Category Archives: Book Reviews

For Our Connecticut Readers: Twain Comes to Redding

From Mark Twain’s Margins On Thackeray’s Swift by Coley B. Taylor (Gotham House, New York, 1935)

Mark Twain came to Redding in June 1908. The New Haven railroad stopped its afternoon express for the first time to let him off, and moreover the express would continue to stop there every day t accomodate him and his friends. You can imagine how impressive a fact that was. Redding, in that far-off, pre-commuting day, was a quiet little town of farmers who were living on the places their forbears had won from the wilderness. Nothing much had happened there since the Civil War.

There were several New Yorkers who bought places in Redding about that time, all of them writers or artists. Albert Bigelow Paine was the first arrival, I believe, and it was through him that Mark Twain came, and Dan Beard, who had just organized the Boy Scouts. Mr. Paine’s Hollow Tree books became our favorites; we came to know them by heart. James Condé, who illustrated them so delightfully, lived near Mr. Paine. Kate V. St. Maur, another member of that circle, was an actress as well as a writer; she later did much to get the Library started, and later still became the librarian. All of these newcomers were to the Redding of that day a little like people from Mars—they lived in a strange world of books and magazines; the fact that they earned their livings by writing or drawing pictures was entirely new to us children, and extremely exciting. Their doings, harmless enough, I imagine, set the town on its ear.

Whitlock’s About Me

Now that I have a driver’s license, I have a local bookstore to frequent. It’s Whitlock’s Book Barn, just three miles down the road in Woodbridge. I’ve been there at least once a week since passing my driving test, and have purchased dozens of books. My daughters took to it immediately, each finding antiquated children’s books that they want to display in their rooms as well as tomes that suit their more grown-up tastes.
A few finds from this very day:
LP albums by Petula Clark (the intriguingly double-titled Color My World/Who Am I) and the Swingin’ Blue Jeans (containing their hit “Hippy Hippy Shake” and featuring a cover photo of jeans—black ones—hanging rather than swinging on a clothesline).
Coley B. Taylor’s hardcover essay Mark Twain’s Margins on Thackeray’s Swift, which in one fell swoop unites three of my all-time fave writers.
English Masques, Selected and With an Introduction by Herbert Arthur Evans. Contains my favorite Ben Jonson masque, News of the New World as Discovered in the Moon, which inexplicably is left out of most Jonson anthologies.
Always Belittlin’ by Percy Crosby. This is an awesome purchase for me, as I’ve only ever owned it as a photocopy. Crosby was the creator of Skippy, one of the most popular comic strips of the first half of the 20th century and an acknowledged influence on Peanuts and many other kid-based comics. He was a great artist, whether doing the Skippy strip or elaborate watercolors for magazines. He was also a fine prose writer and philosopher. Always Belittlin’, published in 1927, is a collection of essays and humor pieces starring Skippy, most of which were originally published in the old Life magazine. “Always Belittlin’” is a Skippy catchphrase similar to Rodney Dangerfield’s “I can’t get no respect,” except that it’s uttered by a young boy who’s trying to find his place in the world. There’s a Tom Sawyer quality to Skippy, but Crosby delivers much more than a middle-class street urchin retread. He adds his own style and character and beliefs to his boyish adventure tales. The comic strips (happily being reprinted daily on the GoComics websites) are wildly imaginative and detailed, and the written essays only build upon that.

Whitlock’s Book Barn is located at 20 Sperry Rd., Bethany CT. The store, which encompasses two large book buildings, is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.


Barney Frank wrote a memoir, and I dropped everything so I could begin reading it immediately. I didn’t know it was coming out, but clicked on an article in Politico which turned out to be an excerpt from it, about how Frank came out as gay in 1987. The excerpt was magnificent—informative, humble, quotable—and I waited patiently for a couple of days before the official release date of the Kindle edition of the book.
The book is propelled by a thesis rather than a chronology. Frank notes at its outset that he is a politician and a gay man, and in his lifetime he has seen the respect for politicians plummet while the acceptance of LGBT persons has risen. This gives the book an immediate focus and perspective, so that Frank doesn’t have to constantly tell you what’s important or what things were like 40 years ago. The narrative moves confidently and clearly. It’s the story of accomplishments, but mainly the story of what can be accomplished when people accept you.
Reading the coming-out chapters reminded me that I knew Barney Frank was gay long before much of America did. It seems to have been a fairly open secret in Boston, the kind of thing gossips liked to spread around in the gossipy ‘80s, especially in the club and arts scenes where being gay was not so much scandalous as dishy. A lot of people clearly knew or suspected. I knew because Barney Frank used to shop at the Paperback Booksmith bookstore/newsstand where I worked in Copley Square and buy gay porn there. He was very open about it. My first night working there, a co-worker told me flat-out “Barney Frank buys gay porn here.” I was at the register at least a couple of those times. I was polite and respectful, as I am always, but it would have been an awkward time to discuss politics with him or even make a big deal about him being Barney Frank. Wish I could have been more forthcoming. My admiration for his work, his intellect, his sense of humor has never wavered. So glad he wrote a book.

