicked History of the World. By Terry Deary and Martin Brown. Scholastic. $10.99.

The Stunning Science of Everything. By Nick Arnold and Tony De Saulles. Scholastic. $10.99.

     The British are coming – again.  But this time, Americans need no Paul Revere to warn of “one if by land, two if by sea.”  It’s two – by the book(s).  And it’s just fine to surrender to the amusement, wit and carefully researched (if frequently rather odd) facts in these two offbeat and fascinating pieces of nonfiction.

     The subtitles help set the tone.  For the history book, we get “History with the nasty bits left in!”  For science, it’s “Science with the squishy bits left in!”  Each book includes a foldout: “villains” in the history book and a timeline in the science volume.  And each is written in prose that refuses to take itself seriously – although the information is accurate and the research has clearly been careful.

     Yes, it helps to be a bit of an Anglophile to enjoy some of this, such as the history volume’s discussion of human settlement of Australia (around 30,000 B.C.): the people there “became very skilled hunters and survivors – till they were invaded in the 1700s by some simple savages from a country called Britain.”  The “British to American Glossary” included in each volume helps, although it is scarcely complete: it includes “bloke = guy” but does not explain “nicked” (stolen).

     Yet there is so much offbeat charm in these highly unusual books of facts that any slight vocabulary issues are minor indeed.  The history volume includes “pharaoh phoul phacts” about ancient Egypt, such as the death of Hor-Aha (he was eaten by a hippopotamus) and the way Rameses II’s nose was kept in shape after he died and was mummified (it was stuffed with peppercorns).  Egyptian-style art illustrates these pieces of information – and dragons illustrate facts about the Orient, and there is what looks like a war handbook to explain the rules of battle.  There is a cutaway view of a castle (called “Cutter Whey Castle,” of course), which includes 10 things that would not be around in 1450 – an amusing “find the mistakes” game.  There are facts about health practices that will make you squirm, and torture intended to make people squirm.  There’s a how-to about Aztec human sacrifices, in which a modern cartoon docent demonstrates the gory techniques.  Slavery and slums (including slum cooking), murders and massacres – they are all here.  This book is not for the faint of heart (or stomach) – but it is highly unusual and ghoulishly informative.

     The science book has some ghastly stuff in it, too, such as a “gruesome garden” that contains, among other plants, the South American strangler fig, which “strangles trees and steals water from their roots.  Its victims die very slowly.”  But this book is more about grossness than mayhem.  Regarding methane, for example: “If you had a dinosaur-sized bottom problem you could convert your toilet into a gas cooker.”  Regarding bugs: a male Australian red-back spider does “a lovely somersault – straight into the female’s mouth so she can eat him!”  Regarding animals: the Brazilian hoatzin bird “spends its time eating and burping to get rid of the gas the bacteria [in its stomach] make.”  Also on animals: “secret diary” entries of a naked mole rat, an echidna, and a hog-nosed snake.  The solar system, water cycle, volcanism and human digestion have never before been presented this way.  It’s all weird and all fascinating – every bit of it.

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