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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 7, 2004

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


C-SPAN, Easter candy, Hidalgo, Odd Thomas, and bad science

C-SPAN and C-SPAN2 are often too painful to watch -- especially when they show congressional committees, with all the posting and strutting that go on between grownups who should be concerned about the public business instead of foolishness, vanity, and trivial political advantage.

But after hours, these cable channels bring us many events that we might never see -- for instance, Washington Press Club events, or campaign appearances where we can hear the whole speech instead of just the sound bites the networks deign to give us.

And best of all is the weekend, when we get to watch taped appearances of authors of important books (always nonfiction) speaking to audiences large and small.

This past Saturday afternoon, for instance, on C-SPAN2's Book TV, we had the chance to watch John Stossel speak about his book Give Me A Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media. Stossel is that rare thing on a major network -- an anchor who is truly impartial, going after pretense and foolishness on both the Left and the Right.

Of course, this is invariably interpreted by the Left as being "conservative bias," since to them left-wing ideas are simply "truth" and no kind of bias at all. Thus Stossel is often hammered for being right-wing. But the truth is he seems to be something of a libertarian, which means he's quite happy to be annoying to everybody.

The book is well worth reading without any help from television. But hearing him speak provided both a summary of the book and a strong incentive to read more.

Stossel was immediately followed on the program by Michael Takiff, talking about his book Brave Men, Gentle Heroes: American Fathers and Sons in World War II and Vietnam. This is probably a book I wouldn't have picked up if I hadn't heard him recount stories and read quotations from some of these veterans.

Quite to my surprise, the stories Takiff tells are often moving, and always informative.

Takiff does not take sides. What matters to him is not whether Vietnam was right or wrong, but rather what the experience of soldiers who fought the war was. He found more similarities than differences among American soldiers in the two wars; what differed most was the nation they served.

*

Bad news for Easter time. Fannie May went out of business, and apparently their marvelous vanilla cream Easter Eggs disappeared with them. I'm not sure if I can handle an Easter season without them.

The demise of Fannie May was predictable. Whenever I visited one of their standalone stores in Chicago or the DC area, I found the clerks outnumbered the customers.

But their website was wonderful -- it allowed you to put together your own candy assortments and send them as gifts quite conveniently. If only somebody had seen the handwriting on the wall and closed the stores before the cash flow killed the company.

The good news, however, is that Archibald Candy Corporation bought the remnant of the bankrupt company and is apparently still selling candies under the Fannie May name. The website (www.fanniemay.com) has a far smaller selection than it used to, and you can't customize, but I've ordered a pound of their vanilla buttercreams. I'll let you know if the quality is still the same.

Meanwhile, See's Candies (at www.sees.com) are still going strong. No buttercream Easter eggs, but they've got plenty of other Easter candies, including chocolate butter eggs, divinity eggs, truffle eggs, and other diet-wrecking springtime candies. And See's still lets you create custom boxes that give you exactly the candies that you want.

*

Hidalgo is a pretty good B movie. Once the hero, Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), gets to Arabia to begin the race, we have an exciting adventure movie, with Omar Sharif lending gravitas, Zuleikha Robinson a wonderful love interest, and lots of colorful characters providing danger and comedy in equal doses.

Nothing in this movie is going to change your life, but in an Indiana Jones kind of way it can be a delightful entertainment.

There are really only two things wrong, but one of them's a doozy.

You see, Frank Hopkins is half Indian, and the movie begins with him delivering the orders that lead (inadvertently, according to this movie) to the massacre at Wounded Knee.

But that's like beginning an Indiana Jones movies with shots of Nazi death camps. The slaughter of unarmed Indians at Wounded Knee is, like the massacre at Tippecanoe, one of the darkest stains on American history. Having once shown us this, it is nearly impossible to keep the adventure story that follows from feeling too shallow to bear.

Filmmakers should learn a lesson from Jaws. We weren't shown the hideous events after the sinking of a ship in shark-infested waters during World War II; instead, the brilliant Robert Shaw told us the story, so we saw it as part of his character, not as an indelible vision.

The second flaw is less serious. The film is billed as "based on a true story." The correct billing would have been "based on a bunch of lies that the real Frank Hopkins used to tell."

There was never such a race in Arabia. Furthermore, a three-thousand-mile race that began in Aden would end somewhere in India or Europe.

