Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Bizarre World: A Collection of the World's Creepiest, Strangest, and Sometimes Most Hilarious Traditions - E. Reid Ross

Since it's the day before Halloween (you know, the one day a year we in the States actually encourage our children to dress like hooligans, run around after dark, and take candy from strangers), I find it only fitting that I post a review of Bizarre World: A Collection of the World's Creepiest, Strangest, and Sometimes Most Hilarious Traditions.  

but...first things first: This book was given to me for free in an exchange for an honest review.

Summary:  Your world just got WEIRDER!

What's more strange? Attending a Finnish business meeting clad only in a skimpy towel, or wearing a mitt filled with ferocious bullet ants in the Amazon?

What's more confusing, Ethiopia's thirteenth month, or their cow-jumping ritual?

How does Roadkill Cook-Off-winning Predator Prey Chili from West Virginia taste compared to tribal Papua New Guinea brains?

Would you rather use a spiky leaf lance at the Fight Club-esque Usaba Sambah Festival in Bali, or sharpen your teeth with chisels to attract the opposite sex in Indonesia?

In E. Reid Ross's Bizarre World, you'll discover all kinds of creepy, hilarious,chilling, and downright bizarre world practices that will give you a new understanding of how quirky our plan can be.  And maybe you'll be convinced to buy a plane ticket and participate in Belgium's Krakelingen Festival (read: live and whole fish slurping).  (Image from SimonandSchuster.com - Summary from back of book)

My Review:  Bizarre World is quite the trip.  I agreed to review it because it reminded me of another book I reviewed (and loved) back in February -- The Atlas Obscura Explorer's Guide for the World's Most Adventurous Kid.  Where Atlas focuses more on geological and architectural marvels in a kid-friendly way, Bizarre World focuses more on world cultural practices, beliefs, and traditions in a decidedly more grown-up fashion.  I loved reading about all the different traditions practiced around the world and was thoroughly aghast, amused, and downright mind-boggled at some of the stuff that people get up to (and the reasons they get up to it).  I especially appreciated any sections that described special etiquette or behavior that should be observed in other countries as it's always good to know how not to piss off the locals when traveling.  Each section is only a few pages in length, so it's hardly a deep anthropological dive, but it took me a lot longer than it should have to finish the book because I was often so intrigued by certain facts (Ethiopia has an extra month, people!) or specific traditions (like 'land diving' in Vanuatu, Nigerian wife-stealing, Austrian finger wrestling, etc.) that I kept putting it down google stuff or watch related Youtube videos.  It was slow going, but fascinating!

Bizarre World is divided into eight sections that cover Health & Childbirth, Rites of Passage, Marriage & Courtship, Work, Entertainment, Food, Nature, and Death.  These sections have various subsections that address a specific group of people or tradition.  These subsections are small enough that you can read as much or as little as you want without worrying about getting lost.  I think it would make a fantastic book to keep on your nightstand for a little light reading before bed or, may the author & publisher forgive me, in your bathroom for, you know, whenever you have some extra time on your hands.  You just might want to have your phone too, so you can look up Youtube videos of the things you read about.

Now, bear with me as I'm going to get the teeniest bit weird about format and I have to explain myself. Thrown into the subsections are a few visually distinct text boxes of information at least loosely related to that tradition but not part of the main text.  While relevant and often entertaining, those boxes drove me nuts.  Aesthetically, I get it.  The boxes broke up the main text and made the book more visually stimulating.  However, on each page I had to choose to A) continue reading the main text through to the end of the section and then flip back through the pages to read the extras OR B) stop reading the main text and read each box as it came up on the page.  I tried both of these options and didn't like either of them, as felt like they each interrupted the 'flow' of the book.  It's entirely possible that this little issue will only bother a small portion of the population (me), but I still wanted to mention it.

In Bizarre World, the author often approached and described the different cultural traditions with his own blend of humor, hyperbole, and cultural conjecture thrown in.  Some of his commentary was downright hilarious, but sometimes it landed a little closer to disrespectful.  Humorous quips about ferret legging (the English tradition of shoving live ferrets down ones pants and seeing how long a man's sensitive parts can handle it) were a lot easier to laugh at than, say, the lighthearted mockery of the religious beliefs/practices of an indigenous people.  While I adored learning more about all the world has to offer, I also wouldn't have minded if he had dialed back the wisecracks a smidgen.  It bothered me that someone could read this book and see their own beloved tradition somehow diminished or handled so lightly.  After all, one person's bizarre is another person's perfectly normal, right?

Ultimately, how you feel about this book will almost entirely depend on your sense of humor, cultural perspective, and sociological sensitivity.  Serious anthropologists might want to steer clear lest they become apoplectic, but those interested in an entertaining, tongue-in-cheek peek at the world's most bizarre traditions need look no further.

My Rating:  3.5 Stars.

For the sensitive reader:  A few instances of profanity, some crude and/or crass comments, discussion of various cultural practices involving genitals, and treatments of animals that might make animal lovers cringe.  Could potentially be construed as culturally insensitive.    

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