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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 26, 2006

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


News, Schools, Mimi's, Lids, Christmas Music, Books As Gifts

Is it really true that a seventh grade teacher in Greensboro gave a student a D on his "current event" solely because he got it out of the Rhinoceros Times?

The story I heard is that the teacher told him that the Rhino was "nothing but editorials" and he had to get his current event from a "real news source."

But a D? Even if that view of the Rhino were true, a grade of D seems punitive rather than educational. That's not teaching a kid what real news is, it's punishing him for daring to read a paper in which disapproved views are published.

The real irritant here, however, is that the Rhino has been the only news source on an astonishing number of important local stories over the years. If you don't read the Rhino, you don't get the story at all -- or you get it months later, in a sanitized, officially approved version, fully in line with the political correct opinion du jour.

Yes, there is opinion all over the Rhino, but the statements of fact are clearly distinguished.

There is also opinion all over every newspaper published in America; the only difference is that the Rhino doesn't pretend to be impartial.

It's impossible to write a story without opinion. For instance, to take a completely harmless example, the Tuesday News & Record had a story about how sales at school cafeterias are up "despite" a new healthier offering.

That "despite" in the headline could just as easily have been a "because." In fact, there is nothing in the story to justify the "despite."

What does it matter? It's the very heart of the story. If cafeteria sales are up despite the new healthier foods, that means there must be some other cause for the rise in sales, because the healthier foods themselves are dragging down sales.

But it might just as easily be true that cafeteria sales are up because of the healthier foods, and no other reason. To choose "despite" over "because" is a causal assertion that is justified by no evidence whatsoever.

At the same time, if the headline had been "because," that, too, would be opinion -- since there was no way to prove that there was not some other cause. In short, the only fact in evidence was that sales were up, and there were healthier food choices on offer.

Trivial? Maybe -- though it would be nice to know whether it was despite or because before somebody decides whether or not to continue or expand the healthy-food menus.

The point is that there is no news source that is not riddled with opinion. Even the placement of stories within the paper is an opinion decision, and everybody in the news business knows it.

So should the social studies teacher.

But the teacher will never read this, because it appears in the Rhino, and it's my opinion. And don't you dare tell her about it, because if you do, you'll get a D.

*

Speaking of teachers, I heard a great story the other day from a kid who apparently had read the Rhino -- including my opinion column.

A mother was called in to consult with a teacher at Jesse Wharton Elementary because her son had not turned in about half his homework.

The mother was perplexed, because she had made sure he completed every assignment on his homework agenda.

As she started explaining this to the teacher, she could see her son waving to her frantically from the doorway. So she excused herself and went out to talk to him.

Turns out that the lad had not written down the assignments that he thought were not important, so the mother never saw them and therefore never made him do them.

"Why?" the mother asked.

"Because it was too much homework for a fifth-grader," he said.

And, of course, he was right. Both he and his mother had read the research on homework's utter uselessness in fifth grade, so they knew that any homework was too much. And the kid had decided he would go so far to please his teachers and his parents -- and no farther.

So the mother goes back to the teacher and laughingly tells her what her son said. The teacher is annoyed; so the mother says, "Well, he is right. The research says that homework is useless in ..."

At which point the teacher, bristling, insisted that it was the policy of Jesse Wharton Elementary that fifth graders receive one hour of homework per night.

Policy? This mother saw red. As far as she could see, schools had no business having a policy that demanded homework whether it was needed or not. So she wrote to me about the story.

Being a semi-journalist, I asked my assistant to check with the principal of the school to see if that was, in fact, the policy. (I had my assistant make the call because there's something about my voice -- maybe the tone of constant sarcasm -- that offends people even when I'm not trying to. My assistant, on the other hand, is very nice.)

My assistant had a perfectly lovely conversation with Valerie Bridges, the principal at Jesse Wharton, and I'm happy to set the record straight. Jesse Wharton has no set policy about homework, and hasn't for several years.

However, this does not mean the teacher was fibbing. As Bridges explained, it was possible that the teacher was following an older policy and hadn't got the memo about the policy change. It was also possible that the teachers from each grade level had gotten together and decided on their own what their guidelines should be.

But, as Bridges pointed out, it is almost impossible to set a time-based guideline for homework, since children work at different speeds. A one-hour assignment for this child might be two hours for another -- and fifteen minutes for a third.

Bridges also said that it is left entirely up to each individual teacher to determine what is needed in the way of classwork and homework in order to meet the mandated curriculum.

Another question that came up was the AL program. I have long detested the common practice of holding the kids who go to the AL program responsible for all the classwork done in their absence. It turns AL into a kind of punishment -- because you're smart, you have to do twice as much work as the other kids.

So my assistant asked about that, and was told that beginning this year, at Jesse Wharton they have restructured their schedules so that nothing new is to be introduced or assigned during the time students are in AL.

This is the perfect solution. The AL students are in the program precisely because they are the students most likely to grasp classroom material immediately; so the time they spend in AL can be used productively in the regular classroom for review and reinforcement for students who might not have grasped it so quickly.

