Thursday, June 22, 2006

Book Review: Hippo Eats Dwarf, A Field Guide to Hoaxes and Other B.S., Alex Boese

The best part of any non-fiction book is the index. In a reference manual, such as a baby care guide, the value of an index is obvious - it quickly helps you navigate the contents of the book to help you find what you are looking for. In other kinds of non-fiction books, the index, much more than the table of contents, is a very good indicator of the sorts of goodies that are on offer within the pages of the book.

And in this aspect, Hippo Eats Dwarf does not disappoint. How could it, with index entries such as "male pregnancy", "animals, condoms for", "supermodel eggs for sale", "hysterical pregnancy", "chewing gum, breast enhancing", and "frequent liar miles"?

Now, if these entries suspiciously sound like hoaxes to you, you would be right. Alex Boese's Hippo Eats Dwarf is all about hoaxes and how to survive them "... in an insane world in which the line between truth and fiction has completely blurred."
To say that we live in a fake or hoaxy age, or that "we live in fictitious times" (as the director Michael Moore put it), doesn't do justice to the full-blown weirdness of the pervasive phoniness that surrounds us. Our world isn't just fake or phony. Any society that produces Michael Jackson's nose, breast-enlarging mobile-phone ring tones, and human-flavored tofu has gone well beyond that. Our world is hippo-eats-dwarf.
The title comes from a news clipping that has apparently made the rounds regularly over the past decade about a dwarf in a circus act who was swallowed by a yawning hippo as the dwarf flew off sideways from a trampoline. This hippo-eats-dwarf story (because it's "bizarre, almost certainly fake and masquerading as real") serves as a metaphor for the kind of hoaxes, urban legends, "and other forms of b.s. that lurk in the modern world."

The book and the hoaxes it describes are organized category-wise into sixteen chapters covering various topics including birth, photography, war, romance, advertising, news, politics, and business. Each chapter provides general descriptions of scams in its respective category that have pervaded popular culture, and contains specific real-life examples of such scams.

For example, in the first chapter entitled "Birth", there are descriptions of scams related to fake pregnancies, male pregnancies, phony clones, miracle births, and reborn dolls. There are also real-life stories of a high-school girl faking her pregnancy for a school project and of a woman who gave birth to a frog (and whose story the BBC duly published on its website, complete with "a picture of a surprised-looking frog"!).

Each chapter is interspered with extremely handy "Reality Rules", just in case you are taken in by all the hoaxes. Rules such as "Just because a woman looks pregnant, doesn't mean she is", "Women give birth to children. Men don't. This rule is subject to future revision", "Just because someone bids doesn't mean they intend to pay", "Should a suitably dramatic picture of an event not exist, one will be created", "The world as it appears on the nightly news should not be confused with the world as it is in reality" and the disarmingly simple "Real food rots" all serve to ensure that you don't lose your sense of direction as you are reading the book.

Also working to preserve your sense of reality are the equally handy "Reality Checks" to "test your ability to distinguish the authentic from the bogus". Have researchers genetically engineered fruit trees that can grow meat? Can men really produce milk from their breasts by stimulating their nipples? Have surgeons in Holland really implanted small pieces of jewellery into people's eyeballs? These are fun to read, decide whether they are real or not and then go on to read the accompanying explanatory paragraphs to see how skewed your sense of reality is.

For anyone who is a news junkie or an avid internet surfer, many of the hoaxes explored in this book will seem familiar, whether or not it was appropriately recognized as a hoax at the time of reading it in the original source (the "Nigerian Bank Scam", anyone?). The sparks of recognition, however, will almost always be accompanied by a jaw drop or a shake of the head as you read the explanations behind those stories.

One such story is the famous surprise Thanksgiving visit that Bush paid to the American troops in Iraq in 2003. Newspapers splashed front-page photographs of a grinning President Bush carrying a plate laden with a juicy turkey with all the trimmings. Well, whaddya know? According to Hippo Eats Dwarf,
... the turkey wasn't real. It was a plastic prop known in the food service industry as a "trophy turkey." The food the soldiers actually got was served from cafeteria-style steam trays.
Another such story is that of the voice-over translation of Saddam Hussein's responses to Dan Rather's questions in the days preceding the start of the second Iraq war.
... although the translation was perfectly accurate, the voice-over's thick Arabic accent was not. The voice didn't belong to an Arabic speaker at all, but to Steve Winfield, an American actor who specializes in faking accents.... Apparently the network thought U.S. audiences would get confused if Hussein (as well as the person speaking his words) didn't sound foreign enough.
That certainly deserves a shake of the head.

Hippo Eats Dwarf is a well-researched book, written in a simple, easy to read style with a sense of humor and obvious love for the subject. It is the perfect companion on a long plane or train ride. Flip open any page in the book and you are sure to stumble upon something that tickles your brain or your funny bone. It is not the kind of book, however, that you would read at one sitting from end to end. It is the kind you savor over a long period, reading bits at a time, spreading the fun.


Sunil said...

very interesting.........i need to find it now in the library.

Sin said...

Sounds interesting. Will try to get hold of it soon.

Congratulations on the new baby! A boy and a girl! Is your li'l world complete now? :)

Sujatha Bagal said...

Sunil, if you do, let me know what you think.

TF, thanks! and yes, by God's grace, it is. :) And let me know what you think of the book as well.