Reviewed by Kris Milstead
It is an Icelandic tradition that on Christmas everyone receives at least one book. Known as the Christmas Book Flood, there is much anticipation and discussion of the books in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Granted, we aren’t in Iceland, but with that nerdy tidbit of trivia I thought I’d recommend books to give to your favorite nerd/geek.
Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, and Ella Morton (Workman Publishing, 2016), is a non-traditional travel guide based on the website of the same name.
As the name suggests, Atlas Obscura is dedicated to sites off the beaten path. The Great Wall of China and the Pyramids of Giza are nowhere to be found. Instead visit the Capuchin Catcombs (large burial tombs originally intended for monks that later became a status symbol) and the Iceland Phallological Museum (a small museum devoted to the penis).
Closer to home, the book mentions Devil’s Kettle, a waterfall two hours north of Duluth in which half falls into the Brule River and the other half disappears into a hole. Further south in St. Paul is the Questionable Medical Device Collection. Originally a museum of more than 250 odd gadgets, the collection now sits in the Science Museum of Minnesota and contains such items as a foot-powered breast enlarger and a phrenology machine.
Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders is a must have for anyone who delight in the weird. ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Munroe (Harcourt, 2015) poses the question “Have you ever tried to research something incredible only to be put off by confusing technical terms?”
Munroe tackles topics such as the workings of a commercial airline cockpit, the International Space Station, and human cells, using only line drawings and the most common “ten-hundred” (i.e. 1,000) words in the English language to “explain it like I’m five.”
Adults fascinated by the inner workings of the human body or curious about life on the ISS will be enthralled by Thing Explainer. Kids who are developing an interest in the way things work will find answers presented in a accessible way without talking down to them. ★ ★ ★ ½
To Be or Not To Be: A Chooseable-Path Adventure by Ryan North (Breadpig, 2013) is a parody of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Funded by a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $500,000, To Be or Not To Be retains all the plot developments of the original (using tiny Yorick skulls to guide the reader) while adding irreverent twists of its own. What if Ophelia had invented a barometer instead of dying? What if King Hamlet investigated his own murder? What if you use the Quantum Leap particle accelerator to time travel? (Hint: it doesn’t go well.)
In addition to the unusual made-up choices, North has expanded a few elements of the original story, such as a throwaway mention of a pirate fight.
Fans of North’s Romeo and/or Juliet will enjoy To Be Or Not To Be, the “choose your own adventure” style invoking nostalgia for those who grew up on the genre.
Teens being introduced to Shakespearian classics in school might find North’s books an enjoyable supplement. While there are not any explicitly sexual situations in the book, parents may find some of the adult-themed humor less-than-appropriate for pre-teens. ★ ★ ★ ½
A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Everyday Life from the Stone Age to the Phone Age by Greg Jenner uses a normal Saturday to examine all the common elements that structure our day—how we mark time, the details of personal hygiene, keeping pets, and even tooth brushing. Jenner takes the questions “why do we do that?” and “where did it come from?” and seeks to answer them using humor.
Best known for his role as fact checker for BBC’s Horrible Histories, Jenner book launches with the blasting of an alarm clock (an invention he attributes to Plato) and Jenner’s first topic is how humans have historically marked time, from the debate over when a day begins to the implementation of Daylight Saving Time in 1916.
Later, he plunges into the subject of bathing. He points out that early humans likely bathed regularly, based on the proximity of ancient dwellings to hot springs, and discusses how medieval Christianity discouraged regular bathing. History buffs will especially enjoy how Jenner brings to life many early figures and their influence on things we now take for granted.
Little bits of trivia include the fact that while the ancient Romans had public bathrooms consisting of long communal benches, the Harappan civilization in 2600 BCE had a complex pipe system linking homes to cesspits built for the purpose of carrying human waste.
Jenner writes in a style that is conversational and easy to follow. Some readers may be put off by the excessive attention to bathroom rituals, while others may enjoy the fact that the baths of Caracalla housed two libraries—one in Greek and one in Latin.
A Million Years in a Day is an excellent gift for anyone interested in history or the reasons behind some of the rituals we follow today. ★ ★ ★ ★