Sandman Swept Away

I’ve been rereading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series to see if it’s appropriate for my 12-year daughter Mabel. Generally speaking, it is—another of those things which was marked “For Mature Audiences” a quarter century ago but seems rather mainstream today.
I’m fortunate to have discovered Sandman when its very first issue came out. I’d already become a Neil Gaiman fan through his reinvention of Black Orchid.
Sandman’s such a classic now that it’s hard to remember back when its cult was small and fragile. The “Preludes and Nocturnes” collection of the first eight issues demonstrates how it took a year or so for the series to find its voice, as Gaiman freely acknowledges in his intro to the book. The breakthrough story was the first one that featured Sandman’s sister Death, which is so good that the same story is used to end the first Sandman volume and begin the second one.
Those early stories are fascinating, but nothing I’ll be rereading soon again. The later stories, however, are extraordinary—at least as good as Neil Gaiman’s most celebrated prose novels, probably better. As serial adventures go, they’re a lot less clunky than nearly all the DC or Vertigo comics they influenced, especially Justice League Dark, which revolves around the same iconic House of Mystery which Sandman initially emanated from. If Mabel really takes a liking to this stuff, I’ll feel justified in finally popping for one of those expensive Complete Sandman or Annotated Sandman anthologies.

Book Review: So, Anyway by John Cleese

This is John Cleese telling us what it was like to be John Cleese before he was Monty Python John Cleese or Fawlty Towers John Cleese or Fish Called Wanda John Cleese. Those projects basically go unmentioned in this book, though the build-up to Python is covered and Wanda director Charles Crichton is met on a previous project and Fawlty co-star Connie Booth was Cleese’s first wife. The Monty Python story is so well chronicled that it’s hard to imagine Cleese would have much to add to it. Frankly, I opened the book looking for anecdotes about his involvement with the film of Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr. While there’s not a lot, there’s more than anywhere else, and it’s part of a pivotal time, when he and Graham Chapman were a sought-after writing team but hadn’t made their mark yet. In a different world, the pinnacle of Cleese’s career might’ve been writing the pilot episode of the long-running Doctor in the House TV period. But Python happened, and Doctor in the House gets a single parenthesized sentence.

Not Tonight, Dear

Last week I read back-to-back-to-back biographies: a memoir by Johnny Carson’s former business lawyer Henry “Bombastic” Bushkin about the nearly two decades he spent gallivanting with the King of Late Night Television; Peter Ackroyd’s brief life of Charlie Chaplin (300 pages may seem not incredibly brief, but this was a very full life), and Robert M. Dowling’s excellent new Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts.
All three subjects were at the top of their professions, dominating their chosen fields for much of the 20th century. Yet it’s clear, even from Henry Bushkin’s self-serving hagiography, who is the odd man out here. Johnny Carson’s rise to fame and fortune, compared to a Chaplin or an O’Neill, was more about commerce than art. He was a reasonably priced newcomer who was given a shot at a type of television (late-night talk show) that was willfully underbudgeted and underestimated: a cheap promotional opportunity for actors and authors in an out-of-the-way time slot with little real competition.

Chaplin was a perfectionist who filmed take after take until the desired moment seemed both natural and iconic. O’Neill took inspiration from the disorders and calamities which defined his dysfunctional family. Carson, by contrast chose to create for himself the not entirely credible role of Midwestern everyman. He did not challenge himself artistically. He resorted to cheap vaudeville gags and magic tricks that would be embarrasing if any of today’s late-night hosts tried them today. How hot was it?

Carson suppressed his real personality on the air, unless the issues were so well-known (his many marital failures) that he had to turn them into self-deprecating comedy routines. Carson’s ability to jumpstart careers should not be underrated (though Bushkin underrates it himself, making repeated references to a select few comedians whose careers were made after a Carson appearance, limiting that list to a select few such as Bill Cosby and Joan Rivers and ignoring the legions of others who benefited from a Carson assist). Anyhow, that power came by dint of a national platform the likes of which has seldom existed, and which Carson simply inherited from Jack Paar and Steve Allen, who knew how to use it just as well as Carson did.
Carson became one of the highest paid entertainers of his time, but the remuneration was based more on a business model (The Tonight Show was insanely profitable for its network) than on a talent model.

