Book Review: A Curious Man

Book Review: A Curious Man by Neal Thompson

Disclaimer:  I received this volume free from the Blogging for Books program, on the premise that I would write a review.

This is a biography of Robert Ripley (nee LeRoy Robert Ripley), the cartoonist who created the Believe It or Not! feature.  I was fascinated by the paperback reprints of the cartoons back in my boyhood, but knew little of the story behind the creator.

A Curious Man

This volume covers Mr. Ripley’s life from barefoot poverty in Santa Rosa, California, to his early career as a sports cartoonist, through his discovery of a love for bizarre factoids and the creation of his famous comic strip to his worldwide fame.    He became a world traveler, a millionaire, star of radio and newsreels and knew many beautiful women, all for doing something he enjoyed immensely.

Of course, he also had his faults; Mr. Ripley was a heavy drinker, sexist, racist by our current standards (though progressive for his time), could not keep it in his pants, and had a tendency to fudge facts about his own life the way he didn’t the stories in his cartoons.  He also became a more difficult person towards the end of his life as his health failed and his drinking and overwork caught up with him.

The story of Ripley’s life is told in mostly chronological order,  with little “Believe It!” factoids about the people and places mentioned.  There’s also the story of various supporters of Ripley; most importantly, Norbert Pearlroth, Ripley’s main research person who found many of the factoids that appeared in the comic.  (He actually stayed with the strip longer than Ripley himself!)

There is a black and white photo section in the middle, but if you have a smartphone, you can download an app with audio and video clips from Mr. Ripley’s many public appearances.  For those of you with multimedia capability, this will make the book a much better value for money.  There are extensive end notes and an index as well.

This biography benefits from the very interesting person at its center, and I would recommend it to any Believe It or Not! fans.

Magazine Review: Thought Notebook June 2014

Magazine Review: Thought Notebook June 2014 edited by Kat Lahr

Disclaimer:  I received this magazine as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Thought Notebook

This is subtitled “Literary and Visual Art Journal”, which means that in addition to poetry, short fiction and essays, it has a lot of pictures.  The theme of this issue is “A Time of Renewal” and it groups the pieces by key words that relate to the theme, such as “Restoration” and “Awakening.”

Each piece is accompanied by a small blurb tangentially related to it.  They range from interesting to trite.  The art is serviceable, but none of the pieces really popped for me.  Of the written bits, I was most struck by two pieces by Skeeze Whitlow about his alcoholism and recovery from same; and a brief essay by Marcie Gainer discussing Andrei Tarkovsky’s last three films.  Also of interest was an interview with poet and vocalist Shanara.

There’s a strong emphasis on the importance of creativity, thought and spirituality in the overall choice of pieces.  I find it somewhat more accessible than other journals I’ve read.

I’m going to plug a couple of the journal’s projects that might be of interest to readers–Project Teen Voice www.thoughtcollection.org/teenproject and Healthcare Reform Research Project www.thoughtcollection.org/hcr

 

 

Magazine Review: Conjunctions: 51 The Death Issue

Magazine Review:  Conjunctions: 51 The Death Issue edited by David Shields and Bradford Morrow

Conjunctions is a literary journal published twice a year by Bard College.  Each issue contains essays, short fiction, poetry and less classifiable writing on a given subject, with this issue being about death.  Literary journals tend to have a connotation of pretentiousness, and death is one of the primal subjects, so I approached this 2008 issue with a bit of trepidation.

Conjunctions 51

The issue starts strong with an essay entitled “The Sutra of Maggots and Blowflies” by Sallie Tisdale.  It’s a stomach-churning but very informative look at flies, Buddhism, and the Buddha nature of flies.  The ending piece is “Andalucia” by H.G. Carrillo, the story of a writer mourning his artist lover, who has died of AIDS.

In between, the most memorable pieces are Joyce Carol Oates’ “Dear Husband”, a chilling suicide note; and “St. Francis Preaches to the Birds” by David Ives, a not-quite-working comedic play about the saint’s encounter with vultures.  Several of the pieces caused me to shed a tear.  Sadly, as I cannot make head or tail of the appeal of modern poetry, I feel unable to comment on whether any of the poetry was good.   Two pieces are illustrated with photographs, the only visual art in the issue.

With forty pieces altogether, this is a thick volume that takes some grit to get through.  I understand that the Oates story is in one of her own anthologies, so if noir fiction is your thing, you might want to check that out.   The rest is a mixed bag; see if your library system has a copy of this or other issues so you can see if Conjunctions is something you want to subscribe to.

