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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 05, 2003

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


Girl Knights, Snowball Earth, and Rye Comments

It's spring and getting on toward summer and people are starting to get out of the house and run through the neighborhood and wander through the gardening and home repair stores making aimless purchases of items that their neighbors will then have to look at for the next eighteen years.

So naturally I'm going to review a bunch of books -- some of which might be suitable for reading in a hammock or on the beach. But even if you read them curled up in a dark corner of your house with a flashlight shining on the page, while regular people are all outdoors having an actual life and getting their vitamin D and melanomas direct from the sun, I'm still going to review books. Why? Because I've read them and liked them and our fearless editor keeps giving me all these column inches to use however I want.

Michael Connelly is one of the best novelists working today, and Lost Light, about his series detective Harry Bosch, is first rate. Bosch has just retired, but finds himself drawn into trying to resolve a cold case from a few years before, about millions of dollars stolen from a movie set. The novel also ties him back to the woman he loves, who left him and moved to Vegas a few years before. Turns out she, too, has a secret that he needs to uncover, even if it means spying on her a little.

If this were the last Harry Bosch novel, it would be a noble ending to a fine series. And Connelly could write the phone book and make us care about the characters, so it wouldn't worry me a bit if this closed the book on Bosch. He's had a good run, and maybe it's time for him to settle down and have a little happiness.

I met Tamora Pierce at a libarians' conference in Texas a few weeks ago. She was marvelously entertaining as she talked of writing young-adult fiction about female heroes who kick butt. So I bought her Song of the Lioness series: The First Adventure, In the Hand of the Goddess, The Woman Who Rides Like a Man, and Lioness Rampant.

They were every bit as good as I hoped they'd be. In a medievalish kingdom where magic works, Alanna and her brother are being sent off by a neglectful father to prepare for their future lives. But the brother is being sent to train to be a warrior, when all he wants is to become a wizard, while Alanna is being sent to study household wizardry when all she really wants is to be a knight.

So they trade places and forge letters from their father. Alanna pretends to be her father's other son, and then has to deal with the fact that girls tend to be smaller than boys and have to work harder to build up the same strength. Her deception complicates things, as does the fact that she seems to be a magnet for those who like to bully the smallest available victim.

The four books take us through some really wonderful adventures, roaming rather widely in a land that has a great deal of variety and several different cultures. The adventures are not repetitive, and the characters grow as human beings. J.K. Rowling is not the only good author of young adult fantasy in the world!

I enjoyed these stories immensely, and there is no lack of strong male characters, so even though few boys are likely to admit they read these books, in fact they're as good for boys as girls. Still, be aware that the books are quite candid about a society with sexual mores that are, let us say, perhaps more modern and casual about marriage than some parents might like. In fact it's quite authentic about the sexual behavior of royalty during the middle ages.

And while some parents might have second thoughts about handing the books to their daughters, others will recognize that all it takes is for parents to read the same books and then talk about the moral choices the characters make and Why We Don't Choose To Behave That Way. Parents have far, far more power over their children's thinking, if they do it by persuasion rather than edict, and I regard books like this as an opportunity to have an interesting moral discussion rather than as a reason to try to keep my kids from reading. But ... as a reviewer recommending a YA book, I have a responsibility to let you know what might trouble you.

I've recommended Louis Sachar before -- the author of Holes, remember? -- but let me also point out his delightful Dogs Don't Tell Jokes, about a kid who tries to get along in school by telling jokes constantly. They're not terribly funny, because they're just memorized stuff from joke books, but as the story goes on we come to really care about this kid and to triumph with him when he discards his canned material and begins to talk from the heart.

Avi is a YA novelist who is new to me. I picked up the historical novel Crispin: The Cross of Lead because the cutout jacked showed that the publisher cared enough to spend a little money on the book -- and it had that Newberry medal on it, suggesting that a jury felt it was the best book of its year.

And it is indeed a very good novel for young readers. Set in a medieval village where life is under the control of a lord (or, in his absence, a steward), I've never read a book set in that period that showed the utter helplessness that a person can have when someone powerful is out to get you.

