Looking for gift books that are quirky and clever, but won't break the bank? This holiday season, table the coffee-table tomes and ponder the powers of mock and droll. From curious anecdotes to far-out-and-funky facts, these four irreverent reads offer plenty of yuk for your buck. The ideal book for the burned-out academic, The Ig Nobel Prizes: The Annals of Improbable Research, documents a dizzying array of dubious accomplishments. From research probing the blissful state of ignorance to a study proving toast does indeed fall more often with the buttered side down, author Marc Abrahams offers amusing anecdotes to make readers cackle and chortle, and perhaps even scratch their heads and think. Learn how Professor Andre Geim of the Netherlands and Sir Michael Berry of Bristol University in England employed magnets to levitate a frog, a reptilian rendering that earned them the Ig Nobel Physics Prize in 1997. Flare your nostrils over the awarding of the Ig Nobel Biology Prize to the inventor of airtight underwear complete with a replaceable charcoal filter to remove bad-smelling gases before they escape. (One hopes the demonstration for that one was at least ahem brief.) As editor and cofounder of the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research, Abrahams is clearly up to this brain-straining task. A resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and an applied mathematics graduate from Harvard, he is father and master of ceremonies of the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, the university's annual honoring of the dishonorable.
You know that saying, "You had to be there?" Now you can be there without all the hassles. In What It Feels Like (Three Rivers, $12.95, 144 pages, ISBN 0609809768), the editors of Esquire have gathered gripping accounts from citizens who've swallowed swords, been attacked by swarms of killer bees, or walked on the moon. By turns "grizzly" ("What It Feels Like to Be Attacked by a Bear"), devilish ("What It Feels Like to Undergo an Exorcism"), and debauched ("What It Feels Like to Participate in an Orgy"), this slim volume of the vicarious renders the heights and depths of human experience, bringing readers up close and personal with a plethora of precarious states. Ever wonder how to detect counterfeit bills, make snowshoes from tree branches and strings, or put together a radio from scratch? Tap into those transformative powers with Cy Tymony's Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things (Andrews McMeel, $10.95, 176 pages, ISBN 0740738593). Author of three books and a regular on ABC's AM Chicago, Tymony has been creating high and low-tech inventions all his life. A cross between MacGyver and the professor from Gilligan's Island, he's penned a compelling collection of clues for getting out of a jam or just passing time on a dull winter day. From changing milk into plastic to constructing a compass without a magnet, this celebration of fascinating gadgets and gizmos is the perfect marriage of techno-geek and tongue-in-cheek. Everyone (well, almost everyone) knows that the chance of getting struck by lightning is 576,000 to 1, but what are the odds of achieving sainthood or dating a supermodel? From the likelihood of winning the lottery to achieving matrimonial bliss with a princess or prince, ponder the finer points of fate with Life: The Odds and How to Improve Them (Gotham, $20, 256 pages, ISBN 1592400337). In this compulsively readable gathering of fascinating stats, figures and facts, anything's fair game: the glorious (Being Awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor), the gratuitous (Striking It Rich on Antiques Roadshow), and the fortuitous (Avoiding an IRS Audit). Harvard Law School graduate and finance expert Gregory Baer indulges his frivolous side in this breakdown of bona fide chances, from getting away with murder (about 2 to 1 odds) to garnering a Rhodes Scholarship (37,500 to 1).