“I am merely departing”–Lucius Seneca.

TV Review: Public Defender

TV Review: Public Defender

“If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.”  The office of the Public Defender is a special government department that  specializes in handling the cases of indigent defendants.  The first such office was opened in Los Angeles in about 1914.

Public Defender

This series, which aired in 1954-55, was intended to raise awareness of the work of public defenders, who at the time were relatively few in number and were primarily used for cases where the death penalty was possible.   The stories were purportedly based on actual cases, but several of the episodes just say that all the characters are fictional.  Reed Hadley played Public Defender Bart Matthews, who narrated each episode, but was not always the focus character.  Each episode ends with a tribute to a real life public defender

I watched four episodes on DVD.

  • “Badge of Honor”  We open at the funeral of a police officer. Mr. Matthews recalls the decedent, a rookie cop who makes a mistake during an arrest, then tries to cover it up with a falsified arrest report.  His conscience bothers him, and he confesses to Mr. Matthews, who must find a way to see justice is done, but not cost the policeman his job.  At the end, we find out that the cop died a hero years later, having served with honor since that one mistake.
  • “Let Justice Be Done”  The focus this time is on a deputy public defender who must defend a cop-killer.  But not just any cop-killer, but the one who killed his best friend.  In real life, the attorney would be allowed/expected to recuse himself due to this conflict of interest.  But for the sake of the story, Mr. Matthews deliberately assigns him the case as some sort of lesson in justice.
  • “Eight Out of One Hundred”  A young Polish immigrant is accused of stealing jewelry from her mother’s employer.  Mr. Matthews’ investigation is hindered by the police department being sore at him for giving a speech in which he pointed out that his office gets acquittals for about eight percent of their clients.  This case is one of those eight, as the employer was hitting on the woman, and she refused him.  He was also engaged in wage theft, supposedly paying the mother a living wage, but using various fees and charges to claw back 70% of it.  To add insult to injury, he’s also fond of misquoting the Bible.
  • “Behind Bars”  It’s discovered that a woman in prison is there under an assumed name, which she used to avoid bringing trouble to her ex-husband and their daughter.  A witness claimed she’d murdered her landlady in a fit of alcoholic rage.  When the defender tracks down the ex, he reveals that the woman was not a violent drunk, but an extremely timid one.  It’s soon discovered that there were other important details that hadn’t come out at the trial, such as that the landlady was already dying, and the witness had a grudge, as he’d tried to force himself on the defendant.

The writing is decent, but too earnest for modern tastes; the scripts do backflips to avoid criticizing the police or the justice system.  I enjoyed “Eight Out of One Hundred” the best.  Be aware that 1950s attitudes are rife in this show, from the frequent smoking to the expected gender roles.

Comic Book Review: The Forgotten Man Graphic Edition

Comic Book Review: The Forgotten Man Graphic Edition by Amity Shlaes & Paul Rivoche

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an uncorrected proof, and some changes will occur in the final edition (due out around May 2014.)

The Forgotten Man

This is a “graphic novel” version of the revisionist history book by Amity Shlaes in which she argues that the New Deal policies tended to prolong the Great Depression.  For this version, the story is told through the narration of Wendell Willkie, an electric utility executive that ran against Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 election.

The black and white Rivoche art serves the subject well, although casting FDR’s face in shadow much of the time is an artistic choice that is perhaps a bit too obvious in its intentions.

The general notion is that government intervention in the economy was (and is) a bad thing, and that self-starting individuals such as the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous could have brought the country out of its slump much earlier.  It also tries to link several of the important figures in the Roosevelt Administration to Communism, a frequent bugaboo of neoconservatives.

That said, there were many missteps in the great experiment of the New Deal, and several of them get a mention here.  Some of them don’t come across quite as the author intended, I think, looking more like the result of bad individual decisions than bad government policy.

There are some really good bits in here, such as the running gag of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon not talking.

The back has a (possibly misleading) timeline and economic chart, followed by a listing of the cast of characters.  The potted biographies carefully cut off as of 1940, which means that you will need to do your own research on such figures as Ayn Rand to see where they actually ended up.

As noted in the disclaimer, this is an uncorrected proof, and some dialogue balloons have missing words or badly constructed sentences, making them make little sense,  which will presumably be fixed in the finished product.

