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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 8, 2006

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


Everlost, TV's Fall Season, Gardening Lessons, Shoe Store

Death doesn't frighten children the way it does adults, not until they have had to face it with the loss of someone close to them. That's why adults often find children's stories and videogames disturbing -- there is so much death, and yet the children are unperturbed.

Not that children don't understand what death is. I remember when the movie Willow came out in 1988. We took our children to see it. How could it miss? A fantasy movie directed by Opie! And at the end, when the good people who were killed in the climactic scene were all restored to life, it was very satisfying.

Except our then-eight-year-old daughter looked dismally sad. "What's wrong?" we asked.

"The nurse is still dead," she said. And she was right. It was as if the movie remembered to save all the other good people, but forgot all about the nurse who originally carried Willow to safety and died in the effort.

So death matters to children. It saddens them. It's important. But in fiction, at least, it is bearable because they are not yet vulnerable in ways that older people are vulnerable. We adults not only feel the proximity of death in ourselves, as parts of our bodies stop working so reliably and people of our age start to be taken out by time and chance, but also there's some sort of instinct that kicks in that makes the death of young people particularly dreadful to us. We watch them take ridiculous chances and we want to shake them: Can't you see that you could be killed?

No. They can't. Because death, while they know it exists, does not exist for them. Most of them, anyway.

Which brings me to an astonishingly good young-adult novel that I promise you will mean very different things to adults and younger readers. Neal Shusterman is a very popular YA author -- and one of my favorites as well, though I have left young adulthood far behind. His newest novel, Everlost, is marvelously inventive, potentially disturbing for adults, and magically beautiful for children.

The story begins with a car accident. Young Allie is sitting in the front seat of the car her father is driving, and in the midst of an argument with him, takes off her seatbelt in order to face him.

Meanwhile, in an oncoming car, young Nick is scrunched into the middle of the back seat, eating a chocolate bar, while his older brother and sister deliberately bump his arms so chocolate gets smeared on his face. He, too, lacks a seat belt -- it's an older car that only had two belts in the back.

There's a head-on collision.

Nick and Allie both find themselves rushing toward a light, but Nick accidently jostles Allie and they both are bumped out of their path. Distracted. They don't get to that light.

They wake up in the midst of a forest. They are dressed exactly as they were at the time of the accident. Nick even has chocolate smeared on his face. But nothing else makes any sense at all. There's a strange freckle-faced boy near them who tells them these woods are a great place, but what Nick and Allie want to know is: Where are their parents? Where are the cars they were in?

Up on the road, in precisely the place where the accident took place, the cars are gone. Nobody is looking for them.

It finally dawns on them that months have passed since the accident. Nick and Allie are dead. What happened to the rest of their families? As the freckle-faced boy tells them, "Either they survived, or they got where they were going." As simple as that.

Nick and Allie are still there precisely because they did not "get where they were going." That becomes the euphemism for finishing up the process of death -- for getting to the light, getting to heaven. It seems that adults, with their superior ability to concentrate and finish things, always get where they're going, but lots of children are distracted and their spirits are left behind on this earth.

Other things get left behind. Buildings and possessions that somebody loved, that were important to someone and then were destroyed, leave permanent traces in this in-between world. Wherever such buildings are, or on the exact spot where somebody died, the ground is solid to these everlost children. But everywhere else, the ground is soft. They can, if they hold still for any length of time, sink down into the ground.

Sink down to the center of the earth. Which is definitely not where they were going.

To an adult reading this book, it's a bleak view of the afterlife. The thought that children could be stranded with no adult coming back to help them is almost unbearable. Children are our responsibility.

But to children, it's just ... another life. A kind of dangerous fairyland, where these kids have to learn the rules very quickly and adapt in order to "survive." There are enemies; there are possible alliances. There are heroic deeds to do. And there are others who need their help.

The result is a marvelous adventure story filled with people and places and situations that I promise you've never seen before in fiction. Shusterman, always an inventive writer, has exceeded even his own high standards with this beautiful, terrible world. And yet when we reach the climax, he brings us to a moment of joyous relief, as our heroes -- even Nick, with chocolate permanently on his face -- become so ennobled that you realize that even though they died tragically young, they still found a way to turn this purgatory-like existence into a place where epic deeds could still be done. They have, in other words, a good life, rich with meaning.

