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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 29, 2004

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


Alias, Memoirs, Fazil Say, and Hark!

When I was going on and on about Smallville this summer, several people emailed or called me and said, "Smallville, shmallville. The greatest show on television is Alias."

(Actually, not a single one of them said or even thought "shmallville." But they should have.)

"Alias," I replied. "Isn't that the tv show that 13 Going on 30 was based on?"

"Jennifer Garner stars in both," they patiently replied, "but Alias is a double agent spy thriller."

"And 13 Going on 30 wasn't thrilling enough, is that what you're saying?"

"Thirteen Going on Thirty, Shmirteen Going on Shmirty," they didn't say.

To which I would have replied, given the chance, "How can Alias be any good? It's on one of the Big Three networks (ABC, to be exact), which means it has to be offensive to the religious and conservative people while still being utterly devoid of meaningful content."

Which just goes to show you how wrong a guy can be.

A couple of friends gave me the first season of Alias on DVD for my recent birthday, and so, even though I felt faintly disloyal to my friends in Smallville, Kansas, I sat down with my daughter and her roommate and a charming actor who is so young and beautiful that he still plays high school kids at the age of umpty-oof, and watched the pilot episode.

It's a great story, about which I can tell you almost nothing without giving far, far too much away. Except that it's a double-agent spy thriller in which really bad things happen just off camera, so you don't lose your lunch but you still chew your nails and, from time to time, break your heart.

It really is a great show. They have a formula I haven't seen before. Each hour-long episode usually contains a total of two capers, but the math isn't really that simple.

Since the episode before usually ended with a cliffhanger, the first part of the new episode resolves that storyline, making half a caper. Then there's a caper that begins and ends completely by three-fourths of the way through the hour. Then there's a third caper that begins, but leaves you dangling at the end, sure that Jennifer Garner will not, in fact, have any more of her teeth pulled out or be splattered on pavement or get caught by the police as she's stuck between two glass walls without the key to the only door.

The math, then, is: One-half caper, one whole caper, then another half caper, making two capers in total, but in fact you get parts of three.

This is very hard for me. If I'd been good at math, I'd have a real job, like being an engineer, instead of making stuff up and getting somebody to print it and bind it and sell it in bookstores. (Like Michael Moore, I make a career out of fibbing. I just admit it. Maybe that's why I don't sell as many copies. Note to self ...)

Alias has a cast to die for. Besides the inimitable Garner, who manages to look tough, vulnerable, mannish enough you can believe her kicking bad-guy b***, but womanly enough that you want to keep slapping the guys on the screen and warning them not to get involved with her because ... wait. I can't tell you in case you haven't seen the episode where ...

Then there's Ron Rifkin as the head of her office of SD6, the spy agency she works for. You've seen Rifkin many times before, and he's always good; but this is the part he was born for. He's small of stature, but always looks piercingly intelligent and more than a little dangerous.

Another standout is Victor Garber, who plays Garner's creepy untrustworthy and absolutely compelling father. And I can't tell you anything more about him, either, because ...

It's really hard writing a review that doesn't give stuff away.

All I can say is: This TV series feels like a good movie, every week, week after week. Sometime actor J.J. Abrams (he acted under the name Jeffrey Abrams, but no, you probably didn't notice his name then) is the creator and executive producer of the series, and he has written the season-ending, season-opening sequence each year, as well as occasion episodes in mid-season.

*

As we were watching the first few episodes of Alias, though, I began to notice a creepy similarity to Smallville. For instance, the main character has a dangerous secret that only a few people are aware of -- and bad things happen to the people who know it.

There's a distant father with whom the hero has a complicated relationship. There's a black friend who isn't in any of the cool adventures but provides her with doses of "normal" life.

The main character also has a reporter friend of the opposite sex who is in love with her, but can't stop digging into her secrets, exposing him -- and her -- to great danger that he is completely oblivious to. He has a name, but I just call him "Chloe."

Clearly it's time for the fall season to begin, so I can get fresh doses of Smallville and stop seeing all other TV shows as being good only to the degree that I can find similarities to Smallville within them.

You absolutely do not want to know the Smallville elements I have detected in the Jimmy Kimmel show.