Crispin, the hero, is a kid whose mother just died, and finds that (a) she apparently knew a secret about who his father really was, and (b) the steward who rules the village really, really wants him dead. There's nothing subtle about it -- the steward declares him to be a wolf's head -- an outlaw who can be killed by anyone for a reward.

How Crispin escapes, finds the truth about himself, and wins permanent freedom from harassment by the steward makes an engaging story with some intriguing characters. Nobody's saving the world here, and there is no magic -- we sometimes expect that stories with medieval settings will be Tolkienesque or Arthurian, but not this time. But speaking as someone whose first Book of Gold was Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, the medieval setting can be a captivating one for a young reader.

Gabrielle Walker's Snowball Earth is a terrific piece of popular science writing. We're all aware of the ice ages, but Walker deals with the theory that long before there were ice ages, there were several much deeper freezes that covered the Earth with ice from pole to equator. Indeed, it may well be that given the amount of sunlight reaching earth, a complete freeze may be the natural state of Earth, and it is only because of a complicated relationship between the atmosphere and life forms that emit greenhouse gases that our planet is warm enough to be habitable by higher life forms at all.

Walker examines the scientific effort to discover whether these ancient ice-overs happened, just how extensive they were, and what relationship they have to the development of higher life forms than the merely bacterial. She shows how science actually works -- the interplay between personality, society, and science itself -- and you come away with no illusion that dispassionate facts always prevail. In the end, yes, but along the way, there are many other influences on what is believed about the universe.

Meanwhile, Snowball Earth will make you very, very glad that there was no anti-greenhouse-gas movement around in the pre-Cambrian ...

Barry Cunliffe's The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek charts two things: The remarkable journey that Pytheas took from his native Massilia (Marseille, on the Mediterranean coast of France) to Britain and beyond; and the way his reputation has soared and suffered as various ancient writers, for motives of their own, found it useful to treat him and his writings with contempt.

OK, I admit, this isn't exactly pop history, but it isn't a headache-inducing scholarly tome, either. Cunliffe is a lively writer, and while you never lose track of the uncertainties involved in trying to interpret fragmentary ancient writings, neither do you lose track of the fascinating true story that lies behind those texts.

Finally, I have a confession to make. When I went to school, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye was still too controversial to be required reading in high school, and nobody ever made me read it in college, either. What I'd heard about the subject matter -- ne'er-do-well student gets kicked out of school and swears a lot -- never sparked the slightest interest in me.

But I'm fifty-one years old, this book is constantly treated as an icon of American literature, and I finally broke down, bought a copy, and read it.

And ... it's not bad. In its time, I'm sure it was quite surprising. The fact that I've seen every "cool" technique in this book about a hundred times is no doubt because this book, having come beforehand, influenced a lot of the books I've read. So it can hardly be blamed for resembling its imitators.

Ultimately, though, I was disappointed primarily because this book is the epitome of the aren't-writers-a-wonderful-breed-apart school of literature. You know, self-congratulatory legend-building.

The thing that's supposed to make Holden Caulfield something better than a dishonest, lazy, sneering, weak, whiny, arrogant little creep is that he's also supposedly a very talented writer (this contrived, posed text being, presumably, one example of his talent), as if that justifies all the other stuff.

Well, it doesn't. And when a former teacher of his gives him a sermon about how Special he is, it just made my skin crawl almost as much as when the teacher goes on to make a pass at him (or was it just a misunderstanding? Who cares?). One of the diseases of literature is the pathetic insistence by writers that they are a breed apart, and the reason that they often can't get along with other people or fulfil normal people's expectations of decent human behavior is because they are Talented, which excuses everything.

Talent excuses nothing, folks. If you're a jerk to people around you, being talented doesn't make you any less a jerk. And at the end of Catcher in the Rye, I found myself filled with sadness at how many young writers I have known -- and some not so young -- who lived their lives as if they had believed everything in this book. Their lives, as a result, are empty and unfulfilling, no matter how much praise gets heaped on them for their writing, because, in the end, literature is not as valuable a contribution to the world as a Life Well Lived.


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