Looking for obscure trivia? As you wish.

January 13, 2015

Nearly everyone who grew up in the 1980s has a special fondness for The Princess Bride. Adults who were in their teens when the movie was first released understand the meaning of “As you wish,” are just a little suspicious of anyone with six fingers, and know that you should never get involved in a land war in Asia.

In honor of the movie’s twenty-seventh anniversary, Cary Elwes, best known as Westley, has released a behind-the-scenes retrospective. As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales From the Making of The Princess Bride (Touchstone, 2014) recalls Elwes landing the role (a Bill Cosby impression was involved) and working with director Rob Reiner and writer Bill Goldman. He also interviewed co-stars Robin Wright, Wallace Shawn, Mandy Patinkin, and Billy Crystal.  

Since William Goldman’s book, The Princess Bride, was published in 1973, a number of big names—from Robert Redford to Francis Truffaut—had toyed with trying their hand at a film version. The trouble was, no one quite knew what to do with a sometimes silly, sometimes serious, sometimes satirical swashbuckling romance.  

Finally in 1987, Rob Reiner, fresh off the success of Stand By Me, was offered carte blanche by Columbia Studios. By that point, The Princess Bride had earned a reputation as un-filmable and it did, in fact, meet with a mediocre response at best upon opening. Thanks to the advent of the VCR, however, it found its way into the homes of millions and became a sleeper hit.

Elwes’ style is casual with a few previously unknown bits of trivia thrown in for good measure, including the intense training he and Patinkin endured in order to pull off “the sword fight to end all sword fights,” Billy Crystal’s ad-lib “have fun storming the castle,” and Shawn’s fear that he would be replaced by Danny DeVito. One is left with the feeling that perhaps Elwes is holding back, even as the praise for his co-stars is ebullient.  

As an avid fan of the movie, I wanted a little more, but enjoyed the sidebar bits from others involved in the filming. Overall, As You Wish makes a nice book for earnest fans, but will fail to impress casual readers. ★ ★ ★ ½



What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) does exactly what the title says.

Munroe, a former roboticist for NASA, is best known for his webcomic, xkcd. Primarily using basic stick figures, xkcd addresses love and life and scientific or mathematical in-jokes.


Occasionally, the strip features intricate landscapes or mathematical patterns. In July 2012, Munroe launched a second website, What If?, in which he answered reader submitted questions. The book is compiled from those questions.  

Though a math and science book at its core, What If? is lighthearted and accessible. Questions range from the reasonably serious, “How dangerous is it, really, to be in a pool during a thunderstorm?” (Answer: Pretty dangerous), to the silly—“From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked when it hit the ground?” (Answer: You can’t really.)  

Throughout the book are “weird and worrying questions” that Munroe decided not to answer or gave very abbreviated answers. These include, “Is it possible to cry so much you dehydrate yourself?” and “What if I swallow a tick that has Lyme disease? Would I get Lyme disease from the inside out?” In some respects, I found these more entertaining than the rest of the book.

Non-scientific or mathematically inclined readers should not be put off by the subject matter. Although some of the explanations involve equations or scientific premises with which I was unfamiliar, they are presented in an easily understandable way.

In addition, the book suggests some interesting real-life applications of science fiction or fantasy. For example, the Death Star in Star Wars essentially created a 15-magnitude earthquake on Alderaan. This segues into an explanation of what it would be like if earthquakes with a negative magnitude hit your house.

Readers familiar with Munroe will find the same dry humor in longer form. With more room to craft his explanations, he is able to stretch the answers and create a better setup for the sketches. Newcomers will find themselves hooked from the disclaimer gracing the first page.  

Munroe has interspersed xkcd-style illustrations, and the book itself maintains the xkcd style. The inside cover is a full-size infographic of what the Earth would look like if the oceans were drained from the bottom of the Marianas Trench.

Instead of the normal blurbs from other authors, the back of the book is a collection of things the reader might want to know before buying it. For example, “Humans can’t digest the cellulose in paper, but if we could, eating this book would give you about 2,300 calories.”

What If? is a highly entertaining way to laugh at least as much as it makes you think. ★ ★ ★ ★

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