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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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