Robots, bat boys, and naughty bits
BY J.L. JOHNSON
What with sleigh-bearing artiodactyls zipping overhead and a fat man making appearances worldwide in a few hours' time, the holidays are pretty much an all-around freaky proposition. "Mulled" and "candied" become temporary food groups. Perfectly good trees are dragged indoors to crisp into fire hazards. Thirty-year-old stop-motion TV specials reduce grownups to blank-eyed kiddies in cookie-crumbed Star Wars pajamas.
It's futile debating which is weirder: holiday fiction (lump of coal) or holiday fact (miniature-sausage gift pack). But in celebration of all that is merrily twisted this time of year, here are a few new books of the bizarre that encompass fiction, nonfiction, and what lies in between. Pick one up, and start getting your seasonal freak on.
mental_floss Presents: Forbidden Knowledge, a Wickedly Smart Guide to History's Naughtiest Bits, edited by Will Pearson, Mangesh Hattikudur, and Elizabeth Hunt (Collins, $14.95)
Classify as: Fact. Freakiness: Six out of 10.
Back in the '70s or '80s, if you wanted to learn about sex but didn't have an old Playboy or even a Judy Blume book, you might have turned to The Book of Lists. Written by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace, and Amy Wallace, it was the original trivia treasure-trove, and, along with "15 Famous Things That Happened in Bathtubs" and "30 Famous Redheads," determined young readers could unearth plenty of factoids that parents would just as soon they hadn't (say, "Sexual Curiosities of Nine Well-Known Women"). Now, the people at the hipster bimonthly mental_floss - which published its first trivia compendium, Condensed Knowledge, last year - have cherry-picked such titillating tidbits for Forbidden Knowledge. The editors classify their entries among the seven deadly sins, with lust represented by "Four Victorian Tricks for Restraining Your Mojo," "Five Greatest Syphilitics of All Time," "Divinity-School Dropouts" (would you believe, Michael Moore?), and plenty more that's fine and randy. But the other sins are worth perusing, too; unless you can already name "Seven Insane Soviet Projects" (pride) or "Five Lazily Designed Landmarks" (sloth), you'll be hooked.
Strangest fact: Lists co-author Amy Wallace was once Carlos Castaneda's lover (a fact not in the book - but freaky, non?).
The Areas of My Expertise, by John Hodgman (Dutton Adult, $22)
Classify as: Fiction. Freakiness: Seven out of 10.
A man who requires 28 words to title his book in full clearly believes in being specific. Not accurate, mind you, or even scarcely plausible (any research for My Expertise was "scant, haphazard, and largely accidental," the author promises) but, yes, he's insanely, hilariously specific. A Brookline native known for his contributions to McSweeney's and This American Life, John Hodgman imparts such bizarro almanackia as "Jokes That Have Never Produced Laughter," "Colonial Jobs Involving Eels," and "Diversions for the Asthmatic Child Who Cannot Play in the Snow" (among them, inhaler-whittling). Combining intricately logical satire with the bloviation of a 19th-century broadside, Hodgman takes readers on a memorable tour of "COMPLETE WORLD KNOWLEDGE."
Strangest fiction: "Lobster-Claw vs. Pigeon-Foot Deformities."
How to Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself Against the Coming Rebellion, by Dr. Daniel H. Wilson (Bloomsbury, $12.95)
Classify as: Informed fiction. Freakiness: Eight out of 10.
A few years ago, The Zombie Survival Guide enjoyed a brief vogue among survivalist do-it-yourselfers, offering tips for safeguarding oneself and one's family against the living dead. But while the threat of a zombie massacre remains comfortably distant, a new book warns of an apocalypse that's already under way. Where we see Roombas bumbling around in pet-like obedience, Daniel Wilson sees a scouting party for "the growing robot menace." Having earned his PhD at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon, Wilson has spent plenty of time studying the enemy, and intersperses his survival tips (how to treat a laser wound, how to stop a giant walking robot) with real-life R&D updates. Learn here about the ASIMO, the QRIO, UGVs, MAVs, and more - and be afraid.
Strangest fact: To fool a robot's voice-recognition program, fake an accent - preferably a nonexistent one.
Bat Boy Lives!: The Weekly World News Guide to Politics, Culture, Celebrities, Alien Abductions, and the Mutant Freaks That Shape Our World, by David Perel et al. (Sterling, $12.95)
Classify as: God's honest truth. Freakiness: Ten out of 10.
Sure, you can check this out for details on Osama and Saddam's steamy love affair and the stunning weight-loss potential of flesh-eating bacteria. But the tastiest treat in this greasy bucket of deep-fried journalism is the full story of the Bat Boy: from his 1993 discovery in a West Virginia cave to his subsequent escape, capture, re-escape, recapture, knighthood, and wartime heroics in the Persian Gulf. (Just who do you think discovered Hussein's spider hole, anyway?)
Strangest fiction: Look for a Bat Boy/Obama ticket in 2024.