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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 27, 2002

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


Summer Reading

Summer is the season of the Infinite Book. You know, the huge tome by King or Krantz or Koontz (just to name the Ks) which is designed to fall onto your face when you fall asleep while reading it on the beach, breaking your nose and thus generating more business for America's plastic surgeons.

May I suggest some lighter reading? Not lighter in subject matter, necessarily ... just lighter.

A favorite at our house -- I practically read the whole thing aloud to Kristine the night I bought it -- is Beppe Severgnini's Ciao, America! (In Italian, "ciao" is pronounced "chow" and means both hello and good-bye. For those who care, in Portuguese the word is spelled "tchau" and only means good-bye.)

Severgnini (pronounced "that Italian guy whose name starts with S") is a popular Italian journalist who came to America for a year during the mid-1990s. This book is his humorous and affectionate response to our country.

It's great fun to see ourselves through foreign eyes -- especially when the foreigner isn't calling us horrible names and blaming all his own country's problems on us.

And if Severgnini ever cuts too close to home, well, it's easy to remember he was living right in DC -- in Georgetown, no less -- and so he isn't actually talking about the America the rest of us live in.

For those who already know Mary Higgins Clark's work, you've already read Daddy's Little Girl and don't need me to tell you about it. But I suspect that a lot of people who would enjoy her work haven't picked it up because the covers often have elements that tag them as "women's books."

They do have female protagonists, but her novels are good thrillers for readers of either sex. And for those of you who are weary to the bone of having writers use bad language just to show they know how to conjugate the verbs and insert them into any phrase whatsoever, Clark manages to write good stories in which love doesn't always mean sex and not everybody talks like a stevedore.

But lest you think these are books whose only virtue is what they don't contain, let me hasten to assure you that the reason to read Clark is that she tells a good story. This one, about an investigative reporter determined to keep the murderer of her older sister from being exonerated through the efforts of his rich family, is not only tense and full of mystery and jeopardy, but also deals with the pain of a family torn apart by blaming each other for a child's death.

Those of you who think history is always "studied," may I suggest a couple of books that qualify as "light history." Instead of plumbing the depths of a topic, they skim over the surface and give you the interesting bits of trivia that will allow you to sound incredibly well-read in dinner conversation without actually having to work at it.

Amir D. Aczel's The Riddle of the Compass starts in Italy, in the sleepy little town that was once the center of Mediterranean trade. There they have a monument to the man who invented the compass -- with only the slight problem that he might never have existed, and the compass was certainly not invented there, though substantial improvements were made.

Alfred W. Crosby's Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology Through History is the story of how the ability to throw things is part of what made us what we are, giving us the ability to dominate the Earth -- and wipe each other out, should we be that dumb.

It gives you new appreciation of baseball and football to realize that it was probably the ability to throw the 90 mph fastball or the 50-yard pass that separated the fit from the dead early in human history. In other words, the human brain had to be good at aiming a throw before it could afford to be good at abstract reasoning.

I mean, whom would you rather have with you if a sabertooth tiger were stalking you: a major-league pitcher with a good-sized stone in his throwing arm, or a tenured professor of Renaissance literature?

The Secrets of Inchon: The Untold Story of the Most Daring Covert Mission of the Korean War isn't history, it's a memoire. With United Nations forces bottled up in Pusan and no hope of breaking out except through bloody frontal assaults, MacArthur and his fellow officers came up with a daring plan -- to land an invasion army far behind enemy lines, at Inchon, the seaport that served Seoul, halfway up the peninsula and on the other side from Japan.

Inchon was a terrible choice for a landing, which is what made it such a good choice -- the North Koreans (and their Russian and Chinese advisers) would never expect an invasion there. But it does no good to achieve surprise if you can't get enough troops onshore fast enough to exploit the temporary advantage.

That's where Commander Eugene Franklin Clark, USN, came into the picture. His assignment, with the help of Korean partisans, was to live on one of the low islands offshore and gather the information that would give the landing a chance of success. Where were the defenses? The natural hazards?

The North Koreans knew he was there, of course, and made some serious efforts to find him and kill him. But what they never found out until too late was what he was there for. Undoubtedly they assumed his purpose was sabotage, intelligence, and liaison with the partisans -- and he did all that, including leading some raids of truly astonishing audacity.

But he and his key Korean comrades in the operation carried hand grenades strapped to their waists, fully intending to kill themselves if they were captured -- because if the enemy had gotten the invasion plans from them, it would have wrecked everything.

The invasion succeeded -- that much is history. But this story catches us up in the lives of the Koreans among whom Clark lived, showing us many acts of courage and honor -- and a tragic love story. Don't wait for the inevitable movie, read it first so you can tell your friends all the cool stuff that the movie has to leave out.

Robert Barnard's Death of a Mystery Writer is a slim novel about a prima donna writer of popular thrillers who has made life hell for his entire family. That he is murdered is no surprise (the surprise is that it didn't happen sooner), but the twists and turns of the investigation are a pleasure, even if few of the characters are particularly likeable.

