Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 23, 2005
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Shoes, Cooky Dough, Kite Runner, and Little Books
I like chick flicks.
In fact, I resent that they're called "chick flicks" because I'm far from being the
only person of the male persuasion who is far more interested in films about
complex relationships than films about winning or blowing things up.
It's a dumb, sad situation in our culture when most of the best movies are
called "chick flicks" as if men were too dumb or insensitive to like movies about
the things that matter most in life.
I do have testosterone at reasonable levels: I think The Dirty Dozen is one of
the greatest movies ever made; ditto with Stalag 17. Of course, those are both
about relationships, too. Chick flicks with bullets and dead bodies ...
All of this being the long way around toward explaining what I was doing at a
showing of In Her Shoes. Based on a novel by Jennifer Weiner about a pair of
sisters whose lives have been distorted by the early death of their mother, it
has been given a gorgeous screenplay by Susannah Grant, the writer of
Pocahontas, Ever After, and Erin Brockovich. (She also wrote the script for the
new Charlotte's Web -- a promising sign.)
The younger sister, Maggie (Cameron Diaz), is a hard-drinking, way-too-easy
playgirl who doesn't even pretend to have respect for anybody, least of all
herself. The older sister, Rose (Toni Collette), has been Maggie's protector since
their mother died -- which made sense back when they were both trapped in
the home of their needy, selfish stepmother.
But now, her "protection" amounts to little more than enabling Maggie to
continue trampling on everyone around her. And when Maggie sleeps with
Rose's boyfriend (and boss), it's too much. Rose gets, not tough, but furious,
and ejects Maggie from her apartment and her life.
Oddly enough, however, it also ejects Rose from her own life. She quits her law
firm and begins to see the world differently. Without Maggie to take care of,
she's finally able to be a bit of an adolescent herself, trying out a new job and a
new way of seeing herself and the world around her.
Along the way, she gets attached to the most terrific yet realistic romantic hero
I've seen in movies in ages, Simon Stein (Mark Feuerstein), who is especially
appealing because he is the kind of guy I always aspired to be. (Harrison Ford
being beyond my reach.)
Meanwhile, Maggie finds a long-lost relative, played by Shirley MacLaine, who
treats her with honesty and strength. The more Maggie gets control of herself
and turns outward toward others, the happier she becomes. Until the sisters
are finally able to face truths that neither of them had been able to deal with
It's a deeply moving story, yet not really sentimental. Any emotions I felt were
earned by a tough and believable storyline. Also, I laughed a lot -- it is a
The director, Curtis Hanson, did not direct a "chick flick." He had higher aims
than pandering to one segment of the audience. What he created was a film for
grownups about being a grownup. Hanson has avoided the easy road from the
start of his career. Bad Influence and L.A. Confidential were a far cry from In
Her Shoes in every way except for a brilliantly quirky way of telling a clear and
emotionally compelling story.
I haven't seen Dreamer and I probably won't, because the only reason I would
have gone already went and saw it with her cousins. But from what I hear, it's
pretty good. This from a brutally tough critic who doesn't cut anyone a break.
The other day I was assigned to bring dessert to a large gathering at church. I
was going to bake my fabulous chocolate chip cookies ... but my chocolate chip
cookies are fabulous because I put so much work into them. (I start with the
basic Toll House recipe, but I caramelize the sugar and butter in a sauce pan
before mixing it with the other ingredients, and I add only half as many
chocolate chips, so you can actually taste the cooky.)
I was tired. I didn't have time. And when I was at the store, picking up
chocolate chips (we had all the other ingredients), I saw several packages of
Nestle's "Refrigerated Cookie and Brownie Dough." The lazy man inside me
(who is astonishingly alert) forced me to reach out and pick up a couple of
packages each of the Jumbo Cookies and the Mini Cookies.
Each contains about the same amount of dough; the only real difference is that
the Jumbo Cookies are pre-divided into twelve big squares of dough, and the
Mini Cookies are divided into forty much-smaller squares.
You really do just break off strips and then break the individual cookies from
the strip. You could just break off and bake five or ten of the minis or three or
four of the jumbos and put the rest of the dough back in the fridge. But that
was not my plan.
I baked all 80 minis and 24 jumbos, and to my surprise, there were still 65
minis and 21 jumbos left to take to the gathering at church. There were none
left to take home, so it's a good thing I subjected the baked cookies to so much
rigorous taste-testing before I shared them.
I've heard people tell me that they hadn't bought them because "who wants
square cookies." Well, they melt and become round, or at least round enough.
Besides, if you put the dough blobs close enough together on the cooky sheet,
you can always get square cookies.
For my taste, there are simply too many chocolate chips. Thus they remain
less brilliant than my own cookies. But my own cookies take a lot of work.
And I won't always be there to bake them for you. This is an excellent second
choice. And since you still have cooky sheets and cooling racks to wash
afterward, and crumbs all over the table, it feels like you really baked.