This is not a book for very little children, because some of the images are disturbing. But for children of, say, eight years old and up, right on through teens, this book might be good to read aloud as a family.

Or you can slip it to a twelve-year-old or ten-year-old, after you've read it yourself, and say, "I think you're old enough to read this now." (Those are the magic words, you know, to make a book intriguing. The only words more powerful are, "I think you're almost old enough to read this. But maybe not. I think we'll wait a while." And then you "forget" and leave it out where they can see it.)

But please, do read it first. For one thing, it's a terrific story no matter what age you are. For another, your kids are going to have questions. Since nobody's theology or view of the afterlife is much like what Shusterman has created, you may need to reassure a very young child: "No, this isn't how it really is for people when they die. But this story is about the things that smart, brave children might do if it were."

Mostly, though, you need to read it first so you know what they're talking about when they can't stop talking about the cool, strange, scary, wonderful things that happen.

*

The fall television season is well under way, and there have been some happy surprises and some disappointments.

Lost began well -- as puzzling as ever, but still full of powerful revelations of characters' backstories. I hope they don't think we can stand to have them jerk our chain forever, though. This year, we need to find out for sure what's actually going on, with only a few things we don't know. But the backstory revelations -- those can go on forever.

Two and a Half Men is, sadly, fading. Apparently they've run out their string. The character of Alan Harper (Jon Cryer) seems unable to learn anything; the writers continue to use him as the butt of their jokes without giving him any hope of redemption. How long does that stay funny? Apparently up to here, and no longer. You could see that they had reached a dead end when they started resorting to celebrity visitors without actually making them into characters. Yeah, Steven Tyler rents the house next door and makes a lousy neighbor, and he's famous, and he comes on stage and makes a cameo at the end. Whoop-de-do. This is what writers do when they have run out of ideas.

Another fading show: Prison Break. I still sort of care how it all comes out. But the first year, we had Michael Scofield's (Wentworth Miller) plan -- it was a caper story. Now the caper is over. His plan is down the toilet. Everything is improvisation. So now we have no faith that anybody knows anything. We just have a collection of escaped convicts, lawmen, and politicians, some likable, and some so repulsive we need to bathe after watching them. All are played by excellent actors, mind you -- but I'm just not enjoying the time I spend with them the way I did last year. My wife will tell me what happens. I imagine that now and then I'll watch.

Smallville is holding up better than some, but the writing in the season opener was shockingly bad. The story was fine, but the dialogue was like a teenager writing silly, mock-heroic captions under somebody else's pictures. Note to the writing staff: What made your series wonderful was the scenes. In which characters we cared about talked to each other. Please have actual scenes in future episodes -- we don't need the all-climax, no-character version of Smallville.

I only discovered The Unit on CBS during the summer -- my wife DVRed all the rerun episodes and I immersed myself in them and watched the season-ender just before the new season began. It was the best gift my wife could have given me during the acute phase of my bout with pneumonia, because this is a truly great television show. And the fall season, while it got rid of the events of the season-ender rather quickly, continues in the tradition of the first season. These guys pack almost as much smart, tense storytelling into each episode as a first-rate feature film.

In fact, if each season of 24 is like having a great feature-length thriller stretched out so we can enjoy every moment, The Unit is like having a great feature-length thriller each week, only edited down so we see the key moments of decision -- while also getting to see the powerful drama of what's going on with these soldiers' families back on the base. They make the women's story every bit as compelling and moving as the men's -- and vice-versa. Both stories are interesting to both the male and female audience. I don't know how they were able to pitch this concept to a network. Maybe they snuck it past the executives. But the result is one of the finest hours of television, ever -- week after week.

There's a new series this fall that my oldest son made me watch. Ever since I was a year late discovering Firefly, I have learned to take his recommendations very seriously. And with Heroes on NBC, something really exciting is going on. The concept is that the human species is on the verge of beginning the next phase of evolution. New abilities that may enable us to survive the coming disasters are just beginning to emerge -- in the nick of time. One obsessive Indian immigrant in New York has mapped where he thinks each outbreak of superpowers is going to occur -- and someone murdered him for his trouble. But his son is determined to continue his father's work.

