For sheer amusement and guaranteed shudders, no books are as simultaneously quirky, rollicking, entertaining and educational as the "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" series.
Typically, the hundreds of bizarre color photographs are gripping and gross, shocking and ridiculous above all, loads of fun. The accompanying text is surprisingly straightforward, topped by sensational headlines heavy with puns and alliteration.
Some context: New York Globe sports cartoonist Robert Ripley's collection of unusual feats and offbeat facts from the sporting world eventually turned into the much broader, multibillion-dollar "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" franchise. A syndicated cartoon strip (at one time appearing in 300 newspapers) was followed by books, a radio program, TV shows and museums.
As usual, the latest edition is deliciously bizarre. Turn randomly to any page in "Ripley's Believe It or Not!: Download the Weird" by compiler Geoff Tibballs (Ripley Publishing, $28.95, 256 pages) and you'll find something riveting, reported from around the world.
Let's see motorcycle helmets made to look like a watermelon, a tennis ball, a brain. Whole roasted pigs dressed in costumes at the Pig Parade in the Philippines. A 21-foot crocodile weighing in at 2,370 pounds. Multiple photos of a man eating a menu of insects and amphibians. Sculptures and jewelry made from hair, rice balls and discarded compact discs.
Then there's this stand-alone text block: "Angler John Goldfinch from Exmouth, England, fought to reel in what he thought was a huge fish pulling on his line only to find that it was a scuba diver."
For an up-close and personal look-see, the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum has been at 175 Jefferson St. on San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf for 45 years. While the shrunken torso has its charms, the cable car made from 270,836 matchsticks is much more practical (415-202-9850, www.ripleysf.com).
The meaning of Paterno
Here at Reading Central, we receive around 150 "advance reading copies" of books each week from publishing houses around the country, reaching out for possible reviews or inclusion in this column.
It's rare to find a letter to journalists from a publisher included in the promotional material that comes with each book, but that was the case a couple weeks ago, when we opened the biography of the late scandal-ridden Penn State football coach Joe Paterno.
"Paterno" is by Joe Posnanski, named America's best sportswriter for 2012 by the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame (Simon & Schuster, $28, 416 pages; now at bookstores).
The note from Simon & Schuster's executive vice president-publisher says in part: "There will be continuing debate about this book and Joe Paterno's legacy. Whatever your view this is an indelible portrait of a remarkable and complicated character, and it provokes serious questions about how we measure the meaning of a life."
New from New Yorker
The always fascinating and eclectic New Yorker magazine, founded in 1925, has a history of paying attention to all things literary. Its books coverage is some of the best to be found anywhere.
Keeping up with the Brave New Digital World, it recently launched "Page-Turner" on its website (www.newyorker.com/ books). The literary blog contains "criticism, contention and conversation about the most important books of the moment, as well as staff recommendations, updates from the publishing world, interviews with writers, our fiction podcast, cartoons, photography and more."
A quick look showed many items of interest, such as a brief biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the nine-title "Little House" series (60 million copies sold to date), recently reissued by the Library of America.
And: a revealing of the late Gore Vidal's detective novels; the history of pencil erasers; a posting on why writing is so hard; and a report on how the "flagship of China's state-run media empire," the People's Daily, covered the Olympics. Tune in.
For your reading list
Let's move some books your way:
"Vulture Peak" by John Burdett (Vintage, $14.95, 304 pages): The fifth entry in the "Royal Thai Detective" series once again features the fascinating Buddhist police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep. This time, he has carte blanche to travel the world to find the source of a human organ-trafficking ring operating in Thailand. Sonchi is so good at bending the rules.
"The Roots of the Olive Tree" by Courtney Miller Santo (William Morrow, $25.99, 320 pages): Five generations of firstborn daughters live together in Hill House, hidden in an olive grove in the Sacramento Valley. Thing is, the women are unusually long-lived. When a geneticist arrives to determine just why, long-hidden secrets rock everyone's world.
"The Time Keeper" by Mitch Albom (Hyperion, $24.99, 240 pages): The author of the mega-selling "Tuesdays With Morrie" is back with another inspirational tale, this time a fantasy in which Father Time aids a suicidal teen girl and an elderly man who wants to live forever.
"Hello, Goodbye, Hello" by Craig Brown (Simon & Schuster, $26.95, 384 pages): Imagine this: Mark Twain meets Helen Keller. Nancy Reagan meets Michael Jackson. Salvador Dali sketches Sigmund Freud. Allen Ginsburg buys a sandwich for Patti Smith. And, of course, Richard Nixon makes Elvis Presley a special agent for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. In all, we witness 101 meetings between the rich and famous, with strange and funny consequences.
"Sam Sixkiller" by Howard Kazanjian and Chris Enss (TwoDot, $14.95, 176 pages): Enss, of Grass Valley, specializes in books about the lore and legends of the Old West. This is her biography of the legendary Oklahoma marshal known as the "Cherokee frontier lawman." Coming in October: "The Bedside Book of Bad Girls," introducing the outlaw women of the 1800s (www.chrisenss.com).
Enss' two biographies of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans have been adapted into a musical to debut on Broadway next spring, starring multiple Grammy-winner Clint Black.
Meanwhile, veteran director Walter Hill is writing the screenplay of her "Thunder Over the Prairie," with Ryan Gosling a likely candidate to play legendary gunman Wyatt Earp.
"You Can Be Right (Or You Can Be Married)" by Dana Adam Shapiro (Scribner, $24, 256 pages): This "treasure trove of marital wisdom" subtitled "Looking for Love in the Age of Divorce" is highlighted by interviews with hundreds of divorced women and men.
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