Category: Books

by Gary Larson


I pretty much lost interest in the “funny pages” decades ago because so few of them were actually funny. An exception was Gary Larson’s single-panel classic, The Far Side. Larson’s loopy, goofy illustrations looked adolescent but displayed out-of-left-field wit. I mean, how can you not smile at this?



That’s the first cartoon you see in The Far Side Gallery, an anthology of Larson’s syndicated strips from 1982-84. Here is another example from the book:



But I have to admit that I found this book a bit disappointing. For every absurdist gem like the two examples above, there are a dozen entries that seem either dated, lame, or (to me, at least) incomprehensible. Maybe Larson improved with age; perhaps by purchasing this collection of his early work, I just picked the wrong years.

But man, when Larson was good, he was very, very good.


© 2010-2020 (text only)


by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith


Near the end of Final Justice: The True Story of the Richest Man Ever Tried for Murder, Charlie Rose interviews multimillionaire Cullen Davis for Rose’s TV show. A Texas jury had just acquitted Davis of killing his wife’s lover and a 12-year-old girl:


“Has your life gotten back to normal,” asked Rose in a husky, intimate whisper. “I mean, can you live a normal life ever again?”

“Normal would be walking down the street without being recognized by anybody,” Cullen replied. “That’ll never happen.”


Davis was right about that. One day in the 1990s, some 15 years after the 1976 murders, my wife and I were crossing a skyway in downtown Ft. Worth.  I caught the eye of a man headed in the opposite direction: a slight, dapper-looking fellow with a “cat that ate the canary” glint in his eye. He looked first at my wife and then at me. There was a trace of a smile on his thin lips.

It was, I knew instantly, Cullen Davis.


Rose gingerly turned the questioning to the murders. “Are you afraid, living in the mansion?” he asked.


At about the same time as our Davis sighting in the skyway, we lived near the infamous “murder mansion” on Mockingbird Lane in Ft. Worth. By then, the Davis trials were fading into history and the mansion itself was a long-abandoned wreck. Ghoulish curiosity seekers (including us and our friends) would spend a Saturday or Sunday squeezing through a vandalized plywood barrier to explore the once-lavish, $35 million palace, now dark, musty, and ravaged by souvenir hunters. (I confess that I took a piece of floor-tile from the kitchen – site of one of the murders.)

I mention all this because it’s not often that I read a true-crime book in which the (alleged) killer is someone I’ve seen up-close-and-personal, and whose former home I’ve helped ransack.

But pilfering floor tiles is nothing compared to the hijacking of the judicial system pulled off by Davis and his colorful, apparently conscienceless lawyer, Richard “Racehorse” Haynes, in three trials conducted in the late 1970s.

You think the O.J. Simpson trial was a miscarriage of justice? Check out the Davis trials, in which multiple witnesses — including victims shot point-blank by “a man in black” — identified Davis as the perpetrator, and yet Texas juries could not bring themselves to convict.

Apparently, jurors were awestruck by the strange little man’s wealth and charisma.

I certainly wasn’t awestruck when I locked eyes with Davis in that skyway, nor when I trespassed in the cavernous halls and living rooms of his haunted house.  I was creeped out.


© 2010-2020 (text only)


by Agatha Christie


If you do an Internet search of “best Agatha Christie books,” you’ll find this novel in many top-five lists, along with Christie classics like And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I’m a bit surprised by that.

Pigs is a typical Hercule Poirot investigation, with the Belgian detective interviewing a series of murder suspects and then amazing everyone when he unmasks the killer. But unlike the classic mysteries listed above, Pigs doesn’t feature anything particularly clever or groundbreaking in the genre. It’s entertaining, but routine Christie.


© 2010-2020 (text only)


by Steve Rushin


I loved this book – but I’m hesitant to recommend it. I pause because although I’m clearly in the author’s target audience, you might not be. If I say “Mel’s Matinee Movie,” do you smile, or do you scratch your head?

Rushin grew up in a middle-class family in Minnesota in the 1970s. I’m a bit older than him, but I also grew up in a middle-class family in Minnesota in the 1970s. Rushin’s love letter to all kid-related things from that time and place naturally resonates with me. I can’t help but smile at references to Metropolitan Stadium, Southdale shopping mall, Fran Tarkenton and, yes, Mel’s Matinee Movie. But again, do you give a rip?

On the other hand, Rushin’s main theme is family life, and his anecdotes about the suburban Rushin clan will likely appeal to a wider audience. One of the blurbs on the book’s jacket compares Sting-Ray to Jean Shepherd’s depiction of family life in the 1930s. I think that’s probably apt. Even if you did not grow up, as Rushin and I did, in the frozen tundra 50 years ago, much of his warm and humorous book is universal.


© 2010-2020 (text only)


by Anthony Horowitz


Horowitz’s double mystery is a lot of fun for fans of old-fashioned whodunits. It’s a clever book-within-a-book in which a literary editor investigates the suspicious death of her company’s most successful writer: an irascible cuss who wrote the wildly popular “Atticus Pund” mysteries.

For the most part, Horowitz (the original scriptwriter for TV’s Midsomer Murders) avoids common whodunit pitfalls like implausibility and cheating. The ease with which he links two seemingly unrelated crimes — one in “real” life and the other in the pages of a thriller — is also impressive.