After giving you a diatribe last week on how unfortunate it is when an author
reads his own work, I have to turn around and recommend Khaled Hosseini's
audiobook reading of his own first novel, The Kite Runner.
My wife read this novel during the summer. Usually, we tell each other enough
about whatever books we're reading that each of us counts the others' reading
as covering both of us. Only rarely does she say, This is so good that I'm not
going to tell you anything about it. You need to read it yourself.
I had imagined, from what little I knew about it, that Kite Runner was going to
be a medicinal novel -- I would read it in order to get my dose of Afghani
And indeed we get that dose. No, that banquet. Because in all my studies,
nothing had made it so real to me as this novel.
The culture and recent history of Afghanistan that is merely background to a
compelling, moving novel of fathers and sons, of friendship, and (most
importantly) of the lifelong price we and others pay for the bad moral decisions
The novel's main character, Amir, is born to a well-to-do family in Kabul, where
he is immediately caught up in a complex network of relationships, especially
with his father's friend and servant, Ali, and Ali's hare-lipped son, Hassan, who
is Amir's childhood playmate until one day he realizes that Hassan is also his
personal bodyservant, born to that role and faithful to it beyond all reason.
Beyond that I will say little else except to warn you of beauty and goodness
interspersed with cruelty and harshness. The relationship between Amir and
his father blesses and deforms Amir's understanding of himself and the people
around him. And when he finds out just how much of his own life has been
twisted in order to keep certain dark truths from emerging, it's almost as
devastating to us as to him.
The novel is not perfect -- while Hosseini is not so heavy-handed with his
metaphors as most, you can still hear the reverberations of the nonsense he
learned in his college creative writing classes. And when it comes to plotting
(the one thing nobody bothers to teach in those classes), he relies a bit more on
coincidences and last-minute arrivals than he will when he is more
experienced. I also wished he had been a little less authentic with rough
language, so I could recommend it to many people who would otherwise have
But the flaws are slight compared to the achievement: Hosseini knows how to
tell a story.
It is especially noteworthy that, like the hero, Hosseini left Afghanistan as a
child -- only he wrote this book without ever going back. Only after The Kite
Runner was published did he get a chance to return, where he discovered (no
doubt to his relief) that his imagination and the reality of today's Kabul fit
together remarkably well.
But Hosseini is not Amir. For one thing, Hosseini's father was a diplomat in
Paris when the Russians invaded Afghanistan, and he applied for asylum and
got in the United States. For another, his mother did not die in childbirth, she
was a teacher of Farsi and history in Kabul until they moved; and Amir grew
up with a brother.
Hosseini finished out his childhood in San Jose, California, and attended Santa
Clara University. He got a medical degree from UC San Diego and has
practiced medicine since 1996 -- which explains why he not only got the
Afghani culture right, he also knew what he was talking about when he dealt
with medical matters.
As a reader of the audio version of his novel, Hosseini's accent, far from
marring the performance, makes it feel so real you can easily forget that it's a
novel. And it's nice to have all the Farsi and Pashtoon words correctly
pronounced -- native English speakers can't make the "gh" sound in "Afghan."
The audio is somewhat abridged, though not so drastically that you miss
anything important. In fact, some of what's cut out is the worst of the rough
language -- could he possibly have been uncomfortable saying some of those
words aloud? -- so the audiobook is both more real and less off-putting for
If it did nothing else, The Kite Runner will make Afghanistan a real place to you,
not just a word in the news or on a map. But it will also put into your memory
some important truths about love and responsibility and courage and tough
I'm kind of a sucker for "little" books -- you know, the short compendia of this
and that which make perfect bathroom reading.
For instance, my wife and I had a perfectly lovely time finding out how stupid
we are by reading Can You Beat Ken? Each double-page spread has eight
questions that Ken Jennings had to face in his long reign as Jeopardy
champion -- along with his score and his wrong guesses.
Yes, it's fun to try to answer the questions. And my wife and I, twice each,
managed to equal or better his score. But that's a total of four question-sets
out of 113. And on some pages, you'll look at the page and think, How could
any human being know and remember these things?
And then I remember the tournament they had between Jennings and all the
previous winners, and how one of them finally managed to beat him. I
remember thinking at the time: I don't think Jennings wants to win this. And
during that final round, I think he blew questions that, if he had cared, he
would have won.
In short, given the things he did know, I think Jennings simply decided that he
had had enough -- he didn't want to be known as the all-time best Jeopardy
player. He had nothing left to prove, and maybe by losing he could get his life
back. So he didn't stretch himself enough to win. Winning that final game
would have been hubris. (And you can bet that Ken knows what the word
Even more fun (and less hard on the ego) is The Official Movie Plot
Generator. The ring-bound pages are divided into three parts that can be
randomly combined by flipping the upper, middle, and lower sections.
For instance, when you first open the book, you see: A cop who doesn't play by
the rules / fight(s) crime / with a mischievous orangutan.
