Book report: Exhaustive biography of Robert Ripley

Robert Ripley, whose “Believe it or Not Feature” appears in comic strips across the nation, has been dead for 65 years, believe it or not.

I believe it having just read,“A Curious Man,” by Neal Thompson (Crown, $26), an exhaustive biography of the puzzling man who regaled readers and viewers with text and drawings of cats with six tails, a fellow named E.L. Blystone who wrote 2,871 alphabet letters on a grain of rice and the man who could swallow his own nose.

Leroy Robert Ripley was born in California in about 1890.

An awkward, stuttering bucktooth kid, he showed a talent for drawing and became an illustrator for magazines and newspapers when he got the idea of collecting bizarre facts into a weekly feature and syndicating them.

As P.T. Barnum proved, Americans love bizarre things, even if they’re made up. Ripley carried this further by authenticating everything he published.

When the dust cleared he owned a mansion, a private yacht, and millions of dollars.

He expanded beyond print media when he appeared on a radio show sponsored by the Hudson Terraplane motor car with Ozzie and Harriet and then expanded to his own radio show and then a television spot.

As almost an after thought chronicler Neal Thompson makes the case that certain reality shows on TV are successors to the “Believe it or Not” phenomenon.

This is an interesting book, but I don’t buy the conclusion because it assumes Ripley’s mid 20th century readers are as easy to please as today’s, folks who watch ridiculous programs like “Bizarre Foods.”

“Vacationland,” by Sarah Storich (University of Minnesota Press, $16.95). Here’s a book I can recommend without reservation.

When I received two novels by the same author, Storich, by the same publisher, I wondered what was up.

For some reason I had never heard of Storich, a Minnesotan, and usually publishers don’t drop two books on reviewers from one writer.

Turns out one of the books, “These Granite Islands” was originally published by Little, Brown in 2001  to the great acclaim I had apparently missed.

So I dug into her new book, “Vacationland.” Can this woman write? You bet, she’s as smooth as silk and slides wit into almost every sentence, as she limns the tenants of her novel, a diverse crew if ever there was one.

My favorite is Meg Machutova, an artist whose Uncle Vaclav migrated to northern Minnesota from Czechoslovakia and created a northern resort, where Meg worked as a child.

Meg is married to Jeremy, a nerdy scholar. They spend winters in Chicago and summers at the late Uncle Vaclav’s resort which has fallen into disrepair as has much of the region around it. The novel opens while Meg is doing housework and her dog brings a human hand, dripping blood.

No, this isn’t a grisly murder. Turns out that a lumberman got frisky with a rotary saw and lost the hand, which Meg preserves on a package of frozen lasagna until her old boyfriend, the local sheriff, comes to retrieve it and have it reattached to the lumberjack.

From there we meet many of the denizens of the north country, about which Stonich writes with great appreciation and affection for the community’s ethnic diversity and is hilarious when she arrives at the subject of food the migrants have brought with them from faraway.

She also knows how to set a scene. Here’s a description of young Meg helping out at the bar in Uncle Vaclav’s resort: “The bar was quiet, a place to catch up on week-old newspapers and months-old magazines.

“The girl made her rounds, wiping down the few tables and emptying the plaid beanbag ash trays after each use, which unnerved the smokers.

“She arranged matchbooks in fans and clipped the bags of chips and pretzels to the rack by color.  Schmidt’s Beer coasters were stacked  in careful spirals…..”

Editor’s note: Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critic Circle. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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