I was able to predict the murderer of the cantankerous author. But I won’t boast because I was gobsmacked by the identity of the killer in the Pund portion of the book.


© 2010-2020 (text only)


by Holly Madison


We’re told not to be judgmental of other people, but when someone writes a book about her “career” as one of Hugh Hefner’s concubines, isn’t she really saying, “Hey, look at me and my life! What do you think?”

OK then, Holly Madison. I think you are a bubble-headed blonde with just a wee bit more smarts than most of the other bubble-headed blondes who at one time comprised Playboy publisher Hefner’s harem in Los Angeles. You were smart enough, at least, to find a competent ghostwriter to chronicle your years at the Playboy Mansion and on the reality show The Girls Next Door.

In Rabbit Hole, Madison strives mightily to paint herself in the most flattering light — she was just a naïve little girl from Alaska who made some poor choices — which I suppose is human nature. She doesn’t really succeed, but I will say this: In the process of documenting her life, she manages to make everyone else in her orbit also look bad. Hefner, for example, comes off as a male version of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest:  manipulative, insecure and controlling.

But silly me. I was hoping to learn at least a little bit about Playboy’s past – Hefner’s famous friends, the Dorothy Stratten episode, the magazine’s impact on society – but Madison has no interest in the slice of Americana that the magazine represents. She is interested in the endless petty squabbles among the “girlfriends” and with their geriatric crypt keeper at the Playboy Mansion.

No one leaves a good impression in this memoir, including its delusional author. At one point she compares the arc of her life to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Talk about seeing things through the looking glass.


© 2010-2020 (text only)


by Vicki Baum Grand Hotel


Grand Hotel is of most interest as a cultural time capsule from the 1920s. Ninety years ago, what sort of novel captured the public’s imagination?

First published in 1929 and later an Oscar-winning film with Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and the Barrymore brothers, Grand is about guests at a ritzy Berlin hotel whose lives intertwine briefly, with both romantic and tragic results. It’s the same kind of overwrought soap opera that grips many readers today, with illicit affairs, lust-filled men, fading celebrity, and the vain struggle to stave off aging and death. Baum’s writing is often sentimental and melodramatic, but her characters are timeless.


© 2010-2020 (text only)


by Calvin Trillin


Killings is a compilation of true-crime accounts that Trillin wrote for The New Yorker, primarily in the 1970s and 1980s, about murders in the country’s heartland. Murder is an inherently interesting subject, and Trillin admirably fleshes out the lives of otherwise-unremarkable people caught up in horrific circumstances, but perhaps because we are by now accustomed to books and movies that spare no gruesome detail, Killings’s less-sensationalistic stories can feel sedate, at times almost quaint. As you read them they hold your interest, but you might not recall any of them six months later.


© 2010-2020 (text only)


by David Niven Niven


“Well, old bean, life is really so bloody awful that I feel it’s my absolute duty to be chirpy and try to make everybody else happy, too.” – David Niven


Movie star Niven’s 1971 memoir is certainly “chirpy.” And if you’re a fan of old Hollywood, it’s guaranteed to make you smile. But Balloon also reminded me of – of all books – a more recent “memoir”:  controversial author James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. I read Frey’s bestseller after it was revealed that much of his allegedly true story was pure fiction. But I liked it anyway.

In Niven’s case, later biographers have debunked many of the anecdotes he relates in The Moon’s a Balloon as either exaggerated, sugar-coated, or outright fabrications. But I liked it anyway.

It’s odd, though. So much of Niven’s life was so inherently interesting – World War II service, Hollywood stardom, glamorous pals – that you have to wonder why he felt the need to embellish.

My guess is that the above quote explains at least part of it. Niven was a born entertainer, and if that meant stretching the truth a bit, so be it. Or maybe he was just practicing what Hollywood preached in its “golden age”:  Life goes down better with a happy ending.


© 2010-2020 (text only)


by Madeleine L’Engle Wrinkle in Time


Observations about a Children’s Classic


A Wrinkle in Time is a beloved children’s book about a little girl who goes on a dangerous quest to find her missing scientist-father. It was published in 1963, but I’m a little behind in my reading, so I just now got around to it. Random thoughts:


  • There are heavy doses of both religion and science in the plot, yet author Madeleine L’Engle manages to make them peaceably co-exist.


  • I kept thinking of the book’s likely literary influences, pre- and post-publication. Before: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. After: the Harry Potter books.  J.K. Rowling is the more entertaining, skilled writer, with stronger characters; L’Engle deals more overtly with adult themes.


  • I’m guessing that Wrinkle was (is?) more popular with girls than with boys. I mean, any story that ends with the heroine conquering evil by (spoiler alert!) declaring “I love you!” to her baby brother is going to be a tough sell to the mud-and-trucks crowd.


  • I believe I’ll pass on the upcoming Hollywood adaptation, mostly because it reportedly features the Queen of Smarm, Oprah Winfrey. (I might change my mind if Winfrey is cast as the dreadful blob of brain, but I’m guessing that’s not the case.)


© 2010-2020 (text only)