The greatest pleasure of the book, in fact, is the way the prime suspect, a ne'er-do-well drunk, reveals -- or discovers -- who he really is when finally out from under the disapproving gaze of his father. And because the book was first written in 1978 (it has a new hardcover edition), it's as free of bad language and silly sex scenes as anything by Mary Higgins Clark.

But if characters who think of sex as the normal end of a date don't bother you enough to stop you from reading a first-rate new mystery writer, check out Kate White's debut mystery, If Looks Could Kill. The subtitle "A Bailey Weggins Mystery" promises that there'll be more novels starring the engaging heroine of this book, and that's good news.

Weggins is a freelancer for a glossy women's magazine who is called on by the magazine's editor to help out when she has a little domestic problem -- her child's nanny is murdered.

Kate White knows the women's magazine bizness, since she's the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, so the world that she depicts is utterly believable (even if the characters are just a bit exaggerated for the sake of the story). And she writes wonderfully well.

Neil Gaiman's American Gods is in paperback now, which is good news, since this is one of those big thick summer books that might suffocate you if you fall asleep with it on your chest.

Remember what I said about those other books that aren't full of bad language and graphic sex? Well, this book is full of bad language and graphic (but not erotic) sex and violence, so be warned. But if that's not a problem for you, then you're in for the ride of the summer, because this story of gotterdamerung in contemporary America will introduce you to a cast of characters that is at once bigger than life and as real as a family reunion.

Shadow is released on parole from prison, only to discover that his wife was killed in a traffic accident the day before -- and under circumstances that revealed she had been having an affair with his best friend.

Devastated, Shadow has no purpose in life -- except that almost at once a fellow named Mr. Wednesday hires him as his driver and errand boy. It quickly becomes clear that Wednesday is none other than Woden or Odin, the chief god of Norse mythology, and he's involved, it seems, in a struggle to the death with the gods of the new technology.

This premise sounds so implausible that it's almost dumb -- which is why I didn't read this book when it first came out. Recently I bought it on tape, just to see what it was about, and soon realized that Gaiman writes the story so well, so inventively, and with such powerful characters that it is not only entertaining but also emotionally rewarding.

Not since Michener's One Great Book, The Source, have I seen a writer so deftly weave together literally dozens of different stories, every one of which is fascinating. He has "interludes" here that could easily be novel series in somebody else's career. But unlike Michener, Gaiman always keeps his focus on the main story -- and does it so well that the real climax of this book comes after the war between the gods is over.

Yep, gotterdamerung, with helicopters as valkyries, is not the climax. Nor is the extraordinary death scene in which a dead woman (don't ask) sacrifices herself in order to kill the god who has betrayed everyone. Those are unforgettable moments, but Gaiman always has another trick up his sleeve.

American Gods is not a throwaway book, it's a keeper. You wouldn't hand it to children, but it will make you go to your children and hold them close, because this story knows -- and shows -- what really matters in life.

*

In a summer which will include the utter torment of having to take our children to see a full-length episode of the adventures of the ever-repulsive big-headed cartoon twit Arnold, it is a relief that the first family film of the summer, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron, is surprisingly good.

At first, with flat animation, a standard Disneyesque birth-and-childhood-of-Bambi sequence, and the only sappy song in Bryan Adams's score, I was set for a miserable 80 minutes of trying to stay awake.

But, to my surprise, this story -- in which animals do not talk, though they do make a few humanlike gestures -- turned out to be exciting and touching. At first it seems that the white men who first capture and try to tame the wild mustang Spirit are going to be the villains of the piece, but that never really happens.

The colonel in command of the cavalry is, in fact, Spirit's main antagonist, but he is not shown as evil so much as determined to have mastery over this horse, and in the end he is given a moment of redemption. And the Lakota Indian who becomes Spirit's friend has to earn the right to get on the horse's back.

The movie is spectacular, with chases through narrow canyons, a terrifying tumble over a waterfall, an unforgettable runaway locomotive, and a climactic jump over a canyon -- and through all these events, the animators do an extraordinary job of keeping things within the realm of believability.

It is no coincidence that this is a Dreamworks picture -- Jeffrey Katzenberg, who heads the animation division, was behind the great Disney animated features like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King before Michael Eisner dumped him. And Dreamworks animation projects show the same touch of truth and power that Disney animations used to have.

*

If our fearless editor has not had to cut this column because of its length, let me remind you that my production of Bye-Bye Birdie goes on this Friday and Saturday nights (31 May and 1 June) at 7:00 p.m. at the LDS meetinghouse on Pinetop Road (off Westridge a few blocks south of Bryan Blvd.). Admission is free.

If you've seen the Dick Van Dyke/Ann-Margret movie of Bye-Bye Birdie and thought it was dumb, well, I agree. But that movie used only the first act of the musical and botched even that. The version we're doing is actually funny and even, in its own weird way, makes sense!

Those who've seen some of our previous shows will be glad to recognize a few of our actors -- but we're also introducing a lot of terrific performers who have never been seen on a Greensboro stage before.

And hey, you can't beat the price.


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