67 of 73 people found the following review helpful
on June 11, 2007
I really enjoy trivia and I really enjoy history so it was nice to see them combined in a really funny collection. This is a collection of entertaining short, historical tales flavored with pieces of trivia and stupid acts through the ages. Leland Gregory has also peppered these narratives with "punny" jokes that are sure to make you crack a smile.
53 of 59 people found the following review helpful
I usually read history books exclusively, but ran across this one and thought, "Why Not?" This was very funny as well as informative. You'll learn a lot and laugh a lot. All you fellow history buffs should lighten up and read this one.
35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
on December 21, 2010
The title doesn't lie. This is a book of stupid, easily disproven trivia, often with an absurd Amerocentric or Eurocentric slant. Among the highlights:
* It's impossible to fight in chariots since the reins require two hands. Luckily ancient cultures were smart enough to design -- get this -- chariots with room for passengers. Gregory claims Hollywood invented this "myth" -- apparently in his world, Homer was a script writer, considering the numerous examples of chariot battles in the Iliad.
* Lizzie Borden didn't kill her parents. The evidence for this claim -- why she was acquitted. Just like Klaus von Bulow and OJ Simpson.
* Horseshoe crabs "are survivors of a species that became extinct 175 million years ago." Leaving aside the question of how this is "history," how exactly can an extinct species have survivors? Maybe he means that they're descended from a species that is now extinct, but then so are humans.
* He gives a really garbled interpretation of what the Emancipation Proclamation accomplished, followed by that Lincoln quote that neo-Confederates like to throw around because, removed from context, it makes Lincoln sound like a political opportunist who didn't care about slavery.
* "On November 8, 1918, the United Press Association reported that Germany had signed a peace agreement, thereby bringing World War I to an end.... But the story was wrong. It all started when someone, now believed to be a German secret agent, called the French and American intelligence offices to report that Germany had signed an armistice.... The war did't officilally end until June 28, 1919, with the signing of the Treaty of Versaille[sic]." Technically correct, but otherwise wrong. Fighting on the Western Front ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918 -- this is the event commemorated in America as Veterans Day, and known in the rest of the world as, yes, Armistice Day. The news report was three days premature, not seven months. And the treaty of Versailles didn't end the war -- it set the terms of peace between Germany and the Anglo-French alliance. There were many more powers involved with the war, and as many treaties ending the conflicts between each country.
* An account of the 1657 fire in Edo (which Gregory anachronistically calls Tokyo) based upon legend instead of fact.
* "August 8, 1945, two days after the US Army Air Force dropped the nuclear bomb Little Boy on Hiroshima and one day after Fat Boy [sic] devastated Nagasaki, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. By doing so, the Soviets were able to partake of the spoils of the Pacific war without actually having to fight in it." The second bomb was Fat MAN, and it was dropped on August 9, the day AFTER the Soviets declared war. But far more importantly, the Soviets DID fight against Japan in the week between their declaration of war and Japan's surrender -- and in fact, many historians argue that their entry into the conflict was as important to Japan's capitulation as the nuclear strikes.
* He gives a silly explanation of the phrase "sow wild oats," placing its origins in the Middle Ages, when in fact it dates back to antiquity.
* A story about a newspaper that accidentally included a picture of John Wayne Gacy in an article about National Clown Week. A quick google turns up lots of references to the story but no original source -- a classic hallmark of an urban legend.
* He gives a ludicrous account of the Emperor Claudius' death. Too bad no one knows what happened to Claudius -- most historians agree he was murdered, but how, or even where, is a matter of conjecture. Gregory's account is based upon just one of the contradictory versions found among ancient sources.
* "On April 24, 1898, Spain declared war on the United States.... The United States delared war the very next day but, not wanting to be outdone, had the date of the declaration of war read April 21 instead of April 25." April 21 was the day the US declared a blockade against Cuba; Congress backdated the DoWto give post hoc legitimacy to what had been an act of war.
* He repeats the story of Davd Rice Atchison who was allegedly President for one day. The tale is based upon the fact that in 1849 inauguration day fell on Sunday and Zachary Taylor decided to delay his oath for one day. Okay, if Taylor didn't become President on March 4, 1849 because he didn't take the oath, how did Atchison become President if he didn't take the oath either? A careful reading of the Constitution will show that Taylor did in become President on March 4, but couldn't exercise his powers until he took the oath the next day.
* Several examples of battles that didn't take place at the site they're named after. Okay, so what? Land battles are usually named for the strategic objective (Stalingrad) or a notable landmark in the vicinity (Bull Run).
* Several stories of nuclear bombs being involved in crashes and miraculously not detonating. Nukes are finicky devices -- if they don't go off in a very particular way, there will be no nuclear reaction.
* He claims the term "flea market" comes from the Dutch term for valley market and has nothing to do with fleas. No, it's a direct translation of a French term meaning, "flea market."
* He says sauerkraut was renamed "liberty cabbage" in World War II. Close -- that happened in WWI.
