Not a lot of people know how to turn back a Syrian war elephant in full implacable charge. Nor is it common knowledge that Liechtensteinian dentures used to glow in the dark (and, more pertinently, why), that Japan recently handed over 20,000 Korean noses to the powers that be in Seoul, nor that the U.S. Air Force once proposed spending millions of taxpayer dollars learning how to spread bad breath. Yet there are some (well, me, mainly) who believe that such facts are eminently deserving of a more thorough airing.
Charged with this mission, I have spent the best part of three decades criss-crossing the globe on a quest to learn all that may be learnt (and quite a few more dubious bits and pieces besides). Along the way I've faced down rampant buffalo, run from knife-wielding brigands (twice) and contracted enough unpleasant tropical diseases to qualify as a walking medical almanac, but the result at last is A World of Curiosities [Plume, $16.00]. In an age when population, GDP and even national cheese production can all be found effortlessly online, A World of Curiosities takes a different approach by describing every country on Earth in terms of its quirks, oddities and foibles to produce a non-airbrushed portrait that aims to lay bare its soul, not its statistical summation or bank account.
So, if you're up for the challenge, read on to join the elite few capable of pausing a pugnacious pachyderm while thumbing your nose at Japanese nostril-nappers and maintaining oral hygiene in a mouth that doesn't come with its own nightlight. Perhaps you may even discover one or two snippets more.