Now, this will probably make you think of Clint Eastwood getting his every-which-way and Dirty Harry movies mixed up. But then you flip the second and
third sections and you might get:
A copy who doesn't play by the rules / coach(es) a hapless Little League
baseball team / in a blood-filled teen slasher; or:
A cop who doesn't play by the rules / help(s) children learn to read / in a
rousing adaptation of the Broadway musical.
I swear it's just like being in a pitch meeting in Hollywood.
Military Encounters: Quotations on War & Peace (edited by Robert
Edwards) contains fascinating snippets of wisdom or irony on warfare; but
most of it also applies to other aspects of life. For instance:
"Hereafter, if you should observe an occasion to give your officers and friends a
little more praise than is their due, and to confess more fault than you can
justly be charged with, you will only become the sooner for it, a great captain"
(Benjamin Franklin in a letter to John Paul Jones).
"The first method of estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men
he has around him" (Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince).
If you can't figure out what these quotations have to do with business or
politics, then you won't understand how they apply to military leadership,
Distory: A Treasury of Historical Insults leaves no politician unstoned.
Editor Robert Schnakenberg works hard to be complete and even-handed,
though sometimes the book suffers from the fact that American insults are
rarely clever (just look at the sheer clumsiness of the attacks on our most
recent presidents). Sometimes the insults are funny mostly because they are
so witless and inept.
But there are also many gems, like this comment by John Randolph about
Edward Livingstone: "Like rotten mackerel by moonlight, he shines and stinks."
Or Abraham Lincoln on the diminutive Confederate vice-president, Alexander
Stephens: "Never have I seen so small a nubbin come out of so much husk."
But when you read Patton's insults, they only make Patton himself look small,
and much of the invective is mere spite, badly phrased.
Count on the British, though, to bring us some jewels, like Benjamin Disraeli's
assessment of Prime Minister Robert Peel: "The right honorable gentleman is
reminiscent of a poker. The only difference is that a poker gives off the
occasional signs of warmth."
The other night, as I sat with my family rewatching the 1995 BBC/A&E
production of Pride & Prejudice, which introduced American audiences to
Colin Firth, I could not help but marvel at how the extreme courtesy of Jane
Austen's English society made it possible to offer far cleverer and deadlier
insults than our coarse culture allows.
(And, while it has nothing whatever to do with my review of quick little books, I
think it's worth pointing out that no matter how good the Kiera
Knightley/Matthew MacFadyen P&P turns out to be, the sheer length of the
1995 miniseries and the excellence of the script and performances will leave it
as the perfect screen retelling of Jane Austen's masterpiece.
(And perhaps it is also worth remembering that Sense & Sensibility, which was
not Austen's best novel, nevertheless became, with Emma Thompson's brilliant
script and performance, the best movie ever made from a Jane Austen novel,
and one of the best movies of all time. If you haven't seen either of these films,
how can you judge whether any other movie is good or not? And how will you
know a good insult when you hear one?)
Not all these little books is particularly good. Take, for instance, the wretched
little So, Now You Know: A Compendium of Completely Useless
Information. Written by Harry Bright and Harlan Briscoe, it manages to be
quite entertaining -- if you don't know a thing about the subjects they talk
about. But if you do, they seem to have a knack for either deliberately or
inadvertently distorting everything.
The inescapable conclusion is that if you read and believe this book, you will
definitely emerge knowing less than when you started.
There are lots of wonderful websites and mail-order catalogues from companies
offering wonderful, high-quality, hard-to-find kitchen tools, gadgets, and
supplies, like Chef's Catalog, Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma.
But I'm happy to report that my favorite kitchen store in all the world,
Greensboro's own The Extra Ingredient, has joined the ranks of catalogue and
online stores. If you haven't already got their wonderful book, call 1-800-528-3618 and order one. Or go online to http://www.extraingredient.com.
Still, nothing can compare with stopping by the store itself (in Friendly Center)
and browsing the shelves, where sometimes I think the store's buyers surprise
even themselves with the wonderful things they assemble. Trust me, you have
no idea what your kitchen even needs till you've been to The Extra Ingredient.
Christmas shopping season is nearly upon us, and neither Friendly Center nor
the city of Greensboro has done a thing about the wretched traffic flow on the
main road that passes through the center from the Wendover offramp past
Barnes and Noble and on past the theater complex.
Last year they installed lovely brick crosswalks that double as extremely
effective suspension wreckers speed bumps. Only they didn't make those
intersections into four-way stops. So they actually make it harder for cars to
turn from the parking lots onto the main road, because all the cars passing
long the main road have to slow down but they never surrender the right-of-way, so you wait twice and three times as long to get a break.
Four-way stops are the only things that make sense at those crosswalk
intersections. Apparently they can afford brick, but they can't afford signs.
Maybe they figure that once you get to Friendly Center, they don't much care
whether you can ever leave again ...