Brains, birds and bonking – you can’t go wrong with a book

christmas baubleWith Christmas just a week or so away, it’s time to refine the prezzie lists and go shopping. Some people are dead easy to buy for: me for instance. I want a canoe.

Sadly this is a tad over the R150 limit our family has set itself this year.

So are most books, but when you’re desperate, you might have to bend the budget a bit.

Here is a list of some fun and interesting non-fiction books that could be just the ticket for those difficult people who seem to have most things. I have ignored the obvious big bestsellers like Jacques Pauw’s The President’s Keepers, Redi Tlhabi’s Khwezi,  and Sisonke Msimang’s Always Another Country, which I assume you and yours ha’ve all read anyway.

great ideaWhat a Great Idea – awesome South African inventions, by Mike Bruton (Jacana)

Ask the average South African to list three famous local inventions and they’ll probably come up with the Kreepy Krauly, Mrs Ball’s Chutney and Pratley’s Putty.

Well, Mike Burton, former head of the Science Centre, has managed to produce an engaging and astounding book of more than 230 pages listing stuff our countrymen have developed. It makes for some astonishing reading.

A South African invented the CAT scanner, the skin cream Oil of Olay and Pinotage. Then there is, of course the vuvuzela, the dolos, the platanna pregnancy test and the play pump – a merry-go-round that pumps up water into a storage tank while children spin.

Many of the things Bruton lists I’ve never heard of, nor am quite sure that they do, but I was astonished by the Tinkle, “a hygienic accessory for women that allows them to urinate standing up without having to use unhygienic toilet seats or crouch in the bush…” Who knew?

In these days economic and political uncertainty, a book telling us about world class local ingenuity does give one a warm glow.

featheringsFeatherings – True stories in search of birds, ed by Vernon RL Head (Jacana)

This is a delightful collection of writings about birds by birders, some passionate, some discursive. Some are barely about birds at all but more about what birds have done for individuals or communities.

Radio presenter John Maytham tells a fabulous story of, while on a birding trip in the Sabi Sands, watching a python seize and then swallow a baby impala, or two days in the Central Afican republic when their road was blocked by a massive fallen tree. Two days later the tree was removed, but in the interim Maytham had clocked up 18 birds he had never seen before.

stuffed up the world50 People Who Stuffed up the World, by Alexander Parker & Tim Richman, with cartoons by Zapiro (Mercury)

Here’s a sad commentary on our world: Alexander Parker previously wrote 50 People Who Stuffed Up South Africa, which sold more than 50 000 copies.Then he wrote 50 Flippen Brilliant South Africans,and that sold only 12 000 copies. Shame, man.

Now they have a new publication. I heard one of the authors on the radio saying it would of course be too easy just to list the obvious baddies, like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Verwoerd.

Their inventory of course includes them, but also comes up with names less well known, such as Gavrilo Princip – the guy whose gunshots triggered World War I; Robert Oppenheimer – father of the atomic bomb; and Leopold II of Belgium – exploiter of central Africa for personal gain at enormous human cost.

And then there are the less expected stuffer-uppers: Mark Zuckerberg, Kim Kardashian, Victoria Geoghegan – the face of Bell Pottinger; and even Justin Bieber.

The trouble with the Bieb, say the authors, is that unlike the Beatles who started with pleasant bubblegum music and went on to greatness, after 10 years of Justin we’re still waiting. He’s also the one who once said he believed had Anne Frank survived World War II, she would have been a Belieber. Oh dear.

your starsYour Stars – what to expect in 2018, by Rod Suskin (MF Books)

Rod Suskin is a local with more than 30 years of experience of horoscopes; he’s also a sangoma.

I don’t know how accurate he is, but he did once do my horoscope and told me I was obviously a journalist. (I was interviewing him at the time.) The summary for my star sign for the year is a bit under-whelming: “This year you have the opportunity to engage in some honest self-examination and find where you allowed things to unravel.”

He telld us there will be big shifts in the political landscape this year (we’d figured that); and he predicts a change in opposition leadership as well as a split in the ruling party. And the last part of the year sees the surfacing of new secrets and scandals. I don’t think I can bear it.

rapid fire Rapid Fire, by John Maytham (Tafelberg)

This book is based on the questions posed by listeners to Cape Talk radio presenter John Maytham and his afternoon drive-time team. Imbued with plenty of cynicism, Maytham never takes his listeners’ words for it, and so has researched the scores of questions in this book.

These are not merely difficult questions, they are also interesting. For instance, what did Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail solo around the world, and Paul Kruger – yes, they did meet – disagree about? Yes, you got it – Kruger told Slocum there is no way he could be sailing around the world, only on it, because the world was flat.

Or how about this: what is the Jesus nut? It’s apparently that part of a helicopter’s rotor assembly without which the chopper does not fly. If it fails, all one can do is pray. The term is thought to have originated in the Vietnam war. Maytham says in passing: “I love the fact that the Wikipedia entry notes that ‘Jesus nut’ is not be confused with ‘Jesus freak’.”

bonkBonk – the curious coupling of sex and science, by Mary Roach (Canongate)

This is not a new book – in fact it was published 10 years ago – but I bought it in a mainstream bookshop this year. It will have your eyes out on stalks. The cover alone would have had the book banned in the bad old days.

It is astonishing, totally explicit and very funny. Tape measures are often needed.

It is a study of sexual physiology – what happens, why, and how it can be done better. Roach visits laboratories, brothels, sex toy labs and even pig farms. Apparently when farmers “milk” boars for semen, the pigs perform better with a bit of foreplay.

Mary Roach has also written Stiff – the curious lives of human cadavers, and Gulp: adventures on the alimentary canal – both riveting and hilarious reads.

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