Fans of the original book should find this one interesting, as well as history buffs who enjoy graphic novels.  Those of you who are not familiar with economics may want to brush up a bit to more fully understand the positions being argued here.  In honesty, I’m recommending this one more for the art than the writing.

Book Review: Strangers of Different Ink

Book Review: Strangers of Different Ink edited by Richard & Allen Okewole

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Strangers of Different Ink

This anthology of short stories appears to be primarily by authors in the Philadelphia area.  Other than that, there doesn’t seem to be a particular theme, and their genres vary widely.  The introduction by Tony Tokunbo Fernandez is a short modern poem.  I’m afraid I don’t get modern poetry.

  • “A Lot Can Happen in 26 Minutes” by Dennis Finocchiaro.  A college student counts smiles on a train.  The count is zero, until–a sweet story.
  • “Zadie” by Eric McKinley.  A young man discovers the true love of his life, which is not the title character, or the girl he thought it might be.  A turning point in life.
  • “Capeless City” by Roman Columbo.  The city of Philadelphia has no superheroes, and they’d like to keep it that way.  Unfortunately for Super Powers Investigator Dashiell “Dash” Cain, he may not be able to deliver on that.  This is the story that intrigued me enough to request the book.
  • “Historical Fiction of the Marquis DeSade and Rose Keller” by Cathy T. Colborn.   I’m not sure of the historical nature of Rose Keller.  A feisty young woman of Irish descent is intrigued by the writing  and mystique of the infamous Marquis, and accepts his invitation to visit him.  There’s a difference between romantic fantasy and the reality of relationships with a cruel man, though.  No onscreen sex.
  • “Icky” by Bruce Franchi.   A high school boy whose father is career military witnesses the disintegration of his parents’ marriage and his mother’s death.  There’s a sudden twist at the end which makes this story seem more like the first chapter or two in a young adult fantasy book.  As a result, it’s not quite satisfying.
  • “The Run” by Peter Baroth.   A law school student is pressured into taking some acquaintances to buy drugs.  It doesn’t turn out quite as planned, but is the outcome worse or better?
  • “The Death of St. Clare” by Jordan Blum.  This is an Uncle Tom’s Cabin fanfic, covering an incident that happened off-stage in the original book.  Augustine St. Clare was a relatively “good” slave-owner who had resolved to free Tom, but is killed in a tavern brawl, which leads to Tom being sold to Simon Legree.  It’s an interesting study of St. Clare’s character, and how slavery warped people’s thinking.   Period racism makes this an uncomfortable read.
  • “The Generous Bastard” by Solomon Babber.  A contrast of two couples, one long-married, the other just starting out in their relationship.  Based on a true story.
  • “The Barber of Suez” by K. Fred Mills Jr.  A mixed-race young man goes for his first barber visit (his father had cut his hair before that) and discovers a different part of his heritage.
  • “Choc” by Yohan Simpson.  A story based on true events.  Two children meet in Mumbai, with tragic consequences for both.  Trigger warnings for rape, physical and verbal abuse.  A grim ending for the book.

The stories that worked best for me were “Capeless City”, “The Death of St. Clare” and “Choc.”   “Icky” is probably the weakest story because it is so obviously meant as a first chapter, rather than a story in itself.  There’s a few typos, particularly in “Choc.”

This collection is probably of most interest to Philadelphia area readers, but when was the last time you read Uncle Tom’s Cabin fanfic?

Book Review: Kiss Your Elbow

Book Review: Kiss Your Elbow by Alan Handley

Before Harlequin became the go-to publisher for romance paperbacks, it published other genres as well, primarily trashy crime novels with steamy bits.  As part of the publisher’s 60th anniversary, it’s reprinting some of these early works, including the one being reviewed here.

Kiss Your Elbow

Tim Briscoe is an actor in late 1940s New York City, trying to break into a big-time role so he can finally make it on Broadway or even into the movies.  (Some of the characters speculate that the new television  world will be a good source of income once it’s got the bugs worked out.)   But he’s not having a lot of luck.  And by the end of the first chapter,  his luck gets worse when he finds his agent dead, with a paperwork spindle through her heart.

The police call it an accident, but Tim removed a vital piece of evidence from the scene, and when a second lethal “accident” occurs, he realizes he’d better find out the truth before he takes a permanent role as a corpse!

Mr. Handley was himself a stage actor and director before moving into television, so his picture of the theatrical world seems at least superficially accurate.  Everyone drinks like a fish (except the alcoholic, who drinks more) and most of them smoke like chimneys as well.  There’s backbiting and backstage politics, and too many actors for too few parts.

