For the past couple of weeks my kids and I have been on a weird-but-true books kick. They've been reading Stranger Than Science, a 1960 paperback that I discovered when I was about 11 or 12. The stories in Stranger Than Science are very entertaining, but a lot of them have been debunked, or at least detoothed, over the years.
I wondered if there might be a modern weird-but-true book that is entertaining as well as truthful. I looked around and I think I found it. It's National Geographic's Tales of the Weird: Unbelievable True Stories. This fat book (540 pages) is loaded with the same kinds of stories found in Stranger Than Science and Strangely Enough, but it isn't afraid to punch holes in popular urban legends. It explains the truth behind the Maya "doomsday" calendar, and the latest thinking behind Bigfoot, Area 51, and Chupacabra. And it does so without taking the fun or mystery out of them.
But Tales of the Weird isn't all about busting myths. Most of the book focuses on the wonderfully strange things in our universe: Women can sniff out men with odorless pheromones. Your brain can take cat naps while you are awake. Eating crocodiles may have resulted in the development of bigger brains in human beings. Ladybug incubators enslaved by wasps. New death ritual found in Himalaya. Cocaine addiction uses same brain paths as salt cravings. Astronauts' fingernails falling off. Five weirdest bugs. The Freemasons: eight myths decoded. Why do birds fall from the sky? UFO-like clouds linked to military maneuvers? Giant, mucuslike sea blobs on the rise, pose danger. And hundreds of others.
When Jane (9) read the chapter on synesthesia she became very excited and told me that she thought she was the only person in the world who connected specific colors with letters of the alphabet (Q is a dark purple for her, for instance).
This is possibly the best bathroom reading book ever written.
Tales of the Weird: Unbelievable True Stories
Stories matter: the recurring narrative of radical Islamic terror in America (a statistical outlier) makes it nearly impossible to avoid equating “terrorist” with “jihadi suicide bomber” — but the real domestic terror threat is white people, the Dominionists, ethno-nationalists, white separatists, white supremacists and sovereign citizens who target (or infiltrate) cops and blow up buildings. That’s what makes Brian Wood’s first Briggs Land collection so timely: a gripping story of far-right terror that is empathic but never sympathetic.
I could not have asked for a nicer crowd than the ones who turned up for last night’s event at Liverpool One’s Waterstones; now I’m looking forward to today’s lunchtime signing at Birmingham Waterstones, on my way to tomorrow’s Hay Festival event with Adam Rutherford.
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