Meanwhile, Bridges has concerns of her own about the value of homework, and has asked some of her staff to research the subject. (In the spirit of helpfulness, I have ordered copies of the books I reviewed to be sent to her, in case they might be helpful in steering them to some easily overlooked studies as they review the scientific literature.)

Our contact with Valerie Bridges was most reassuring. One school, at least, does not have mindless habitual homework as a policy, and is led by a principal who is taking these questions seriously.

*

Good news on the restaurant front. In Orem, Utah, my parents' favorite restaurant has long been Mimi's Café -- and I'm glad, because it's always a pleasure to take them there for dinner when I'm visiting.

Now there's a Mimi's in Greensboro, in the new Shops at Friendly Center.

Mimi's Café is not in competition with the haute cuisine restaurants in town, or the restaurants with a foreign offering, or even the downhome southern restaurants and barbecue joints.

Mimi's offers American National Comfort Food. You don't go there to be surprised, you go there to feel good.

Chicken pot pie. Outstanding meat loaf. The kind of food that your mother used to make, only maybe a little better, and you don't have to do the dishes. The prices are also reasonable. What are you waiting for?

*

I've been using the new Colgate cinnamon-flavored toothpaste for about a month, and it's just fine. I even liked the tube design, with a large flip-top lid over a valved opening.

Well, now I don't like it any more, because under the rigors of normal use, that flip-top lid broke. Now it's very difficult to get it closed at all. And I've only used about a third of the toothpaste. Bad, bad design decisions here.

Speaking of which, why did Selsun Blue start rounding the caps of their shampoo bottles? They used to have caps that were absolutely flat, so you could balance them upside down in the shower or on the side of the tub.

That allowed you to let the shampoo collect right near the cap, so you could pop open even a mostly-empty bottle and get shampoo immediately, instead of having to shake the stuff down.

Now the cap is rounded. The best you can do is lay the bottle on its side so it takes only half as long to shake shampoo down to the opening. Again, an inexplicable design decision.

*

Mark your calendars right now: Friday, 15 December, at 7:00 pm, John Huntington, a noted baritone from southern California, will give a concert performance of the Christmas music of composer Robert Stoddard.

The cd of Huntington singing many of Stoddard's carols, December Tales, has long been one of my favorite albums. These are not your ordinary Christmas carols. Not only is Stoddard's music powerful, original, and expressive, he comes at Christmas from many different angles.

He uses the manger, for instance, as a symbol of the fellowship of Christ, speaking of fellow-believers gathering around the manger as they come to have more faith.

Another song speaks of the angels among us -- kind-hearted people who bless the lives of others as Christ asked them to do.

Yet there's also a romantic ballad about the gifts husband and wife give each other; a song of a new father comparing the Christ child to the new baby in his own life; even a song about ornaments on the Christmas tree!

There are also other songs -- new ones and old -- that were not on the album. This is a concert not to be missed.

And it's free.

It takes place at the LDS meetinghouse at 3719 Pinetop Rd., right across from Claxton Elementary. (For those who are worried about setting foot in a Mormon Church, let me assure you: This concert is a Christmas gift to the community. Missionaries will not call on you. These songs are for Christians of every sort -- and for anyone who loves beautiful, original, moving music and lyrics, regardless of your beliefs.)

*

The hero of Sue Stauffacher's novels Donuthead and Donutheart is a ten-year-old boy whose last name really is Donuthead. But even if he had been blessed with an ordinary name, it wouldn't have helped: This kid is obsessive about health and safety. To the point where he makes his mother nearly insane.

Of course, it's not as if she gave him a normal start in life: He was the product of artificial insemination, which means that neither he nor his mom has a clue who his biological father was, and there's no other man in the house -- at least not at the beginning of the story.

Donuthead doesn't do anything that will increase his risk factors. He suffers the taunts and abuse of school bullies in silence.

And then comes this girl -- with filthy, matted hair, old ill-fitting clothes, and a chip on her shoulder big enough to carve into a set of Lincoln Logs. She immediately leaps to Donuthead's defense, punching out one of the bullies. Donuthead is not grateful -- it's just going to cause him more trouble, later. Plus, he detests this girl.

So imagine his horror when his mother "adopts" her and helps her clean up. Not only that, she enlists the girl in her ongoing project of trying to get Donuthead to play baseball, a game that he loathes.

The sequel continues the story -- and the relationship within this rather strange ad hoc family. There are fights. There is ice skating. Donuthead is forced to try new things. The girl turns into a civilized human, mostly. Sort of. It's a great ride.

The trouble is, the hero is ten, and in the sequel, eleven. This means that many older kids who would actually enjoy the books will be turned off by the hero's age. Their loss. Me, I'm still basically nine years old (check with my wife; it's true), so I fit right into the target demographic.

*

If you're one of the many people who do not clip all my columns and past them into scrapbooks in order to save every precious word, I decided this Christmas to offer a review of Books That Would Make Great Gifts, based on books I reviewed this past year -- whether they first came out this year or not.

Fiction

Novel of the Year

For the book lover, you simply can't do better than The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield. This gorgeously written gothic is literary without being pedantic or difficult; on the contrary, you forget how good the writing is, you care so much about these strange and wonderful characters.

