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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 15, 2002

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Miracles, Elvish Songs, a Mystery, and a Fantasy

I've got a great novel for you. It's literary, but as gripping as a thriller. It's set in 1944 in Italy, but it's not a war book, not in the sense that it's about macho bluster.

About half the main characters are American blacks -- four "Buffalo Soldiers" from the 15,000-man "Negro division." But while it certainly is about race, it is not (pardon the pun) merely black and white. There are nuances, good and bad people on both sides, everybody struggling with a terrible dilemma that touches directly on their own lives.

In fact, what makes this so powerful -- and what makes it my kind of book -- is that there really aren't any bad guys that we actually meet. (Plenty of vicious SS Nazis, but they're never actually present as individuals.)

Everybody is struggling to survive and, more, to become somebody to be proud of.

The book: Miracle at St. Anna, by James McBride.

McBride previously published a nonfiction memoire about his white mother, called "The Color of Water," but this is his first novel.

He is ambitious. He tries the devilishly difficult omniscient viewpoint, and makes it work. He maneuvers through a huge cast of characters, and yet you know them all intimately and easily keep track of who is who. This would be a tour-de-force even for an experienced novelist with fifty books behind him.

I listened to this book on audio, where Ted Daniel does a magnificent job of performing it. But the book would work just as well in print. This is my first serious candidate for Novel of the Year.

*

Speaking of audiobooks, I just finished listening to the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, unabridged, on tape.

It's read by Rob Inglis, who had been performing readings from Tolkien for many years before attempting this book. And it shows.

He did his research. The passages in Elvish and Old English and the language of Mordor are smooth and evocative. Without overacting, he made the heroes truly heroic, the villains and victims believable, the deaths and triumphs moving.

I've directed a nine-hour readers' theatre production of Lord of the Rings (with permission from the Tolkien estate). Naturally, I made deep cuts -- and the novel has plenty of extra verbiage that isn't missed in a live production. But the story works as drama perhaps better than it does as narrative.

Without any cuts at all, Inglis makes it dramatic and lively.

Of course, there is the problem of the songs.

Tolkien loved writing songs and epic-style poems and even narrative doggerel. And he was very good at it, getting the feel of authentic folk poetry, balladry and bardics.

But he also had a way of taking a rather longish section of one of the poems he had written long before and plunking it down in the middle of the story, stopping the action cold.

Normally, I skip over these, especially the Tom Bombadil poems, since they truly have nothing whatever to do with the story. But of course when you're listening to a tape, it's hard to skim. By the time you've fast-forwarded and reversed until you're past the song, you might as well have listened to it, for all the time you saved.

Besides, Inglis did his research here, too. He had good melodies -- the right kind of melody for each kind of song. And he had the right voice -- not a trained belcanto or a pop voice, but a bardic sound that made me imagine I was listening to him in a meadhall.

It's an unforgettable experience, to get "The Lord of the Rings" whole, alive, aloud. It's expensive in both money and time. But, for me at least, worth it.

*

Robert Parker's Spenser series went through a rough patch some years back. The relationship between Spenser and his psychologist girlfriend, Susan Silverman, threatened to take over the series.

That's the kind of thing that killed the TV series "Moonlighting" -- the writers forgot that the banter, the relationship, that stuff worked only as long as the characters were on a case that we cared about. But the mystery has to come first.

Plus, the Spenser-Silverman relationship was becoming terminally politically correct, with Spenser starting to apologize for having a Y chromosome. And then when Spenser cut loose and had one book that was a second-rate thriller instead of a first-rate mystery, I almost despaired.

But hey, Parker is one of the best mystery writers ever, and so I kept buying the books, and you know what?

He found his way, not back to where he was before, but to a new balance, an even-more-spare style, and a relationship between Spenser and Silverman that absolutely works. It's better than ever.

And even if you've never read a Spenser novel before -- even if you absolutely hated the Robert Urich TV series (though everybody loved Avery Brooks as Hawk) -- the new Spenser novel is as good an entry point as any.

Widow's Walk, by Robert Parker. Check it out.

*

I'm about to break your heart. The third volume of Tanith Lee's "Wolf Tower" series is only available in Britain.

Now eat your heart out: I got a copy, I read it, and it's as wonderful as the first two books, titled (in America): Wolf Tower and Wolf Star.

These are YA novels, rip-roaring adventures with a girl hero -- but boys who are secure in their sexual identity will have no problem enjoying it too. Heck, adults who are secure in their maturity will also enjoy it.

The story is about Claidi, a slave girl in an aristocratic house, who escapes and goes in search of her parents. Lee tells the tale in first person, as a series of long diary entries. This is a form that is usually deadly to read -- but we're talking about Tanith Lee here, one of the finest writers of fantasy alive, and it is charming throughout.

The world they move through is fantastic in every sense of the world, while the characters and dilemmas are deeply human, and the farther we journey with Claidi the more moving and powerful the story becomes.

The nice thing about YA novels is that because they have to sell to the school library trade, they leave out all the pointless sex and bad language that writers of "mature" novels feel it is their duty to include, whether it has anything to do with the story or not. The romance, the human desire, is all there, and the older you are, the better you understand it -- but I promise that if you read this along with your ten- or twelve- or fifteen-year-old, you'll both enjoy it.

And if you don't have a kid, heck, read it yourself. This is writing so good even adults can understand it.

*

I hope to see you this Friday, 19 April, at 7 pm for the Greensboro Oratorio's performance of "Lincoln Speaks."

Yeah, I know, Lincoln was that Yankee president who whupped the South -- but the truth is, if he hadn't been murdered he might just have achieved his goal of reuniting the nation without bitterness.

Certainly that's what his words promised. And despite the fact that it'll be me narrating, in an accent vaguely reminiscent of Lincoln's midwestern twang, it's good words and good music well performed.

Of course, that would not make a full concert worth the $7 ticket price. The Oratorio Society will also perform Durofle's Requiem.

It all takes place at Finch Chapel at Greensboro College. When you come along West Market Street heading east from Mendenhall, turn right at College Place, then find what parking you can in the lots on your right. Finch Chapel is the first building on your left.


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