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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 14, 2003

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


Christmas Movies, Wolff and McCammon, and mixed drinks

I do hope, when it's time for me to shuffle off this mortal coil, that I die of whatever weird illness it was that killed Bette Davis's character in Dark Victory.

No symptoms whatsoever until twenty minutes before the end, but enough warning to make a few redemptive, noble gestures, and then fade out in a very attractive pose and with unmussed hair.

*

What is the best Christmas movie?

That depends on what you want -- light-hearted fun, pure nostalgia, or a film that moves you and fills you with the spirit of love associated with the season.

Two of the greatest Christmas movies are quite dark. It's a Wonderful Life shows us George (James Stewart) on the brink of despair, deprived of the fulfilment of his dreams, and finally at the point of suicide because of the public humiliation that will, undeservedly, come upon him. And what is the rest of the movie? Showing him how much worse things would be if he had never lived!

One Magic Christmas likewise takes Mary Steenburgen's character through the loss of everything she loves, until she recovers her sense of joy. It's weirdly perverse, this sense that you must face the worst thing in the world in order to get your perspective back, but perhaps it's true.

More important than accuracy, however, is the fact that both of these movies make me cry, remind me of my love for my family, and anyone who loves these movies must have something wonderful in their heart.

It's like Joni Mitchell's lines about Christmas in her wistful, sad song in which she wishes she had a river to skate away on.

The silly-fun genre I don't really enjoy as much, mostly because when it comes to Christmas I'm a humorless oaf. But I certainly did enjoy the first Santa Clause movie, and there are moments in A Christmas Story that amuse me. Most "funny" Christmas movies, however, leave me cold.

Which is perhaps why I have to put the Laurel and Hardy March of the Wooden Soldiers in the nostalgic rather than funny category. The movie is actually quite awful. But it takes me back to my childhood and that is all tied in with Christmas in many people's hearts.

Which may be why completely unChristmasy movies like The Wizard of Oz are considered by so many people to be holiday movies. Why? It makes no sense -- except that Christmas is a time for nostalgia. Which is why my wife thought of the classic The Canterville Ghost as being a Christmas movie. Of course it's not -- it's a wartime fantasy, of all things!

So what category are Holiday Inn and White Christmas in? I grew up decorating Christmas trees while these silly but lovely Hollywood musicals were playing. Funny? Oh, now and then. But mostly nostalgia -- that and great old songs.

Miracle on 34th Street -- the original one, with Natalie Wood and Maureen O'Hara as daughter and mother, and Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle -- is great on all counts. It has its dose of darkness, though it never goes as deep and as dark as It's a Wonderful Life and One Magic Christmas. It's also funny and satirical, taking on psychologists, the legal system, and the whole commercialization of Christmas. And for me, at least, it has nostalgia to spare.

(The 1994 remake was cold -- they didn't understand the movie they were making -- though the TV movie from 1973, with David Hartman, Jane Alexander, and Roddy McDowall was pretty good.)

There's something else to these favorites of mine, though. Christmas, as we experience it, is an American phenomenon. And Wonderful Life, One Magic Christmas, and 34th Street are as much about American life as they are about Christmas.

And maybe that's why none of the Christmas Carol movies really do much for me. They're so very English. As a lifelong Anglophile, I don't think of that as a drawback under ordinary circumstances; but the Christmas Carol movies don't speak to that deep place in my heart where my secret memories live. I have never lived in the streets where Christmas Carol is set; but I know the settings of the American movies from my childhood on.

So, while I can enjoy Christmas Carols from the 1951 version with Alastair Sim as Scrooge to the Albert Finney musical Scrooge to the Muppett version with Michael Caine (and my favorite is still the Mr. Magoo tv version, for nostalgic reasons), none of these movies wakens Christmas in my heart.

*

I grew up reading the Boy Scout magazine Boy's Life, as did many thousands of other boys; so it's no surprise that two excellent American writers chose Boy's Life as the title, or at least part of the title, of a book.

And what books they are! Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life: A Memoir is that rare thing, a literary work that never sacrifices clarity for flash. The painful honesty of it is almost unbearable at times, but at the end, I felt as thought I'd been inside another person's life more deeply than I ever thought possible.

On the other hand, Boy's Life by Robert McCammon has the look and feel of contemporary fantasy, even horror, as, through a boy's eyes, we watch a southern town interact with a deep and violent river -- and the deep stream of violence that runs like ancient magic through the veins of society.

These are older works now, but both McCammon and Wolff are still writing at the top of their form.

Wolff's new book, Old School, is written as if it were another memoir, though it is definitely a novel, definitely fiction. This account of a teenage boy with literary aspirations is that most awful thing -- a book about a writer -- but unlike the self-indulgent and (to me at least) repellantly pretentious hero of Catcher in the Rye, this young writer rings true to me.

His prep school takes literary competitions as seriously as Greensboro schools take football, and in the process of showing us the rivalries, Wolff does something that is incredibly hard to do: He creates the poems supposedly written by these somewhat-talented prep school kids, giving each poem just the right balance of youthful vigor and ignorance; they are never comically bad. Wolff never sacrifices truth for a laugh.

I have no idea whether this book will speak to nonwriters, but from my point of view, no one has ever written so truthful an account of a young writer's life and development. It's also a story about inexplicable, impulsive sin, but I don't want to give away the plot to those who might be tempted to do themselves the favor of reading Old School.