Best Teen Novels

Neal Shusterman's Everlost is the story of the spirits of dead children, trapped in this world until they find a way to "get where they were going." Sad and hopeful at the same time, Shusterman turns it into a fantasy adventure with such truth and emotional power that you could safely get this book as a gift for an adult. No better teen novel was published this year.

But don't stop with Everlost. David Lubar's Hidden Talents will make an extraordinarily good gift -- a sort of much-more-believable version of Heroes, starring teenagers trapped in a last-resort high school.

Both these novels are contemporary fantasies; for wonderful fantasies in a medieval setting, Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia series -- The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia -- are a perfect gift set, which will set teen (and younger) readers dreaming.

Best Family Novel

If you like to read books together as a family, here's the best choice this year: Fablehaven, by Brandon Mull. It's the story of a brother and sister who discover that their grandparents are guardians of a preserve for mythical creatures, where some pretty terrible things can happen -- especially when the kids don't think they have to obey the rules of this place.

Best Adult Fantasy Series

Lynn Flewelling's The Bone Doll's Twin, Hidden Warrior, and The Oracle's Queen are brilliantly original and moving. This story still haunts me, months after reading the books. There's plenty of gritty realism to make this a book for adults and mature teenagers, but what it definitely is not is "escapist." This book drags you through so much emotionally painful territory that you're almost relieved when it's done and you can escape to your safe regular life.

And if you're buying a gift for someone who reads far too fast for three volumes to be enough, then you have to go on to Kate Elliott's "Crown of Stars" series: King's Dragons, Prince of Dogs, The Burning Stone, Child of Flame, The Gathering Storm, In the Ruins, and Crown of Stars. This series has the sprawl -- and the realistic level of detail, and the extravagant invention -- of George R.R. Martin's ongoing (and unfinished, curse him!) series (most recent volume: A Feast for Crows). It also has a metaphysical layer all its own.

Both the Flewelling and the Elliott books have female protagonists. Usually this means you can't give them to males to read. All I can say is: I'm male. I loved these books. So if you give them as a gift to a (mature) teenage boy, and he balks ("You gave me books about a girl?"), you can say, "Orson Scott Card told me that these books work brilliantly for men and women readers."

And if he still doesn't believe you, bring out the big guns: "Card said that this book was perfect for men who are secure in their sexual identity."

Or you can just give him Prospero's Children by Jan Siegel. This standalone novel (it has sequels, but you aren't required to read them) has a contemporary English setting, where ancient magic comes to surface in the lives of a brother and sister who find themselves trapped in a strange and dangerous house, surrounded by enemies that nobody else can see. The story begins slowly, with an overwritten prologue, but it takes off soon enough.

Best Science Fiction Novel Not By Me

Without question, that would be Eifelheim, by Michael F. Flynn. This story of alien visitors to a medieval German village, and the modern scientists trying to piece together what really happened, will fill your mind with unforgettable images.

Best Period Mystery Series

If you have a friend or family member who loves a good character-based mystery, but is put off by rough language and dark and ugly situations, then the perfect gift this year will be the whole Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear: Maisie Dobbs, Birds of a Feather, Pardonable Lies, and now the new novel, Messenger of Truth.

I haven't finished Messenger yet, but halfway through, I can say it's every bit as good as the first three -- and that's very, very good. The first three are available in paperback; Messenger, in hardcover only.

Ongoing Mystery Series

The nice thing about Echo Park by Michael Connelly, S Is for Silence by Sue Grafton, Winter's Child by North Carolina's own Margaret Maron, Crusader's Cross by James Lee Burke, The Two-Minute Rule by Robert Crais, and Blue Screen, Sea Change, and Hundred-Dollar Baby by Robert B. Parker is that you can enjoy any of these books without having read a single previous book in the series. Unlike fantasy series, mystery series books are usually designed to stand completely alone. These do.

They are also gritty sometimes and use language that some younger and some older people might object to. I find them all to be in perfectly good taste, but tastes differ, so think of whom you're giving the gift to before deciding.

For a mystery series that is definitely aimed at women readers (and men secure in their sexual identity), I suggest Jane Stanton Hitchcock's Social Crimes: A Novel and One Dangerous Lady. Both books take high society apart, making it both delightful and repellant at the same time. I enjoyed them both enormously, and except for the jarring repeated use of the F-word by one character, these would make a great gift for anyone with a taste for satire, witty writing, and glamor.

Old Books

In case you want to get someone a book that has already stood the test of time, and you're pretty sure they've already gone through all the normal list -- Austen, the Brontes, Eliot, Hardy, Dickens, Twain, Melville, Thackeray -- may I suggest that you get a copy of C.S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces.

This retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth is definitely not a Christian allegory (the attribute that for me makes the Perelandra books almost unreadably bad); instead it's a great reenvisioning of a classic story, the kind of book that moves you and also makes you think. At the end, there are many characters you love, and one that has made you so frustrated you want to scream at her -- except that she's already screaming at herself.

Next week, I'll provide my list of ideal nonfiction gift books.


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