Best thing about Bushkin’s Johnny Carson is hearing it on audiobook, where narrator Dick Hill basically delivers a six-hour vocal impersonation of Carson. He’s not pretending to be him, but the rhythms and cadences and pitches and twangs are there. It’s actually a better job than Carson himself could have done reading a book aloud. The host was notoriously impatient, ever in-the-moment. A sustained mood was not his style.

Five Books I’ve Read That Feature Appearances By Their Own Authors

Clive Cussler, Crescent Dawn. Cussler loans his adventure hero Dirk Pitt his antique roadster.

Leslie Charteris, Salvage for the Saint. Technically, Charteris didn’t write this Saint book. But it has his characters, and was ghostwritten based on a teleplay for the Return of the Saint series starring Ian Ogilvy. It’s such a well-written story that it’s one of just a few non-Charteris Saint adventures reissued as part of the massive Saint e-book reissue last year.

Martin Amis, Money. Amis, who’s appeared in other of his novels, meets his fictional protagonist in a bar.

Joseph Payne Brennan, the Lucius Leffing stories. Brennan is the Watson to Leffing supernaturally inclined Sherlock in this New Haven-based series.

Oh, and the Kinky Friedman mystery novels.


Chasing the Ripper, by Patricia Cornwell (Kindle Single, 2014)
The Jack the Ripper case was presumed solved in September, with spotty DNA evidence on a garment that may or may not have been connected to one of the crimes and may or may not have been washed since that crime pointing to Aaron Kosminski as the culprit.
Kosminski has been on the list of Ripper suspects for ages. But so have others, and the champions of those various other possible Rippers seem unfazed by the Polish hairdresser’s stepping up in the serial killer sweepstakes.
Patricia Cornwell’s slim “Kindle Single” Chasing the Ripper is a postscript to her massive book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed, in which she argued that Walter Sickert, the celebrated English artist, was the Ripper.
I want Cornwell to be right. I like the idea of Sickert as the Ripper. I find her arguments on his behalf to be sensational and entertaining. If one is to be obsessive about any murder case, one should at least be entertaining about it. Cornwell’s case is based on artwork and party anecdotes. She has gone the DNA route just as the Kosminski contingent has, but the beauty of Cornwell’s theories are that they are woven into Victorian culture—art, literature, industrialism, celebrity, media frenzy—and not just a worn piece of fabric.
Cornwell uses this opportunity not to tear down the case for Kosminski, or applaud it for that matter. She acknowledges the Kosminski theory then dismisses it offhandedly, then restates her own case for Sickert. She confronts the critics and naysayers who found fault with her book.
The brevity is appreciated. Her thesis is clearer. I still want to believe it. And I want other people to take a shot at articulating this wondrous theory that a great naturalistic and doom-laden British artist was also the country’s most esteemed murderous fiend.

Reading Journal

As workers fix up our furnaces (we are converting from oil to propane), my mind drifts back to the natural rather than duct-conducted warmth of summertime, and what I was reading back then.

I read half a dozen John Creasey thrillers during a single summer vacation week in mid-August: one Toff (The Toff Goes to Market, 1942), one Baron (Blame the Baron, 1951), one Inspector West (Strike for Death, 1958), one Dr. Palfrey (Traitor’s Doom, 1949), one Superintendent Folly (Mystery Motive, 1947) and one Dr. Cellini (This Man Did I Kill?, 1974). That I’d taken volumes from seven different series was a complete coincidence. I just grabbed a handful of Creaseys which I’d just unpacked from our house-moving in July. I own over 80 Creasey paperbacks, which is not all that impressive since he wrote over 600. John Creasey is my most reliable beach read. The mysteries are automatic, but not the same thing over and over. Creasey just finds interesting confrontations, turns them into crimes, and has one of his many reliable heroes sort them out.

That same week, I also whipped through two Daphne DuMauriers: a short story collection, The Breaking Point, and the big which I’m likely to recall most fondly from the whole stack, I’ll Never Be Young Again. It’s the kind of coming-of-age novel which nobody writes anymore. It’s about heartache and uncertain emotions. It’s not graphic or revolting.

DuMaurier is actually better suited to fall or winter than to summer. All those windstorms. Creasey? Any time.