Meanwhile, other people -- some in their teens, some adult -- are having to deal with strange powers that don't exactly make their lives easier. Hiro is a Japanese cubicle-worker who finds that he has the power to alter the space-time continuum -- in short, he can project himself anywhere in space and time. The trouble is, he isn't very good at aiming his little trips, and when he gets to New York, without passport or the ability to speak English, he ends up at a murder scene without a credible alibi. Since the actor playing Hiro, Masi Oka, may be the most infectiously enthusiastic human ever to appear on television, he alone would be reason to watch this show.

But he's not alone. There is a pair of brothers, one of whom is running for Congress, who discover that they can, under certain circumstances, fly. And then there's the suicidal high school girl who can't kill herself because she is invulnerable -- broken body parts just pop back into place painlessly. This is not as convenient as you might think -- especially since we've seen her father involved in the pursuit of that Indian fellow, so we are worried he might be one of the Bad Guys.

Then there's the artist who paints the future -- we've seen a flash forward to his death, and we don't want it to happen. And the woman whose "job" was to strip for a webcam, only she made the mistake of borrowing from a loan shark. When he came to collect -- violently -- her misbehaving reflection in the mirror apparently took care of the problem for her. Too bad that it involved some dead bodies that she was left to dispose of.

And in the second episode, we were introduced to a policeman who hears voices. Specifically, the "voice" of a little girl whose parents had just been murdered. Hearing her, he is able to locate and rescue her. The trouble is, nobody else heard her because it wasn't her voice, it was her thoughts that he heard. He ends up getting arrested because he knew way, way too much and can't account for how he knew it.

If this all sounds unbelievable -- well, welcome to Comicbookland. You know the high concept that was pitched to the networks: "It's Lost meets Smallville -- lots of attractive young people with super powers, but we also get their backstories and they have to work out a way to survive in a hostile world and prevent the nuclear destruction of New York." Wouldn't you buy that series?

Neither would I. But the writers, headed by Tim Kring of Crossing Jordan fame, are doing an excellent job of making everybody at least mostly plausible. As with Lost, they have to start giving us answers. And they also need to lose the annoying narrator, who tells us things that we already know -- apparently because the network executives needed the explanations. OK, you've satisfied the suits -- now stop insulting our intelligence with the voiceovers.

*

This year autumn has made such a weird entrance here in Greensboro. Back in the last few days of August, I noticed that the leaves were starting to change color incredibly early. Just driving down our street, we saw tree after tree that was dotted with colored leaves, and sometimes a whole branch that had gone yellow. The weather had not been cold; I couldn't think of a single reason why fall should be arriving so out of season (for here, anyway).

Then, a few days later, we had a heavy rainstorm with some wind -- and all those colored leaves were gone. Nothing left of them. And so it was for weeks -- the trees were as uniformly green as high summer. Not till the very end of September did we start to see spots of color -- and then it was a more subtle change than what I saw in August.

It's as if the trees started changing, and then, with that rainstorm, said, "Oops! False alarm! All you colored leaves, get off! Everybody else, hold tight for another month!"

Now, though, we've started having those below-fifty-degree nights. And when the weather is cold enough to kill the basil, gardening is over for the year.

Here are the things my garden taught me this year:

1. Peas really, really need shade. They grow well, but nowhere near as fast as beans, and by the time they get up to about a foot high, they start to wither under our Carolina sun. Next year, I'll plant them in the shade of the beans.

2. You have to harvest beans -- haricot verts, the only kind of fresh bean I like -- every two days, or you get pods that are simply too ripe, with meaty beans inside. You can still eat them, but you don't get the same delicacy of flavor. And since beans are so amazingly prolific -- the story of Jack and the Beanstalk certainly chose the right plant! -- that means you better have friends who want beans, because no matter how good they are, you don't want a heaping bowl of them at every meal!