* A downright racist story about the Emperor Menelik II ordering electric chairs be installed in Ethiopia without realizing they needed electricity. Ho, ho, ho, those stupid darkies and their savage ignorance. Gregory must imagine Menelik as something out of a Tarzan movie -- a guy in a loincloth and necklace of bones presiding over primitives from his grass hut. A little googling shows how stupidly offensive this story is.
* He repeats the legend of the Great Military Leader who grew tired of his soldiers wiping snot on their coat sleeves and ordered buttons sewn on to stop them. The story is normally attributed (without source) to Frederick the Great, but Gregory pins it to Napoleon -- during his campaign against Russia. Because it's not like the quartermasters had anything better to do than sew superfluous buttons on hundreds of thousands of uniforms.
* "The confusion about Napoleon's size arose because after his autopsy, it was reported that he measurd five feet two. The problem is, he was measured based on the old French system of pied de roi ... which was shorter than the modern foot." Do the math. If Gregory's facts are correct (hah!), Napoleon would be shorter than 5'2 in modern units.(less)
110 of 132 people found the following review helpful
Reading this book is like reading a poorly-researched blog by someone who has a love for puns but doesn't actually have the ability to make a good pun. (For the sake of this review, we'll leave aside the argument of whether there actually is such a thing as a good pun.) The "tales of stupidity, strangeness, and mythconceptions" are each a paragraph long, set in a large font on a single small page -- or, if the author couldn't come up with two whole sentences for an entry, sometimes there's more than one to a page.
There are so many things that could have made this book better. One is simple organisation: the tales are in no order whatsoever, so factoids about US history are mixed in with corrections of commonly-held beliefs about Roman history. Organising the book into sections would have drastically improved the readability and enjoyability of the book. Another thing that could have drastically improved the book would be actually getting the facts right. The author makes several assertions that are incorrect. If you're going to try to correct the record, at least get it right. And finally, the humour in the book is lame. The entries are peppered with immensely bad puns. The stupidity stands on its own; the embellishments from the author just detract from it.
The idea isn't bad, but the execution is. Hopefully someone more able will come along and do a better job with this idea.
268 of 335 people found the following review helpful
Pretty entertaining, and I'm a sucker for historical misconceptions, but there are a few glaring problems with this book.
First, a couple of tales that he presents as "fact" are misleading. For example, an early tale in the book states that Lizzie Borden, famous axe murderer, was actually unanimously found innocent by the jury, implying that the famous rhyme about her is just a historical misconception. However, there is a big difference between a "not guilty" verdict and actual innocence. It is widely believed that her defense attorney was able to manipulate the sexist views held by jurors of the time (1893) to play into their view that there was no possible way this sweet young woman could have committed the crime. The judge also excluded her unsuccessful attempt to purchase cyanide shortly before the murders, and her entire original inquest testimony. At the time of her arrest, police noted that she was eerily calm and did not seem to exhibit any shock or sadness at the brutally axe-murdered bodies of her parents. In short, at best Borden's guilt is questionable, and it's certainly interesting that a jury found her innocent, but to present that verdict as a "look, she was actually innocent" tale is such an incomplete picture that it's dishonest.
Second, another of his supposed "facts" is in reality just a conservative rant about the Constitution disguised as fact. He states that there is no separation of church and state because that specific phrase does not appear anywhere in the Constitution, gives his own opinion on the policy justification for the establishment clause, then states that "no one, not even the courts, takes the time to read it." Yeah, okay. Clearly the members of the Supreme Court analyze and interpret the Constitution without even bothering to read what it is they are interpreting and Leland, a comedy writer, understands the Constitution better than they do. He's not a lawyer, he doesn't understand constitutional law, and he needs to knock it off with the backseat lawyering. The question of how far the language "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" should go is a thorny and controversial one, but no matter what your view, you can't just take your viewpoint (in his case, a strict constructionist one) and state it as fact. Aside from that, through the interpretation of the Supreme Court, the Constitution gives a whole lot of rights that are not explicitly stated, and in all likelihood were not contemplated by the founders. That whole "implied rights" thing, like the right to privacy, which came out of Griswold v. Connecticut and served as the basis for Lawrence v. Texas and Roe v. Wade. Whether you agree with them or not, under current US law, the Constitution does in fact provide us with these implied rights, even though the Constitution doesn't explicitly set them out.
Third, he doesn't cite authority. For anything. Considering his track record with the above tales, and the fact that he retold well-known urban legend 911 calls as actual 911 calls in some of his other books, I don't really trust all of his unsourced and unlikely stories as fact.
Despite all this, it's an entertaining book, and the majority of it may be true, hence the 2 stars rather than 1. I would just recommend taking the tales with a grain of salt unless you have the time to think about and verify them with your own research.