And it's slightly irritating that the film deals with Muslims the way that most films deal with "odd" religions (i.e., religions that are not familiar to most American viewers).

A big deal is made of two things: The importance of the sheik's daughter keeping her face modestly hidden, and the inability of the sheik to touch the hand of an infidel. Both are discarded by the end, because, of course, other people's religious beliefs are always silly compared to True Love and Real Friendship.

Enough griping. If you can find a way to forget the tasteless exploitation of Wounded Knee and the silliness of pretending this has anything to do with the real world, this is a lot of fun. Viggo Mortensen is very good in the role -- he's actually more articulate than he was as Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. And even if you don't much care about horses, there is a lot of great photography of magnificent animals.

*

Dean Koontz's latest novel, Odd Thomas, has a lot of charm. The main character, whose real first name is Odd (like the great Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum), is a young man in a small California town who has the ability to see ghosts.

In the mythos of this novel, the dead who have unfinished business linger in this world, where few can see them. So Odd, through his close friendship with the local police chief, seeks to help them find peace by solving old crimes.

But in addition to seeing the dead, he also sees strange evil creatures that apparently feed on murder. Without letting them know that he sees them (lest they get rid of him), he uses them as an early warning system. This novel is about his effort to prevent what appears to be a coming mass murder in Pico Mundo.

If this were the story, in its purity, I could wholeheartedly recommend this book as a Noble Romantic Tragedy that will keep you on the edge of your seat and lead you to shed some well-earned tears at the end.

Unfortunately, Koontz sometimes doesn't know where to draw the line. For instance, one of the dead that Odd Thomas regularly sees is Elvis. Eventually you get used to having his ghost hanging around, but for the first third of the book it was just irritating. Dead celebrities, especially a joke like Elvis, didn't belong in this book.

Far more annoying, though, was the strange lightless room we encounter early in the book, which allows a limited sort of time travel. Having once introduced such a major fantastic device, Koontz had raised an expectation that it would amount to something. Instead, it is neither explained nor employed in the story in any way.

I'm betting that either it just came up as a fun cool idea, which Koontz then ignored as he stuck to his outline; or it was in his outline as an important plot device, but he found a better way to handle the story flow than to deal with a bunch of silly time-travel gimmicks.

Either way, the time-traveling-door-into-hell-dark-room was one device too many in a novel that would have been far more compelling without it.

Simplicity, Mr. Koontz! The story is otherwise so wonderful that it's just plain frustrating to have the author spatter it with distracting nonsense.

*

The internet is full of alarmist reports about aspartame (Nutrasweet). Some of them even blame Donald Rumsfeld -- since, apparently, spearheading the reconstruction of the American military and running two successful campaigns is sufficient cause to make every wacko in the world charge you with being the devil.

Take a look at what the "Environment, Health and Safety Online" site has to say: http://www.ehso.com/ehshome/aspartame.htm.

This site reports fairly on both sides of the issue. My own conclusion is that occasional Nutrasweetened drinks probably won't make my brain get any fuzzier than being 52 has already made it.

Just remember that on any subject where somebody is absolutely sure that "scientists have proven" something, you need to make some effort to find out what the studies actually found -- if they even exist.

Sometimes the "studies" are simply frauds, like the spurious claim that domestic violence peaks on Super Bowl Sunday every year. No data, anywhere, ever, supported the claim. Yet it got reported everywhere as if it were real.

And that "Ophelia complex" nonsense -- the scientist who made the claim has never quite gotten around to publishing her "research." And everybody else's research points to the opposite conclusion: That far from being disadvantaged at school, girls are far more likely to thrive and excel than boys. It's boys that drop out, fail, or don't go on to college at far higher rates than girls.

Yet how many school districts spent enormous amounts of money and time trying to help compensate for the disadvantages of girls, while treating boys with even greater hostility than the system already shows them?

The quality of science reporting in this country is so wretched that whenever you hear any report on TV or read one in the newspaper that claims that scientists have proven something, you ought to assume, automatically, that there is something ridiculously false in the conclusions that are being reported. Most of the time, closer examination will reveal that the report is even more bogus than you suspected.

Remember, most reporters in the mainstream media just report what they're told. Few of them have motive, education, or analytical skills enough to challenge it.


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