Meanwhile, Robert McCammon -- who also wrote the unforgettably redemptive Gone South -- has recently written an unforgettable American novel in two volumes, called Speaks the Nightbird. Part I, Judgment of the Witch, and Part II, Evil Unveiled, are promoted on the cover as if they were horror novels, and that's not surprising -- McCammon's roots are in that genre.

But don't be deceived by the bestseller-style cover with a Stephen King blurb. McCammon is not writing horror, or even, really, fantasy. He's writing serious fiction that strikes at the root of the American mythos.

Speaks the Nightbird follows the adventures of a young American man who clerks for a British-born judge in colonial South Carolina, as they travel to a new town to hold the trial of an accused witch. As credible evidence piles up against the witch, and as the judge lies dying of the local plague, the clerk's curiosity and compassion draws him into danger but also into a new life.

All the themes required of a candidate for the title of Great American Novel are present here -- the book deals with slavery, with Indians, with religion, and the pursuit of money. And because the author is McCammon, these elements are brought to vivid life as we watch good people do bad things with the best of intentions -- and bad people occasionally do good things by sheer inadvertence ...

*

John Sandford's "Prey" novels were interesting at first, but for me, the constant pursuit of insane serial killers finally became too ugly and unpleasant for me to want to go back.

Which is a shame, because Sandford is a very good writer of thrillers. So I'm glad that he gives himself a break from the Prey series now and then to write about super-hackers Kidd and LuEllen, who bridge the gap between cybercrime and real-world adventures.

The Hanged Man's Song is Sandford's latest novel in this series, and I enjoyed every minute of it. This is not a candidate for Great American Novel, but it is already a winner if what you're looking for is a delightful ride through the not-so-clean underbelly of computer culture.

*

Back when I still drank Diet Coke, I discovered that despite its brown color, it's a great mixer. Mix either orange juice or pineapple juice with Diet Coke, and the result is absolutely delicious.

Gross to look at, like something you might dredge up from a swamp, but delicious.

Alas, the caffeine in Diet Coke gives me migraines, and the noncaffeinated version isn't as readily available. I had to give it up.

In my office, I keep a little fridge full of beverages and healthy snacks -- various juices, applesauce, and diet soft drinks. (Diet soft drinks are health food, on my planet anyway.)

So the other day, in a fit of madness, and having no fear of swamp-colored drinks, I took a can of Kerns apricot nectar and a bottle of Stewart's Diet root beer and mixed them together in a big red plastic cup.

Then, in the spirit of the dare-taking fourth grade boy that still lives inside me, I drank it.

My report: Mm-mm-mm. Terrific.

You who are afraid to live on the edge, you miss out on experiences like this one.

But even the Evel Knievel of mixed soft drinks has limits. I also have V-8 in my fridge, but I will never, ever combine it with anything.

Though I can't help but wonder how it would taste if I ran it through the blender with some avocado ...

And if that don't make your eggnog curdle, you're tougher than you look.

*

In my constant search for chocolate perfection, I have traveled the world, selflessly sacrificing my ability to fit into size 36 pants so I can learn of the best of all possible chocolates and pass the information on to you, my beloved readers.

So of course, when the best all-time ever-in-the-world chocolate-covered cashews come my way, it's not the result of any search (or sacrifice) of mine.

Nooooo. It was my cousin from L.A. who sent along a 22-ounce tin of chocolate-covered cashews from The Peanut Roaster.

And to add insult to injury, do you want to know where The Peanut Roaster is located?

Henderson, North Carolina. (On the web at www.peanut.com, or call 1-800-445-1404.)

And do you know why my cousin sent us twenty-two ounces of perfect chocolate-covered cashews?

Because he is evil, and very thin.

Honestly, folks, the cashews inside are excellent, but it's the chocolate that makes these into jewels. It's the same quality of milk chocolate that I never thought I'd see again when I left Brazil thirty years ago. In those days, my addiction was to the chocolates at the Copenhagen stores in São Paulo.

Nobody in America ever attempted to make anything so good. Until now.

I've never seen these in a store. If I had, I would be living in a tent outside that store.

But because it came as a gift from my evil, can't-gain-weight-no-matter-how-hard-he-tries cousin, I can't even go out and buy more. I have to wait, a whole miserable year, until next Christmas.

And then what if he buys me something else?

*

These days, it seems like half the sizes in the stores are a lie.

I can wear an American extra large shirt with room to spare. But lately quite a few stores have started importing clothing from other places, where Extra Grande means "really big and loose, if you're a squirrel."

Some XL shirts I can put on and they're roomy and loose; others, I can't even get the edges together.

Same thing with pants. There are size 42 pants out there that fit tighter than a size 38. Pretty soon, sizing for men will be as chaotic as it is for women.

If you're a man in that awkward clothing-size range where you're not quite big enough to find a good selection at a big & tall store, but too big to find anything decent at regular clothing stores -- in other words, between 38 and 42 in the waist -- try going online to the Polo website (Polo.com).

Polo clothes seem to be designed to fit American men with delusions of being just a tiny bit thinner than they actually are. Which means they're loose and comfortable.

*

Sometimes store brands aren't cheap knockoffs. For instance, the Harris-Teeter store brand is the only cottage cheese worth eating in Greensboro (though Kroeger's was identical, before H-T bought them out). And the Target store brand of potato chips -- the "Archer Farms Market" brand -- is really very good, with an "Italian" flavor that is excellent.

Speaking of chips, I tried the Lay's "guacamole" flavor potato chip. If there's any actual avocado flavor, I can't detect it. But it's a spicy, delicious potato chip all the same -- much more highly spiced than the guacamole-flavored Dorito made by the same company.


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