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Book Review: A World of Curiosities: Surprising, Interesting and Downright Unbelievable Facts from Every Nation on the Planet by John Oldale

In the introduction to his compendium of miscellaneous information about “every nation on the planet,” John Oldale describes himself as a man who knows a little about a lot of things living in a world that prizes knowing a lot about a little. He has traveled the world gathering an interesting fact here, an odd superstition there, rejecting depth of knowledge for breadth — the manner of a curious enthusiast rather than a scholarly investigator. Now he has taken his gatherings, supplemented by Wikipedia and some further Googling, and put them in a book, A World of Curiosities.

He has taken all the countries of the world and arranged them alphabetically beginning with Afghanistan and ending with Zimbabwe, each country getting at least one page (some getting three or four) filled with an assortment of “surprising, interesting and downright unbelievable facts” related to that country.

Each entry includes the country’s name in English and the native tongue, a quotation about the country, a collection of short paragraphs about whatever has struck Oldale’s fancy, a symbolic identification with one of the continental areas, a Global Significance Ranking (GSR) based on internet footprint as reckoned from Google search results, the identification of any the country’s World Heritage Sites and aspects of “Intangible Cultural Heritage” as determined by UNESCO. Pages are laid out creatively and often include illustrations, graphs, lists, maps and other visual aids. It is clearly a book intended to be dipped into. As Oldale himself suggests, it may well be the kind of book likely to be kept close to the commode.

Perhaps the best way to give an idea of the kinds of thing readers are likely to find among Oldale’s “Curiosities” would be to give some samples. So here, chosen at random, is a list of ten entries from ten different countries:

* Coco de mer is a palm seed from the Seychelles with an “admittedly suggestive shape” that “got Victorian colonists seriously hot under the collar” (Illustration included).
* In a list of Italian idioms, it turns out that “square balls” means nerves of steel.
* In Denmark, the Aalborg Crematorium hooked its chimney up to the community heating system.
* The world’s biggest beauty pageant for camels is held in the desert of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
* The colloquial name for Lesotho is “The Kingdom in the Sky.
* “None of New Zealand’s 33 million sheep possess top front teeth.”
* Chad counting in Florida has nothing to do with the African country of the same name.
* The fine for failure to flush the toilet in Singapore is $120.
* In 1938 Frank Sinatra was arrested in New Jersey for seduction.
* The beer mat was an invention patented by Robert Sputh in Dresden in 1892.

You get the idea, but here are a few generalizations about the entries. Sometimes in a fog of parochialism, Oldale finds it necessary to relate his entries to Great Britain, regardless of the country he is ostensibly talking about. So the Denmark page talks about Hamlet and the Guinea page explains that guineas were the major unit of British currency until 1816.

He is always happy to add a little sexual spice to a country’s stew, as for example his discussion of an epidemic of koro, an epidemic of mental illness where it is believed that the male member is “retracting” into the body, in Singapore.

He is not above the occasional wincing pun, as in a closing section called “A Few Last Words.” Some entries are trivial, some funny; some seem irrelevant, some precious — but in the more than 2,000 in the book, readers are sure to find plenty to interest them.

If in the end A World of Curiosities reminds you as it does me of the famous Ripley’s Believe It or Not, chalk it up to the flattery of imitation as you wile away your time in the loo .

About Jack Goodstein