3. You can grow brilliantly successful tomatoes in Greensboro. It only takes about twenty dollars worth of anti-fungal spray and fertilizer. This means that you're getting them for about half the price of the grocery store. Not much of a bargain after weeks of work. At least they're fresh. And the grocery store doesn't give you that feeling of having defeated a relentless enemy: tomato rot.

4. Cucumbers and squashes and cantaloupes may grow on vines, but they're ground vines. When they do grow up onto metal frames, the end that's up and exposed to the sun and the wind dries out and dies, usually without bearing fruit. But the vines that creep along the ground provide their own shade and remain productive.

5. When you let insect-eaten tomatoes drop to the ground and rot there over the winter, it does not make compost, it makes weeds. The next spring, you will get exuberant bursts of volunteer tomatoes. But these are not the carefully bred hybrids you get from the nursery. These are wild tomatoes, and the difference is analogous to tame and wild dogs.

The volunteers grow like crazy, with or without fertilizer. They creep everywhere, reminding you of why tomatoes are referred to as "vines" in old literature. The fruits are not the size and shape of the parent plants from last year, and the skin is much thicker.

They are still quite edible and taste very good. But if they have spread and choked out your peppers and garlics and leeks and forced your basil into spindly growth just to find the sun, what have you accomplished?

Next year I'll know to pluck up these bad boys the moment I see them. Wild tomatoes are, in a word, weeds.

At the same time, you have to admire their spunk.

*

After watching the new shops at The Village at North Elm rise from the red earth of a construction zone, it's nice to see the stores start opening. Already we've eaten at Chop House Grille, Panera, and Barberito's -- and we can tell you that the ice cream and smoothie shop that just opened right in the heart of The Village, Emack and Bolio's, doesn't feel like a chain. It is one, based in Boston, but when we went in, it felt as though a couple of lovely women from the neighborhood just happened to be serving delicious home-made gelato.

We've been frustrated at how hard it is to get inside some of the other places. My wife and I usually take our three-mile morning walk through the shopping center before they open at ten, and when we come for supper, most of the shops closed at six.

I'm always just a little puzzled by shops that open after people go to work and close only an hour after most people get off. Even if they cater primarily to women, a very large proportion of women are on the job and few of them can take a half hour for pleasure shopping before getting home to supper!

But I'm not in retail. Maybe there's some survey information that tells them that people who eat dinner at Panera or Barberito's, and then stop for ice cream at Emack and Bolio's, won't walk around the rest of the shopping center and go into shops and spend money.

We would, though. I've already talked about the art gallery and the baby store; and after much trying, we finally managed to get to The Village Shoe when it was open. Now, I'm not a woman, so to me, shoes are just things to keep your feet from getting all black from walking on asphalt.

But my wife enters a shoe store full of hope and dread. Hope, because apparently shoes have some powerful effect on women, like an intense but legal drug; dread, because she has small feet that are wide at the toes and narrow at the heel, so shoes that fit her are rare.

Hope won. She found a pair of comfortable slip-on trouser shoes that fit her as if they had used her feet as the pattern. And then, just as a bonus, a pair of colorful slip-on wedges from Brazil not only fit (after four tries), but would go perfectly with an outfit she had just ordered from a catalogue.

Here's what shocked me. I was just a man trapped on a shopping trip, walking around looking at stuff while the charming saleslady runs back and forth trying to see which size might be magicked into fitting. I enjoyed the fact that The Village Shoe displays some not-bad art that they're selling on consignment.

But then, to my surprise, I saw a pair of Keen closed-toe sandals that made me think: I wonder if those are as comfortable as they look. When I caught myself thinking that, I wondered, just for a moment, if that meant I should turn in my membership card in the male gender.

Instead, I asked for a pair of them to try on. They fit. I bought them.

We came out of the shoe store with three new pairs, and one of the pairs was mine. It's the first pair of shoes I've bought in twenty-five years that wasn't from Foot Locker, The Walking Store, or Omega Sports.

I'm not sure whether the nice folks at The Village Shoe understood the magnitude of their achievement. I hate shoe-shopping. I hate shoes. Selling them to me is the equivalent of swimming the English channel in January.


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