I should have seen the ending coming, but was distracted for several chapters by one of the characters having too slick of an alibi at one point.  And I’m not even sure the author planned it that way.  Oh, and despite this being before Harlequin was big on romance, there’s a romantic subplot as well.

Warning:  There are some ugly Forties attitudes at work, which I can’t describe in any detail due to them tying directly to spoilers.  I’m not even going to put them in the tags for safety.  Just be warned that many readers will find certain things distasteful.

Recommended to old-fashioned trashy paperback fans, Harlequin readers, and those who love stories with greasepaint.

Book Review: White Fang

Book Review: White Fang by Jack London

Like many a lad, I read this classic adventure story when I was quite young (despite it most assuredly not being a children’s book.)  I have long planned to reread it when I had the opportunity, and was fortunate enough to get it for Christmas.

White Fang

For those who have forgotten the plot, or somehow never got to read the book, the title character, White Fang, is a wolf-dog crossbreed who is born in the wilds of the Yukon Territory.  He is captured by native humans and trained as a sled dog, then sold to a cruel white man who uses White Fang in cage fights.  Finally White Fang comes into the possession of a kind man who treats him with compassion and retires to California.

This book is based loosely on Mr. London’s own experiences as a sourdough in the Klondike gold rush, and is a mirror to his book Call of the Wild, which is about a dog from California that is shanghaied to the Klondike and eventually goes feral.  The story takes its own sweet time getting to White Fang.  The opening paragraphs begin with spruce trees and ice in the Wild, then introduce dogs, then the sled they are pulling, and only then the humans who own the sled.

These humans are fleeing a starving wolf pack, and they don’t all make it out alive.  We then follow the wolves for a while as their party dwindles.  Finally two are left, and they spawn a cub who is named White Fang a couple of chapters later.

The harsh realities of death are constantly brought up in the story–most of the animals and several of the humans we are introduced to die, some of them at the fangs of our protagonist himself.    There’s also a fair bit of musing on the “nature vs. nuture” question, though never put in those terms.   White Fang’s behavior is based on his inherited instincts, but heavily modified by his environment; thus when he is finally shown compassion, White Fang can learn to love.

This is contrasted in the final chapter with an escaped convict, Jim Hall, whose circumstances have turned him into a hardened killer.  (And in an instance of dramatic irony, has a genuine reason for his grudge against the judge who sentenced him to prison–he was innocent that time!)  Hall never got that moment of compassion, and has passed beyond human redemption.

As you might have gathered, there are many scenes of animal abuse in this book which may be too intense for young readers.  In addition, the story is a product of its time, and its portrayal of First Nations people is antiquated.  (While White Fang “instinctively” knows that the white men are superior to the Indians, it’s made clear that this superiority is confined to ability to project power.  The cruel Beauty Smith is a much worse dog owner than the harsh but practical Grey Beaver.)

There’s also some dubious canine behavior, some of which may be because Mr. London was genuinely mistaken, and other bits exaggerated to make the story more exciting.

Overall, this is really one of the great dog stories, and highly recommended to readers mature enough to handle the themes.  This story is in the public domain and you should be able to find it in an affordable edition (often paired with Call of the Wild) even new, or readily available at any used bookstore or library.

Comic Book Review: The Thrilling Adventure Hour

Comic Book Review: The Thrilling Adventure Hour by Ben Acker & Ben Blacker

The Thrilling Adventure Hour, it turns out, is a continuing theatrical performance and podcast in the style of old-time radio.  As such, it’s full of action, comedy and thrilling adventure.  This is their first illustrated tie-in graphic novel.

The Thrilling Adventure Hour

The contents range from straight-up science fiction (Tales of the USSA) through superhero action (Captain Laserbeam) to space western (Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars.)  My personal favorite was “Down in Moonshine Holler”, about a millionaire undercover as a hobo seeking his true love; in this chapter he and his fellow hobos arrive in Jacksonville during their annual lottery, but something seems off…..

The art is nice, featuring a variety of webcomics and small press comics artists.    Between the stories there are fake ads for the show’s sponsors, Workjuice Coffee and Patriot Brand Cigarettes.  The latter, and the feature “Beyond Belief” about perpetually drunk paranormal detectives, means that parents might not want to give this to small children.

This is rollicking good fun, and recommended to fans of anthology comics and old-time radio.

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