Monday, January 07, 2008

Best Books for Christmas 2007

I'm pretty easy to buy for. A book or a book token and I'm as happy as Larry - whoever he was. Now that I come to think about it, he must have been pretty damned happy; so happy in fact that his joy has become the benchmark of extreme happiness. Strangely enough, that's just the sort of question that is answered by the sorts of books you buy at Christmas and 2007 produced a glut of them. Not pictured are ones I bought myself in the run up to the big event and they include How to Fossilize Your Hamster: And Other Amazing Experiments for the Armchair Scientist by Mick O'Hare, Schott's Almanac 2008 by Ben Schott, Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology and Politics in Science and Discarded Science: Ideas That Seemed Good at the Time both by John Grant and the brilliantly titled Do Ants Have Arseholes?: And 101 Other Bloody Ridiculous Questions by Jon Butler and Bruno Vincent. All good fun.

But Christmas brought me some real treasures. First up there's The Interesting Bits: The History You Might Have Missed by Justin Pollard. Pollard used to be a researcher for the guys over at QI Ltd and it shows; the book is a meticulously researched list of some of the more obscure but fascinating events in British history. I couldn't put this one down. In the same vein, I Never Knew That About England by Christopher Winn is a county by county list of some of the strange places and traditions all around us that we've probably never noticed. Winn has also produced similar books about Scotland, Wales and London. Potty, Fartwell and Knob: Extraordinary But True Names of British People by Russell Ash is very funny, if a little over-the-top. After a while, the relentless lists of names become a bit wearing. There's at least two books crammed into one here. Saying that, some of the names are hilarious and you can't help but wonder at the motivation of parents who name their kids things like Minty Badger, Pleasant Titty and Everard Cock. Last on my list of 'that sort of book' is the best of the bunch, The Reverend Guppy's Aquarium in which Philip Dodd explains the stories behind the people whose names have been immortalised in everyday things and situations. Obvious examples are cardigans, sandwiches and Wellingtons, but in the book you'll learn the truth about Joseph Frisbie, Adolphe Sax, Jules Leotard, Samuel Maverick and why a man called Guppy gave his name to a fish. Another one I couldn't put down.

In a completely different arena, I have Derren Brown's Tricks of the Mind and Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves The Naked Jape: Uncovering the Hidden World of Jokes. Derren Brown's book is part autobiography, part polemic and part explanation of his art. It's a very intelligent book - while remaining funny and accessible - and tackles such things as the structure and psychology of magic, hypnosis and body language. It's quite an eye-opener. Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves do the same thing with their book; a smart, witty and well-researched guide to the psychology and history of jokes. It's a superb read made all the more enjoyable because, peppered throughout the whole book, are hundreds of the very best gags ever written. Not a book to read in public if you have a weak bladder. I read Richard Wiseman's first book The Luck Factor a few years ago and was enthralled. Here was a man, a respectable scientist, who'd started life as a magician and who now used the scientific method to study such bizarre subjects as magic, luck, juggling and escapology. Well, he's now followed it up with Quirkology: The Curious Science of Everyday Lives, further studies of subjects as diverse as behaviour in checkout queues, female van drivers, how to spot the dodgy politician and why quack is the funniest animal noise. Essential reading I'd suggest.

I've saved the best for last. Top of the Pops: Mishaps, Miming and Music by Ian Gittins is an affectionate, copiously illustrated and barmy dip into the history of television's most enduring music show. Each chapter covers an individual subject like Glam Rock, the arrival of Punk, dodgy fashions, dodgy presenters and why Dexy's Midnight Runners once performed with a huge projection of Darts player Jocky Wilson behind them. As the title suggests, it does explain the mistakes and failures as well as why acts were forced to mime. Of course, it would be worth the cover price just for the photos of Pan's People. And yes, I do remember Ronnie Barker's classic gag in Porridge when he said that he'd like to take one of the dancers out for the night. 'Beautiful Babs', he says, 'No idea what her name is though.'

So, a good haul this Christmas. But, is it me, or has there developed a vogue for exceptionally long titles this year? Maybe I'll have to rethink the title of my first book when it's released in time for next Christmas ...

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