A Curious Man



by Neal Thompson

published 2013

Subtitled The Strange & Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley, this book was an entertaining, informative, and fascinating read.

So quite a while back I got an email telling me about a new book reviewing program called Blogging for Books.  I am always excited to get free books in exchange for my opinion (since free books and expressing my opinions are two of my favorite things), so I jumped right on the bandwagon.  When Tom and I were in the Key West back in February of 2011, we visited a Believe It or Not museum that was great fun, so this book grabbed my attention.  I love reading biographies of random people.  I mean, everyone reads about George Washington, but Robert Ripley??  New and exciting.

Unfortunately, this book arrived the same week we got possession of our new house – actually, it has the privilege of being the very first book I received at this house.  But that meant that I was immediately swept up into the madness of turning this place into something livable, and that was definitely a time-consuming task.  I’m notoriously slow at reading nonfiction even in the best of times, and I’m embarrassed at how long it’s taken me to work my way through this read.

Don’t be fooled by my slow pace – actually, this book was well-written and entertaining.  Thompson does an excellent job pacing the story of Ripley’s life.  I’m always frustrated by biographers who jump all over a person’s timeline, but Thompson manages to stick to a fairly linear tale.  Ripley, of course, makes an intrinsically fascinating subject, with a life full of madcap adventures, unusual travels, and wild ideas.

I only had  a few cons about this book, and they had more to do with personal preference.  For one, there were no chapter titles.  For a biography, it’s nice to have some kind of indication as to what point in the person’s life we are going to be talking about, and I missed having some kind of signpost along the way.  My second thought is that while there was a little section of photographs in the center of the book, it felt as thought here could definitely have been some more illustrations/pictures, preferably some of Ripley’s cartoons that Thompson was describing.  I don’t know if there were copyright issues or something that prevented that from happening, but for a biography about a cartoonist, it was sadly lacking in cartoons.

But those are finicky points just to prove that I actually read and was engaged in this book.  Overall, it flowed very well.  I appreciated Thompson’s ability to introduce characters and then reintroduce them later with just the amount of reminder background.  This was especially helpful since I was reading this book over several weeks’ time.

Another thing I also appreciated was that while Thompson did not attempt to deny or gloss over Ripley’s rather loose morals as concerns women, he didn’t make that the cornerstone of the book, either.  I’ve noticed a tendency among modern biographies to read more like a gossip magazine, spending copious amounts of time trying to determine an individual’s true sexual preferences, and explaining in detail the various affairs in which said individual found himself entangled.  Thompson strikes the balance of keeping with the facts as they are important to telling Ripley’s life-story as a whole, which was nice.

Thompson also manages to have a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor that I think even Ripley would have appreciated.  I got a particular chuckle out of this line –

[Ripley’s claim that Lindbergh wasn’t the first to fly across the Atlantic] sounded absurd, even anti-American, as some angrily claimed.  It was as if someone recklessly asserted that George Washington wasn’t the first president, that New Jersey wasn’t really a state, that Pluto wasn’t a planet.

I was also much entertained to come across other familiar names –

The show would air in prime time on Sunday nights, with Ripley as the host, assisted by a sidekick/bandleader named Ozzie Nelson and Nelson’s soon-to-be wife, the singer Harriet Hilliard.

As someone who grew up watching Ozzy & Harriet reruns, I never knew that they made their start with Ripley!

Another familiar name popped up a few pages later –

When a young Minnesota cartoonist noticed his dog’s propensity to eat broken glass and sewing needles, his first thought was Ripley.  The boy drew a picture of his dog Spike and mailed it to New York.  In early 1937, Ripley published the sketch inside a Believe It or Not panel with a caption explaining that C.F. Schultz’s dog “eats pins, screws, and razor blades.”

Charles F. Schulz, whose ill-mannered dog became the cartoon legend Snoopy, was just fourteen.

(And that’s what I mean about how it would have been nice to have some more cartoons – this would be a fun one to see.  I will say that there is a page at the beginning of the book encouraging me to download an app and then scan the photo pages and be able to see more photos…  except when I  buy a print book, I want to read the print book, and like to have all the material, you know, in print.)

In fact, Ripley was one of those people who seemed to know everyone.  His career spanned a time period that saw great changes in the entertainment industry – he started with cartoons in newspapers, but throughout his life he published books, ran radio programs, and eventually even had television shows.

I’ve noticed that frequently, when I’m studying something, I keep noticing that something popping up everywhere.  A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I were out adventuring.  We stopped in a small town about 30 miles from home, New Straitsville.  We’d been through town several times before and always seen a sign for “Robinson’s Cave.”  This particular day we stopped and checked it out.  Considered by many as the birthplace of the mining unions in this country, the cave itself isn’t much to look at (in southeastern Ohio, “caves” are usually more like gashes in the sandstone; our family calls them “cavishes”), but there are several informative signs explaining the history and importance of the location.  During the chaotic throes of several mining strikes, angry miners set coal carts on fire and rolled them into a mine.  This fire, started in the 1880’s, is still burning today underground (believe it or not!).  Off and on throughout the last 130 years, the fire has come closer to the surface; in the 1970’s it got so hot that one could literally fry eggs on the state route that runs through New Straitsville.  While reading the signs, I was quite pleased and entertained to come across Ripley.



Tom and I were especially entertained by the rifle in the picture above…  really, that’s still the attitude one finds in New Straitsvillians today.

At any rate, A Curious Man was well-written and engaging, telling the story of Ripley’s life in a easy-to-read and interesting manner.  I definitely recommend it if you are interested in Ripley himself, or, like me, random biographies are intriguing people.

Many thanks to Random Reads for providing this book free of charge; the only way in which this impacted my review was to make me feel quite guilty that it’s taken me so long to finish reading and reviewing it!