60 of 73 people found the following review helpful
on August 9, 2008
It's ironic that a book meant to show us the fallacies we carry around about history can have so many errors itself. I've picked up on several blurbs that either don't tell the whole story (yes, it's true that Romans never used chariots for warfare, but the Mesopotamians did, as did the Persians, the Hittites, and the Egyptians; Lizzie Bordon was found not guilty in the trial for the murder of her parents, but being found "not guilty" does not man "proven innocent"), blurbs that have facts that don't make any sense (if a royal foot is shorter than a US customary foot, then Napoleon would have been listed as being TALLER than 5'6 in royal foot terms, not shorter) and blurbs that are just plain wrong, with quotes to prove them (Bert and Ernie were NOT named after the characters in It's a Wonderful Life, and Jim Henson himself has been quoted saying it's just a coincidence).
This book is so smug about the historical facts people get wrong, and yet it's obvious he didn't do his research thoroughly. What a waste.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on December 1, 2010
I started reading this book because I too have a few pet peeves about misunderstood or just plain wrong notions of history. But I stopped cold at the Lincoln quotation about saving the union, indicating he didn't really care about freeing the slaves. This pops up over and over again, to what purpose I don't know. But whenever it is quoted, they leave out the concluding sentence: "I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free." In this case, would the author's point be blunted if he sprang for another couple dozen words? Probably. Did he actually read the letter to Greeley, or just pick up the excerpt from some Web myth-mail? The author immediately lost credibility with me.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on April 5, 2012
In a book dealing with "stupidity" and misconceptions through history, one would expect the author would have been careful to avoid making obvious errors and distortions. Unfortunately, after even a casual perusal any reasonably well-informed reader will begin to notice many such problems. A few examples:
* Cashews DO have shells.
* While the Romans did not use chariots in warfare, many other ancient military forces did (e.g. Egyptian, Persian, and the Gaul and Britons - who used them against the Romans!). Obviously, chariots were not "absolutely useless on the battlefield."
* The problem with "sticky" hand-grenades was NOT that they stuck to the hands of the soldiers.
* The claim that the origin of buttons on jacket sleeves was to keep soldiers from wiping their noses on their sleeves is an obvious urban legend. The buttons on jacket sleeves originally served a functional purpose.
There are many more examples, where the author clearly failed to properly research the story (as in his account of the "Alferd Packer Memorial Grill", where he gets almost all the facts wrong) or where his apparent desire to "debunk" common perceptions results in a distortion of the facts (as in his treatment of the Battle of Bunker Hill, where he (1) implies that Bunker Hill had nothing to do with the battle and (2) he writes that the Americans "screwed up" and fortified Breed's Hill instead of Bunker Hill (they fortified both) and (3) that the British "whipped the Americans" (in reality, the greatly outnumbered Americans inflicted more than twice as many casualties upon the British than they received and the battle, although formally a British victory, demonstrated that the American Continental Army, in its very first battle, was able to hold its own against the British forces).
The result of these obvious errors and distortions is that the reader cannot rely on the author's presentation of any of the items in the book, which, with a book of this sort, renders the entire book useless.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Leland Gregory has compiled a book-length list of historical oddities, common misconceptions, and myths that people treat with the force of scientific fact. What he hasn't done is make much meaning out of them, or even vet them to make sure they all fit in the same collection. This book should make for good cocktail party anecdotes, but in reading it straight through, I was more befuddled than enlightened.
The title let me think this book covered history's many moronic episodes, like Croesus crossing the river or McClellan's timidity facing the Confederates. Not so. It has more in common with debunkers like James Loewen and Richard Schenckman, showing how much of what we call "history" is pure fantasy. But rather than being organized into a solid book, these tidbits are laid out hither and yon like 52-card pickup.
That's not to say they're all bad. Many are sharp, and if they help dispel common myths, I'll be happy. For instance, too few Americans know that GM killed electric trolleys in the 1930s to fuel our growing romance with the car. And the common Hollywood image of the wagon trains, made of horse-drawn Conestogas in a line circling up at every Indian attack, has no basis in reality.
But Gregory also repeats the Internet legend of David Rice Atchison's one-day turn as U.S. President. This story, though widely circulated, is pure buncombe that didn't arise until Atchison was well in his grave. And if Gregory prints this myth as fact, how much else that he presents as "hidden truth" is also baloney? Sadly, I'm not enough of a historian to be able to say.
Plenty in this book isn't even history. While it's interesting that the titmouse is actually a bird, or that calculating dog years is harder than you've heard, that hardly seems historical. Even when it really is history, it's often small beer. Biffed headlines or April Fool's pranks that got out of hand may interest some, but as they add up, they threaten to overwhelm the rest of the book.
This book has its virtues. I have more ammunition to play "Did Ya Know" at parties. Maybe its short, nugget-like structure is good if you only want to browse a few bits at a time. Perhaps it makes a good gift for the amateur historian on your list. But it never coalesces into a whole book. It's cute and peppy, but beyond that, I'm not sure there's much to this book.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on September 29, 2007
This is a fun book. The entries are one page little-known facts and anecdotes from history. I found the entries to be from slightly interesting to Wow! Plus, there are several laughs thrown in along the way. The one page entries made this perfect bedtime reading for me.