*

Two memoirs, by two different writers:

Kitchen Privileges by Mary Higgins Clark is a cheerful retelling of a sometimes bleak childhood during the Great Depression, followed by a kitchen-sink-to-riches story of her first marriage and her first ventures into writing.

Clark makes no pretense of writing an autobiography; this is more like a chatty conversation in which people keep asking her "and then what happened?" and then she tells us what comes to mind.

Even if you're not a fan of her thrillers -- though I often read them and almost as often enjoy them very much -- the book is interesting because of its evocation of an era and its matter-of-fact style.

It's obvious that she's skirting some issues because she doesn't want to damage anybody. She's a nice person, and she isn't going to hurt someone's feelings or besmirch their reputation needlessly just to make a few bucks or paint herself as some kind of suffering saint. The book may be about herself, and she starts from the assumption that nobody would even pick the book up if they weren't already interested in Mary Higgins Clark, but she isn't selling anything -- least of all herself as a great artist and "sensitive soul."

Which shows that she is, in fact, a decent human being, which is part of the reason her stories are so comfortably readable.

Which is not to say that Alison Smith, the author of the memoir Name All the Animals, is not a decent human being. But it is obvious from the beginning of the book that even though it purports to be a memoir of her brother, who died in a tragic accident in his youth, it is actually all about what a wonderful, arty writer Alison Smith is.

She is selling, selling, selling from start to finish. See how I'm not filled with self-pity? See how I don't ever condemn my stupid, religious, blind, insensitive parents? See how I don't make a big deal about my lesbianism but everybody else does, showing them to be sick and inadequate? See how my style makes this story really sing?

The result is that even though Name All the Animals is, in fact, filled with beautiful prose, it does not feel like a memoir. It feels like a first-person novel with a self-serving but coy narrator.

At the end, your primary response is intended to be deep admiration for the author.

And, in fact, I do admire her prose and her candor and her selection of scenes and her handling of dialogue.

But compared to a truly great memoir like This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff, it simply doesn't measure up. Because there is no moment of the book that does not sound like an English major who believed everything she was told about what "good writing" is.

Here's the secret so many young writers miss, though it should be obvious: The great writing of our day is rarely imitative of the great writing of a previous generation; yet great writing of a previous generation is almost invariably what you are taught to admire in English class.

*

I'm telling you right now: Fazil Say's album Black Earth is very weird. It is impossible to classify -- is it jazz/classical fusion? Maybe.

So if you read this review and go out and buy it and then hate it, remember that I did not lie to you. It is strange, and won't be to everyone's taste.

But I've been listening to it over and over again with increasing pleasure in the few days since I picked it up.

(When I say, "Picked it up," I mean, "I bought and paid for it at a store where real items are on display and can be touched with your hands, as opposed to buying it from Amazon.com." I have not shoplifted anything since I was about nine years old and stole S&H Green Stamps from the Lucky Supermarket in Santa Clara, California.)

Listening to this is like the first time I listened to Keith Jarrett's Koln Concert album. There's a reason why a live, improvised show in Germany is still selling today -- the haunting jazz presaged New Age music but surpassed it in advance. It was wrenched, groaning, from Jarrett's soul, but colored at every moment by a deep and fascinating musical sensibility.

I have no way of knowing if Fazil Say's album will stay with me the way Keith Jarrett's has -- but he makes a fair bid for such an achievement.

It might tell you something about him if I point out that he was born in Ankara, Turkey, the cd liner notes are printed first in French, and only second in English, and the Paris paper Le Figaro said of him, "He is not merely a pianist of genius; undoubtedly he will be one of the great artists of the twenty-first century."

Of course, we know just how smart the French are these days. But still, the point is, it's not just me who thinks this music is wonderful.

*

I hardly need to tell Ed McBain fans that the newest 87th Precinct novel, Hark!, is now in bookstores. Centered around a compelling revenge story, it contains the usual cast of complicated cops and fascinating perps and witnesses and innocent bystanders. Long before Quentin Tarantino was getting called a genius for relentlessly copying his betters, McBain was doing the real thing -- showing the inane things that people in dark and dangerous jobs are likely to say when the guns aren't blazing and the blood isn't seeping.


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