Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 31, 2003
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Number One Ladies, Scots, and Pop-up Hampers
I have met the funniest woman in America.
Her name is Melissa McCarthy.
I saw her give a triumphant performance in a sketch-and-improv show at
the Groundlings in LA last night.
She can only be compared to Gilda Radner or Phil Hartman. Dead-on
timing, characters that fit her like a second skin, screamingly funny material --
even when she's making it up on the fly.
She would have been a star even in the first year of Saturday Night Live.
And this year's SNL? -- no offense, kids, but they could fire the rest of the cast,
bring her on alone, and she would make it work.
Her shoplifter character is as extravagant as anything Chris Farley did --
at least as funny as the motivational speaker who lived in a van down by the
The weird twins (with Jill Matson) are the most hilariously repulsive
characters ever to grace a stage.
And her improv of an usher at a showing of an incredibly bad community
theater play was topped only by her portrayal of a character in that play.
She wasn't alone in the show, titled "City of the Future." There were
other very talented people, and with few exceptions the show is good.
And if you go, you'll be sorry you won't be able to see the improv that
used my suggestion of a game called "Eat My Lunch."
But if you want to see Melissa McCarthy, you don't have to go to the
Groundlings. It is inconceivable that she'll be there much longer. Talent like
that goes national -- and she's overdue.
If you're driving cross-country on I-40, I have good news. There is
actually something good to eat in Amarillo.
Approaching Amarillo, you may think you're in the flattest, bleakest,
driest, emptiest part of America. But I can assure you: Clovis, New Mexico, is
that place. Amarillo is just the gateway to Clovis.
The sign for Eat-Rite Deli and Snack Bar is not pretty, but it's big.
Look for it on the south side of the freeway -- the store is right under the sign.
It's a good health food store and you'll be tempted by some of the items
for sale. But if all you want is a good meal, head straight for the snack bar.
The sandwiches are superb, the salad bar is perfectly fresh, and the smoothies
are fine indeed.
Not only that, but the staff are hardworking folks who seem kind of
surprised that people think their food is so darn good. A pleasure to eat there
from beginning to end.
Alexander McCall Smith's novel The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is
a jewel. The cover blurbs might lead you to expect Miss Marple in Botswana,
but I promise you, even if you don't like cozy mysteries and you have no
interest in Botswana, this episodic novel is really one of the best books of
The fact that the arty awards go to predictable, show-offy little books like
Donald Franzen's merely show you that the awards committees only look for
tried-and-true formulas. When somebody does something really new -- and
really good -- it's usually overlooked.
But you don't have to make their mistake. Smith pulls the difficult feat
of writing believable, fascinating women, and his evocation of Botswana is so
moving and effective -- precisely because it does not depend on language but
on experience -- that by the end of it, you can be surprised to look around you
and see your own home town.
The detective character is Mma Ramotswe, who inherited nearly two
hundred cattle after the death of her father. She sells it and uses the money to
buy a small building in which she launches a detective agency.
The mysteries she solves are usually (but not always) small ones, and her
solutions only occasionally involve law enforcement. You're more likely to fall
in love with the people than want them to be punished.
Not only do I recommend the book, but I recommend even more strongly
that you try your best to experience this novel by hearing Lisette Lecat's
brilliant reading of it in the unabridged audio version.
Lecat, a South African writer/actress/translator, does dead-on accents
that sound like the music of Africa, and she distinguishes characters clearly.
Above all, she understands the meaning of everything she's reading and rarely
misses a nuance.
I hesitate to suggest that this book is ideal for women's book groups,
because that might make men think they shouldn't read it. You should!
With Coldplay's second album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, it's clear
that alternative has finally grown up to be music. There's rock and roll in it,
with echoes of U2 and memories of the Beatles and Nilsson. Piano and simple
strummed guitar rarely depart from the rock-and-roll one-chord-per-measure
pattern. But the lyrics and tunes are their own -- fascinating, haunting,
personal, simple, and real.
Arthur Herman's book How the Scots Invented the Modern World:
The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our
World and Everything In It sounds like it might be another "gimmick
history," like the histories of salt and the pencil and how the Irish saved
I'm not disparaging that genre -- it's often great fun to see history from
an unusual, if somewhat obsessive, angle, and the books I'm referring to are all
quite good, if you have the patience to endure a sometimes excruciating
attention to detail, and the occasional overclaimed hypothesis.
