A Curious Man: A Difficult Read

This is a book review on a manuscript provided to me by the Web site called “Blogging for Books.” They provide free book copies to those who will write an honest review.

A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe it or Not” Ripley by Neal Thompson.

I chose “A Curious Man” from the repetoire of books on Blogging for Books, not merely on a whim or the book description this time. Rather, a biography on Ripley appealed to me because of some childhood memories associated with the Believe it or Not tagline.

When I was growing up, almost every summer I would visit my grandmother in St. Augustine, Florida. St. Augustine is a quaint and wonderful touristy town that claims the title of “Oldest city in the US.” As such, it features attractions like the oldest schoolhouse, Fountain of Youth, and several historic stone forts. History is fun stuff and all, but as a kid, I was most interested in the Ripley’s “Believe it or Not” Museum in downtown St. Augustine.

Every year, we’d beg our parents to let us go to the antiquified mansion surrounded by a stone wall, hung with iron chains and spikey mace balls. And (almost) every other summer our parents would give in and sacrifice a day of beachgoing or seafood scarfing to walk their weirdo children through a musty museum of oddities of shrunken heads and deformed animal oddities like a cat with nine tails or a bull with two heads or whatever madness it was that was on display.

And so Ripley’s museum is a treasured part of my strange little upbringing. Even now, as I write this, I am on vacation in St. Augustine, with one of Ripley’s legacy of museum locations only a few miles away. Thus, I thought it appropriate to bring his biography by Neal Thompson with me on this vacation. I thought, reading this will allow me to uncover the story behind this man who traveled all corners of the world, bringing all things wierd, all facts obscure, all trinkets strange back to the freaks of America who would value them. Like me.

Perhaps author Thomnpson and I had similar aims. Sharing the story of Ripley should be a fascinating endeavor. LeRoy R. Ripley, who would later adopt his middle name, did so much, saw so much, knew so much, and was a talented artist that compiled all his trivia into daily cartoons, surprisingly well drawn, that ran in newspapers all across the country.

Ripley came from exceedingly humble beginnings, was orphaned fairly young in his life, fired from his first string of newspaper artist jobs, and had to show a determination (and often a callousness for others who would have him support their ambitions) to make himself into the household name we all know. This is all fascinating stuff that intrigues a reader to push through the life story of an individual. Yet, even so, no matter how dilligent a reader, there comes a point where the fight for the facts will be surrendered if the trivia and minutia make the read too much of a slog.

Unfortunately, this is what A Curious Man turned into for me. I rarely to ever get so fed up with a book that I abandon it, but this book tested that will time and time again. By page 70, I was begging for the author to get to the point. Much like this review has rambled to get to the point that this is a read that will be difficult to hold interest with.

I kept getting the lingering suspicion that the author didn’t have much of a story to tell on Ripley, and therefore would thoroughly beat every detail of Ripley to insure the book reached a length of 400 pages. The story seems like it could easily (EASILY) be told in 200 pages or less. After one particularly harrowing description of Ripley’s attempts at playing minor-league ball and his fondness for the sport of handball, I had to set the book down and watch a program on the world’s cutest cat videos. It just seemed an effort more worthy of my time.

Chapter 4 and 5 were a particularly long slog, and many times I found myself asking myself, why am I dedicating so much effort and pain to get through this story? Perhaps by this time I was just frustrated with the constant alluding to Ripley’s shortcomings. Every single chapter, every 10 pages at least, there was a reference to Ripley’s buckteeth or his tendency to stammer. Kudos for the synonyms used to describe these though. I got “terrible teeth,” “buck-toothed,” “crooked teeth,” “deformed teeth,” and even “fanged” appearance in one particularly eye-rolling effort. At this point, I wanted to stop everyone I met on the street, grab them by the shoulders, shake them, and say, “Believe it or not, Robert Ripley had some pretty bad teeth!” Cut out the references to Ripley not being a handsome, outgoing, or particularly kind man and your book-length is considerably shorter.

Not to say A Curious Man is not interesting. Once the author gets to the point of what he’s trying to say, there’s some really fascinating facts about Ripley. It’s an interesting portrait of a exciting, yet short, life of a determined man. Howeer, at the end, it felt like a lot of work for what I could have gotten from a fully flushed out Wikipedia article.

What was great was the 10ish page insert in the book that provided lots of pictures, and brief descriptions. I think I got more enjoyment out of these pages, that could also be scanned with a smart phone for additional material, than I did from anything else.

If you are a persistant reader, and enjoy the trivia of every mundane factoid, perhaps you’ll get more out of it than I did. The book is thoroughly well-researched and will be a nice addition to a history buff’s library.
Believe it or not it may even pass for a beach read. That’s certainly where this girl is headed next.

-Anna R. Kotopple


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