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Quirky books for Christmas

After the Christmas ‘funny’ books, here’s an even larger pile of Christmas ‘quirky’ books.

9 December 2009

12:00 AM

9 December 2009

12:00 AM

After the Christmas ‘funny’ books, here’s an even larger pile of Christmas ‘quirky’ books.

After the Christmas ‘funny’ books, here’s an even larger pile of Christmas ‘quirky’ books. In practice, quirky books aren’t just for Christmas, they’re for the whole year round. But try telling a publisher that. Thousands of them have been pouring out this autumn, and in the pre-Christmas jungle good books will surely be lost, consumed by larger and nastier predators in a single contemptuous gulp.

In Ghoul Britannia (Short Books, £12.99), Andrew Martin muses on ‘a nation primed for ghostliness’. Our weather is just right, our landscape could have been designed for the purpose, and we have loads of rickety old houses that creak ominously in the middle of the night, even when they are not being burgled. I wouldn’t be surprised if more of us believe in ghosts than believe in God. Martin likes to sit with his friends in darkened Victorian boozers swapping ghost stories, and his great personal disappointment (verging on tragedy) is that he has never seen a ghost himself. Instead he holes up in the British Library and devours every known book on the subject, factual or fictional.


This slender volume, artfully structured and a pleasure to read, almost feels like an accidental by-product of this research. Martin is probably best known for his wonderfully atmospheric novels about Jim Stringer, railway detective, but his non- fiction has a wry, deadpan flavour of its own. He ends the book with a brand new ghost story that avoids all the clichés he has spent the previous 200 pages quietly debunking.

Complete and Utter Zebu by Simon Rose and Steve Caplin (Old Street Publishing, £8.99) is one of several books this year (and every year) to be fuelled by rage, frustration and disappointment. A zebu is a large and ungainly mammal whose unfeasibly chewy meat is often passed off as ‘steak’ in pubs and restaurants. The utter shamelessness of this deception has inspired Rose and Caplin to seek out other examples of lies and bullshit in the world today, of which there are so many I feel confident they could make this an annual volume.

Of course this is not unfamiliar territory. If you coralled all the writers who make a decent living from ranting about the iniquities of modern life into Wembley Stadium, and locked the door behind them . . . well, I’m not sure I’d mind terribly. What distinguishes Rose and Caplin from the pack is their extreme reasonableness. They come from opposing political viewpoints, so for anything to get into their book, it has to have appalled them both. Instead of ranting, they offer thorough research, some good, clear writing and a likeable tone of mild melancholy, as though this is really all we can hope to expect. By comparison, most of this year’s grumpy-old-men books are complete and utter zebu.

Justin Pollard is a writer for QI — one of their famous ‘elves’ — and a historical consultant in film and television who tells them they’re doing it all wrong and, I imagine, is paid well to be ignored. Secret Britain: The Hidden Bits of Our History (John Murray, £12.99) is his third book of historical curiosities, and I think his best. There is no overriding narrative, for Pollard’s preferred format is the gobbet — 600-800-word stories of dodgy Britons past, amusingly and energetically told. Some are familiar: the Cottingley fairies are here, as are Piltdown Man and the Tichborne Claimant. But most were new to me, and lavatories everywhere will gain from the addition of this splendid volume. Pollard has the QI knack of knowing what’s funny and interesting, while avoiding the slight strain of smugness that the programme’s makers have never quite managed to eradicate, possibly because they have never tried.

Also destined for educated loos is Sandi Toksvig’s The Chain of Curiosity (Sphere, £9.99), a compilation of her consistently excellent columns for the Sunday Telegraph. The cover blurb goes on about how funny and witty and droll she is, and even goes so far as to use the word ‘whimsical’, which alone might deter thousands of potential purchasers. But humour isn’t the defining quality of the Toksvig column, as much as her fascination with historical trivia and anecdote. Out of these disparate blobs of random information she weaves weekly pieces of great flow and charm, which never fail to set off at least one tiny firework of wonder in your brain. I have even tried it after a heavy lunch, and it still works.

If you want your brain pushed slightly further, ideally before that heavy lunch, you might prefer to sample Professor Stewart’s Hoard of Mathematical Treasures (Profile, £12.99). Ian Stewart is an emeritus professor at the University of Warwick and possibly mathematics’ most energetic evangelist, publishing a book nearly as often as David Crystal writes one about language or linguistics. (Do these men never sleep?) This latest collection of mathematical oddities assumes little on the part of the reader other than a quickish mind and a certain intellectual curiosity, which obviously rules out most of the population. But it would make an ideal present for anyone addicted to sudoku-like puzzles and beginning to wonder what might lie beyond.


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