But How the Scots ... does not overclaim at all. This overview of Scottish
history in the 18th and 19th centuries, with emphasis on its intellectual history,
shows that country's transformation from a theocracy, in which a loudmouthed
college student could be executed for atheism -- even though he recanted and
his accuser was probably guiltier than he was -- to Europe's leading salon of
openly secular philosophy.
Herman gives a good overview of the lives and views of Adam Smith and
other great thinkers whose observations about human life and society still
shape our views -- mostly positively -- today.
He also ties Scotland to its legitimate place in history, especially the
struggle over union with England, which opened up American markets and
transformed Scotland from an impoverished backwater to a commercial center.
America was transformed -- and, in some senses, given its character as a
nation -- by the immigrants who fled Scotland to our shores when the Scottish
highlands were converted from a great web of small farmers to a depopulated
pastureland. The great internal migration that populated the frontier in its
crucial stages consisted predominantly of these Scottish and Scotch-Irish
immigrants, and we still hear their tunes and themes echoed in folk songs and
He also covers the influence of Sir Walter Scott and the roots of the
romantic movement in European literature.
It truly is astonishing how a relatively small society, charged with
enormous pent-up energy, was able to nurture (or provoke) such an outpouring
of brilliant innovation and creative productivity.
It makes one wonder what might be coming from nations today whose
situations are not entirely dissimilar to Scotland's in the 1700s -- emerging
from poverty and oppression into freedom and hope. Poland (or other eastern
European nations)? Brazil and Mexico (or other newly democratic Latin
American nations)? Perhaps the Arab or Persian peoples, right now groaning
under the burden of a rigidly intolerant religious system and prone to pointless
war against more powerful nations, as the Scots were, might shrug off the
shackles of intolerance and bellicosity and bloom, as the Scots did, into the
teacher of the world.
For anyone who loves mystery novels, I have only to tell you that Robert
B. Parker has a new Spenser novel, Back Story. Sadly, when the novel opens,
someone near and dear to Spenser has recently died. For some, at least, the
saddest news will be that it's not Susan Silverman.
If you don't already know the main outlines of Winston Churchill's life
and the history of England in the twentieth century, there's no point in reading
John Lukacs's extended essay Churchill: Visionary. Statesman. Historian.
But if, like me, you find Churchill one of the great -- and fascinating --
figures in recent history, Lukacs's book is essential reading. In a way, it's like
a critical review of his life, weighing the opinions that other historians have
offered, defending Churchill against some critics, and evaluating aspects of his
life and work that few have examined in any detail.
Best of all, though, is the way the book ends, with an admittedly
sentimental account of Lukacs's thoughts and feelings as he attended
Churchill's funeral back in January of 1965.
Pop-up hampers from Bed, Bath, and Beyond. It's simply the best way
of dealing with laundry I've ever seen.
Since most of us are cursed by architectural history and have to lug our
dirty laundry downstairs and then haul it all back up when it's clean, it's nice
that someone has finally come up with a more convenient way to store and
carry it than the standard Rubbermaid basket.
Meanwhile, though, why do architects continue to build houses with the
hookups for washer and drier on the main floor?
In most two-story houses, all the clothes-changing and bed-changing
take place on the second floor. Why aren't the appliances there, where you
Is it because it's hard to get heavy appliances up the stairs? That doesn't
stop people who live in bi-levels or split levels, where every appliance goes up
and down half a flight of stairs.
Maybe it's like eight-packs of hot dog buns and six-packs of hot dogs --
they do it that way because that's how they've always done it.
Still, as long as they're still putting laundries on the wrong floor, invest
in these pop-open hampers that have convenient handles on top. You can
carry them up and down stairs, one in each hand -- instead of holding them in
front of you so you can't actually see the steps.
And you can cram them as full as you like, with little risk of anything
What? Laundry day, with no stray socks strewn along the hall or down
If you're a fan of audio drama, as I am, you should look at Neil Gaiman's
Two Plays for Voices. The plays, "Snow Glass Apples" and "Murder
Mysteries," are performed by Bebe Neuwirth and Brian Dennehy, respectively.
One might quibble over whether these are indeed "plays" or simply narrated
stories, but you can't quarrel with the strange dark vision, the powerful
performances, or Gaiman's obvious emergence as an important literary figure.